Leaving Kathmandu wasn’t an easy process. There were a number of checkpoints and my boarding pass got stamped many times. It got to the point where I didn’t know what any of the stops actually meant. Getting onto the plane was unique too – a separate queue for men and women. Typically I joined the wrong line and an elderly women said “hdhfhudnrhd,” which made me realise my mistake quite quickly.
I was boarding a flight to India. Agra and Delhi to be precise. I was asked once to list my bucket list of landmarks by someone. I’ve already ticked off some of the list luckily, but the Taj Mahal stood out for many reasons. When I was a young boy, my father told me the romantic tale of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his wife, Mumtaz. He told me that Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal (translates to Crown Palace) as a symbol of his love and dedication to his wife. The story used to wow me. But we also used to have a battered atlas on our book shelf at home. I used to look through it for hours, learning the counties, flags and landmarks. It stood out to me then as well. Being so close to India on this trip, I had to realise my dream.
I was met at Delhi Airport by my driver for the next three days, Mr. Bini aka Baldev. He looked like a bouncer but gentle giant came to mind when he spoke. Once he received me, the typical line of Indian interrogation ensued: “You Indian? How old you are? Where you from? You married? Why not?” I say typical because everyone I met in India fired the same questions. We drove from Delhi to Agra across a new express highway. The journey was smooth and I passed places and businesses that I was familiar with through one of my old jobs. After we negotiated the gridlock to escape Delhi, I could see the vast greenery and the odd lone farmer working his fingers to the bone. The fields were beautiful and reminded me of Bangladesh. We stopped briefly for some lunch and I had a bit of trouble ordering a ‘Sprite’ to drink. I said Sprite three times and I was met with confusion. I said “Ess-sprite” and that seemed to register. In fact, during my time in Nepal and India it was common that anything that began with ‘S’ needed to be addressed in the same fashion.
We set off again and I asked Bini to put the music on. The voice of Lata Mangeshkar played and I got a nostalgic feeling from my childhood. It was the only Hindi song he had but we shared an odd romantic sing-along. After around five hours we closed in on Agra. The roads were clearly different. Car traffic was replaced by a stampede of buffaloes. I’m not joking! It felt very rural in comparison to Delhi and they had their own ‘Monkey Town’ too. I just can’t seem to get away from them.
I got to my hotel and guess what? They had no record of my booking. I had paid a deposit and had a confirmation email but this wasn’t enough for them. I was starting to think HostelWorld was a sham of a website. After around twenty minutes I was given a room thankfully, but not without stress. I came back to reception to meet my guide for Agra, Mr. Sharma. He charged towards the door in a camp manner to open it for me. I say camp, think of Dale Winton running in a suit. I didn’t need the door held open for me, but it’s the way here.
After a short drive I went to see the I’timad-ud-Daulah, commonly known as the ‘Baby Taj’ and a Mughal mausoleum. The architecture was stunning and the tiling was beautiful too. The sun was starting to set but the fog descended so we quickly headed over to see the Taj Mahal at night. We viewed it from the gardens of Mehtab Bagh. The structure was incredible and I was momentarily awestruck. It looked just like the atlas! It was a Friday so it was closed due to the holy day but there were children playing football just by it. It was quite a scene.
I was then whisked off to a local textiles showroom where they produce rugs and carpets. I knew from the offset where this was going. It was quite fascinating to see the process of production though. ‘Bobby’ the proprietor told me he exported to John Lewis after I’d said I was from the UK. Where was I supposed to put a rug in my backpack? Do I look like Aladdin? Nevertheless he pushed hard and got his worker to roll out 18 different rugs, I actually counted! But when I said I ‘work’ for John Lewis, it cut off his gas supply and his pitch ended. It was quite funny.
Mr. Sharma then treated me to some Indian sweets. I say treated because they said I was their lucky charm. Apparently upon my arrival, their TripAdvisor ranking shot to the number one spot. That’s good with me, I’ll take the freebies.
The following day a new guide met me at my hotel, Prabhat, Sharma’s brother. He wasn’t as cheerful as Sharma. I went to see Fatehpur Sikri to witness some of the remains of the Mughal Dynasty. The architecture was a work of art and the similarities in their work was noticeable. The marble and the vibrant red colour stood out. The interesting thing about this structure was that it represented all faiths. There was Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist art carved into the stone. It was also very lavish in the same sense. There was a public and private area. The emperors clearly lived well. We got stuck in traffic later on with buffaloes, monkeys, stray dogs, rickshaws, tuk tuks, cycles and cars…the next stop was the Taj Mahal 🙂 But this time through the main entrance. During the day it is equally as impressive. The structure is perfectly symmetrical and filled with tourists. Selfies everywhere! The story behind its construction is quite touching, but I won’t bore you with it. But it’s very romantic and I’m a sucker for romance. I viewed all four corners and touched the pristine marble. It truly is a wonder of the world and one of my highlights on this trip.
We headed over to the imposing Agra Fort next. It bared a similar resemblance to all of the structures I’d already seen. The Mughals kept things similar and also lived like Hugh Heffner. They loved beautiful women from what I was told and had jacuzzis and booze everywhere. I then decided to head to a sari shop to get a gift for Mrs C. All those years of being forced into hearing her haggle came into play. I managed to reduce the price by 45%. My aim was 50% and I think I did well in the situation nonetheless.
In the afternoon I headed back to Delhi with Bini. As he drove, I got to know him and spoke to him about his family. He works during the week and visits them on the weekends in Punjab. That’s not a short journey. As we continued it was hard to ignore the poverty. Kids running up to the car window, it’s difficult to say no. But often people lock there doors and look away. The traffic was so bad that the motorbikes chose to ride on the pavement. Each car carried bruises and could tell a story alone. Bini pointed out the colonial hotspots to me, you could see the British influence on a lot of the buildings with big pillars. I checked into my Delhi hotel after a 7-hour hell journey, and again they didn’t have my booking. This was getting boring now. It was a funky place though and one of the best rooms I’d had so far which made me happy.
On my last day in India I had yet another guide. I’ve actually forgotten his name. And he deserves to be forgotten. When he met me he tried to get me to pay for the monument entrance fees, but I’d already paid this beforehand. I wasn’t budging and after I suggested I go alone, he changed his tune. But first impressions go a long way and I would’ve preferred to drive around with Bini instead. We saw the Jama Masjid first, which is the largest mosque in India. The colour red featured again and there were pigeons everywhere, much like the Nepalese temples I saw. They seem to flock to monuments but aren’t as annoying as they are at home.
From Jama Masjid we took a traditional rickshaw ride through the streets of Old Delhi. There were various markets and street performers along the way. The famous Red Fort was next on my tour and it was reminiscent of the Agra Fort, just in a different location. The guide was starting to bore me. He spoke like a robot and kept saying “I meant to say…” after most of his sentences. Rather than saying that if he just said what he’d meant to say, everything would’ve made more sense. I preferred it when I wondered alone because he was clearly not as knowledgable as the ones in Agra. He kept giving the same answers to my questions like he was on autopilot. Humayun’s Tomb was a beautiful spot and understandably a World Heritage site. It was like a red Taj Mahal with huge gardens filled with palm trees. India Gate was closed for some reason but I was happy to view it from the car. To me it’s a giant arch, but I know it carries huge significance. We stopped to see Parliament and President’s House too, but I didn’t care about them to be honest. It reminded me of buildings along The Mall.
My last stop at Delhi was the Qutb Minar, the largest minaret in India and also home to India’s first mosque. As I queued, the guide jumped the line and said: “come on you have to be Indian,” whilst he rushed past people. I stayed put and queued with the rest of the tourists. I was hoping I could lose him in the crowd. I was glad to get rid of him in the end. The Minar was another gem of Mughal architecture. The guide waited by my door waiting for a trip at the end of the trip, but Bini felt the vibe and drove on leaving him by the kerb. I’ve tipped in most places to where it’s been deserved. It wasn’t here.
Apparently during this month, Delhi holds 20,000 weddings in a day, which is why the roads are packed according to Bini. The priests must be cashing in. Before heading to the airport we stopped off at Raj Ghat, the cremation site of India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi. A flame burns in the middle of a beautiful garden. Again it was a very peaceful setting.
Once we got back in the car Bini pumped the music. Lata played and he said: “it’s your favourite song sir.” It was the only song he had that I understood! I gave him a deserved tip. He has the hardest job navigating through these streets and he also kept me safe. He touched the money to his forehead and was so grateful and happy. He was such a polite and well mannered man and I was happy to help him.
Delhi Airport ironically bears a banner to say ‘Airport of the Year 2014’. Let me explain why it’s ironic. They wouldn’t let me check in my baggage for starters. They wanted to see my debit card that I used to book my ticket to Bangkok. My debit card has since expired so I have a new card. Understandably I don’t remember the 16-digits off by heart. They refused to let me on until I could retrieve the previous digits. The wifi doesn’t work in the airport either so how was I supposed to get this information? To cut a long and frustrating story short, I logged into my banking details on a strangers phone in a corner of the airport and somehow recovered the digits from an old statement. I had such a task getting a visa to get to India in the first place, I couldn’t believe this was happening on the way out. I was made to feel like a criminal. I wanted to RKO all of the staff! It was a sad way to be leaving but I did manage to finish reading The Alchemist. I could see parallels in Santiago’s journey and mine. Both on a quest of discovery. But the main difference is, I wasn’t looking for treasure. What I’ve found so far is priceless.