Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Start To Delhi And The Taj Mahal

From 30,000 feet, Delhi looks familiar. A patchwork quilt made up of green farmland, gray urban landscapes, stringy roads, and masses of tiny houses. At 15,000 feet, you start to see the differences: cricket ovals, giant pink party tents, and mechanical clumps of high rise buildings (30-50 skyscrapers in a given area that, although mighty in size, appear unfinished and uninhabited). As the descent continues, the notion of "familiar" changes rapidly. More homes packed into one hectare than I have ever seen in my life, no organized grid system for roads or power, and a thick haze that masks the city of Delhi, almost entirely, from the nearby Indira Gandhi International airport.

The airport is beautiful, and for me, was a ghost town. I was shocked by the size, the cleanliness, and the lack of people. It was by far the most organized and efficient airport experience I've ever had. Security is tight, to say the least. In Chicago, armed guards checked my passport before even letting me proceed up to the ticket counter. As we exited the plane in Delhi, more armed guards greeted us and, once again, checked our boarding passes... recording our ticket numbers as we left the plane. Police officers with guns and riot shields stood outside the airport doors.

Once you are on the ground in India, everything that looked familiar from 30,000 feet disappears. It took just over an hour to travel the 15km from the airport to my hotel, and my cab driver and I did it alongside, bicycles, rickshaws, pedestrians, busses, other cars, horse and buggies, donkeys, and motor scooters. The lines on the roads and the occasional stoplights are mere suggestions, as everyone slips in and out of the clump, literally inching their way closer to a destination. Horns beep incessantly. Even bikers ring their bells non-stop. The purpose, unknown. It does absolutely nothing more than add to the crazy soup of congestion. 

If I had to compare the city to another place I have been, I'd say it's a cross between Lima, Peru and Entebbe, Uganda. You certainly see wealth and capitalism, but you also see immense poverty, hungry dogs, and trash… oh my goodness is there a lot of trash! Cows and monkeys also roam freely along (and in) the roads. Children walk around with no clothes on. Women sell fruit and chewing gum from rows of make-shift stalls, and little boys run up to car windows pushing everything from magazines to large plastic airplane models, like the type you would see sitting on the shelf in an executive's corner office in New York City. 

At one point during our drive in, the car stopped (literally) in the middle of no where and the guide who picked me up just hopped out - leaving only me and the driver to continue the journey. When I voiced concern about his departure he said, "no problem, mam," and handed me his business card. "Call if you need anything…" and with that, he was gone. Where he was headed, I have absolutely no idea. Thankfully, the driver was legit and we made it to the hotel where they proceeded to check our car for bombs, inside and out. When we pulled through to reception, they searched my bags and had me pass through a metal detector, while simultaneously welcoming me "home" and clasping their hands in prayer and greeting me with the traditional "namaste."

The hotel is outstanding. A stunning building with 5-star restaurants, gold fixtures, and halls full of art and old photographs. There is someone eager to help you at every turn. I think I worked with at least five different people between the time I checked in and the time I walked into the room, where Mike was waiting. Ahhhh… after two weeks and 16 1/2 hours of flying it was great to see my husband! And, what a way to celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary; truly a dream come true. 

We woke early Tuesday and began our journey to the Taj Mahal, a trip that involved a bus, a train (which, I must add, departed from a private train station that Mike's company built and has only used three times), a bus, another bus, and then a 10-15 minute walk. Seeing Delhi from this perspective was… humbling, to say the least. Here are a few pictures and videos I took along the journey. Some things felt inappropriate to capture, like the countless people who lined the track and just defecated right out in the open. Men, women, and children would literally walk into a mound of garbage and drop their pants. Privacy and cleanliness are such luxuries. Oh my goodness, we take so much for granted. 

Our journey to Agra took close to 4 hours. And just as when we left the beautiful Imperial Hotel, the opulence that juxtaposes the challenging grit of real life in India continued. Our busses had a police escort, we were sprinkled in rose petals as we disembarked, and we were hustled up to a private hotel and lawn overlooking the Taj Mahal where a magnificent lunch awaited. While I appreciated the grandeur and stunning beauty of the venue, I also felt conflicted by the poverty that crowded down below. There we were sipping on champagne and filling our bellies with as many Indian delicacies as one could imagine, and there they were, anxiously waiting to beg you to buy a commemorative book or a marble statue for a mere $5. Welcome to India, a country of great contradictions. A place where 2/3 of the population lives on less than $2 a day and also the home of more than 65 billionaires. It is the greatest contrast of wealth and poverty in the world. 

A few facts I found interesting about India…
  • The cost per square meter for housing in India is apx. $25,000 American dollars.
  • There are roughly 1 million Indian people entering the workforce each month. 
  • By 2015, experts anticipate another 300 million Indians will go online for the first time. 
  • There are more babies born in India in a given year than there are people in the entire country of Australia. 

After lunch our group filed back down the hill and headed into the Taj Mahal. It was one of those rare times when the actual experience fully exceeded the expectations. They broke us into groups and then separated us into men and women. All visitors were searched extensively and given paper shoes to wear inside the mausoleum. The grounds are spectacular.  A mix of Indo-persian and Hindi architecture. Unlike other parts of the country, through which we had traveled earlier in the day, the Taj is very well maintained. Thankfully, the government has recognized it's unparalleled magnificence and is working hard to protect their own world wonder. 

I think every guide at the Taj has a slightly different story to tell about the history of the place (remember, contradictions run rampant here), but most agree that the monument was built by Shah Jahan for his third wife Mumtaz. Mumtaz is said to have been of exceptional beauty. When she died giving birth to her 14th child, the emperor vowed to erect a burial place that, like his wife, was unmatched in physical beauty. The monument is built entirely of white marble, inlaid with (I cannot even begin to tell you how many) precious stones. The floral designs and persian writings, which from afar appear to be painted on, are all unique stones chiseled into the marble structure. It is truly unlike anything I have ever seen. 

I fell asleep for a good two hours on the journey from Agra back to Delhi. We arrived in time for a late dinner, another incredible Indian feast that included hookah and live music. By 11pm, Mike and I wandered up to bed in an exhausted state. Day-one has been incredible. Tomorrow we are off to spend the morning with some local children and the afternoon in a cooking class. Feeling incredibly blessed!