In 2010, I had an opportunity to travel to Bangalore, India on business. Well, you know I am not one to waste an opportunity like that without an extension for personal travel, so I added on some time. There were a couple of places I was quite keen to go, the typical tourist places, check them off my bucket list. I had a week in an area tourists don't really go, so this would balance it out nicely. I had a lot of fun visiting temples, markets, I even bought my first Sari. But after business was complete I flew north to Delhi and Agra - home of the Taj Mahal.
My colleague Parul was kind enough to spend her personal time with me after work hours, but on the weekend I had a little bit of an adventure on my own. Everybody was so kind and helpful. I visited a local temple that had an incredibly large statue of one of the deities, Ganesha. According to Wikipedia, "Ganesha is widely revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the deva of intellect and wisdom." There was quite a crowd to see this figure and to spend time in prayer.
<<UPDATE 3/11: Parul kindly reminded me that this photo I took is the diety Shiva, not Ganesha. I knew that, but somehow had it in my head wrong when I was writing it - apologies for any confusion >>
Parul took me to dinner each night and as a typical American (I feel) I really only knew a handful of dishes and always chose from those. Now, not only was I encouraged, I had little choice but to expand my small Indian flavor profile. I was able to try many different foods that broke my 'fear' of the unknown (to me). There were so many different spices that I had never cooked with - Garam masala, Cardamom, Fenugreek, Tumeric and even Saffron. We went to an open air market where I was able to watch the selling and buying of such spices, and greens among other food products. The care that was taken to place each leaf into a paticular pattern was beautiful and the colors and aromas circling my head were captivating.
Another first for me was going to a traditional sari shop and buying fabric for a sari. A sari can be anywhere from 5 - 9 yards of fabric and there are different wrapping styles. I don't know what style I was wearing, but it was quite an experience to see how the locals were buying there fabric. It was not like an American fabric shop with bolts lining the pedistals and walls. The Indian shop had a cushioned floor with layers of fabric on top. You remove your shoes and sit on the floor while the salesman brings you fabrics according to your liking and budget. Hand woven, printed, beaded or machine made - no matter the walls were lined with stacks upon stacks in every color imaginable. The experience was a little overwhelming, but I imagine once you get to know a particular store and salesman, it could be quite customized to you.
After a week of work with Parul, I left and headed north. I was living in Korea at the time and my friend had given me the name of a good driver and guide to take me from Dehli to Agra. Of course, there is always a little glitch. He was not available, but would send another gentelman who would take me. The glitch was the other gentleman did not speak English (and I do not speak Hindi or any of the other dialects you may come across). Bengali,Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Odia and Punjabi are just a few of those that may be heard, as over 25 million people speak each one of them. Wow! I had no chance from the start as I didn't even know which one of theses he was speaking to try and look up some words. The guide would meet us just outside the Taj Mahal.
It was quite the ride to get to the Taj Mahal, what should have taken (with an American infastructure and roadway) about 2 hours with a bathroom break included, took well over four. The main obstacle, obstacles...the roadway has no lines that give guides to drivers and the drivers are only one user of the road. Motorcycles, bicycles, people walking, cows, camels, chickens, horses, tuk tuk drivers, trucks - you name it and they are on the road weaving to where ever their heart desires. I know at times that I am an exaggerator, but trust me when I say this, it was utter chaos.
Additionally, I had no idea that we would be stopping for the driver to take a break and hang out with all the other drivers at a typical stop. I went in, had a bathroom break and sat waiting for the driver when he realized I was not partaking in the coffee and treats for sale. I had no idea what anything was and at that moment was fearful to eat much. Murphys law had come into play. While dining all week with Parul, I really went outside my comfort zone and also my 'if you can't peel it, don't eat it' zone. I never had one problem, even after drinking local lemonade that was made with what I fear was water from the tap. But now that I had stayed in a Western hotel in Dehli and had ordered room service late the night before of Western food, I had a bout of, well no need to go any further, you know the drill...
Once we arrived to the area outside the Taj Mahal gate, a beautiful young woman covered in henna joined us in the car. She explained to me that there would be lots of people trying to get my attention, potentially grabbing my hand or back pack. I needed to stay close to her and walk without looking anyone in the eye. It was a sort of make-shift market place with everything for sale from water to sari's. People from what appeared to be incredibly poor to very wealthy wandered the alleys leading up to the entrance gate. It was hot, 114 degrees fahrenheit. This is one of those times when people say you could fry an egg on the side walk, well you could. We shared a bottle of water that my guide inspected to ensure the seal was not rigged, holding the bottle above our mouths with our heads tipped back to catch every drop.
My guide shared stories and history of the Taj Mahal and lead me to every corner of the amazing structure (which if you didn't know was built as a mausoleum to the emperors favorite wife). But it was hot, really hot, the type of hot that just sucks your breath right out of your lungs. I made the guide follow me from shady spot to shady spot - and when I say spot, that is truly all there was, a small shadow of a spot. Once we got to the main building, we had to take our shoes off to enter. The line was long and filled with mostly people from India and the surrounding countries.
I understand that white reflects and black collects, but once my shoes were off and I was stading on that hot white marble, I started doing a jig. No one else in line seemed to be bothered by the fire under thier feet or the scorching sun on their heads. Me, I could hardly put a foot down before lifting it again with a little groan and squeal of a noise involuntarily emitting from my mouth.
It was well worth it though, it is indescribable to do it justice. The amount of craftmaship and marble inlay at every turn was almost beyond belief. The intricacy and detail that each artisan must have painstakingly crafted...well, it was amazing! In total it took approximately 20 years and 20,000 workers to complete this wonder of the world in 1653.
As we continued to walk around the back side of the structure on the river side, another western tourist came up to me and offered me sun screen. The look on their face was of complete disgust, my face was as red as the reddest t-shirt you have ever seen, sweat dripping off of me, my head wrapped in a scarf, sunglasses sliding down my nose and all of my clothing so wet you could wring it out. However, I was covered in sun screen. It was just that hot, and I was just that flushed. It was too hot, hot damn.
After visiting the Taj Mahal, we continued on to other famous structures of magnificent architecture in the area. And then hed to make that same hair raising trek back to Dehli, this time in the dark. At the time, I thought one trip to India would be enough. It was the chance of a lifetime and after seeing the Taj Mahal, there probably wouldn't be any reason to go back. Every time I think something like that, I could not be more wrong.
A special thank you to my dear friend Paul for showing me such a wonderful time.