Jan 21, 2010

Day 3 (Sunday, January 10th) - Sadie

Today, I was not as excited to get up. Yes, we were going to the Taj Mahal, but it was also 4 a.m.. In my opinion, it’s hard to be excited about anything at 4 in the morning. However, considering the hour, and the fact that I haven't taken a class before 9:25 a.m. since freshmen year, I had one of the most enthralling class discussions of my college career before the sun had risen. No smart podiums, no laptops, no b.s.-ing my way through that discussion. Just two professors (Dr. den Ouden taught the class, but Dr. Pines was an active participator in most of our discussions), four students and one bumpy, noisy ride. We discussed how to empower oppressed rural women based a paper written by Martha Nussbaum titled, “Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings” which spoke about the universal sameness of human beings and how when looking from that angle, females from all over the world could be treated like human beings, rather than just women.

As an aside, any students who have an opportunity to study abroad should take it. The experience is especially memorable if you experience a culture that is extremely different than your own. India and Indian culture was more different than I could have possibly imagined. Being a proud American, I thought I came from the world’s melting pot and growing up so close to New York, I thought I had been exposed to most of the world’s cultures, but I realize now that when people say something is Americanized, it is nothing like the original. I did not know people lived this way. Words, pictures and videos cannot describe it. This probably is an exaggeration, but I felt like I learned more in those first three days in India then I learned in the first three years of college.

Today was also the first day I felt like we really bonded as a group. Because we had such a large group traveling and we were sort of disjointed into our different projects and busy preparing them before the trip, we never really got to spend time all together before leaving for India. I actually met the two Hartford Art School students, Christa and Chris, while getting dinner at JFK. However, I have learned that amazing things can happen when people are cold. We constantly cold because the day before we left, India started a unseasonable cold spell. The result was that everyone packed for 70 degree weather and it was about 50 degrees the entire time – I also lost my jacket on the plane ride there, smart move. India is also designed for the extreme heat; meaning every building has an open air front and there is no concept of a heating system anywhere (unless you count burning cow pies). Anyway, back to the bonding. This morning was particularly cold and we stopped for breakfast at a little roadside place. It was freezing inside and when I sat down I was shivering uncontrollably. Jessica and Sarah had pushed their chairs together and were interlocking their arms for warmth. I didn’t know Jessica very well at the time but, she just looked over at me and said, “hey my other side is cold, come ’mer.” And I gladly did. A few moments later I looked at Clay who was sitting on the other side of the table, looking very cold by himself and said, “Hey, you wanna get in on this?” He quickly brought his chair over and I was immediately comfortably warm. By the time we had ordered, all the students were sitting in a long line all interlocking arms, swaying in either direction and playing the game, telephone. I’ve learned that it is very easy for people to come together when they have a common need.

We got to Salim Chisti's tomb (above), located inside a beautiful Muslim Mosque around 11 am. Now, I could tell you all about the history of the Mosque, but if you really want to know, you can research that yourself because to be honest, that’s what I would have to do - I couldn’t understand a word of what our tour guide said. I could talk about how exquisite the artitechture and craftsmanship in the stone and marble was which it definitely was, but anyone could tell you that. What really struck me about that place were the little kids selling trinkets. Rather than being in school, getting an education so they could have some sort of a future, there there probably hundreds of kids scattered throughout the campus. Some followed us from our bus to the shuttle we had to take to get to the Mosque, telling us to remember their faces when we got off the bus coming the other way. Some of them followed us from the shuttle to the entrance to the Mosque. Some followed us while we were walking around inside. Some even stuck their little hands into openings of the sliding-glass bus windows as we were leaving to get our attention. They all had the same routine. First they would say, “hello, what is your name?” Then they would pull out post cards or booklets about the major tourist sites in Agra or bangles or anklets or a miniature chest set and they would not stop asking you to buy it until they were convinced you were not going to. It reminded me of an ingenious game that many children play where you annoy someone so much that they finally pay you to leave them alone. I, of course, was a master of that game. There was nothing you could do to discourage these kids. I tried telling them politely that I was not interested. I tried starting up a conversation with them to at least divert the conversation away from money. I tried telling them they were wasting their time. I even tried ignoring them, but then after a while they would say, “español? Italiano? Français?” If those kids knew that spiel they gave me in that many different languages, then they have some serious language skills. The whole day just got me thinking about the difference between urban and rural poverty. The kids in the village would never ask or beg for money. At one point, I opened up my bag in the village and about 500 lose Rupees fell out. Some school girls saw it and I just put the money back and zipped up my bag and didn’t think much about it. In the cities we were told to keep money in our front pocket and have our hand over our pockets constantly. It really was an effective scheme. If I was by myself at the tomb, I would have probably just given five or ten Rupees to as many kids as I could, but since I didn’t want to draw any more unwanted attention to our group, I refrained. I couldn’t bare to look into those kids eyes. They were so cute and yet so sad. I’m a sucker for kids and this was heartbreaking.

We got in the bus again and drove another three hours to the Taj Mahal. This time the hagglers came right onto our bus. We parked one place and took a camel-driven cart to the front gate. The thing that struck me here which I hadn’t really noticed in the village was the separation between men and women in Indian culture. There were not only different lines for natives and foreigners, but within the Indian line there were separate lines for men and women. Again, going through security there were separate lines for men and women, but at least here I could see a more practical purpose. All I can say about the Taj Mahal is that it is an absolutely breath taking feat of architecture, engineering and craftsmanship and I’m not even an engineering major, so just think what Clay, Amy, Jess and Sarah thought about it. It may be a bit of a tourist trap, but if you are ever in India, even if you are an agonizing eight hour bus ride away like we were, the Taj Mahal is well worth the trip. I don’t know what it was, maybe it was the cold weather, maybe it was seeing countless severely impoverished people along the road, but the pessimist in me really came out that day (and a few other days as well). Looking at the grandiosity of the Taj Mahal and learning that it took twenty years and used 22,000 workers just made me think about the amount of money that was sunk into a tomb for one woman. The entire complex of buildings was originally built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his favorite wife who had died in child birth. It was built in the 1600s when there was absolutely no concept of welfare for the poor so it is inconceivable that the money would be used for them anyway, but the cost to build the entire thing over time is best estimated to be about 32 million Rupees at the time. I’m sure building it created jobs, but at the same time it probably created a great need for certain jobs while it was being built and then when construction was completed, thousands of people were left without jobs. I just couldn’t help but think what India might be like if instead of building a very expensive tomb stone for his wife, the Emperor had invested that money into rural development, where the country might be today.

(some of the details in the stone at the Taj)

I enjoyed going to and the Taj Mahal very much, but considering the exceedingly long and uncomfortable bus ride, I would have rather gone to Abheypur that day. In fact, being that the excursion was so early in the trip (usually, its towards the end) I felt guilty all day about the work we could have been doing that day. Comparatively, even though the Taj Mahal is awe inspiring, some of the most spectacular things I witnessed while in India occurred in a small, dusty village.

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