As I am about to leave India, having been here for 2.5 weeks, I go with many impressions. I would like to share some of those; starting with the day I spent to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra:
“You have a driver for the day, who speaks English. Please stay with him at all times. He will get you to and through all the places. There is the new road to Agra, so the journey will be pleasant.” These were the words of advice from my colleague for my day trip from Delhi to Agra. I was taking a day off from a work trip to Delhi, for me to visit one of the World’s Wonders, the Taj Mahal and to see the Fatehpur Sikri.
For someone not that keen on waking too early, I was rather impressed with myself for waking, all by myself, at 04.29 the next morning, just a minute before my iPhone would have started to play one of my favourite songs to wake me. By 05.00hrs we set off; the journey was all right, I dozed a bit, day dreamed about life, but also viewed Delhi and its surroundings, and witnessed the world waking up.
When we got closer to Agra, my inner conversations were interrupted by road noises. I decided to be in the now and take in the setting. The dramatic traffic, with all its honking, kept on amazing me. Trucks, cars, rickshaws, auto (motorised) rickshaws, bicycles and pedestrians all swirling around each other. The colourful scenes were wonderful, from fruit stalls, to dressed-up horses, to painted carts, to school uniform dressed children. India, how colourful you are! I looked at the gorgeous women in their beautiful saris. How did they manage to look so immaculate whilst many of them would live in very poor circumstances with limited access to water and sanitation?
It wasn’t until we got closer to Agra that I realised the driver did not speak English. I wondered what that would mean for the rest of my day. I found out upon arrival in Agra, when the car stopped and I was introduced to ‘my’ guide Paul. “Excuse me?” I said, “I did not ask for a guide.” The driver just smiled at me. He said something about the fact that this was the arrangement of the day. Through their dynamic I sensed the driver had organised this guide, knowing full well he did not master English. Who was this Paul? How could I make sure I could trust him? Where would they take me? Having read all these stories about Indian men and their attitude to women, I started to feel uncomfortable. Yet, this guide had been organised by the driver with whom my colleague had been working for years, so – after a quick inner consultation with self – I told myself I should have some faith and decided to go along. “Well, okay then, but before we go to the Taj Mahal, I need the loo”, I said. I had seen signs indicating big hotel chains and had asked my driver earlier to stop at one of those so I could use the facilities. However, they took me to one of the local public facilities where I could practice my acrobatic exercises and not be fussy about hygiene. The day would affirm the job I have and emphasise the relevance of the organisation that I work for.
When the car stopped next, I was asked to get out. I had no idea where we were. I could not see the Taj as yet and as I got out of the car, the driver took off, leaving me standing there with my guide Paul! I reminded myself to remain calm and to have faith. We got into a cycle rickshaw and I had no idea where to, but there were plenty of other people heading in the same direction. When we got off, Paul told me to hand over my guidebook, my notebook and novel to some man watching a carton box. “What do you mean I have to give all that? I want to take keep this with me. And I want to use my guidebook when inside the Taj Mahal.” “No, you cannot”, Paul told me and pointed to a big billboard with forbidden signs for newspapers, books, notebooks, maps and so on. I felt an internal struggle inside of me. I managed to remain calm and not get angry about the situation I found myself in. I looked around for other foreigners and asked two tourists standing next to me whether they had been asked to leave their books behind? They looked puzzled and said they did not know, they had also just arrived. I looked around me, not knowing what to do. I had this guide, whom I had not asked for, was now asked to leave my books and I was not sure we were at the entrance of the Taj Mahal either. I told Paul I would not leave my books and such with just some man and a carton box. “Okay,” he said, “then we should deliver it to the locker room, but you will need to pay.” This was exactly what we did.
Next was the queue to the security check at what looked like an entrance, one line for foreigners, and another for locals. Paul told me to move into the foreigner line. We walked on through what I noticed now was the outer area of the Taj Mahal. I looked at the garden, the wall, the gate, and the dome and was struck by the beauty of it all. A sense of calm came over me. After I had taken a few pictures, Paul offered to take some photos of me. Another internal struggle came up: should I give him my camera? What if he were to run off with it? Again, I decided to trust him. Thankfully I did, because the lovely photos he took during the Taj Mahal visit are wonderful, with me in so many of them. He also knew the exact right spots to get the best framing, the best angles.
As we walked along, he told me the legend about Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal for his wife, and I started to mellow. At one point, he looked at me and said “are you happier now? You were very angry earlier on.” I felt a bit taken aback, a bit exposed as if I had been the ‘typical’ Western woman. After all, as I always say, I am one to embrace everything that is different. Yet, here I was, looking at the situation through my Western lenses, and reacting accordingly. I looked at him and smiled. I said I was fine, that I was grateful to have him as my guide and thanked him for the storytelling.
The Taj is beautiful and captivating. Paul pointed out the beautiful mosaics, the colours (showing where the gem stones used to be, but got stolen; many can now be found in the British Museum in London) and the various angles of looking at the Taj Mahal. Its symmetry is mesmerising. He made a point of telling me that my guidebook would not have had all the details he shared with me. And to be honest, I might indeed have missed quite a bit without him. I told him I was grateful for all he was sharing, to which he grinned and said, “Yes, madam, with all this knowledge, no need for college.”
After having spent considerable time we went back to the locker room, collected my belongings and got a cycle rickshaw to bring us back to the entrance. And, there he was, the driver, smiling and asking “Nice?”
What followed next was a whole other experience. Guide Paul told me we would go to a craft shop where they would show me how they make the painted carvings, like the ones in the Taj. My responsive self did react straight away: “Yeah, right and then you want me to buy stuff. I don’t need stuff, so let’s not go there.” “No, no, it is to show you their craftsmanship and you don’t need to buy anything.” “Mmh, I mumbled, okay then.” I felt I should continue to ‘go with the flow’ and give him the benefit of the doubt. They showed me their beautiful way of carving and invited me to the next area: The Shop. I ended up buying some small presents and bargained to what hopefully was a decent price. At the next shop, the same thing happened. “They will only show you beautiful paintings, scarves and jewellery. You don’t have to buy anything”, Paul told me again. Telling a woman not to buy some great earrings is like telling a child not to take anything in a sweet shop. Well, at least that is the way it felt to me. Why did I have myself persuaded? Why did I not refuse to go along? Why did I feel I would be unkind to him/them by not going along? On a positive note though, I now have a set of beautiful black (‘pearl of India’?) earrings, a matching necklace and a present for my daughter.
Back in the car, I was not sure Paul would come with us to Fatehpur Sikri. I looked at him with a quizzing face. He informed that this was the end of his being my guide, remained silent and seemed to wait for a reaction from me. I realised that we had not agreed a price that morning. But then, I had not asked for a guide in the first place. I decided to ask him straight out. “How much should I pay you?” “Whatever you think I have been worth, madam.” Oh my….. Inner tension built up, once again. What should I do? He had been good in guiding me through the Taj. In fact, his storytelling had been marvellous and his photo taking superb. I was definitely grateful. How much should I give him? I checked my guidebook, quickly reflected on the prices of things and imagined his income. Oh, if only I was here with someone else and we could discuss. I had to totally rely on myself.
I gave him money, but twice. Meaning? I first gave him what the guidebook recommended, to which he looked very disappointed. I took it back and gave him more. I think he then smiled – or perhaps it was just my hope to witness an appreciation. He was clearly a clever young man and when he stepped out of the car I could not help myself and said, “Do think about going to college. You are smart and you are young. Do you really want to be a guide for the rest of your life?”
Well, maybe he does and there is probably nothing wrong with that. Not everyone has to go the academic route. Furthermore, he was obviously making good money, because driving on I also realised that he would get a percentage at the shops where I did my purchases. Again, maybe nothing wrong with that.
When we hit the road back to Delhi, I was upbeat thinking we might make it in time for me to still have dinner with my colleague. No such luck. The driver thought it would be better to take the old road back to Delhi. I figured that out after we had been on a small road for a while, which I had thought would connect us back onto the new road. When I asked the driver, he said “faster madam” (he had some, but very limited English). Well, I guess, I had another Indian experience: the number of trucks I witnessed was quite something, the number of diversions beyond anything I have experienced before, the number of ramps extraordinary. And though I had asked to stop somewhere to get something to eat and to be able to have a ‘sanitary stop’, no such luck on the old road. Well, not for me. I witnessed plenty of road cafes and sanitary stops are basically anywhere, especially for men (you see them urinate all over the place), but I cannot eat that food and sorry, I don’t want to pee out there in the fields or against a wall. Oh, gosh, water professionals; do put the structural solutions in place!
The driver thought he did the right thing, driving me back over the old road. I reminded myself of exactly that when sitting in the back watching the day come to an end and the dark settling in. I listened to almost all my songs on Spotify, embracing mindfulness and dreaming my many life stories.
I did feel silly reflecting on that morning. Without realising, I had fallen into the typical tourist trap. Looking at it with hindsight I wondered how that happened. Nowadays, when traveling with friends, my family or colleagues I am never hassled, I am firm with taxis, I stay clear of tourist arrangements, like being led through the typical shops along the way to the next attraction. But on my own, I had tumbled into the set-up. How was it that I fell into it? Why could I not be firmer? I am an experienced traveller and normally quite vocal as a person. Yet in the dynamic with guide and driver I felt out of control and persuaded into doing things that I had not wanted to do. I realised I would have valued a travel companion.
But at the same time, I also recognised there was an advantage to traveling by myself. I had been able to take in everything uninterrupted, and at the same time was able to immerse myself into my inner reflections on life, work, family, relationships, etc., as part of the transition into my new decade.
Looking back on my day to Agra, I cherish the experience. I remember the challenges (and at times negative bits), but the positive moments dominate. I look at the beautiful photos of the day, remembering the captivating Taj Mahal and the enthralling Fatehpur Sikri. I wear my black earrings with great pleasure and smile when thinking of the guides and driver. Would I do it again? Certainly. Would I recommend the visit to others? Absolutely.