Saturday, November 7, 2009
To the Taj and back again
My journey to the Taj Mahal began when my alarm went off at 3:00am, breakfast at 3:30 and our buses leaving for the airport at 4:00am. For all of the SAS flights we tell participants to only bring a carry on bag so we don’t have to check bags – it makes things so much easier when traveling with 64 people. However here in India you cannot bring batteries on the plane, much like liquids over 3oz in the US so the field office provided us with a bunch of small zip lock bags and the tour company gave us a duffel bag with a lock on it and that one bag gets checked. As we loaded the bus our tour company also told us we had to check all liquids and gels. On the way to the airport I passed out the bags and collected everyone’s items to be distributed once we got to New Delhi. The flight was fine, most of us slept the 2.5 hours and after a very nerve wracking few spins of the luggage carousel our duffels of batteries and toiletries came my way.
On to the buses we met our guide and had a tour of Old Delhi and The Red Fort, a world heritage site. Located in the walled city of Delhi, Mughal Emperor Shahjahan started construction of the massive fort in 1638 and work was completed in 1648. It was the residence of the royal family and only became open to the public in 2003. It was pretty crowded with school groups and as has been common along our journey, we watched the locals as the locals watched us right back. The entire place was beautiful and the detail in the stonework was simply amazing.
Before we knew it we were rushed to the train station for our ride to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. We arrived to the station stepping around trash, people sleeping, dogs, and the occasional cow. The station is a very far cry from Grand Central. The train that left as we arrived was overflowing with people. Think of Slumdog Millionaire. Our train was two hours late so some of the group went to a small store to get snacks on another platform while I stayed with the rest of the group just watching the people go about their business.
Beggars in the train station were worse than anywhere else, maybe because we were a sitting target with no place to go. At this point in the journey we have gotten pretty good in dealing with them but now and then when the beggars are extra persistent we lost our patience and were less than polite in telling them to leave. Seeing the children was the worst part. We had been told that similarly to as was seen in Slumdog Millionaire that children are often working for a ringleader. Having plenty of time at the station we actually saw this happening and it was pretty difficult to watch. Some of our students tried to give the children food instead of money and when the children took it back to the older man he yelled at them, hit them and pushed them back towards the crowds. Our tour guide spoke to a child at one point and when we asked what he said he told us that he offered to give the child money to go to school and the child said he didn’t want it. Our train finally arrived and we quickly took refuge in the calm and quiet cars. With a late arrival to our hotel some of the group went right to bed other still wanted to eat the dinner they had waiting for us.
The following morning we were up at 5:30 to watch the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. Arriving to the west gate there were only about 30 people in front of us while the line behind us seemed to grow by tens of people eveny second. With Gumby in my pocket I passed through the gates only to have Gumby confiscated by security, ‘No Toys’ I was told. I was nervous that I would be saying “…and that’s how I lost my world traveling Gumby” but it all ended well as I got him back as I exited.
Being at the Taj for sunrise was just wild. It was empty compared to what it was like when we returned for sunset that afternoon and. Like many of the group, I was unaware of the gardens and other buildings that surrounded the Taj itself. Walking the grounds trying to capture the grandeur of it all with my camera was daunting. After a little while I just sat down and tried to take it all in before we were taken back to the hotel for breakfast.
We had tour of another world heritage site, Fatehpur Sikri, a historical city constructed by Mughal emperor Akbar beginning in 1570 and served as the empire's capital from 1571 until 1585, when it was abandoned for reasons that remain unclear. Following lunch we walked through the Agra Fort, also known as the Red Fort from where we could see the Taj in the distance. It is the most important fort in India and served as the home for many of its leaders. I was distracted most of the time as I was working on Cormac and Mary’s congratulations sign.
Going back to the Taj for sunset like entering a mad house, the serenity of the morning was long gone and the swarms of people had arrived. This time however, Gumby joined us thanks to one of my student smuggling him in. With a few more photos it was time to head back to the train station. This time we were on the express train and I was sitting between to Indian gentlemen, one of whom had a bad cold with a consistent rattling cough. I did my best to sleep with little luck.
Our hotel back in New Delhi was a 5 star oasis. I have to say it was difficult to be staying in such a beautiful place, a somewhat fake world that was completely opposite of the world just outside our window. I had my own room again and did a little happy dance as I walked in and saw the wonderful space I would be living in for the evening. I took a quick shower and made my way down to the bar to unwind with a fellow staff member and a few life long learners. Unfortunately I learned that my debit card had been shut off because of a severe compromise – a mess that I am still working to fix.
Our last day included more tours of New Dehli at which point I was just ready to get back to the ship and relax. The flight back to Chennai was fine, again we had to check our batteries and liquids and we made our way back to the ship around 11:30pm to a late dinner that the crew had made for us. They are wonderful.
at 8:03 PM