TDO History Lesson: I recently went to visit this country, which has the second largest population, is the world’s largest mango producer, and has won 5 Miss World and 2 Miss Universe titles. Which country is it?
The answer? India, choice D – home to one of the most well-known monuments to honor true love, a population of 1.3 billion people, and a burgeoning film industry. A few college friends and I recently had the opportunity to visit here to attend the wedding of one of our dear friends, and the trip was everything we could have hoped for: sensory overload, romantic, and beautiful. The wedding itself was a three day virtual extravaganza of whirlwind dancing, Indian silk outfits, white horses, and delish food, but the story of the grandeur that is Indian weddings is to be described in a post on Thursday.
My friends and I arrived in Indira Gandhi International Airport at 9 pm on a late Wednesday night and found the sky a dusty yellow orange, surrounded by a cluster of worrying industrial plants that were still pumping little clouds of toxic air into the atmosphere at the late hour. This, combined with the utter throat cough inducing air that made NYC during rush hour smell like fresh mountain air, was not the most glorious introduction to India. My friend and I were beginning to feel way out of our element especially while en route to the hotel as we got our first look at driving in India.
To truly visualize driving in India, imagine the worst traffic jam you have ever encountered, with double the amount of cars, with no traffic rules, endless honking, and lack of turn signals. Props go to Indian taxi drivers because I know that if I was tossed into a driving situation like that I would probably end up in the middle of the road curled up into a ball crying. Did I mention that it’s routine for cows, oxen, mules, and sometimes even camels to wander out into the road? Let alone watching out for the pedestrians (“Don’t Walk” and “Walk” signs also don’t exist in India so pedestrians cross the road at their own peril), drivers in India need to also make sure they don’t make road kill of any of the endless animals that randomly wander the streets.
Anyway, the amazing thing is that nestled among the pollution and road chaos that is India, are little hidden nuggets of national treasure and beauty that made you wonder how they could be side by side; such is the dichotomous nature of India. The legendary Taj Mahal, which we went to see on our third day, clearly exhibited this dichotomy. After a five hour car ride from Delhi to Agra, which introduced us to the pandemonium of Indian driving, we girls yanked ourselves up at 5am, determined to see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. Dropped off a kilometer away from the Taj in pitch darkness by our taxi, we totally believed that the taxi driver had gone crookside and decided to rip us off. There were no other people around us and we were being told that the pristinely white marble Taj Mahal we all envisioned would be at the end of a dirt path lined with only random meadows and grasslands and random tourist souvenir huts. We thought we knew better as cynical New Yorkers, but after seeing a tourist couple venture down the same path, we decided to shut up and stop being judgmental. About five minutes traveling down this dirt path, we begin to see the small (as it was only about 5:30 am at this time) line of people queueing in front of the Taj.
It’s practically impossible to describe the Taj without sounding cliché because any of the usual words that you would use (“gorgeous,” “beautiful,” and “awe-inspiring” being a few) don’t even begin to describe its wonder and majesty, so I won’t even bother to attempt to describe its fantastic nature. But while gazing on these pictures below, just realize that the entire Taj Mahal is made of marble and that little paper booties are distributed to each visitor to the Taj to ensure that his or her shoes don’t ruin the delicate marble floor. Rumor has it, Shah Jahan who commissioned the construction of the Taj in honor of his favorite wife, also cut off the hands of every worker who constructed it as to prevent replication.
After seeing the Taj, we girls headed back to Delhi for two more days of sightseeing. Our highlight these days included doing some authentic sari shopping (to be described Thursday) and a rickshaw tour in Old Delhi.
We then headed to Jaipur where the wedding was being held, and my friends and I had the chance to ride elephants up to Amer Fort. I had mixed feelings about the elephant ride because while one side of me was in glee that I was riding an elephant, the PETA side of me was thinking “Aww, the elephant looks so sad.” It could all be in my over-active Disney imagination, but these elephants, as beautiful as they were with their trunk painted neon designs of flowers and vines looked like they would much rather be in a leafy, lush forest than a dusty old fort. My friends rationalized that the elephants couldn’t be too sad as they are forced to carry fast food gluttonous American tourists up the road to Amer Fort only for half the day so they weren’t being overworked.
All in all, India is an amazing and beautiful place for any of you lucky enough to venture there. I offer my few pieces of advice:
1. Always look your best, as you never know when you may be asked for a photo op. As a foreigner, expect a lot of blatant, unconcealed staring from both males and females alike, as well as requests to be in family photos. Unless you want to be in some Indian family’s photo of the Taj Mahal (as one of my friends was requested to pose for) representing your country with no makeup and a questionable outfit, it’s best to at least look semi-groomed whenever you venture out. I learned this lesson the hard way after forgetting my key one day in the hotel restaurant. As I went up without my friends to collect it, I was suddenly bombarded by photo requests from the formerly too shy waiters while rocking bedhead and wearing sweatpants. Now I’m immortalized forever on some waiter’s cellphone camera with that look.
2. Try the Shake It fries at McDonald’s – they give you masala powder seasoning and a bag and you are instructed to shake, shake, until the fries are completely covered. Yum! Other offerings including a Paneer Salsa wrap (basically a fried cheese and tomato wrap) and the Chicken Maharaja Mac.
3. Watch a Bollywood movie, in case you haven’t yet! They are like a higher energy version of those old MGM musicals with grander songs and costumes. I watched “Om Shanti Om” on the plane ride back, which was one of the top grossing movies of 2007. Check out this dance scene from the movie here; this song was featured on the Bollywood episode of “So You Think You Can Dance.”
4. People will try to rip you off endlessly as a foreigner. Don’t take offense to it, and you can fight with them about it, but remember sometimes that the US dollar amount in quibble maybe only be a few bucks. As with all other travel, come with an open mind and enjoy!
Photos © The Daily Obsession