|Our Really Big Adventure|
| By the hundreds they
squatted, oblivious to the roar of my passing. I was seated comfortably
on the Taj Express, listening to my CD player that probably cost more than
all of their earthly possessions. The slums of Delhi are extensive and without
Almost as soon as our train had left Hazrat Nizamuddin Station it entered a different city that most visitors do not get, or want, to see. Over a third of Delhi residents live in its slums, a maze of unofficial buildings and shelters made out of whatever could be begged, borrowed or stolen. The plight of the millions that live here is made all the more difficult by areas of the slums being regularly bulldozed, removing the eyesore, only for it to appear elsewhere.
Every morning the residents of these tattered tents and shoddily erected brick cells make their way to the railway tracks for their morning ritual. We were served a vegetarian breakfast and a third of Delhi duly performed for us. The hardier and more foolhardy squatted on the rail gaining that vital couple of inches of clearance, but risking a sudden and bloody death in doing so.
Seeing this first hand brings a whole series of thoughts, doubts and questions into mind. Everything from the predictable How can this happen in a world where so many people have so much? to the banal Surely if 4 million people defecate on the railway tracks each day then it would just be a sewer? I suppose the sun dries it up pretty quick and in the rainy season the monsoons wash it away. I was later to suspect a much more disturbing solution to the waste management problem.
All of this led me to think about our attitude to beggars since we had arrived. Our unplanned policy has been to always say no, right from the onset and to never back down from this position. This approach has its ups and downs.
On the one hand it is impossible to give to everybody, so if you are going to give to the needy you have to make some value judgements. In order to do that you have to understand something about the plight of the person, which can be terribly distressing. To counteract the negative karma this behaviour creates one can give a lump sum to a charity- a much more constructive and less distressing way to give.
On the other hand, creating a blank and impenetrable front, that even the most appalling and pathetic cases cannot breach, turns you into a cold and selfish person. I do not just mean that other people think of you in a negative light, I mean that you actually change you become more callous and unsympathetic. This transformation does not sit well
Two and half-hours later we arrived in Agra. Virtually every tourist that comes to India visits this small, industrialised city to see the Taj Mahal. There are basically three things to see in this town: the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and Itimad-ud-Daulah (the Baby Taj) and besides these there is little to recommend it. Every guidebook warns of the ceaseless and aggressive touts and conmen. With this in mind combined with the fact that the Taj was a must do we had decided to do Agra in a single day, arriving in early from Delhi and leaving late to Vananasi.
In true Barbara and Caelen style we had resigned ourselves to getting ripped off and were aiming for damage limitation. A car for the day should cost about 350 rupees ($7), so we cunningly bargained our man down to 500. The whole experience was given an extra dollop of stress as we would be leaving our bags in our drivers car as we explored the monuments. I took the precaution of obviously noting the registration of the car. Our guide, Malik, despite being irritating, proved himself to be trustworthy.
The Red Fort was our first stop and although it was very worthwhile, it was not deeply thought provoking. It is huge, its architecture spans centuries and it is in good shape (unusual for India). If you are ever in Agra it is definitely worth the $6 and 2 hours it takes to see it.
From the moment that we first set eyes on the Taj Mahal we were enchanted. Carefully masked by an entrance gate, you are prevented from seeing it until the moment is right. From the instant we moved through this gate we were in awe of its brilliance, its inlaid marble shining to the point where it hurts. We walked slowly and in silence the length of the garden basking in the Tajs beauty made all the more breathtaking by the grandeur of its scale.
The Tajs story is one of love, built by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, in the 17th century to immortalise his favourite wife, who died giving birth to her 14th child. As you enter the tomb proper the splendour gives way to an eerie beauty. The tomb is cold and dark and voices reverberate ethereally, giving you a sense of the anguish the emperor must have felt at the loss of his true love. The experience was quite moving and we took our time absorbing the atmosphere.
Finishing the day we went to Itimad-ud-Daulah, said to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. As often with India, we were amazed at the lack of tourists. This time we had the monument virtually to ourselves. Itimad-ud-Daulah is much smaller than the Taj and where the Taj is beautiful Itimad-ud-Daulah is pretty.
Finally, less exhausted than we had anticipated,
we headed to the train station to wait (and wait) for the train to Varanasi.