August 28, 2011

the Taj Ma-holy crap, there's a monkey on our car

You would think that the highlight of a trip to see the Taj Mahal would be actually seeing the Taj Mahal, but for me the journey there was just as interesting as the actual monument. The trip to Delhi (in northern India) was a quick trip and our sole mission was to just get to the Taj Mahal and back in one piece...and it's a wonder how we did, in fact, make it back in one piece. 

We walked down the steps of the plane onto the tarmac, I knew we were in for it because at about 10:30pm the outside temperature was 90 degrees and what felt like 100% humidity. I'm not really cut out for heat like that (and hello, my hair is especially not cut our for humidity like that), thanks to my Minnesota upbringing my boiling point is about 80 degrees before I start complaining about the heat. As we were being driven to our hotel and I saw sidewalks full of people sleeping on the pavement, otherwise known as "home" to them, all complaints evacuated my mind as I gained a little perspective. Well in this case, a lot of perspective.

The next morning, we had a 4am wake-up call to start our 4-5 hour drive out to Agra where the Taj Mahal is (...don't worry, we weren't the ones driving!). It's not that Agra is actually that far away from Delhi - in theory it is maybe a 2.5 - 3 hour drive. But with the poor road conditions (there aren't really freeways) and the traffic (on the road at any given time there are mass amounts of cars, trucks, people, cows, bikes, tractors, etc.) nobody is going anywhere very fast. If you watch this, you'll understand why it took so long to get places: 
video
I was trying to sleep on the way there but I couldn't even close my eyes, there was chaos everywhere for the entire time so I was glued to the window trying to take everything in. The stretch from Delhi to Agra was difficult to see because people were living in very poor conditions; I think it was the worst poverty I've ever seen in real life. A large part of me felt guilty as we were being driven by our personal driver, in our spacious air conditioned van on our way to see a monument that many Indians themselves have never been able to see even though they live relatively close. 

On a lighter note...one of the highlights of my entire trip was on the way to the Taj Mahal where we had to stop for some unknown reason. We were driving along when all of the cars began to slow down and eventually stop at some kind of unmarked checkpoint, not resembling a toll so I'm still not sure what it was. Our driver turns around and says "Stay. I'll be back." My friend Christina apparently had been warned about this but had never experienced it before so she just said "LOCK THE DOORS!" and "Do NOT look at the people". Then we heard a thud up against a window, and thus began one of the most hilarious and semi-terrifying 3 minutes of my life. 

All within about 15 seconds, we had a monkey carrying a tiny baby monkey thrown up against one window clinging on to the car, their faces smashed against the window, men at all four doors tapping on the windows trying to sell various things, all talking to us at the same time and trying to get us to look back at them. Since we were all locked in, I felt (relatively) safe but with the monkeys smashed up against the window, what felt like a million eyes peering in at us, no driver in the front seat - my only regret is that none of this was captured on camera...partially because we were too scared to move and partially because we were laughing uncontrollably wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. After the monkey attack, we kept trucking along and eventually made it to the Taj Mahal somehow. The rain held off just long enough for us to take pictures and then the torrential downpours began (thank you, monsoon season). It was an exhausting trip there and back...later we all agreed that maybe this was a one time thing. I guess I would go again, but it would have to be in the distant future...girl needs some time to gear up for that experience again. 

The Taj Mahal itself was very pretty and super interesting to hear about how, when and why it was constructed. It was built in the 1600's to be the burial place of the Emperor Shah Jahan's third (and favorite) wife who died during the birth of their 14th child (side note - 14 kids! never in a million years). So it took 22 years and 20,000 workers to complete the mausoleum, the whole thing is in white marble decorated with patterns made of precious stones. When it was finished, the Emperor cut the hands of the workers to ensure that nobody would be able to create such a marvelous monument again. (I hope that last bit doesn't ruin the Taj Mahal for you.)
Gateway to the Taj Mahal
Tiffany, myself and Christina
Finally...the Taj!
Just before the torrential downpour
waiting for the rain to stop
Taj Mahal mosque
coming all the way to the Taj Mahal and not doing this is not an option
After our five hour trip back to Delhi, we were exhausted and ready for a good meal. The most surprising thing for me in Delhi was the polarity within the city - here we were dining in such a nice restaurant and just outside were some of the worst conditions I've ever seen. The city is dirty, so dirty. The amount of homeless people and parents with children begging for food and money surpasses any other city I've visited. Pretty much everything seemed to be in disrepair - the population and the city itself. We definitely stuck out as three white girls walking around the city by ourselves - it seemed as though every other step we took someone new was coming up to us to sell us something or hassle us. It was exhausting to not be able to just walk around in peace and it was really sad for us to see kids working and learning to hassle people at such a young age and know that this will likely be their path for the rest of their lives. One of the drivers in India was telling us about the inner workings of people - including the kids - selling things on the street or coming up to your car in traffic and begging for money. There is a leader orchestrating everything so the money goes to the leader and in exchange for that he will supply the "workers" with food. Another disturbing piece of information he told us is that begging mothers will give their babies and kids a sleeping pill so that they are always sleeping when they circulate traffic or sit on the sidewalk and beg for money. I was devastated to hear things like this and couldn't believe that this is how people live their lives. I'm used to Paris where the most scandalous thing is to be seen in shoes from two seasons ago. My experience in India was really eye opening and my fear is that some people do not travel there (and other third-world countries) because they want to believe that things like this don't exist, or at least they don't want to see them exist. This is very much the mentality I sense in France, especially, where they really stick to the saying "ignorance is bliss". 

We were still able to enjoy Delhi for the short time we were there - taking in the local cuisine and culture.
So to summarize: I went to the Taj Mahal. It was hot, terrifying, amusing, depressing, far away...and totally worth it.

3 comments:

  1. What an experience !! Traveling in a third world country truly makes you appreciate how we live and what we have. Memories forever ...

    great posting !!

    love dad

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  2. Oh the Taj.. this makes me giggle, just thinking about your little monkey friend.

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  3. So do tourists/visitors have to fly into Delhi and all make this drive out to Agra to see the Taj Mahal? It seems at the young age of 26 you have seen and experienced so many things that most people only read about, or dream of traveling to. It's fun to live vicarious through you . . .

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