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Introduction to India: Our Push to Keep an Open Mind

“In-terrible India, In-terrible People,” he said as he shook his head in a light-hearted manner of disapproval.  That was the response to a simple question I asked our tour guide in New Delhi. “Why do people openly use the restroom in the streets?”

An evil chuckle, originated deep in his over-fed, pot belly..”In-terrible India, in-terrible people,” he replied curtly, his answer dripping with cynicism and possibly a slight bit of disdain for foreigners whom question daily life in India. His response was a semi-clever play on the country’s national slogan, “Incredible India”.

In our more than week-long rush through India, we were overwhelmed by the country’s deep-seated political, economic and social troubles. There is a small sector of India’s 1.3 billion people that is flourishing, but their success only highlights the vast divide between rich and poor. India is home to 1/3 of world’s poorest people, and their plight cannot be missed in any town or city across the country.

After surviving what equated to by far our worst flight yet thanks to the overwhelming lack of respect expressed by the majority of the Indian men seated around us toward the hard-working female flight attendants, we set forth to not only explore India’s awe-inspiring sites, but also work to understand its people, their successes and struggles, and their rich cultural traditions.

Thanks to a wonderful friend who worked for the US Embassy in New Delhi, we were well cared for. After a solid night’s rest at his apartment in one of the most exclusive and expensive neighborhoods in the world, Visant Vihar, we set out for what is prioritized as the first stop for most anyone exploring India’s wonders – the Taj Mahal. With our dear friend behind the wheel of his imported Ford Focus we turned from the guarded streets of Visant Vihar into the chaos of New Delhi.

Traffic choked the roadways and was only compounded by the hundreds of small three-wheeled, green and yellow auto rickshaws, the arms and legs of the ten people inside spilling out as the rickety, rusted carriages tried hopelessly to inch between the cars and people jamming the road. Small children pressed their dirty hands against the car windows, pounding their fists with demanding force, their big brown eyes pleading for help but in reality simply begging for money.

There are few rules to the road here and even those are readily ignored by impatient drivers who attempt to plow through the stand-still at lightning speed narrowly avoiding the weaving cars and meandering people. Sick to my stomach, I closed my eyes in hopes the simple gesture would transport me from the backseat of the car to anywhere else in the world.  Each time I opened my eyes and peered through the thin glass widow separating me from the dirty and chaotic world beyond, I caught a glimpse of a man or child urinating or squatting to defecate if not directly on the sidewalk then right next to it. Plastic trash and rotting food sat in mounds alongside the roadways. Along with the stinging stench of feces, it created a sickening smell that pulled at the pit of my stomach.

Pigs Dig Through Trash in Agra, India

Pigs Dig Through Trash in Agra, India

Yet somehow, and to be honest I don’t know how, I found a deep sense of beauty in the chaos. Maybe it was the women’s brightly-colored saris blowing gently in the breeze or the way they stood out against the worn, brick skeletons of buildings set back from the road. Maybe it was the shopkeeper watching the hectic scene unfold while sitting idyll behind his display of hooka pipes or the young boy mixing sugar cane drinks from a small, old stand perched between the road and the trash-filled sidewalk.  Perhaps, it was be the cows lying lazily in the streets unafraid of humans and their power. No matter what it is that created it, it was a beautiful scene – a natural, seemingly effortless way of life.

Unfortunately, the word effortless is far from accurate when describing life in India. Many Indians struggle to survive each day in the dirty streets of the capital and in the beautiful rolling farmlands surrounding it.  It’s a battle against disease and poverty and a fight for safety and success.

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Women Cut Dead Grass at Taj Mahal in Agra, India

Once we finally made our way from the sprawling city of New Delhi, a newly constructed expressway led us past emerald-green fields of towering corn. From the back of the ever-speeding car I caught a glimpse of a camel, its golden color standing out against the vibrant fields, as it lumbered along dragging in its wake an old, wooden cart filled with white sacks. However, the peaceful openness of the countryside was short lived, and soon we slammed into dense development in Agra, home to the famous Taj Mahal. Agra’s chaos rivals that of Delhi, but it’s compacted into even narrower streets and compounded by substantially more livestock.

The circus surrounding the Taj Mahal’s outer gates was a spectacle. Men swamped our car as we pulled into a parking lot.  They frantically pushed boards with magnets, post cards and books against the window, banging on it with the same child-like demanding demeanor of the beggars who threw themselves against our car earlier that morning. We literally pushed our way through the forceful, desperate group of salesmen only to find a gangly, tall Indian man dressed head to toe in white, a black whip in his hand. From the thick, black handle, he raised the long piece of leather high into the air and brought it down with a crack.

Sensory overload ensued as I tried desperately to soak in the pandemonium surrounding us without succumbing to its utter madness.  We walked through the lawlessness toward one of the Taj’s two gates.

Not expecting to be without the disorganization outside, we approached the entrance with great anticipation of an awe-inspiring introduction to one of the world’s most heralded ancient structures.  Unfortunately, the anarchy only intensified as we found ourselves swamped by the thousands of Indians waiting to gain entry into their country’s iconic temple.  With not even an inch between them, men and women in line chattered excitedly or angrily pushed stopping only to gawk at the foreigners pushing their way towards a separate entrance gate designed to allow international tourists to skip the horrifically long local lines.

Lines for 'Locals' at the Taj Mahal

Lines for ‘Locals’ at the Taj Mahal

After searches fit for TSA at US airports, we were granted access to the sprawling compound.  I didn’t give much thought to how I might react to my first sight of the Taj Mahal; it always seemed so foreign to me – beyond my reach. But, as we met our guide and learned about the courtyard surrounding the Taj, I was overwhelmed with excitement.  We joined the hundreds of people moving toward the beautiful marble towers, and as I looked up I suddenly felt alone.  Standing within sight of one of the most beautiful buildings on Earth, I froze – only able to stand in awe. People moved around me, complaining about the backlog I was creating as I stood in a daze.  There it was.  An amazing structure, a beacon of beauty, standing strong and quiet among the surrounding disorder.

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Taj Mahal Agra, India

Our guide took great pride in telling its beautiful and tragic history. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal in honor of his third wife who died after the birth of her 14th child.  He promised her the grandest palace to honor her memory – and boy, did he deliver. The Taj Mahal is an architectural marvel of white marble, which often gives off a beautiful hue of blue, accented by prized stones adorning doors and windows.

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Detailing on the Taj Mahal

As we wandered the sprawling compound and into the Taj itself, there was no mistaking the glares and stares in our direction. As Dan and I sat upon the infamous Lady Diana bench, where Princess Diana was once famously photographed, a small crowd gathered to watch.

“Photo?” a young man questioned innocently. “Sure,” I responded. As a group of men crowded on either side of Dan and me, I quickly became aware of what was happening. Dozens of men and women rushed to surround us, each pulling out their old Motorola cell phones shoving them in our direction. I smiled politely as we finished posing and headed toward our guide. Shouts began to escalate and people started pushing as they lurched toward us furiously shaking their phones and cameras in their hand. “No, no,” our guide said as his hand rose high into the air as if to try and calm the ever-growing crowd.

His voice rose as he yelled something quickly in Hindi and ushered Dan and me from in front of the bench and toward the monument itself. It was hard to regain focus.  We were shaken.  The remainder of our time at the Taj was spent dodging the slew of young men who openly pulled out their cell phones and shoved them rudely toward my face. There was no courtesy and no kindness in their approach, it was as if snapping a photo had become a savage act complimented only by a sly stares in my direction.

“What did I do?” I thought to myself as I moved throughout the crowd. I couldn’t quiet grasp what was going on. With each assault on us our guide worked to redirect the openly pushy men and continue moving us through his tour. It was as if he was of a different mindset, a more open, experienced line of thinking. Sweating profusely through his thin dress shirt and dark grey slacks, he tossed out reminders to us as we moved along.

“Don’t pay attention to them,” he would say mindlessly as he pushed people from our path and demanded they leave us alone. Still, he treating his own people as if they were animals in need of containment, and chuckled, shook his head and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “it is what it is.” Understanding many of the Taj’s visitors are from small, rural areas across India is the key to understanding their actions. Many had only rarely, if ever, seen foreigners.

We moved through the Taj Mahal absorbing the awe-inspiring stories of its construction, and I couldn’t help but pause to reflect on conquering the unthinkable. I was in India. I was a world away from home and immersed in a rough but colorful sui generis culture. This was something I had only dreamed of, but I never imagined it would become a reality.

The Dangling Taj

We moved from the Taj and its two beautiful mosques flanking either side and through the surrounding courtyards back into the chaos outside its imposing walls. We once again pushed through the thousands of people outside, but this time I was seemingly even more confident in telling the young boys shoving magnets and postcards into my face to simply back off.

I climbed into the back of the car, which was no easy task as it was surrounded by cattle, and once again braced for a death-defying ride as we set forth through the crowded, defiled streets lined with people and livestock. Again, our car was swamped by salesmen as we pulled into the startlingly beautiful Red Fort of Agra, also known as the Agra Fort, just down the road from the overshadowing Taj Mahal.

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Agra Fort, Agra, India

Here the rust-colored stone of the ancient, fortified castle stood out against the blue sky.  While markedly less crowded than the Taj Mahal, hundreds of people still moved through its gates and reveled in the grandeur of its palaces, mosques and audience halls from within.  Built from 1567 to 1571, Agra Fort  served as the imperial city of Mughal rulers for 200 years.
That night found us lounging in the comfort of one of Agra’s beautiful, gated hotel complexes.  Removed from the chaos and mire beyond, again, we found ourselves face to face with India’s great social divide.  India’s elite frequented the hotel and wealthy families gathered to celebrate life’s milestones with a weekend trip away from the crush of Delhi.
The next morning yielded yet another thrilling drive into Rajasthan to explore the absolutely stunning architecture and intriguing history of one of India’s oldest regions.
The old city of Amer, situated below the ancient, worn walls of the Amber Palace, is as captivating a city as you’ll find in India. The narrow stone streets twist and turn between the walls of timeworn buildings leading the way to the colossal palace surrounded by the towering rust-colored walls that harken to a miniature version of the Great Wall of China.
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Old City Amber Palace, Rajahstan, India

 Inside the palace walls lies the well-kept remnants of first-class, luxury living.  The intricate stone work stands boldly against marble and sandstone as do the baroque paintings.  Wandering the massive complex, I still never felt alone.  Always there were eyes following me and whispers that I couldn’t understand; while still a little unnerving, I was more comfortable than I had been the previous day at the Taj.  But, like at the beautiful hotel, I couldn’t seem to shake my thoughts on the extreme divide between rich and poor.  But now, I was gaining insight into the deepest of divides sparked centuries ago.

Still, I couldn’t help but marvel at the intricate detailing and fascinating stone and tile work unique to Indian architecture.

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Tile Work in Amber Palace, Rajahstan, India

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The Amber Palace, Rajahstan, India

Finally, a stop at Jantar Mantar, the magnificent and mathematic astronomical observatory built in the early 1700’s.  As luck would have it, the cloud-covered sky darkened and opened to release a cold rain as we made our way inside to see the world’s largest sundial.

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Jantar Mantar, The World’s Largest Sundial, Jaipur, India

The rain continued relentlessly as we struggled to hear our guide describe how India’s royalty once used Jantar Mantar’s tools to determine the exact time of birth down to the second for many of India’s infants, which in turn lays out a supposed predetermined path of success or failure similar to the success and failure determined by the caste system.

Not wanting to to brush aside the deeply seeded belief in astrology to determine one’s achievements and happiness in life, but more believing in the power of determination and hard work as indicators of future of successes, we headed back to the car lost in contemplation.

The several-hours drive back to New Delhi was as eventful as the trip out of the city, if not more.  We inched through roadways flooded by raging waters aided only by Jaipur’s trash-clogged drainage system.

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A Group of Men Walks Through Jaipur’s Flooded Streets

As we whizzed along the rutted, crumbling highways the sun eventually broke out from behind the clouds and smog to create a serene warm glow.  Unfortunately, the panic of our small, American-made car whizzing between colorfully-painted TATA Indian trucks was too intense to allow for much enjoyment in watching the sun sink.
Our first whirlwind tour of India didn’t exactly leave me wanting more, but now looking back, a world away from the social issues and filth, I revel in the magic of the country and my heart aches for easement of it’s caste system.  Still, the more time I spent in the ailing country, the more in love with it I fell.
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj Mahal Agra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj Mahal CompoundAgra, India
  • Taj Mahal GateAgra, India
  • Taj Mahal CompoundAgra, India
  • Awkward Taj Mahal Photo - It's a must!Agra, India
  • Taj Mahal CompoundAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Cutting GrassTaj Mahal in Agra, India
  • Cutting GrassTaj Mahal in Agra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Gateway to the TajAgra, India
  • First Sight of Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Line for Locals to Enter the TajAgra, India
  • Taj Mahal MosqueAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj MahalAgra, India
  • Taj Mahal from The Red FortAgra, India
  • Colorful Saris of IndiaAgra, India
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  • The Amber PalaceJaipur, India
  • View of Old CityAmber Palace in Jaipur, India
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  • Old City WallsAmber Palace in Jaipur, India
  • Floating GardensAmber Palace Jaipur, India
  • Amber PalaceJaipur, India
  • Beautiful SariAmber Palace in Jaipur, India
  • Beautiful Tile WorkAmber Palace in Jaipur, India
  • Amber PalaceJaipur, India
  • Room of MirrorsAmber Palace in Jaipur, India
  • Amber PalaceJaipur, India
  • Amber PalaceJaipur, India
  • Floating PalaceJaipur, India
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  • Spice for Sale Jaipur, India
  • Street Salesman Jaipur, India
  • Pink CityJaipur, India
  • Jantar MantarJaipur, India
  • Jantar MantarJaipur, India
  • Jantar MantarJaipur, India
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  • City WallsAmber Palace Jaipur, India
  • Old CityAmber Palace Jaipur, India
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  • Parking LotAgra, India
  • Red FortAgra, India
  • Red FortAgra, India
  • View of the Taj Red Fort Agra, India
  • Red FortAgra, India
  • Red FortAgra, India
  • Stone DetailingAgra, India
  • Pigs Dig in TrashAgra, India
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