Saturday, March 25, 2017


One of the wonderful things about travel with OAT, is the many off itinerary things we do. After leaving Agra Fort, we have an all day travel to another UNESCO site. But, first, we visit Agra Marble Company. The boss who is seated explains the process to us.

The workers are from Iran, he tells us. These jobs are handed down from father to son, or brother to brother. It is a dying art, he explains. People don’t want to do this hard work anymore.

Cutting a gouge in the marble by scraping it with a sharp tool over and over again. Then the glass or pearl inlay is set in and cemented with a mixture of lime, water and and finely ground marble.

The glass is cut.

It’s outlined and assembled on the table top. Then the artist makes the cuts.

Each worker has a different skill.

The men would glance up at him furtively then at us, as though they were frightened of their boss. It was very noticeable. The boss even commented on it, saying something on the order of …they look at me as though I was going to beat them or something.  I suspect he wasn’t a kind boss.

Cutters permanently damage their fingers from the work. The cutter was asked to show us his little finger which gets stiff and unmovable after years of cutting. His index finger is scarred by a permanent dent in it where the blade is held and pushed into the hard surface.

The end product is beautiful, as you can imagine. This is the small two foot table I bought.

It was shipped to me in this cloth covered box. The box had reams of tape and those hard plastic fasteners. Then rope that my housemate and I had to remove. It took the two of us 45 minutes to get it out of the box. The stand was boxed the same way. Once the cardboard boxes were removed, the pieces were  enclosed in a heavy, coated blue box. Whew! What a job.

Because it was election day, the hotel personnel removed all wine and beer from our in room refrigerators. Drinking is against the law on election day. Ranvir provided a small get-together in his room with snacks and some rum with cola.

Theo drank  sprite or  lemonade.

Bands, bill boards, groups of people with signs-all part of  electioneering going on in the streets. I got one blurry picture of a band.
Pictures from a fast moving bus or train, don’t turn out well.

And one good one at a temporary stop. They gave an impromptu little concert.

Smoking is banned in India. It is really nice not to deal with second hand smoke and what a benefit for people to spend their money on food instead of addictive nicotine.  I saw two people smoking, both times in small towns. The scofflaws.
Other pictures I missed, students taking a test in a large field so no one can copy from one another. Dead cows on the railroad tracks.  I also did a search today for population figures. As I’ve blogged I began to question Mamju Sharmi’s statement that India is 80% Muslim and 11% Hindu. I re-read my notes and her statements. I think it was just a slip on her part. It is just the opposite. About 80% Hindu and 11% Muslim.  Tomorrow a two hour train ride and a five hour drive to Khajuraho.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


A shimmering Taj Mahal in the early morning. When we visited the Taj, our guide was a man named Bibi which means dear one. The brochure of our trip did not match what was being said to us by Bibi. He told us about the building of the Taj Mahal by Emperor Jangir who built it as a memorial to his beloved wife, Agumam Bimo. (Phonetic spelling.)  She married at 19 and gave birth to 14 babies. She accompanied him everywhere, even into battles.  She died in his tent from a hemorrhage giving birth to another child. She was 39 years old. She asked two things of him, build me something beautiful and take care of my parents. She was Hindu. Jangir locked himself in a room for a week, then searched for a place to build a monument to the wife he loved so much. He chose the spot on the Yamuna River and began the building. When his sons grew to manhood, his ambitious middle son killed his older brothers and seized control. He put his father in a separate palace across the river where he could always view the Taj Mahal, but he was not permitted to leave.
Today's Taj Mahal is a tribute to the son, Khurram, who  named him self Shah Jahan, which means King of The Word. He finished the building. It is his wife Queen Mumtaz Mahal who is enshrined there. He aggressively protected his domain as head of the Mughal Empire. He forbade Muslim/Hindu marriages and encouraged destruction of Hindu monuments.  He was a soldier but his real talent was in the palaces he built. He was responsible for the jewel encrusted Peacock Throne which was later stolen and moved to Iran.  He designed the Red Fort, and the Jama Masjid Mosque.  ShahJahanabad, one of the seven cities of Dehli, he named for himself. He could look down upon the city from his Red Fort and enjoy his endorsement as King of the World.

The Agra Fort is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is built on the Yamuna River, the seat of power of successive  Mughal Emperors. We crossed a bridge over a moat to enter this huge, sprawling place. It is located a couple of miles north of the Taj Mahal.

The moat no longer holds water except for rain it catches. A woman warrior died trying to make the jump from the fort to the wall you see. Her horse's front hooves hit the wall and it fell back on top of her, its  back broken. She died trying to get out from under the horse.

Windows are decorated in different styles.

It is unclear to me if people can see through them like stained glass.

The fort presented several different architectural styles, most likely built in stages, or rebuilt for the satisfaction of the current ruler.

A tomb sits before this building of white marble arches. We bypassed it for the main, most decorated palace inside the fort.

The four sided buildings face a square. The area now planted in British style formal gardens was once the playground of the concubines, their ladies in waiting, and their eunuchs. The last Emperor to live here was Mahadji Shinde.  He had 60 or more concubines, I've forgotten the number. He did not have relations with all of them, they were political alliances. Wealthy Emperors were glad to have their daughters under protection of a powerful Emperor. And the Emperor was guaranteed that his neighboring Emperor would not make war against him.

The queen lived in this building which had unique methods to stay cool in the searing Agra heat.

Open doors and windows facing the river provided some ventilation. The decorations are another incomparable feature of this palace.

The grates facing outside collect every little breeze and it cools as it passes over metal. At night, candles or a fire light up little mirrored pieces embedded in the walls and ceilings.

This ceiling had water pumped into four little nozzles in the ceiling creating a cooling mist as they spun around. Done without electricity.

A clever device, that looks like a shelf or storage place high on the wall. Notice how deep the adobe wall is which also helps keep things cool.

On the opposite side, it is actually an open vent from one room to the other. It lets in light from the lighter room as well. Everywhere, there was water from the river for multiple uses.

The Emperor's quarters sat opposite the Queen's Quarters.  The inside sandstone walls had a beauty of their own. Lavish carving to greet the eye.

A column foot.

A door with a drain at the bottom to shed water which was run through the building in narrow canals.

The palace had entrances on all four sides of the building.

Such beauty given a closer look.

This is the entrance that we used, the main entrance across the moat.

Every little detail is there to please the senses.

Details easily seen through the camera lens. If you walk in and out everyday, would you even notice something so high above your head?  I guess that is why they are wonders of the world.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


We take an early train to Bharatpur. Distances across India are vast. From Bharatpur, another long bumpy ride by bus to our hotel. Tourists travel the distance to see Fort Agra and the Taj Mahal. Transportation is quite reasonable on these trains, but Ranvir tells us we are on an expensive train for upper middle class people.

It has a toilet and food service. That is, snacks and drinks to enjoy in your seat.

Sleeper cars cover longer distances with a dining room and other amenities. Economy cars, the general population uses, are bare bones. Mainly because patrons steal the light bulbs, cut off the padded seating, remove any piece of wood or metal they can pry loose, no curtains or shades remain, fixtures of any kind disappear. Even the floors have holes in them where boards have been removed.  While we laugh, Ranvir reminds us that poor people think it is their right to take from the government. He adds that they are beginning to crack down on such things and provide better cars for them. He describes families with a bunch of kids, sacks of food and maybe a live chicken.

A grand hotel with over 2,000 rooms is our reward after a long day of travel. It’s nice to have luxury hotels to stay in, but this one was my least favorite.

Shiny, clean and beautiful, but you walk miles to your room. The restaurants and lobby are sandwiched between the upper and lower residential floors. I have no sense of direction and have to memorize each left or right turn in an ordinary hotel. This one is a huge challenge.

The elevators are inconveniently located and using the marble steps the intuitive way to get to your destination. As new groups come in, hotel staffers position themselves in the hallways to give directions. Apparently, I am not the only one who has problems finding my way around.

But I got my art fix.

I knew I had to pass about 30 paintings and pieces of art before I turned left.

When I saw this painting it was my set of stairs.

And pass the drum, before I found our room.

When I passed the phone, I knew where to turn downstairs to the dining room.

The grounds around the building are just as vast as the hotel itself. Beautiful and green and spacious. I saw only workmen, never anyone from the hotel enjoying it. If I had a week to stay, I wouldn’t need the cues.  I changed money at this hotel and they wouldn’t take small bills like tens or fives. Twenties or a fifty, only. Their limit, $5o a day. Then they gave me mostly small denomination rupees and apologized.  I was a bit discombobulated here as I complain a bit tongue in cheek. And, as always the food is excellent.
We visited Fort Agra before the Taj Mahal, but I’m posting my pictures of the Taj Mahal taken by a professional photographer.

The Taj Mahal is now one of the seven wonders of the world since so many of the ancient wonders of the world are gone, such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Temple of Artemis and the Statue of Zeus  all destroyed. If you click on the links, it will take you to Wikipedia where you can see and learn about these magnificent pieces.  The only ancient wonder of the world to survive is the Pyramid of Giza.
Look at the picture carefully and you can see just how huge this beautiful building is. The people are like little midgets. The Taj was abandoned and deteriorated for many years. Vandals chipped marble and removed tiles from areas. Some places inside have not, and never will be restored. The outside is being fully restored.

It was mobbed when we visited. Wall to wall people, crowding to get inside with lines waiting a turn to get in. It was a crush. The towers were engineered with a slight cant toward the outside of the domed center in case they were to fall and crash, they would not damage the main building. When you stand in front of one tower, it is so perfectly aligned, you cannot see the exact same tower behind it. Twenty thousand workers toiled 22 years to build it. The verses of Holy Koran are inscribed on it.

This  group is single women on the trip. Behind, Diane and myself. Front, Sandy, Ellen, Kathy and Trish. Notice the tiny figures on the Taj veranda. You get a better idea how huge this building is. It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a tribute to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal in 1648 A.D. Their remains are encased in flowery decorated Centotaphs hidden from our view by a mesh screen. We could  peek into the darkened room, but could see nothing with clarity. Better to buy the post card.

Our group from left to right: Standing, Hugo, Adam, Kris, Chuck, Pam, Otto, Paul Theo, Carol, Hazel. Seated: Diane, Sandy, Ellen, Kathy, and Me. On the outside of the building, are marble panels, tiles and inlay marble of great craftsmanship. The towers, too, have intricate patterns. And high above, the  inscriptions. A wonder of the world. How did their architects learn to build so well?

Saturday, March 18, 2017


Yesterday, our group arrived at this couple’s home and began helping me cut up vegetables. The woman would catch my eye and hold up her hand for enough carrots. She shook her head for the peas not to go in yet. Then indicated silently when the peas were added to the pot. She began the clean-up while the this typical Indian dish was cooked.

It surprised me that the husband directed the cooking action. Theo is adding spices. Pam is stirring. Notice the husband has leather shoes.

Ranvir told us that every household that cooks for itself has one of these treasures. Curry, cumin, turmeric, coriander, cardamon, cumin seed, and mustard seed. Sometimes ground cloves, ground cinnamon and basil seed.

Families cook outside in a home-made adobe stove. In the pan goes mustard oil first. The vegetables are carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, red onion, potatoes, peppers and peas. Stir fried first, a bit of water later to steam until done.

The wife cooked the naan on that same stove with a special pan of some kind. Her recipe is millet and water. We all tasted the food by scooping up the vegetables with a  piece of naan. Yummy.

The father gave us a tour of his property where he grows most of the food for this extended household. He has guava trees and another tree from which you use the twigs to brush your teeth. I’ve already forgotten the name of it.  I carried a branch around with me for two days to see what it was like. It has an alum feel and the broken end of a small branch acts like toothpicks and floss. (Indian people use regular toothbrushes.)

Using well water,  one daughter-in-law  hand washes clothes.  Each married son has his own house and an out-door bathroom with a flush toilet flowing into a common septic system. The toilets and septic system a benefit of Grand Circle.   Even though he isn’t as poor as most in this area, Grand Circle want people to adopt better hygiene. If Grand Circle hadn’t stepped in, they would simply use the ground and bury their waste. He sets a modern example for his kids, grandchildren and neighbors around him. Another form of education.

The kids have ample room to run around and play in a clean area. It is typical of older children to help with younger children in Indian families.

Someone made a rustic jungle gym.  Strong poles are tied together for the kids to swing and climb upon.

A group picture before we leave. Carol and Kathy hold up samples of the wife’s colorful clothing.

The family bids us goodbye.
They have a cow for milk.

From their long driveway, we see a beautiful girl with a baby. Ranvir speculates that she is probably 15 or 16 years old. Typical age for poor, uneducated girls to marry.

Our next visit in the village is a Women’s Cooperative where we will eat lunch. This woman, Joy, a dietician decided to help one family, and never left India.

These women are from a warrior tribe. Their husbands hunted tigers and leopards and sold the skins illegally. During a government crackdown, they were arrested and imprisoned. With their husbands in jail, these wives had no skills to make a living except prostitution. How would they survive?

At the Cooperative, they learn new skills. This gentleman shows me a block printed bed cover.
We’ve seen how it is done. A student carefully practices on a small square.

Some learn to sew. I buy three pillow covers and a lovely embroidered purse. Prices are a bit higher here than on the street, but still a bargain.

Men help the women, they keep track of the money, some  sew and/or maintain the machines and buildings. They also have a flush toilet on the premises.

Illeka is my lunch mate and she teaches me arabic  names of food we are eating and I give her the English words. Illeka is talkative and can  speak  somewhat garbled English and French.

Kathy has her picture taken with the women she bought things from.  Illeka indicated she wanted her picture taken with us.

But we misunderstood her. She wanted her picture taken with me with something I bought that she made. She showed me her craft and I obliged by buying this little hat hair pin. She was really sweet and charming.
Tomorrow, we take a long train ride to Bharatpur.

Friday, March 17, 2017


When we arrived at the school, the children were sitting on the rooftop doing morning meditation. Ahmmm, with palms up, thumb and forefinger clasped, eyes closed. After which they gave a pledge to the flag and sang a song.

This little boy and girl did a song with gestures, then repeated it in English. The school is supported by the parent company of OAT, Grand Circle. Part of our travel money, funds projects in the countries in which we travel.

There was a question and answer session.

Carol used her puppet to talk to the kids. A big hit. As they transferred from the roof to classrooms, the little ones would say good-bye to the puppet as though it was real. The older kids know but are just as delighted.

The classrooms are small and crowded with two or three kids to a desk.

The shy one.

Kathy charmed them and let them see their pictures in her phone.

We don't know what this gesture means, but kids everywhere in India use it. And they constantly move. If we aim a camera at our kids, they know to stop moving and even pose.

They are proud of their work and love school. The parents are poor here, but they must pay a little. The parents understand education can be a way out of poverty for them.

Of course, Theo was a hit with the kids. They'd keep asking him to come to their room, over and over. He found out that some boys were older than he is.

They challenged him to juggle a bottle, and of course, he could.

Behind Theo you see kids on the floor with no desks. Just a rug on the cement floor.

The kids carry a backpack with personal belongings but nowhere to store them. These girls are sisters.

Their play area is pitifully small. About a 24 ' x 24' foot slab in front of the school stairs. And, as you leave the school, this is what you see. A slum.

This man is a heavy supporter of the school. He works there and lives in this poor village. He owns land.  Ranvir chose vegetables from government food bags. (He paid) Ranvir is taking us to visit this man's home and family and get a cooking lesson. Since I had mentioned I'd like to ride one of the little motors we see all over India,  Ranvir asked if I could ride back to the house with him. I hopped on, we took off. The rest of the group walked.

When we arrived, she didn't look too pleased for him to show up with me. I saw what turned out to be a daughter-in-law nursing a baby. A teen age boy standing on a stone inside the house in his underwear, then putting on his outer clothes. I didn't want to offend by taking pictures so I asked for water to wash the veggies. The husband set me up with buckets on a beautiful slab of marble outside. He brought pans to rinse and a pan for the leaves and discarded pea pods. And a pan for the cut vegetables. Our cooking lesson tomorrow, maybe. Tomorrow is the St. Patricks Day Parade in Murphys.