Yesterday we visited the incredible, majestic, beautiful Taj Mahal. After making our way back to Delhi, our driver then dropped us off at the hospital... Again, a day of contrast!
The Taj Mahal. You have to see it at least once in your lifetime, if you have the chance. They say that it is the most beautiful building/structure in the entire world. It was built by a Mughal Emperor in the name of love for a wife that he lost in childbirth. It's perfect proportions and exquisite craftsmanship have been described as "a prayer, a vision, a dream, a poem, a wonder". This sublime garden-tomb, an image of the Islamic garden of paradise, has 500 kilos of gold imbedded into it. Around 20,000 workers laboured for almost 22 years to complete it in 1653. But enough of the stats. You can find all that info in the tap of your keyboard. What is it really like to see it yourself? Is it worth the journey to the ugly, dusty, dirty town it is located in? Even after being in India for almost a month and visiting so many amazing monuments, buildings and palaces, the answer is a resounding YES. It make ones eyes very, very happy!
We arose at 3:30am. It is a 3 hour drive to the city of Agra from Delhi. We wanted to be there to experience the dawn light, the sunrise and less crowds. The boys, normally difficult to arouse at that time, were quick to bounce up to begin our day. This is one monument they were both excited to see. We arrived after an uneventful journey, to a quiet, peaceful and awe inspiring sight. To reach the Taj, one must enter through the central gates of another massive, ornate building. So as you approach this entrance, you begin to see it in the distance, through the massive arch. One cannot help but let out an "oh my goodness ... wow... incredible!" In fact, when we were leaving, the boys and I giggled as we watched a Japanese couple, amongst the throngs of tourists who were approaching the entrance, let out a delighted squeal. This middle aged couple were in complete heaven, the wife gesturing madly for her husband to stop so she could take her first picture, the husband obliging her impatiently before he turned quickly on his heel and made his way in, excitment and joy exploding on his face. Her racing to catch up, pushing her way between the growing crowds. Little did they know how many pictures would be taken over the next few hours! Priceless.
It is difficult to describe being in front of the Taj Mahal. This is of course an image we have all seen over and over, since we were kids. It is in Bens grade 7 geography text. I remember when Paul and I stood under the Eiffel Tower in Paris for the first time, and when we first laid our eyes on the the Parthenon in Athens. These iconic sights ... it is difficult to believe you are actually there. And you do not want the moment to be a "Chevy Chase" moment, as Paul and I call it. If you have seen tbe movie Vacation you will understand what I refer to. The family make the long, arduous, event filled journey to the Grand Canyon, everything going wrong along the way. When they finally get there, exhausted and frazzled, Clark (the dad) is determined to enjoy it. He puts his arm around his son, stands looking out over the canyon, says one or two profound words, asks how long they should stay there, silence ... then 2 minutes later they are done and drive away. It`s a funny scene. I often think of that scene when facing a sight such as this. How long should one stay?
Of course, everyone is racing around frantically trying to pose for the perfect picture. Trying to capture that quintessential image, the beauty of what they are witnessing through their camera lenses. However, even for the most professional of photographers, I say that this is an impossible feat. Even while standing in front of it, it does not look or seem real. It is surrreal, this structure so utterly perfect. We took the regular photos, jostling amongst other visitors. Luckily, the crowds were thin at this time of day so we had some great openings. We were helped in our intent to make creative pictures by a friendly Indian man who suggested a few vantage points. He grabbed my camera and before we knew it, he had the kids jumping in mid air, standing on benches and clearing the growing crowds to make the best picture for us! I clued in after all this, and realised that we had just, unknowingly, "hired" him as our Official Taj Mahal Photographer. I thought to protest, but it had gone on too long and it was too hot to try to stop him now. (It was only 7:30am and already it was over 40 degrees. Agra is said to be the hottest city in India. Another heat record). And besides, the kids obliged alot better having a stranger march them around for the perfect picture, than their photo-obsessed mum. I often receive a few groans and some protest from them before I capture them all smiles! "Really Mom ... is it necessary to take MORE pictures!? Why can't we just take the pictures in our heads?!" shouts an exasperated Ben, sweat dripping down his forehead as I scramble with my tablet, my camera AND my phone, trying to capture it all perfectly. "Over there Ben, quick ... there's an opening! ... Ben! ... Ben!! ... Ben? Jordan, where's Ben?"
We got our pictures, hundreds of them. Most of them taken by our "Personal Official Taj Mahal Photographer". The cost for this? I am sure he gets all kinds of offerings. He "suggested" we give him 500 rupees (about $8). I gave him 300. It was a pretty good deal considering. He had me jumping in the air, even as I sweated in the suffocating heat while at the same time dealing with stomach cramps, nausea and a general feeling of malise... Which is why we ended up at the hospital. Since I became unwell back in Thailand, I have never really been able to get over it. I have had good days and bad, and have put it down to the food, bottled water, change in routine and in life!. I have stories about my "road runner" dash to toilets/holes of all kinds, in cities, roadsides, trains, boats, palaces, hotels and alleys. Not always pretty. My digestive system has always had its weaknesses and so I am used to dealing with it. But the past few days, things got much worse and my health started to really plummet. As I had already treated myself with a course of anti-biotics when this first came upon, I had come to the conclusion that it was not a bacterial infection. I was wrong. We were dropped off at a large, clean, very busy hospital close to our guest house, in the leafy suberb of Saket in Delhi. There were Moms and Dads dashing to Pediatrics for their well baby check ups, people waiting for appointments, doctors in and out of consulation rooms. It was pretty chaotic. It was why I had avoided coming in a few days ago. What kind of care will I get here I wondered?
To my surprise, I was given an appointment with a Gastro Doctor with just a 2 hour wait. A competent, highly experienced doctor told me immediatly that I had a bacterial infection, after I described my symptoms. He prescibed me a new anti-biotic and I walked out with a "here's how to get better" list (my title), an arm full of medication, natural and pharmacetical. All this cost me less than $40. Astounding. I was taken care of so beautifully, so efficiently and with alot of competence. I left already feeling better. I got back to our guest house and had a question that I forgot to ask the doctor. Thinking it a long shot, I emailed him with the address I was given by his gracious and kind secretary, and within 5 mins, I had a reply. This is a city of 18 million. Many of it's streets are littered with years of garbage. People have made homes from scrap metal on the sides of conjested streets. And I got an reply from a specialist in 5 minutes. So many contradictions... Unlike in North America, one does not have to have insurance to be able to afford prescription drugs here. In fact most drugs that would need a doctors appointment and then fancy packaging and jacked up prices in North America, Austraila or NZ, are sold over the counter here - to anyone, for cheap. And I mean incredibly cheap. Less than a tenth of what you would normally pay. Although I am told this is soon to change and insurance companies are chomping hungrily at the bit here - waiting in the wings to pounce. Of course there are problems with a system such as this and regulation needs to be increased. There are lots of fakes out there, so its buyer beware.
But enough of hospitals. We have spent the past 6 days enjoying this city the best we can. Our journey from the mountains through Rishikesh was rough. The long car rides on trecherous roads made us all quite sick. We passed through this "yoga capital of the world" quite quickly, although we did have a chance to briefly experince Ashram life and got to witness the beautiful Ganga Aarti ceromony outside our Ashram. The Ganga Aarti is a Hindu spiritual ceromony, held on the Holy Ganges River in Rishikesh every night at sunset, that welcomes people from all culture, languages and religions. Very moving, incredibly colourful and definitely unforgettable. I will return again one day, under different circumstances to dive into a practice and study of yoga.
So whilst in Delhi, we have not run around madly, crossing off a list of monuments, museums and famous sights.... It has been too hot for that! We have rested and recharged our low batteries. We have ventured out for a few outings and we mastered the metro. Delhi is nothing like I expected. I found it to be quite relaxed and very green. Loads of beautiful parks, groomed impeccably, to meander through. A subway system that is clean, safe and efficient. Traffic is congested, yes, but still doable to move about. We saw an incredible live Bollywood show, roamed the streets and spice markets of Old Delhi, visited the Red Fort and spent a good few hours at the place where Gandhi lived his last days, and was killed. We meet some local people and slipped away from the tourist areas. We lingered over long breakfasts at our incredible guest house and the boys caught up on some school work. We had a pizza and movie day where we did not leave our room.
I leave India after 27 days with a mixture of feelings. It will take weeks, maybe months to really assimilate what we have experienced here. As I have already conveyed, this is a country of contradictions and that alone is sometimes difficult to digest. So many times I wanted to get as far away as I could, then I would be in awe again at the blinding beauty and strong spiritual underpinnings that run beneath it all. It is like nowhere else on earth, that I do know. We have had an incredible time and the boys will come away with vivid, colourful, long lasting memories ... and a suitcase of stories.. I have been challenged here like never before, on so many levels, but I am stronger for the experience. Someone told me the other day that if you can do this, you can do anything! I believe he is right. So we bid farewell to India, bowing our heads in gratitude to all the wonderful angels that helped us along the way. And to those that didn`t. I will return and I am sure the boys will also.