Today we drove from Delhi to Agra, witnessing large continuous spans of population, as well as stretches of agrarian countryside. In the populated spans the disorganized movement of humans, motor bikes, rickshaws, cars and horns never ends, punctuated by smaller or larger markets, all resembling a history way older than the USA. In the countryside the scenes reminded me of photos from Africa: women carrying large burdens on their heads, the brightly colored saris far-off in the field, men toiling on the dusty road side with rudimentary tools. In the villages and towns beautiful cows relax in the yards or saunter calmly across streets; in the countryside the cows appear to have a less luxurious existence, hauling carts of stones and large quantities of sticks.
I kept wondering why there were so many of these primitive-looking sticks. Finally as we drove through one village I realized that these bent, unstable-looking objects are the backbone of most structures in the towns: they prop up the tarps that cover the dirt-floor patios in front of merchant shops; they form the precarious scaffolding and ladders for building construction.
For lunch we stopped at a roadside restaurant, where again a local requested to take our photo, and we paid a young boy with two rhesus macaques to let us take a photo with him.
Driving through the center of Agra was our first immersion into the deep pockets of poverty. Children – toddlers – pick through piles of trash, men in ragged clothing sleep in the streets in exhausted postures, inured to the honking and bustling around them. I kept thinking that an American baby would be screaming if exposed to these loud, unceasing sounds, as we watched women in saris with calm babies on their hips jostled by the crowds. It did not look like a place where children went to school, but our driver Ram informed us that even in these shanti towns the government provides education, and further incentivizes the girls to stay in school by offering each a bicycle if they remain in school after 9th grade.
Our driver implored us not to leave our hotel, begging us to call him should we need to leave for any reason, and after driving through what must lamentably be called slums, we were quite inclined to comply. Tourists are instructed not to give to the beggars, that to do so is to support the mob, which indentures children by providing shark loans to the country people seeking a future in the city, and then taking a cut of the money the begging children earn on the streets to repay the loans. In the safety of our hotel, we went to dinner, where they charge trapped tourists $21 for a buffet of Luby’s-quality food. In an odd way it struck me as a perverse inversion of the mob-beggar scheme, with hotels availing themselves of the entrapment of wealthy foreigners. Hence, my determination to take advantage of the complimentary breakfast and eat anywhere but the hotels tonight.
We have tried to capture the sites of the people, the awe of observing what the human body and spirit can subsist in, but it is awkward and difficult. Below are pictures of us in the halls of Sikandra – tomb of Akbar the Great, beloved king of India, the first monument we saw in Agra. Will post of Akbar soon – he is a book unto himself, the greatest king of India, actively trying to bring together Hindus and Persians in visionary and inspiring ways.
Peace from Agra.
btw: We will post later about the Taj Mahal. The photo above was merely our first visit, in the evening when we walked through the groves to view the back of the site at sunset. The better part of a day was spent there the following day, and it deserves its own post.