We awoke early Monday morning, our last full day of the trip, to the usual sounds of life in Delhi: non-stop honking, car wheel screeching, shouting, yelling, and godknowswhat noises. I peered out the window of our hotel room and was not surprised to see a fire already burning. Yep. They were still there. The tarp community who live on the dirty, loud street right across from the hotel. The sky was the same gray-blue color. The thin blanket had not lifted. I had a feeling that it never lifts.
We had a brief breakfast of rolls, jam, fruit juice and tea on the rooftop terrace which affords a 360 degree view of smog-infested Delhi. The orange-pink sun was beginning to rise, slowly, hesitantly above the great masses of people and buildings which make up this immense, chaotic city.
“Come on, hurry up, Dad!” I told him impatiently. Our driver for the day was waiting downstairs and we had to try to get out of Delhi as soon as possible, if that is even possible. We had big plans for our last day of driving to Agra, the home of one of the most beloved, sought after sites in the world: The Taj Mahal. I couldn’t wait to go. I’d always dreamed of seeing it in person and here was our chance. Our flight didn’t leave from Delhi until one in the morning so we had the entire day. We were told that Agra is about 124 miles south of Delhi so if traffic is alright, the drive usually takes around 2-3 hours, or 4 hours tops. That was doable in one day, right, I reassured myself. The flight attendants do it, or at least that is what they told me on the flight over from Chicago. It is easy. A no-brainer. We had all day, right. No worries.
We set off at ten past eight into the throngs of traffic and all the craziness that driving in India has to offer. We had an excellent driver, I reminded myself. One of the best assured the hotel. I marveled once again at how on earth people get around in such madness. Cars, trucks, motorbikes, people, buses were all clogging the road well past capacity. I sat back in my vinyl seat with my seatbelt buckled tightly and watched the world go by. Entire families on motorbikes, with the sari-wearing women sitting precariously sideways on the bike, while holding her infant to her chest. Twenty or more people crammed in like sardines into those funny looking three-wheeled carts that acted as a sort of taxi system throughout India. People stacked inside, on top of and holding on to the sides, of over-packed ancient looking, pollution-infested buses. Cows and water buffalos lounging in the middle or side of the street, munching on garbage. Camels pulling huge wagons stacked high and bursting out the sides with some kind of enormous leaves. Then, the people….EVERYWHERE. A sea of black hair and brightly colored saris in glimmering gold, magnetic red, and pumpkin-colored orange. The problem was how did it all work? How were not hundreds of people killed daily on these roads? I clung tightly to the door handle at every turn, worried we were about to take some unknown Indian out. It was frightening as hell. No wonder you must have a driver in India! You would have to be completely insane to drive in such a place!
The driver informed us that there were three things that made a good driver in India:
- The Horn: Is used non-stop the entire way. Talk about a major headache.
- The Lights: Used to flash people to warn them to get the “f” out of the way!
- Luck: Probably the most important thing of all in a city of over 14 million in which traffic has no rhyme or reason whatsoever.
After an hour or so of this crazy, chaotic driving I casually asked the driver when we would get out of the city and on the highway. He looked at me with a bemused look on his face and said, “What do you mean, Miss? This is the highway”. I nearly died. How silly I felt. I had been picturing a nice, relaxing peaceful drive into the countryside, where I could see the real India. That was when I corrected myself. This is the real India.
It took me awhile to calm down and try to enjoy the ride as best as I could. The problem was I had to use the restroom which although is a basic human need, there seems to be a real problem in India and Nepal in finding any public toilets. I told the driver that I needed to find a bathroom and asked how far. He said sincerely, “Things are different here in India. It will take me at least another hour to find a place that is acceptable to you. Can you wait that long”? I had no choice. I had to wait. I secretly cursed myself for drinking so much coffee and juice before I left.
Uncomfortable, I sat back and tried once again to relax but this time with an incredibly full bladder. Given the high volume of traffic on the road and the constant stopping and waiting due to congestion, I noticed that there was not a lot of space between other vehicles. If my window was down, I could touch the person next to me. This lack of personal space was something I was not accustomed to. But even worse than my violation of space were the hard, unblinking stares that invaded the depths of my soul. I tried to figure out why they were staring. Not a few but all of them. Children, Men, Women, Young, Old, them all. Why were they staring at us? Then, like a sudden surprise, I realized they weren’t staring at the driver or my dad. They were staring at ME. Ah-Ha….I gasped. It was my hair! My long, blond hair. They were staring at me with those huge, wide-eye looks of shock and surprise. Perhaps they had never seen a woman with blond hair. I found that hard to believe. Don’t they have TV? Aren’t there tourists here?
At first, I didn’t mind the looks and stares. I thought it was funny. But then after hour upon hour of countless, endless stares, it started to truly bother me. I felt like a leper. A pariah. A freak. It was a terrible feeling. Like you were walking down the street naked. And worse of all, I could not escape. I was trapped in that car for hours, faced with those endless, wide-eyed stares. I felt so uncomfortable I wanted to cry. So I finally showed my pillow over my head and laid back, trying to hid my blond locks. But it didn’t work. My dad said that they still stared, non-stop, for hours.
The attention reminded me of many years ago, when I was a shy, honey-blond, blue-eyed six year old girl on her first trip to rural Mexico. As soon as I got out of the car and stepped foot inside the village, I was surrounded and swarmed by screaming Mexican children, chasing me to touch my “angelic” hair. I was horrified and hid behind my father’s legs. The same experience happened again fifteen years later in Italy when my blond-haired friend and I were literally chased down the street in Bari by a horde of young Italian men, laughing and cat-calling us the entire way. Not a pleasant feeling, that is for sure. I was surprised to get this type of behavior in India because it never once happened in Nepal. I felt trapped inside the confines of the car and hated every minute of it.
The hour passed slowly and I thought my bladder was going to burst. After much begging, the driver finally brought us into a small, decrepit looking gas station. There were no other cars there. I got out, and immediately felt the hard, cold stares watching me move. Where is the bathroom? I asked desperately, almost in tears. Around back, they answered. Here is the key.
I went around the back of the station, unlocked the dirty door and there was the familiar squat toilet surrounded by flies and stink. So, if this was an acceptable bathroom, I thought, what do the unacceptable ones look like? I didn’t want to know.
I got back into the car and realized it was already eleven o’clock. We had been driving for almost three hours and apparently we weren’t even close yet. I sure hoped the Taj Mahal was worth it! Finally, when all patience was ending and our tummies were growling, we arrived in Agra. It wasn’t at all what I expected. I was thinking it would be a lovely, historical city. Perhaps a bit more peaceful than Delhi. What I should have known by now is that there is no peace in Indian cities. To my disappointment Agra was just another dirty, chaotic, overpopulated, annoying big town.
Before meeting our guide for the highly anticipated, long awaited tour of the Taj Mahal, our driver brought us to the restaurant where we would be having lunch. I should have known that it wouldn’t be good by the parking lot. There were no cars there. Just an old, rusty bus full of tourists remained. The driver dropped us off and told us to take an hour for lunch. Meanwhile the bus packed with tourists left. We walked in to the restaurant and saw large table after table, empty. The lights were off. It was dark inside. There were four bored waiters standing over in the corner. They told us to sit anywhere we want and handed us a menu. I didn’t like the look of the place and was highly skeptical about the cleanliness of the food. But there was nowhere else to eat and we were starving.
I ordered the good old standby, Chicken Curry with rice and my father took an unwise chance and ordered a chicken sandwich. The food came twenty minutes later, still not another soul in the restaurant. I scooped up a big heaping of rice and put it on my place. Famished, I dug my spoon into the chicken curry and nearly passed out. The chicken leg was about the size of my pinky! Scrawny, wispy and in my book, inedible. Oh lord, I though. But I was so hungry. I decided to leave the pencil-thin, undernourished chicken leg in the bowl and opted to just pour the curry over my rice. It was greasy and spicy. I prayed I wouldn’t get sick. If I did, where on earth would I ever find a bathroom! Now was not the time to get the infamous Delhi belly, that’s for sure.
After lunch, we met our tour guide, a local Indian-certified tourist guide from Agra who wore a long, white linen shirt and pants, an odd choice given the heat and dirt. His hair was slicked back with oil and he had an air of superiority in him. His English was good but at times I didn’t understand him and he seemed rushed, always looking at his watch.
We entered the gardens of the Taj Mahal, which were littered with trash and had few flowers. There were people everywhere but not the people I expected to find. Instead of the loads of camera-clad tourists, they were Indians themselves. Families, couples, friends, you name it. Surprised, I asked the guide “where are all the tourists”? He told me it was a national holiday in India and most Indians chose to spend it together, sightseeing. The Taj Mahal is just as important to Indians as it is to us. Perhaps even more important.
To my dismay, I wasn’t able to blend in or escape the continual stares at my blond hair. I put on a baseball cap and pulled my hair back in a ponytail, but it didn’t stop the looks. Oh well. When in Rome, right? I decided it was time to just deal with it.
Was it worth it? All the swarms of people, crowds, continual stares, crappy food, disgusting toilets, and four hour car ride to Agra? Yes. Yes it was. When I first saw the Taj Mahal, I was taken aback by it’s majestic beauty. It took my breath away. To see such an incredibly, spectacular sparkling white work of art in all the dirtiness of India was a surprise in itself. The sheer beauty of the Taj Mahal did not disappoint. It was simply incredible and made my heart melt. We snapped some pictures and walked around, admiring the inside and out. We learned about the romantic history of the building and how it took over twenty years and thousands of workers and artisans to build. It was amazing, especially given the time period in which it was built: The early 1600’s. It was a major feat of architecture and remains one of the most impressive sites I’ve ever seen.
So, yes it was worth it. However, the ride back was hell. Five, long, miserable, stare-filled hours of agony. We didn’t reach the Delhi airport until 8:30 PM and were dirty, tired, stressed out and burned out. But, we were back in modernity once again and clean bathrooms and real food (or so we thought). It was time for some wine and celebration before boarding our 15-hour flight home to the States. It was quite a day, that’s for sure. One I’ll never forget.
The drive from hell….scenes from the road:
Invasion of space:
A family of four:
Finally, the breathtaking reward:
Was it worth 9 hours driving in chaos? YES! Perhaps the journey there was the thing I’ll never forget, however:
The queue to get inside: Notice the lack of blondes!
Our last glance before we left:
Our guide Hari in Nepal told us a funny acronym:
NEPAL = Never-Ending Peace and Love
INDIA = I Never Do it Again
But I know I will!