Wednesday, April 22, 2009

India Part 1

As a small disclaimer I need to mention that at this point countries and temples are blurring together and so I might mix up my historic sites in my Asia blogs. Anyway, here goes India!

In the days before we arrived in India, everyone was getting excited and ready to have a life changing moment. We were all told that India would make us laugh and cry and that we would never be the same again. Well, to tell the truth I did not have another South Africa moment. There was not a single instant that changed me; however, I do know that I am different. I have seen extreme poverty next to extravagant wealth. I have seen a begging child break character once to smile before returning to asking for money. I saw beautiful sites surrounded by extreme pollution and horrible smells. It broke my heart and made me wish that I could do something real with my life that will make a difference.

I spent my first day in Chennai with several friends. My trip to the Taj Mahal was not leaving until the afternoon and so I went into town with my friends Jill and Caroline. We had our first experience of rickshaw scamming when we were told that the place we wished to go was closed. Instead we were taken to a small luxury goods store that none of us could afford. We browsed, bought a few things, and finally demanded that our driver take us to the place we originally wanted to go. Well our destination was a bookstore that had two locations in Chennai. Naturally he took us to the wrong one that happened to be more difficult to get to. When we finally arrived at the right store, Jill and I had to head back to the ship and prepare for our next adventure.

That night I flew with 40 students to New Delhi. I have to admit that I was a little nervous about flying in a foreign country, but my fears were unfounded. Airport security was top-notch and the flight included those fabulous TVs on the back of each seat and a full meal that they called a “snack”. After arriving at our hotel we were greeted with flowers and cold tea. Colored rice on the ground stated “Welcome Semester at Sea”. Dinner was at a traditional Indian restaurant where several friends and I promptly ignored all health advisories and ate the most delicious vanilla ice cream in the world! Never fear, we survived.

We woke up extremely early in the morning to take a train to Agra. The train station was filled with mutilated children who would drag themselves over to you and ask for food. Our group finally had something to give and leftovers from box breakfasts were spread throughout the station. I felt that I was making a difference even if it was only a hard-boiled egg and yogurt. After arriving in Agra we took a bus to the hotel before continuing to several sites of interest. Signs on the road told me to “Be Happy, You’re in Agra!”. Our tour guide told us that Agra is one of the worst cities in India and that the only redeeming quality comes in the form of historical monuments.

That afternoon my group visited the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri which served as the nation’s capital from 1571-1583. In 1583 it was abandoned for “reasons that remain unclear”. One thing that has come from my world traveling is that I now see a Doctor Who episode in every historical site. Therefore my belief is that aliens attempted to take over India during this period of time and the Doctor had to come to the rescue! Anyway, the Mughal emperor Akbar had twelve legitimate children and something like ninety illegitimate children. Fatehpur Sikri had buildings that were built for several of the more important wives in the architecture of their homeland. It made the city very interesting because Muslim architecture was mixed in with Hindu temples and Chinese pagodas. That night we went back to the hotel and some people went off to a Jain festival. I chose to stay in the hotel and rest up for the morning Taj Mahal trip.

Finally it was the day that I was the most excited for. I had a chance to visit the Taj Mahal! It was one of those things that I had been excited to see since I was extremely young. Just last year it was decided by the Indian government that the Taj will be closing to the public in the near future so that preservation work on the monument can begin. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum that was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan over the course of twenty years from 1632-1653. The Taj was a tribute of love to Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal. The Wikipedia summary of the story goes like this: “In her dying breath, Mumtaz Mahal urged Shah Jahan to build a mausoleum for her that the world has never seen before. Shah Jahan granted his wife's wish, and construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1632, one year after her death. The court chronicles of Shah Jahan's grief illustrate the love story traditionally held as an inspiration for Taj Mahal”. My first site of the Taj was stunning. It was like the mausoleum glowed in the sunlight. We were given under two hours to wander through the gardens and see the sights. I cannot really find the words to describe walking through the area surrounding the Taj Mahal and taking the usual tourist photos. Despite the extreme pollution just a mile away, the gardens were beautiful and the fountains were clean. I only spent about five minutes inside the actual mausoleum before deciding that the outside was much more spectacular. Finally it was time to leave and move on to the next place, but someday I will go back and spend an entire day wandering around the grounds of the Taj Mahal.

Later that day my group went to the Agra Fort where Shah Jahan was kept under house arrest by his oldest son. Considering how beautiful the Fort was, I can’t imagine that house arrest would be that terrible an experience. From the Agra Fort there is a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal and the surrounding pollution of Agra. Although I enjoyed visiting the Fort and learning its history, I wish I could have spent that time at the Taj Mahal instead of changing location.

That afternoon the amazing day was completed with a trip to the Mother Teresa Orphanage in Agra. The full title of the orphanage includes something about home for the “sick and destitute”, but right now I am feeling lazy and don’t want to look up the official information. I had hoped that this would be another experience like my South Africa Operation Hunger trip, but unfortunately it did not meet expectations. Despite my small disappointment I truly enjoyed playing with the children. On my wall is a page out of a coloring book that I helped one of the orphans color in. When he was finished he wrote his name in Hindi on it and made me write mine also. Then he showed it to all of his friends and gave it to me with a smile and a hug. The hardest part of this trip was not seeing all the children, but seeing the care given to the mentally ill. I say “care” because it is the only word I can think of. It was more like a prison with the patients locked behind bars. They were alone and many of them were bound so that they would not physically harm themselves. It was heartbreaking to see people living like this and to know that their care would have been much worse if they were not in the orphanage. I spoke with one of the sisters about the problems they face every day and she told me that even though life is difficult there are little blessings every day that make everything worth it in the end.

This is the end to my India blog part one. I will write about my last two days tomorrow, but I thought it might help to split it in half! Enjoy!

1 comment:

Momster said...

Hey kiddo,
Navigating India sounds like a life changing experience that you may not realize until some time later. Love, The momster