In the Shadow of the Taj

Monkeys chasing each other across rooftops.

The smoke from your cigarette.

The curtain of the night falling behind the Taj, its shadowy silhouette.

God is close.

Allah moves across the face of the stone, never seen, but always present.

Prayers called up to the night sky, shouted and sung from speakers like megaphones, echoing across Agra at sunset.

You say you wish they’d be quiet. That prayers are meant to be whispered, shared only between you and God.

A chorus of prayers.

A family of monkeys. A mother sliding down a wall to scoop up her child, who looks too afraid to climb.

In the street, a little girl plays with a yellow balloon, dodging motorbikes and the big, dark puddle in the middle of her street.

You tell me the Taj was more beautiful years ago. That now the pollution gets in the way.

You tell me that not all Indian men are like what they say but to be careful in Delhi.

You tell me about a French woman you took to dinner and showed around for three days and how she asked you to come see her in France and how, when her plane finally left, you couldn’t believe she was gone.

How you refused your family’s proposals for arranged marriages, put it off by getting degree after degree, and finally just said “no.” You were sent out from your family’s home. You only talk to your mother now, occasionally. Still, your younger brothers can’t get married until you do.

You say we are different. We are both different. That’s why you talk to me. That people here all go in one direction, but you go the other.

You believe in God but are not religious. When a bell rings—a Hindu sign for good luck—you don’t pray like your friend, but you place your fist to your chest and then to your lips, the same thing my friend did whenever we passed a Hindu temple on the road.

You say we are all connected. That race and religion can’t keep us apart. We are different, but we are connected. Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Taj”

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Impressions of Agra: From the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort

What do you say about the Taj Mahal?

It’s beautiful and mystical and a monument to love.

So I’ll let it speak for itself.

taj-1taj-3taj-6In the meantime, I finally rode an autorickshaw (a couple of them, actually, all around Agra). Did I get ripped off? Probably. But I was mostly able to negotiate. I also rode a cycle rickshaw (which I took to Chimman Lal Puri, this amazing hole-in-the-wall eatery by the Jama Masjid mosque that was recommended in the Rough Guides India guidebook I had).

And, more importantly, I saw the Agra Fort. Continue reading “Impressions of Agra: From the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort”

Going Solo in Bangalore

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Photo by Boyeon Han

Finally, the time came when I had to say goodbye to my two wonderful traveling companions: my dear Korean sister Boyeon and my new Indian friend Roshan.

Roshan got as as far as Bangalore (with a stopover in Mysore to take in a couple sights), and then we both saw Boyeon off at the airport. And then I was alone at the quiet hostel I’d selected (for its quietness), though Roshan told me if I needed anything he was just a phone call away.

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Photo by Boyeon Han

And finally solo, my confidence suddenly left me. I wandered around Bangalore the next day (and found a lovely coffee shop, managed to get some antibiotics at the pharmacy to cure my Delhi belly, tried to get a SIM card and failed, and got some delicious Middle Eastern food at a nearby eatery). I mean, all around a successful day. And yet.

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Palace in Mysore

I was afraid to take an autorickshaw (popularly known in India just as “autos”)—not because of their potential lack of safety but because I’d heard of plenty of foreigners getting ripped off by the drivers and didn’t want to deal with haggling, with deciding if a driver was gaming me, with trying to force someone to turn on the meter.

I tried desperately to book a train ticket to Agra (my next stop), but the online booking systems of several different sites seemed to be trying to thwart me.

And it seemed quite likely that someone had rifled through my backpack at the hostel while I was out exploring earlier in the day.

My one reprieve after all of this was my sisters’ friends, John and Alison, who live in Bangalore with their two young kids and had invited me over for pizza that night. Because, you know, when you’re a solo traveler, you’re never really alone. Continue reading “Going Solo in Bangalore”

Why, Hello, Sir-Madam-Sir

“I’m sorry I have to ask you this, but are you a ‘sir’ or a ‘madam’?”

The security guard at the Taj Mahal looked at me earnestly. He was helping me figure out where to store my daypack. The lockers were at another entrance, I’d found out. I couldn’t bring in my computer that was tucked in the depths of my bag.

But first, he had to know this one thing.

*

When I left for India, I had all the intentions of passing as a man. I was worried about safety. Boyeon and I bought matching rings so we could pretend to be a married (heterosexual) couple, if necessary. I was totally prepared.

Except that I was also totally silly. Continue reading “Why, Hello, Sir-Madam-Sir”

Wild Haven

If I’d known how amazing Roshan’s family’s resort in Tamil Nadu would be, I might’ve asked that we go there first.

After all our driving, all our exploring, he finally took us to his home in Masinagudi, the place where he’d grown up, the village where he works.

And what a place it is. His father owns and runs Wild Haven Resort, an old colonial hunting lodge that he turned into a set of lodgings that would be memorable even for the most seasoned travelers. The accommodations were, of course, lovely and well-kept.

But more impressive were the views. And the nightly bonfires. And the calls of tigers we could hear while sitting around said bonfires.

Because, as the name implies, Wild Haven is in the wild, surrounded by mountains, almost encapsulated by the nearby wildlife refuge.

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And if there’s one thing I love as much as water, it’s the mountains. Waking up to them. Breathing in their heights. Marveling at their beauty. Feeling that quiet invitation to come join them, wherever the path leads.

I think that’s one reason I loved my Korean hometown Yeosu so much—all those green mountains pressed right up against the sea.

But now, I had another place to love: Wild Haven. Continue reading “Wild Haven”

The Backwaters of Kerala

There is something inherently peaceful to me about water. Be it rain, ocean, river, lake, or otherwise, being near water almost immediately soothes me.

I remember when I was younger and the summer thunderstorms would come in, and my dad and I would sit on our screened-in back porch in Raleigh and wait for the rains to come. We’d count the seconds between lightning and thunder and guess how far away the storm was. And when the clouds finally broke loose over us, there was something beautiful about the rain pounding on the roof, pooling around us, while we were watching from safety.

I felt the same comfort waking up every morning to the strait between Yeosu peninsula and the small island where I lived with my Korean homestay family in my early 20s, watching the water lap at the banks and the fishing boats puttering by. I would breathe in and out and feel inexplicably comforted.

This was no different when Boyeon and I went to Kerala. When we got there (after a long, arduous journey), with Boyeon’s friend Roshan as our guide, we went immediately to the water, where we stayed at a lakeside resort that looked out at the sunset moving swiftly across the waves and the boats criss-crossing their way to their finishing places.

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When given the chance, we also decided to take a houseboat on the Keralan backwaters. For that, we have Roshan to thank. After his friends and friends of friends said that they were all booked up (Roshan’s social network is amazing), he managed to find a boat in Alleppey that had space for us for an overnight cruise. Continue reading “The Backwaters of Kerala”

White People Problems (American Tourist Edition)

Let’s face it: I have a problem with being a white American traveling in India. Chalk it up to white guilt or simply a recognition of (historical and present) privilege, but my whiteness preceded me everywhere I went and reminded me of echoes of the past—the white, British colonizers who oppressed and dehumanized Indians for years, who demolished their culture and devalued their lives.

Admission: I am not an expert on either Indian history or British colonialism. But I couldn’t help but be aware of the damage wrought by people who looked like me, worshipped in the kinds of churches I attend, and spoke my language.

I guess it was a good thing to be aware of. But beyond awareness of privilege, I’ve wondered what I could do. Colonization is over, but the real inequalities are still there—because of nationality, class, place of birth, first language—all of those things.

Boyeon and I had some interesting conversations about this. How she, as someone from a country that had been colonized (by the Japanese, for those of you who missed out on East Asian history), felt a certain kind of empathy for (and to her, perhaps from) the Indian people. How walking down the street, she felt a kinship—both as someone from Asia and from a formerly colonized country.

For us, this sometimes played out in how we interacted with people on the street. For example, Boyeon frequently was ready to ask questions, get directions, and get answers for other basic travel information. I, however, was not. Granted, this is partly because she’s more extroverted than I am, and I’m self-reliant to a fault. But one of my major hangups, as I told her, was really my lack of knowing the local language and how imperialistic (and particularly American) it felt to expect everyone to know English. (And our cramming of Hindi did not help us at all in the Bengali-dominated Northeast or Malayalam-speaking South.)

And while I didn’t feel the Indian people holding me accountable for British failings, I did realize that I wanted to find a way to acknowledge those failings, to recognize my positionality within that space, to work to counteract any ways in which power and privilege became barriers between me, the place, and the people. Continue reading “White People Problems (American Tourist Edition)”