Today started with a grand attempt to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal. Now, we are south of the Taj, so that’s not really possible, but the idea of seeing the Taj in orange sunrise seemed appealing enough to warrant a 7am alarm.
That wasn’t really the case. It was absolutely freezing and the haze prevented us from seeing anything near the horizon anyways. No worries. We got ready in time for the golf cart to take us over to the Taj at 9am. The Oberoi is the only hotel past the entrance gate, so we already had our tickets and red shoe coverings for inside the Taj itself. The golf cart took about 3 minutes and soon we were stepping into somewhat of a tourist mecca. There were people everywhere trying to sell us Taj postcards, figurines and books. A man from the Ministry of Tourism took us aside and walked with us while telling us about the grounds and the history etc. I’m not really sure where he came from, but he did help to lead us through security and into the complex. But this guy still didn’t leave us alone and started going on and on about the symmetry and yada yada. We just wanted to walk by ourselves so we asked him to take a few pictures of us and then we ditched him. I’m sure that makes me a bad traveler, but tour guides are not for me at all.
Now, there are a lot of things that have a lot of hype and once you finally see them you’re like “ehhhh”. The Eiffel tower is one of these things, the Empire State building may be another. The Taj Mahal is not one of these things. It was more grand and larger than I had expected and it was much more beautiful. From far away it looks white, but close up you can see that there are small red flowers with green leaves in the tiles and there is Arabic writing everywhere. It looks pretty much the same from all 4 sides, which enables fantastic photos on the 3 sides that people seem to forget about. The front has narrow pools with small fountains leading the way across the large lawn and there are a few raised areas where people stand to take photos on a few of the stone benches. A good minority of the people are just trying to take tourists’ photos for some cash, or they’ll even take the photo with their own camera and develop the picture while you wait. This was the only annoyance in being here. Everything else was just breathtaking and I don’t think I can do any justice to the site with only words. Even the pictures don’t let on how incredible it is to see the Taj Mahal in person.
After taking lots of photos, including the requisite jumping shots, we headed to the inside of the Taj. It was time for the little red booties. We went up the stairs to the marble courtyard area, and then into the Taj itself. Honestly, there isn’t too much going on in there – its just a couple of caskets in the center room and circular rooms all around. The area was nice and all, but clearly the time and effort was spent on the outside of the structure. We exited the back and looked over the river, now mostly dried up, down below. I guess that’s why it was possible to build a huge marble structure 600 years ago. We walked around the back and both sides for a very long time, and even had opportunities to take photos in front of the Taj with no other human beings.
There were a few people that walked up to us at one point and said “photo?”. I thought the 2 possibilities would be a) they want us to take their photo or b) they want to charge us for them to take a photo of us. Neither was true – they wanted a photo with us. One by one each member of the family stood with us while the others stood back and clicked away. The Taj wasn’t even in the background of the shots! I was beyond confused, held my pocketbook tight and looked skeptical. After this happened a second, and then third time, we realized that we were pretty much the only white people there and certainly a few of only a handful of Americans. Apparently we were quite novel and people simply needed a photo with such a foreign couple. It was so strange to have people actually call out your minority status. After we had taken our fill of photos and general taking-in of this exceedingly impressive monument, we started the walk back to our golf cart, buying a coke and masala flavored Lays potato chips along the way.
Back at the hotel we had to pack and get ready for our departure. The trip was so quick, although I can’t stress enough how worthwhile it was to see the Taj. We chilled in the room, still staring at the Taj and eventually checked out close to noon. We grabbed lunch in the other restaurant – Dave having only a salad and me getting the chicken tikka masala. It was pretty overpriced for lunch, but it was good nonetheless. Finally at 1:30 we hopped back into our comfy SUV and headed to the airport. The ride was uneventful and soon we were back at the airport and Kingfisher employees were getting for their 1 flight that day. This involved calling us up one by one to check in. They also argued that our bag had to be checked, despite it being hand luggage in Delhi. They argued that Delhi airport was doing a very unsafe thing and that they would talk it over with the airport manager. Then for no reason, he did a 180 and said we could carry it on. I guess its not unsafe then? It all seemed completely unnecessary but the best truly was yet to come. After we were all checked in, “we” being everyone in the airport because there is only 1 flight, we stood in line for security. Every bag was tagged and passed through the X-ray. When we all went to collect our bags on the other side, we were yelled at not to touch anything. Being as this didn’t make any sense and suddenly a bunch of airport employees were grabbing our cameras, laptops and jewelry and taking off for the other side of the airport, there was some general confusion all around. No explanation was given, only “don’t touch your things!”. I didn’t want to leave my laptop so I insisted on walking next to the man who had grabbed my tray. He told me I was very beautiful as he walked me over to the womens only line for the pat down and hand held metal detector. It was all very weird. Inside the booth, the woman scanned every part of me and my boarding pass and passport. Literally every page of my passport. Of course the sensor in my passport cover kept causing the metal detector to go off and she could not understand why this was the case, despite me pointing to it and explaining (and she spoke English). Can you make a bomb out of a passport? I don’t think so… On the other side, our documents were checked two more times and all of our bags were also checked again to make sure they had the security stamp on them (how else would we have gotten them to this side of security??). The flight was very quick and in no time we were walking through Delhi’s airport and into a $9 taxi to the Claridges Hotel.
The Claridges is a very nice hotel in the embassy area of Delhi. This meant that it really felt more like Washington DC than like India and there wasn’t much going on except for embassies and government buildings. Dave and I both showered and soon Laasya was at the hotel and ready to show us around the city! We told her that we’d like Indian food so, being that she actually didn’t know Delhi too well, she texted friends for recommendations. We enter up at the nicest hotel in Delhi, the Aman Hotel. It was extraordinarily beautiful and Laasya and I shared a vegetarian appetizer and we each had our own entrees. I had the spinach and mint chicken, which wasn’t spicy but was very flavorful and unique. Laasya generously picked up the check for what must have been a very expensive meal and from there we drove past India Gate, a smaller version of the Gateway of India. We couldn’t enter because security was very tight while they are gearing up for their Independence Day next week. Many roads were closed but eventually we found a small area, Khan Market, that was accessible and had a few bars. Laasya chose Blanco and we headed in for happy “hour”, which was 4pm to midnight 2 for 1 drinks. India has a big drinking problem and apparently its happy hour all of the time and nearly anyone will drive drunk without a second thought. So that’s great. We enjoyed the bar, which had a posh feel with a disco on the top floor and the smell of apple sheesha everywhere. We chatted about life in India and all the things that are wrong with Delhi, along with the key differences between northern and southern India. Around midnight it was very evident that we were all exhausted and that it was certainly time to leave. We picked up the check and Laasya’s driver dropped us off at our hotel, which we hadn’t realized was just around the corner (Delhi is made up of just a series of rotaries which makes it very difficult to know which direction you’re heading). Dave and I set our alarms for 5am and passed out instantly. Cochin tomorrow!!