Before I came to India, I had checked the weather online. It said that the weather condition for Delhi was "smoke." This didn't make any sense to me. Smoke isn't a weather condition. Maybe they're having bad forest fires, I thought. When we arrived at the airport, I started squinting, trying to figure out if my eyes were tricking me or if there was a haze inside the airport. There was. I figured out what they meant by a weather condition of smoke. Breathing wasn't so great, and there was nowhere we could go to avoid it and nothing we could do about it. However, you kind of get used to it after a while. It was good, because we had to focus on finding our driver. We called the tour company, Delhi Magic, from the airport to make sure we knew where to be to get our ride. The "pay phones" at the airport are not your standard pay phones. There is a guy there whose job is to help you dial and to take your money. You don't pay up front. You call, and at the end, a little receipt prints out. It's a cute system in an economy where people need jobs. Also for people who need jobs, there was a guy driving around a floor sweeper machine. He reminded me of a zamboni driver, driving up and back, up and back. As we were amused by watching the people, they were being amused by us. We were definitely getting stares. At the time, we thought that they were just amazed that we were in t-shirt as they were all in coats, hats, scarves, and other winter gear. It really wasn't that cold out- maybe in the low 60s or something, but I guess they aren't used to it, whereas we're already getting snow.
After plenty of people-watching, we met our driver. All of our stuff got piled into a pretty nice car- American nice, not just Indian nice, and we were on our way to Agra. On the way there, we saw a lot of the reason that the weather condition is smoke. There were people with fires all over the place. They were burning tires, dung, trash, and pretty much anything they could get their hands on. The trash is especially abundant. We couldn't have been a mile away from the airport when I saw some cows under an overpass eating the trash. The ride to Agra was an experience in of itself. We passed a wide variety of homes, from straw huts and houses that looked like overturned half-pipes that were too short for a person to stand in to some apartment buildings. We also saw a plethora of wildlife from monkeys and camels to the ubiquitous cow. (To be fair, the cows mostly had humps and were not the same kind of cows I typically see in the US, so I'm still entitled to get excited about them.) There was even a wide variety of buildings- we passed lots of temples and lots of large schools, but also fields with people working in them. Eventually, there was even variety in the weather condition. We got far enough away from Delhi that the haze disappeared. At some point, we stopped for breakfast, which was great, because I was hungry. We had cooked food only- paratha, some sort of curried food, and chai tea- no Delhi Belly here! On the way out, we noticed a boy with some snakes in the parking lot. I know that you're not supposed to give to kids like that because it encourages them to not go to school so that they make money off of tourists instead and that the snakes can be dangerous, but he was sitting there looking at us. I caved and we got some pictures with him and the snake. Also, he let me hold the cobra, which was kind of cool. By the time we were halfway there, I think I had picked up on some of the traffic rules. Basically, you go in the left lane and pass in the right. Nobody there uses turn signals at all. When you want to pass, you just honk a lot to let them know you're going to be passing. Of course, that assumes you can pass. At one point, we drove by a Jain temple where somebody important was going to be speaking. The traffic was stopped. But, since everybody wanted to pass, everybody was in the right lane, honking at everybody else while nobody was moving. Going slow did give us an opportunity to check out the people though. There were a lot of people there, some even camping out at the temple- religious tailgaiting. The one thing that was still striking me as amazing was the utter squalor that these people were making do with. There was trash all over the ground and it seemed like half of everybody was walking barefoot in the trash. Eventually we made it to the city of Agra, where we were also going slowly enough to see people. Unfortunately, they could also see us. At every intersection we stopped at, women with babies were coming up to our car window and knocking on it, begging for money to feed their babies with. I wasn't entirely sure if these women actually needed the money (and if the money would help or hurt if they did), or were just trying to take advantage of tourists, so we skipped giving the handouts. We did stop briefly to pick up our Agra guide. Shortly after, we found ourselves at the edge of the no-car zone. In order to keep the Taj Mahal pollution-free, emissive vehicles are not allowed within a certain distance of the site. Also, it means that there are plenty of horse carriage drivers, tram drivers, and other such people who are able to have jobs.
The best way I can think of to describe the Taj is: The Taj Mahal is one of the seven wonders of the modern world for good reason. My amazement and wonder started right at the entrance gate. The entrance gate is ornately carved, absolutely gorgeous, and even contains the first optical illusion- you'll have to go yourself to find out what it is. From there, we could see the Taj gardens, which are reasonably impressive, and had a great view of the Taj itself. Our guide gave us the general introduction- an Indian king built this at the request of his wife. Apparently, he loved her much MUCH more than either of his other two wives or 350 concubines. While telling us the stories, it was adorable that our guide felt the need to constantly talk about "siestas," as if that was showing off his fabulous English. We took the requisite pictures, and went up close, although we did take more pictures about every 5 seconds as were were doing so. Up close, the Taj is even more impressive. Every inch of the building is completely covered with amazing decorations. Some of the decorations are 'just' carvings in the marble. Unlike Italian marble, the marble used to make the Taj is not soft and porous. While this makes it more robust so that it lasts longer, it also makes it more robust and difficult to carve. By hand. Without electric tools. In extreme detail. All day long for years. Of course, the carvings were the less impressive decorations. The real intricacy was in the inlay. Every little flower and stem was made from real gemstones, carved into the perfect shapes and inserted into a perfect-sized hole that was carved into the stone. All of it was smooth and flat. The exactitude of the artwork was simply astounding. When we got right up to the Taj, we had to either take off our shoes or put booties on over our shoes. (We did the latter as our guide had brought booties for us.) I'm not sure if that was a respect thing or a no damage thing, but if it keeps the Taj in better condition for future generations, great. Also, it is illegal to use cameras and flashlights on the interior of the Taj so that it is not damaged. However, our guide made sure to let us know that while it is illegal, plenty of people do take pictures- even with flash. Additionally, all of the guides bring in pen lights because they still act as flashlights, but don't get caught by security. The reason they all bring in pen lights is to show off the amazing cornalium gem. This gemstone is orange and very beautiful in the regular sunlight. However, in the dark, when you put a flashlight up to a small part of it, the whole piece glows like fire. None of the other gemstones had that property and it was quite breathtaking to see. At some point, he let us wander a bit on our own. We got to see one of the side buildings. Due to the symmetrical way the Taj was built, both were the same and apparently seeing one was sufficient. The one we looked at had a sign telling us the weather- not sure if that's on the other side though. We also got a view of the river below. The contrast was definitely interesting. Up where we were, there was sparkling, intricately carved and inlaid marble being visited by a bunch of tourists. The only "litter" was all of the sequins all over the ground left behind from the gorgeous saris worn by the local tourits. Below was dirty river lined with trash where some natives were doing their laundry. The stark difference provided some perspective.
After the Taj, we went to lunch at the Mughal Sheraton hotel, as that was what was included in our tour. The food was ok, although definitely toned down for tourists' taste buds. The buffet included some Indian food, but also "barbecue," cheese, and Chinese food. We also stopped at a shop that sold inlaid marble items. The shpiel started with the sales guy showing us how they do the inlay. A bunch of artists were actually sitting there, grinding away the gemstones, making them perfectly shaped. One was listening to his mp3 player as he worked- just as tradition dictates?. Another artist was carving the marble. The holes in the marble have to be carved exactly the same size as the gemstones. Then, a glue is put into the hole and the gemstone fastened. The glue recipe is supposedly only known by the descendants of the people who did the inlay on the Taj. Of course, that's about 850 people today. Somehow I don't think the secret is quite as closely guarded as they say it is. After the whole design is completed, the piece is smoothed and polished. I was actually quite impressed with the process and with how long it must take to make each piece. When we entered the store, the sales guy explained that the price of the piece is determined by the amount of inlay and type (aka labor) more than the size of the piece (materials). They had everything from tiny souvenir elephants to complete dining room tables. I wanted something, but everything was so expensive, and they didn't seem to want to negotiate enough. Phil bought something, and we moved on.
Our next stop was the Red Fort. This fort was built by the same guy who built the Taj. Instead of being made of marble, it was built out of red sandstone, which is why it's called the RED fort. The Shah who built it was actually imprisoned there by his son for the end part of his life. To be fair, it's not a bad place to be imprisoned. From there, he had a great view of his beloved Taj Mahal. Plus, the whole place is gorgeous. Like the Taj, it is pretty intricately carved with symbols of many different religions. It had carpets for doors, which matched the floors and ceilings. There was even a room with hollow walls that made the room cool in summer and warm in winter. If I had to be locked up somewhere, I might choose someplace like that.
We didn't really have time for much after the fort, as we were due back in Delhi for the night, so we left the guide and rode back. Mostly, we slept on the ride. I did wake up when we passed the Jain temple again. It was lit up like Vegas, with flashing lights all over the place. Also, we got a good view of the people on the side of the road with their fires again, creating the thick haze that makes "smoke" a weather condition. We got to our hotel, which had AC (which we didn't need) and hot water (which felt incredibly great). It didn't have heat, because I guess they don't generally need it, but it was chilly enough to pile on the blankets. Before bed, we did ask the guy at the front desk to recommend some place for dinner. He chose some place a couple of blocks away, so off we went. The restaurant seemed pretty ok, and was playing Indian music when we went in. Specifically- they were playing one of my sister's faves. They quickly changed to American music, which saddened me a bit. I was also a little disappointed when ordering. My usual method, asking "What's your favorite?" didn't go well. The guy just picked the most expensive thing on the menu- thali. Phil got it, but I struggled to get the guy to pick just one item (thali is a collection of little items). Eventually, we ordered. The food was pretty good, although we weren't able to finish it. I felt bad not eating it all, but that just wasn't happening. I went to bed stuffed.