The rain has been coming down steadily for most of the day. The drops make circles in the small puddles outside our hotel window. It's a good thing we went to see the Taj yesterday when we had reasonably good weather. After a three hour hold up at the airport in Agra this morning, much debate over the weather amongst our group, and the fact that the monsoon has apparently arrived earlier than expected, we've decided to pull the plug on today's planned flight into Calcutta ('Kolkata'). A tropical depression has formed right over the city there, and the monsoonal flow is pushing it north- we're hoping a day's delay will get us a reasonable flight window. Our exit strategy from India will be delayed, but India, has been a fascinating stop along our journey.
We arrived just five days ago, landing first in Ahmedabad, a city of over five million people, Ahmedabad is far off the normal tourist track, which made it a particularly interesting introduction to this country; a slice of the real India. Dodging through traffic, on our way to our hotel, the spectacle of daily life here unfolded in front of us as if it had been planned by "Bollywood](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bollywood) central casting. Hot, humid, but thankfully, not as hot as the desert Middle East, the traffic here is like nothing Art and I have ever experienced- the volume certainly, but not the exotic and chaotic nature of rush-hour in an Indian city. Our driver's horn hardly lets up the entire trip, "A driver can get by without brakes in India," He later explained, "But it is impossible to drive in India without a horn."
Camels pulling tall wagons, old men pushing hand carts filled with produce, loose cattle, herds of goats and water buffalo, stray dogs, an elephant carrying a mahout and a load of sticks- all of this is tossed together on the same multi-lane highway with hundreds of cars, heavily loaded trucks, motorcycles zipping in and out carrying three and four passengers, and a mass multitude of the signature motor vehicle of India; the yellow and green auto-rickshaw three-wheeled cab- I'm not making this up, its really that crazy. Driving in India makes downtown Miami, look like a quiet Sunday drive. Amazingly, we didn't see any dead animals or accidents, but we did see one very overloaded truck nearly tip over when its cargo shifted. We arrived at our hotel in one piece- woo hoo! The next day he headed out with a local guide for a tour of Ahmedabad.
Founded in the fifteenth century, Ahmedabad, is best known today as the birth place of Indian independence from British rule. This is where Mahatma Gandhi started his movement and built his ashram in 1909; teaching change through nonviolence. It was a great experience visiting the ashram, seeing the artifacts of Gandhi's life first hand, and touring his simple home. Like our own "Boston Tea Party" here in the states, (a tax revolt against the exorbitant price of tea levied by the British that began the American Revolution), it was a tax revolt against the British controlled price of salt, that began the independence movement here in India. A twenty-four day march to the sea, led by Gandhi himself and a small group of followers, was the first organized protest here. Once they made it to the sea, Gandhi showed people how to make their own salt and bypass the high British tax.
From Ahmedabad, we flew to Agra, home of the famous Taj Mahal. The sky was grey and cloudy for our tour of the "Taj"; we had our umbrellas along just in case but it turned out to be a pretty good day weather wise. The Taj is one of the most photographed buildings in the world- it seems nearly everyone has seen its picture somewhere. I'm never sure what to expect when I see a famous place for the first time; will it live up to the hype? In this case, you bet it does! What's even more interesting is what the tourist photos always leave out; there is an entire complex of magnificent buildings that make up the Taj Mahal complex. The beautiful white marble Taj is surrounded by magnificent red sandstone places that are also fantastic. The Taj itself is huge and we enjoyed seeing the inside where the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal, and her husband, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, are buried. The gardens around the Taj are also very pretty, while we were there, two men were mowing the grass with a mower-deck pulled by two oxen. Art took some photos of me visiting with the guys and petting the oxen- very friendly, and fun.
Other than the weather, we've really enjoyed our visit to India. Along with the Taj, we also saw the fantastic Agra Fort, another terrific landmark here with a truly magnificent palace. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan spent his final days here under house arrest. His third son was a murderous letch, after killing his two older brothers, he imprisoned his father in order to gain the throne. From his window, Shah Jahan could see the Taj, a small consolation. The legend of Jahan's plans to build a "black Taj" for himself are just that- a tourist myth. Art and I were a little apprehensive about India, we had heard that the terrible poverty, bad smells, trash and unsanitary conditions were sometimes overwhelming. We've seen a lot of poverty here and it's hard to look at the piles of garbage in the streets with stray cows happily feeding on it, but this is India- the true India warts and all. A magnificent and ancient culture and an amazingly diverse and interesting place to visit.
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