Reach for the Sky

A photo of the beautiful Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal

One of the more memorable days on the trip was our visit to the Taj Mahal. We were back at the Taj Palace Hotel in Delhi for a couple of nights before setting off for a week in Goa. Aziz had gone back to Mumbai and so his Delhi based assistant, Ash, was looking after us.

One night, over a few beers in the hotel bar; well actually, it was quite a lot of beers; Well I say a lot but actually…… OK, we were tanked at the time, but it was 3:00 am in the morning, we decided to visit the Taj Mahal at Agra. Ash told us that it was about 250 miles away and then insisted on driving us there himself the very next morning. In our merry state, we happily agreed before realising that it was the next morning already.

Concerned for Ash, who had also had quite a few, I suggested that we should wait until the following day when he had had a chance to sober up. But he waved our protests away saying that driving while under the influence was the only way to drive in India. Little did we know how true that was.

So it was that the four of us piled unsteadily into Ash’s 4 x 4 at 6:30 am. Now, at that time in the morning, the streets of Delhi are already crowded with rickshaws, pedalled powered trishaws, beggars and the usual strings of cattle exercising their sacred right to the freedom of the city.

We were a bit concerned at Ash’s driving style, particularly his habit of ignoring red lights, but in our still inebriated state, his explanation that it was dangerous to stop because of the beggars seemed reasonable. So, we gritted our teeth and prayed things would settle down once we got on the highway. Like all prayers, that turned out to be wishful thinking!

In India, thanks to years of economic support from the west, the major roads are well made and nearly always dual carriageways. The problem is that even the motorways are not restricted to cars. They are also used by bullock carts, tractors, and peasants carrying goods to market on their heads. Just about everyone and anything that wants to get from A to B. Imagine the chaos that would occur if farmers were allowed to drive herds of cattle up the M1 during rush hour and, you will have some idea of the effect.

Consequently, any journey by car ends up being a sequence of extreme acceleration, followed by tyre squealing braking, a swerve and then another bout of stomach-churning acceleration. Most vehicles are also pretty old and don’t have indicators or rearview mirrors. So the locals have adopted the practice of honking their horns every time they overtake, which, given the huge variety in traffic speed is about every 15 seconds. As a rule, you should, therefore, avoid taking a car journey in India, especially if you are suffering a hangover and feeling decidedly fragile. You should also wear earplugs.

The other practice Indian drivers have, which is even scarier, is crossing over to the opposite carriageway when their own is blocked. You often end up driving towards a bus or lorry coming head-on from the opposite direction. The locals have developed a strategy for dealing with this. They flash their lights and honk their horns until the other vehicle swerves out of the way. Occasionally it even works, but often, neither driver gives way, and the carriageway is, therefore, littered with wrecks and even the odd corpse. Never that of a dead cow though. That would be an unforgivable sin!

Ash had this Indian version of chicken down to a fine art. Even to the extent that whilst approaching an oncoming truck at a relative velocity of 140 mph, he would turn his head around to us in the back seats and declare. ” Here, you see the problem with Indian drivers. They are stupid. They just don’t seem to realise the danger when they get behind the wheel. Bloody Indians!”

I resisted the temptation to point out that he might, just possibly, be guilty of the same indiscretion. Instead, I lay down on the back seat and tried to conquer my terror by concentrating on just how rough I felt. This left limited mental resource available to focus on my inevitable doom. It was a close call which was the lesser evil.

Some four hours later, a quivering Apsey party arrived at Agra and parked at the approach to the Taj Mahal. On emerging, white-faced and more than a little nauseous, from the CRV, we were immediately surrounded by the usual horde of beggars. They seemed strangely convinced that we would be really interested in observing their various mutilations, deformities and skin diseases at close range.

Fortunately, Mick had learnt his lesson on the train journey around Rajasthan and stood resolutely looking up at the sky with his arms crossed over his chest as we had taught him. That trick works with dogs as well, with the single exception of overly affectionate leg shagging Labradors who only have one thing on their minds. Nothing puts them off short of a kick to the cojones.

Picture of a Green Tuk-Tuk
Tuk Tuk

The final journey up to the Taj is by way of a Tuk-Tuk. These are 3-seater; open-sided, bubble cars with three wheels and a two-stroke engine. At the gate, Ash organised a guide, and we passed through the outer wall into the Persian gardens and the lake of mirrors.

According to our guide, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the Taj Mahal, in memory of his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after her death in 1632. As she died giving birth to their 14th child, he must have loved her very much indeed. Either that or she was exceptionally beautiful, and he was a randy bastard.

The downside was that we had arrived on a Sunday, which is the one day of the week when the locals are free to visit. It was packed, and we were carried along in a raging river of humanity towards the narrow archway that leads into the main building which houses the tomb of Shah Jehan’s beloved.

If you have ever seen what happens when a wide river passes through a narrow gorge, you will have some idea of the effect. Ten thousand people trying to get through a doorway designed for three at most. At least Mick and I were head and shoulders above the crowd but once captured by the flow there is no turning back, and we were carried headlong like a cork in a torrent.

At first, it was terrifying, but one can only take so much terror. After a while, Mick and I simply gave in to the absurdity of our position, and we both found ourselves laughing out loud in semi-hysterical panic. Our fellow pilgrims probably thought we were mad. They were probably right.

Inside, the tomb is just as incredible as outside. Silver carvings and gemstones set in mirrored marble, flowing around a central plinth and crypt beneath a high dome. Not that you get much chance to admire it, as you struggle to keep your footing whilst taking penguin steps forward in the crowd.

Because of the numbers, the authorities have adopted a one-way traffic system that moves the crowds through the building before erupting out the other side in a good approximation of a human waterfall. Even when, after an hour trapped with our arms pressed to our sides by the crush, we did eventually pop out the other door, there was little time to pause for reflection.

You never see the rear of the building in the travel books, but if anything, the view is even more spectacular than the entrance. As you look down over the wide, graceful, and tree-lined Yamuna River, on the opposite bank are the ruins of what was originally intended to be the mirror image of the Taj Mahal. The building was started but never completed. Originally, it was going to be constructed of Black Marble and would have been the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. It would have made an incredible counterpoint to the translucent white marble of the Taj.

View of the Taj Mahal from the river side.
The Taj Mahal from the River

We sat in the shadow of the Taj for over an hour, watching the sun go down over the river and distant city of Agra; listening to Mick lecturing the learned guides on the real history of India, before making our way back out through the main gates. Back in the courtyard, we were at once surrounded by the usual horde of beggars and street salesman, offering everything from dubious smelling chapattis to supposedly unspoiled twelve-year old virgins, “Especially for you Sahibs”.

Naturally, Ravi and I ignored them, but Mick was so enraptured by the day that he decided to buy a souvenir T-shirt. After some negotiation, he beat the trader down to 200 Rupees for one shirt before finally agreeing on a special offer of two for 500. He can be so dumb sometimes.

At this point, I need to digress to explain a little about the Indian Currency. The basic unit is the Rupee (R), which is divided into 100 paise. Banknotes start at R5 and go up to R1000. One-pound sterling is worth approximately R100. On the streets R10 will buy you a can of coke, R100 a meal for four people and R500 (£5/$7) will get you a car and driver for the whole day with all-night access to his fifteen-year-old daughter thrown in gratis.

The mistake we had made was in allowing Ravi to organise changing our pounds into Rupees to get a better exchange rate. Turned out that one of his many Indian uncles is a bank manager and he could, therefore, get us a great deal. We sent him off to a local Delhi bank armed with some £2,000 in cash in a small paper bag, and he came back with a suitcase of small denomination Rupee notes. To make matters worse, Indian banks have an annoying habit of stapling the notes together in bundles of R2000. They don’t just use one staple but about twenty in every bundle, and it is a bitch to get them out to separate the individual notes. So, for every £25 sterling that you carry, you end with a solid three-inch bundle of small value Rupee notes and any number of broken and bleeding fingernails.

Now, the forward-thinking traveller naturally spends the previous evening patiently removing staples from the money he intends to carry with him the next day and secretes smaller bundles of cash around his pockets.

Unfortunately, Mick is not your typical forward-thinking traveller. His view is that forward planning is something best done in hindsight. So it was, that when he reached into his pocket to pay for his purchases, he pulled out the equivalent of twelve months takings for the average beggar, all tightly and irrevocably stapled together.

Within seconds, Mick was surrounded by some fifty beggars, all pressing forward to take advantage of this easy mark that serendipity was so generously offering to them. Mick struggled for a few moments to split out the R500 he needed to complete the transaction, before deciding that he needed to remove his wad from the grasping hands of the surrounding beggars.

Indian Money
Mick’s Wad

Being very tall he took the obvious, well it seemed obvious to him I suppose, course of raising his stash high above his head beyond their reach whilst at the same time shouting, Garbo fashion, “For F***’s sake leave me alone, I need space to think.”

As it turned out this was precisely the wrong tactic to adopt as it enabled the beggars at the back of the crowd to see what all the commotion was about and dozens more quickly started to arrive from all parts of the complex to claim their share of the proffered prize, thus adding to the general confusion.  If you have ever seen a mob of seagulls fighting over a dropped fish supper on Brighton Beach you will get the picture.

By now, Ravi and I were halfway back to our carriage, but, alerted by the shouts behind us we looked around just in time to observe Mick fast disappearing beneath a mass of brown-skinned, loin clothed, mutilated bodies. All that remained was his hand reaching out of the morass, like the Lady of the Lake grasping Excalibur, and a mournful voice screaming, “Leave me alone.”

Realising his predicament, Ravi and I raced back and with the judicious use of some well-placed elbows, boots and whatever other extremities we had available, extracted him from the melee and frog marched him off to the Tuk-Tuk with the excited pack of beggars following close behind.

Unfortunately, the mob was now stimulated to a fever pitch, and so we had to fight a running battle all the way back to the vehicle. Even when we clambered on-board, it still did not end as many of the baying mass tried to follow us inside, and those that couldn’t climbed on to the roof, the bonnet, the boot and anywhere else that offered sufficient purchase to enable them to thrust their hands inside in the hope of a handout.

In desperation, I seized the wad of notes from Mick’s shaking hand, ripped the remaining staples out from the wad and threw the notes out the side like confetti in the wind. As the seagulls deserted the car and followed the bounty to the ground, I screamed at the driver to “Go, go, go” and we made our escape.

We left Agra and the Taj Mahal just as the sun went down, to make the long journey back to Delhi and the relative safety of the hotel. It was with a deep sense of relief that we discovered that, darkness having fallen, the slow-moving traffic had all but disappeared home to their farms, huts or whatever and only real vehicles were on the road. We sat back to enjoy the journey.

The roads were still a little busy, so at around the halfway mark, we stopped off at a roadside diner to get a bite to eat and have a beer. Oops! Big mistake! Ravi and Mick had food poisoning for the next three days, but my beer was OK (that’s the benefit of a policy of only consuming liquid-bread in foreign climes,) so I didn’t suffer.

The best bit was on the way out when we exited by the wrong door and had to make our way back to the car park through some poorly lit gardens. No problem until we came across a three-foot-high privet hedge blocking our way. Now a small hedge is not a problem for someone of Mick’s height, so he nimbly vaulted over it. Unfortunately for Mick, whilst a three-foot fencee is not a problem, an eight-foot drop the other side is. He was in somewhat of a state when we finally pulled him out, but it could have been worse. It could have been Ravi or me!

So, suitably chastened, we once more boarded the Ash express. Once the foot and hoof traffic has left the roads, the powered vehicles assume that it is now safe to put their foot down and it becomes even more dangerous. At one point we hit a traffic jam caused by a petrol tanker that had lost its personal game of Indian Chicken and was now burning merrily on the central carriageway.

A crashed Petrol Tanker in flames
Crashed Petrol Tanker

As usual, cars were switching carriageways to get around the obstruction, and this only made things worse as the inevitable collisions occurred, adding to the chaos. We resigned ourselves to a long wait, but Ash had other ideas.

With a final curse at the “Bloody Idiot Indian drivers,” he swung the 4 x 4 off the road and set off across the fields. Three wheat fields, a small stream and a nightmare drive through the back-gardens of a peasant village, complete with death-wish chickens later, we re-joined the highway bedecked with a washing line and several pieces of a broken fence on our front fender. To this day, I do not understand how no one was killed, but Ash took it all in his stride. He thought our terrified expressions indicated admiration of his driving skills.

So it was that we arrived back at our hotel at 3:00 am in the morning; tired, terrified, traumatised, and yet curiously exhilarated. Fortuitously, the bar was still serving, and the best of the trip was yet to come, but that’s another story.

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