Living Life, Travel

Go See the Taj Mahal in Agra, India

Captain obvious here: Things have changed a lot in India over the last 25 years.

IMG_0502I visited Chennai in the south of India in 1994 and again in 2000; and Mumbai in 2000 and again in 2002. At that time, we’d hear dire warnings about visiting Agra – it was a dangerous road from Delhi; two lanes, with steep ditches. You’d hear of buses overturning or car accidents at night. I have to admit, those tales of woe kept me from even wanting to visit Agra, and its famous landmark, the Taj Mahal. But now, there is a beautiful highway (a toll road) that runs between Delhi and Agra, making for an easy three hour journey. There are even rest stops akin to what we have in the United States (with Starbucks!)

After a much needed long night’s sleep and another gluttonous and delicious breakfast at our hotel (the Hilton Garden Inn, Saket), we left Delhi around 10am.  We were happy to leave the congested city behind and excited to see the Taj Mahal. The trip was easy thanks to our awesome driver, and along the way we got to observe more rural life in India. We passed village after village, farms, small roadside temples, and miles upon miles of what we surmised to be brick kilns.

The air quality improved as we left Delhi behind. Though even in Agra, smog was thick and my voice began to go. We learned that manufacturing in Agra was banned in order to protect the Taj Mahal which was getting damaged by the polluted air.

IMG_0548We arrived at our hotel mid-day, and the kids were beyond excited. The gorgeous lobby of the Radisson Blu felt luxurious and welcoming. The kids ordered hot chocolate and tea while we got checked in, and then groaned when we had to hustle to get moved into our rooms and leave right away for lunch and more tourist stuff. They really wanted to explore the hotel and go for a swim. The rooftop infinity pool was spectacular – but we wouldn’t see it until the next morning.

We knew going into this trip that we were being aggressive with our itinerary. We wanted to maximize our time and see as much as possible, and weren’t willing to give up anything in order to give ourselves a down day. I have no regrets, but the kids struggled with the pace. Plus, they really were craving a day to just lounge at the pool. Luckily, the pools were freezing so it wasn’t a huge loss.

We met our new tour guide for Agra, a gentle man named who shared that he goes to the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal just about every day during the tourist season. He was well-informed and very articulate, and kept a fast clipped pace, which for this increasingly tired family of five, proved to be a challenge. He was amenable to the many breaks we had to take while walking the grounds at the Taj Mahal, even if it meant a longer visit and work day for himself.

Despite being home to India’s most famous attraction, Agra is a small, mostly underdeveloped town that very much reminded me of the India I met in 1994 with chaotic roads, cows meandering in the streets, and motor bikes weaving around pedestrians and bicycles. And anachronistically, huge modern tour buses which simply amazed me, because navigating these streets in a small car seemed dangerous and difficult. There looked to be a good amount of development happening, primarily on new hotels. The air was dusty, dirty, and though much smaller than Delhi, the noise of cars honking continued.

IMG_0425After an overpriced and mostly disappointing lunch at a touristy restaurant, we went to the Agra Fort. I was especially excited to visit because we had to skip the Red Fort in Delhi the day before (which was built as a “new and improved” version of the Agra Fort by Mughals in the 1600s.) But Agra Fort is the famous one, the original if you will, and it was stunning. I found myself imagining life inside the walls, the various palaces teeming with people, children running around, large public gatherings on the vast lawns. Agra Fort was never attacked, but had been built with numerous defenses and partitioned with a large moat and a river.

IMG_0441The Agra Fort offers a beautiful vantage point to the Taj Mahal, just across the river. My 9-year-old didn’t want to “spoil” the Taj Mahal reveal and was reluctant to look, but I promised him this was part of the glory. Fun fact: Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal as an honor to his favorite wife, was condemned by his son to live out his final years under “house arrest” in his palace at the Agra Fort. His son was kind enough to allow him to live with stunning views of the Taj Mahal.

[The Mughal Empire is filled with soap opera worthy tales and sagas that have got to be the stuff of movies. It’s on my list to find more to read/watch about the 6 great Mughal leaders of India.]

It was a short drive from the Agra Fort to the Taj Mahal “campus” where we got out of our car and hopped into an auto rickshaw to take us to the ticket booth. From there we walked a few hundred yards to the main gateway into the Taj Mahal grounds. It took a long time to make our way through the gardens into the building itself. Thousands of people everywhere, but the congestion wasn’t even the issue. Every few feet was another amazing photo spot. 

IMG_0481To me, the impressive part of the Taj Mahal isn’t the love story attached to its origins; or the politics of the leader who built it. The magic is in the design, the craftsmanship, the materials and the fact that this building stands magnificently today but was built in 1630. Marble, perfectly chiseled in intricate detail, inlaid with stones and painted.

If there was a disappointment here, it is that the mausoleum that the public gets to view inside is a replica; and that there are “guides” that will demonstrate the echo of saying your name for a price, but the kids did get a kick out of that. The actual tombs lie one floor below the rotunda that we can walk through; we are told that what we are seeing is an exact replica of what is below.

We had intentionally timed our visit to be there for sunset. But as it turns out, the sun doesn’t set over the Taj Mahal. Maybe it does in another season, but being in the grounds at sunset was lovely with nice light and more comfortable temperatures.

IMG_0013After sunset, we dragged our now exhausted selves back to the car, anticipating a swim at the “infinity rooftop pool overlooking the Taj Mahal.” Silly family – the kids ran off as soon as we got to the hotel, and we ended up sitting in the dark at the wrong pool (turns out we had missed that the infinity pool was on the roof, and when we found the kids near the 2nd floor pool we just stayed there, which was unpleasant: the water was freezing and I got a hundred mosquito bites. (Good think we were on malaria prophylaxis.)

I had a twinge of disappointment the next morning when my husband and I set out for a 6:30am “sunrise visit” to see the Taj Mahal. We went to the site of the never constructed “Black Taj Mahal” that Shah Jahan was going to build for his own mausoleum (he was interred with his wife at the Taj Mahal.) We had expected to see the sun rise from behind the Taj, but alas the vantage point didn’t offer anything particularly unique. No regrets, though. Because, it is the Taj Mahal and seeing it one more time was totally worth it! 


Living Life, Travel

One Day in Delhi, India with My Family

Honk Honk!

Delhi, India is teeming with cars. And auto rickshaws (the open-air three wheel motorized vehicles that are supposed to sit up to four people.) The roads are jammed, 3 lanes mean nothing. 5 or 6 cars jockey to move forward, lines in the road ignored.

But we were impressed that the roads were in such good condition; that there were lane markers; that there were medians. Not that those features seemed to manage any traffic flow. Or pedestrian flow. Cars surge forward as people slowly walk a bike across insane intersections and roundabouts. Pedestrians simply hold their hand out, as if that is all the protection they need from certain peril. Honestly, we were surprised that in our 14 days in India we only witnessed one fender bender. One. Though my nerves were awaiting certain death (not mine, but for the pedestrians and cyclists and rickshaws.)

Thank Ganesh (a Hindu god, the remover of obstacles) that we had the BEST driver. We hired a tour company for our first 5 days in India. I found Travel Fair India by reading reviews on Trip Advisor. By the way, if you travel and don’t leverage Trip Advisor, you are missing out. Anyhow, our driver, Kuldeep Kumar, remained calm at all times; navigated the most congested to the most narrow roads from Delhi to Agra to Jaipur, and despite the chaos outside of our windows, I always felt safe.

In the months leading up to our trip, we heard from many friends with India travel experience that Delhi should simply be a transportation hub. “Get out as fast as you can,” we heard from a number of people. “Crazy,” is what I thought. I mean, we’ve experienced traffic in Kampala, Uganda. How bad can Delhi be? It’s bad. In fact, it was the friend we’d visited in Kampala (a native Indian actually) who warned us about the traffic in Delhi. But Indians have a reputation for exaggeration, right? Maybe, but the traffic is bad (and correspondingly, the air pollution is also extremely bad.)

Traffic aside, we did have as good a time as you can expect after a nearly 24 hour journey from the US. We allotted just a single day to “do Delhi.” Is that enough? Not even close. But I was glad to move on from Delhi because it frankly just took too much time to move around the city and the noise/traffic/pollution was overwhelming.

Our tour company provided us with a pretty standard itinerary for our one day in Delhi – though I have to say that it was too packed and it was premised on getting an early start which we did not have, and having the stamina to keep a healthy pace all day, which we also did not have. (I blame our late start more on the amazing hotel breakfast buffet than on our jet lag.) Also, traveling with kids meant that certain things would be “boring” and other things would catch their eye and require more exploration when the tour guide wanted to move us along.

Despite the itinerary, we couldn’t go to the Red Fort because we were there on a Monday and it was closed. [Not to give away too much from the rest of our trip, but we saw A LOT of other forts, so in hindsight, we’re not unhappy with having to skip the Red Fort.]

So our first attraction of the day was to visit the large mosque, Jama Masjid (“Friday Mosque”.) Being frugal travel skeptics, we decided to leave our phones/cameras in our private car (safe with our awesome driver.) The mosque charges a “photo fee” worth about $8USD per phone. When me and two kids climbed up the tower of the mosque, and had an awesome 360 degree view of Delhi, well, we were bummed that we didn’t have a camera. [The other kid and my husband were off finding what my 13 year old still calls “the worst bathroom in all of India.”]

Spice Shops in Chandni Chowk

After the Mosque, we piled into an auto rickshaw, to take in the narrow markets of Chandni Chowk – and it was abundantly clear that business strategy in India is very different than at home. Full streets filled with vendors and shops all selling the IDENTICAL items. One street for spices; one street for jewelry; one street for clothes; one street for home goods… you get the picture.

Eating jalabi in a rickshaw

Our guide must have sensed that we love sweets and that we NEEDED to try fresh hot jalebi from “Delhi’s most famous jalebi vendor.” Imagine a thin donut, cooked in hot ghee (clarified butter) and covered in rosewater honey. Sticky. Delicious. 50 rupees (under $1.) Thinking about it now, I’m sad that was our only street jalebi our whole time in India.

Overall, my family loved the auto rickshaw experience. (There may be one adult member who shall not be named but he’s my husband who didn’t love it.) We got off a couple of times and went into spice shops, and even narrower lanes that were only accessible by foot and motorcycle. We all got through it without being hit by a motorcycle, or another auto rickshaw, or a car. All in all, a great success.

Me and the 9yo at the Gandhi Memorial

Next up was Raj Ghat – a memorial park that honors a number of historical Indian figures, but is known most famously as a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. It was moving and beautiful and reminded us of the JFK eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery.

I am a huge Gandhi fan. And I learned so much! Such as, he adopted a Muslim man who wanted to marry a Hindu woman, because he was dedicated to bringing people together. This might have been part of his ultimate demise.  (Fun fact, the lady that Muslim man married was Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India; but no blood relation to Mahatma Gandhi.) Learning about Gandhi reminded us of Martin Luther King, Jr. Both advocates for nonviolence, minority rights, acceptance and community; both were killed because of what they stood for; both men remain revered for their peaceful protests and for challenging the status quo.

Photos with Strangers

Side note: we are a fair skinned American family. This proved to be  hugely attractive to Indian nationals. If I had to guess, we were invited to take selfies or pose for photos at least 25 times (and were unwitting subjects in dozens more photos, taken by people who didn’t have the nerve to ask, but just ran up in front of us and took selfies.) 

By now we were so hot and ready for the respite that a higher-end air conditioned restaurant would provide. The kids had different levels of love for the food, but for my 13 year old, my husband and I, we almost never felt hunger because, damn, the food was so good we may have overindulged with every single meal.

India Gate

After lunch we went to India Gate, a memorial to those who fought in Indian wars. We almost saw the changing of the guard, but the 9 year old started to feel sick. (Super hot, super polluted air, jet lag, dehydration…. not a good combination.) As we quickly scooted back to the car, the 15 year old was stopped by a snake charmer, so of course he stopped and watched. I missed it, but luckily got my own snake charm “show” later in the trip in Jaipur.

My sick kid and I waited in the car while the rest of the family checked out Parliament and the President’s House. I half wonder if years from now, we’ll argue if we saw those buildings or not, forgetting that we did split up.

And then, at the very late hour of 3pm, we cried “uncle” and told our guide that we’d skip the remaining itinerary items so we could head back to our hotel. The kids just needed a swim and some down time. 90 minutes later (a quicker drive back to the hotel) we finally got to relax. The kids were bummed that the hotel pool was COLD (which we still don’t quite understand given India is HOT.) We barely had the energy to walk around the hotel to find a restaurant where the eldest fell asleep before the food came (but he woke up to eat, pizza no less.)

Determined to get an earlier start the next day (after being gently scolded by our guide) we organized our bags before falling into a hard sleep. But the breakfast buffet got us again, and we decided to linger at breakfast before loading up our small car for the drive to Agra.

Stay tuned for the next blog on our trip to Agra. (Spoiler alert, I LOVE the Taj Mahal!)