Sunday, October 19, 2008

Some Faces of India

Some Faces of India
Whenever I brought out my camera the locals wanted to have their pictures taken. Only the women were occasionally shy. This group of young men insisted that I photograph them. We were on the beach of Chennai, that used to be called Madras.

The picture behind this charming lady is of the god Gnasha and the girl on his lap is almost as charmig as the real girl.

A girls in a tourist shop in Tamil Nadu.

Tourists enjoying the 8th century Shore Temple near Mamallapuram

The markets were always rich with people and color.

The people we passed on the roadside were friendly and always smiling

This is a woman from the Bishnoi people who welcomed us into her village and showed us her home.

There were camels everywhere in Rajisthan because of the vast loads they can carry, which can be as much as a third of a ton in spite of their less than pleasing personalities. This young camel herder in the Great Indian Desert made up for all the charm the camels don't have.

A man with the pipe of his hooker across his lap in the Mehrangarth Fort in Jodhpur.

I have at home a couple of antique irons. They are the kind that my grandmother might have put in the fire to heat before pressing the cloths. That is what this man is using. He is also standing in the hot sun while he is ironing. Jaipur

These men have a slightly cooler profession. They are using a carved block of wood that they dip in the tray of ink on his right, and then stamp on the fabric. I could see no overlap and the pattern appeared continuous. Jaipur


The man pictured below is making a knotted carpet. Faster than I could follow his movements he threaded wool between the white virticle cords, knotted it and sliced it off with the curved knife he is holding. Jaipur

Women are often seen performing hard manual labor. The one below is part of a crew in the Jantar Mantar Observatory in Jaipur.

Women maintance workers carrying baskets of sand on their heads in Jantar Mantar Observatory in Jaipur

Children visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hurricane Ike, Texas

Not all my travels are to the far ends of the earth and not all of them are glamorous and exotic. I am a volunteer with the American Red Cross and the past month was quite a deal for me. It was as much of an interesting challenge as some of my travels.

First of all I was deployed up to the Dallas/Ft Worth area to help with the preparations for the arrival of Hurricane Gustav and landed up as the job director for the close up of a non event in Texas. I was asked to stay on at the Headquarters because Hurricane Ike was coming and that became a real event.

The Headquarters by-the-way was in an old Sam’s Club building and then we moved into the building that had housed a Wal*Mart next door that was slightly more pleasant. Both buildings had the charm of a warehouses with bulk tables and chairs scattered about and phone and power lines drooping across the ceiling. The picture below shows our little motorhome camped up against the side of the out-or-business Sam's Club with a variety of Emergency Response Vehicles in the foreground. The ERVs are used to deliver food and supplies to neighborhoods.

After Hurricane Ike there are small towns on the Texas coast that no longer exits. A million people were out of power. I am not up on the headlines as I didn’t see a newspaper or watch TV for the first week but I do know that there were people inland who did not have a hot meal for a week and perhaps not a meal at all for a while. At the Red Cross we were desperately trying to get our feeding trucks out and about but couldn’t get to every street and had to hand out food at fixed points. If little old Mrs. Smith can’t go the mile to the Point of Distribution she is out of luck for a while. We just hope that neighbors and helping neighbors. Some PODs were 45 minutes from villages but we didn’t have the resources to have additional PODs.

Sheltering has been a scramble too. We had enough space for the evacuation of almost a million people. Fortunately only 10% had no other place to go. They drove and were bussed hundreds of miles away to places like San Antonio and Austin and flown to the far side of the state. Unfortunately after a couple of weeks the schools out of the hurricane affected area need their space back. The evacuees are being bussed back to Houston and we really don't have anywhere to put them. There was more than buss load of displaced people who were bussed all day back to the city of Orange only to find out that there was no shelter there for them and they had to sit on the bus for hours to return to the same shelter. We are opening old stores and putting thousands of people in them with a cot a couple of blankets and a "comfort kit" which contains a toothbrush soap etc. Some of these good folks have three toothbrushes by now as they have been shuffled about so much.

FEMA has been hopeless and in fact a real blockade to what we are attempting, but that will have to come later.

It is really humbling to know that there are so many people in desperate need and we can't help them fast enough. Still over two weeks after the hurricane there are over a 145,000 people without electricity. We were one of them for eleven days. We had the motorhome rumbling away outside with an extension cord coming into the house. John would wait for me to get off the computer so he could plug in the microwave and heat last night's leftovers. At least we have the motorhome. It is getting hot at night and harder to sleep without air conditioning. Much hotter and we will move back into the motorhome. Like I said we are lucky. Our neighbors to the left were not at home. If they had been they would have been killed by the tree that fell onto their bed. They still have power but the neighbors to the right and across the street had no electricity like us.

Enormous grandfather trees are lying around our neighborhood here in Houston. Some logs as big as 3ft across. I keep thinking all those women in Central America who walk for a day to collect wood. What would they give for all this? As it is the broken trees lie in piles too high to see over but gradually sinking as the live branches wither.

I took the day off today. It is Sunday and I would not have made much headway with the business people I need to contact for sheltering space. I slept in, went for a hair cut, took a nap and went for a walk. After dinner we plan to play scrabble.

John has been so good, getting dinner when I crawl home after twelve hour days and stringing lights all over the place. Great clusters of extension cords to step over. Love him. I can’t grumble about my hours as there are Red Cross nurses who are working long shifts in shelters and then stay on call all night in a shelter. While I was working at the Red Cross HQ in the Sam’s Club in Ft. Worth, John was sitting in our motorhome outside doing his work on the computer. At least he had power there and I had the very welcome company at night.

Hard to live without power at home though. I walk into the bedroom and tell myself not to put my hand on the light switch but then reach out to turn the fan on. It has become so automatic.

There are still almost four hundred people missing. They are men women and children. Most did not evacuate when they were told to and now are simply listed as missing. The occasional body is found among the debris but who knows how many people were swept out to sea in the storm.

Galveston Island and the worst hit areas are now coming back to life. Home owners and business people are returning to reestablish themselves. By next year I expect the tourists will be welcomed back to enjoy cotton-candy and sun on the beaches. Perhaps there will be a memorial somewhere that they drive past, like the memorial to those lost in the 1900 storm.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Borneo. Sarawak, Melasia

Borneo. Sarawak, Malaysia

Borneo is one of the largest islands in the world and is home to three nations; Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. We visited Sarawak, one of the Malaysian states on the north side of the island.
The Chinese came to live here in the eleventh century and then along came Briton James Brooks in the nineteenth century. When Brooks arrived it was a land of head hunters but with his superior arms was able to quell an uprising on behalf of Brunei and was then given a vast territory to govern as the First White Raja.
The capitol of the State, Kuching is now a charming town. Nestled on the Serawak River it is just as an outpost next to the jungle should be. Little water taxies ply the river that is overhung on one side by dense undergrowth. The other side is a pleasant riverfront walk with kiosks selling refreshments. Across the road is a row of shop houses that contain the main bazaar. The little shops are full of fascinating crafts made primarily on the island but with a liberal showing from “West Malaysia” as the rest of the country is known, and also from Indonesia. Great items though if you are interested in that sort of thing. A little further along, behind the Hilton Hotel is a classy set of shops that rival those anywhere with quality merchandise.

The Kuching is an interesting city with a pleasant character. We made a trip to the park to see the Worrier monument that has the likenesses of important warriors on the sides of a cenotaph. On the top is a large pot that is said to contain the tears of fairies as these can cure an injury. Nearby is a tower, from the top of which we could see the layout of Kuching. Kuching means “cat” and there are several statues of cats around to keep the feline feeling alive.

Our goal was to visit jungle and we left Kuching and headed inland. As we began our adventure, driving on a four lane highway through flat farm land with high rocky outcrops covered with jungle, our guide, Taylor, began to tell us about his people.

Taylor is Iban the largest of the tribes on the island and he was going to take us to his family longhouse.

Headhunting was practiced all over the island. Initially it was a proof of defeating other tribes who had encroched on their terratory. Then it became necessary to prove you were strong enough to protect a potential bride and family so you had to produce one for your sweetheart in order to get married. This meant that every home had at least one head hanging in front of their door. The heads were carefully cleaned in a fire to get the smell and the spirits out. It is considered a sin not to look after the skull so each is preserved so as not to anger the spirit. Offerings are also made to it. Now a days many of the families have burried their heads but you can see some of them hanging in the communal room.

Taylor showed us this skull the nex day. It is dressed up with feathers and accompanied by one from a monkey. There is a tray with refreshment offerings hanging below it.
At least one of the tribes used to be cannibals but not the Iban our escort insisted. He did tell us to look for dots tattooed on the hand between the thumb and first finger or on the knuckles. A man might have as many as three on one hand and then would mark his other hand with the heads he had won. When I remarked two days later that his old and now blind father had a full six tattooed dots but Taylor insisted that they were just decoration. The tribes still keep to their old geographic territory and still hold animosity towards each other.

Taylor’s grandfather had been the chief of the longhouse but he had a dream that he should not pass the control to his son. The dream he had the next night told him that the longhouse would split. Dreams are most important to the island people so he did not pass the control to his son and the longhouse members elected another man. Several years later the longhouse divided into two with half of the members going to a new cement block long house building and the rest remaining in the wooden one closer to the river bank.

Taylor’ storytelling was interrupted when we reached the town of Serian. In the Iban language this means “durian.” The durian is a strange fruit the size of a football with a prickly hide. The outer skin is lined with a thick layer of pith. Inside the white pith are several seeds covered with a creamy flesh that has a sweet delicate flavor and the most obnoxious smell. When I tasted it the first nibble was fine. When I took my next bite I had to breathe and the smell went deep into my lungs. The odor seeped up into my sinuses and wafted around my head and stomach for a day. Every time I burped I could smell it. Some people really like it, but I can smell it a room away. You are not permitted to take it on the public transportation in Singapore and many hotels in this part of the world have signs up prohibiting it. Enough about the fruit, we were in the town named after it and hardly saw any in the market. However, I have never seen so much produce that I didn’t recognize.

Taylor told us this is called snake-skin fruit which is understandable considering the look and feel of the skin. You can peal the crisp skin with your fingers to reveal a soft fleshy fruit inside that is incredibly sour. (My mouth waters now just thinking of it) The sales woman open one and we tried it on the spot to the amusement of the local venders. We found it just as unpalatable when Taylor prepared it with soy and other condiments the next day.

Ferns grow throughout the jungle and we ate them each day. They are an mild green vegetable.

There were pitiful little ears of corn, and eggplants the size and color of smooth oranges and others like crooked purple fingers. There was a bowl of larva worming about, chilies and fresh ginger, all sorts of roots and tubers and leafy greens.
Continuing inland on a narrow two lane road we made a brief stop to look at wild orchids and pitcher plants. The latter are most strange as the flower is an extension from a leaf and forms a pitcher-like receptacle to trap water and insects.

Taylor turned off the road again a little later to take us to a pepper farm. Pepper is a major export for Melasia. The vines grow up stakes and the stalks of berries are picked as they ripen. They are dried and sorted. For white pepper the outer husk is removed weheras it is the dark husk that gives black pepper its character.

After another hour in the car passing little homesteads with bananas drooping around we crossed a bridge and Taylor said, “That’s the Lemanak River. We are nearly there.” There was no dock. The charming boatman with a broad bad-tooth grin under a grey mustosh had a twenty foot long narrow boat tied to a twig of a tree. Golat was his name and he nimbly carried the metal icebox on his shoulder and the other provisions that we were going to consume in the following days, down to the boat.
The ride was fun. It was a Disney “E” ride if ever there was one. Golat gunned the little outboard motor and spray flew from the bow as we headed upstream across the smooth water. Then he would cut the engine and lift the propeller out of the water and we skimmed over little rapids that splashed more water on me. The river ranged from twenty to forty feet wide and was for ever winding. Golat had to slow down to make the sharp corners so that we didn’t capsize the long narrow boat. There was the constant feeling of instability as he stood at the back steering around submerged logs and rocks along the way. The water was filled with sunken trees, little islands of pebbles, shoals and overhumg with low branches. I took about a hundred pictures. In places the trees met overhead forming a tunnel where the sunlight danced through. Enormous trees hung low over the water defying gravity, at least until the next rains set them loose of the bank and they became just another obstacle to avoid.

The rain began gently at first in a fine mist and then giant drops fell through the leaves creating giant bubbles in the water. It wasn’t at all cold, in fact it was a refreshing and fun trip. We were sitting on little chairs about four inches off the bottom of the boat. I kept my bags on my lap as the water level around my feet was gradually increasing. I wasn’t sure if it was splashing over the bow or seeping between the old boards.
By the time Golat grounded the boat on the pebbles below the longhouse we were drenched to the skin. I slipped off my shoes and stepped into the cool water and waded onto the warm sand and up the sand hewn steps to the guest house. Golat hefted the cooler onto hie shoulder and brought it up to the kitchen

There wasn’t much to do that afternoon because of the rain so we relaxed and attempted to dry off, a thing we were not able to accomplish until our return to the Hilton in Kuching.
Our accommodation was in a structure similar to the traditional longhouses on stilts except that there were larger rooms. Each of our rooms were divided into eight areas, one taken up with the doorway. Rattan dividers separated the long raised platform into sleeping areas about the size of a king-sized bed on to which was placed a double-size sponge mattress. Mosquito netting was hung over each bed. Over it all was a corrugated iron roof. The tropical downpour made it difficult to talk. The rain poured onto the sand in a steady streem from the roof and I wondered, as I lifted my bottle of imported water to my lips, if drinking water is so prescious why don’t they collect God’s gift.
The kitchen was equipped with a couple of burners and plenty of tiled preperation area. The toilets were tiled throughout and although co-ed, were clean and had both platform and camode toiletts. The shower stalls were quipped with a pipe that jutted from the wall providing a spout of cool water a little above shoulder level.
We spread our clothes over the mosquito netting in our quarters to dry. It never did. There was only one other couple staying and they had the next room but with the open ceiling and the loosely woven bamboo walls I don’t think they had the romantic time they planned.
Taylor with the assistance of the local women cooked us supper of rice and ferns among other interesting delicacies.
We then walked up to the Nanga Kesit longhouse that had been his family home for generations. There were forty rooms off a long group room that stretched the length of the building. There was no furniture in the group veranda nor in the individual rooms other than storage space and the ubiquitous sponge mattress.
We were invited to sit on the hand woven mats and were offered rice wine and rice whisky. The wine came in a wine bottle and was a murky thick brew with an interesting flavor. The whisky was completely clear and served in recycled water bottles creating the opportunity for mistaken consumption. When provided with your first drink, as we were in pink plastic tumblers, it is expected that you sing out “Yahoo” three times and then downing it all in one shot. Well, that put us in a good mood for the dancers that were to follow.
The shaman was invited to show off his tattoos, a sign on manhood, and he also honored us with a song. Sureng is known to be a great shaman, known for his knowledge of medicines as well as his ability to offer worthwhile advice to his followers.

Sureng on the left had just taken off his shirt to display his tattoos.
There were four individuals who presented us with charming dance performances. There was a young man with feathered headdress representing a bird, followed by a shy girl both dancing to the same rhythmatic throbbing of four women playing a variety of drums. Throughout the dances drinks were being consumed and we were instructed to offer them to the dancers. The young girl seemed embarrassed and handed her plastic mug to a man who might have been her father.
Then a man gave us a worrier’s dance and I would not have wanted to have met the likes of him in the head hunting days. The final dancer was the wife of the chief and she gave a charming and alluring dance that was full of happy smiles. She was charming. Both the dancing women wore wide beaded collars and high headdresses with twinkling pressed tin that twinkled like chandaleers.

Now that we were thorougherly relaxed by the flowing liquor in the pink tumblers we were invited up to join in a group dance and aided by the liquor we all waddled around in a circle. When we were about to collapsed back onto the floor in a sweaty pile we realized that we had another obligation. There must have been a representative from each of the families as forty people were sitting around the length of the long house with little displays of merchandise spread before each of them. Too much! How could we possible buy something from each of them? I wanted a mask that shaman Sureng had made and asked John to ask how much he wanted for it. It was too much so I bought a smaller better finished one from another man. Then John declared that the shaman had dropped his price and he had bought Sureng’s big black one that was made for the ghost festival and had a suitable ghoulish grin. So now we have to get two back in our luggage. I also got a mat that three different women had woven from the local rattan.
We made it back to our mattress and removed our damp clothes and went to bed, tucking the mosquito netting tightly around the mattress. The netting was actually a variety fine net curtains with printed flowers, or cheese cloth. They were good enough to keep the critters out, or in, in the case of the large bug in ours. They definitely kept our body heat trapped with our sweat that rose like steam.
I lay there listening to the little river babbling over the pebbles twenty feet away. The minute cicadas that are local to Borneo created a high pitched rattle over the deaper croak of the frogs. There was a gecko blowing kisses to his sweetheart at the other end of the open ceiling. Rain pattered on the iron roof and poured off in rivulets. Behind all these sounds was the gentle throbbing of the generator.
At midnight the generator stopped and the lights went out. John snored. How could he be asleep with all this noise going on? I envied him. A cat screeched, not a block away but out of the rain in the open space under the lodge, right under our bed. She continued caterwauling and searching for a mate all night. John continued to snore.
If dawn is first light how does a rooster know before it comes? These roosters knew and began to crow in the blackness. As the grey light creped through the bamboo I look forward to an afternoon siesta.
After breakfast we were given a display of dart blowing. Not an easy skill and one wonders how they drilled out the six foot wooden pipes. Then they had a display of cockfighting. It is an activity that is held often and there was to be a real match the next day. I walked back to my room in protest but these particular critters only had a little banter. (The less charitable side of me wondered if it was one of those roosters that woke me up.)
The only chickens in the area were a few in wooden cages and there were non scratching about the longhouse. There were a couple of pigs that looked like close relitives to the wild boars rooting around.
Under a clear bright sky we took short ride across the river for a walk in the jungle. We learned about a variety of plants the jungle provides for those who know how to use them. Clambering up paths with the aid of roots and hanging branches we made our way to an ancient burial ground. The Iban bury their dead and then in the insuing years bring them gifts. A couple of the locations had very old pots while another was that of a young child who had only died a couple of years earlier. Once a year all the graves are tended and the encroching jungle is once again cut back. Although this esteemed man has a charming hornbill box to contain the gifts, there is also a cross on his grave.

Taylor explained that they didn’t really have a religion before the outsiders came, they just felt that there was a spirit in everything. The missioneries came and gave them a direction and a name for their spirits.
We slipped down a wet bank and found Golat with his longboat waiting for us. I had asked Taylor why we had a couple of youths tagging along with us and he shrugged and seemed to say that they just wanted to come. I was grateful when they used their parangs to chop me and John a sturdy walking cane. Mine was made from a rubber tree and the white sap dribbled down the stem glueing my hand securely to the shaft.
We would not have made it up the river had it not been for the young men. As before Golat gunned the little outboard motor as we approached rapids, but this was a smaller river and the shallows were longer. The youths grabbed poles and pushed the longboat up stream. They also were lookouts and constantly pointing to submerged logs and pertruding shoals that constantly threatened to capsize us.

On one occation they lost their concentration and were chatting when we suddenly ran aground. They were chided and one jumped overboard and pulled us off the single. All was in good humor and the sun sparkled through the trees.
They pulled over at midday and proceded to cook us a jungle lunch. Logs were pulled from the water to create a fireplace and dry wood found. Bamboo was cut into lengths and a handful of rice wrapped in palm leaves were stuffed down the bamboo before it was filled with water from a nearby clear streem. Chicken with herbs was also stuffed into the two foot lengths of green bamboo before they were all stacked across the flames.

Fish was cooked over a little grill along with more chicken. We sat on the little chairs that were taken from the longboat and placed at the other end of our forty foot island. We swam and drifted in the strong current and dried in the sun and enjoyed some of the beer we had purched during our stop for supplies in Serian. (Was that really only yesterday?)
Golat serving chicken, eggplant and beens cooked in bamboo.

We were taken for a walk around the neighborhood and visited another longhouse.

Again we presented them with numerous little bags of cookies but here I also produced my baloons.
I began giving them to the children but in not time the adults decided not only did they want one but they wanted to learn how to sculpture with them. Refreshments were shared and a good time was had by all.

As we made our way back to our boat I was delighted to see the children playing in the water with the balloons

Traveling back downstreem was just as thrilling as the trip against the current when we arrived. It wouldn’t have mattered had we capsized but one always hopes to stay dry before going for a swim. The lads lept to their feet when we reached rapids too shallow for the outboard motor.

The primary school and local clinic both, blue painted sturdy block buildings, appeared very servaceable and were within a walk of both longhouses. We watched boatloads of teenagers going downriver to the secondry school the next morning.
On our final morning in the jungle we had another thrill ride back down the river. I enjoyed it as much as our first trip. We were returning to Kuching but on the way we visited the Semenggoh Rehabilitation Center. They rehabitate unfortunate orang utans that have been injured or captured and set them free within the park. They are not restrained within the area but tend to return when food is scarce.
We wondered up an hour before feeding time to find Richie, the patriach sitting in a tree over one of the feeding stations. He was enormous with long golden hair that looked groomed and great cheek flaps that are charastic of the species.
If the shape way up in the tree looks like a man standing there, that is Richie.
A female with young one appeared and gathered fruit and a coconut. The young one tried to hold too many banabas in its mouth and landed up dropping half of them. They then came down and sat on the ground behind us.

Then Edwin appeared and gracefully clambered through the trees and then bantered with his brother among the branches. He could carry five bananas at a time in his mouth, with them sticking out like fingers. Richie came down to the ground and wondered around and so did his mate with the little one. We were no more than twenty feet with these beautiful great animals with a dozen of them surrounding us.
More tourists arrived including a gaggle of squeeling young women and the charm and special feeling was lost. John went down a path and I stayed taking pictures of Edwin up in the trees until I had filled the memory card in my camer. The women squeeled. Edwin broke a branch off the tree he was sitting in and I watched as he dropped it down, followed shortly by another and another. These animals are six times as strong as a human and they were big branches. John returned to the clearing.
“Phew. That was close!”
“What was close?”
“That branch almost hit me.”
“What! I was watching Edwin breaking them off and dropping them.”
“It was more like he was throwing them. I was watching another orang utan when Taylor moved me to one side and a branch hit the ground where I had been standing.”

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Taj Mahal and the train to Agra

We found India to be a load of contrasts. The cities were jammed with traffic, three of four across in a two lane road, and in the country we would pass a lonely ox cart or camel. We only visited a very small part, the country is as big as Europe and has part of the Himalayas, schorching desert, tropical jungle and beautiful coastlines. There are something like seventeen different languages and the clothes are as varied. Yes, you see the sari just about everwhere, but in Rajasthan the women wear colorful full skirts with a tunic blouse and a long scarf often over the head and used to keep the sun and dust out. The men in the north wear dhoti which is a length of white fabric wraped like a loose loin cloth and frequently a turban, neither of which were so visable in the cities.
We were not inundated with beggars as I had been led to believe. Yes, there were a few, but they didn't harrass us any more than they did the locals, and were usually located outside the temples.
In all we were welcomed with friendly smiles and waves.
India was considered to be the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire. The Taj Mahal is therefore the jewel in the crown of India.
We had been told that travel by train would not be very comfortable unless we took the Palace on Wheels. We looked into it. It is the Indian equivalent of the Orient Express and looks fabulous. It is fabulous…. fabulously expensive; way over our budget.
However, travel by train did have an appeal as the roads were becoming clogged with traffic and the drive uncomfortable. We decided to take the best available seats from Jaipor to Agra. We made our reservation and had assigned seats.
We were in an air-conditioned carriage in an area with four seats aside. There was an isle down the carrage with single seats on the other side. We were with a charming Indian family who were escorting their son's new Vietnamese bride and her elderly father to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. The old man didn’t speak a word of English and was rather out of it. I gave him a packet of my seeds. The family attempted to translate and tell him what they were but he knew before they did. He gave me a knowing smile, almost a wink, and tucked them into an inside pocket.
The picture below is of the less expensive carriage with comfortable reclining seats and air-conditioning. The windows have curtains and note the backpacks and suitcases in the racks.

The next picture is of the cheapest carriage on the express train. There might not have been confirmed seats as there were plenty of folks standing. Note that much of the luggage consits of boxes and bundles. There are masss of fans as there is no air-conditioning. The windows have exterior shutters to keep the out sun, and the view, and there are also blinds.

Although we were anxious to see the Taj Mahal we were obliged to visit the fort in Agra first. Also we wanted to be at the Taj for sunset.
Although I had to admit that I had seen all the forts and palaces I need to see for a while this was a treat. This shot shows the details looking up at the eves of carved sandstone.

The Fifth great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan ruled this part of India in the seventeen century and this was his fort palace. It had been built two hundred years earlier but he moved into what had been the delicately decorated women’s quarters on the western side. When his favorite and beloved wife died in childbirth while delivering their fourteenth child he promised to build her a splendid monument. He could watch the construction of the Taj from his rooms and when his son had him imprisoned there he could mourn her from a distance.

From here you get the full picture of the Taj Mahal complex which includes the mosque to the East of the Taj and the Guest House on the West. The mosque is still very much in use which is why access to the Taj area is closed on Fridays except for Muslims going to prayer. The Guest House currently houses the military.
At last it was time to visit the Taj. We had to abandon our internal combustion car 2 km from entrance, as was required to protect the white marble from pollution, and took the special propane driven bus most of the rest of the way and then had to walk. Unfortunately the government was not very thorough in cleaning up the pollution and we had to cross a stinking open sewer on the way.
The mausoleum is hidden from view behind a red sandstone wall; it is said, to emphasize the partition between heaven and earth.

The gate to the Taj Mahal.

Everyone has heard of the Taj Mahal and how beautiful it is. I have seen so many pictures and read so many laudatory descriptions that they had become trite. It can't be that nice.
I don't think there are words to truly describe this magnificent structure and no picture can do it justice.
We had chosen to see it at sunset. So had about twenty thousand other tourists. I don’t think I am exagerating.
This was our first view of the Taj over the heads of the other visitors.

Through the arch of the gate it opens out into gardens with pools. There were continual groups of visitors posing for their pictures and there was even a conductor (unofficial and working for tips) to make sure they moved on from the classic Photo Opps.

We were are asked to remove our shoes as is customary in all religious buildings (and give some small change in order to retrieve them), then we weaved between visitors and made our way into the mausoleum.

It was packed. Cameras were flashing all over the place in spite of the sign outside requesting no photography and to prove that there was a good echo everyone was calling out. There was a severe lack of reverence.

You can’t take a bad picture of this building. It seems to glow in the sunlight. When you get close you can pick out the details of inlayed stone that form flowers and scriptures.
We wandered around the edges taking hundreds of shots, trying to find a new angle. We photographed little green parrots, walked back over the stinking river and through the swarm of venders selling souvenirs and then back to our hotel to a quiet evening.
We had planned to see the Taj at sunrise as well as sunset, but after the crowds in the evening I nearly didn’t return.
Then I said to John, “I’m going to go straight up to the Taj and not meandering taking pictures. I want to get inside when it is not so crowded.”
When I arrived inside the mausileam there were two other couples whispering with their guides. They left, and for a whole glorious minute I was completely alone. The gently cooing pidgins mumbled at the dawn. One moved on the overhead cable that supported the cut-metal lamps overhead and the beams of light danced like a disco light on the white marble tombs. The embossed gems glowed. It was magical.
As others entered I left to witnes the sun rising.
The Taj Mahal blushing under the kiss of the rising sun.