Goal 84 – Taj Mahal.

Well, where do I start with this goal? What an unusual, and incredibly full day and a half. This has been one of the most trying and difficult goals to arrange, and I have had many problems to overcome, and ultimately the achievement was a long way from being satisfactory. But the experience of trying to make it happen was quite extraordinary.

Yesterday morning I caught a taxi at 6am to Kathmandu airport, arriving just before 7. My flight wasn’t until 9.30, and I was hoping that by being early I might avoid the chaos that I had seen a couple of days earlier. There was already a huge line just to get into the airport, and at the door a few surly security officers were checking passports and tickets. Fortunately I had a paper print out of my ticket, otherwise you are required to get the laptop out and show them your confirmation email!

Inside I was one of the first in line for the Jet Airways check-in. I met one guy there who was on his third visit to the airport to try to get out, as every flight is so overbooked with passengers who have been delayed by the Icelandic volcano problems. Being early was looking like a good idea. I was eventually issued a seat number and a boarding pass.

The waiting room was packed, and incredibly unorganised, and at 9.30 there was still no sign of being able to board. Eventually we got on the plane, but were still on the tarmac at 11am, finally away over an hour and a half late, which meant I landed more than an hour late in Delhi.

Time in India was going to be incredibly tight! With only 24 hours available, public transport was never going to get me to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and back to Delhi in time for my London flight, and I had no intention of missing that, as another flight would be hard to organise, and a further financial disaster. So, Avhi at Himalayan Encounters in Nepal had arranged for a car and driver to meet me at the airport, and whisk me straight to Agra. It certainly wasn’t a cheap option, but was about the only way I was going to get to achieve my goal. My alternative was simply to sit around at the airport for a day and a night, and give up on the goal.

So as I emerged into the sweltering Delhi heat, I was met by Johari, who had a sign with my name on it, and we were on our way. Unfortunately the trip by car takes about five hours, and with the late arrival we only had about a 50:50 chance of getting to the Taj before closing time, depending upon the traffic.

The journey was quite an eye-opener! I had thought Kathmandu seemed chaotic, dirty and disorganised, but India has it beaten hands down! The roads are packed with cars, buses and trucks, and weaving through them are thousands of motorbikes, scooters and bicycles. Thrown into the mixture are hundreds of tuk-tuks coughing black fumes, rickshaws, tractors, and carts being pulled by horses, bulls, or camels. People walk through this speeding chaos to cross the road, and bus passengers climb up and down off bus roofs in the middle of busy intersections. Every second vehicle has a huge reminder painted on the back to use your horn, and every driver does so at every possible opportunity. It is so non-stop noisy!

Johari did his best in the crazy Indian traffic, and for a while we thought we might just make it, but we hit Agra pretty much at rush hour, and the sun was only about half an hour from setting. Eventually we had to admit that we weren’t going to get in, and Johari suggested we to another point across the river, where we would have a wonderful view just as the sun was setting. I suggested that if we weren’t going in, maybe a couple of beers might be in order, and we bought six monster bottles on the way.

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The Taj Mahal was very impressive, even from a distance. It is huge, and the people visible across the river, outside the building gave the place some scale – it really is quite breath-taking. The view was only slightly marred by the razor-wire fence in front of us, barring us from getting any nearer.

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As the sky darkened and an almost full moon rose, Johari pointed out a temple across the river, where bodies were being cremated, their ashes due to go into the holy river in front of us. There were three fires burning, and it was very atmospheric.

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But we only had about 20 minutes before darkness fell, and I felt a little disappointed that I was achieving this goal in such a poor fashion. For possibly the first time on my travels, it felt a little as if I was simply coming to look at something, so I can tick it off as seen on a list. The feeling was strengthened by the fact that afterwards we simply turned around to head back to Delhi, another five-hour drive through chaotic traffic, this time seeming even more dangerous in the dark.

But it was on the journey back that I really began to appreciate the uniqueness of the whole experience. It had cooled a little, and we drove with the windows wide open. Everywhere was packed with people, and on the outskirts of Agra the poverty was very apparent, some people ovbiously just living under tarps by the roadside, or in tiny mud huts.

But everywhere there were street carts cooking food, and selling all sorts of everything. The smells were wonderful, and basking in the warm glow of a couple of big Indian beers, I hung my head out of the window, and tried to absorb the whole atmosphere. I laughed with Johari, telling him I felt like a dog must feel, head out of the window sniffing at all the unusual smells. I’m imagine my tongue maybe lolled out a bit too. I had only had two bags of crisps since the tiny breakfast on the plane from Nepal.

I had nowhere planned to stay for the night, and asked if Johari had any cheap hotel suggestions, somewhere that would still be open after midnight when we got back to Delhi. Otherwise it was back to the airport for a night on the floor there, I told him. No need, he replied. We had got on really well on the journey, and he had already spoken to his wife, and told her he was bringing a guest home for the night. We wouldn’t be stopping for food either, dinner would be ready when we got to his house. I was very flattered.

Johari lives with his wife Indra, and two sons Pritesh and Nilesh, in a tiny one room house, which serves as bedroom, living room, dining room and kitchen all in one. There is a little bathroom too. Also visiting and staying the night was Johari’s brother and his son too. Indra made us a fantastic meal of several different curries and sauces, along with hot chapattis, and we finished the remaining beers. My bed for the night was on a small sofa at the end of the bed, and seven of us slept scattered around the small room.

Indra made us omlette for breakfast, and I tried to find the words to express my thanks to her and Johari for their wonderful hospitality. I truly felt so honoured to be taken in by them, a complete stranger breezing through, and to be so well looked after.

Johari came with me first by rickshaw to the metro, and from there to the bus station, where he put me on the right bus for the airport. Once again I tried to express my gratitude, and we said our goodbyes.

Gazing out the window of the bus I thought long and hard about the previous 24 hours, and was so grateful that I had decided to make the journey. As it turned out, the day had little to do with visiting the last remaining seventh wonder that I hadn’t yet seen. It was about meeting a new friend, and learning something of the true meaning of hospitality.

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