The Drama of the Taj
Lovingly referred to by locals as “the Taj,” India’s Taj Mahal lives up to its opulent (and dramatic) reputation.
During the last week of our honeymoon, Fred and I (with the aid of a driver) braved the chaos that is Indian road travel to see this living testimony of love. Note: Traveling by car in India really is preposterous–a blur of horns, constant gear shifting, and furious-sounding Hindi cell phone conversations.
Having made our car arrangements in Vrindavan, our travel agent (aka an Indian shopkeeper) also hired us a guide–at an extra 200 rupees of course. We picked up said guide on a busy Agra street corner. Dapper and Bollywood-esque, he was a twenty-something who had recently moved back home to peddle Taj tours after completing his undergrad studies.
He gave us an excellent tour–including the details of the Taj love story and a billion photo ops.
But no Indian travel story would be complete without its drama. After our tour, the guide urged us to skip the cheesy souvenir gift shop and instead offered to take us to a specialty shop. I would have opted for pencils and postcards, but he said he had something better. After twenty more minutes spent navigating the Agra traffic, we pulled up to a marble shop run by the descendants of the artists who worked on the Taj. The owner seemed to be expecting us. He gave us a tour of the crafting area (careful to show us the time, energy, skill, and sometimes blood that goes into marble inlay work) before he pulled us into his showroom, where we received a tabletop demonstration of how the translucent Taj marble looks like in various lights (sunset, sunrise, and full moon simulator).
Though it was lovely, when we made it clear we were in no shape to buy a $2,000 coffee table, he pleasantly guided to small goods room. Still at $150 for a tiny marble box, we had to pass. The shopkeeper then became was furious with us–insulted and enraged that he had spent his time with ignorant Westerners who didn’t appreciate true art.
Embarrassed, we walked through the lines of disappointed looking craftsmen and returned to the car. Seeing that we hadn’t purchased any marble from the descendants of the Taj artists, our guide said he (really) had the perfect place for us. I thought we were finally going to a postcard wala (vendor) when we pulled up to a jewelry store. Creep and dark inside, we were greeted by a plump owner who was eager to sell us his genuine gemstones and gold. When we told him we wanted simple (cheap!) souvenirs, he directed us to the backroom, offered us tea in fine china cups and showed us his (expensive) selections of fabric and cloths. Again, seeing no cheesy postcards, I made the mistake of saying, “Do you have something for 40 rupees?” (That’s about a dollar.) He went ballistic–insistent that he was not a street wala and he was furious that we Westerners had the nerve to imply this.
We were quickly ushered out of the store as the owner yelled in Hindi at our young guide, probably telling him never to bring him Americans unless they had lots of money they wanted to spend.
We felt terrible. Our beautiful afternoon spent at one of the Seven Wonders of the World was marred by two angry entrepreneurs and we were at the mercy of a guide and driver who spoke another language. Our guide had (innocently?) hoodwinked us in what felt like an elaborate Taj commission scheme. However icky we did get lovely photos and what felt like a Soprano story of back rooms and shady business dealings.