Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Death in the City

Lily Burk was 17 years old and running an errand for her mother at Wilshire and Vermont in central Los Angeles near Southwestern University School of Law on Friday afternoon, July 24.

At 3 pm she was abducted by a paroled man living in a nearby residential drug treatment program.

He told her to get money from an ATM with her credit card--not possible unless one has a PIN number to do that. She made two calls to her parents asking how to do it, learning that the card didn't have ATM functions set up.

By 5 pm she was left dead in her car in downtown Los Angeles.


"A Collision of Two L.A. Worlds" the LA Times headlines calls it.


Lily would have been a senior at Oakwood School, where my daughter Marie's best friend, Suzanne, graduated a few years ago. Suzanne's sister Katie had just shared in chaperoning a group of kids from the school, including Lily, on a visit to Chiapas, Mexico.

Marie was with Katie when she heard the news.

We who inhabit the privileged, wealthy world of Los Angeles think we can live our lives right next to poverty, addiction, and crime without being touched by it.

At least we hope so.

But there are frequent lessons that only by good fortune can our pretty island remain unscarred by the horror around us.

We try to do our part, voting for Obama and universal health care, hoping that the inmates put on the streets by our state's financial disaster will not attack us, hoping that the children turned down by the cuts in the preschool Early Start program will not grow up to drop out of school and turn to drugs or crime.

We are more worried about the collision of these worlds than we were a few days ago.

Until we come face to face with the deepest, darkest fact of life without damaging our view of God's character, we do not yet know Her.
--Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His [sic] Highest. Daily reading for July 29.

Meager Monsoon in India

Today's Wall Street Journal reports "Meager Monsoon Threatens Indian Growth."


June was India's driest in 83 years. Four provinces have declared drought, including Uttar Pradesh.

Monsoon rains are critical for summer crops.

"Two-thirds of India's 1.1 billion people live in villages, and agriculture accounts for around 18% of gross domestic product," writes Abhrajit Gangopadhyay.

India's economic growth slowed to 6.7% in the year ended March 31, compated to 9% a year earlier. Low agricultural output could slow India's economy to less than 5% growth.

(See S. V. Gupt's discussion of the Indian economy in this blog, July 13, "Nishi's House."

Monday, July 27, 2009

What Can I Do for Health Care Reform?

Greta Kreider sent me a link to a website gathering signatures to support health care reform.


We're at a point in history where to do nothing is to let evil advance. We all need to do something to show our support for universal coverage.

There are so many people opposing health care reform--let me know what other small actions I can take to help out.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

George Tiller's Story

"An Abortion Battle, Fought to the Death," proclaims the Sunday New York Times in a five-column front-page story above the fold with three photos.

The death is Dr. George Tiller's two months ago, May 31, in his church in Wichita, Kansas.

Today's report fills two inside pages describing him, his clinic and the thirty years of harassment that finally culminated in his death.

See the article by David Barstow at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/us/26tiller.html?_r=1&em.

Here's one quotation:

"[After his father, mother, sister, and her husband died in a plane crash] he discovered his father had been performing significant numbers of illegal abortions, and before long women began turning to him for abortions, too, often under desperate circumstances."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Shabat Shalom

My Hebrew teacher, Gilla Nissan, invited me to a Kabbalat Shabat in the home of another student's mother in the hills above Ventura Blvd.

Twelve people gathered for a Mediterranean-style meal starting with the blessing of bread and wine and the ritual washing of hands.

Prior to the meal was a time of quiet centering in the patio outside the home overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

We each in turn lit a candle and said the words, "Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu, melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzotayn v'tzunu l'harlik ner shel shabat." (Someone please improve my clumsy Hebrew-to-English-alphabet spelling.)

"Blessed are You, Lord God, ruler of space and time, who has commanded us to light the Sabbath candles," is a rough translation.

It was beautiful. Gilla led a group conversation on topics such as, "When did Shabat begin for you?"

She introduced a central text about the Shabat:
Let us go, my beloved, to welcome the bride.

The Shabat is the bride. We need to welcome her, prepare for her. The beloved is God, whom we draw in to us from beyond to share this time of Shabat.

Gilla stressed the importance of being intentional--doing Shabat preparations and activities with a conscious intent of being in God's presence.

We defined Shabat as a consciousness of God's presence, a state of mind we can enter into at morning prayers and meditation and at other times during the week.

Nevertheless, as a group we all support each other in cherishing God's presence in a special way on the Sabbath.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Death for the Eclipse

Two people were killed in the crush of 60,000 people on the ghats in Varanasi above the Ganges during the longest solar eclipse of this century.

One drowned, the other was crushed in a stampede.

I'm grateful that I wasn't there.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dental Patience

What's it like to be a woman in dentistry?

I got a glimpse while talking with my friend Mary Jo after the concert.

** When she entered dental school at the University of Missouri in Kansas City in 1975, there were 15 women students and 160 men. In the class above her, there were 7 women and 160 men; in the next class, 5 women and in the senior class, 1 woman and 160 men.

** In the large lecture class on Dental Biochemistry, the professor used slides of pin-up girls to enliven the illustrations accompanying his lectures. Mary Jo didn't complain, but a new department chair put a stop to the practice a year later.

** Five years ago at the Dental Study Club, a monthly meeting of 30-some professional dentists in West Los Angeles for support and continuing education, Mary Jo walked in a few minutes late to one monthly luncheon where a Beverly Hills orthodontist was giving a PowerPoint presentation. She's the only woman member of this study group.

"He stopped and looked like a deer in headlights when I entered the room," she said.

"I didn't know you were going to be here," he said.

It turned out he had laced his presentation with slides of naked fat women.

Mary Jo kept her cool as he tried to make his embarrassment all about her--not about his own poor taste.

**Last week at another meeting of the Dental Study Club, an old codger who had ignored her for many years, not appreciating a woman in the otherwise all-male club, happened to be seated next to her.

Mary Jo mentioned that her father is a dentist still practicing in his 70s and her great-uncle was W. H. Eames, an organizer of the Missouri State Dental Association in the 19th C. and a professor of dentistry in Missouri.

The previously distant gentleman got up from his chair and made obeisance to her in honor of her great-uncle.

** Mary Jo also described taking out a loan for $100,000 in 1982 to buy a practice in West Los Angeles--a courageous move for a woman at that time. She proved successful and paid back her loan, billing patients at the same rate male dentists charge. (Statistics show that for the same service, women dentists tend to charge about 75 cents for every dollar men charge.)

Another frontier now more open to women, thanks to the work of pioneers like Mary Jo.

Tourist in Los Angeles

Los Angeles looks so strange after being in India.

Freeways 4-5 lanes wide in each direction... no rickshaws. Grocery stores laden with packaged and canned goods... no open sacks of grain, pyramids of mangos.

Tonight I found myself with friends at the Hollywood Bowl watching the LA Philharmonic in the open air... air that is comfortably warm and dry rather than sending rivulets of sweat down my torso.

There's no chance it will rain--that's why we have outdoor concerts in the summer and fall.

Strangest of all are the three emblems flanking the stage: a large American flag, California flag, and in the distance a neon white cross on the hillside above some church.

I don't remember seeing the flag of India displayed on Taj Mahal or the other splendid historic buildings we visited. Maybe it was there and I didn't notice.

Here it seems hyper-patriotic to preface a classical concert with a singing of the national anthem and to make sure these huge flags are on display.

The white neon cross visible from my seat reminds me that I am in a Christian nation again--the mosques and Hindu temples have vanished. Christianity may not be the official state religion, but it comes close.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas begins the program, reminding me that I am in Hollywood with the Disney Studios nearby. As the familiar music echoes through the amphitheatre, scenes of Mickey Mouse dancing with brooms in Fantasia come to mind, reminding me of when I first saw them at age ten in Boulder.

I am back in a culture I know well, but it all seems strange.

Learning Kabbalah

I planned two last visits to my Hebrew teacher before leaving to find a regular class this fall, less expensive than a private tutor.

When I explained my plans to Gilla today, however, she invited me to join a conversation group or a sliding-scale class of several students.

"There are some teachers who just present biblical Hebrew, without the Kabalistic meaning of the text," she warned.

She also invited me to a "kalabat-shabat" this Friday evening.

It looks as if leaving her is not an option. I'm not just her student but a disciple, and religious mentors do not give up their disciples easily.

At my very first lesson last November, when she spent a half hour introducing the letter Aleph, I realized that I was going to be learning far more than just the Hebrew language.

In fact, there are prayers to be said when sitting down to study Hebrew (in fact, when starting to do anything). It's a whole culture I have entered, not just a language class.

My Hebrew teacher turns out to be a poet and a cross between a spiritual director and a therapist.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Longest Day

I have new respect for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now visiting India.

Month after month she jets from one part of the world to another, entering and leaving time zones like a series of restaurants. How does she do it?

Moving from India time back to Pacific Daylight Time on July 18 was an ordeal for me, and two days later an overpowering need to sleep still drugs my mind about noon or 1 pm when it's midnight in Delhi. (India and California are on precisely opposite sides of the globe, 12 1/2 hours apart.)

At 12:15 am on July 18 I sank into my seat on the Boeing 777 to fly to Chicago, then change planes and fly to Las Vegas and LAX.

The Delhi-Chicago portion of the trip lasted 14 hrs. and 15 minutes but arrived at O'Hare near dawn still on July 18.

After leaving Delhi in darkness and flying northwest a few hours in darkness, we witnessed a beautiful dawn over Yekaterineburg, Russia, near the Ural Mountains at 5:15 am local time (upper photos).

Then we flew over the Barents Sea above Russia and Scandinavia in daylight, passing over some islands way north of Norway but owned by it (called Svalbard) and then over northern Greenland (see map)..

From Russia to Greenland, each time zone we flew over, the local time was about 5:15 am, according to the flight information on the screen in front of each seat. The clock stood still for six or eight hours, then finally moved to Friday afternoon (the 17th).

Finally after Hudson Bay our plane dipped back into the shadowed part of the earth (we saw a sunset in the north), and we arrived in Chicago at 4:35 am... just before another sunrise still on the 18th (lower sunrise photo).

Next I took a 7:40 am flight to Las Vegas (cheaper than going directly to LAX), arriving at 9:20 am, and endured a three-hour layover there.

After eating, walking around, and reading I found at 11 am that I couldn't sit in a chair near my gate any longer. I had to lie down and sleep.

People spread a sheet and sleep on the ground in the train stations of India, I rationalized. Maybe I could do that in the airport in Las Vegas.

I looked around for possible semi-secluded spots and saw four people sitting on the ground against a wall nearby. Picking up my carry-on items, I walked over there and sat down.

Then I reclined with my head on my bag and my knees bent, just kind of casual-looking, I hoped. Then I slid my head to the ground and folded my hands on my chest, let my knees collapse to the floor.

Half an hour later a kind young woman tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Is this your flight? It's boarding."

Raising my head, I realized I was next to the gate for a flight to Minneapolis; the others sitting on the floor had vanished. I thanked her but said it wasn't my flight.

Then as I settled back again trying to get up energy to move to a chair, another passenger boarding that flight said to me, "Did you have too much fun in Vegas?"

"No, I started out in Delhi 24 hours ago," I defended myself.

Gathering my things, I returned to respectability in a chair near my gate. We finally boarded at 12:15 pm, and I slept soundly, not even knowing the plane had landed in Los Angeles at 1:30 pm.

When I woke up, half the passengers were off the plane.

Then after the excitment of seeing John and my daughters, unpacking and displaying souvenirs, I didn't go to bed until nearly 11 pm... amazed that it was still July 18th.

The day had lasted about 36 hours, most of it stuck on 5:15 am.

I admire Hillary for starting a day of diplomatic meetings at 11 am in India when it's really 9 or 10 pm for her... but at least she has a bed on her airplane.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Indian American Airlines

Boarding a jet bound for Delhi places you already within the Indian culture. The foods are Indian and most passengers are speaking Hindi.

Shoes come off. As we neared Delhi, people stood in the aisles brushing their teeth with a cup of water. There were not enough restrooms available, and the anthropologist who led our trip explained that the division between public and private space so strictly observed in Western culture is not present in India.

On the way back, I found myself still immersed in Indian culture until we disembarked in Chicago.

A four-year-old wore a bright green t-shirt that said:


A couple of the films showing for the flight were from Bollywood. I watched Rabne banadi Jodi ("God makes the matches" or "Matches are made in heaven") with the woman next to me.

There was much falling in love and dancing a la American Idol, but the context was an arranged marriage. Would it turn out to be a love match too? Of course.

One thing about the movie was all to familiar: God was referred to as "him."

"I see God in you," cooed the now-happy wife.

"And I see him in you," answered the husband.

Many Hindus say that all their male and female deities are in fact just various forms of the one God. Why that God gets referred to in masculine terms is beyond me.

My seat-mate was a gynecologist and surgeon from Delhi. When my legs were cramping during the 14-hour flight, I was grateful to accept an aspirin from her to thin my blood.

But soon she was advising Yoga and then Tai Chi... how healthy they are, how good for the mind as well as body, how in just six months or more you can learn enough to do your 20 minutes a day on your own.

I politely fended off her suggestions by telling her about a friend who had to have neck surgery after spending too much time standing on her head in yoga class.

She also argued that a vegetarian diet is much more healthy, and I'm sure it is, but I went to India as a tourist, not a seeker of truth ready to adopt a new lifestyle.

Rather than become a vegetarian and take up yoga, I just want to get back to my normal life.

Friday, July 17, 2009

On Being Tik

When I started listening to the Teach Yourself Hindi CDs, I noticed that all the initial conversations were about whether someone was "tik" (okay, fine) or "taka, taki" (tired, in the masculine and feminine).

The characters discuss the long plane ride to Delhi, but then reassure each other "Mai tik hu" (I'm fine)... Ap casi hai? (How are you?).

I concluded that this 14 hr. plane trip and 12 hr. time change would be taxing.

Once in India, however, I found that reassuring people about my status was pretty constant.

Yes, I got soaked in the monsoon but "Mai tik hu."

The overnight train trip was quite a challenge but I'm fine.

It's hot and humid but no problem.

No electricity? Squatty potties with no toilet paper? "Mai tik hu."

One evening we attended a classical performance of Indian music sponsored by NIRMAN on the Assi Ghat (a platform area on steps above the Ganges). See http://worldmusic.about.com/od/asianmiddleeastern/p/ClassicalIndian.htm

We sat down at 7 pm but the performance didn't begin until 7:50 after a half hour of tuning the sitar. Actually, I couldn't tell when the tuning ended and the performance began.

Sitar and classical raga singing is an acquired taste.

By about 8:45 pm I was feeling an overpowering desire to lie down (having risen at 4 that morning to see dawn on the Ganges).

I quietly walked from my seat to the shadowy steps and stood listening from there. Then I walked to a darker area, past many sleeping people, and sat down on the step.

Finally I spread out my poncho on the step and lay down. Why not? Lots of other people were sleeping.

I studied the stars and then woke a half hour later to three faces bending over me against a cloud-covered sky.

"Mai tik hu!" I declared, sitting up.

Why did I think a light-skinned tourist sleeping on the ghat at night could pass unnoticed?

As soon as they knew I was all right, they moved away. I reclined again, but twice more I was questioned. I finally sat up and engaged in a long conversation with some young men before returning to the concert as it ended after 11 pm.

The phrase came in handy again as our van was threading Friday rush hour traffic in south Delhi, trying to get back to Suniti's apartment and get three of us to the airport to board return flights to the US.

"Mai tik hu," I told Nita. "I'm fine--we're all fine." We'll probably get to the airport in time for our flights--and if we don't?

"Mai tik hu."

Bad Traffic

We were driving at about 60 mph from Agra to Delhi on the Grand Trunk Road.

This road has two lanes in each direction separated by an eight-inch cement barrier, but it does not have limited access. Of course, driving is done on the left side of the road with the driver sitting in the right half of the front seat.

Cows, a herd of goats, black pigs can wander onto the road.

Traffic includes cars, vans, buses, trucks, tractors, autorickshaws, and motorcycles.

Our driver passed everything on the road, weaving in and out, honking to show his presence.

Occasionally there was a large truck just stopped in the left lane: screech, swerve.

When we went through towns, pedestrians and bicycle rickshaws joined the roadway.

Sometimes I just had to close my eyes for a few seconds until the latest sudden obstacle had been passed.

Photos are taken from the car in and around Agra and toward Delhi.

The last three are
--young men devoted to Krishna walking along the roadside barefoot (by the hundreds) in a pilgrimage to Mathura, his birthplace near Agra.
--a roadside restaurant and souvenir shop.
--a rooftop depiction of some deity.


On our last day in India, during a 6 1/2 hr. drive from Agra to Delhi (where three of us had planes to catch at about midnight), we stopped for snacks, sodas, and water.

A snake charmer was nearby, displaying his cobra and small boa constrictor, so we walked over to watch.

"This is a really dangerous profession," Nita Kumar explained to us. "First he goes into the jungle and catches the snakes. Then he removes the poison from the cobra. Also, snake charming is illegal now."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because of the drive to end cruelty to animals. You can't keep monkeys and make them perform, or snakes, or anything."

I was awed. The concept of kindness to snakes was new to me.

As a child in Colorado, I had enjoyed garter snakes and king snakes, so I took my turn in the illegal activity and paid fifty rupees to the owner of these animals.

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri is a beautiful red sandstone palace and grounds set on top of a hill near Agra, the only hill of several hundred feet I saw during our two weeks in North India.

About it my guidebook says: "By the age of 26, Akbar had assembled 300 wives and a harem of 5000 concubines and yet he had no heir. It was the Rajput princess, Jodhai Bai of Amber, who gave him his first son Salim, later to become emperor Jahangir. To celebrate this event, Akbar ordered the construction of Fatehpur Sikri."

It was built in 1571 but abandoned after only 14 years, perhaps because of failing water supply or a military campaign.

An elephant fight between two elephants owned by Salim and his brother Khusrau determined the successor to the throne.

Globetrotter Travel Guide to Delhi, Jaipur and Agra (New Holland, 2008).

Children at Fatehpur Sikri

Poverty hits you full in the face when you tour India.

Nita Kumar, our guide, told us not to give to children or others who ask for money. Begging is an industry; children are kidnapped into it and owned. They hand over all proceeds to their owners.

What she does instead:

1) She gives money to widows. There's a spot in Nagwa where widows sit.

2) She gives pens to kids who beg on the ghats of the Ganga.

3) She also compliments them or teaches them something. "They can carry more than money--give them something else."

4) She takes rickshaw drivers to a place where they can get their tires repaired. (That way she knows they are not spending a gift on alcohol.)

5) She goes to a store and buys rice, then puts it in little bags to carry and give to poor people who are begging.

6) She gives to disabled people sitting in a temple or mosque and asking for alms. These people are more likely to be able to keep the money rather than part of the industry of begging.

I was often tempted to give to begging women or children and sometimes succumbed. I decided they deserved ten or twenty rupees (20-40 cents) for letting me take their picture.

But other times, as in the case of the children pictured above sitting on the floor and begging inside Fatehpur Sikri, built by Emperor Akbar to be his capital near Agra, I hurried on by, not stopping to open my wallet or figure out the ethics of the situation.

More photos, India

Ravidass Gate near NIRMAN Centre
and children at Vidyashram, South Point School, NIRMAN.
Posted by Picasa

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Gandhi and Gender

Mohandas K. Gandhi is still a major presence in India. His face appears on the front of all the currency and on stamps; his quotations appear on walls.

His title, "Mahatma," means Great Soul, "maha" (great), "atman"(soul).

During our walks and talks with Dr. Nita Kumar, professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, she seemed to me like a living embodiment of the Mahatma--at least as close as I will ever get.

She admires Gandhi greatly, and at a dinner on our next to last night in India, we begged her to talk about him.

She told us much that is widely known: he lived 1869-1948, worked for many years in South Africa as a human rights lawyer, became dogmatically vegetarian (no cow's milk, eggs, butter), led India's struggle for independence from the British.

"He was a little mouse of a person," she said, known for his food fads.

But he had an instinctive sense of strategy and in meetings about how to achieve independence, one day said, "Let's have a strike." It became the key tool.

"People called Gandhi 'my mother,'" she said. "He was known for his fasting, his nonstitched clothes--like women's clothes. In fact, he was very effeminate."

Men in the British government stressed masculinity, sports, good sportsmanship. "The British saw Indians as effeminate," she said.

But Gandhi was very pro-woman and pro-India. His nonviolence, seamless non-Western dress, vegetarianism, and other practices amounted to a "delibate effeminization of India," she said.

Some of the other things she said about him, taken from his autobiography:

He was powerful, radical, innovative.

He did not appreciate pleasures: meat, wine, good food, good music, good art. He was all about denial and sacrifice; he probably would not have walked around the Taj Mahal as we did today.

"I see this as problematic!" Nita said.

In his twenties, however, he did love pleasures: dance, violin. He was quite a dandy.

The youngest child in an elite family, he didn't like school. In fact, he was very moralistic as a child and learned from his mistakes. In his autobiography he makes a point of confessing his follies, including a visit to a prostitute as a young man. He presents his life as a series of mistakes followed by repenting.

Married at 13 to a girl of 13, he says that at that time all he had on his mind was sex.

Later he became very much against child marriage, the caste system, and colonial education.

He had a son by age 19 or 20, went to England for his education, and became a lawyer. He was very shy and couldn't get a job in India, eventually securing a position as a lawyer in South Africa.

In South Africa he learned that both Africans and Indians were discriminated against by the British and German Afrikaaners. His encounter with racism in South Africa led him to decide, "I am a coloured person. I will fight for my rights and defend the legal rights of others."

Non-Christians marriages were not honored there; all Muslim and Hindu children were considered bastards.

After 20-25 years in South Africa (approximately 1890-1920), he returned to India. He set up an ashram, founded two newspapers, tried to raise funds--but met with failure in these and many other enterprises. If something failed, he didn't care. He tried something else.

He grew increasingly vegetarian at a time when very few other people chose that lifestyle. He refused to eat even cereal grains--only fruits or vegetables, raw or very lightly cooked, with dried fruits and nuts. He also ate sugar and chocolates.

"I've been so close to Gandhi that I'd go for a week at a time without cereals," Nita admitted. "It's very healthy, but I decided that was not for me."

"He was not seen as weird or shutting out people," Nita said.

His wife and he agreed to celibacy from a certain point on, but they were closely devoted to each other all their lives.

On January 30, 1948, he was assassinated.

From the I Love India website:

Gandhiji worked ceaselessly to promote unity between Hindus and Muslims. This angered some Hindu fundamentalists and on January 30, 1948 Gandhiji was shot dead by one such fundamentalist Nathu Ram Godse while he was going for his evening prayers. The last words on the lips of Gandhiji were Hey Ram.


Taj Mahal

Yes, it was beautiful.

But I didn't want to go on this tour: not after the all-night train ride the night before, the 6-hour van ride from Delhi to Agra, and the argument at the security check where they didn't want to let me in.

The problem turned out to be the tiny straight pin holding an Indian flag that had been pinned to my shirt by someone at the train station earlier in the day.

According to our schedule, we were going to tour the Taj Mahal the next day, after a restful evening and dinner in the Grand Imperial Hotel--our first and only night in a hotel during the whole two weeks.

But for some reason, we were unloaded from the van at the gate of the Taj at 5:15 pm when I was feeling tired and cranky.

The reason turned out to be that someone reading a guidebook had discovered that the Taj is not open on Fridays. Ergo, it was now or never for seeing the Taj Mahal.

Actually, it was more beautiful in the evening hours with dramatic clouds than it would have been on a sunny, quiet morning.

I was surprised to learn that the whole place is a memorial garden and mausoleum with adjoining mosques, built for a woman who died in 1631 while giving birth to her 14th child.

She earned every inch of it! May every woman who dies in childbirth be given such a monument--especially those who have already given so much to the world.

(Sophia Tolstoy bore 13 children and before the last several births had begged her husband for respite from intercourse and pregnancy--to no avail--but she outlived Leo.)

But back to Arjumand Banu Begum, who married the Mughal emperor Shat Jahan and was given the title Mumtaz Mahal (Exalted One of the Palace).

When she died at 38, the Shah promised to build her the most beautiful mausoleum in the world. It took 22 years to build with marble from Rajasthan inlaid with gold and colorful cut gemstones.

We paid 750 rupees for entry ($15.53) and were given bottled water and a pair of paper shoe coverings (like those worn by surgeons) in a souvenir carry bag.

Nearing the marble terrace, we had to put on the shoe coverings--much better than removing our shoes as at previous historical sites.

We were not given instructions on how to find the restroom, which soon became a priority for me.

"It's near the main gate--you don't have to go all the way back to the security entrance," Nita said with a wave of her arm.

I set off in that direction and noticed that no utilitarian signs were allowed to spoil the beauty of the place--unlike Disneyland where toilet signs are everywhere.

But I did enjoy the garden and took lots of photos of the flowers and trees.

Finally at the main gate I saw two signs: "Toilet" and "Exit" both pointing the same way. I walked almost back to the security entrance before turning back and asking a guard for information.

He let me back in and I found left of the gate a long open hall of India's history starting in 5,000 BCE and ending with a modest sign just outside the toilets.

As our group left the Taj at 7 pm, we were beseiged by the same crowd of boys and young men trying to sell us mini-Taj Mahals and other products of inlaid marble.

When we had entered, I had had to borrow 700 rupees from Nita Kumar to get in--I'd spent all my cash yesterday tipping rickshaw drivers and porters in my mad dash to catch the train from Varanasi to Delhi.

So my main concern was to find an ATM and repay her. One of the boys very kindly directed me to an ATM, so out of gratitude I entered his father's shop to buy a souvenir.

I walked out with a set of six marble coasters inlaid with turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian, mother of pearl (in an inlaid marble container) along with a small plate and little ring box. Cost: 10,000 rupees ($207). More than I'd planned to spend, but the coasters would be a good Christmas gift for my mother-in-law.

We had to stand around waiting for three more members of our group, and that meant enduring the continued assault of all the young salesmen.

"Meri pas hai," I kept saying. "I already bought those things."

By the time our group finally reached the safety of the van, where they continued to pry at the windows shouting at us to buy things, I was nearly in tears.

I had been close to hauling off and walloping them--all that yelling in my face was tough to put up with on a few hours of sleep.

But to these persistent young salesmen, we were a walking gold mine.

You can see or buy inlaid marble at http://www.kashand.com/.