“The Taj Mahal has immense beauty, it is completely symmetrical and…” the tour guide’s voice trailed off as he turned around to excitedly show this impressive building and world heritage site, only to see 8 girls, draped over each other on the bench, leaning against the railings, head in arms and doing their best to stay awake, let alone listen and pay attention. Not the easiest group for this young and enthusiastic tour guide to deal with at 6am in the morning!
Why might you ask would these girls be so unenthusiastic about being in the presence of a World Wonder? Hung-over? Some of you may be thinking, but no, that was not the reason. The reason for our tragic state on this beautiful sunny, April morning was far more complex than simply having overindulged on one too many adult beverages the night before.
Let’s rewind about 24 hours back, to Sunday and where the journey began.
It was graduation morning, from the Vinyassa Yoga School in Rishikesh. We had been there just over a month now, learning, practicing and training to become yoga teachers and live the yogi lifestyle. It had been an intense 30+ days, an emotional roller-coaster. We had been tested physically and mentally, we had experienced and embraced 29 different souls all to become one. On that Sunday morning we stood there, faces shiny, beaming with pride and happiness, clutching our paper certificates declaring us official Yoga teachers. Everyone was both relieved, exhausted and a little sad for it to be over.
Yoga is all about balance, not just with the physical body but the mind and soul as well. It is about not hiding, about allowing every part of you to be present. To feel every emotion, to not be ashamed and to not block anything away. It’s opening up, discarding the ego aside and showing yourself for who you are. More often than not, it’s that scared little girl or boy inside of us that has been suppressed away by pain, society and expectations. We stunt our growth by not allowing us to be free, by chaining ourselves in an internal prison, which ironically only we have the key too. Yoga is about unlocking the door, and freeing your soul. But to do so is hard work. It takes courage and support. Facing your fears and yourself. That is exactly what we were taught to do. We had come into the course as 29 strangers, fearful of each other and ourselves, and we had left as family, confident in our abilities and in the trust we held with each other. But we were sleep deprived, slightly malnourished and in desperate need of a long hot bath and washing machine.
Towards the end of the trip a few of us posed the idea of visiting the Taj Mahal before we all took off in our separate directions. The Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, seeing all of these is high on my bucket list. Slight geography lesson, we were located in Rishikesh which is northern India, about an 8 hour drive away from Delhi. Taj Mahal is located another 3 hour drive south of Delhi. So, once this idea was planted and decided upon the logistics work began. How do we get 10 people (this was the number of people all keen to give it a go) and all their luggage to a location that was over 11 hour drive away?
Getting around India can be fairly easy if there’s just one of you, with minimal luggage and you don’t mind being crammed in sweaty vehicles with about 30 other sweaty men and women. It’s a little more difficult with a group of 10, especially on a Sunday. Typically most people leave Delhi for the weekends, so trains and buses are usually booked up going out of Delhi on a Friday and then the same coming back in on a Sunday, which was exactly when we wanted to go. Flying can be a cheaper and quicker alternative, but the closer you get to your date of departure, the higher the prices get, so it’s always best to book those in advance.
Luckily with a group effort and some investigating we managed to find a private bus to take us all down. We stumbled across this one night when we were out to dinner at one of our favourite restaurants ‘The Pyramid Café’. Which, positioned up on the hill overlooking Rishikesh was a delightful little retreat from the busy hectic streets and the chance to sit under garden lanterns and starlight to enjoy a cold juice or a delicious dinner. The café also ran a tour guide business, as with most places and people in India, they are always more than they appear. The owner of the business, was probably the most helpful Indian salesman we had dealt with so far. There is still a very big stigma against woman in the culture, especially western woman, this typically creates a very unhelpful attitude. This is a generalisation of course, but a pretty fair one. However, every now and then you do find a diamond in the rough. After a cool and refreshing watermelon juice one night, we had the bus booked, deposit paid and pick up arranged, in the most stress-less manner than any of our other enquiries had brought us. The next part to figure out was where to stay, we eventually decided on a place called the Leela Hotel, a 5 star luxurious paradise in the middle of some of the most poverty stricken streets in India – so the contradiction continues. For us, it was our reward, a treat for ourselves to live in luxury, even if just for 24 hours.
Due to the fact that all of us had already booked our flights home before we knew each other, we were all leaving at various times over the couple days after graduation, which was on the Sunday. Luckily we were all able to do a Taj Mahal trip on the Monday, providing it was the sunrise tour. Eight of the ten of our group were to do the tour, Ros and Mette decided just to come along for the ‘fancy hotel’ as we decided to call it. The plan was to leave the afternoon after graduation, around 3pm. Ride the bus all the way to our hotel in Delhi, where we had two rooms booked for that night, and a few more booked the next night for the rest of us. The sunrise tour of the Taj Mahal, was a 3am pick up from our hotel, we went with Maria Tours for this booking. We were basically going to pull the cheapskate card and have 10 of us hang out in 2 rooms for a few hours before our pick up. But after all, it’s India, so 5 people per room is actually seen as spacious instead of a cram. This was the plan in theory, but as with life, everything works well in theory.
So there we were, Sunday afternoon, bags packed, tired but excited and ready to depart. Saying teary goodbyes to our fellow yoga family, but secretly glad to be on our way. We walked the one mile to our pick up, hauling our numerous bags through the busy streets, wiping sweat off our foreheads and stopping to reminisce along the way, which was really just an excuse for a break. At the pick-up point we loaded our bags into a four wheel drive which took off up the hill, we then were able to do the last climb free of that burden. We walked uphill, up steps, up another hill and some more steps, along the rooftops of buildings and further up still, until eventually in the sweltering heat of the sun we made it up to the side of the mountain road where the bus was to meet us. We had all looked nice and presentable at the start of our ‘short’ journey to the bus, now we were airing out our pits, pushing hair back from our sticky brows, trying to huddle into the smallest bit of shade provided by the one small tree on the side of the road and doing our best to cool down and return our faces from beet red to their more natural colour.
Half an hour later the bus showed up.
But one thing India had taught us was that patience is necessary in life, and it is not good to get caught up and stressed in a schedule. You can’t predict when or where things will happen, they will happen when they happen and not a moment sooner. So by that point we were fairly used to the Indian standard of time-keeping and weren’t too phased by having to wait so long for our bus to arrive.
The first part of the journey was peaceful. Through Rajaji National Park, which is a Tiger sanctuary. We spotted no tigers, but, as we had all settled into our seats for a long ride, Mette casually pointed out, ‘oh look there’s an elephant’. It took us a second to process what she said, and then, considering none of us were from Africa and weren’t used to seeing these kind of animals walking the street, we all jumped out of our seats excitedly, and frantically peered out the window to spot him. He was on the other side of the river, walking along the bank just minding his own business, just a casual elephant.
We settled down once again for our long journey, interrupted only by the horns blaring and the occasional jolt as the bus slammed on its brakes to avoid hitting a motorcyclist who decided to travel on the wrong side of the road (not that there really is a ‘right side’ of the road in India). After a few hours of driving, we stopped for a refreshment break. The place look like an abandoned building amongst shacks made of corrugated iron and cardboard boxes. There were plastic lawn chairs scattered across the broken concrete in front of a dirty, smeared glass door. The fountain hadn’t run in years, despite its cracked stone and faded colour, it look as if it could have once been beautiful. We braved the toilets that weren’t much more than a hole in the floor covered in substances that I’d rather not describe, in a run-down wooden shed, filled with flies out back. While we were sitting out front in the plastic chairs, enjoying the ‘fresh’ Indian air and the peaceful sounds of hundreds of cars zooming past with their horns on, Rachel made an executive decision that since we were out of the alcohol-free Rishikesh area, we all deserved a beer. Unfortunately the owner of the restaurant didn’t sell beer, but his buddy knew a place that did. So, off this man rode on his motorcycle in search of a dozen beers for our group. Unsure who this man was or if he would come back, we gathered together money to pay him, hopeful that he would come through. We weren’t disappointed, 10 minutes later he came zooming back with a box full of 16oz Budweiser beers balancing across his lap. We cheers’d to completing our course, to over a month of an intense roller-coaster journey and to creating everlasting friendships.
8 hours later we finally made it to Delhi. The bus ride had taken a lot longer than any of us had expected. We had driven well into the night, with the only other stop at about 9pm to a service area on the side of the road, where we discovered, that even India has McDonalds. It was now almost 1am and we were still looking for our hotel. Unsure whether or not it actually existed we were started to get worried and a little cranky. But our driver, despite not really knowing where to go, and who had been driving for almost 12 hours, remained positive and optimistic. A little before 1:30am we pulled in front of the most luxurious hotel any of us had ever laid eyes on. Our door was opened by a man in pristine white gloves, and a smart uniform complete with gleaming gold buttons. He smiled a genuine smile that met his eyes as we clambered out and stood in awe. The doorways stretched up higher then we could reach, the crystal and gold seemed to glitter under the artificial lights that shone down from the ceiling, and everything looked so…clean.
We had to go through a security scan before entering, and once inside was met by another well dressed, employee who right away asked us for our tea or coffee order and led us to the white, soft and comfortable couches in the lobby. While the two people of our group who had actually booked a room for that night sorted out the checking in process, the rest of us gate crashed the lobby area. We looked extremely out of place drinking tea from petite cups of fine china, in our yoga pants, messy bus hair, tired/exhausted appearance and just a general level of filth that comes from over a month living in dirty conditions, and a questionable shower. But while the employees may have been secretly judging us, their faces and kindness did not show it. They were as helpful as they could be, and every request was met with a genuine smile.
Considering we now only had just over an hour till our next pick up, our plan of getting a few hours’ sleep was out the window. Instead, we just managed to get our Taj Mahal group of 8 all through the shower and ready to go for the next leg of our trip. We were fuelled up on the apples we found in the rooms (which was a welcomed meal, and nice to eat fresh fruit for the first time in a while…) and back down in the lobby waiting for another bus. The bus journey from the hotel was only a couple hours, and did provide us with space to stretch out and try and get a short power nap in, considering we hadn’t really slept all night. We picked up our young and full of energy tour guide just before reaching our destination. He climbed on the bus full of excitement and hope for a great morning tour, unfortunately he had no clue the state we were all in.
To give our group credit, everyone tried their best. But we were all sleep deprived and hungry, some even vomiting from sickness, but it really was a good tour and the place was beautiful. Going at sunrise was the best time because there are fewer people (not deserted, but by India standards it was) and it was a lot cooler, which is good, as the majority of the tour is walking around outside. Our tour guide knew all the good picture spots, and while he had to use some gentle persuasion to get us to stand and get our picture taken (had we been at full energy he would have been persuading us to leave these pic spots…) when we looked back on them we had to admit he was right and we were glad he managed to get us up there.
The tour went on for about 3 hours and we learned all about the Emperor Shah Jahan and how he built the building for his third and most favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, basically because she demanded it of him, she also said he was not to marry again after her death. How everything about the building and surrounding grounds is symmetrical, that is except for the tomb of the Emperor himself, which is placed directly next to his wife’s. Her tomb is the exact centre of the building and grounds, his is placed next to hers, but making it un-symmetrical. There is speculation as to why this was done, whether his son’s placed him there to spite him for the decades of work and all their money spent on a monument to his wife or whether it was to show that the artistic beauty of the female soul cannot be mirrored by their male counterparts, or maybe just that he was placed there so that he would always remain by his wife’s side and was willing to sacrifice his vision for that. The Emperor had in fact been in the process of building an exact replica of the Taj Mahal across the river, it was to be exactly the same but in black, and that was where he was to be buried, however complications, disagreements and lack of funding stopped this from happening, and therefore he was placed in the same building as his wife. You can see the foundations of where this would have been still today.
So it was a worthwhile tour to do, despite our pathetic state. However, after receiving pictures from Ros and Mette who were back in the hotel, in fluffy white dressing gowns and pampering themselves, we decided to opt out of going to the Agre Fort after the Taj Mahal and just go straight back to the hotel. Sometimes, self-pampering is necessary over learning, especially after the journey we had to get there!
Looking back now we recognise that, had we not just spent a month in the living conditions we had, then the whole plan for this trip may have gone a little bit differently. But, at the time, taking an overnight bus to see a building seemed like a reasonable thing to do. That is the great thing about the travellers mentality though, when you recognise something is worth it, you do whatever it takes to get there. Life is too short to worry about being comfortable all the time. Life is about pushing yourself and stepping outside of those comfort zones to see what you find and learn. That’s also what makes the reward of comfort so sweet. Had we not survived that crazy journey, then those cocktails we were sipping in the infinity pool that afternoon would just not have felt quite so deserved.