“Crystal, I take you to see animals today.”

Agra Day 2-4

It’s Friday and the Taj Mahal is closed today so Hussein picked me up at the hotel with the promise of taking me sightseeing.  I told him I wanted to see the rescue elephants he mentioned so he took that to mean “she loves animals and wants to photograph all of them” argh.  The weather is insanely, brain-fryingly hot at 44 degrees celsius and an “air conditioned car” simply means that the fan works.

Rickshaws Everywhere
A vacant stare from this tired rickshaw driver

“Crystal, I take you to see animals today,” Hussein promises with a grin. Off we go, and go, and go…out of Agra proper and beyond.  Hmmm, are we going on safari?  Shit, I am in a taxi with a strange man and have only my camera to protect me.  Approximately 45 minutes later (after a few u-turns into oncoming traffic) we arrive at an animal sanctuary for sloth bears and birds (not elephants).  The place looks legitimate, pretty nice and well kept and we park near what appears to be a ranger station.  Hussein convinces the “ranger” to show us some sloth bears.  The 2 bears we see look great, as if they were on display at a nice zoo, albeit hot as hell (poor guys had to be suffering in this stifling heat).   Hussein kept ordering me to photograph the bears.  I am not, nor ever claimed to be a wildlife photog.  I photograph people and places, I’m interested in the stories, not the pretty scenes.  The most irritating thing you can say to a photographer is “take a picture of this!”

God Bless People Like This
God Bless People Like This
Rescued from circus horrors

Drenched in sweat and ready to get back into the fan-conditioned car I indicated I was ready to leave.  Hussein instructed me to give the ranger a donation for his trouble, I complied and when we got into the car he smiled and said, “See, Crystal, I show you animals!”  “Yes, you did, thank you.” “No, you say, shukria to me.” (I later found out this means thank you in Urdu vs the Hindi word I learned which is “dan’yavada.”)  “Shukria, Hussein-ji,” I said to him and he grinned and told me that we were going to see elephants after we have lassi.  I had no idea what lassi was nor was I interested in having one (I fear drinks from street vendors) but I figured I haven’t been sick yet so why not give it a go.  He insisted that I try this drink and promised I would enjoy it and he was right.  It was a frothy, sweet drink that is apparently made of yogurt.  It is served very cold in a terra cotta cup that is immediately discarded (yes, thrown into the fricken trash can).  I balked at the thought of throwing away this perfectly good, probably hand crafted, terra cotta cup and he laughed at my naiveté.  How quaint!  “You are like Japanese tourist who kept cup for souvenir.” Well, Hussein, it seems ridiculously wasteful to discard a lovely and perfectly serviceable cup!  But, I didn’t want to put the messy cup in my camera bag so I gingerly placed it on top of hundreds of other cups in the heaving bin.  Such waste…  “You see, Crystal, I know what is good, you like lassi, you trust me now I show you good things.” “Yes, Hussein, shukria for lassi.” (while my inside voice is saying “ok, asshole, you got me to buy you a drink, now will you do your job and take me to the sanctuary you promised?”)

I bought one of the most refreshing Fanta’s ever!
Lassi Boy
Hard working kid

We finally arrive at the elephant sanctuary and it seemed absent of any people.  The place was very haphazardly set up with a dirt road entrance that led us to a lonely elephant.  My heart crumbled as I witnessed a beautiful beast tied down with rope around one leg.  He was clearly stimulated as I approached and he reached out to me with his trunk through the bars.  I touched his outstretched trunk and he grabbed my hand and pulled me close to him.  I was a bit spooked–they really can grab your hand hard–and pulled back.  It was a connection but seemed sad and desperate, not happy and playful.  This is the same connection that I will make with many children in the upcoming days.  I immediately reached down and began to feed him with the hay that was on the ground, just outside his reach.  He took it from me and ate.  I choked back my tears and photographed him twice…for me.  Hussein was all puffed up and proud that he delivered an elephant to me to photograph.  I couldn’t hide my discomfort at the sight of a tied up elephant but I was careful not to judge or condemn.  Then he pointed to another elephant who he said was very sick when she came and is now very healthy.  I smiled and told him how good it was to know she was being taken care of and allowed to live outside of a horrible circus now.

Entrance to Elephant Rescue in Uttar Pradesh
Reaching out through the bars...
Reaching out through the bars…
Sad eyes
Sad eyes

Anxious to leave, I asked if we could return to town.  Hussein decided that I should now see the “mini/baby Taj” to sight see.  I was mildly irritated because he clearly had an agenda–he got out of the taxi and pointed to the entrance of the “baby Taj” (as he called it) and said, “Crystal, you go take photo of baby Taj” while he met with some friends outside the gate.  Ok, Hussein, you are clearly the boss.

Quite pretty actually

I attached a few photos of things that inspired me on this walk around a beautiful garden and the baby Taj.  It was lovely and I didn’t regret paying for entry.  Quite frankly, I was happy to be walking on my own for an hour without Hussein barking at me to take photos or a stranger trying to sell me something or beg me for money.

Yesterday and today
Yesterday and today
Men walking
Men walking
The detail is impressive
Me at the Baby Taj
Me at the Baby Taj
Flowers at the Baby Taj
Flowers at the Baby Taj
Flowers are gifts used in prayer
Flowers are gifts used in prayer

After all this, I needed a break and I welcomed the opportunity to ditch Hussein for a few hours and eat lunch in my lovely, truly air-conditioned hotel room.  We agreed to meet at 1700 to photograph the Taj at sunset (from a garden spot he told me about).

The gardens proved to be quite beautiful and a perfect spot to see the Taj Mahal.  I hate to admit it but it’s just a beautiful building to me.  Nothing more, nothing less but I certainly do not get the “wondrous” connection that many others do.  I’m much more enamored by living, breathing people. You can see by my cheesy photo that I indulged Hussein by pretending to “hold” the Taj in my fingers (yes, he insisted) before leaving for yet a few more shopping excursions that I did not request.  As all taxi drivers here do, he drove me to places that his friends owned in hopes that he would bring them business and they would owe him a favor.  Sorry, Dude, you caught me at the worst time…not only am I in the middle of an overseas move, I have recently embraced a no-clutter mantra in my life and have chosen to live more and buy/own less.  I’m proud of myself for holding my ground in spite of all the determined salesmen who tried to impress me with their wares.  I returned to my hotel with NOTHING!  Success.  As we are driving back to the hotel, he asks me if my hair color is natural and when I told him, yes, he replied, “are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure, is yours?” I quipped.  “How old are you, Crystal?””How old are you, Hussein?”  As my English friend would say, this guy has more neck than a giraffe!

When he returned me to the hotel, he informed me that I did not tip him enough when he dropped me off–asswad!  Seriously!?  We never negotiated a price for the day (another rookie mistake) so I gave him more than I paid the driver in Delhi and then some…so, I told him that I would pay more tomorrow if he picked me up and made sure I got train tickets to Banda.  He agreed.  After that hair color comment, he is lucky he got any tip!

It's fun to watch another photog shooting
It’s fun to watch another photog shooting
People are walking with sticks used to make homes in front of one of the 7 Wonders of the World
Bodies are burned and sent out into the river to float away...
Bodies are burned and sent out into the river to float away…
One huff and puff and this home is gone
One huff and puff and this home is gone
They steal your heart, until they chase you down for money...
They steal your heart, until they chase you down for money…
Fun for a few rupees
Fun for a few rupees
These kids have the most infectious smiles
These kids have the most infectious smiles
On the way to the Garden near the Taj Mahal
On the way to the Garden near the Taj Mahal
Tailor Shop (one of the nicer ones I saw)
Tailor shop?
KMS Tailors…?
Last night in Agra
Last Night in Agra
Holding the Taj
Yes, I did that
Selfie with Hussein
Best breakfast EVER


Train to Agra

Agra Day 2-2
Room for 6, sure!

What a relief, the train car is filled with nice, helpful people (I swear I’m not just saying this and I’m not being paid by the tourism bureau). As I board, there is a family in the sleeper car I am assigned to (actually, it is called 3rd class, which apparently means 1st class but not exactly “uber class” because I have to share—very complicated). The “Papa” is akin to my perception of “Tevya” in Fiddler on the Roof, everyone knows him, everyone assumes he knows what he was talking about and everyone seems to like him. He is a huge form in white cotton who sits like a sumo wrestler, with an enormous belly between his widely spread legs. He speaks loud and talks fast.  His wife is in my seat but I hardly care–I am just happy to be out of the station waiting area and on the correct train. The large Papa left with his entourage before the train departed Delhi station so I quickly sit in my assigned spot. I’d like to imagine they stayed just long enough to assure me I am in the right place.

Then, an older couple and their granddaughter entered the space and sat down in the 6-person seating area with me. They are lovely people. They are kind to speak English to me and even offered me some of their picnic dinner of homemade chapattis. I politely decline as I was not hungry and did not want to take from their small provisions. As the train begins to move, another couple squeezes in (it is getting cozy now) and they seem a bit stuffy but nice enough. At this point, I was just happy that no one smelled.

Agra Day 2-1
Good-bye Delhi

We arrived in Agra station and I immediately find a taxi stand and hired a car to take me to my hotel. My driver, Hussein, insists on taking me around town the entire day tomorrow and I agreed since he spoke English, has a clean, air-conditioned car and seems friendly. Why not? Hussein is short, stalky and reminds me of a used car salesman or a character I’d see on a Seinfeld episode because he says things like “no hurry chicken curry”…but I have no plans aside from photographing the Taj Mahal for my grandmother so why not.  Hussein promised to take me to photograph some elephants at a local rescue tomorrow in addition to the Taj, I’m very excited to photograph them and the people who tend to these beautiful beasts. They were apparently rescued from being circus animals; I hope I’m able to share the good work of these good people.

The Gateway Hotel (http://www.thegatewayhotels.com/fatehabad-road-agra/gallery.html) is quite fancy. Since I arrived off-season (because no one with any sense would come to India during this heat wave but a rookie like me) the hotel was nearly empty so they upgraded me to an executive room with a view of the Taj. What I didn’t expect was the pounding music from the discotheque next door but no matter, my cocktail of Benadryl and Melatonin will knock me out with no problem. I am attaching a photo of my view. One of my girlfriends said that she really noticed the contrast of the dilapidated buildings in the foreground with this white marble “wonder of the world” as Agra’s backdrop. It is this inequality that I continue to notice throughout my journey.

India Trip — On the way

My eyes are burning and my mind longs for sleep–rest, actually just rest.  We’ve been going non-stop for over a month now…maybe longer.  I’m pretty sure I could sleep for 2 days straight.  The move is hectic and confusing (our standard shit) and I have hardly enjoyed finishing my degree after years of hard work and months of stress…now India.  Now time to slow down now, my flight leaves tomorrow.

Amsterdam is a great place for a layover.  The Dutch are so perfectly chill, the airport is clean, not crowded and the coffee is stout.  Perfect.  I have a comfortable 2 hour layover, just the perfect amount of time to find my gate and window shop.  Tulips and wooden shoes–what’s not to love?

I watched a documentary about the mysterious photographer Vivian Maier on the way to Amsterdam.  Very interesting but I almost wished I hadn’t learned about what an asshole she was to everyone.  Too bad she wasn’t just a reclusive talent…instead of an abusive nanny.  Her work is still spectacular and it made me long for a camera like hers (Rollieflex) so could more discreetly capture street scenes since you don’t have hold the camera up to your face.  If I had that camera now, I’d photograph the woman across from me now.  Her flesh colored socks are wedged between her toes in her black and gold flip flops.  It looks uncomfortable.  I’d also shoot the little boy wearing gold bracelets who is squirming in his mothers arms.  Just like all moms, she is trying to keep her crying baby happy with a variety of snacks–he is holding a small pretzel now.  Then, I’d love to capture the gorgeous, little girl, happily sitting on her mom’s lap.  She has huge chocolate eyes and the whites look extra white next to her caramel colored skin.  She is beautiful and reminds me of a tiny version of a good friend (which makes me like her more).  The woman with the flip flops just removed her shoes but the wedge remains…this makes me smile.

I hope I am able to capture everything I want on this trip to India.  It will mean getting out of my comfort zone a bit but that’s the whole purpose of this trip–to jump into a new career.  To be free and happy…to follow a desire and make it happen.