What could be said about the Taj Mahal that hasn’t already been said? Not much, I suppose. But even though the Taj Mahal is an iconic tourist destination, we still didn’t have an iconic experience of it. In fact, our encounter with the Taj was memorable not because of the striking white marble or the clear reflecting pools, but because of Lydian’s high fever, the terror of getting hopelessly lost, and being kidnapped by a tuk tuk tout while we were there. For us, when we think of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, this is what we remember.
We’d been living in Nepal for the month prior to our time in India. Over our final 5 days in the country, we took up residence in Delhi where Lydian proceeded to fall ill with a combination stomach/respiratory upset that evolved into a fever over the course of a few hours. Of course, I wasn’t sure what was wrong with her. So initially, we called off our trip to Agra and resigned to leave it for another time. That was on day 2. On day 4, Lydian had a crisis. She really wanted to go. “We came all this way…” She said. “And then to not see the Taj Mahal.” It seemed criminal. And in her feverish stupor, she cried about it. John and I looked at each other. We didn’t know what to do.
By day 4 of Lydian’s illness, I was pretty sure that she didn’t have dengue or malaria. It seemed like she simply had a cold. John and I argued with her. We thought it would be best if we skipped it and left the Taj Mahal trip for another time but she said that she felt good enough to ride in a car and go see a sight as “easy” as the Taj Mahal. What she was meaning to say was that the Taj Mahal was not like going to go see a remote island in the jungle. The Taj was just a building. It was “easy”. We’d go there, see it, walk around for a few minutes, and then leave. It ranked low on a scale of interactivity, so Lydi wasn’t worried that it would be too taxing for her even though she was sick. So we decided to hire a taxi rather than take the 2 hour train with the idea in mind that this would give us more control over Lydi’s experience.
The drive to Agra took about 3 hours. It was relatively comfortable and uneventful except that John had to ask the driver if they could have some “quiet time” so Lydi could sleep a little bit. We’d hired the driver before and he’d talked to John non-stop– literally–John never got a word or even a fleeting thought of his own in edge-wise. When we arrived in Agra, the driver took us near the entrance where camels lined the walkway, and dropped us off in a huff. He was upset because John had asked for silence. Abandoned, we walked through the entrance.
We passed by the camels rather than hiring a ride. Lydi didn’t feel like it. There was a lot of security outside the structure. Lydi and I had to get in a special “females only line” for ticketing. Inside at the actual Taj Mahal, we sat on the Princess Diana bench and took the requisite photos. We walked up to and around the giant structure. We looked at it from several angles. We went inside. It was a striking thing to see. Seriously. I would even say that it was worthy of all the praise that it gets. But our relationship with the giant mosque mostly ends there.
Outside, on the streets of India was where our adventure continued.
When we arrived outside the entrance gate, we looked around for our taxi in a maze of cars that looked just like the one we’d arrived in. John called our driver on the cell phone but no answer. He called again. And again. Still no answer. Lydi felt low. It was hot and humid. She had a fever. Several touts came over and started harassing us.
In most foreign countries, if this situation were to arise, we’d start talking to people in search of our driver or we’d negotiate with a new driver to find our way back to Delhi. But India is a strange place. Indians in India don’t often listen with their full attention, at least to us. They have their own agenda. I don’t like to generalize about groups of people, but knowing this fact about India and Indians has helped us cope more effectively with the cultural differences between us and them. Soliciting for something as obscure as a trip back to Delhi to particular apartment with a driver who was entirely new to us seemed completely out of the question. There was no way that we’d find such a thing and actually make it back home. John and I started trying to construct a Plan B.
We started walking just to escape from the touts. A small rickshaw driver with big eyes and graying hair had approached us to say that he knew where our taxi driver was. “Go get him them.” John told him. He walked after us and he was persistent. It seemed improbable that he knew our driver based on everything we thought we knew about the world. How would this little man know such a thing? In the United States, if 100 cars are parked along a busy street in a city, no one knows who’s driving which car. The drivers don’t chat with each other and if they do, they don’t share details of anything about their lives with the other drivers, let alone information that would identify three white tourists that look a lot like other white tourists entering and exiting one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world. But this man insisted. He said he knew where our driver was.
So we were eventually persuaded by the rickshaw driver. We got in the vehicle with him and he started driving. He drove away from all the cars. Further and further he took us into an area that was becoming more and more florid and rural. John insisted that we return to the Taj Mahal. The man nodded but kept going. Then John insisted forcefully, with a hand on the man’s shoulder.
The man turned the rickshaw around.
Back at the entrance to the Taj Mahal, we again decided to walk a little bit to avoid the touts and try to look less lost. Lydian felt horrible. She was sweating and tired. We noticed some hotel transportation circling around and resolved that if we couldn’t get ahold of our driver, we’d take one of the hotel vans to a hotel and then try to contact our vacation rental owner for help. Around that time, the big-eyed rickshaw driver returned to tell us again, that he knew the location of our taxi driver. He offered to tell us where he was for 20 Rupees. John said, “Bring him to us and I’ll pay you.”
The little man, to our surprise, disappeared, and then returned…with our taxi driver. John paid him, although somewhat reluctantly since his motives hardly seemed “pure”.
This is our memory of the Taj Mahal. In terms of touts and random human annoyances, it could not have been more overwhelming. From what I’ve read, the train might actually have been easier to navigate and it would’ve taken less time (only 2 hours one way) than a taxi (though there wouldn’t have been air conditioning). Lydian survived her cold and she was glad that we went and saw India’s most important tourist attraction even though she was sick. The Taj Mahal is located in it’s own kind of “jungle” replete with other tourists and touts (prey and predators).