26 Jan 2014 // Agra and the Taj Mahal


I'm not sure how the pictures are going to show up ... I'll get some on Flickr soon. But hopefully you get the idea. 

Also, this is a much longer post than I anticipated posting, but so much happened I just couldn't stop writing!

26 Jan 2014

Six a.m. and the winter fog hadn't yet lifted. The chill in the air made it all the more eerie as we met the day's driver outside the hotel and loaded into the van for the trek to the Taj Mahal.

There were no street signs to speak of as Kumar, a short man in his mid 30s, wound through the streets of Delhi making his way to the tollway. At one point we were under an overpass on a gravel dirt road that looked like the last thing we'd be on in order to find the main road. In the cold morning, men in long sleeves and pants bundled up with scarves over their faces and heads to bar the cold fog. As they walked through the streets, paying little heed to the cars, I wondered what their days would look like today. It's a holiday, so does that mean celebrating? Or just another day with no work and no income? But as soon as I thought that, we had passed and were gone on our journey to a place of the ultimate extravagance.

We did finally found the tollway by turning on a ramp that did not in the least look like a ramp. Before the fog lifted I forgot we were even in India. The highway was smooth and the scenery was green among the haze. The only thing to remind me was the incessant honking of car horns and the erratic driving by everyone on the road.

As the sun rose and the fog began to lift, the stark reality of being in India hit. Off the freeway now, we were going though towns full of battered buildings, ferrel dogs (and various animals), and street fires. So different is this environment from where I was 72 hours before. This main highway crosses several states and yet it's a two lane road shared with bikes, motor bikes, motorized rickshaws, and delivery trucks. Honking the horn isn't out of rudeness, it's necessity. And it's also the Indian signal for 'I'm passing you so don't move over.' Actually the big trucks have Blow Horn painted on their back tailgates to remind drivers that they probably can't see you, so honk.

About half way through our 4 hour journey to the Taj Mahal, our driver needed to pay some sort of tax. He told us before he went "Lots of hawkers. Keep doors closed. Keep doors closed. I'll be right back." And again, before he closed the door again "remember, keep doors closed." Immediately after he headed into the building, our car got approached by several people, mainly men, selling their wares. Four or five men had small monkeys on leashes. A monkey or two jumped onto the car and were balancing on the doors.

Jim, sitting in the front seat, innocently enough took a picture of the monkey sitting on the mirror. Bad idea. Its owner immediately started yelling, "photo charge! Photo charge! Take picture of my monkey, photo charge!" As Jim put his camera away, Deb said, "yeah I wondered if they'd do that." And I said "oh shit" to myself. Not to be ignored, the man started knocking on the window and continued to yell "photo charge! photo charge!" Deb and I locked our doors as the man tried to open Jim's door. I'm not sure if the lock wasn't working, or if the man was too quick, but the door started to open! Jim grabbed it closed and locked it, only to have it start to open again. We avoided eye contact with everyone, even each other, and just sat quietly looking down, as the man continued to yell "photo charge! photo charge! You take picture of my monkey, photo charge!" He crossed the vehicle and tried to open the driver's side, which Jim reached over to lock and hold closed. Kumar could not have come soon enough! We saw him crossing the road, said a few words to the man, and got in the car. He put away his papers as the man continued to yell "photo charge! Photo charge!"

As we pulled away, Deb said, "Yeah, maybe that wasn't the best of ideas." We laughed it off a little bit as the tension in the vehicle decreased the further away we got from that stop. As the trip was about four hours, we stopped at a "resort" for tea and washroom. Separated from the driver, we talked and joked about the monkey incident and the tension was completely released when I asked, "so, did you get a good picture at least?" Jim replied, "I don't know! I haven't dared look yet!"

The fog that we hoped was lifting indeed was not. We were starting to worry whether we'd be able to see the Taj at all considering the visibility was about 20 feet at some points! We asked Kumar what he thought and he said "oh yes. Never foggy at the Taj. It's across the river, fog will clear." I got the sense he was just wanting us to be satisfied and continue the journey.

The day we decided to go to the Taj Mahal was 26 January, National Republic Day in India. It's their Independence Day from Great Britain. We were warned about this and were prepared for a lot of traffic on the roads, as well as a lot of people at the Taj. The traffic was indeed heavy, but I think that just may be Indian traffic though. It didn't seem that much different from my last trip -- drivers using their horn every other second, and pedestrians, bikers, motor bikers, and rickshaw drivers just going any way they pleased without any heed to any street laws or rules of the road.

Two incidents did have me laugh and just shake my head in disbelief though, thinking, 'yep, I'm in India!'. The first came when we slowed down considerably due to traffic. Kumar, not wanting to wait, got into the left shoulder of the road following a motor bike (note: they drive on the left side of the road in India--usually). The motor bike swerved to reveal a red cone with a flag on it. This was supposedly to mark the reason for the slowdown--workers had chopped down a tall tree and some of it landed in the road. However, they did not move it out of the road before they started chopping it up into smaller pieces. Instead, they just left it blocking traffic, making the cars stop and go around it, while the workers continued to chop the tree.

That traffic jam was nothing compared to the slowdown a couple miles down the road. Kumar actually got out of his car to check on the hold up. We continued to wait for a couple minutes, but noticing the traffic going in the opposite direction was moving along nicely, Kumar got in the car, and turned into oncoming traffic. I thought he was going to turn around and find another road, but considering this is the main highway connecting several states, I didn't think there were very many options for other routes. Instead, Kumar headed to the right shoulder of the opposite side. We were now driving on the wrong side of the road, dodging oncoming traffic and cars and trucks entering traffic as well as pedestrians walking along (since we were on the shoulder!). What?! How is this happening! Well, it worked. We passed all the holdup on the other side and Kumar crossed over onto the correct side of the street just as the traffic ended and we got moving at normal speed.

The fog still wasn't budging as we saw signs to Agra say 33km, 17km, and finally 3km. As we wound our way through Agra, Kumar pointed out "Taj Mahal over there." Yep, saw nothing but fog. We met our guide at the entrance of the driveway to the Taj Mahal and got out of the car to walk the 500m to the gate. Mohammed, a balding man in his 40s with a kind smile, nodded and said "I'm your guide. You want ride or walk?" He pointed to the many rickshaws, camels pulling carts, and motorized carts waiting to be hired and said "We'll walk." Having been in the car for four hours, we were anxious for a time to stretch our legs. However, as we continued, I think I would have been a little more comfortable had we taken a ride. Five white people walking down the road apparently isn't seen very much as the stares continued to follow us down the road.

Mohammed just continued walking and chatting, and confirming with the drivers of the various carts and vehicles that we wanted to walk. As we approached a long, low red bricked building, Mohammed motioned for us to pay him our ticket price, and he'd go get the tickets. We handed him the money and he got lost in the crowd. As we waited, we got asked to buy pictures, snow globes, key chains, and postcards. One girl was quite persistent and just stood in the middle of our circle jingling her elephant key chains saying "please, please."

Mohammed came back with our tickets and we found the line. The general admission line for locals was very, very long, but we went into the "High Value Ticket" (750 rupees about 15 USD vs 20 rupees for the locals, about 50 cents USD) line and proceeded toward the front. Instructed to leave our purses and bags in the car, we passed through security with very little fan fare, however, some groping occurred as we walked through a metal detector and the woman's hands went up and down my body. I didn't think the metal detector was even working considering I went through with my camera and no lights or sounds went off.

We were in! And yet, we still couldn't see the Taj. Instead we faced the West Gate of the compound and the East Gate which were built for the King's first and second wives, and confirmed that the Taj was built for the love of his life, his third wife. We entered the compound and through an archway we could see the front of the Taj. Wow, we're actually here.

Mohammed had some history to share about the entrance and the gates before we entered into the main area to see the reason we were there. The Taj Mahal took 22 years to complete and 20,000 people to build it. The materials and land was free (since he was the king) so he had to pay for the labor only. They took marble from the south of India and trekked it up to Agra. All the stone had to be hand cut. The building is completely symmetrical, with the left building being a mosque and the building on the right a guest house. The pillars on each of the four corners is angled at 2.5 degrees to the outside. The architect said that if there was ever an earthquake, he wanted the pillars to fall out, rather than in on top of the dome.

Finally we entered the gate and there it was in all her glory. Wow. Despite all the people, it was truly remarkable! Initially the fog hadn't completely lifted and the haze continued to mask just how beautiful it was. Mohammed knew all the good photo spots and kept asking if we wanted pictures. I just said yes and handed him the camera.

But then, as we were taking pictures, a woman probably around my age came up and asked if she could get a picture with me and Auntie Deb. We obliged. This wasn't the only time for me though -- throughout the day, I had two guys and another gal ask to take a picture with me. So strange! It's probably a good thing I don't have blond hair otherwise I may never have made it out! It was a little strange because I did feel like I was being stared at by a lot of people -- not just guys, but the women too. I tried to ignore it, but definitely felt out of place. Jim told me that he over heard a guy say "now that's one pretty looking lady." Uh, thank you?

Being a tour guide for 15 years, Mohammed knew the ins and outs of the building as well as most of the history. We donned our provided shoe covers and proceeded into the dome, which was where the wife was buried. The parts we saw were actually replicas as the originals were downstairs. I don't think I realized that the Taj Mahal was only for the tomb of the King's third wife. I knew that it was created in her memory, but hadn't known that that was its only function. We spent a couple hours walking and touring around -- and taking lots of pictures. The fog had completely lifted by the time we got back outside the dome area and it ended up being an absolutely beautiful day. We ended up retaking some of the pictures because the sky was actually blue rather than gray and you could actually see the Taj Mahal. In some of the initial pictures, the white marble blended into the gray sky. Kumar was indeed right and the fog disappeared to make for a clear blue sky without a cloud to be seen.

We then walked back to the entrance of the gate and found our driver. We had lunch at the InterContenintal hotel and wow, it was so good! I could have just eaten the naan and dal and been completely satisfied. Instead we had perfectly seasoned chicken (albeit a little spicy), fried cauliflower, and a spinach paneer dish that was excellent. But as we ate, jet lag and delicious Indian food hit me like a ton of bricks. I was so exhausted and could hardly get a straight sentence out. But yet, we had a four hour drive back to Delhi and the roads are not super conducive to sleep!

Getting out of Agra was crazy and it's a wonder the driver didn't get lost or in an accident. It's really remarkable the level of dishevelment when driving in India. It's not just the big cities, but anywhere. You just go, and assume others will move out of your way. There were so many times where I just held my breath as we'd turn right in front of a car or pedestrian or bike.

However, Kumar said he was going to take the nice highway, the new highway, for the way back and it'd be much smoother. 'Just 200 more rupees for toll.' Sure, fine. As soon as we hit that smooth asphalt, I was out like a light and got some decent uninterrupted sleep. About halfway back we stopped at a rest stop, and when Kumar left to stretch, I asked, "how come we didn't take this on the way in?" Apparently Jim had asked, but didn't quite get a straight answer.

I'm just glad we took it on the way home as I slept for about two and a half hours. The driving chaos began again as we hit Delhi and got off the tollway. The journey to our hotel was uneventful, except you know, crazy, erratic driving and people and animals everywhere. We settled up with Kumar and made our way into the lobby agreeing to meet up for dinner in an hour. My tiredness hit again as I made my way down to dinner after my shower. I could hardly keep my eyes open and probably hadn't needed to go down to dinner at all. I had several bites of my dish and then made my way back up to my room. I was awake just enough to brush my teeth and crawl into bed, wondering as I fell asleep if I'd be wide awake in an hour or actually get a good night's sleep.

I woke in eight hours, rested and content.