The air buzzed with excitement as we boarded the bus. It was modern with comfortable seats and plenty of room. Twenty one Americans and one Brazilian hopped on. Our liaison from the YMCA Rajeej was able to communicate with the two Hindi drivers. The drivers had a separate compartment, with a plexiglass barrier. Only Raj was able to go back and forth. There were Hindu icons on the dashboard, a statue of one of the 3500 gods that represent a part of the One God. The ride was awesome, sometimes more bumpy and adventurous than I would like, but truly awesome.
Our YMCA Conference center is out in the boonies. It is a beautiful facility with well kept grounds and a huge fence all around the compound. Coming from out here, the infamous crowded India is simply not present. As we drove closer in, it became more evident that we were in a place apart. Smooth and wide, the highways are well kept. It is disconcerting, however, to be jarred to alertness when the driver has to brake for the horse drawn cart in our lane. Any other time he would have simply passed it, but this time there was traffic in the way. His driving was adept and smooth, rapid braking was an exception for him.
We got closer and closer into Delhi and the humanity became denser and denser. Industry and indolence, wealth and poverty, possibility and hopelessness, modern and ancient: each presented themselves fully. I was uncomfortable riding along after a couple of hours. I began to whine about it rather strongly in my head. I’m pretty sure my negative thoughts somehow spilled out of my mouth too. Then, as I gazed out my window, steadfastly trying to take it all in, I looked down and noticed a 5×8 foot cart being pulled by an ancient tractor. In the cart were about twenty colorfully adorned heads bobbing along. I looked more closely, there were people stuffed in this cart so tightly that I was breathless from looking at them.
Looking out the window, staring at people and situations felt similar to my own discomfort at zoos. Part of me becomes aware of the majesty and dignity in each person and I am embarrassed to be observing them without regard to their personhood. I began to wonder what it is like to live in one of the dusty tents we saw, or to have to ride with so many other people. Did they know each other? Where were they going that was so important that they would endure such discomfort? What do small children in dusty rags learn about humanity in such crowded streets?
Poverty is ugly in any country. Destitution has a grey tinge and a thick coating of dust. In the midst, however, there is tremendous creativity and intriguing beauty. I saw the construction we use for storage units converted into dwelling places next to retail shops. Many of the filthiest rags had beautiful colors and designs under the dirt. There were single person taxis built around motorcycles or scooters, each decorated with brightly colored symbols and signs. The trucks had designs painted on them. I saw several trucks with beautifully colored beads around the front cab; they apparently represented the same firm.
The mass of people is indescribable. We would pass an intersection and there were hundreds and hundreds of people jostling each other as they moved in different directions.
About an hour and a half into the trip, the bus pulled to a stop and the driver got out and went into an office. We had no idea why. So, we obediently sat and waited. I stared out the window at a man on the sidewalk. From my seat in the bus to him was no more than twelve feet. He had a basket, it looked rather like a tortilla basket, and he put it on the ground. My curiosity was piqued. He then sat in front of it and pulled out a wooden instrument that looked like a recorder. The lid was removed and he began to play. Mesmerized, I watched a cobra rising from the basket with his hood wide open he swayed to the music. Another man came and sat beside him. His snake was less well behaved than the first one. Several of my colleagues reminded me to get a picture, since my son had challenged me to get a picture of myself with a cobra. I think that this will be the closest I get to it.
The ride continues:
We stopped twice like this, the driver jumping out and disappearing for awhile. When he returned, the trip resumed. We asked Raj about it. He said they were paying a road tax when we went into another state. Our trip would require about $350 in taxes as we went through.
Our information had been that the travel to Taj Mahal would be about three to three and one half hours each way. That is why we initially weren’t going to go. For some reason, though, since our travel plans had been such a disappointment (my late travel was by far the easiest trip experienced by any in our group), our leadership decided that we should go. My bones did not want to ride in a bus for seven hours in one day… but I have wanted to see the Taj Mahal, the seventh wonder of the world, ever since I read about it when I was a little girl. It seemed to me to be worth it. When am I ever going to be this close to it again?
We had a brief stop to relieve ourselves in a beautiful resort area. I do not know what it cost for us to run in and use the restroom. Outside this haven, over there in the parking lot, there was another snake charmer, and a man with two monkeys on leashes. Closer in was a man and little girl in colorful traditional garb. He played music and she danced. But, we ran in and out with no time for entertainment.
About five hours into the trip we arrived in Agra. We ate at an upscale restaurant. The food was delicious and the staff was gracious. It was a pleasant interlude, but we were anxious to get going.
The Taj Mahal
From the parking lot, we piled into three small vehicles for transport closer to the gate. Upon exiting the bus, we were surrounded by sales people. One young gentleman persistently offered his postcard books to me. Now, I knew I wanted to get some postcards but I surely didn’t want to carry them around in the Taj Mahal, I was only wearing a fanny pack, my bag stayed in the bus. It is apparent that these people are trained in persistence early on, I could not say no loudly or firmly enough to get him to leave me alone. Of course, he was probably able to recognize that I really did want them. I started telling him “later” instead of no. He looked me in the eye and said, “Will you remember me?” I laughed and said, “Probably to my dying day!” When we completed the tour, I did get some postcards from him. Knowing that I had my own personal vendor was helpful to me in saying a firmer “no” the rest of the way in.
Getting through the gate to enter the grounds of the Taj Mahal was an experience in itself. We were not allowed to bring food or candy or gum onto the ground. At first we were going to have to send our bags back to the bus. Then we weren’t. It was chaotic and confusing to have such a large group of people with inadequate and inaccurate information flowing back. We ended up sending any snacks we had had to a grocery bag that Raj held. He put it in a locker somewhere, I believe. My roomie, Cassie, got held back when she went through the security gate. She had way more food in her backpack than she thought. The security guards were armed and looked quite serious about their business.
Finally, finally we are on the grounds of the Taj Mahal. I thought for a few minutes that we were actually at the Red Fort, because the bricks of the building we were near were red. This is actually the fence around the mausoleum.
Outside in the courtyard before the entrance, our guide gave us preliminary information. The construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1631; it took 22 years and 20,000 workers to complete. It is perfectly symmetrical. The designs on the outside of the building are etched in and inlaid with gemstones. The marble is translucent and catches the light in different ways at different times. The building was created as a monument to a prince’s second wife, who died after bearing his fourteenth child. Even the fort and gates surrounding the actual Taj Mahal are beautiful. Around the entry way are inlaid Arabic words from the Koran.
Standing in the entry way to the courtyard, my first view of the Taj was breathtaking. Here is a building that was constructed four hundred years ago and shows limited signs of wear. She is magnificent!
We immediately tried to gather for a group picture. Two of our gaggle were already off and running, so our group photo is not a complete record of all who were there. Then we walked toward the Taj Mahal. Each step closer brought us in the presence of magnificence; the grounds are well kept and beautiful. I stopped with Dr. and Mrs. Runyon and took their picture. A very helpful gentleman pointed out that it would be better from the corner of this pool and took us to a place where the building is reflected in the water. He grabbed their camera out of my hand and took a picture. When he stood up, I grabbed it back and said “No, thank you”. He asked me for a tip. I felt culturally stupid, but stood my ground. Besides, I didn’t have any rupees with me. It shakes me to be so bewildered at the behavior of people. My expectation is that friendliness is friendliness and helpfulness is not always compensated with money. That is not true here.
In order to enter the building itself, we queued up for another line. Numerous people gathered in a loose representation of a line. Along comes a grumpy guard carrying a machine gun who made quite clear, language barrier notwithstanding, that we were to be more orderly and closer to the building. Yes sir. We stood there taking in the sights, chatting and waiting, standing close to the wall as we were ordered. Between me and the wall on my left appeared the most adorable little girl. She had huge brown eyes and a delightful smile. She reached up for my hand. I looked down at her, and on my right one of my classmates whispers in my ear, “She is a pickpocket, watch out!” I stepped away from her and saw that she was being followed by a surly man, presumably her father. We gave them wide berth and let them continue on, passing the word quickly ahead of us.
Inside the building is more beauty. We got up close to some of the inlay work. It is magnificent! The amount of vision, persistence, craftsmanship and hard labor that went into this building is staggering.
Inside, it was crowded and darker. As I gazed on the marble and the inlaid stones I became overwhelmed with emotion. When I was a small child reading books to escape the routine of life, I said I wanted to see the Seven Wonders of the World. I was particularly enchanted with the idea of the Taj Mahal because it is presented as such a symbol of love. And, here I am. I came to India believing that I would not be able to see the Taj, it was too far and that trip would not be made this time. Of course, I still believe that even coming to India is a miracle wrought through God’s mercy and grace. I completely accepted that I would not get to see it. But, here I was. I stood there remembering the hope and joy and limitless imagination of an eight-year-old hoping to see this. I cannot say that I held this dream up every day, or even every year. My life has been filled with present moments and not so much with dreaming about what I want to do and see and experience. I had forgotten the power of that dream, the hope and the possibility that I had felt then. And it all came rushing over me at once. I realized, I forget my dreams, but God doesn’t. He has carried me to the other side of the world to remind me that He is present, He loves me. Not just as one of the masses, but a very personal love. I am so grateful to be here. This moment is one which I will cherish always.
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