Thursday, January 7, 2016

Adventures in Agra: From the Taj to Acid Attack Survivors

Where to start? There are so many stories to tell about our day. Bottom line: Awesome - Awesome - Awesome (and not just because we got to see a Wonder of the World). So sit back, prop your feet up, and start reading... 

Like all good stories, I will begin at the beginning.  We started today at 6AM in Delhi.  Early departure so we could miss traffic snarls. Because of Indian roads it is often impossible to predict how long a journey will take but, today, we cruised along and made it to Agra in under 4 hours.  With Barbara (from the Miracle Foundation) using the time to give us lots of educational information on India’s infrastructure issues, political structure, economic progress etc. etc.

We took one break - at a rest stop - for chai tea and biscuits.  Outside was a little girl (all dressed up) dancing while her father played a traditional musical instrument.

She's probably nine years old and - as today is a school day - I was sorely tempted to confront her dad and ask why she was not in school. And, more importantly, ask why he saves money each month to pay for her future wedding but will not spend one penny on her education… or even allow her to go to school. I know… I need to put a leash on the Xena warrior princess part of my personality. But let's be honest, that little girl has no real future and her own parents did it to her. So sad.

Before I get into the meat of today, I want to take a moment to highlight our actual group ... mainly because I got some criticism from the peanut gallery about my last post that I had not "properly introduced my cast of characters." So here they are ... in no particular order.

Pilar Rubio: Sophmore at St. Michael's and originally from Spain (although we have not yet found a good use for her fluency in Spanish, we are on the constant lookout for lost Spanish speaking tourists who we could assist). Pilar's green-blue eyes remind me of that famous National Geographic photo of the young girl with the spectacular eyes.

The Man Squad:  Our boys are - from left to right - my son Jordan (sophmore at Post Oak High), Tom (an exchange student from China whose real name is Zeer Cen... no idea how that got to be "Tom") and Peter (who was adopted from a Russian orphanage and is really looking forward to working with the Miracle Foundation orphans).  They are all total goof balls and have been cracking us up with their antics.

Isabella Artaza: When we interviewed the close to 20 applicant teens for this trip - in order to pick the actual travel team - Isabella won major points for her answer to our question: "What is the hardest thing you have ever done?" Isabella described a leave-no-footprint camping trip where she had to carry around for over a week - and bring back out of the national park - all garbage including her own poop. Bravo for a great adventure story.

Erica Esparza: Isn't Erica lovely against the red sandstone?

Marnie and Madeline Cervenka:  Marnie is one of my oldest and dearest friends and it is a true joy to be able to share India with her and Madeline, 15 year old daughter and sophmore. Needless to say, Madeline is "less-than-pleased" that her mother is along on the trip but I'm thrilled.

Liz Hammel & Lillian Lucero: Far right in the below photo is Liz, a senior who is heading for University of Colorado in Boulder. Far left, is Lillian Lucero, who wants to go to Georgetown for college as she is very into politics and international issues. Between them is Pilar and Isabella (already properly introduced).

Kathryn Hoyt:  Kathryn is the St. Michael's School Chaperone and a champion traveler (even though she is allergic to 99% of all "safe" foods in India - i.e. carbs - and gamely gets sick and throws up and carries on when she's accidentally exposed to gluten... which happened today at lunch). Kathryn is beautifully demonstrating sheer joy at seeing the Taj.

Rainey Booth & Zoe Littlepage:  And US. Since we are busy photographing and videoing everything, I don't suspect you will see many photos of us.  But we are here... always lurking in the background.

Taj Mahal:  As soon as we dropped our bags at the hotel and ate some lunch, we headed for the Taj.  Are their words to really describe the Taj Mahal?  Other than perhaps "magnificent"? Or "breath-taking"?

To walk into the Taj Mahal, you have to put white booties on over your shoes to avoid any scuffing of the white marble. Quite the fashion statement.

The Taj is made of white marble that has been inlaid with semi-precious stones.  This intricate, difficult and time-consuming art form is called pietra dura.  

Agra Fort:  Our second stop was Agra Fort: an actual red-walled fort with parapets and moats and giant wood doors.

Plus royal open-air sitting areas with scalloped arches

And green parrots that sit on the brass baubles on the roofs.

And wise old monkeys that keep an eye on the pesky tourists

Sheroes Cafe:  We left Agra Fort and drove over to the Sheroes Cafe for a snack.  This is a cafe where all of the waitresses are acid attack survivors (get it, She Heroes... ??).  Sadly, acid attacks are a part of Indian culture, especially among the less educated villagers.  Basically, if a woman shames or humiliates a man: she could have acid thrown on her. The acid will melt her face as well as blind her.  Many women die from acid attacks.

First we watched a 15 minute movie created by the charity that runs the cafe.  The goal of this charity to restore dignity in the survivors and educate the public about this awful form of abuse.  The movie includes interviews with the women as they explain what happened to them.  One woman's husband melted her face with acid because she only gave birth to girl children and thus "shamed the family". Another waitress got acid attacked by her mother-in-law who said she was not doing enough chores around the house.  After the movie, we got to talk to some of the waitresses and ask them questions about their experiences.  We also got to see firsthand how just having a job at the cafe, working alongside other acid attack survivors and being able to tell their stories has empowered these women to move past their disfigurement and have a real life again.

Even though we talked beforehand about getting our faces and hearts ready for what we would see... it was still shocking to meet these brave women. Our servers - Dolly and Ansu - are both just kids. Dolly (on the right below with Lindsay) is 15 and Ansu (on the left) is 17.  Ansu was acid attacked just a few months ago when she refused a marriage proposal from a boy she did not like.

Local artists painted dramatic woman-power graffiti all over the cafe which gives it a really unique atmosphere.

Pietra Dura Factory:  We then visited a pietra dura factory where they showed up how the marble inlay decorations on the Taj Mahal were really created.  Each flower is made up of dozens of slivers of semi-precious stones that are shaped and polished by hand, by men sitting on the floor spinning a grinding wheel with one hand while polishing and shaping the stones with the other hand.

The same shape as the polished stone is then etched out or removed from the marble - again by hand - and the polished sliver is in-layed into the groove. It is painstaking work and the process has not changed since the time the Taj was built.

The teens even got to try their hand at the wheel.

Naturally we were then escorted into the showroom and encouraged to browse, admire and - yes - BUY.  Marnie got a really stunning Lazy Susan.

Dinner:  For dinner, we went to a restaurant where a female dancer came out while we were waiting on our food and performed Bollywood dances.  

She then got the teens out on the dance floor and taught them Bollywood moves.

Tom totally got into the groove !!!

The end of the night... a quick visit to Kumar's Magic Show booth where he entertained the teens with sleight-of-hand magic tricks.

Tomorrow is a full travel day as we leave Agra - and go all the way to the South of India to Trivandrum - where we will start working at the first Miracle Foundation orphanage.  So I'm off to bed as we have another early morning and long day. 


Unknown said...

I am truly humbled by the acid attack women's stories. So glad this charity helping as close to normal lives.

Unknown said...

I am truly humbled by the acid attack women's stories. So glad this charity helping as close to normal lives.

Unknown said...

If animals can leave their poop in the forest, why can't we? :=)

Zoe, your documenting of these adventures is exemplary as usual. Safe travels, All!

Derek Maingot said...

I love that you love it! Really, I do!


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