Typical India: Taj Mahal Debacle

Typical India: Taj Mahal Debacle
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The Taj Mahal has been one of the forerunners on my bucket list ever since shingles deprived me of the opportunity to go during my last trip to Delhi three years ago. It’s serene, sleek, marble smoothness, shimmery in the hot sun seems too calm and collected to be in this land of chaos. However, the process of visiting– as I gleaned from Slumdog Millionaire, where kids acted as tour guides to scam tourists, steal shoes and cause other types of chaos—quintessential embodies the mixed bag of good-and-bad that India embodies. And none of the best things in life come easily. The 18-hour quest might have lacked villains with machetes but required as much strong spirit and sweat as Indiana Jones pursuing the crown jewel!

And the adventure begins!
First, we had to bust out of our OP Jindal jail… an elaborate process of convincing fourteen instructors and teaching assistants to wake up at 1:30 AM so we could see the Taj at sunrise, applying for approval to leave from the on-site director and getting issued an out-pass. The morning of, we had to round up all fourteen of us, find the drivers who were washing their cars outside the campus gate, convince campus security to let them on campus just to pile in the car and be denied to leave campus without showing an “out-pass” that the trip organizer didn’t know we had to bring. Someone had to hunt down a security guard to unlock the TIP office at 2:00 AM, get the paper and convince the other security guards to let us leave. Then we piled into three cars and began what should have been a 4-hour journey to Agra. However, the drivers decided they wanted to take us the scenic route and they wanted to stop at thirty minute intervals to smoke, drink tea, pee on the edge of the highway, silently leaving us in the car (without explanation) in places where leashed monkeys would leap on our windows and their owners would demand payment if anyone took pictures.
We approached Agra around 8 AM (3 hours behind schedule) and the drivers picked up a random man from the side of the road and we drove to a restaurant where we learned he’s a tour guide that we never wanted. Since he required no fee but tips, we decided to keep him around.

Our group of brave instructors and teaching instructors in front of the entrance gate to the Taj Mahal

Our group of brave instructors and teaching instructors in front of the entrance gate to the Taj Mahal

In the Taj Complex
Fortified with toast and jam (that took the restaurant an hour to prepare), we finally had our drivers drop us at the gate to the Taj. Immediately, little boys selling snow globes mobbed us with their cheap, plastic merchandise, patting our butts as they battled for our attention. Weaving around the persistent sellers-of-useless-things, we made our way down the dusty street to the Taj, choking on the smell of manure from the malnourished camels, who could escort in “style” (if sitting on moldy blankets on a bony camel’s back is your sense of style).
To enter, foreigners have to pay 37x the price as Indians (but at 750 rupees or $13, I’m not complaining!) and proceed through “security”, to get your breasts bifurcated by a stern Indian woman who has perfected the J-shaped frisking motion. I didn’t attempt to bring anything prohibited into the area but talking to Kimberly later, she said she carried around pepper spray and a switchblade for a week in India, probably passed through “security” a couple dozen times without it being detected… I just don’t understand this country’s obsession with all this ineffective fondling!

Taj through the entrance gate

Taj through the entrance gate

Anyway, the group re-grouped and entered a magical land of green carpet grass and sandstone-covered walkways. Shortly after, we reached a plaza surrounded by three huge gates, graced with elaborate Arabic inscriptions. These areas housed the 20,000 workers and 1,000 elephants over 22 years of construction for the complex. The gate was surprisingly long and it got quite dark but about halfway through, it opens up to the Taj, perfectly centered in the arch, creating an unforgettable first impression.

I made it!!

I made it!! Taj Mahal, Agra!

From there, we wandered along the (dried-up) reflecting pools, taking all the touristy pictures (our tour guide had perfected lightening speed efficiency while photographing- unfortunately, I did not perfect lightening speed posing) while learning the history behind the Mughal emperor and the testament to his love of his favorite wife. The tour guide advised me to wait to get married until someone promises to finish the black taj mahal as a testament for their love for me. I responded that I’d rather not wait another thousand years but thanked him for the advice.
We donned silly shoe-covers and slid across the marble floors of the main moseleum, brushing by semi-precious stone inlay on our way to see the incredible caskets of the royal couple (the real body lie 20 meters below). Besides the resting room for the couple with elaborately carved screens, the interior was pretty plain. We exited through the “back door”, (presumably) which looked out onto a surprisingly plain landscape. The simplicity of the scene– cows bathing in a river, sun-burnt fields of something and Agra Fort in the distance—exaggerated the opulence of the Taj.

“The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.”
― Rabindranath Tagore

And that was basically it! Four years of anticipation for an hour or two of wandering, well more like, sweating and sizzling in the mid-day summer sun. Some of us wanted to head to the abandoned city of Fatephur Sikri but that plan fell through because of some unplanned for road tax. Our back-up plan to go to Agra Fort fell through because 80% of it was occupied by the army so we thought going back to Red Fort in Delhi would be better. But that plan fell through because we’d arrive too late and people were about ready to pass out because of dehydration. So we satisfied ourselves with lunch at Pizza Hut, brizza (briyani pizzas) and a spontaneous Bollywood dance performance by the wait staff. Then hopped back in the car for five steamy hours to go back (apparently the air conditioner made the driver sleepy- lucky us!  We got to fry).

How could you miss this?

How could you miss this? Taj from the side

Would I recommend it?
Was it worth it? For me, when getting to the Taj was a four year mission, absolutely! Would I recommend someone to travel to India, just to see it? For the structure itself, no. It’s beauty translates fairly accurately to photographs and movies and it’s not the easiest place to get to. More importantly, the more I travel, the more I realize that buildings and historic sites are never the highlight of my trips. I travel for new experiences, new challenges, strange situations and navigating unfamiliar waters. And for the experience that you will most likely encounter getting to the Taj, yes, you must go. I hope you experience everything- being detained for no reason, to the perpetual frisking at the ever-present security entrances, to the spicy, curry cloud of Indian body odor and getting babies thrown at you for “snaps” (pictures). I hope you survive a dozen successive near-death experiences on the road getting there, as you pass a man sitting on a chair, roped to a wooden surface in a “truck” without a windshield or frame. I hope you pass men urinating on a wall emblazoned with a crossed-out picture of a man peeing and the bold words “shame on you”. And I hope you do make it to the Taj, a place so serene, symmetric and timeless that it’s hard to believe you’re in India. Until you get elbowed forward by busty Indian women, shuffling along in saris and consumed by an inconsiderate crush of people.

Song of the Moment: One for the Road– Arctic Monkeys

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