This weekend I went with seven of my fellow students to follow in the footsteps of every other traveler in India, meaning I finally made it to the Taj Mahal. To be honest, I think when I left for the trip I was going more out of some kind of duty (how was I going to explain spending 10 months in India and not seeing the Taj Mahal?) than out of real desire. The thought of 26 hours of travel in two days, combined with how touristy the whole place seemed to be, was off-putting. It was a lot of travel, and it was one of the more popular attractions I have ever been to, but at the end of the day I can say I’m glad I went. It was a pretty awe-inspiring building, and a large labor of love by the ruler who built it for his wife.
We met one German traveler who, after hearing a bit about our study in India, remarked at how great it must be for us to experience the “real India.” This reminded me of something I have realized since coming here and discussing with others: everything in India is part of the real India. The Taj Mahal, the noisy alleys of Varanasi, the mega shopping malls in Delhi, the backwaters in Kerala, and the huts by the sides of the train tracks are all here, and it is not really fair to deny any of the them their place in the country. I used to worry about not having an “authentic” experience here, but I am starting to see how silly that is, because there is no such thing, or perhaps rather because every experience here is genuine. To take a quote from a book I just finished reading, “Any truism about India can immediately be contradicted by another truism about India.”
The low point of our trip was on the return when one of my friends got her backpack stolen while she was sleeping on the train. Knowing it was unlikely the things will be recovered, we decided to report the theft at the Varanasi station, more for their records than for anything else. It was interesting to make a report with the “tourist police” at the train station, mostly because their response to “Someone one stole my bag” was “Why?” Fortunately several of us were able to use enough Hindi to explain what happened (and explain that it wouldn’t be necessary to write our friend’s American address in Devanagari for publication the local newspaper.) The situation was a little more than ridiculous, but at least the bag and its contents (besides the photos on the camera) are replaceable, and no other harm was done.