February 16 2003
I promised yesterday that I would share my actual Taj Mahal visit as well. It definitely ranks in the Top 10, even without the adventure of meeting my driver.
It's a 3-4 hour drive between Delhi and Agra. My assumption was that I would sleep both ways (remember, I was on the phone until after 2 AM, and we were leaving the hotel at 3 AM). Well, I didn't know that driving in India was, uh, so different. Now I had experienced different before -- Vietnam, July '00, which will be another story this week -- but this was even worse. My driver arrived in an SUV of some kind (not bad). However, he spoke very little English. He was a big fan of air conditioning, though, and it was almost too cold to sleep comfortably. Still, I managed to sleep for about 30 minutes...until the driving pattern changed. In India, lane markings are simply there to give someone a painting job. Rear-view mirrors, if they are on the vehicle at all, are hardly used. During the day, honking the horn is a required step, and at night, I learned, flashing your bright lights is the way to alert the vehicle in front that you are about to pass them. So, we spend several hours weaving in and out of the very slow-moving truck traffic, sometimes passing within inches. We also were stopped for quite a long time at the border between two Indian states... all the trucks had to stop for toll/inspection/food/something...and many were simply using the actual road as a "truck stop". The drivers were sleeping on cardboard underneath their own trucks, or on small benches on the side of the road. All of this made the drive a fair bit longer than anticipated.
We rolled into Agra about 6 AM. The sun was already up, unfortunately, but the tourist throngs were not yet awake. On the road in, we suddenly stopped, and the driver picked up a passenger. This man introduced himself as my "tour guide". Uh oh. Well, I didn't mind the idea of a guide...and I figured I had the GSM phone and could call the driver's company or my colleagues if something problematic occured.
You can't drive up to the Taj Mahal -- "pollution control". Instead, we drove to a parking lot, where we (tour guide and I) boarded an electric-powred bus for the remaining 500 m drive. I paid my non-Indian entrance fee -- almost US$20 -- and we were in. And there is nothing like it.
It was totally worth it being there so early -- notice the absence of people. You can't go anywhere in India without there being other people, so at the biggest tourist attraction of all, I was impressed. The guide was reasonably useful; he told me the history, and he took me to all the known spots for the best photos. In total, I spent 75-90 minutes on the grounds.
After we left, I guess I didn't know exactly what I wanted, and so I got taken advantage of. The tour guide took me to all his buddies' shops, trying to get me to buy jewelry/carpets/cashmere scarves/marble inlay goods. I naïvely thought that by buying something at the first place (I planned on buying some jewelry for the wife anyway), he would stop there. Wrong. But I went along with it, if only because it was interesting to see everything for sale. One carpet store must have had a dozen or more carpets unrolled before I convinced the shopowner I really wasn't going to buy anything.
I ended this game by indicating that I needed breakfast, which of course meant finding the restaurant that the guide's buddy owned. That was fine -- breakfast was about US$1, how much of a kickback could he have received on that?
We dismissed the tour guide at this point and headed back to Delhi. I know I should have seen the Red Fort and other sites, but how could you top the Taj Mahal anyway? The drive back was faster and a bit more comfortable. Now that it was daylight, I learned that all that crazy driving was not only normal, but that we were just following the instructions that are painted on the back of the trucks -- "Please sound horn....Use dipper at night".
You can see all my India trip photos online here.