When we arrived after 22 hours on the train from Udaipur, our hotel had sent someone to pick us up. Rajeek was his name and he spoke English the way you see in the movies. On our bumpy rickshaw ride to the hotel, after he explained our route to get there, he turned to me and said, "What is your good name, kind sir?" I didn't quite hear him and told him my full name (good and full sound the same, right?) and my confusion elicited laughs from Rajeek and Anaïs. For the rest of our stay it was his mission to make us happy, serving us our dinners and asking how our days went and beaming with positivity as he served breakfast each morning.
The city is famous for its temples and their erotic carvings. Our guide explained that this was done in order to get lay people interested in visiting and to keep them coming, which I suppose makes sense - it certainly keeps tourists coming these days. The carvings are interesting - my favorite being the peeking elephant - and the craftsmanship made our long train ride from Udaipur worth it.
One of the best moments was walking a little south of the Kandariya Mahadev temple, amongst the freshly flowering trees. We sat on a bench mesmerized by the magnificently carved monument, reflecting on our trip in India and overall. It was a simple moment, filled with retrospection and meaning that was heightened by our surroundings. We felt peace on that bench, peace amongst the chaos and calamity that often defines India. A young Indian couple joined us, sitting at a nearby bench, and reveled in the same silence we did. It was a gentle reminder that we're all the same, searching for the moments that fill our soul with joy.
Famous for its medieval palace Jahangir Mahal and the Chhatris, burial sites for deceased kings, Orchha will be remembered first through our homestay. Located a walk out of town, we stayed with a family that had two rooms set up for tourists to stay in. It was nothing like a guesthouse, though, as the view from our door was of the front yard where life was for the family. We woke up to mom and grandma making breakfast and chapati and the kids playing, had lunch as everyone went about their chores, and dined on delicious thalis and bread served by the oldest child, a girl, Neeku, who had all the hopes and dreams of childhood that infected her every word and action. It wasn't a proper meal, of course, if Grandma didn't stop by once or twice with her calls of "chapatiii?" that I could never refuse.
In fact, it was our time spent with the kids that was most special to us. Neeku had two younger brothers, Visham and Sahil, both full of mischief. We spent the blistering afternoons with the three of them playing mikado (pick-up sticks) with the youngest and chess with the two older ones. Neeku played chess cautiously, calculating each move to protect her valuable pieces. Visham, the middle child attacked with reckless abandon, sacrificing whatever in hopes of the quick kill. His impatience showed even when not playing as he would counsel his sister into losing maneuvers just so he could play sooner! Full of mischief I tell you..
Anaïs had henna applied by one of the cousins. For two hours on the last day, the cousin painstakingly applied the ink in various patterns that, while not as intricate as those from expensive shops, were more meaningful given the circumstances. All the women in the family made appearances to see the progress and, in the end, it turned into a free-for-all henna party with the leftover henna.
Life is full of ups and downs, pushes and pulls but events tend to balance each other out. Such was the case when we were waiting for the train to Agra. Being on the platforms and getting stared at was unnerving still but something we had accepted. We were used to the kids coming up with their hands out or doing the food-into-mouth motion. What had yet to happen was any sort of truly negative interaction with beggars. That changed with a certain old man. He followed around the station as we found our platform, and then found the new platform when it was changed. He followed us when we went to sit down for half an hour, waiting for the train, and occasionally asked for money. It wasn't until we bought a drink that he started acting poorly, getting in my way and refusing to back down. I looked him in the eyes and gave him a firm no. In response, he pushed me backwards and screamed at us to get the @#$% out of India. I couldn't believe it happened and was left dumbstruck as he stormed off. Poverty is a serious problem in India: it stared us in the face on a daily basis and broke our hearts in a million ways. As much as it shocked me, in hindsight I hope to never judge that man for what he did - I will never know what it feels like to live his life.
In regards to Agra.....we didn't like this city. For starters, Anaïs was spit on when we visited Fatehpur Sikri as we removed our shoes. That was after someone spit at me earlier in the morning as I walked down the street (he missed). People were generally ruder, the food choices weren't great, and the city was dirtier than the others we had visited. It was also the most touristy and plenty of people were looking to rip you off any way they could. One of those things alone is forgivable, but when you combine it all into one city, well, it's hard to like that place.
But you have to visit at least once for the Taj.
Experiencing the Taj was near the top of both our Must See lists and it was a dream come true to see it as we entered the gate. There simply aren't words for this place.
I'm not going to say our morning there was the culmination of years of hard work and dedication to get there, but it kind of felt like that. The Taj had a mythical property in my mind growing up - it seemed so far away and so exotic that I wasn't sure it could be real. All the movies, TV shows, documentaries - I'd seen it from every different angle. But nothing compares to walking through the gates and stepping onto the platform, looking over the exquisite gardens, and seeing it with your own eyes. Every time I look at our photos I'm in awe that we were there, that we fulfilled our dreams to see it.
By strange luck, our visit coincided with the visit of one of my best friends and roommates from college, Will. He decided on a last minute visit to India and, despite some transportation issues, we were able to meet up for 24 hours in Agra. It was the first time I had seen him in years and being able to visit the Taj with him will be one of my favorite memories from our time abroad.
Return to Delhi
Our train ride back to the capital provided another wonderful chance encounter. Seated in a row of three, we found ourselves amongst a group of soldiers on their way to a training exercise in northern India. Luckily for us, we were seated next to one of them and he was one of the more interesting people we met. Incredibly grounded and quick witted, he wasn't your stereotypical young soldier. Indeed, he had worked for a few years before joining the army and had worked for a company that did business with the main internet provider in the area I grew up - he recognized the names of some of the suburbs I lived near. We had a great conversation, from outsourcing jobs to military life and his views of the election of Modi that had happened a few days past. It was a conversation you'd have with a friend at home on the commute to work, except he was a stranger in a far-off land. Our interaction with him was another reminder that we're all searching for the same thing.
There are other stories from our time in India, such as the first night dinner when it took me asking a question four times before I recognized the head-nod answer, sibling to the famous head-wiggle. India is a place where you can't help but have memorable experiences on a (seemingly) daily basis. Our time in these three cities was filled with reminders of how beautiful life will be if you accept it into your heart.