I’ve been on five continents, racked up a few countries. I’ve seen the super rich and downright poor. But today I’ve seen more life in 24 hours than I have since I first stepped outside my home isles 24 years ago.
6:30am, Delhi. Feeling fresh. Goa is behind us, having flown up yesterday afternoon (almost losing Shell in the process as a result of overbearing Indian bureaucracy). We’ll be back there in a few days for the sun and beaches, but today is all about the capital and true India. I play it safe at breakfast, feeling a little curried out for the moment after the last two days.
At 8:30 we are greeted by our guide for the day, Jussy and our driver, Inder. Apparently this is no coach tour – we have our own taxi the whole way!
We drive from New to Old Delhi. “Clean Delhi, Green Delhi” Jussy announces. He’s not wrong about their slogan – I’m amazed at how green this part of the city is with all the trees and parks that fly by our windows. But that’s not all that’s going past: welcome to rush hour, Delhi-style. Lanes are ignored. Yellow and green three-wheeler tuc-tucs force their way through with their passengers. Women ride sidesaddle, helmet-less on the back of motorbikes weaving in and out of the cars. Beeps sound out, several a second. Push bikes slowly intermingle, joining in the melody with their bells. Trucks and buses add height and width. Nothing is more than an inch apart. And yet… there is no anger, no frustration. Beeps merely indicate one’s presence and indended actions. Everything is calm, everyone gets on. Bizarrely, traffic flows.
We see a bit of Chandni Chaowk, an area that is regarded as the heart of Old Delhi. Stopping at lights, a small, grubby girl does cartwheels outside our windows in the road, begging for money. Further up, a mother cradles her baby in her arms, miming an action for help to feed her baby. I shake my head at them all and look away, guiltily. The advice we had was to not give money to street beggars, but it doesn’t make it feel right when it’s right there in front of you.
We pass narrow streets with an overhead electricity cabling system that looks like it was installed by a drunken, blind electrician with a death wish. People pick from trees halfway up, a few feet away from pylon wires. Let’s face it: if Health & Safety came here, they’d have to close the whole city down.
Our first stop is Jami Masjid, India’s largest mosque. It’s huge, red and decorated in fine details. Impressive, but perhaps not quite our thing. I still have memories of many a temple in Kyoto, so we decline to go inside and head on with the busy schedule.
We are taken past the Red Fort, but as our tour will include the identical one in Agra, we do no more than flirt with a small section of it from the car. Next up is Rajghat, where Mahatma Ghandi was cremated.
The place is a small park, green, well kept with a large square and centrepiece that can be overlooked or approached up close. We go up and Jussy gives us some information on the great man and the history of our two countries. It’s a wonder why they still like us so much. We take it all in as we watch a few Indians pay their respects. All is peaceful until a large group of protestors appear and congregate around the eternal flame, chanting, waving flags, tv cameras and all. Something to do with anti-corruption, apparently, but as quick as they appeared, they’re gone, leaving us to go down and see the memorial. It feels strange being in a place with so much significance to a country.
The guide takes us past India Gate – a huge monument to commemorate the soldiers who died. It’s a landmark site in Delhi and one you often see in photos, so I’m looking forward to some good snaps in this blue sky. Alas, we’re only allowed a 30 second stop to take whatever angle we’re given. Hmmm, I’m not sure this tour is really giving me what I want out of Delhi.
Our final stop is at President’s Palace, not too dissimilar to Buckingham Place, and with its own version of Pall Mall. Again impressive, but sadly again we have just a few minutes here before the guide says goodbye and leaves us with our driver and a long trip to Agra ahead. At our request, we go past another recommendation – Humayun’s Tomb – but we cannot see much and we start to go out of Delhi. I can’t help but be a little disappointed. My friend, Rob, had called Delhi “fucking insane” and although it was indeed a culture shock, I felt that maybe we’d only scratched the surface. Little did I know that the journey we were just about to take would shake and exhilarate me like no other.
Life, but not as we know it
This is ridiculous. Amazing. Tragic. Impressive. Every few miles another adjective falls from my lips. We pass through the outskirts of Delhi but the trail of life never ceases as it merges into neighbouring towns. Shops, shacks, primitive housing, people outside everywhere. Everyone is doing something: selling, buying, eating, loading, transporting, fixing, begging, beckoning. They’re there in their hundreds, each place swarming with life. Another man pees by the roadside, yellow arc proudly visible. Litter piles up in grey and plastic mounds. Pepsi battles with Coca-Cola at roadside shops.
Why is that lorry coming straight toward us? We’re on a dual carriageway! Inder merely gives way. Why can’t we go now the light is green? Oh, there’s a herd of cattle slowly going past. I look to my right and there’s a camel pulling a cart. To my left is a man on a bike with a chair on his head. A family of 8 pile into a tuc-tuc. Minutes later, the record is 10. I Iose interest after a mind-bending, axle-straining 17 is left behind in the rear view mirror. Men cling on to the backs of cars. How many on a motorbike? One, two, three…heck even a family of four! Everyone going somewhere, anyhow they can.
We swerve for loose cows. We beep at erratic dogs. Hand-painted trucks, tractors, carts pulled by various animals, motorbikes, pedal cycles, hand cycles, mopeds, cars, tuc-tucs, JCBs. Vans piled high of goods and topped with humans. My eyes are wide open but everyone stares at us as we go by in our comfy, air-conditioned chauffeured car.
The landscape is flat and a mix of green and brown. A dust tornado lazily saunters by. Pink flowers punctuate the carriage divider. Brick chimneys rise up in fields. Women slap mud on hut rooves. Kids of all ages, old men, old women at work. Nothing too big to carry. Broken down vehicles being fixed by the roadside. Large birds roam the sky. Smart religious buildings appear. I dare not blink.
We cross the state border and stop briefly, left momentarily alone in the car as Inder runs an apparent errand. Trucks are stationary up ahead and sellers are alerted to our presence. We suddenly feel like a stranded zebra at a river crossing. Tap-tap on the glass. Do I want to buy a book? Tap-tap. “Monkey! Photo with monkey, yes?” Shell shakes her head, trying not to look at the animals on tight leads, faces inches away. Up ahead, a disabled man shuffles toward us. I hope the car is locked. Finally, Inder returns and we move on, relieved. To him, probably just another drive. To me, the four hours that had just gone by was from another world.
We arrive in Agra prepared for the worst after a less than favourable review from a friend. It’s the nearest city to the Taj Mahal, though, so how bad can it be? The answer comes soon.
The streets throng with animals, people and vehicles. Grey buildings little more than shacks line each side. A main roundabout makes Piccadilly Circus look like Toy Town on a Sunday afternoon. Vendors sell everything from snacks, drinks, trinkets, clothes, pots, bricks to camera film. Horn after horn. Civilisation seems to be petering out. Then Shell suddenly takes a sharp intake of breath… is that…yes! Over there! Beyond the trees, the Taj Mahal! It’s great to get a glimpse of it, but it doesn’t really do it justice from the car. I want to get near it tonight.
We arrive at the hotel, an oasis of luxury, and get a warm welcome from the rep. Choosing the sunrise Taj Mahal option tomorrow, we also agree for our driver to take us there for sunset a little later tonight. It is the main reason why we came to India, after all. A brief snack and tour of the hotel and we’re ready for a closer encounter.
Play your Taj right
Our driver, surely not fully rested after the long drive, takes us to a spot to get the Taj in the background. (When I say a spot, I mean he stops the car in the middle of rush hour on the inside lane, ignition running.) We get photos of us with the main attraction, but we want more. Inder kindly obliges with a drive into Chaos Central.
We go up a narrow road, flanked by cars, buses and tuc-tucs on each side. People fill in every available gap. We soon hear that they’re making a movie here right now, and the stars’ trailers are up ahead. No room to swing a cat’s whisker, but somehow we get to the end of the road and leap out with a promise to meet up after “somewhere down there”. It’s at this point we suddenly become celebrities.
Maybe it’s the sunglasses we’re hiding behind. Maybe they think we’re part of the film. Or perhaps it’s just the sight of two grains of white sugar in a sea of demerara. “Hello!” the kids say, delighted when we acknowledge. My hand is shaken a dozen times. Phone cameras are trained on us. If only we looked like we knew where we were going, for what we seek cannot yet be seen.
Eventually, we find a ticket booth and pay a small sum for what promises to be a view and start down a green track. As the bushes part and we look to our right, one of the seven wonders of the world is upon us.
Wow. We’re looking at the back of the Taj, across the river, with a few other people who have paid for this privilege. It’s impossible to get a sense of the scale, even when seeing the tiny figures of men and women at its base. Symmetry. Detail. Finesse. Splendour. I’ll save my words until I see her up close.
The sun is setting and birds circle above as I click away at my main prize. Shell seems stunned. We’re finally here! The dome the turrets, the buildings either side all get captured on film. May I return safely to show my efforts. I want to stay longer, maybe for something special, perhaps a little disappointed in not capturing a killer shot. But tomorrow’s shoot is just twelve hours away, and Inder appears to capture us together at dusk before we walk back, through the staring crowds, returning to our taxi and the sea of pandemonium. Back at the hotel, I file away all the scenes in my mind and drift away, waiting for tomorrow’s riches.
From the celebration of one man’s creation to commemorate his lost love centuries ago, to the present struggle for existence in this fascinating land. If life has a spectrum, today I saw new colours.