Yasen from Khajuraho

My train is set to arrive in Agra any time now so I begin to double check all of my departure information. As I am comparing my ticket information with the updated arrivals on the marquee a man walks up to me and says “Let me see your ticket.”

Unfortunately, my recent experience with Hussein has really put me off Indian men for the moment and has made me feel defensive so I reply, “No,” but with a polite smile.

But he insists, “I help, where are you going?”

I relent because I realize, he’s trying to be nice and help the tourist get on the correct train so I oblige and respond, “I am going to Mohaba and I see that my train is coming in a few minutes, shukria.” Now you can leave me be, I am thinking to myself.

“MOHABA? Why you go to Mohaba? Nothing in Mohaba!” He is clearly shocked and wondering why the hell a white woman would be traveling to such a remote town, deep inside one of the most corrupt states of India alone. However, I am confident. I have told myself that I am a documentary photographer on a mission to capture the images and stories of the women who make up the Gulabi Gang. I am a huge believer in affirmations and this whole “I am a documentary photographer” affirmation is my latest. You, strange man, have no idea what my plans are and wouldn’t understand. However, instead of saying all that I simply tell him, “Yes, Mohaba, then I go to Banda.”

Now his face screws up uncomfortably and he cocks his head a bit and says, “Banda? Nothing in Banda. You come to Khajuraho, this is my village, very nice, very clean.”

This is just what I need, another bossy man trying to push me around India. Sigh. He continues, “How you get to Banda? What in Banda?”

“I have a hotel in Mohaba and then I take a taxi to Banda tomorrow.” I tell him as our train comes into the station and we begin to walk towards the train cars.

“What your seat? Let me see your ticket.” He demands gently. So, I show him that I have no seat assignment yet in hopes that he can help me figure that out.

“I help, give me ticket.” He takes my ticket and starts walking on to the train so I follow close behind. I would be less than happy if I lost my ticket after all the trouble it took to acquire it.

He finds the conductor who reminds me of the “Papa” I met on my train from Delhi to Agra—this makes me realize that “Papa” was probably a train conductor at one point too. He is also large in stature, friendly and everyone buzzed around him like a swarm of young bees. The conductor and the man with my ticket begin to speak in Hindi and I have no idea what they are saying other than the man who is holding my ticket is clearly concerned that I am going to Mohaba and keeps mentioning Khajuraho to the conductor. Then, the conductor gets up and walks away, carrying his gigantic book of dot-matrix printed paper in one hand and a sweaty handkerchief in the other that he continually uses to wipe his brow and neck.

The man hands me back my ticket and tells me to sit down while we wait for the conductor to return. I am strangely calm and not the least bit annoyed. This man has good energy, he makes me feel relaxed but I am still a bit edgy after bossy, Hussein. However, I feel confident that I’m on the correct train and am sticking with my plan, for now.

He finally introduces himself as “Yasen” (pronounced Yaseen) and I tell him my name is Kristin as we shake hands.

Once again, Yasen expresses concern over me going to Mohaba. He thinks this is a mistake and continues to try to persuade me to come to his village.

“Mohaba no good. Not safe, why you go there? You arrive very late, in dark, no taxi in Mohaba. You come to Khajuraho, my village, very nice, very clean. I find you good hotel, Kristal. I work at good hotel in Khajuraho 10 years.” He says.

“Thank you, Yasen, I saw that Mohaba has a hotel and I am only going there for work. I am a photographer and I am meeting with Sampat Pal of the Gulabi Gang and she lives near Banda.”

He smiles, “Gulabi Gang?! You come to Khajuraho! I take you to see Gulabi Gang.” Then, he picks up his cell phone and calls someone to tell them what I just said. I’m wondering who this guy is and what he knows about the Gulabi Gang. I am happy that he knows of them and their “take no shit” attitude towards men—at least he knows that I respect them. The more he talks about how bad Mohaba is, the more I begin to doubt my plan. For the first time, I am worried about my safety and thinking that it might not be such a great idea after all. Our train arrives in Mohaba around 3AM, this is not a good time to be alone in a strange place that a local says is “not safe.”

Yasen hangs up his cell phone and tells me, “Kristal, my sister work for NGO in Khajuraho, you come to Khajuraho, she take you to see her NGO then we take you to meet Gulabi Gang.”

Screw it, “Ok, I come to Khajuraho!” I smile and he laughs and responds, “Good! I talk to man to change ticket, you wait.”

I guess, I’m going to a town called Khajuraho (never heard of it) with a strange man whom I just met in hopes of finding a hotel and eventually meeting with Sampat Pal. Why don’t I feel more nervous about all this?

Today the Taj Mahal and a Radical Change of Plans

Agra Day 3-5

Today I am going to see the Taj Mahal simply to take a photo of it for my grandmother. It’s the one place on Earth she has yet to see and I figured it was an easy stop for me since it’s halfway between Delhi and Banda.

Hussein dropped me off outside the gates of the Taj and I was happy to be free of him. I told him that I would get a rickshaw back to the train station when I was done here, good-bye, Hussein. I had to walk about a quarter mile to the entrance from where he dropped me off.  It was another sweltering hot day but this time I had to carry my big backpack and my day pack so I was dripping with sweat by the time I reached the line for the tickets. As I waited in line, a friendly, young man asked me if I wanted him to guide me around. He showed me some arbitrary “tour guide” badge and assured me he was on staff as a guide. He also promised me that I wouldn’t have to wait in this long line if I hired him—sounds good to me, Bro. First thing he had me do was dump the big pack in a locker and I couldn’t be happier to do so. He also warned, “do not leave anything valuable in your pack, it might get stolen,” oh great, everything I currently possess is in that fricken pack….but I’m willing to take my chances since I will likely die of heatstroke if I keep it with me.

As we walked into the Taj gates it broke my heart to see all of the emaciated horses with open wounds pulling carts. I wanted to feed them and give them water—a little kindness for all of their hard work, I hate seeing animals suffer.

My guide went by the nickname “B” since most American’s can’t pronounce his name.  He was a very laid back guy–very easy going and friendly.  I liked him.  He confessed that he was hung-over from drinking too much whiskey at a party last night.  “Too much party” he said.  Ha!  Don’t worry, B, I was in my 20s once too…been there done that!  This guy wasn’t lazy though, he said he woke up every morning early enough to tend to his family farm and sell produce at the market before coming to the Taj to be a tour guide.  I figured he needed a little down time…who doesn’t?  I think he was relieved that I didn’t care too much about learning all the details of the Taj…I was killing time and I already got grandma’s photo so I let him go early since I really didn’t need an escort.  He took off and I went to find a cool place to have lunch and sit for a while.

Like I said before, the Taj is just a fancy tomb to me, I saw it—check; I took a picture for grandma—check; I sweat my ass off another day in India—check!

I had dozens of requests for my photo here, just like at the Red Fort in Delhi so I obliged with the request that I take a bunch of selfies in return, these make me smile. I am becoming a lot more comfortable with my surroundings, the people, learning the polite words and most of all loving the food (it’s beyond delicious).

I return to the Agra Cantt station hoping to confirm my seat on the train. My train leaves at 1900(ish) and arrives in Mohaba 0300 but I don’t have a seat assignment, only a general ticket. I’m told to wait, again. (Change 1, there are NO trains that stop in Banda so I must stop in Mohaba and catch a taxi to Banda.)

Flies, lots and lots of flies. As I wait, I sit in an air-conditioned section of the station surrounded by flies and the percussive snap of the steady SWAP! In vain, a man tries to quell the omnipresent pest—silly really…all they need are bats!

So far, my train is running so I should be out of here in less than an hour. It’s late (naturally) but that is ok, as long as it’s still expected. Just when I thought I was alone, Hussein shows up to bid me farewell. He is like a fucking fly and me without my swatter…

“Crystal, you hug me?” he asks with his arms outstretched, gross. “Good-bye, Hussein” I say as I lean in with a smile and a brief pat on the back like you would hug your great grandmother…gingerly and from a distance. Now, I am officially ready to depart Agra–forever.

Just when I thought I had a plan, I meet Yasen and everything changes…

Agra Cantt Station…I’m looking at the interesting old man in melon colored cotton…but didn’t know I’d meet Yasen (in the maroon shirt) in 5 mins
Silly attempt at a selfie with the camel…very undignified
Cute kid and me
Agra Day 3-4
“everyone else is doing it”
My get-a-way rickshaw!!
Screw You Hussein…I’m off!

TajSelfieGuy TajSelfieMan Agra Day 3-2 Agra Day 3-3

I Have a 10% Chance of Finding My Backbone

“Madame, there is a 10% chance you will be able to get tickets for your train,” says the lovely, young woman at the hotel. “Um, does that mean it is possible or not possible?” I ask as if I’m replaying a scene from Dumb and Dumber. “Yes, there is a 10% possibility.”

So, this whole percentage thing became a trend during my India trip. It is hilariously maddening…70% chance you will not go anywhere on the train today, 10% chance that you will get a train ticket and 20% chance that you are screwed. But, they are always VERY polite and deliver your percentage with a smile.

My grand plan and reason for this entire trip was to travel to a tiny town near Banda (Uttar Pradesh—the poorest and most corrupt state in all of India), find Sampat Pal (leader of the famed Gulabi Gang), photograph her and her people (whomever I can get my lens on) and talk to them about their efforts to stand up for women’s rights and fight child marriage. In my ignorance, I assumed I would simply take a train to the town of Banda (largest town near her village), find a hotel (there was one listed on the internet “above the bank”) then ask around about her and hire a taxi to take me to her. The only smart thing I did was securing an interview with her via email. She welcomed me to meet with her so I figured the rest was just details…silly girl.

I should have realized my plan was faulty when the hotel concierge and Hussein (my taxi driver) had to see a map of U.P. to learn where Banda was located and if a train even went to this tiny town. I was sure I had a good plan and was determined to get out of Agra and away from Hussein today no matter where the train went. So, Hussein took me to the train station and insisted he had a friend in town that could buy me a ticket and NOT to talk to the ticket agent at the train station without him. He took me to the train station and dropped me off with strict instructions to wait for him to return in an hour or so. Yeah, whatever.

Sometimes, the best part of being a woman is connecting with other women. I waited in a terribly crowded line at the station with pushy men constantly shoving their noses to the front of the line with a sense of urgency akin to a child who had to pee. Chivalry died at the threshold of the station, trust me. I pushed my way forward and didn’t allow these wankers to butt in line in front of me; however an Indian woman, who was behind me line, saw these guys buzzing around the ticket window so she barked at the clerk who was serving them and from what I could tell, she said something about ‘these assholes jumping ahead of us in line when clearly this woman (me) is a tourist and has priority and I am an old woman who should also have priority!’ I gave her a knowing smile and she returned it and we were let to the front of the line. I wanted to hug her.

The ticket agent sold me a ticket to Banda but seemed confused why the hell I was going there. He also told me he was selling me a “sleeper class” ticket (I just said, “good class, please” because I had to be in air conditioning or I would die in an overcrowded car). The hitch was that this train did not leave until the following day so I have to go back to my hotel and check back in now. I was hoping to make a quick get-a-way before Hussein returned for me. No such luck.

I bolted out of the station and slipped through the myriad taxi stands and found the first rickshaw driver I could see. He agreed to take me to my hotel for 100 rupees (about $1.50) and just as I heaved my backpack into his rickshaw Hussein buzzes by on a motorcycle and spots me. Shit! I am sick of this guy already, I’m starting to feel bullied by this guy—I’ve overpaid him, he’s taken me to far too many shops owned by his friends and quite frankly, he’s on my nerves. But, I don’t want trouble so I chickened out and relented. He speaks with the rickshaw driver (I’m sure he told him that I was his customer and that I made a mistake by climbing in with him). Mother fuck, I don’t want to deal with this guy but I know that I’m leaving tomorrow and will NEVER have to see him again, right?! (Another reason NEVER to return to Agra.) So, Hussein picks up my pack, walks it over to his car and loads it up. He is not happy that I bought my own ticket and doubts I’ll ever make it to Banda tomorrow since I did my own transaction. Then, he says, “Crystal, I take you to better hotel, cheaper, you don’t need to stay at such a fancy place.” “I don’t know, Hussein, I am happy with the hotel I stayed at” I respond. “You remember what I say about lassi? You like lassi because you trust me. I take you to see elephants and you like lassi so you know I know what is good. This is good hotel, nice with pool.” Sigh…ok. We’ll see.

It’s not bad (it was clean) but it was not nearly as nice as the place I was staying and the food did not compare. Also, the internet was not free (as I hoped) so that was annoying. However, I figured it was a quick way to dump Hussein again…or so I thought.

“Crystal, I take you to Taj Mahal tomorrow, before your train leaves. You have all day to wait.” Hussein orders. “Ok, pick me up at 10:00.” I cower.

I am weak and pathetic and if my sister told me this story I would scream…and then find Hussein and punch him in the face. But, when you are a woman traveling alone, you make choices that you might not always make…you are perhaps a risk taker and a compromiser at the same time, right? I spent my entire day figuring out this train situation and now I am sweaty again and ready to eat and sleep. Tomorrow–the Taj and then the train to Banda. Adventure is out there!

“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.