Day 753 – 23 March, 2017
Only slightly less nervous to land in Delhi a month after I landed in Mumbai, I quickly jumped in an Uber and darted off toward my hostel, Madpackers. This place had been highly recommended in my nomadic circles and I was eager to be part of that community again. The location was super random. It was basically in the middle of nowhere, on a side street just off the highway, BUT it was a mere steps from the metro, offered free delivery from a number of local restaurants, AND supplied ice cold AC.
Delhi was meant to be this big scary chaotic city that no Westerner could ever navigate. It was meant to be loud and smelly and crowded. Some of this is probably true, but I soon learned that my perception had shifted. None of this intimidated me. I welcomed it. It felt comforting, like a warm blanket on a snowy night… or a mosquito net in the jungle. I took the metro to the Red Fort in the Old City. This would be the climax of whatever chaotic suppositions India might throw at me. I clearly underestimated my previous 6 months having traveled through Africa and now India and nothing that I saw or experienced intimated extreme culture shock. It was magical. I confidently walked these streets that I’d never seen in my life as if it was my own neighborhood. When a vendor asked me if I wanted to buy a cheap plastic replica of the Taj Mahal, I smiled and said “no thank you” approximately eighty-six times without letting him take away my smile. When a rickshaw driver slowly glided next to me, asking if I needed a ride, I dodged his repeated attempts to block my forward motion and smiled, pretending that I didn’t know he was doing it on purpose. Nothing seemed to throw me off.
Cows blocked an intersection. Cows…in this big city roaming wherever they please. The streets were otherwise clogged with auto-rickshaws, their honking horns as a jovial conversation from one driver to another. Vendors selling everything from propane tanks to a perfect pyramid of green oranges, from leather strapped sandals to golden crispy samosas that were still moist with grease. Coiffed men in business suits, softly sweating, blended in with dusty beggars, their hands crusted with scabs and dirt and their teeth the color of caramel. It was an incomparable melting pot of the most extreme castes.
By contrast, inside the Red Fort, replete with its cool marble decorative motifs and obstructive red-sandstone exterior, the din faded away. I baked in the sun wandering through the main court, admiring the ornamentation and feeling saddened for the rooms that had fallen into disrepair. The other patrons were mostly upper class Indian families, who ignored me, and a few other western faces. I tried to sit for a moment in the shade only to be shooed away by a hyper security guard. No matter. The streets of the Old City await!
Over the next couple of days, I certainly didn’t master the metro map, but I was already starting to accumulate frequent traveler points. Ok, well that isn’t a real concept in Delhi, but my point is that I was getting around. The closest metro stop to Madpackers ran aside a highway with thick concrete barriers, reminding pedestrians that approximately 5 million people die from road injuries annually. A pedestrian bridge crossed the highway close to the metro terminal and the congested lawless stream of traffic below made me thankful for the relative safety of the pedway.
I took a trip to the east to see Humayun’s Tomb, where the former Mughal Emperor is laid to rest, and then circling back toward the center to see Jantar Mantar, a puzzling collection of 19th century astronomical instruments to measure celestial features and time. As the sun sunk lower in the afternoon, it continued to sizzle where it touched, but the geometric shapes of the instruments cast welcome shadows. Nearly everyone at the park hovered in doorways or windowsills only to be chased away by a guard before filling in again as he moved on to the next congregation in the shade. Finishing the day at Connaught Place, a commercial area with shops and several business headquarters, I actually found a cafe with bold French coffee and little sugary macaroons.
To no surprise, I was having a bit of a travel issue for my onward plans. My desire was to take a train to Jodhpur, colloquially known as the The Blue City. It would be by bus…a night bus. Ugh, my favorite… I was also rationing my time. Martyn was expecting me to meet him in Nepal with less than 2 weeks to spare. Was I really going to have time to go to all of the places I wanted to see before then? Complicating matters further, the direct bus to Jodhpur would only leave 3 days a week so the decision was made without me. I would be leaving Delhi one day later than I wanted so something else would need to change.
With the luck of all the lucky stars, a seat opened up on a private tour to Agra for the next day. It’s oft-recommended to hire a private driver to make the 3 hour trip there and back from Delhi. Drivers are relatively cheap, it gives you the freedom to do as you wish, and for some reason it’s considered “safer” (whatever that means). I had thought I would go to Agra for a night or two, but now it looked like I would be seeing the sights in one very busy and fast-paced day.
Three medical students from the UK would join me – Tim, Sara, and Megan – for a visit to the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Because of the grim traffic and our rather circuitous route, it was impossible to arrive before 11am, which is exactly the time of day when every other patron enters the imposing marble gate. The foreground was awash with every clever entrepreneur, decrepit beggar, wily thief, and prostituted child from the entire province, but to be fair, I had expected these characters and they didn’t bother me a bit.
The Taj Mahal did not disappoint us at all in spite of the crowds. One of its minarets was even wrapped in scaffolding and that couldn’t distract from the splendor either. For all its inherent beauty, the most wonderful thing about the mausoleum itself is its story. Built in 1632 by the Mughal emperor as a tomb for his favorite of five wives, who died in childbirth that year. Shortly after it was finished, his son deposed him and the former emperor was imprisoned at the nearby Agra Fort. He spent the rest of his life as a prisoner, but would spend his time on a balustrade at the fort where he had an unobstructed view of the mausoleum in the distance.
Tim, Sara, Megan, and I took all of our obligatory photos (with a moderate wait in line) in front of the reflecting pools. I planned some yoga poses that I wanted to try, but the guard yelled at me “no funny business!” which came out sounding more like “no phony business” so that became the phrase for the rest of the day when it was time to go.
By the time we got to Agra Fort, we were pretty giddy. Tired from the heat and the crowds, we spent a good amount of time just goofing around and taking shelter in the shade. The red sandstone architecture, intricately carved, is a true work of art. Every time we sat down, people would ask to take photos of us, which was fun at first but eventually became tiresome so it was time to go.
The day had flown by and if I had stayed a night there, I would have tried to visit the Taj Mahal at either sunrise, sunset, or both, Regardless, I was satisfied with my time in Agra and was glad to have gone with such fun companions. My rapid fire tour of northern India’s most famous sites was only just beginning.