By Alexandra Diemer - Today began (seemingly right where yesterday ended) with a 4 a.m. wake-up call to board a train headed for Agra and the Taj Mahal. Considering that tonight is New Year's Eve, we've decided that our sleeping cycles may not approach "normal" until next week.
When the sun eventually crept up over the horizon, our vision did not improve much to take in the passing views since most of the morning was shrouded in a hazy smog-fog. Upon arrival at the Agra train station, we headed for the Mughal Heritage Walk as part of CURE (Center for Urban and Rural Excellence) India's rural development initiative outside the main borders of the city. As we walked through the vegetable and wheat fields, splashes of green decorated the landscape - a welcome visual after the grey-skied, concrete jungle of Delhi. Toward the edge of the agricultural sections was an unexpected treat: an unobstructed, close-up preview from the backside of the magnificent Taj Mahal, the impending attraction of our afternoon.
Next, our walk took us through the winding maze of the village's narrow streets. Since school was out for a winter holiday, we made many new young friends who boasted their limited English phrases, posing and tempting us to take their photos. One of the highlights of the walk was viewing a pilot project CURE was evaluating to implement a series of settling tanks and plant-root filtrations set up along the creek that flowed through the village center. The intentions are to percolate and sanitize the stream of its human waste, wash-water, and other contaminants so that it may be used as crop irrigation downstream and prevent contamination of the larger river into which it flows.
Along the labyrinth of side streets, water-wells, and vendors were many vibrantly painted walls and doorways, many of which were adorned with a chili pepper/lemon arrangement to ward off spirits and demons. The people we encountered were very eager to welcome us into their community and at the end of our heritage walk we were presented with marigold necklaces and invited to watch a skit some of the young women had prepared. Though these local Indians were not of affluence, their demeanors were abundantly generous.