Lessons from Agra

By: Mitchell Petit-Frere

Agra is rough around the edges.

While Delhi’s a charmer, Agra is more of a “get in your face” kind of city. The reason being — in my opinion — is because the poverty is more pronounced. There are prolonged stretches of land dominated by dirt and dust, filled with shack homes and people huddled around fires during the cold hours. Don’t get me wrong, there are signs of moderate wealth, but a majority of the land is dominated by obvious poverty; some moderate and some extreme.

There’s also a more aggressive initiative within the locals to coerce tourists for money — whether it be via begging or a makeshift business plans. You can’t really blame them, though. If I lived in the same city as the Taj Mahal, I’d milk it for all its worth, too.

Speaking of the Taj, we visited it two days ago (Jan. 5). Our tour guide — who was nothing short of incredible — warned us of the locals who would try and sell us various Taj-related trinkets as we made our way toward the monument. He told us that the best way to avoid someone nagging us was to cold shoulder any seller who made a pitch. And we all did just that.

However, as we made our way back to the van after our time at the Taj concluded, this one guy started walking beside a few members of the group trying to sell what looked like small posters of the famous tomb. After being ignored, the guy sped up, strided right past our entire group and stationed himself by the door of our van. I thought he was going to pitch each of us as we made our way into the van. But that wasn’t the case.

Instead, he let all of us into the van without a word before saying something — in what I assume was Hindi — to our tour guide. Our guide then explained that the guy had pictures he wanted to sell us. But they weren’t generic pictures of the Taj, they were pictures of us at the Taj!

The guy stealthily took pictures of all of us — both group and individual shots — and then more than likely followed us around the complex to make sure he could make a sales pitch before we departed. Incredible, right?

We wound up buying the pictures (they were only 100 rupees), so his plan wound up working.

Nevertheless, for every clever scheme, there are three or four heart-wrenching ones. As we were standing in a semi-circle waiting for our van after a trip to the Agra Fort, a boy of seven or eight, with ragged clothes and skin highlighted with dust marks came up to each one of us with his right and cupped, as his left fingers pointed to his mouth. He wanted money to buy food.

For more than a couple of reasons, we’ve been instructed not to give to beggars. But following that direction is so much easier said than done — especially when the beggars linger next to you until you finally leave the scene.

Forgive the cliche, but the whole process of cold-shouldering beggars pulls on your heartstrings. In your mind, you want to help, but in reality, are you really helping if you don’t know where the money is going once the beggar leaves? Plus, it’s impossible to calculate the consequences the beneficiary will have to face if fellow locals get jealous of what he/she receives. There’s so many different layers to society — in India and all over the world — that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing; especially if your time in the area is temporary, as you won’t be around to either clean up your mess or build upon your progress.

So, you’re left with a small sense of defeat, but also an inherent sense of appreciation for your own “blessings.” I know you can’t quantify appreciation, but sometimes it’s better to get in tune with your personal situation before you can lend a helping hand to another’s.

Like I said before, Agra is rough around the edges. But it taught me a lesson. And, after all, no meaningful lesson is learned without any bumps in between.

*Pictures will be added once/if the WiFi improves.*

Agra Awakens

Agra awakens for another day, and sleepy eyes begin to emerge from shelters. I’m catching glimpses from inside some of the windowless houses. Sleep continues there, even as the streets begin to stir – women and children coddled by bright floral spreads and silk linens, atop wooden bench-beds.

In the road, dogs and cows weave about the traffic. Some keep warm with the humans by the scattered fires – lit on the side of the road for warmth as the gathering, standing, and waiting begins. The waiting for rides, from tut-tuts, busses, or carts. Piling in for transport to job sites.

A moderate layer of smog covers all. It has a peculiar way of making the rising sun glow with greater strength – a bright orange sphere amongst all the morning grey. Agra awakens – begins preparing for the day. I am just a wide-eyed observer, hidden within our van, eager to see and learn more.

I Can’t Breathe

By: Alexa Chanelle

I literally can’t breathe in New Delhi.

In years past I read books that described the Indian sky. The picture painted in my mind was that of a lazy sun hanging in a hazy sky. How beautiful it must be, I thought. However, when I stepped outside the fantasy of lazy sun rays and hazy skies turned into a huge coughing fit that left me searching for my Ricola cough drops in my overstuffed backpack.

I never appreciated the New York City air until that moment. Being from Florida, I never thought I’d say that.

The smell of the air was that of burnt rubber which must be caused by the amount of vehicles on the road. Tut-Tuts, motorbikes, busses and vans weaved their way throughout traffic contributing to the smogtastic city. In a place where 20 million people live it’s quite understandable why there are so many vehicles on the road at once. Cigarette smokers on my left and right made me wonder how people could have the urge to smoke when breathing felt like smoking. It was an aura that I couldn’t escape and made being outside miserable. I was relieved to get inside of the hotel until I found the smog and it’s smell greeting me at the door. It lingered in the hallways and by the end of the night found its way to my lungs. Causing another coughing fit.

This morning we left New Delhi for the city of Agra. I thought maybe the smog will disappear, but it didn’t. It was just as intense as the day before. However, I was glad to get on the road to Agra and escape it’s suffocating grip. Yet, as we drove, I began to see the smog from a different perspective. The experience became more visual and less physical.

The haze became apart of the landscape. It made anything that was 20 feet away disappear into its mystery. The buildings that stretched up into the sky looked like stairways to heaven as they faded into the dense fog. Clusters of trees looked like low hanging clouds. The sky no longer blue but changed from a deep orange sunrise to a pale yellow morning sky. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s almost as if God used the rise filter and tilt shift tool from Instagram to create this view. The dreamlike haze revealed pieces of the city little by little forcing you to appreciate and take in what’s in front of you, a life lesson maybe… Or I could be justifying years worth of pollution. I’ll stick with the life lesson though.

It was this ride to Agra that I saw and fully appreciated the beauty of the Indian sky. I found what I was longing for and a cough I am currently nursing. Through this, India taught me my first lesson– sometimes you have to view things from a different perspective to see its beauty. Oh and to bring a gas mask next time I come to New Delhi.

First Impressions

First Impressions

Words by: Mitchell Petit-Frere
Photos by: Oscar Diaz

I’m typing this very sentence in bed at The Nitesh Hotel in Delhi. It’s 9:20pm local time and I’m operating on something between traveler’s adrenaline and the desire to express an unforgettable first day in India. (*disclaimer* this post went up the following morning)

Our journey started Saturday night with a 12-hour flight from JFK to Dubai — where we endured an 8-hour layover — before catching a roughly 3-hour flight to Delhi. We landed in India around 10am local time Monday morning.

Our exhaustion in a nutshell.

But let me tell you, for all that exhausting travel, our first full day in the country was well worth the wait. After going through customs, baggage claim and exchanging currency, the 7 of us who traveled on the same flight together (Oscar arrived much earlier and checked in the hotel hours before we touched down in India) were greeted by a representative from the travel agency who set up our accommodations. We were then whisked into a large, white van with a spacious interior, a steering wheel on the right-hand side of the vehicle and a friendly non-English speaking driver named Monu. Monu was tasked with taking us on our first ride through Delhi en route to our hotel.

That first ride will stick with me forever because of the countless jaw-dropping moments triggered by the things I saw looking out my window.

A small taste of Delhi traffic.

As soon as we made our way off the highway and into Delhi’s streets, a woman walked straight up to our stuck-in-standstill-traffic van — probably liking her chances of swindling a group of starry-eyed foreigners — and tapped on our windows, trying to convince us to buy the balloons she was selling. We respectfully declined her offer.

But that’s just an isolated example. The more provocative personifications of life in Delhi came via trends. Trends such as men urinating on the sides of the road (I think our count got as high as 8 or 9); constant car beeping that puts NYC to shame; a diverse mix of buses, vans, cars, motorcycles, tut tuts, bicycles and pedestrians navigating the roads; the flocks of people “picnicking” on open patches of green land, whether off a highway or in the middle of the city; the absence of fear illustrated in the bodies of mothers and children as they ride on fathers’ motorcycles; and the overlapping dispersement of obvious poverty and obvious wealth.

Everyone loves some Monday afternoon downtime. 
Just another day on the road. 
Delhi is a city perfectly in tune with its chaos.

The Delhi trends I witnessed today made me want more. The unabashed nature of the city’s inhabitants was intoxicating. So, when Monu couldn’t immediately find our hotel during that first van ride and ended up prolonging the drive, I was ecstatic because it meant I had more time to stare out the window at a city so uniquely and refreshingly in tune with its chaos.

Here’s to Delhi for welcoming us to India with such distinctive charm.

This morning, at 7am, we’re headed off to Agra to explore the Taj Mahal. Until next post…

p.s. A special thank you to Heena, the person who booked all of our accommodations and travel arrangements, for making the experience that inspired this blog post possible. 

India Beckons

India Beckons

By: Mitchell Petit-Frere

‘Ello everyone.

Tomorrow’s the day! I’m embarking on a trip to India with a group of fellow International Communication graduate students from St. John’s University.

The reason for the trip is to attend a Graduate Symposium on Sustainable Development in Goa, hosted by our program director, Dr. Basilio Monteiro. However, Goa won’t be our only stop in India. We’ll also take time to explore Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (ie: the Golden Triangle).

I have no idea what to expect, but I’ll do my best to keep you in the loop via this blog with pictures, videos and as much writing as I can muster up. 

Even better, I won’t be the only contributor. Various students in our group will supply content throughout the trip. With that said, enjoy what we post and feel free to comment! We couldn’t be more excited for this journey and to share as much of it with you as possible.

Here’s a basic outline of our itinerary:

January 2: Departure from the United States
January 4: Arrival in India (!!!)
January 4-8: Stay in Northern India + Exploration of the Golden Triangle
January 8-16: Stay in Goa
January 9-10: SJU Graduate Symposium on Sustainable Development
January 17: Departure from India

p.s. Shoutout to Oscar for the phenomenal [and #punny] blog name.