Falling in Love at the Taj Mahal

Linzi is one of those people everyone should be lucky enough to have in their lives. Adventurous, type-A, with the kind of cackling laugh that makes you snort through your nose, Linzi is what you would call a “travel fiend,” the girl saves up all of her money so then she can promptly spend it backpacking around some far flung land for a couple of months, making all of her friends back home go into insane jealous rages.
We have traveled together before…a year ago we spent several weeks In Ecuador, and I was so psyched when she told me she was going to stop in India during her three month tour of Asia.  Psyched may be an understatement, I think I jumped around screaming and did Frank the Tank punches in the air. Linzi is the planner, the logical one, the party animal.  She has itineraries like a hotel concierge and more marked-up maps than Columbus.  She throws herself out of planes, runs rock n’ roll marathons and saves babies’ lives (no, literally, she’s a PICU nurse).
I flew up to Delhi and met Linzi on friday night after work. After a quick night of shut eye, we got up and headed to the train station. We decided to start our trip off with a bang: the Taj Mahal.  We grabbed some snacks, finally figured out the ticketing system and hopped a train headed to Agra.  We were on our way.

Linzi, happy to be in India

Linzi, MacGyvering the suitcase

Linzi, asleep minutes later.
This was my first Indian train experience and it sounds cheesy, but I fell in love.  Maybe it was the fact that I’d seen the Darjeeling Limited 584 times.  Maybe it was because as soon as we boarded, a charming Australian man who may or may not have been a spy sat down and talked with us for the rest of the ride.  Maybe it was because each chair turns into a bed. Traveling in India is not for the fast-paced, impatient or logical.  Sure you could hop a flight and be there in 2 hours, but sometimes its so much better to take a meandering ride, really getting a look at the country, it’s people and food. (every five minutes a vendor will walk by, calling out his menu like a carnival worker trying to guess your weight).  They say the destination is the journey, and in India, it couldn’t be more true.

snacks on snacks
After we arrived in Agra, we tried desperately to find a restaurant called the Pink Peacock, a suggestion given to me by my neighbors in Hyderabad.  After a couple failed attempts, we settled on an Indian place in the middle of town that turned out to be really, really good.  Linzi had her first full Indian meal and was really digging the food. We headed back to the hotel early, wanting to get up early to see the sun rise over the Taj.  Before we could get to our rooms, however, we offered a proposition we couldn’t refuse: an invitation to the wedding downstairs.  After a little faux hesitation, the smiley, young front desk attendant showed us to the party room downstairs, where we were offered food and drink and the opportunity to dance (many, many times).  It didn’t seem right to eat and run, so instead we sat politely for a few minutes and had a sprite before heading back upstairs to bed.  I told Linzi I would set my alarm clock.  “Are you sure?” she asked me, reminding me of my famous tendency of not getting up on time, and the fact that we had hired a taxi for 6 a.m.  I assured her that I was responsible now, I was living abroad and had grown up, and made a huge scene of setting not one but two alarms, one on my phone and one on my ipod.

She hated me right about now.

I woke up to the sound of Linzi screaming.  “WE’RE LATE, WE’RE LATE” she yelled, jumping out of bed and rushing around the room.  I wondered how in the hell the clock read almost 7 a.m., when I had been so careful.  I looked at my phone and realized I had set them both for 5:30 p.m.  Mother of Pearl, I cursed as I quickly threw on clothes and ran with Linzi out into the street.  My heart sank as I saw the tip of the sun peaking over the horizon, knowing that we would never make it on time.  What follows is a summary of our journey to the Taj Mahal, approximately 4 miles away.

We see our taxi driver.  We tell him we’re ready and apologize for being late.  He says it will take him 10 minutes to get a car.

“We can’t wait ten minutes,” we yell to him, as we run down the street, looking for alternate transportation. He starts yelling at us that he has been waiting on us, and we owe him money, and just wait 10 minute, he’ll get a car, it will have AC, everything will be fine.

We get in a tuk tuk, haggle and take off.  A half mile later, the tuk tuk dies.  We get out and run to another tuk tuk.

The second tuk tuk leaves.  The first tuk tuk is now up and running and the driver is furious that his customers have been poached.  The second tuk tuk stops and the first tuk tuk pulls up next to them.  After much yelling, hand shaking, and the two of us screaming, the second tuk tuk takes off, finally heading in the right direction.

Waiting in line for pics
We hopped the barricade and quickly got in line, the sun slowly creeping higher in the sky. I felt horrible for ruining our sunrise viewing of the Taj Mahal, but as we walked through the front gates of the palace, and the gleaming white marble structure came into view, I knew we hadn’t missed anything.  It was absolutely stunning and I’m not entirely sure why, but I became emotional as we walked towards it, this symbol of the love of a husband for his wife, a tomb really, but so much more than that.

As luck would have it, we met Tate, the Australian from the day before and tagged along on his tour, the guide was an incredibly informative, engaging man who was quick to name his celebrity clients.  He took us on a step-by-step circuit of the palace, telling us the long, romantic story of Emperor Jahan, pointing out tiny details we would have otherwise missed, and staging jumping pics like a pro.  After the amazing two hour tour, we tried to give him a tip, which he promptly refused. The guide, Ramesh, is actually in this episode of An Idiot Abroad (you can see him at about 8 minutes).  What a gem!

Not kidding around! Take those shoes off!

Jumping Pic
Inlaid gems in stone

One last look

Finally we headed back toward the gate and I hesitated leaving, wanting one more long look at the Taj, not knowing when I would see it again.  By this time, the sun was high in the mid-morning horizon, the bright blue subtly shifting the color of the Taj Mahal from a golden hue to a blazing white.  Apparently, four nights a month, the Taj is opened at night for a full moon showing, 400 people are allowed in, for 30 minutes only.  Those who have seen it has said it’s just magical and visiting the palace at midnight, under a full moon is definitely on my bucket list.

It leaves a sort of impression on you, a lasting feeling you get when you think of it, kind of like a song that always makes you think of a specific time whenever you hear it.  I’m not sure what makes it so magical, so impressive, so important, and maybe that’s the point: not to know.

Hey dummy, don’t feed squirrels

We headed next to Agra fort, a city surrounded by giant, military style walls, made of red clay and baking in the hot sun, the whole place has a dusty feel.  Dating back to 1526, it is surely impressive, but after seeing the Taj, it pales in comparison…like seeing George Clooney, then an hour later seeing your local weatherman.  I mean, he’s great and he’s spot on when it comes to hail, but Clooney is the one you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

We strolled around the space, looking at the architecture, people watching and marveling at the animals that inhabit the grounds.  We stopped and watched as an American tourist began feeding the squirrels…right in front of a sign that asks you to please not do so.  I was thinking how tame that squirrel must be, to come up to a human and eat out of its hand, when suddenly the woman jumped up and back, shaking her hand, yelling “the damn thing bit me!”  Call me an a-hole, but I love when that stuff happens.  We walked back through the gates and came upon a large group of people surrounding a monkey, eating a popsicle.  When a would-be photographer got too close, the monkey bared its teeth and snarled, sending them running back to the safety of the group.  Apparently nobody reads the signs.

Agra Fort

Is this guy’s picking at Linzi’s scalp?

Who DOESN’T love orange popsicles?

For lunch we left ourselves in the capable hands of our driver, asking him to just take us somewhere good and relatively cheap.  I have found this game of lunch roulette both exciting and delicious, the drivers normally taking me somewhere off the beaten path, away from tourists and inflated prices.  We may have hit the jackpot on this time around, the thali plate for Linzi, a steamer for me, and a lovely green space to lounge in for a while.

 We sat there, eating and catching up for a long time, we had hours to kill before the train and I couldn’t think of a better place to relax in.  It felt really nice to be with an old friend, someone who already knows your quirks and stories, your embarrassing moments and silly fears.
best meal this side of the ganges.

The first leg of our adventure was a success! Now on to Jaipur…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s