My flight to Dehli went smoothly and was much more pleasant that the first part of the journey. There were even food and drinks and board! After a three hour flight, we touched down in Delhi, where at 6pm it was 44 degrees Celcius. Toasty.
I took a bus from the aiport to the train station next to the main market and backpackers area. At least, that’s what was supposed to happen. Even after talking to several airport employees, other bus passengers, and the bus conductor, I still ended up on a bus that took me to the wrong station. Fortunately, one of the passengers I’d been talking with was super helpful (almost too helpful, really); they got off the bus with me, got a rickshaw for the Indian price instead of the white-tourist price, and eventually convinced the driver to actually take me to the guest house I wanted. I finally ended up in a sweltering little room at the top of a place in the heart of the market where I tried to get some sleep.
The next morning it was off to the train and bus stations to get tickets to Agra. Guess what? All tickets are sold out! For real. At least, all the places I tried to get them, including the (supposed) actual ticket offices said so. Everyone warns you about the million different scams they use here — "the ticket office is closed, it moved to ___"; "your hotel burned down, go to ___"; etc. etc. — so of course I’m wary about this being a scam, but at a certain point, there’s just nothing else you can do. I tried what should have been the legitimate places, I talked to a dozen different people, and ultimately had to cave and find a way to Agra through a travel agency if I wanted to stay on track and see everything I wanted to.
After some Hindi lessons and chai with an Indian I’d met that morning, I ended up at a very legitimate-looking "government" travel agency where I booked my transportation for the rest of the trip. It was way more expensive than it should have been, but after the hassle of the morning I was ready to just be done. Besides, the last thing I wanted was to get stuck in the desert because the trains and buses were full and not make to Mumbai on time for my flight, especially not after what happened in Malaysia. Considering that several of the trains I wanted already had 350-person waiting lists for certain compartments, it seemed all too likely that I could end up stuck somewhere for a few days.
I ended up having a taxi for the first few days of the trip since bus seats to my next destinations were supposedly so difficult to come by that day. As I said, it was more expensive than I’d planned, but it meant that I would have guaranteed, safe[r] transportation in Agra and Jaipur, the two bigger and more dangerous cities on my itinerary. As a woman traveling alone in India, especially with the problems they’ve had recently on the trains and buses, I decided that the safety factor was worth it. The nice thing about this was that I could do things completely on my own schedule.
We made two stops before leaving New Delhi. The first was a quick stop at the market around Connaught Place, but it was pretty crazy so I didn’t stick around too long. The other stop was at Lotus Temple, an awesome Baha’i place of worship. The building is in the shape of a lotus (shocking, I know), and is beautiful both inside and out. What I loved about this temple, though, is how welcoming it was. The temple is open to people of all belief systems to meditate or pray to whatever gods they may believe in. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew…everyone was welcome. In addition to its openness, Baha’i has very progressive attitudes regarding, women, children, and education, to name a few topics, attitudes that seem much less common in many other religons. Between the welcoming, inclusive atmosphere and the progressive philosophies regarding gender equality and education, it was one of the more moving places I’ve been.
From there we drove to Agra, home of one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Taj Mahal. Along the way we stopped at the tomb of a historically important leaders, one which has underground passages between it, Delhi, and the Taj. An interesting part of the tomb’s construction was the "telephone": you could speak into a corner of a wall and someone standing at the opposite corner from you could hear whatever you said, even when whispering. Very strange.
After a dinner of Jeera Aloo (or something) and chapatti in the dark (of course the power was out), I turned in for the night, setting my alarm for before dawn. When it went off at that miserable hour, I hauled myself out of bed to see the Taj Mahal at dawn. Unfortunately, dawn was just as hazy as the rest of the day, so it wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was a bit cooler outside, so that was nice.
The Taj Mahal was positively amazing. It’s this incredible structure of white marble with intricate, inlaid-stone designs of flowers and other patterns. It really is a magnificent structure, nearly impossible to parallel. Later that day I got to see how the marble is being restored; the men who did the original construction have passed the marble-working skills down through the generations, and it is their descendents who continue to chisel patterns in the marble and create designs with stones from across the globe to restore the Taj. I had a go at the chiseling, and really, it’s incredible the amount of fine detail they acheive with such a difficult artistic medium.
The only unimpressive thing about the Taj was the city it rests in: Agra. Agra was possibly the grossest city I visited in India. The fact that one of the wonders of the world is housed in such a derelict city is just baffling. Agra does boast the Red Fort, though, which house 16 different palaces. I was wandering around it later that morning when the unbelieveable happened:
I ran into two of classmates from home.
Ok, so we knew that we would be in India around the same time and going to similar places, but the fact that we managed to be in the exact same location — not just the same city, but the exact same place inside a huge fort — at the exact same time was unreal. Turns out we were all heading to Jaipur that afternoon, so we made plans to meet up there the next day.