Thursday, February 02, 2006

the beauty and the beasts

the taj mahal would easily be my most high profile stop since leaving home almost one year ago. it did not disappoint, even though i paid about $18 to get in (as opposed to the 50 cents or so that indians pay) and you can't even enter the taj itself (except for one darkened room). so essentially, you pay $18 to look at a building from the outside. but it is just so epic, that you feel satisfied anyway.

unfortunately the taj mahal is surrounded by agra, the worst place i have been in india. a filthy city filled with liars and cheats and the dregs of humanity. i suppose they flock here because so many newbie tourists come to agra as a near first stop in india (delhi is too big to have tourists to swindle in a concentrated form--though there are still plenty of swindlers here too). my guidebook goes so far as to suggest i don't eat in an agra restaurant they don't recommend because i might be poisoned as part of an insurance billing scam. walking down the street you are approached constantly by scammer after scammer. there's the "game scam" and the "drug scam" and the "gem scam" and even a the "scam scam" where a guy warns you about all the scams and then insinuates that this good karma he's generated means you will certainly buy things from him. if you take a auto-rickshaw or cycle-rickshaw to avoid the scamers encountered while on foot, you will be hounded by said rickshaw driver to take part in whatever his scam is, and if you don't you'll be harassed to pay more than the agreed upon fare. out of the 5 or so rickshaw rides i took, about 4 of them ended in fight of some kind. and when you fight, indians flock around you in droves to "arbitrate" or just gawk. it's all so tiring after the first few times. even the city is involved in scams. the ticket price itself is a scam, as the money would supposedly go to taj maintenance and restoration but instead lines officials' pockets. but there's more. i bought my taj ticket, and was surprised to see that it entitled me to "free entry" to 4 other monuments around town. hooray i thought, and i hired a rickshaw to take me around. it turns out, my entrance is free, but i still have to pay the tax. for foreigners, this works out to not paying 10 rupees "entrance" but still paying 100 rupees tax. so you end up paying 100 rupees instead of 110. thanks agra, you bastards. but it's not just me. i met a college student on the train to delhi who asked me what i thought of his hometown of 20 years. i hesitantly hinted that agra wasn't my favorite place in the world and he launched into an anti-agra tirade. we bonded over this.

in general, the north is beginning wear on me. so many people approaching with "friendly conversation" designed to lead you into some sort of bilking. in the rest of asia, i shrug off the touts and scammers with smiles and jokes, but this doesn't really work so well here. here i have to stare people down and order them to go away. sometimes i even have to get a bit physical. today buying a train ticket, i actually grabbed a queue cutter and moved him back behind me. his ego bruised slightly, he strutted a bit, but there was nothing behind it. others in line were surprised but impressed and gave me the thumbs up. perhaps india has cured me of my natural shyness.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

rajasthani whirlwind

it has been a busy week plus running around rajasthan. i have explored several massive and nearly pristine 500+ year old forts (really palaces in hilltop fortress settings). i have done puja for my friends and family along the ghats of the holy city of pushkar. i have ridden a loathesome camel deep into the thar desert and slept under the stars. i have even (legally) explored the twisted pathways of my own mind using supplies from a government authorized bhang shop.

the pace is breakneck, but i've only got 10 days til i fly to burma, and there's still so much to see...