Landing in Delhi was the definition of surreal. While in this exact moment, as our hired driver slams the brakes to avoid smashing a suicidal J-walking monkey, I find myself struggling to believe I am actually here. Even so, the fiery curried chicken I had for lunch yesterday continues to remind me in the form of spicy acid reflux that I am, in fact, in India.
I watched 5 movies and drank 3 cups of hot water disguised as coffee on the plane in a vain attempt to avoid jet lag. My plan worked well enough I suppose, until I was yet again faced with my nemesis that is foreign currency conversion. For every US Dollar I have 56 Indian Rupees, which seems simple enough… until arithmetic married sleep deprivation, and my foggy mind simply can’t comprehend handing over a 200 Rupee bill for a stew of spicy cottage cheese and tomatoes.
Fighting blurred vision and bouts with narcolepsy, we did manage to venture from Delhi to Agra for views of a world wonder that I never imagined I could witness at the young age of twenty-five.
It was a 4 hour drive south to reach the Taj Mahal, and our driver kindly stopped along the way so we could admire this gorgeous view of the Mausoleum from across the Yamuna River.
As we entered Agra, we were suddenly enveloped in a culture so colorfully animated and alive that the reality of being in this beautiful chaos became undeniable. When we rolled down the windows of our air-conditioned van a mixture of steamy air laced with musky dust and sweet cumin masked my face.
Vendors on bicycles sold rope displays of candies and keychains, while others cruised by with gaping grins and enough baloons to ship a monkey to the moon.
There are no turn signals on cars, giving the city streets an audible pulse as a symphony is composed from the horns of auto-rickshaws, rusty motorbikes and overpacked buses. The roads are occupied by tractors, vehicles, pedi-cabs and cyclists, weaving around pedestrians, cows and herds of water buffalo spread across five lanes of traffic on what America considers a two-lane highway.
A bit more than occasionally, our van would come to a stop and friendly admirers would take a not-so-subtle photo of the conspicuous blonde Western women. I always smile and wave, as I like to imagine my image is being sent throughout India in Nokia text messages reading “the jolly freckled whitey!”
We often return the favor by snapping shots of interesting locals cruising by. Like this kiddo sporting sunglasses so full of rhinestones they were probably designed for Boy George. She looked no more than four years old and was tied to the man, I’m assuming was her pappy, with a pink tasseled scarf. As soon as they noticed my interest in their family commute, they began waving cheerfully and the young madame fabulous proceeded to strike a pose.
The women are stunning and elegant as they sit side-saddle on the rear racks of bicycles and the hind seat of motorcycles with sequined scarves waving behind. Hand-painted muraled vans, often missing doors, would zip around corners as three or more men standing on the bumper would hold onto any surface offering room for a two-finger grip.
If the cows aren’t participating in rush-hour, they’re usually resting beneath trees or grazing near the road. I found this beautiful fella feasting on watermelon as he admired the Taj in the distance.
As our van neared the entrance gates, we were given the option to travel the remaining kilometer via pedi-cab or camel-cab.
Naturally, we chose our humped, cloven hoof friend over a three-wheeled buggy.
His name was Cloud and his disposition seemed nothing more than indifferent. The driver allowed us the opportunity to hop on Cloud’s wooden saddle, an offer my teammate Elyse promptly accepted. It looked as if she were awkwardly seated on an impaired, slow-motion mechanical bull with a flatulence problem. As she stepped down, the mischievous Mister Cloud decided to shift his weight just enough to make Elyse miss a step and slowly slide the entire right side of her body, ever-so gracefully I might add, all the way down the over-filled edge of his diaper. I’m certain Elyse was not the first of Cloud’s Western victims, as I could see through his flared nostrils and dewy eyes that he was roaring with laughter inside.
Elyse brushed the camel poop from her pride and we proceeded into the Taj Mahal.
The Taj is a place beyond words or description. It was built in 1654 with the intention of being the world’s greatest Mausoleum. And I must say, it stands stunningly proud, reflecting the sun from it’s polished white marble domes with a majestic demeanor. It’s symmetry is so perfectly designed that I found myself questioning the presence of a man’s hand the articulate construction. The only color comes from hand carved inlaid gems ranging from ruby to onyx. Guests must cover their shoes in elastic slippers when stepping onto the marble floors of the Taj, but we decided to embrace the moment of true experience and placed our barefeet on the warm white stone.
I wish I could better describe the magnificence of the architecture, the feeling of the stone or the color of the gems, but a world wonder is simply a place that can only be taken in by experience. So if you are ever given the opportunity to venture east and enter this world of colorful scarves, turmeric and one immaculate marble wonder they call the Taj Mahal, take it. Otherwise, I’ll be riding the rickshaws and wearing a sari for another two weeks, and I intend to write every step of the way. Maybe at some point I’ll stop eating long enough to write a nearly edible account of my curried life in India.