Nothing runs on time in India. At least, this is the impression I am left with in my brief stay in a corner of the country. A bus was to take us into the Taj Mahal this morning at 5am. Actually, we were told 6am then 5:30am, then 5:45 and finally at the end of the evening it was an emphatic 5am. I asked several times to be sure. No sense getting up that early if we did not need to. We were assured 5am. There we were at 5am with the rest of the delegates staying in the guest house. I was not completely surprised when the bus pulled away at 7am. I am writing this from the plane on our 15 hour jump to Toronto. The flight was to leave at 12:45am. No shocker that they did not start boarding until after 12:30 and it was nearly 2am when the plane lifted off. And like the bus there wasn’t an explanation, an apology or even the acknowledgement of a problem.
We checked in to our flight online this morning so I was confident as we strolled past the Air Canada counter and into the immigration line. After a long wait in line we were told by the immigration officer that we could not use electronic boarding passes! Seriously! You would think that Air Canada would let you know this when checking in on the web. So back we went to the Air Canada desk to get our boarding passes. Once through immigration, this time it was a guard who stopped me and pointed out that my boarding pass read Toronto to Vancouver not Delhi to Toronto. So back I went through immigration and to the Air Canada desk. Not so much as an apology.
This post isn’t meant to be a rant. I promise. I’m at the beginning stages of a 15 hour flight that began at the end of a 20 hour day where I travelled 8 hours by bus. I’m not complaining. I just walked around one of the seven wonders of the world with my dad. Now how many people can say that? A colleague of mine on this trip would say “India is an inner journey.” She’d be right too. To live here you’d need to channel real calm to stay sane. Is it any wonder that from this part of the world springs yoga and many meditation practices?
India is, in so many ways, offensive to my western sensibilities. Yet, strangely I find myself liking its people. Perhaps it is their desire to serve, their keen sense of hospitality, their patience? In spite of the trash all around me, the thick smog that burns the lungs and restricts breathing and the insane driving I find myself day dreaming about touring the country some day on motorcycles. We travelled by bus to Agra, a distance of several hundred kilometres, and the country seems simply bursting with people. Grass huts dot farmers fields leaving me wondering at the life their owners must lead. A man piles hand cut hay on a flat deck trailer pulled by oxen. A team of camels strung out in procession move with their master to some unknown destination. The windows of the bus speeding down a 4-lane divided highway seem to look out on a strange fusion of the past and present.
Agra was much like Old Delhi only the number and variety of animals increased. The same shops line the road ways, the same thick layer of dust covers their wares. Pigs and cows root through piles of refuse. Chickens nest inches from the road ways and directly outside the doorways of people’s homes. A teaming vegetable market crawls with activity like an over turned ant hill. We crossed the Yamuna River where water buffalo and cattle kept cool in its polluted waters. Women worked tirelessly at their washing in the river. Along the muddy shore miles of carpet and sheets lay spread out to dry in the sun. It seemed counter productive to me. Surely the cloth laid out so was getting filthy on the shore line?
We caught glimpses of the Taj Mahal as we approached on the bus. Its spires and domed roof well known symbols of India’s glory. We collected our tickets from a ticket counter in a long brick building. Foreigners pay 3 times the price but their tickets are “priority” ones that would take us past the long queues wandering through the Taj. We walked the kilometre from the ticket counter to the gates. There were any number of rickshaws or horse drawn carriages that vied to carry us the distance but we opted to walk as a group. In retrospect taking a ride may have saved us the grief of turning down every merchant we passed along the way. The red sandstone fort that surrounds the Taj Mahal (crown palace) kept the tide of filth securely outside its walls. We passed through security guards and metal detectors to gain our admittance. Food was confiscated from several in our group. Thousands upon thousands of tourists filled the courtyards and gardens leading to this wonder of the world. 16 gardens and 53 fountains to be exact. Incidentally the year of it completion, 1653.
I have seen the Taj in pictures and video but to see it in person is something else. The scale of it cannot be expressed. To my initial distaste a guide found us. One that insisted his services were free but naturally would take a tip at the end. He was worth the tip, however. A sleight man dressed in a white katur pajama and wearing a white tight woven Muslim cap that reminds one of the doilies found on the tables of their grandmothers. He kept our group remarkably together and showed us many features of the palace that we would have otherwise surely missed: optical illusions, the translucent white marble that would change colour depending on the quality of the light shone upon it, the variety of stone expertly set into the carved marble.
In the main chamber of the palace the only light is the little that filters through the open door ways and the windows set high above us. Photos are not allowed in here, though an occasional flash from the uncontrollable crowd wandering through would go off. Our guide borrowed a smart phone from one of our group and used its flashlight to illuminate a small stone set in the marble in the pattern of the lotus flower. It lit up like a Christmas light and the vision of the mausoleum’s architects was suddenly before us. The interior walls are intricately covered in these stone lotus patterns and you knew that with just the right lighting these stones in their blues, yellows, greens and reds would ignite like a hundred thousand stars. One can book a night viewing of the Taj only in the few days around the full moon. I’m certain it would be worth the long flight to India just to stand in that chamber when the moonlight reveals the genius of India’s architects.
Shah Jahan the emperor responsible for the construction of the Taj had it raised in honour of his 3rd or 4th wife (his favourite) who died bearing her 14th child. She would never see the monument he had erected in her honour. It took 22 years to complete it. He would have gone on to erect a similar edifice in honour of himself made from black marble (10x the cost) but his son refused to let him spend the public funds on an edifice to his own ego and had him imprisoned where he eventually died. At least this is the legend according to our guide.
Upon leaving the grounds of the Taj Mahal we found ourselves directed to a stone craftsmen’s shop. Apparently the same families that built the original Taj still live at its feet and create stone art to this day. Again, according to our guide. They had some beautiful works of art that I wish I could afford. I was glad for the air conditioned shop though. At this point dad was completely cooked. He’d had too much sun so I flagged down a rickshaw driver and had him take us the kilometre back to the ticket office and a small restaurant.
Dad has done quite well this trip. We’ve put in a fair number of kilometres, endured some long days and extensive travel. We’ve gone by: plane, train, boat, car, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, bus and foot. We’ve come a long way since our days of exploring the Cariboo in the old station wagon. When I was 15 he and I drove the van out to Prince Rupert and back camping and fishing all along the way. We caught one fish, and a little one at that, but we made vibrant memories that are easily recalled today. Not many people have a dad like mine. I’m hopeful that we’ll have many years more together and many more adventures. Jaron and I will have adventures like this too and he with his sons and so on down through generations of time. My dad never knew his father and could have perpetuated that legacy with his own children but he chose a different path and my life is all the richer for it.