Walking through the gleaming new international terminal at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport, the first big difference I noticed from my first trip to India was that, well, I was walking through a gleaming new international terminal. Upon arrival in June of 2004, nearly eight years before, my fellow passengers and I had unloaded on the tarmac and been herded in stifling heat onto an exhaust-belching bus, which dropped us for customs processing at a low-slung building with significantly less charm than the Cleveland bus station. Now, I found myself embarking from a jetway down what seemed like miles of quiet, carpet-padded hallway that could just as easily have been in Minneapolis or Munich.
The other big difference, of course, was that this time I was accompanied by my wife, Kate, whom I had been dating for just under two years upon my previous arrival; we were engaged just two months after I returned to the states, in no small part because of our experience being apart for that summer. Kate was making her maiden voyage to this place that she had heard so much about from me; most of her knowledge of the place, I would venture to guess, came through the cipher of my perceptions, with much of the remainder from the Bollywood movies that I occasionally convince her to watch with me. I was both thrilled and nervous about making this trip together, as not only was this the first truly international travel of our nearly 10 years together, but she had also ceded most of the planning to me. I figured there were three possible options: 1) she’d have a great time, 2) she’d be miserable for two weeks, or 3) like most first-time travelers to India, she’d be utterly bewildered by a mix of both.
We had arranged for our hotel to pick us up at the airport when we arrived on Wednesday evening, and I was quickly reminded of what, on my first trip, my friends and I had decided was Rule Number One for traveling in India: “never ask ‘why.'” Why did it take 20 minutes for the guy who was standing with my name on a piece of paper to produce the guy who would actually be driving us to the hotel? Why did that guy not stop for gas before picking us up, and instead make us wait in a sketchy-looking gas station for another 20 minutes while he filled up? Asking yourself these kinds of questions will only make you nuts, so it’s best to just go with the flow.
Our hotel, “Cottage Yes Please,” was in Pahar Ganj, an area of Delhi I had not been in before, and which Lonely Planet (rather charitably, I think) describes as “seedy.” Rule number 2 of Indian travel: if you are over 30, you are probably too old to go by Lonely Planet’s hotel recommendations. Things that were at least acceptable to me in my mid-20s — lack of hot water, sketchy or unpleasant staff, general grimyness — start to feel like major inconveniences in my mid-30s. Cottage Yes Please was no great shakes — our first room reeked of cigarettes, and the one we switched to was on the street side of the building, meaning that it was filled with the sound of wedding bands and car horns until midnight, and of fighting stray dogs after that. Still, it was cheap (about $19 USD a night) and close to the train station, and we would be leaving early in the morning on Friday to head to Agra.
First though, we had to meet up with our friend M., who had arrived on a separate flight early Thursday morning. We spent much of Thursday waiting for a call from her, and then searching all over Pahar Ganj for her hotel to make sure she hadn’t been abducted between the airport and there. She had just fallen asleep with her phone off, of course; luckily, by the time we tracked her down, we still had a couple of hours of daylight left and headed south to see Humayun’s Tomb.
Humayun was the second Mughal emperor, a bit of a screw up who wound up losing much of the land his father Babur had conquered and then had to reconquer it; shortly thereafter he died falling down the stairs in his palace. Really, Humayun’s greatest accomplishment was fathering the next (and probably the greatest) Mughal emperor, Akbar; regardless, his tomb is quite spectacular. I fully intend on being reborn as a Mughal emperor in my next life.
We rose very early the next morning to catch a train to Agra, but it’s never too early for an adventure in India and I had the opportunity for an Indian “first” — my first time falling for an Indian scam (well, at least that I know of). As we stumbled bleary-eyed and jet-lagged into the Delhi train station, an official looking man with impeccable English managed to convince us that our train — which for some reason was not listed on the departures board — had been canceled that morning and that we needed to get to another train station in the south of town as quickly as possible to board another one. Despite the alarm bells that had begun to sound in my cobweb-filled brain, we allowed ourselves to be hurried out to a taxi to take us to the other train station, while I frantically tried to check the veracity of this story on my phone. When we pulled up to the “main office” where we were supposed to get our original tickets exchanged for new ones, which turned out to be a travel agency, I knew immediately that we had been duped by a well-greased commission machine. I managed to bust out some of best angry Hindi to compel the driver to get us back to the original train station, and a heroic sprinting porter managed to get us and our bags onto the train with about five minutes to spare, only about eight dollars poorer than we had arrived the first time.
It was about a two-hour train ride to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, the tomb built by Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan for his beloved third wife. The Taj is closed to tourists on Fridays, the day we arrived, so Kate and M. and I hired a driver to take us around to the various other sights in town, including Mehtab Bagh, a reconstructed Mughal garden across the Yamuna River from the Taj, the so-called “Baby Taj,” the tomb of Jahangir’s prime minister, and the fort where Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, placed him under house arrest for the final years of his life, able to see his beloved’s tomb off in the distance. Our driver was a nice enough fellow, though I was constantly fending off his attempts to gain a commission by taking us someplace we did not want to go. While his English and my Hindi were both far from exceptional, we were able to carry on reasonably intelligible conversation throughout the day.
That night, our friends S. and J., the couple whose impending wedding had provided the impetus for our trip, and J.’s sister V. (the only member of her family who had made the journey to India) arrived via bus from Jaipur. Their arrival was greatly delayed by the fact that marriage season was in full swing in Agra, and once it hit the city limits, their bus basically came to standstill in a Sargasso Sea of wedding processions. We went for dinner to Pizza Hut at the insistence of S., the only Indian among us, who had a nostalgic jones for the South Asian variant of this international cuisine (tandoori chicken and paneer, for example). Our lodging for the night was three rooms that made up an entire floor of a homestay run by a lovely and very welcoming family, a total one-eighty from the surly staff at Cottage Yes Please.
The next morning we tried to get to the Taj for sunrise, but arrived a little later after a long walk in the morning cold (northern India happened to be experiencing one of its coldest winters in years). S. hired a guide, and after a long wait for bag searches and pat-downs, we found ourselves face-to-face with one of the wonders of the world. I had skipped the Taj on my last trip to India, wanting to avoid the usual touristy stuff and figuring that I’d be back again one day. Now that the day had arrived, I couldn’t believe I had almost missed my chance. It is a truly awe-inspiring feat of aesthetics and engineering, full of incredibly intricate and detailed inlaid stonework and an almost uncanny display of symmetry. Plus, the thing is enormous. In most pictures, you don’t get a sense of just how huge of an edifice it actually is, but in person it is nearly overwhelming.
After a couple of hours wandering the grounds, we repaired to a rooftop cafe with a fantastic view and terrible food (India protip: any place that says they have pancakes means British pancakes, flavorless crepes not worth the time it takes to prepare them), then readied ourselves for the six-hour bus trip to Jaipur.
(to be continued…)