This morning began at 5:00am as usual, but this time we were staying up. We had a car scheduled for 6:30am to take us to Agra and the Taj Mahal. We gave Manu a bottle and carried him around while we got ready, and we changed him and put on his outfit right before heading out the door. We were hoping that Manu would have a dirty diaper before we left, so that we could change it in the hotel, but alas he did not, and we set out on our little pilgrimage expecting to have to perform that task in the back-seat of the car. We met our driver and took off. He told us his name, but it was obvious that he spoke little English. When asked he said that it should take 4 hours maximum to get there, and he was right. This trip would probably be cut in half with any decent interstate system, but I digress. For almost the first 2 hours Manu slept soundly. As he woke we fed him some cereal that we had portioned out in advance in the hotel. This got him through until after we left the Taj. He only had one wet diaper along the way there, very unusual for him, but this is his first day off of antibiotics, so that could be altering his system too. The traffic wasn't too bad during the early morning hours, but as we got closer to Agra, and thus later in the morning, it became a three-ring circus on the road. I do not have the words that could ever adequately explain the traffic, roads and driving conditions in India. Let's just say that the worst day in New York or Los Angeles would be a lite day in Agra. About two hours into our trip, our driver pulls over in a sort of truck-stop and says he has to go pay somebody for something. So there we are, without a driver, and suddenly every peddler in the area is knocking at our windows wanting to sell us something. One guy wanted us to take a picture with one of his monkeys. Eventually a crowd gathered at Leslie's window and 4 Indian truckers were infatuated with Manu, making faces and waving at him. One asked if he was an Indian baby, and then nodded in approval when this was confirmed. Eventually our driver came back and we were off.
After we hit Agra we kept driving for what felt like forever, but was probably just 20 minutes. We pulled into the Mughal Hotel, a beautifully upscale hotel completely out of place with its surroundings. There we met up with our guide Afzal Ahmad Khan. This also allowed us a pleasant minute to freshen up ourselves and Manu, who had a wet diaper, but nothing more. We hopped back in the car and headed for the Taj. Along the way he dealt out little bits of Agra history, and some advice for dealing with the throngs of peddlers and beggars outside the gate. He said we shouldn't buy anything from them, and that we would have a better opportunity later. He also volunteered to purchase our entrance fee and bus ticket for us so that we wouldn't have to pull out any money in front of the locals. I figured the guy was just angling for a nice tip, so we let him and before long we were on a shuttle to the Taj. We had to walk the last 100 yards or so, and he was right, we were surrounded by multiple men and young boys trying to sell us books, snow globes, or other memorabilia, and they don't take no for an answer, and they hung on to us until we entered the security line. Once inside it was a short walk around a corner until the Taj came into view. I don't know if anyone can understand how moving and beautiful this place is until you see it in person; pictures cannot do it justice. Inside Afzal is giving us the history and legend of the Taj. As we got closer, he kept mentioning the white marble, inlayed with semi-precious gemstones, and how that was accomplished and how it was a dying art form. It was truly an impressive sight to behold. Not only the Taj, but the grounds and the side buildings make you feel like you could have been there hundreds of years ago when they were constructed. Afzal told us he was going to show us a demonstration of the art of inlay-work, so that we could truly appreciate it. Hmmm. After about an hour we left and headed back through the peddlers, more intent than before as this is their last chance to make a sale. We took a shuttle back to the car, and then found ourselves pulling into a marble factory or sorts. Here he said he would show us artisans at work. As we entered the building we noticed lots of inlayed marble for sale, and now it all begins to makes perfect sense: he comments all throughout the tour about the quality of the Taj marble-work, how we shouldn't spend our money with other vendors, and then brings us to a marble store! Once inside we were given an impressive demonstration by 4 workers creating inlayed marble table tops. There was a bench and we used this opportunity to feed Manu as we were getting the spiel. Then we got up and looked around. Eventually we found a small, round table with inlayed jeweled elephants. Well, I had to have it until I heard the price. So we walked away, and the further we got the better the price became, figure that. Eventually it seemed reasonable and we bought it, to be shipped home in a few weeks. We had the back chiseled with "Manu, Leslie and Jeff. Together 1/21/09" It was still a little pricey, but it seemed like the perfect way to remember this trip. After finishing up there we decided to forgo Agra Fort nearby, as we were worried that this day would be too much for Manu, and us. We headed back to the Hotel in Agra to drop off our guide, and to freshen up and grab some lunch before the long trip back to Delhi. The guide thanked me and offered to help again in the future or if we knew of anyone coming to Agra. He gave me his card. As he walked away I looked at the card and chuckled. On it was his name and his business "Marble Cottage Industries." So that's how our hotel arranged for a "complimentary" guide! Oh well, live and learn, but we are happy with our little table.
The way back was far worse with traffic than the morning trip. At one point there were thousands of cars on small roads with even more people on the streets. It was interesting though, getting to see a bit of rural India, away from the cities. Whereas we saw a working elephant on Sunday, we saw several working camel sharing the streets with the rest of us. This seemed almost surreal, but pretty cool too. The trip home took about 4.5 hours with all of the traffic, and Manu finally had his dirty diaper about 1/2 hour before getting back, but it wasn't bothering him, so we waited until we got back to the room to change it. Soon after it was bath time again, and he took it even worse than the last one, screaming the whole time and not letting up, even afterwords when we has being fed he continued to whimper between bites. Daddy tried to calm him, but Manu seems to blame daddy for all of this, and only finally stopped crying when Leslie took him from me. The day had been a long one and he was frustrated and fighting sleep. Finally, with tear-stained cheeks, he fell asleep. Leslie and I ordered some dinner and are now ready for bed. Tomorrow is our last day in India, can you believe it? We plan on going out the first half of the day to see a couple more sites, and then retire to the room to pack and relax before our 3am flight out. Neither of us can believe it's almost time to go home.