Fleeting visit to taj mahal

Fleeting Visit to Taj Mahal

In my capacity as the UK Director of Operations for One World Tours Limited, I am often asked about the destinations I have been to and how it all began in the first place. 10 years ago I embarked on my second trip around the world and I suppose you could say that this is where it truly all began. Here is my first experience of India.

I thought that visiting the Seven Wonders of the world in eight days would be a fun and challenging thing to do. Having decided with my sponsors the airlines and a chain of leading world-wide hotels it was decided that the Seven Wonders of the World were the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Golden Gate Bridge, The Empire State Building, Sydney Opera House and the Pyramids of Egypt. This would notch up a staggering 42,000 miles in 8 just days.

The first of my many flights was on schedule and I left Heathrow at around 10.25pm on the 17th of February. I was handed my overnight package by the stewardess and given a meal. It didn’t take long before I drifted off to sleep; I had deliberately got myself up early that morning to ensure that I would be able to sleep on the first flight. I awoke half way through the flight feeling incredibly nauseous but that was down to the anti- malaria tablets more than anything else.

It wasn’t long before I arrived at Delhi airport and in order to continue on to the next stage of the journey I had to find out how much a taxi would cost to take me to Agra and back. There were plenty of transport kiosks whose occupants frantically beckoned to me in order to persuade me to use their services. The first one that caught my attention offered me his “top of the range car”, which included air- conditioning. I gladly accepted this as it worked out at half the price I had expected to pay. I was then told apologetically that this car was not available and was offered the next best thing at a cheaper rate, still with air conditioning. Apparently this car was not available either and this went on until I was finally offered their cheapest car of all, which by this time I would have agreed to anything. The driver of this particular vehicle was summoned and flatly refused to take me saying that it would not be possible to get to Agra and back in time to get me to my next flight. It was beginning to look like I was not going to get to visit the very first Wonder on the list! The taxi drivers of this particular kiosk told me that I should try a different kiosk, which is exactly what ended up doing. I was told that there was a driver willing to attempt to take me the 300 miles in about 8 ? hours for the price of ?130 (GBP). I did not really have choice and was still ?70 better off than I thought. We were whisked off to meet our driver for the day and the man that would hopefully make it possible for us to reach our first Wonder of the trip.

It soon became very apparent that if anyone was going to get me there and back in time it would most certainly be Ashok, the driver. I was barely three minutes from the airport when he started honking his horn like crazy. At first I thought this was a sign of aggression as is customary in our native country. I truly believed at one point that I was going to die in this foreign country due to manic way that Ashok handled the car. Where ever possible he drove like a man possessed reaching speeds of up to 120mph in some cases. This of course made me very apprehensive for the first hour or so of the journey, my underpants taking the full impact of my lack of faith!

There did not appear to be any rules and regulations where driving in India was concerned, Ashok seemed to make up his own rules as he went along. Hitting bumps in the road at speed saw me bashing my head on the roof on more than one occasion. I remember commenting aloud on the effects this was having on my backside and Ashok laughed saying that it was good exercise.

Well it soon became apparent that honking on the horn was a way of life and a way of getting people to pull out of your way. It didn’t seem to matter if a road similar to our own dual carriageways were full we merely pulled over to drive at speed toward the oncoming traffic, cars, bicycles camels etc, it was awesome and will always be the most memorable car drive that I have ever experienced. Most of the lorries had “horn please” painted on the back of them. Ashok weaved in and out of the traffic, his hand never far from the hooter. It was like having a police escort only without the police.

After the initial excitement of the taxi ride of a lifetime had subsided, I took time to absorb the scenery from the window of the cab. There was poverty in abundance wherever you looked. Hundreds of people lined the streets. Cattle wandered about like jaywalkers and now and again you would come across a dead, half- eaten dog, infested with flies lying in the road. Victims of Ashok’s previous drives one assumes! I have never seen so many people crammed into windowless buses, lorries or trailers being pulled by tractors. Donkeys pulled or carried loads that took up one entire side of the road, while camels took even bigger ones. Everywhere that you looked there were hundreds of people not doing anything in particular.

The fume filled air was brutal on your lungs. Diesel fumes choked out of vehicles in big black puffs. The humidity and the fumes made your eyes, throat and nose sting. I am surprised that I managed to remain conscious! I was not fairing very well at all. Apart from suffering from the effects mentioned above I was also dehydrating, sweating out more liquid than I could replace. I am sure there are people out there who would find the whole thing rather amusing as I being an intrepid professional world traveller (I had actually visited 108 countries on my previous trip!) who was feeling sick. I asked Ashok to pull over so that I could get a drink of water, he agreed but it was a good 30 or 40 miles before he actually did. The reason he had waited so long was so that we could purchase sealed water from a reputable source rather than risk drinking something that might make me suffer later.

I was surprised to see raw meat being displayed on the roadside, uncovered, soaking up the dirt and fumes of the surroundings.

What I noticed more than anything else was the overall calmness of everyone around us. There were no signs of stress or urgency to be somewhere at a certain time (apart from us of course!) so many people tolerating one another it was incredible.

I had recovered a little after having something to drink and was as excited to see eagles flying around in the sky. I watched as people threw bananas to the wild monkeys in the same way as we feed the ducks back home.

Everywhere you looked people were making good use of all the resources around them. Once we had broken free from the towns I had a chance to take notice of the countryside. It was fascinating to see the Indian ladies with huge loads balanced on their heads whilst carrying their babies in their arms. It was a wonderful thing to experience and would have been perfect if only it wasn’t so difficult to breathe. Seeing the way that life was lived in India made me realise what a bunch of whingers we are in the west!

We were only 11 kilometres from reaching the Taj Mahal when we experienced a huge traffic jam that even the psychopathic driver could not get me through! He had a few frantic words with one of the locals and informed me that the road was blocked due to the fact that two ministers were visiting the area.

Ashok did a sharp U- turn and tried to find an alternative route. Unfortunately there wasn’t one and we had to wait patiently in the queue like everyone else. The driver had driven his socks off to get me to within an 11-kilometre radius of the Taj with time to spare, and for one horrible moment it looked as if I was not going to get any closer. It was an awful shame because he had risked our lives along with those of the others we passed along the way, including the animals! He must have felt the same but wasn’t that easily defeated. Not long after I finally arrived at the first major landmark of the trip! Ashok dropped me off and said that he would find somewhere to park and allowed just 15 minutes to take photos etc. I paid the entrance fee; the equivalent of 75 pence, received a free key ring and made my way to the Taj, ande had my bags searched by the guards.

I was very impressed by the stunning creation of love that stood before me, definitely the stuff that fairytales are made of! I was aware that I did not have too much time so quickly set about taking photographs of the beauty before me in order to satisfy the publicity requirements for my sponsors.

I had designed a banner, which was to be photographed at each of the locations. When I unfolded it in the grounds of the Taj Mahal I was told very abruptly that banners were not acceptable and that the guards at the front gate should have taken it away from me. Someone did show me somewhere that I could hold the banner up in order to take a quick photograph but I declined agreeing that I should respect their wishes, as I was a visitor of their country. The banner gave a brief outline of the trip and advertised the sponsor’s names but they weren’t to know that it could have been a political statement for all they knew. I also couldn’t risk getting into trouble so early on in the trip!

I took enough photographs to prove that we had been there, along with a duplicate set in case the first ones did not come out and then one more lot for luck! The sun was beginning to set and it gave everything around that wonderful orange glow, a fitting end to a brief but memorable experience.

As promised Ashok was waiting for me and guided me back to the cab. A throng of brown -faced children begged me to purchase their wares. They surrounded me, I found it a little overwhelming to say the least. I was not sure if we had enough money to complete the trip at this moment in time so I couldn’t afford to give away one penny of what I did have so I kept having to refuse them. Their prices dropped with every step that took me closer to the car until I was being offered beautifully printed T-shirts for around 70p each. They flocked around the car hoping for a few pence that I really didn’t have, until Ashok drove off. It was very humbling.

Did I mention that the journey to Agra was an experience never to be forgotten? Well it was nothing compared to the journey back! We did the whole thing over but in the dark. It appears that you then use your headlights to get people out of the way instead of the car horn! So we were driving at speed in the dark with no headlights for 150 miles. Pedestrians and animals still littered the roads and I didn’t see them until we had passed them, so I can’t imagine how Ashok avoided them!

It was wonderful to see the culture by night. Little street fires lit the faces of their owners with a yellow hue. The moon which was also yellow was lit from underneath.

On a few occasions I saw hundreds of white lights adorning trees and buildings, pulsing music accompanied these scenes; Ashok told me that this represented “better off,” people getting married. Fireworks announced the success of the weddings. About half a dozen ceremonies were happening that I had witnessed that evening so goodness knows how many more were going on! We also saw a less grand wedding happening on the roadside; the grandest thing about this one was the flower garland around the young bride’s head! It was truly breath taking to observe the way of life for these people by night.

Ashok got me back to Delhi in good time. We even had a chance to stop at the roadside cafe for a cup of tea on the way. Well it wasn’t a caf?, as we know it back home; it was more like a large marquee at a craft fair. I was more than a little dubious about drinking anything that I hadn’t prepared myself.

I had grown quite used to Ashok during the course of the day and was sorry to have to say goodbye to him. He had looked after me incredibly well and I tipped him accordingly.

It was 10.10pm (Indian time) when we arrived at Delhi. The flight to Bombay was delayed for an hour. I have to say that of all the planes that we used throughout the trip, air India was the only one I felt really nervous about. There was quite a lot of turbulence during the whole flight. I remember forcing myself to try and sleep, reckoning that if I was going to die I would rather be asleep when it happened! I forgot to look and see if Ashok was the pilot when we departed from the plane. Thank you Ashok for making it happen.

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