A little more than a week in and the days are starting to fly by! Slowly but surely, India is beginning to feel like home and I am finally sleeping through the night (so long jetlag!).
Before I start I want to apologize for completely skipping a week of my happenings in India, but I am going to jump ahead to my favorite part so far – seeing the Taj Mahal! (fun fact: it’s actually pronounced more like Taj Mahel)
So I’ll begin on Sunday morning. I had a 4:20 a.m. wake up call so that I could get to the Delhi train station in time for a 6:00 a.m. departure. Picture Harry Potter getting onto the train to go to Hogwarts – it was that type of crowd and noise and environment. I then took the two-hour train ride through the country-side and past some of the most extreme poverty I have ever seen to Agra. There, I was met by a tour guide named Monika who was a local student and had her Masters in History – and boy was she good! We immediately headed to the Taj Mahal (which by the way means ‘Crown Palace’), but first we had to get into a clean air vehicle to go the last kilometer or so because the city has outlawed fume emitting cars near the palace in order to prevent staining of the white marble. As a side note I must tell you that Agra is quite the paradox, driving down the streets it is poor and dirty and very rough around the edges, but then out of no where comes this immaculate indescribable gem.
After navigating carefully through the tourist shops and the main gate, I finally had my first glimpse. The first time I saw the Taj, it literally took my breath away. I can’t even explain how beautiful it is. Even with all of the hype it gets, it was better than I imagined. I feel somewhat silly talking this way about a building but it’s like the Golden Gate Bridge, no matter how many times I see it I still think its stunning. I just couldn’t take my eyes off of it. So, after having to literally pick my jaw up off the ground, my guide Monika navigated me carefully through the different rooms where we saw the replicated tombs of Shah Jahan (the king who built the Taj) and his wife Mumtaz Mahal – for whom he built the extravagant mausoleum. I must admit that I walked quickly through the inside so that I could go back to ogling at the outside.
After having to drag me away from the Taj, we visited the Agra Fort - a large medieval red stronghold which is famous for being the prison of Shah Jahan from the time he built the Taj until his death. As the story goes, one of the king’s sons was mad that he was not named the successor to his father, so he killed all his brothers and took power, placing his father in prison within the Agra Fort. From his prison cell (which was actually quite lavish) there was one window from which he could see the Taj in the distance.
As if I hadn’t had enough sight seeing, we also went to see what everyone calls the Baby Taj and then the Moonlit Garden – a beautiful park just across the river from the Taj, where you admire it at sunset. While we were sitting there my guide and I had a very nice conversation with the members of the Indian Police force who were in charge of protecting the Taj and they even bought us some cold drinks. I have to say, I think I would have enjoyed that part a bit more had I known what they were saying (they were speaking very fast Hindi) and had they not been carrying AK-47s, but in any case, looking back on it they were very nice.
Now I wish I could tell you I was able to experience the Taj at sunset, but the weather had different plans for us. Around 5:00 p.m. we were caught in a massive dust storm and then a torrential downpour of rain, which if you ask any native Indian is very strange in the month of May. So we quickly headed out and back to the train station where I made the long journey back to Delhi. I was absolutely exhausted when I returned home.
But my home has also changed. I am now staying with the mom of one of the girls I played high school soccer with (shout out to Mira Ahmad), who is the representative for the Ford Foundation in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. I like to call her my second mother and I am so grateful to have a home away from home.
But good news! My real mom is coming to visit me in India on Friday!
Although the Taj is at the top of my mind right now, believe it or not I actually have been doing other things.
For example, I taught myself to understand cricket! It is an absolutely awesome sport and as an avid baseball fan (Go Giants!) I was in dire need for something to latch onto and follow. Here in Delhi the local team is the Delhi Daredevils, so I have hopped onto that bandwagon and even though they are sitting in second to last place in the league, they are still very much fun to watch. I might even have to start an intramural team back in Durham next year!
Also, I am on my way to becoming fluent in Hindi. I now can comprehend a total of 7 words. Yes, No, Let’s Go, Food, Thank You, Ok and Good. Oh! And I know how to say ‘My name is Ali’. But don’t worry; I still have a few weeks so I hope to at least double that number before I leave. And finally I would like to tell you I am beginning to master eating with my hands. It’s actually a much more precise art than I originally thought. It involves fine motor skills and a tolerance for having your hands be sticky and messy – so it’s not for everyone…
I will write again soon, but until then I hope everyone is enjoying their summer!