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xEurasia Odyssey

Aurangabad and Ajanta Experiences

INDIA | Tuesday, 19 November 2013 | Views [726]

Aurangabad and Ajanta Caves Experiences:

I arrived in Aurangabad after a delayed flight from Goa to Mumbai and a mad dash through the Mumbai airport to get to the connecting flight.  I made it, but just in time.  The airport in Mumbai is not designed well.  When you come off either an international flight, as I did from Nepal or a domestic flight, as now from Goa, you have to go to out of the terminal into the baggage collection section, even when you are a transit passenger and are not collecting any luggage.  This of course means you have to re-enter the terminal and go through security again.  This is a royal nuisance and a tremendous waste of time, especially, if, like me, you have a backpack full of electronics that need to be taken out and individually scanned, then stuffed back into their previously perfectly arranged compartments. At first I thought I only needed to take out the laptop and ipad which is what happens everywhere and had arranged the bag accordingly, but no, they wanted all the cameras, the battery chargers, back up drive, the adapters, the flashdrives, and all the various cords, including the extension cord, taken out and separately scanned. And this wasn’t because they were bored; there was a long line behind me waiting to get through the control area. I think I’ve learned my lesson not to ever use Mumbai as a connecting airport; it just isn’t worth the hassle!

 Once I arrived in Aurangabad, things improved.  I’d arranged for an airport pickup from the hotel as I was getting in at night; while I am sure the taxis would be safe, it just feels better as a single woman to have someone who will get you where you want to go for the prearranged price via the most reasonable route when arriving in a new city in India after the sun goes down. The Keys Hotel also has transportation services to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves, so this was a nice way to combine all the car requirements into one package. I was very grateful to find Sanjay, my driver for the next few days, waiting for me as I exited the airport. Sanjay doesn’t speak English, so our conversations were limited, but he was an excellent driver; although I didn’t look out the front window very often and only concentrated on what was going on to the right and left of the car.  After the past couple of days, I think he deserves to be called Sanjay Indian Chicken Champion to balance out Sachin’s Indian Cricket Champion status. (Sachin is a national Cricket legend, who retired from the sport yesterday after 24 years in the league. His fans are acting the way Michael Jordan’s did when he retired.) Sanjay weaves in and around motorbikes, tuk-tuks, double oxen wooden carts, people walking their goats and water-buffalo by the side of the road, other cars, trucks, busses and large pot holes. His timing in avoiding what appears to be an inevitable crash is impeccable.

 The Ajanta Caves are about 100 km. south west of Aurangabad and, even with Sanjay’s speed demon driving, it took over two hours to get there. As we pulled into the parking lot we were met by a friend of Sanjay’s who escorted me to the bus that transfers visitors the four kilometers to the site, which I am sure I could have found on my own, but he owned one of the shops and wanted to make sure I knew to come back to it after I’d visited the caves.  Then as we were approaching the bus another fellow came up selling guidebooks.  His name was Jonny and “I wait for you after you come down.”  ‘No,’ doesn’t seem to mean much to some of these vendors.

The bus ride was a trip in itself. There were two kinds of busses, one with air conditioning and somewhat newer for RS 20 and an old one without air conditioning for RS 15. The older bus was the next in line and, although it was 93 degrees out, it didn’t feel that hot. I soon realized the extra five rupees had nothing to do with the cooling system but instead was to ensure the bus made it up the hill.  Our old vehicle stalled a couple of times in its struggle upwards, even though the road really wasn’t steep at all. As with our national parks, the Archeological Survey of India is not flush with money for fixing things, and the busses are held together with the equivalent of ducktape and good will. The blessings prevailed and the bus arrived at the ticket counter, RS 10 for nationals, RS 250 for foreigners (which is about US $5 and a lot less expensive than any of our national parks!). As I turned from the ticket counter to walk to stairs I was again accosted by touts, guides and other people.  Trying to make my way through the crowd and escape on my own proved to be an impossibility.  A young man who said he was with the Archeological Survey and showed me a belt buckle with the name as “proof” said he would watch my shoes so they wouldn’t be stolen while I was visiting the caves.  There are two main types of Buddhist Caves at Ajanta, the viharas/monasteries and chaitya-halls/places of worship. One cannot enter places of worship with shoes; they need to be left at the entrance.  Shoe theft is not uncommon at worship sites throughout India and as I only have one pair with me and need them, it seemed reasonable to have someone make sure my Eccos didn’t get mistaken for someone else’s flipflops. Rahul, who said he was also known as Christist as his mother is Catholic and his father is Buddhist, accompanied me on my rounds of the caves.

After I’d taken far too many pictures and learned what I could from the local keepers of the individual caves, the people who sweep them and intimately know every nook and cranny as they live there, as well as from Rahul who grew up playing in them, we started back. As I hadn’t made it to an ATM and had just enough cash to pay Rahul and give him a tip, I wasn’t interested in taking the bus back down, nor in buying anything.  Jonny, however, was right there by the ticket counter waiting for me.  He pressed books into my face “only 2,500 Rupees,”  “best price 2,000 Rupees.” When that didn’t work, he chose another book, “1,300 Rupees” “No.” again, another one “only 750 Rupees, best price.” “But I don’t have any money.” “Dollars ok” “I don’t have any cash, in Rupees or Dollars.” “Go ATM down by car; pay guide, guide give me.” “Okay, but I have to get the money from the ATM, I have no money.” His face was clearly not happy, but “No sale today, so ok, ok.”

Rahul headed for the bus, but I said I’d rather walk, it was a beautiful day and was good to be in the fresh, not dusty or polluted, air of the countryside. He clearly found the idea amusing as he never walks back and forth between the car park and the entrance; while we made our way down he waved to the bus drivers coming up who looked equally astounded. He also shared his family’s story, which is not an uncommon one in this still very structured society.

When his mother was in the tenth class, she came to Ajanta on a school trip from Mumbai.  Among the people going up and down the stairs to the caves are porters carrying those who cannot make it up the hill on their own and one of these young men, who was especially strong and good looking caught her eye.  They managed to meet and fell in love, much against the wishes of her family.  In order to force the issue, she asked him to marry her, which he did.  Her parents disowned her. Their mixed religion family grew to include five children, but even after repeated attempts to make contact with her parents and siblings, she was cut off.  The last time was only a few years ago after her husband had a non-fatal heart attack and had to stop working as a porter.  Rather than helping her and her children, instead the family lashed out at both her and her husband saying he was a good-for-nothing and she should never have married him in the first place.  After this the husband, Rahul’s father, spiraled downwards into a depression and started drinking and gambling.  He lost whatever savings the family had, including everything that was saved to pay for the extravagant Indian weddings for his three daughters.  Rahul as the oldest son had to pick up the slack.  He had grown up at Ajanta and now started to try to get odd jobs and watch people’s shoes as a means to support the family.  He was incredibly lucky to meet a German man on one of his first days working.  At the end of their day together the European asked where he lived. Rahul took him to his home where his mother gave the man tea.  The German asked to meet him the following day, when he took him to Aurangabad sent him to a barber and a bathhouse, then bought him 10 pairs of jeans and 20 shirts, gave him a great deal of money (he said $4,000!) and told him to learn English. It was perhaps the greatest turning point for their family.  The money enabled them to pay for the three sisters’ weddings, the father felt guilty and stopped drinking, and Rahul learned English. He appears very gentlemanly as he still watches over people’s shoes. He did try to get into a college, but didn’t have the money to pay for the on-going tuition if he wasn’t working.

As with many people, Rahul has a fascination for famous people and Ajanta attracts those who are interested in art and culture.  He volunteered that he watched over Sean Connery’s shoes and kept the paparazzi away from him while he was looking at the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, as well as some famous soccer player with million dollar gold laced tennis shoes.  There’s a story here – the story of the shoes of Ajanta….  At the end of the day though, the personal stories are shared, whether true or not, not necessarily for a personal connection, but to my jaded mind and experience, as a means of eliciting sympathy so that the foreigner will give more money than the agreed upon price for a service.  It’s not begging, but does sort of feel as if it is. At the same time, I feel guilty for my jaded attitude while being acutely aware of financial constraints.  It’s a typical Indian no-win situation.

At the bottom of the path, a soldier who had locked the back gate threw Rahul the key so that we and a local family could get in to the complex without going all the way around.  Rahul went back to return the key while I headed past the shops and shopkeepers stepping into my path pushing me towards their stalls, making my way to the ATM, only to find that it shut down as it had no more money.  Jonny wasn’t going to get his RS 750.  Rahul came up and I showed him the closed red awning covering the Axis Bank machine and returned Jonny’s book to him. He was not happy, Jonny wasn’t going to be happy, and I was not happy making them not happy. I didn’t need or want the book; it was basically forced on me, but now it was being forced back.  There was nothing I could do if the ATM wasn’t giving out cash.  Greed and Desire are Buddhist sins and while I don’t think that either Jonny or Rahul are greedy, but rather that they just want to survive, there is a fine line.  Jonny’s prices were almost tenfold what they should have been, and Rahul’s $4,000 was a fantasy for some reason that I’m still not sure of.  Foreign tourist money supports these fabulous cultural sites and the communities around them, but I sincerely wish that the people here would understand that not all foreigners have the financial capacity of the German man or the famous soccer player.  Many of us who visit these sites are happy to pay for the experience and will give up other things to do so, (like eating only breakfast as it’s supplied by the hotel and living on crackers for the rest of the time – which is blowing my diet out the window!) but we don’t have piles of extra cash to toss around – even if we would like to help.

It was about 4:45pm when Sanjay pulled out of the parking lot to head to Aurangabad. As we drove the sun was a huge orange ball dropping slowly off the right side of the car while the almost full moon was visible in the blue sky on the left side. By 5:45 it was dark with only the white sphere in view. As Sanjay dogged amid motorbikes with families of two and three children along with their parents on them – and not a helmet in sight – I was reminded of my Goan taxi driver’s story of his friend’s accident.  Life is precious; it can be short. We all just try to make the best of it.  I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to have this trip and all these experiences.  And I’m deeply deeply grateful.



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