23 February 2018 – We’ve spent nearly six months of the last two years travelling in Africa – east, west, north, south…you name it. It’s gotten to the point where I can hardly imagine travelling anywhere else. So that’s exactly what I started to do – imagine someplace else, just for a change of pace. I clicked back through photos and flipped the pages of my diaries documenting our travels in various parts of Asia. I lay on my yoga mat at the end of a class and listened to a soft chant drifting over the prone participants in the quiet room. India it is, I decided.
I arrived in Delhi early on a hazy morning (is there any other kind of a morning in Delhi?) and a driver from the hotel picked up me up at the airport. Flights land in Delhi at all hours of the night and Gorav had already done some airport pickups. He’d only slept three hours, he informed me, and rested his head on the wheel and closed his eyes during a particularly bad traffic jam. This city is famous for nightmarish traffic – it’s some of the worst in the world. Gorav awoke from his power nap in time to expertly zoom several meters ahead and wedge his small car between an ancient bus and two auto-rickshaws going in the opposite direction. ‘If you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere’, Gorav said before taking another short rest. ‘Getting a driver’s license is easy’ he continued. I asked about the test. ‘Sure, there’s a test, but if you fail it’s no problem. You just give the instructor some money and you’ll get your license’ he went on matter-of-factly, and swerved into the other lane to avoid a snarl of motorbikes, narrowly missing an oncoming truck. Back in our own lane he slowed down and skimmed the shoulder, where several cows snuffled in mounds of rubbish. A woman driving a scooter with a dog (not a lapdog, a Golden Retriever) perched in front of her passed us. Noting my interest in this unconventional ride and the dog’s obvious enthusiasm for it Gorav helpfully stomped on the gas and cut off a few taxis, and we chased her the rest of the way into town with my camera out the window like the paparazzi.
I was staying in Paharganj, a warren of twisty shop-lined streets and popular travellers’ enclave. Like any new arrival, I had stuff to do. I needed rupees, and an Indian phone number, and some water, for starters. I went out into the street and Salim from the hotel materialised at my side. ‘You have very nice-looking ma’am’, he said, gesturing at my face, and then pointed me in the direction of an ATM and a shop selling SIM cards.
Armed with my new phone number and a thick stack of rupees I was ready to see what India had in store for me. And first things first, I wanted palak paneer. I ate this Mughlai spinach and cheese curry for the first time ever eleven years ago in Delhi and so began what is starting to look like a lifelong obsession with it – I usually eat it at least once a week.
I’d really only thought as far ahead as the palak paneer; so that craving taken care of for the moment, I started making plans. As I sat on the hotel’s rooftop with my Lonely Planet, Gorav reappeared with a German girl in tow – another of his airport collectees. He introduced us and since we both wanted to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, we decided to go together.
India is a huge country, united by an extensive rail network that sprawls over the map like a web. So you might think that booking tickets would be a simple operation – but if you thought that, you’d be wrong. Kim and I headed over to New Delhi Railway Station to sort it out in person. Stories about touts trying to persuade you that the ticketing office is closed (it’s not) or that they can sell you a ticket instead (they can’t) or that you should just accompany them to another station (you shouldn’t) abound in guidebooks and forums, but we found the office and took a number. And we waited, and then we waited some more.
After an entire Indian family finished booking what seemed to be a permanent move into a railway carriage judging from the amount of time it took to plan, it was finally our turn. We sat down for a consultation with an Indian Rail agent and ended up with tickets for a train going to Agra early the next day.
At five am we were back at the station. We walked the length of the platform, ever mindful of the ticketing agent’s dire warning that no matter what anyone might say to us, our train was on platform ten and if anyone touched us we should slap him. But no one tried to steer us away from platform ten so we boarded at the correct carriage and located our seats – two bunks in second class. It was only six am and we were happy – kicking off our sandals we climbed into our beds and went to sleep as the train jolted to a start and lurched out of the station.
Jumping off the train three hours later in Agra, we immediately met Mr. Shubab, an auto-rickshaw driver who dropped us off at the west gate to the Taj Mahal, with the now familiar reminder to slap anybody who bothered us (in case you’re wondering, I’ve yet to slap anyone but according to Mr. Shubab it seems inevitable).
The Taj Mahal shimmered in front of us like a mirage at the end of a long reflecting pool.
Emperor Shah Jahan started work on the complex in 1632 as a memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child the year before. The main building was completed in about eight years, and stands above the final resting place of both the Emperor and his beloved wife.
Slipping off our shoes Kim and I paced around the Taj on its cool marble platform.
As foreigners we became a part of the attraction itself and posed for photos with vacationing Indian families (and groups of guys; I wondered if we’d need to invoke Mr. Shubab’s advice).
When we got tired of that and said no to more photos, the guys just stood around and photographed us from a distance as we sat on the steps in the sun.
Afterwards, we found Mr. Shubab waiting for us outside the West gate and he returned us to the station. Back on the train, a chai-wallah made his way through our carriage. We each bought a cup of sweet and steaming hot milky tea from him and sipped it in our bunks.
That night on the hotel rooftop I branched out and ordered myself kashmiri dum aloo even though I really wanted palak paneer. I was satisfied: what could be more quintessentially Indian than train travel and an afternoon at the Taj Mahal? I was looking for a change of pace, after all, and I was right – India it is.