You can’t go all the way to India and not visit the Taj Mahal.
That was our thinking when we planned an excursion from Bangalore in Southern India to Agra in the north.
But in ways, it is easier to get from Nashville, Tenn., to the other side of the world. (And that’s saying something.)
Our journey involved planes, trains and automobiles – plus rickshaws and camels. It featured scam artists, 100-degree heat, lost luggage, groping and leering. People (my mother) panicked. Other people (me) cried.
By the end, I had two thoughts. One: I want all my friends who think I’m a princess to see if they can handle what my family experienced. Two: I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
Bangalore traffic and the worst is yet to come
Our adventure began at 3:30 a.m. when our driver picked us up at Dad’s house to take us to the Bangalore airport. Bangalore is a large city, and the airport is at least an hour’s drive away depending on the time of day.
A side note here: Traffic is always … interesting.
From within, it’s horrifying. Cars, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, cattle, dogs, street hawkers, you name it (we saw an elephant, a man getting a shave, another man showering behind a scrap of corrigated aluminum) converge frantically with shockingly few street signs or lights.
But from a distance, it’s strangely systematic. Accidents are rare. We’ve yet to experience a traffic jam.
If I stayed in India long enough, I might decide the traffic is a metaphor for something more here.
Chaos up close. Order from above.
I guess I assumed the awful departure time and typically crazy drive to the airport would be the hardest part of our trip that day.
Or maybe the Delhi airport would be frustrating. A friend who’s been through it warned it might be.
But our flight on Air Indigo was pleasant, as was our arrival in Delhi.
Things fell apart soon after.
The “Other Delhi Train Station”
First there was the cab ride from the Delhi airport to the train station. The car was cramped, old and un-airconditioned. (Even though it was 7:30 in the morning, it was already 100 degrees outside.) The ride took about an hour.
We were relieved to arrive at the train station. Mom, Lily and I poured out of the back seat of that hot box of a car, dizzy from the heat and drenched in sweat. Dad, too, was a mess, but had the advantage of a roomier seat in the front.
Immediately, a man who appeared to work at the station “greeted” us and directed us to another man who showed us the gate for foreigners. That man looked at the tickets we had purchased online in advance and informed us we were in the wrong train station. He directed us to another (un-airconditioned) car to the “other” Delhi train station.
This second cab took us through some truly random backroads and alleyways before dropping us and leaving us at a “Tourism Office” overlooking a giant hole dug out of an unpassable, urine-smelling roadway. The workers in the Tourism Office – all men – looked us over and directed us to a small room where another man asked to see our passports and train tickets.
He asked us questions and made random statements such as, “What do you do for a living?”, “You look like your mother”, “You don’t look like your mother”, and “My wife lives in Kashmir because she doesn’t like Delhi.” He then sent us outside, saying, “The train station is just around the corner to your left and then to your right.”
We walked to our left, then to our right, and saw a dumpster.
We kept walking.
It took a half a minute to be acosted by teenagers and young boys wanting to “help” these four white tourists hauling luggage through the streets. “The train station is that way,” they’d say. “Let me drive you.”
“It’s this way, let me drive you.”
They all wanted to drive us. Somewhere.
Find the mall or the Catholics
I saw a shopping center and made a beeline for the Benneton store, figuring an English-speaking sales clerk who made her money from commission of t-shirt sales might not be invested in getting us to spend more cab fare to drive us in circles.
The store was closed. I swear I saw a group of men laughing at me as I tried to pry open the locked glass doors.
More people asked to drive us somewhere. “Please stop talking to people,” I begged my dad.
We saw another “Tourism Office,” but this one looked a bit more legitimate. It at least had a desk in it. And women. Dad asked where the “other” train station was, and how to get to it.
A woman in the office gave vague directions to the station and told us to hail a cab.
We stepped back out into the heat. Of course, when we finally wanted a cab, we couldn’t get one to stop for us. Instead, we hopped on two motor rickshaws – Mom and Dad in one, and Lily and I in the other.
Mothers have a way of planning for the worst. Mom made a note of my rickshaw’s license plate number. I made a note to find the nearest Catholic church should we become separated.
A few minutes later, though, those rickshaw drivers stopped. “This is it,” they said.
We were back at the original train station.
Tears on the train
Our realization of the scam came in waves.
I don’t know if I understood it fully or if I was simply willing to get on any old train to any old city, but when another person tried to instruct us to the “foreigners gate”, I yelled at him. “NO! There is no foreigners gate!”
When he tried to consult with Dad, I continued my tirade. He turned his aggression toward me. “Excuse me miss, I am not talking to you.” I may have launched a few profanities. I know I said, “I am woman and I will roar in any damn country.”
I think my parents felt a mix of pride and concern.
We made it to our gate. We made it to our platform. And we made it onto the train. We asked, several times, to several people who really didn’t understand what we were saying, “Is this the train to Agra?”
We weren’t totally convinced it was, but took the gamble.
The train itself was like something from a movie.
We walked through a narrow, curtain-covered opening to the hot compartment. I think claustrophobia kicked in for all of us.
We sat on a compact bench with strangers. Roaches scurried across the seats and floor.
Hawkers roamed up and down the aisles selling playing cards and bottled water.
One man grabbed my crotch. Another walked by repeatedly, leering at me in a way I’ve not seen, ever.
This is the point at which I cried.
Kindness and respite
Goodness seeps into every dark corner of every miserable day, though.
An hour into the four-hour train ride, the Indian family sharing our compartment unpacked their lunch and shared it with us. They did not speak English but made their intentions clear.
I’ve had a lot of curried potatoes and naan here, but those are the best. They’ll be the best I ever eat, ever.
And what you see out the window from a train through the Indian countryside reminds you not to whine so much.
People live in huts made of sticks. People use the restroom on the street. People carry heavy packs on their heads. People pick the tracks for scraps.
We arrived in Agra to find a driver waiting for us. Dad’s friend and colleague, C.D. Rickman, had arranged in advance for him to meet us. Such a relief. He drove us straight to our hotel, which was a beautiful old building where we were greeted with glasses of a cold, blue juice of some sort.
C.D., his wife Patti and her son, Clint, joined us in the hotel lobby.
They had taken a 24-hour train from Hyderabad to Agra. I can’t imagine.
But they had had a few hours to rest and refresh and were happy to see some fellow Americans. (We were overwhelmed and tremendously grateful to be at our destination, and among friends.)
The respite was short-lived.
A missing passport, another train ride
At the hotel check-in, attendants asked to see our passports. Mom, Lily and I handed ours over, but Dad realized with a start that his backpack was missing. No laptop, no cash, no passport.
I am ashamed at my reaction to this news, but let’s just say I felt a need to apologize later to my parents and the Rickmans. And possibly the hotel staff.
We struggled for a bit to discern whether we’d lost his pack on the plane, or during the taxi scam confusion, or on the train. We decided it was on the train.
It’s gone forever, the women insisted.
No, it’s not, said the men.
Worth noting is the fact that the women have been in India less than a week. The men have been here upwards of six months.
“These people will do whatever they can to take care of you,” was the consensus of Dad and C.D.
I really, really, really did not believe this.
Dad and C.D. called the train station and explained the problem. The station manager instructed them to return to the station and fill out some paperwork. My skepticism rose.
They went to the station. After about an hour, Dad returned alone. “Well, the good news is they have my backpack. The bad news is it’s at another station about 100 kilometers north of here. C.D. went to get it.”
C.D. went to get it? After being on a train for 24 hours?
Dad has known for a while the kind of man C.D. is – adventurous, impulsive, willing to do anything for a friend. He has been an immediate hit with the rest of us, and the next morning I asked his wife if I could kiss him.
While C.D. went off to (maybe) retrieve Dad’s pack, the rest of us went in search of the Taj.
The Taj Mahal on a Friday
Here’s a tip: If you are ever in Agra, get someone to drive you to the back of the Taj Mahal at dusk on a Friday.
Unlike tourist destinations in the United States, the Taj is not surrounded by an micro economy of hotels, gift shops and restaurants. But like other parts of India, the adjacent grounds are crowded with animals, traffic and young hawkers selling trinkets, as well as beggars making the most of the crowd.
On Friday, all that disappears.
It is a holy day for Muslims, and the Taj Mahal is a mosque. It is closed to tourists.
From the back, it’s even more private. The road that leads there ends in sand; you’re standing on the bank of the river that surrounds the famous Wonder.
If you are like me, you are wondering what it felt like to be the architect, and if that’s more satisfying than being the queen it was built for.
I looked to my father, whose job in India is to impart American methodologies into modern construction projects.
“How can a building take your breath away?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But it does.”
Maybe it’s in the how as much as it is the what.
A postscript: C.D. had to travel an additional 100 kilometers or so, but he ultimately retrieved Dad’s backback. Everything was there, including his passport, laptop and cash.