Journey to Delhi and Agra

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Posted by Dan Webster on Nov. 14, 2018, midnight

Nothing can prepare you for the experience that is India.

It’s not that the poverty is obvious, though it is. It’s not that cows and monkeys roam freely in the cluttered streets, though they do. It’s not that residents even of urban cities such as Delhi or Agra can get so excited about seeing a couple of middle-age, pale-skinned Americans that they’ll crowd around to take your photos.

Though they clearly will.

No, what India has that even China or Japan does not is its own unique press of humanity that feels overwhelming, accompanied as it is by a blend of smells ranging from rank to sumptuously sweet, sounds that stretch the definition of the term cacophonous and air so thick you can almost taste it.

Check that last one. There were times during our visits to Delhi and Agra that I swear I definitely could taste the air. It tasted like a blend of a cinnamon doughnut and the New York subway.

Though visiting India was never high on my bucket list, I was happy to have a reason to go there, if for no other reason than to see if all the stories I had heard were true. And the opportunity arose when my wife was invited to participate in a law conference taking place at a university located just outside Delhi.

So off we flew, from Spokane to Seattle, Seattle to Amsterdam and then on to Delhi, which surprised us; the two times we’d flown to China, we crossed over the Pacific Ocean. But, then, who are we to argue with the airlines? (Besides, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport makes for a great connection.)

Taj Mahal

We arrived at night, which was OK because we were exhausted and were ready to go right to sleep. On the down side, it took our cab driver nearly an hour to locate our hotel, a boutique establishment called Hotel Palace Heights that was tucked away in a corner of historic Connaught Place.

The next morning, we rose late, refreshed but hungry, and decided the easiest thing was to eat lunch at the hotel. While hotel restaurants can be chancy choices, our decision proved sound: My chicken tandoori was moist and flavorful, the best I’ve ever eaten.

Delhi itself is a city of contrasts. Much of what we saw over our short stay was hidden behind walls. This, to me at least, gave much of Delhi a closed-off feel, quite different from the crowded public centers.

I should probably explain here that Delhi, which boasts a population of nearly 19 million, is an amalgamation of 11 separate districts, including New Delhi. It is often referred to as the National Capital Region – or NCR. Connaught Place, for example, sits in New Delhi.

But then my perspective might be somewhat warped because we chose not to rent a car. We initially toured the city, as we have in other major metropolises, on a 48-hour Hop-On Hop-Off bus excursion. This gave us access to many of Delhi’s main tourist sites, from the Red Fort to the astronomical center Jantar Mantar, the India Gate to the Nehru Museum. But it clearly limited our opportunities to explore.

So we walked a bit, too, especially through the Janpath Market, where my wife picked up some colorful scarves. Then we hired a private driver to see some of the other sites, the most powerful being those honoring some of India’s most famous leaders.

Walking through both the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum and the National Gandhi Museum and Library, then visiting the Raj Ghat (the tomb of Mahatma Gandhi), is likely to leave you feeling somber. That was certainly how we felt after seeing the Mahatma’s bed, while standing near the site where Indira Gandhi was assassinated and then studying the remains of the clothes that Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s son, wore when he was killed by a suicide bomber.

Somber thoughts aside, our Delhi stop was over far too soon. But just as no visit to Italy is complete without a tour of the Vatican, no visit to India could be complete with a side trip to see the majestic Taj Mahal, which sits in the city of Agra, 120 miles north of Delhi by train.

To make things as easy as possible, we opted to use a tour company: Amin Tours. And when I say easy, I mean we were picked up at 4:30 a.m. by a private driver, escorted to our seats on an express train, met by a guide at the station in Agra and shepherded throughout a long day of sightseeing.

The highlight, of course, was the Taj Mahal itself, a mausoleum of white marble that sits on the bank of the Yamuna River and dates back to 1648. It took 16 years to complete, and was built to memorialize the late (and said to be favorite) wife of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.

Our tour privileges allowed us to jump the long lines, and our guide gave us a practiced (maybe a bit too practiced) speech every step of the way. He continued to do so through our post-Taj jaunt, taking photos of us at various spot during our drive through the countryside surrounding Agra and at an afternoon visit to the immense and impressive Agra Fort, which was built in 1565 A.D. by Great Mughal Emperor Akbar.

Though Agra, at 4.5 million residents, is far smaller than Delhi, it proved to be just as overwhelming. Coming back in the late afternoon, we encountered a traffic jam so bad that, after a while, all the drivers stopped, shut off their vehicles and waited – creating, in an instant, the largest parking lot I’ve ever seen.

We managed to make it to the station in time to catch our train back to Delhi. And after everything – the crowds, the sounds and the smells – I was glad to be back in the comfort of our hotel room.

So, I’ll say this again. No matter what people will tell you, nothing can prepare you for the endurance test that is India.

And yet I’ll add this, too: It’s a sensory immersion that I won’t soon forget.

I doubt you’ll feel any different.