Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Taj Mahal

It looks fake.

We’re on a large bus with 13 other people from the wedding, including the bride and groom. I hate bus travel and tours, but this is a special occasion. The traffic to Agra is horrific. Worse than Delhi. Worse than that time I sat with family for one and a half hours at a standstill outside the Lincoln Tunnel on the Friday before Easter AND Passover. THE. WORST. Our four hour drive has taken seven. We’re giddy and tired and stiff and sick of snacking on junk food.

Our bus slowly turns the corner of a narrow street like the Queen Mary II trying to dock. And suddenly I spot it. In the distance. I shout “There it is” and everyone scrambles to the left side of the bus for their first sight of the thing we’ve suffered in traffic to reach.

Your first sight of it is through a gate, although ‘gate’ suggests a white picket fence that your swing open, when in fact this gate is four stories high and decked out with marble and semi-precious stones laid out in flower and plant designs.

Through the archway of the gate the Taj is perfectly framed. Like a mini picture you would see on a coaster or calendar or another of the dozens of items you’ve already seen this famous monument on. Its perfect white dome and four minerates all in perfect symmetry. There are easily two thousand people (at least that we can see) pushing and crowding to get the perfect photograph.

But of course that’s impossible. Because no picture we take captures even half of the soaring structure or the excitement in the air. We pass through the gate and step up to a long pool that reflects the Taj. Another try at a perfect picture. It’s about an hour to sunset and from this distance the snowy white dome looks soft and fuzzy and honestly, like a backdrop that you would stand in front of in Las Vegas.

We snap and snap and snap away. From low vantage points, self-portraits, group shots, from the right, dead-center.

Then the guide tells us we aren’t able to go inside because it’s closing soon and the line is too long.

Sorry? What was that?

I am mad, until I look at Melissa and realize she’s not mad at all. Now, the Taj has been her reason for India. Her crowning moment of the trip (at least until she bought the travel chess set)

“Why aren’t you mad?” I asked. “Just follow me,” she says. Which Amy and I do, only to find ourselves cutting the line and suddenly inside the outer area of the tomb. Now, you must understand that rules are a suggestion in India and everybody is cutting the line. Still, 90% of the tourists are Indian and three very pale white women stand out. Still, we manage to get on the second line to enter the tomb, this one wrapping around the entire building. And we do get inside. But because it’s lit with natural light, and it’s about 10 minutes to sunset, it’s almost pitch black inside. It’s also jammed with people. We link hands and walk around the tomb, which we’ve read is covered in semi-precious stones.

Still, we consider it a victory. Eight-thousand miles to India and NOT enter the Taj Mahel? I don’t think so.

Up close, the outside of the Taj is … well, there really isn’t a word to describe it. The sun is setting on one side, creating an orange-red glow behind mosque that stands to one side. And on the opposite side, the moon is rising in between one of the minerats and another building built to mirror the mosque. (It serves no purpose and was only built to create visual symmetry.) We continue to take pictures that will never measure up to the reality. Close-ups of the carvings that run along the wall, of the soaring double arches, of the masses of people below that didn’t make it inside.

We ask a guy about our age to take a picture of us. He does. And then asks if he can have a picture with us. Before we know it, Indian people are coming at us from all sides, politely requesting photographs with us. It’s strange and funny at the same time. Young girls, mothers with babies, groups of teenage boys snapping pictures with their cell phones. We pose with at least 30 different people before we are able to get away. One group of girls tells us we’re beautiful. Anyone that has seen my air hair-dry knows this is not possible.

We have no idea why they find us interesting enough to take a picture, why we are so popular, why most of them are too shy to ask until they see one brave person take a chance and then they all want to do the same.

This must be what it’s like to be a celebrity; hounded for your picture by people that don’t really know anything about you but think you’re pretty and fantastic. Damn. We should have charged 50 Rupees per photo.

If we’re a bit full of ourselves when we return, you’ll know why.

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