India: Taj Mahal, Monkeys, and Elephants

*A post I am not proud of. This was written before I knew how terrible animal tourism is. Before I learned to make educated decisions about which activities I choose to engage in while travelling. But this is in fact what happened, and erasing it won’t change it. I wake up at 4:30am for two reasons;
Primarily because I am being eaten alive by mosquitos, and secondly because we are going to see the Taj Mahal at 6am. During the morning the sun is not as hot and we hope to catch the Taj with the sunrise, and with less tourists. Unfortunately there are so many tourists that we have to wait in line until the sunrise is finished. While we are waiting, we meet two girls who are also from Canada but have been travelling much longer than we have. We finally get into the Taj and take turns taking pictures of each other in front of this spectacular monument. It’s challenging to get photos with no other random tourists in the pictures with you, but I hardly care because it’s the Taj! It’s just so beautiful and I’m happy just to be here.

We return to our hotel to catch the free included breakfast, before we head out to Jaipur. This “breakfast” consists of 3 pieces of white toast and a banana. We have a 5 hour drive ahead of us to Jaipur so we eat quickly and go, eager to go Elephant riding as soon as we arrive in The Pink City.

As we approach Jaipur it becomes apparent to me that the neon is trendy here. Many women wear traditional sari’s in greens, blues, and dark pinks, but instead of the usual matching scarf, they wear neon orange with gold jewels draped over their shoulders and around their faces. I see vibrant yellow and neon pink scarves as well, but it’s clear that orange is the popular choice in this area of India.

We drive up and around a mountain filled with wild cows and missing chunks of road for 10 minutes arrive at “Monkey Temple”. I have absolutely no idea what to expect, but I know there will be monkeys everywhere, so I am pleased. I walk in and have to pay a fee of 150 rupees ($2.75) to get in, as well as a donation. I leave 50 rupees. They call it a donation, but I’m pretty sure it’s just money in their pockets. I never know, and still haven’t gotten used to tipping everyone for everything all the time.
I walk up a sandy pathway between two beautiful mountains to a large stone gate. There is no line up of tourists which I am thankful for, I couldn’t wait in another line after this morning at the Taj. Once on the other side of the gate I can see a long, very tall staircase to the top of the mountain and, as predicted, monkeys all over the place. I begin to walk through the temple, still unsure of what one does at a monkey temple, but excited to find out. I follow the other visitors and start climbing the steps up towards the top of the mountain. On the way, there are numerous pools of water where I watch monkeys playing together and even some people bathing. Many visitors get tired and stop climbing to the top of the temple to take pictures, but I keep climbing as I am still curious as to what this monkey temple is all about. A small group of indian women climb to the top with me, all the while asking me questions in Hindi that I cannot understand. They see a man who works at the temple (do people work at temples?) who speaks English and he translates all their questions for me. They, like many other people I have encountered in India, are intrigued by my white skin and blonde hair and mostly just wanted to know where I come from. I tell them I am from Canada and I hear the man translate to them that I am from America. Close enough…
When they are done asking me questions they walk into another portion of the temple, and the English speaking man continues chatting with me.
He takes me into a section of the temple where I must remove my shoes to enter. I do so, and walk in to see a large altar filled with photographs and statues all centred around one large painting on a rock which is emerging out of the wall of the mountain. I am the only person in this part of the temple.
He goes on to tell me about the god Hanuman and why the people come to the temple. He tells me that if you stand and pray to Hanuman, (who is painted on the rock) he will help you fix a problem in your life, whatever you ask him for. So I do. Yes, I, anti-religion Naomi, am praying to a rock.

Afterwards the man utters a mantra and wraps a protection bracelet around my right wrist. He tells me it will keep me safe as long as I have it on, and finally he paints a small orange dot on my forehead, and puts a necklace made of carnations (I think they were carnations) around my neck. He tells me to stop at one of the pools of water on my way back down the mountain and wash my hands and face, because it’s holy Ganges water, and I do it.
For the first time in my life, I actually prayed. I didn’t just stand there with my hands together to be polite, I prayed. It was one of the strangest and most spiritual things I have ever done, and I loved every minute of it.
After the temple Ilona and I go to our long awaited Elephant ride! Unfortunately, it’s not what we’ve anticipated. The elephant ride consists of us getting on a very old elephant in a field full of cows and walking around in a small circle for 5 minutes. I feel like a small child on a pony at the fair. It was less than satisfying, but at least I can say I’ve done it. We make plans to go on a REAL elephant ride when we are in Thailand. We also lower our expectations for tomorrow, when we are supposed to be riding camels.


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