It felt crazy to be up so early! Up so late? It was hard to tell. But Baloo and I were ready to go by 1:30 am.
Baloo had the hard job. I planned to fall asleep in the backseat. Sadly, I could not sleep as I was wide awake. So I tried to keep Baloo entertained for the 4 hour journey. Baloo played Hindu songs to keep himself awake. It was going to be a long journey.
After an uneventful drive, we arrived outside the gates around 5:30. The sun was not yet up, so I would make it to see the sunrise!
My guide met me - PK - and we headed for the complex. Cows and monkeys were roaming around the entrance so you really hadn’t to watch where you walked.
It’s hard to explain how I felt as I approached the site. I had been so looking forward onward to seeing wing this man justice mausoleum that I wasn’t sure if it would meet my expectations. But I can say that this is one of the he most beautiful places that I have ever visited! It takes your breath away! You have seen all the photos, but they don’t do it justice. I almost cried.
The story behind it reflect so the love of a man for a woman. Shah Jahan built the site as a Memorial to his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal,who died while giving birth to theirs 14th (!!!) child. The poor first wife got a small consolation crypt near the gate.
when Mumtaz died, the emperor was so distraught that he decided to build this memorial to her. Construction for the site began that same year.
Mumtaz was Persian (from what’s is now Iran), and a Persian architect designed the site. The emperor invited the architect to bring all the craftsmen (and their families) from Persian. Although the main building was built in 8 years, it took 22 years for the complex to be completed. Not long after it was completed, Shah Jahan was overthrown by one of his sons (who killed his four brothers) and imprisoned for the rest of his life at Agra Fort. For the rest of his life, he could watch over his wife from the windows of the fort. A sad love story.
The Taj Majal is now a World Heritage Site and looks as amazing today as it did when it was built. It went through a large renovation project in the early 20th century, and was “cleaned” around 2002. The Government has realized the value of this site and now controls pollution within hundreds of miles of the site. They do this through preventing any manufacturing in the vicinity and prohibiting polluting vehicles in the area.
One of the things that you are warned about before you arrive is that there are lots of “photographers” on the temple grounds who are willing to take your pictures for a fee. Once you have committed to one, he will follow you around and tell you how each photograph should be staged, and then sell you the results at the end. Luckily, PK served that role for me! He had me pose at all the standard locations and took the photos on my phone. You have the pleasure of seeing far too many pictures of me at the Taj above.
PK was a wealth off information. He helped to explain the architecture and lol the symbolism scattered throughout the complex. I don’t understand not wanting to use (and pay!) a guide when this person adds value. One of my frustrations with the tour company was that’s I was promised a guide every day, but did not have one until I arrived at the Taj Majal. So I saw many places, and was able to read the limited data available nearby, but I had to make assumptions about whether I was even in the right spot! It is very frustratingly as I will likely never return to this city! I try to move on...
We spent about 2 1/2 hours at the Taj Majal, then PK took me to a place for breakfast. It wasn’t great...
Our next stop was the Agra Fort. This fort is still used by the Indian military so tourists are only allowed to access about 25% of the site. I was so excited to have PK with me to explain the various parts of the fort.
Each of the five emperors of the Munghal Dynasty who ruled the area had his own palace within the fort. We were only a lemon to see the section in which the Shah Jahan lived and spent his house arrest. It was a beautiful location to be held prisoner.
When we finished at the fort, it was time for PK and I to part company. It was only 12:30 or so, but I was exhausted! Baloo took me to my hotel so I could rest, and we made a plan to view the sunset over the Taj Majal from the far side of the river.
My hotel had a beautiful rooftop pool and restaurant, so I had a bit of lunch before my nap. Sadly, I could only sleep for two hours, but that seemed to be enough. I went downstairs to meet Baloo for a drive to the park. Sadly, it was cloudy, so it was not much of sunset. But I am glad to have seen it
Overall, the Taj Majal and the city if Agra exceeded my expectations. Seeing the Taj Majal in person will remain a highlight of my travel experiences. I a man looking forward to seeing what else this country has to offer!
Day 2 began with a pick-up from my driver, Baloo, who would be my only companion for the next three days. He let me know that we had a long drive ahead of us - at least 4 1/2 hours - so I should just relax. Good thing that I always travel with books! Staring out the window would try my patience, which is really not my strong suit. The drive had the added bonus of a variety of creatures along the road.
You have heard about the cows - it is true that they are everywhere! Which means you always have to watch where you walk. The really sad thing is that although the Hindus worship them as gods, they do not appear to be addressing some of their basic needs. These cows do not live in fields where they eat grass all day. They are living in the concrete jungle which is the city. So they rely on trash for their food. This could turn many people into vegetarians.
In addition to the cows, there are goats, monkeys, and dogs everywhere. The dogs are not treated as pets. They are wild dogs who forage for food (they all appear malnourished), many of them carry diseases, and they look like they either nursing puppies or mating with other wild dogs. My guide told me that Hindus believe that dogs can see the devil’s face so they want nothing to do with the dogs. The government could help themselves by running a massive spay and neutering campaign!
The roads are terribly crowded, as cars share the road with trucks (many of which appear to be overloaded and on the verge of over-turning!), tuktuks, bicycle rickshaws, and motorbikes all competing for space. Everyone is honking, as if to let their neighbors know that they are passing by any means necessary. It makes for an interesting drive.
As we approached Jaipur, the Pink City, I saw two camels along the side of the road. Not much later, I saw an elephant and rider heading towards me. Both of these animals offer rides to lazy tourists who do not want to climb up to the palace and the fort. The government has recently given one concession to the animals and only allows rides in the mornings so that the animal should can rest during the hottest oft infant the day. But it still seems cruel.
My guide pulled over as the base of the Amber Palace. I expected to have a guide meet me to take me through, but this was more of my “rookie tourist mistake”. The tour company had lied to me and would not return my phone calls. So I was on my own.
It was hot! I live in Atlanta, grew up in Houston, and have lived in New Orleans, so I should be used to this! But this was intense. Climbing up to and through the palace and on to the fort (Nahargath) in the “humid season” left me looking like I had been swimming! I was invited to be in many more selfies (I bet those look nice!) and was offered a ride on the back of a motor bike up to the top. I declined.
I spent about 2 hours in the palace and the fort. There is not much to share but I am glad that I saw it. By the time I left, I was really hungry. Luckily, Baloo knew a place with truly amazingly Indian food. It was the first I had since arriving in India. Yum!
After lunch, we continued our tour of Jaipur. The two highlights were the Hawa Mahal (The Palace of the Winds) and the City Palace. The Hawa Mahal is a five-story facade covered with hundreds of windows. The ladies of the court used these windows to watch processions while keeping their faces hidden.
For me, the most interesting thing about the City Palace is that it shows what happens if you don’t stop people from feeding pigeons. This beautiful building is covered with birds, which means that it is covered with bird droppings! Really gross - not just smelly but you had to worry about getting hit from above. I didn’t stay long.
As Baloo and I talked about our plans for that evening and the next day, I realized that his schedule was off. He planned to take me to the Taj Majal on Saturday morning. I explained that we needed to go on Friday as I was flying to Kerala on Saturday morning. Baloo then told me that the Taj Majal is closed on Friday - every Friday - as this the day that the Muslims come to the temple to pray.
Now I was angry! And I realized how poorly the tour company hadn’t handled my situation. The primary thing I wanted to do in India was see the sunrise at the Taj Majal. Now it appeared that this was not going to happen. The tour company was still unwilling to take my call!
Then Baloo made an offer that I could not believe. If he could have some time to take an evening nap, we would leave at 1:30 and he wouldn’t drive through the night to have me at the Taj Majal for sunrise. I almost cried!
After a good bit of discussion as to whether this would be a safe journey, and whether Baloo was truly up for this drive, we decided that this was to be our plan. We parted ways after committing to call each other at 1 am to make sure we were up. I went up to my room, took two Tylenol PMs, and went to bed by 7:30. It was going to be a long day tomorrow.
I had mentioned photos, but forgot to add them.
The Memorial itself is moving. Lots of school children were visiting at the same time as me. This is where I first learned that I am going to “Star” in many people’s photos as the “Middle-age day white woman”. I don’t love selfies, but you cannot turn down the kids (is this what Taylor Swift experiences???”)
Something that I found interesting about the Memorial is that many world leaders have planted trees in Ghandi’s honor in the garden surrounding the Memorial. These two stood out - Ho ChiMinh and Nicolas Ceausescu. Ghandi advocated for non-violence, but these two practiced the opposite. Strange contrast.
These are some photos from my first hotel in India. What more could I expect for $23/night? I could have slept anywhere afternoon two long flights. Even with the upgrades (thank you, DTF!), I was ready for real sleep. So I took a bucket shower - the shower head was not functional) and crashed.
Very early the next morning, I was awake so I decided to headed into the city (I had been advised to stay at a hotel near the airport sincerely my flight had arrived so late). I took my first TukTuk of this visit to the Metro. This is where I first realized how heightened security is in India. I passed through a metal detector, my bag was scanned, and I proceeded through the “ladies’” scanner. Women and men are always separated at security checkpoints.
The Metro was easy so I made it to Connaught Place and decided to have coffee before I took my second TukTuk of the day. Then I headed to my hotel.
The check-in staff was polite, offered me some local beverage (tasted like sweetened fruity water), and tool do me that my room would be ready in 30 minutes or so. Would I like for them to take me to the tourist office while my room was being prepare? What a lovely idea! I am a sucker!!!
This is a travel rookie mistake! I was too tired to be focused, so let’s just at I WAY overpaid for a tour that I did not want. And even though it has been three days since I did so, I am still mad at myself. Trying to “Let It Go!”, as Elsa would say.
The driver took me back to my hotel. I checked into my room and changed clothes for a day of touring Delhi. Our first stop was the red fort. However, in order to get there, I took my first (and - hopefully -only!) bicycle rickshaw through the crazy streets of Delhi. I spent about an hour in this area, taking in the sights, seeing the mosque, visiting spice market, and then had a rickshaw ride back to meet my driver. It’s best just to ignore what is going on around you whenever on one of these things.
My driver then took me around to see some of the highlights of the city, including the Lotus Temple, Himayun’s tomb and the monument to Mahatma Gandhi. A few photos from that memorial(called Raj Ghat) are below.
The highlight of the day involved a visit to Swaminarayan Akshardhan. I don’t really know how describe it other than to say that it has Hindu temple elements, a water/pyrotechnics show (which may sound cheesy but really wasn’t!), and a boat ride that reminded me of something from Disney. All of this was to pay tribute to and tell the story of Swami Akshardham, who lived in the 18th century and is now revered as a god. I spent 3 1/2 hours here and plan to return at the end of my trip. There are no photos as cameras are not allowed on the premises.
Before I close out the first day, I will mention that I found it sad that I had to go through security screenings every time I entered an attraction. And there were guys with big guns posted all over the city. I guess that this is a way of life here.