And the magnificent Taj Mahal :)
19.11.2012 - 20.11.2012
To be a good driver in India you need a good horn, good breaks and good luck.
These were the words of our taxi driver as he slammed the breaks on hard to narrowly miss hitting a truck on one side and motorbike on the other. Wing mirrors are a no-no; they would make your vehicle too wide. No time to indicate either. I chose to ride up front and so felt like I was in a video game, regularly coming up beneath the trailer of a lorry before we swerved at the last second to fit into a narrow gap that had miraculously appeared. Despite the craziness of the traffic I felt very serene. The rawness, diversity and adventure of travelling makes me feel unusually relaxed, awakening something in my soul that creates a sense of feeling...alive. Even when you are blessed to live in a very multi-cultural city like Manchester, nothing quite beats being in another place where life seems totally different to your own normality back home.
Day 3 and we were headed from Delhi down south to Agra, to visit the famous Taj Mahal. It was a 5.30 wake-up for Amanda and I, as we wondered downstairs bleary eyed we bumped into a couple of female travellers from California who'd just arrived in Delhi from the south. They heard we were off to Agra and so asked if they could join us. Always one to embrace new friends in the travelling community we said sure! It was a good decision since one of the girls, Juliet, has been studying in India for 5 months and so gave us loads of tips and contacts for Kerala as well as helping us translate the menus! It was great to chat to them both and share a mutual passion for backpacking and seeing the world. Juliet is also going to head with us to Mumbai later today so it's exciting the journey together will continue for a little while longer.
Agra is around 3-4 hours drive from Delhi in "good" traffic. On the way there we stopped for breakfast at the side of the road and ordered sweet coffee, chai and mix parantha with chilli. It's a bit strange eating spicy food for breakfast but i'm getting used to it and still can't believe how cheap food and drink are. When we arrived in Agra the temperature was much hotter than Delhi, it was great to feel the sun of our faces. Not anywhere else since I was covered up in the Indian attire I'd bartered for in the bazaars on Sunday.
The entrance to the Taj Mahal was full of tourists, mainly Indian. In fact i've not seen that many foreign tourists since i've been here. It seems the Indian people haven't either because in addition to being stared at, people regularly take photos or film us. Really blatantly too, which is funny since good travelling etiquette is to avoid taking photos of locals, unless you get their permission. It's not been a negative experience though and people have been friendly and kind. They find women travelling alone quite intriguing too, we regularly get asked where we are from, what do we do, what work do our parents do, how long are we in India for, what do we think of Delhi. The women in the silk markets told us we were very lucky to be allowed to travel by ourselves, for them this would not be an option.
For some reason if you're foreign you get to queue jump at the Taj Mahal. Which felt horribly uncomfortable, yet we were forced to go through the railings and walk past everyone else queuing in the heat. It felt like the walk of shame and we tried to get through as quickly as possible and with minimal eye contact! The locals seemed to be loving it though, one man even climbed up onto the railings to take a photo of us and a couple of women wanted a group photo so that she could take back to her home in the country and show her family she met some goras at the Taj! We got through security and into an impressive huge entrance gate made out of marble. It was a beautifully clear day and as we walked through the gate we caught our first glimpse of a perfectly formed and very recognisable white dome.
And then there it was....
...the breathtakingly beautiful Taj Mahal; more impressive than any photo and truly magnificent, huge and bright. The only other monument that's blown me away in a similar way was Christ the Redeemer in Rio. Taj Mahal means Crown Palace and is an extravagant expression of love by an Emperor for his wife who died after giving birth to 14 children in 18 years. It was explained to us that the Emperor's first two wives were arranged marriages. But the third wife he married for love. She died aged 35 and the Emperor was so devastated that he built the Taj Mahal in her memory, which is where her body is buried. It took 22 years to build and is made out of white marble and precious stones that have been intricately hand crafted into the marble. The design is really clever, the way it is raised off the ground gives a perfect backdrop to the clear sky and the four pillars have been built leaning 2 degrees out so that if there was an earthquake they would fall away from the main temple.
After spending time at the Taj Mahal we went to see some of the ancestors of those involved in its construction, to show us how the marble and stones are crafted. After the demonstration the four of us were asked if we had any questions. Since no-one was speaking there was an awkward silence and I felt compelled to fill it. The only question I could think of was "did any women help with the building of the Taj Mahal or was it just men?" The guide looked slightly shocked and his response was to say of course not, since women's hands are made and blessed by God only for cooking good food for the men". Fortunately I don't think he was offended by my question and I resisted the temptation to point out that women's hands are good for many things...manipulating Microsoft Excel being one example
Our drive home was much longer than the one there, and after 6 hours I arrived back to the hotel feeling tired, dirty and ready to eat a sacred cow or two. But it had been a brilliant day. Today we leave Delhi and travel south-west to Mumbai, by train - i'm very excited about experiencing the Indian railway system!! We are taking a sleeper train overnight and the journey is expected to last at least 16 hours. I think it's going to be really funny....