When we told people in Goa our next stop in India was Delhi we seemed to get a universal response, a frown, a negative headshake, and the question “why?” We got a feel for what they were talking about as we exited the domestic terminal and into the smog, noise, and most notably the “scent” of Delhi. Then in the taxi ride to our hotel, which was only about 5km, but, took a solid hour, of the grid-lock traffic, where we saw cars literally turn around and go the wrong direction on the highway, we knew exactly why no one liked Delhi. We decided that in the morning we would go to a travel agency and let them arrange how we would spend our next 48 hours in this metropolitan nightmare.
Most people think the main attraction in Delhi in the Taj Mahal; this is a common misconception. The Taj is actually in the city of Agra, which is 220km south of Delhi. Since all the trains to Agra were already booked well in advance we were disappointed to find out that we would not be able to see this impressive monument.
But….our plans quickly changed as we sat down in the tiny, generic “Interesting India” travel office. We initially went in to arrange a city tour of Old Delhi. When our agent discovered we had not seen the Taj, and were not planning on it because of the train situation, he insisted otherwise. Shortly after, we were in a private car, and on our way. Although it was not too far of a distance, (136 miles) it would take at least four hours to drive to Agra do to traffic, and poor road conditions. While we both found this crazy, the 4 hour 130 mile trip made Justin’s head spin. About an hour into the trip he looked at me and said “Derek, you realize that ‘essentially’, were vacationing in New York City, and just taking a day trip to see the White House? This is nuts!” He continued to repeat this line to just about everybody we came in contact with, but to a certain degree, it was absolutely true.
We started our drive around 12:30 and were informed by our travel agent that it was more then enough time to get to the Taj before it closed. About two hours into the drive we were a little confused when our driver started asking us about our hotel accommodations in Delhi, and if we would be opposed to staying a night in Agra. Turns out the Taj Mahal stops letting people in at 5, and because of traffic he was not sure if we were going to make it in time. Obviously we were not going to stay in Agra because we had already paid for an expensive hotel room in Delhi, and we were “guaranteed” that we would be able to see it. Justin quickly reminded him of the “guarantee” and plenty of time we were assured of in Delhi, and our driver, for fear of his job, instantly turned in to Jeff Gordon.
For the last 115km of our journey it was petal to the metal, honking constantly and weaving in and out of traffic unlike anyone I had ever seen before. Justin somehow managed to stay calm and relaxed in the front seat while I was in the back closing my eyes and flinching. To add to my anxiety our driver started making some small talk and telling us about recent bombings in Delhi. We though the area we were staying in was safe and were amazed to find out that only a month ago there was a bombing just a couple of hundred yards from the front door of our hotel, not something that made the stressful drive, a battle against time, go by any faster.
We made it to Agra at exactly 4:55 and were flagged down on the side of the road by our tour guide. There was no time for introductions because he said we had to run to the ticket gate. The only problem was because of pollution the government does not let any cars within 2km of the Taj Mahal gates, so this would be a far run, and although Justin and I are actually in decent shape, our hefty India tour guide was not. So we hopped on a bicycle rickshaw.
This was quite the sight, Justin and I squeezed on the 2 and half foot bench in the back, while our overweight guide sat backwards on the bike seat. Powering us was possibly the smallest bicycle rickshaw driver in the fleet, no older then 9 years and weighting about 70lbs. Sure enough he was able to get us moving, and quite well to. As we got to the gate our guide sprinted to the ticket counter still unsure if we were going to be able to enter. Justin and I could only wait for him to emerge and when he did with a smile on his face we were relieved, the crazy day of travel had paid off. We got in, and with exactly 2 minutes to spare.
The Taj Mahal was simply stunning; I think more impressive then the pyramids, Justin still undecided. Our guide knew all the facts and was extremely resourceful. When it came time to go inside, because he knew the guards, we were able to cut the enormous line and see the interior with some remaining daylight. This is just another example of an important principle we learned while in India that all Hindu people live by, if it is your destiny, it will happen. That day it was our destiny to see the Taj Mahal, now we just hope it is our destiny to get out of India in one piece.