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The sole purpose of my quick stop in India is to see the Taj Mahal. Perhaps someday I will come back to see more, but for now, the Taj is my goal.
I am arriving on the red-eye flight from Dubai and then leaving later that same night on the red-eye to Bangkok. I knew this would be a trying part of my journey since it involves 3 overnight flights in a span of 4 nights. The timing is especially crucial as I’m told it is a 4-5 hour drive to Agra (where the Taj is located) and then another 4-5 back to the airport in Delhi.
So this leaves me with only a few hours to see the Taj and the Agra Fort, the other top attraction in Agra, before heading back to the airport.
A few days before I departed from the US, I happened to stumble across an important bit of information regarding my stop in India while reading a fellow RTW traveler’s blog. Turns out, the Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays. My lone day is India is scheduled for a Friday.
This cannot be true, I thought. After all, would a tour company schedule me a car, driver and tour guide to the Taj on a day when it was closed? Surely not.
So I sent the company an e-mail saying that I had heard a silly rumor that the Taj Mahal was closed on Fridays and to please confirm that I am simply an hysterical American and this is not true. They quickly e-mailed me back and very apologetically admitted the error was theirs, apparently the person who booked my tour did not consult a calendar at the time of booking and did not realize it was a Friday.
They made the suggestion that I change my plans to arrive on Thursday or Saturday. Well, that’s lovely but you can imagine what a wrench that would have thrown in the whole RTW itinerary. It would have involved missing my night in Dubai (which was simply not an option) or cutting down my time in Thailand, which I didn’t want to do either.
I posted a message on a website I had found through my research for the trip called IndiaMike (which is frequented by India travel experts) asking for advice on what you could still see of the Taj on a Friday. I got several encouraging responses from folks who said there were still good views from the back side across the river and that the only thing I would really be missing was seeing the marble work up close – and of course the huge crowds.
So after researching all possible options in the waning hours before I left, I decided to keep my itinerary as is and take whatever I could get from the Taj Mahal.
Arrival in New Delhi
So after my experience with this tour company thus far, I was just hopeful someone would actually be there to meet me at the airport.
As I emerged into the baggage claim area, I was relieved to see that there was indeed someone there to meet me. In fact, the owner of the company showed up to apologize personally for the error they had made in booking the tour. To make up for it, he said, they would be providing me with a complimentary lunch at a fine restaurant in Agra.
He was very nice and since I had already decided to make the best of the situation and enjoy my day in India, I thanked him and he escorted me to my car for the day (a big, new Chevy SUV which was a pleasant surprise).
My driver for the day was Ashish and he would be taking me to Agra where I would meet my tour guide. We loaded into the car and pulled out into the streets of New Delhi.
The first thing that hits me as we begin our journey is the smog. It is overwhelming. Within the first hour, my nose, eyes and throat burn. Ashish rolls up the windows and turns on the A/C and I immediately feel a sense of guilt that everyone else around me can’t escape the fumes that way.
Driving in India
Driving through India is pure sensory overload. The first thing you notice are the cows. They are everywhere.
According to Hindu scripture, cows represent nurturing and fertility. And bulls command divine respect because the Hindu God, Shiva, is often depicted riding one.
As a result, these animals are considered sacred. They are allowed to roam freely throughout the counry, adding to the already unmanageable driving conditions in Delhi.
The city’s roads are a chaotic combination of overloaded cars, trucks, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws (called tuk-tuks), motorbikes and bicycles all honking their horns (some even musical horns) and jockeying for position on the unlined road.
Throw in the blaring Hindi music coming from most vehicles, the hurried pedestrians, the wandering cows, the cart-pulling camels and the occasional monkey, chicken and wild boar and you have yourself a typical Delhi rush hour.
I can’t take my eyes off of the road, I’m afraid the second I do we’ll hit something. I thought that Cairo was the most scared I’d ever been in the back of a car but I was wrong. This is Cairo (+) livestock (x) 8 to 10 hours. God help me.
We have been driving for almost an hour when I realize that my jaw has been clenched the entire time and I’m getting a headache. I make a concerted effort to relax; it’s going to be a long drive.
Relaxing is made all the more difficult by Ashish who is constantly laying on the horn to get other vehicles out of his way. The only thing he doesn’t honk the horn at is the cows (he explains that the horn is ineffective with the cows – you just have to wait them out).
But everyone else is fair game and in the entire drive to Agra and back, we are never passed by anyone (which makes me think we must be going too fast) but we noisily pass by everyone else. I think he believes he is displaying his skill as a driver by getting me to my destination as quickly as possible. All I am really getting is a headache.
But if you can release your focus from the road for long enough to take in the scene around you, that’s when India really starts to get to you. I thought I had read enough about what it’s like to experience Delhi and was mentally prepared to see the poverty that exists in India but we had only been on the road a short time when I realized I wasn’t.
It is a completely different level of poverty, incomparable to anything I have seen of the rest of the world.
But despite the poverty, I realize there is a friendly and welcoming spirit in so many of the people who live here. Sitting in traffic, every time someone caught my eye in the back of the car, they smiled at me and seemed genuinely happy (though surprised) to see me. The children would smile and wave when they spotted me.
All that is in stark contrast to the poverty surrounding us and the other children who come up to the car to beg for money every time we stop. The best word I can think of to describe it is humbling.
I never once saw anything that resembled a house. There were lots of tents with cots outside and a few “storage-like” sheds, but mostly people just seemed to be living outdoors. Cooking outdoors, sleeping outdoors, filling pots at a well and bathing outdoors. There was trash everywhere and you can imagine what sort of mess the cows leave behind. There were often small fires along the road to burn trash and manure. This all adds to the unmistakable aroma of Delhi.
The worst part of the drive was just outside the city limits of Delhi when we came upon an accident involving several vehicles including a tuk-tuk. Before I had a chance to process what I was seeing, I realized I was looking at a dead body that had been pulled to the side of the road and was partially covered (the face at least) with a blanket.
There was no ambulance or police car and I didn’t get the sense that either were coming. The people involved seemed to be more concerned with clearing the broken glass out of the road than with the dead body pulled aside lending the whole scene a sense of grim normality.
Not hard to believe considering the traffic conditions here (a dozen people crammed in a tuk-tuk meant to seat 4, bicycles and motorbikes carrying at least 3 people, children standing on the back of trucks, etc.) but startling nonetheless.
Ashish caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and I could tell he was hoping that I hadn’t seen it (probably not good for the tourism industry) but I had…and I won’t soon forget it.
Agra at Last
Finally, after a little under 4 hours, we entered the city of Agra where I was introduced to Sindhar, my tour guide for the afternoon.
Our first stop was the Agra Fort. The fort contains splendid palaces both in red sandstone and white marble built by two generations of prolific builders. I spent an enjoyable hour wandering the grounds and taking in the distant views of the Taj Mahal from the upper levels.
Our next stop was the river behind the Taj Mahal. The guys on the India Mike site were right, this was a great spot. There were less than a dozen people around – mostly locals who were doing their laundry in the river – so the usual tourist hawkers were taking the day off. Sidhar explained the history of the Taj and we just sat there for a while taking pictures and taking it all in.
The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his queen Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz and Shah Jehan were married in 1612 A.D and had 14 children together. The Empress Mumtaz used to accompany her husband in his military campaigns, and it was in Burhanpur in 1630, that she gave birth to her last child, after which she died.
So great was the Shah Jahan’s love for his wife Mumtaz, that he ordered the building of the most beautiful mausoleum on Earth for her, The Taj Mahal. As soon as construction work began in early 1630, sculptors, masons, craftsmen, and calligraphers were called from Persia, Ottoman Empire and Europe to work on construction of the Taj. It was constructed over a period of twenty-two years, employing twenty thousand workers.
It was just as spectacular as I imagined it and I do wish I could have gotten up close and actually touched the marble. According to Sidhar, the weather today was about as good as it gets. There is a constant haze over the Taj but today it was less than usual. He said that as many as 70% of people who come for one day to view the Taj leave disappointed due to weather issues (haze, monsoons, etc.) so I guess I lucked out despite it being closed while I was there, at least I got a few good pictures.
Our final stop was the restaurant where they were treating me to lunch. I was really nervous about this as I hadn’t exactly planned on a meal while I was here. I don’t particularly like Indian food at home so I was hesitant to try it in a place where it might make me sick (I’d read lots of horror stories online).
But, I couldn’t exactly turn down lunch since they had so kindly offered it, so off we went. I was pleasantly surprised by how nice and clean the restaurant was – though we were the only ones in there which concerned me a little – it was by far the nicest building I’d seen anywhere here (except for the Taj of course).
Fortunately it was a set menu so I didn’t have to do any ordering. Though I wasn’t familiar with some of the dishes, the meal actually wasn’t bad. Two highlights from the restaurant – they had ice cold Diet Coke and a bathroom with a real toilet (not the hole in the floor offered at the Agra Fort) – I had to pay to use it, but it was worth every penny.
My tour of Agra complete, I said goodbye to Sidhar, and Ashish and I got back in the car for the long drive back to the airport. It was equally as unsettling as the drive out but at least this time there were no dead bodies. The drive back took almost 6 hours with all the evening traffic in Delhi and I was really starting to get tired for the last hour once darkness set in.
India had drained my spirit and the last few nights (2 of 3 spent on a plane) were starting to catch up with me. I really needed some sleep but I had another night on a plane looming ahead and departure was still 3 hours away. It was hard to keep my eyes open toward the end of the drive and I kept nodding off and being jerked back into consciousness by the blaring of the horn or the slamming of brakes.
I was happy to finally get to the airport but disappointed to learn that my flight was delayed by an hour (not a huge deal since it meant arriving in Bangkok at 4:30am instead of 3:30am, I didn’t expect to be able to check into the hotel that early anyway). But I was looking forward to getting onto a nice clean plane and falling asleep for a little while. I was feeling filthy from the dirty sand on the banks across from the Taj and just the general funk of India. I went through an entire bottle of Purell hand sanitizer today and wished I had another.
Thai Air (my carrier to Bangkok) did have a business class lounge but it was shared with a number of other airlines and it was packed. I finally found a seat and tried to read for a while to kill some time but I kept falling asleep in the chair and people were starting to stare. I drank 2 Diet Cokes while in the lounge but that didn’t seem to help.
I decided I had to walk around the airport if I was going to stay awake long enough to get on my plane – and I was NOT missing that plane – so I went out to explore the duty-free shops. There was strong-smelling incense coming from one of the shops blending aromatically with cigarette smoke and some serious BO. The only upside was that sleep would be virtually impossible in this environment.
Finally, my flight boarded and we took off for Bangkok. The Thai Air flight was lovely and they are now my new favorite airline – they flew me OUT of India. Maybe I would have left with a better impression of India had I done the “tourist train” from Delhi that whisks you to Agra in 2 hours flat (and does not operate on Fridays which should have been my first clue) and then a nice tourist bus to take me directly to the Taj and the Fort.
It almost certainly would have given me a better impression of the country (and the one most tourists probably leave with). But I feel like I would have cheated myself of the opportunity to see the real India that I saw up close and personal today. India is a complex and often overwhelming place to visit.
At times beautiful and majestic and at other times scary and saddening, sometimes all in the same 5 minutes.
I am ambivalent about whether I could ever return to India (perhaps to see the Taj up close and I know there is so much more of the country to see) but after only 16 hours in India, I feel like I have been here a week.
I’m dirty, I’m physically and mentally exhausted; and for now, I’m ready to go.
2015 Update: I did indeed return to India on my honeymoon and my 2nd visit was a much better experience: