Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Trains, Travails and the Taj
There was an air of tension and excitement as the light of day was fading…would we make it in time to see the Taj Mahal at the end of the day after our long, unexpected 24 hour India adventure? It all started in Varanasi after we finished concluded our sunrise boat excursion on the Ganges River. After free time we visited Sarnath in the afternoon where Buddha came to preach his message after reaching nirvana. Today, Sarnath is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists from around the world; we encountered groups of religious travelers from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand chanting, burning incense and making the five obligatory circumnavigations around the huge stupa with prayer beads in hand.
Then it was off to enjoy dinner at Sanjay’s family home before boarding the overnight train to Agra to see the Taj. Our travails started when we couldn’t find the smaller vehicles we had intended to hire to get across town to his neighborhood, which happened to be right next to the railroad station. All the smaller vehicles had been rented that day by the government for election monitoring so we ended up taking our bus along a circuitous route through the city on a Friday night full of traffic jams with wedding parties and their horse caravans and marching bands parading through the streets. This is definitely wedding season in India.
We finally made it to Sanjay’s family home much delayed but with plenty of time for our train knowing that it was delayed from 10 PM to midnight. As our bus was wending its way through the narrow neighborhood streets to their house there was a loud crashing sound on the top of the bus —apparently we pulled a low-hanging phone line down causing a raucous in the village. We found out later that once we got settled at Sanjay’s house, he had to go out and settle up with the police who were able to get him to pay up a little more than he otherwise might have been able to get away with since they knew he had a group of foreigners with deep pockets that he needed to attend to!
Sanjay’s family home was a delightful evening meal. Sanjay Ojha, who runs the office in Delhi, is from Varanasi. Today his brother lives in the family house with his wife and their two kids, and their mother. They had to borrow chairs, dinnerware and glasses from neighbors to accommodate this group of 16 travelers but we all managed to sit around one table in the large patio in the back. It was amazing what they were able to prepare for such a large group—apparently the women had been prepping for days, but they made sure that all the pappadam and variations of naan and puris (deep fried stuffed dough) were fresh made right out of the kitchen as we dined. Alcohol is not present in most traditional Indian homes, but after the long day and drive to get to this remote neighborhood outside Varanasi, they were gracious hosts accepting our request to bring our own wine into the home which we all appreciated.
Apparently, this small enclave outside Varanasi is a railroad town; Sanjay’s brother works for the railroad so he checked the train schedule and then we got the unfortunate news that ironically due to installation of a new technology to better manage train schedules, our train was going to be delayed 6 more hours! What to do? Nobody wanted to drive back into Varanasi to find a hotel for a few hours only to have to drive back out to the train station. And there was certainly no hotel on this side of the town that would be sufficient in size or comfort for a group of 16 American travelers. So, tired but in good spirits, the group all agreed that we would be best off to sleep in the bus (better than sprawling out in blankets on the train platform like most Indians do). Now, into our 10th day of the trip we would really got to know each other sleeping together in such close quarters; and with no bathroom facilities we managed to find a quiet back road where the boys went one direction and the girls another.
After about 5 hours of dozing off and on we made our way to the train station to board our first-class reserved cabins which were very comfortable, 4-person compartments with upper bunks and two lower seats that folded down so we had 4 beds in each with a locked door and curtain providing security and privacy from the corridor. We made our beds with the fresh linens and pillows provided by the train and snuggled into our sleeping bag liners we had made especially for our train journey to catch up on sleep. We slept in until Sanjay came around with a perfectly suitable makeshift breakfast of hard boiled eggs and biscuit cookies complimented by hot coffee and tea served by train stewards. There is no dining car on this train so Sanjay came up with the bright idea of calling a hotel down the line to prepare a delicious hot lunch and have it delivered to one of the station stops mid-day en route.
We figured by this point that we would not make our afternoon visit inside the Taj (but we did go at sunrise the next day as planned). But yet again, Sanjay had an idea to make up for that by going directly from the train station to see the Taj from across the river which is the best late afternoon view of the monument. Now the bus driver was doing his best to zip through traffic as we were all watching the sun setting through the windshield of the bus. The tension was palpable, hopes were high, and then Sanjay announced, “Watch on your right, through those trees, you’re about to see the Taj.” Sure enough, after all this adventure was coming to a close, and the sun was setting in Agra, we found ourselves standing on the dry river bank in the calm light of dusk with no other tourists around looking across at the skyline to see what we had come so far to experience and what Rabindranath Tagore described as ‘a tear-drop on the cheek of eternity.” Built by Shah Jahan for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died from giving birth to his 14th child, finally witnessing this symbol of deep love is profoundly moving.