Monday, November 5, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Awesome Agra!

After arriving in Agra, we visited the stunning Taj Mahal. We had to wait in long lines for entrance to the grounds of this national monument and security was very tight. Apparently, there are several groups who would like to blow up the Taj Mahal in an apparent and misguided way to call attention to their theology, ideology, or lunatic mission. Of course, this is India and getting to the entrance gate is a challenge of passing through aggressive 'hawkers'. hungry monkeys, tribal vendors who want to take you on a camel ride, and various vendors of knock-off Taj Mahal replicas made of soap, stone, plaster, mud, concrete, and Formica. Ahhh, the power of capitalism when combined with tourism!

No matter how well traveled you may be or cynical and staid, you will not be prepared for your first sighting of the Taj Mahal. As you walk through a tall marble arch erected over 500 years ago, you are immobilized by your first view of the Taj-- it shines, sparkles and almost hypnotizes you with its indescribable beauty. The grounds and gardens only add to its brilliance and majectic presence. Our sponsors are almost mute as they stand gazing at this monument of love and devotion... one man who wanted to honor his wife after she died was committed to construct the most beautiful mausoleum in the world... along with over 20,000 skilled stone carvers, artists, and craftsmen who toiled almost 30 years to complete this historic place. The gentleman may have been in love, but he also imprisoned his father for eight years at a nearby fort, killed several of his rival brothers, and reportedly ordered that the hands and fingers to be cut off of the most skilled artisans after they finished their work... he certainly did not want his monument duplicated by anyone!

Sunset at the Taj Mahal is almost a spiritual experience and our sponsor group was overwhelmed by their experience and visit. Later at the hotel, everyone was talking about the Taj during our delicious Indian buffet dinner-- Indian breads are the best in the world! They also like to serve an assortment of sweet desserts with each meal which certainly made most of us fatter and happier. Of course, on any study tour, there is a core group of serious shoppers! Despite the long day, several of us ventured from the hotel late that evening to seek trinkets and treasures of India. We stumbled onto a little store that was about to close... but the foreigners were welcomed guests of this family-run business and we kept them there until almost midnight. They were gracious and helpful, and we returned their hospitality in greenbacks and left with gifts for friends and families back home.

Our guide urged the group to get up a 5:00 a.m. the next day and see the Taj Mahal in the sunrise. We all looked like rejects from an endless marathon. During dinner I doubted that many would want to get up early and return to this monument. Wrong again! By 4:45 a.m. there were 15 sponsors in the hotel lobby the next morning ready to see the Taj Mahal one more time. Our irrational nocturnal behaviour was rewarded with one of the most beautiful sights you would ever want to see at sunrise. I neglected to say that the Taj Mahal has emerald, rubies and other precious stones embedded in the translucent marble walls and dome. When the rays of the sun reaches this monument, it actually sparkles as if hundreds of tiny blinking lights have been activated, unforgettable, and photos do not do it justice.

We also visited the Agra Fort that day which would make any 10-year-old boy delirious with delight-- the fort, complete with moat, covers over 200 acres and was constructed with colossal slabs of red sandstone. There are huge wooden gates, lots of dark passages, tunnels galore, lofty turrets, battle ramps, and magnificent gardens inside the walls. Harry Potter-- eat your heart out! THIS is a real castle for fun and exploration. You can only imagine how grand a life could be lived behind these gigantic walls.

Leaving Agra and heading southeast to the ancient city of Jaipur, we were to endure six endless hours of bumpy roads, traffic jams, and dueling trucks and buses trying to play 'chicken' on a highway of barely one lane. Halfway on our journey that day, we made a rest stop at a small, remote gasoline/snack bar place not normally frequented by foreign tourists. Of course, it was like the aliens from Jupiter had arrived and we were stared at, touched, and laughed at by the locals who came out to see the foreigners from space. Service was quick and friendly at the snack bar and we completely wiped out their supply of sandwiches, cookies, cold drinks, coffee, tea and almost every other available item that could be consumed by these hungry foreign invaders. I am sure the owners of this establishment will never forget the day that the ravenous white people from another country completely wiped out their supply of goodies. Biggest sales day in the last 500 years for this place! :)

Let me also add that we were always treated with friendliness and courtesy wherever we went that day and the children especially liked sponsors who would take photos of them on digital cameras... and show them the photos. One sponsor had brought what I can only described as Madri Gra beads-- and the kids, the parents, the snack bar workers, and everyone else loved them, I can now proudly state that there are probably at least 50 people who live near this rest stop now wearing these colorful beads!

We arrived at the historic city of Jaipur that evening. It would be an adventurous visit with elephant riding, auto-rickshaw racing, rug buying, sari-selling bonanzas only topped by the sudden appearance on the street of a poor, tattered 12-year-old youngster named Magic Boy who amazed our CCF sponsors with his skill, friendliness, and acts that defy explanation. More on Jaipur in my next report.

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