May 31, 2017

The Taj Mahal Tour

The Taj Mahal and the Gurgaon skyline from my balcony
The moment you arrive in India people tell you the Taj Mahal is a must-see. They are right. If you live in the Delhi area, as I do, it’s all the more reason to go experience one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It took us  only eight months to get there...

First day in Agra – April Fool’s Day
We decided to travel to the Taj via the new-ish Yamuna expressway from New Delhi to Agra. Our driver, R., drove as crazy as was necessary to get there. The highway's flat asphalt was deceivingly lulling, but every now and then we had Mad Max moments courtesy of buses and tractors (!) that kept it interesting
It was a four-hour drive. The expressway ends right at the entrance to Agra; it might as well be called the Taj Tourist Pipeline. The Rising Family went directly to the hotel to check-in. The Optimum Tara Palace hotel was more like an ‘Adequate Quasi-Palace’, but it was near the Taj’s west entrance, so what the hay, eh. We decided to end the day by shopping in the Sadar Bazaar area amid the late afternoon heat. 

Shopping in small cities in India is actually a lot of fun and I snapped quite a few photos. Naomi is a lioness when it comes to commerce. She enjoys the art of bargaining far more than the actual purchase. Lady E. is developing the same skills. M. remains oblivious of it all and hangs with me. We walked around in the dusty, clattering shopping area and it felt like we were the only foreigners around. People were friendly and curious—as always. I watched the auto rickshaws go by, the throngs of people going about their business, the energy in the air was palpable. 
Our shopping excursion yielded one purchase: we bought a few sippy cups as water containers. Simple pleasures--plus they help avoid dehydration. 

Stomachs started growling. Despite my Lonely Planet’s many recommendations, the closest suitable eatery was the aptly-named Only Restaurant. Only problem was, we were the only customers--usually not a good sign. Let’s just say the beer was really tasty.
On the way back to our hotel we stopped off at a couple of handicraft stores and had a truly delightful encounter with one store owner who collected paper currency like me (geeks connect!) and was very generous with his time and conversation. We only bought trinkets but he didn’t seem to mind. We were in his store over an hour and in the end Naomi drank some chai, and the girls became comfortable around these local people. It was a pleasant way to end the day. We went back to the hotel room, tired and hot, and went to bed early because there was nothing else to do—and the next day was our date with the Taj Mahal. 

May 27, 2017

Holy Cows

If the Chicago Cubs’ legendary baseball play-by-play announcer Harry Caray had ever visited India, I have no doubt the first two words out of his mouth would have been, ahem, “holy cows.”
This cheeseball joke aside, I was intrigued the first time I saw a herd of cattle roaming traffic-congested roads in New Delhi and Gurgaon without any apparent sense of fear or concern.
This just runs contrary to my Canadian upbringing, where any large animals on the road – for example, moose or deer -- are considered a danger to vehicles, people, and the animals, and we corral cattle lest they become bovine roadkill.
Yet, here in India, cattle freely amble around and even command their own passing lane on busy roads. They can go anywhere they want, even in dense urban areas. Cows are also welcome at open air markets, garbage dumps (a food court for them!) and they generally lounge wherever they want--to chew cud, watch what’s going on, and just “be what they wanna be.” Cows are one of those special cultural symbols that exemplify India’s quirks writ large.
At this point I should mention the religious element. Hindus revere cows (female cattle) and consider them sacred animals because they produce life-sustaining milk. Cows are worshiped and decorated during the many festivals that occur throughout the year. Needless to say, UN FAO statistics indicate that Indians have the lowest rate of meat consumption in the world for the aforementioned religious as well as economic reasons. Local Muslims, not so much: they dominate the meat industry here. Recently, in many Indian states, the slaughtering of cows and selling of beef has been either restricted or banned. I have read many a hysterical news article describing Muslims being lynched or beaten to death for alleged theft or transport of cows. Consequently, cows have become a focal point of inter-faith conflict. I am not sure what the views are concerning bulls or oxen—the forgotten, ignored, disempowered male cattle. (Insert fake outrage here.)
So all this superficial insight into the social intricacies of religious legacies, caste and how they impact on modern Indian society all comes from a thought of how cool it is that cows rule the roads. And that, my friends, is one example of why I enjoy living overseas…you never stop wondering “why does that happen?” and my thirst for figuring things out never gets quenched.

As for the Rising Daughters, from time-to-time we freeze food we know we will not eat and feed it to the local grazing cattle. It just feels like a positive thing to do. 

But, I’ll tell ya, that first sniff of the putrid breath of the big, aggressive bulls, that first sandpaper rasp of the cow’s tongue across your hand as they snap the food out of your palm—those experiences are unforgettable.
Clop on, cows in India, clop on.