Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pantsless at the Taj Mahal

{Front Entrance of the Taj Mahal}

"Do not accept any food or beverages from strangers," Katie translates into French.

In her right hand, she holds the list of train rules the ticket collector had given us to read and sign. In her left, she holds a small cup of Russian vodka that the Frenchmen we'd met 15 minutes earlier had used to toast us.

"Do not leave your bags unattended," she continues down the list.

I glance involuntarily in the direction of our own train compartment, which, though beyond our view, was where we'd carelessly tossed our backpacks.

"Do not tell strangers of your travel plans."

We had both given the Frenchmen the full run down of our remaining itinerary for India. It had seemed like a good conversation filler at the time.

Katie finishes translating the rules for conduct in the train and we all solemnly sign the document saying we read and understood them.

"Was there any rule we haven't broken?" I whisper in an aside to Katie.

"Well, we didn't accept any suspicious packages from strangers," she tentatively replies.

"No, not yet," I agree.

We are riding the night train bound for Agra. Our tickets, the only ones available, are for third class.

Tiny cockroaches, the size of my thumbnail, skitter down the walls of the train, the same walls from which our hard bunk beds extend. The cockroaches do not scare me in the least, chiefly because I am unaware of them. I am rather, shall we say, "unobservant" without my glasses, and Katie makes the infinitely wise decision to not inform me of their existence until after the ride has finished.

It is something of a rough ride at any rate. I begin to understand the train rules and cautions upon waking the next morning. Katie has had her pillow stolen out from under her head while she slept. One of the Frenchman has had his pants stolen in the middle of the night. But how the Frenchman tours the Taj Mahal without pants is his concern. I have my own problems.

{Drawing Competition for School Children}

While still a sophomore in high school, I opened my world history book to a short passage about the Taj Mahal. There was a tiny, grainy photo of it and a few lines about how a heartbroken emperor had built it to honor his dead wife. My teenaged self swooned from the romance of it all. The emperor’s wife had died, but his love for her lived on. Inspired, I wrote a short but very terrible poem about it.

Finally seeing the Taj Mahal in real life is a personal celebration, a sort of secret party for my inner self. I need the perfect outfit to wear for the occasion, but I have only brought two outfits to India. One of my two tops has a boxy shape and boasts a red and pink floral print. The other top is even worse, a blue-and-white striped tent of a shirt, cut into such voluminous proportions that I could use it to smuggle a small elephant across the border were that my intention. Both of these somewhat unflattering tops had been purchased in Korea expressly for their modesty. Visiting the Taj Mahal clearly calls something a bit, well, prettier.

While still in Varanasi, I purchase a new item of clothing, something so bright and beautiful that Katie and I nearly fight over it when we first see it. It has a teal bodice lined with gold and purple ribbons, underneath which flows several filmy layers of magenta-hued cloth. In all good faith, I identify this item of clothing as a dress.

{Looks like a dress . . .}

After further reflection and time spent observing the fashions of India, I have come to the conclusion that this item of clothing is actually a kurtis, or simply a long Indian top. Tragically, I do not reach this realization in a timely manner.

{but it's just a long, fancy top.}

I want to look my very best in all my Taj Mahal photos, so just before disembarking from the train in Agra, I fluff out my curls and don my pretty new top. Thus clad, I happily prance around the world's most famous mausoleum. Without pants.

{Money Shot}

This woman is one of the many people – groups, families, single young men and women – who ask to take photos with me. I try to keep track of how many people ask to take photos with me, but lose count. It's at least 30. One of the world’s wonders is within view, but sometimes visitors turn their cameras opposite the Taj Mahal just to take a photo of me. At the time, I vainly assume it is because I look pretty, or, at least, because I look foreign. Now, I wonder if these strangers are pulling out their photos at parties to laugh over with friends. Hey, Kumar. Look at this! This girl’s not wearing any pants!

{Pantslessness works wonders for making new friends! "No fussy formalities with me" it implies.}

Aside from my questionable attire, the time we spend at the Taj Mahal is lovely. No touts are allowed within its gates, which renders a dreamy peacefulness to the place. The central building of the Taj Mahal is constructed entirely of white marble, though there are floral and geometric designs inlaid with carnelian, sandstone, jasper, and other semi-precious stones. Inspite of being hewn from solid rock, the building looks delicate as a dream. That’s part of its magic.

{Taj Details}

{Side of the Taj Mahal}

Katie and I arrive early in the morning, before there is much of a crowd. We walk around the buildings and into the center of the Taj Mahal where Mumtaz Mahal and later Shah Jahan himself were entombed. (“The emperor’s tomb is not symmetrical. It’s the only part of the whole structure that’s not symmetrical,” the type A part of my personality remarks aloud.) We spend several hours, the entire morning really, lounging about the Taj Mahal.

{Yippee! A pants-free lifestyle!}

After the Taj Mahal, we walk to the Red Fort. More than just a fort, this is the elaborate palace complex where Shah Jahan and a dozen or so wives, including Mumtaz Mahal, spent their daily lives. While not as impressive as the Taj Mahal, it's still a remarkably beautiful place.

{Outside the Red Fort}

When Katie and I arrive at the Red Fort of Agra, there is a group of about 200 uniformed teenage school boys ahead of us. We cut in line. Rather than being upset we haven't waited our proper turn, the boys appear delighted by our sudden appearance in their midst.

{Carrying My Backpack Through the Red Fort}

"Are you a student?" one of the boys asks me. He can't be more than 14.

"NO!" I respond.

"Me neither," he says. "I'm a man. This (putting his arm around a boy who seems about 10 years old) is my son." The 10-year-old looks confused by the rearrangement of their relationship.

"Beautiful!" one of the boys offers to Katie.

"Pretty!" another boy says to me.

The boys try their best pick-up words, but neither Katie nor I respond. It is so, so hard not to laugh.

One of the boys suavely puts his arms around Katie's shoulders. She even more suavely ducks and steps backwards, escaping his tender embrace.

Calling us beautiful and pretty has not worked, so one of the boys is inspired to try out a new word.

"Shexy!" he cries.

This descriptor immediately flares into popularity. Soon the group that is surrounding us, nearly 100 teenage boys, begins chanting: "Shexy, shexy, shexy, shexy!"

Well, of course I'm sexy. I'm not wearing any pants. (Though at the time, I still believe myself to be appropriately attired.) And I can't help but be amused. Involuntarily, a laugh bursts from my lips. One hopeful adolescent takes this as encouragement. Before I realize it, the crowd of boys closes in on me. One of them deftly reaches over and pinches me on the bum. I yell loudly. I yell at them in the tone their mothers would use. I use the same sort of wording I imagine their mothers might use. "You should be ashamed of yourself! That's no way to treat a lady! Blah! Blah! Blah!" Their eyes widen in fear. They scatter and run away.

Katie and I walk through the palace grounds. Here are some of the things we see:

{Women in Sarees and Monks}

{Baby Monkeys}

{Columns Inlaid with Semi-precious Stones}

{Wild Green Bird}

Harboring a deep suspicion of the taxi and rickshaw rates being offered around such a touristy area, Katie and I have forgone their services, choosing instead to walk miles through Agra. Since we don't have a hotel, we carry our backpacks the whole time. We're tired. We're hungry. We have another overnight train to catch, the second one in a row.

"Let's go back to the train station," we tell one another. "It's been a long day. We can eat and relax there."

Boy, were we wrong.


  1. Pants or no pants, that dress was PRETTY.
    Hurry up and write the next part, I want to read it!!!

  2. Hilarious. And your photos are fabulous.

  3. Haha There was a time in the US it seemed in terms of fashion when they were showing all of those tunic tops. I definitely mistook some for dresses so I feel your pain.

  4. I found you through Suzy's stumbling segment and I think I'm hooked. There was something so perfect of your story that if I had enough money I think I would've booked a flight to India immediately.

    Great story - love your voice and the photos are great too!

  5. @Katie and Dawn -- I'm so glad you guys liked it! It makes me absolutely glow with happiness when I read positive comments.

    @Suzy -- Thanks so much for reading, commenting, and stumbling. It's really nice of you.

    @Bethany -- Thank you so much. Those were such sweet things for you to say! Writing that you want to go to India now is the perfect compliment -- though you may change your mind after reading my next post. ^o^

  6. The "dress" is absolutely beautiful. I love the pictures in this post!

  7. I bought a kurta in India to wear to a wedding even there and put on black pants underneath. But here, people would see it as a dress, so I am planning on wearing it as one if I have somewhere fancy to go when the weather gets warm!

  8. @ elle -- Thanks! I love my "dress."

    @ girlunstoppable -- You're right. We could absolutely wear these "tops" as dresses in Western countries (or even Korea), and no one would question it for a minute!

  9. This post made me laugh out loud! The top/dress is absolutely gorgeous.

  10. Hilarious! I love this post. I would've totally thought it was a dress too!

  11. Hi! I just wanted to say I truly enjoy and love your blog posts. They reaffirm my love for adventure, especially that sense of wonder when viewing everything the world has to offer.

  12. I'm sorry one of those boys did that to you. F**k them, little spoilt brats.