22 July 2007

Taj Mahal? Don’t You Mean Taj MaHOT?

Thankfully, the Youth Venture India team was able to carve out a day for me to visit the famed Taj Mahal. The entire nation was still riding high after the Taj’s recent inception into the “New Wonders of the World” (which, by the way, was determined by internet and text message voting. Wouldn’t that leave, say, oh I don’t know, 3 or 4 BILLION people out of the voting process? How fair does this system seem? Hmm…). As most tourists do, I made it a day trip, which meant I had to be up at 4:30am to get a 5am car in order to catch my 6:15am train. Ish!

I arrived at the train station by 5:30am, only to find that there were no signs indicating what train would be departing from which track. Perfect. Thankfully, the lack of signage seems to have sparked an entire industry built on guiding unbeknownst tourists to their seats en route to Agra. For 25 cents, I said yes. Even at 6:15am, I was sweating. Thankfully, the ride there was in CC, or chair class, which is air-conditioned and includes breakfast.

We pulled into Agra station by 8:30am and I was quickly hassled by every tout in India, all wanting to drive me around the city all day for “best price in town.” I thought I was only 2km from the Taj but it turned out I was actually at some other train station, a good 9km from my destination. Only 8:30am and already I was on fire, yet sopping wet, thanks to the mind-altering humidity. Thankfully, Mustak crossed my path and for $6, I had transportation the entire day.

The Taj was, as you’d expect, brilliant. In one word, it’s perfect. Absolutely symmetrical right down to the scripture carved into all four walls. For someone like me, it was heaven on earth – the same number of shrubs on the left and the right, the same number of fountains in front and in back and an equal distance from one entry to the other. By 11am the heat started getting oppressive, so my two new friends (Maryam and Marloes from The Netherlands) and I decided to take a nap in one of the large decorative cutouts.

Mid-snooze we awoke to find ourselves in the middle of a torrential downpour that was, for whatever reason, not cooling us down at all. Still, it was brilliant.

We decided to tour the rest of the city together (or rather, I decided I was tired of being alone and they didn’t mind if I tagged along). Mustak found a friend who was willing to join our caravan for the afternoon and we were off to lunch, followed by Agra Fort.

From this point forward everything is a bit hazy, not because I was punched in the face or anything, but because it was SO HOT. The big thermometer read 50 degrees Celsius, which is roughly 128 degrees Fahrenheit. Add on 99% humidity and were cruising at a “real” temperature of about 140 degrees. Do you know what 140 degrees feels like? Maryam and Marloes were able to duck under their scarves. Sadly, I was left to roast.

From there we parted ways, email addresses exchanged. They headed home for a nap and I headed with Mustak to have my head shaved, which has easily become the best decision I have EVER made. Mustak took me to his barber and for 75 cents, it all went; my hair, that is.

At this point, Mustak and I said our farewells (phone numbers exchanged) and I boarded my un-air-conditioned train back to New Delhi. Three and a half excessively hot hours (and one cow casualty) later, I arrived back in the city just in time for a Monsoon! Fortunately, a friend of my new friends from the train (did you follow that) helped me into a rickshaw before getting totally drenched.

Unfortunately, the rick had a hole in the roof and was in desperate need of some bailing out. The driver handed me a plastic cup and pointed to the puddle my feet were now floating in. “Scoop,” he said in English, as if he’d said it 100 times. Eager to get home, I did as I was told and he pulled away. The only problem was, his windshield wiper was broken, which meant he had to find his way using some sixth sense that I myself am not in touch with.

So at this point, I’m bailing out the back of the rick while water is pouring in through the torn sealing. Meanwhile, the driver has one hand on the wheel and is using the other to brace himself in a contorted standing position that allows his eyes to see around the windshield while his feet are still able to hold down the throttle. Water is pelting me in the face. My bailing isn’t working. Then suddenly, without warning, we bottom out in an enormous puddle and the now-stalled rickshaw comes to a dramatic halt.

The driver tries to kick start us back into motion. The sad little vehicle utters an abrupt “put put” then dies again. I decide to stop bailing. The driver keeps trying. Nothing. Five or six attempts later he turns to me, throws his arms in the air and says “no go.” No truer words have ever been spoken. From there he turned on the cabin light, rolled a cigarette and started to smoke it.

So here we are, in the middle of New Delhi, no street lamps or people to speak of, much less other cars. Water is pouring through the roof directly onto my head. The rickshaw is stalled. My driver is smoking a cigarette. All I can do is laugh, accepting the fact that we can’t possibly be here forever, right?

Twenty minutes and three cigarettes later, a rather dramatic kick start attempt is successful and we bolt back into action. Only now, we can’t stop, or else we’ll stall again, which means we’re zooming through stop signs like it’s our job, me bailing us out, him smoking and puffing without using his hands, neck cranked around the windshield to miss the cars we’re zooming by while running red lights.

We’re careening around the second to last corner before reaching “home” and, without warning, drive straight into another puddle and stall out. I decided to forego the wait and attempt to pay the man with the intention of walking the last two blocks. I pull out the inflated fair and hand it over, to which me replies, “You can’t walk. It’s not safe.” Not safe? You just stalled us out TWICE in the middle of New Delhi then drove through numerous red lights while smoking a cigarette and looking around the windshield because your wiper is broken, but this two-block walk is NOT SAFE?

I thanked him for his concern, gave him the “thumbs up,” and went on my way, thankful for the ride of my life that, if nothing else, cooled me down from my simmering 128-degree body temperature. Long-live the rickshaw.

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