"Lane Travel is Safe Travel" to the Taj Mahal

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Oct 17, 2008

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

My two new British friends and I hired an air condtioned Tata complete with Nepali driver to take us to the Taj Mahal in Agra about 150 miles each way from Delhi.  The ride was along India's National Highway 2 which is a paved four lane divided highway.  Any similarities to an American four lane road end there  I sat in the front seat and felt like I was launched out of a slingshot.  Eight hours roundtrip in a flimsy piece of tinfoil have taught me a couple of truths about driving India style:

(1)  If the goverment is actually attempting behavior modification by posting signs saying "Lane Travel is Safe Travel," be warned that maintaining a lane is probably purely optional.

(2)  You will share the road with every kind of conveyance know to man from foot traffic to stray cows to carts pulled by oxen and donkeys to families of four balanced on motorbikes.

(3)  The closer you get your front bumper to the car in front of you, supposedly the faster you will arrive wherever you are headed.

(4)  If you find a traffic signal that works (and I stress if), the red, yellow and green lights that cycle just mean that the bulbs are working, nothing that has to do with traffic control.

(5)  You must honk the horn vigorously anytime you pass someone, are being passed or pass an intersection (i.e. the entire trip by car).

I know that 150 miles of roadway is only a small slice of this country, but it did offer a fascinating glimpse into life here.  The entire roadway was lined with garbage, run down buildings, and cardboard shanty towns.  Just outside Delhi I saw cows rummaging through piles of garbage.  Twenty minutes later I saw half-naked children (almost as dark as the mud they were squatting in) making a meal out of similar piles of trash.  Just take a minute to let that image sink into your mind.  That's the India that is everywhere.

If you still think your life is bad after that processing that image and you need a change, there was a billboard for the Arihant Air Hostess Academy rising above a cardboard tent city.  I guess a pretty, well dressed flight attendant who travels the world should give hope to people who wear rags, eat garbage and will never see India beyond their slum.

I have another observation about the place that mystifies me.  Every building is in some state of disrepair from the airport to government buildings to monuments to offices to gas stations.  It's as if things are poorly built in the first place and never maintained once finished.  Sitting in Delhi traffic I watched a concrete fence being repaired and rebuilt.  The new part looked worse than the old part.

Our Nepali driver was Hindu and he had all kinds of Hindu Gods glued to the dashboard and a piece of garland hanging off the front bumper.  Obviously these items worked because we made it to Agra and back in once piece even after several close calls.

Once we arrived in Agra we had to walk about a kilometer to the front gate of the Taj Mahal.  That involved dodging beggars and scamsters the entire way.  I had a death grip on my backpack and I even felt a hand slide into my back pocket looking for my wallet (which wasn't kept there).  I saw lame horses pulling carts that scamsters were trying to get tourists to ride in. One horse was limping on a bloody leg even.  It was pathetic to be hassled so much and you get so tired of it that you can't help but wave your hands at these people and raise your voice.

The Taj Mahal made all this ENTIRELY worth it though.  It was my reason for coming to India and it didn't disappoint.  It was amazing and we all thoroughly enjoyed it.  It rained when we first got there so we looked at it at first from the main gate under cover.  Once the rain let up and the sun came out, it reflected off the dome and minarets.  We walked through it and they make you put covers on your feet.  With all the rain I am not sure what good that did though since we tracked in dirt and water anyway. 

The Taj Mahal really does live up to its reputation in terms of beauty.  The art work is not painted...it's actually marble carved and laid into the main marble walls.  The Taj collapsed a few hundred years ago and was rebuilt.  After about an hour exploring it and the adjoining mosque we waded back through the scamsters and drove back to Delhi.

India has been both amazing and fascinating.  It's been a great stop on my tour and I thoroughly enjoyed it because it wakes up all your senses both good and bad.  I am off to Bangkok tomorrow and I will see you there soon.
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