All right, time to talk about driving in India. Sure there are the Germans with their autobahn, the Italians careening across the Riviera, the French around the Arc, the Egyptians along the Corniche, and the Asians with their motorbikes, scooters, and tuk-tuks; but the Indians, this is taken to a whole different level. This is like playing a real life version of speed-racer. Not only do you try to go as fast as you can, you are driving on a road under constant construction, built for some bygone era, surrounded by livestock, pedestrians, and every imaginable contraption with an engine. Lane markers, signs, and lights are merely decorative. Traffic police, with that deer in headlights please don’t run me over quality, frantically wave and gesture at major intersections. This is not for the faint at heart.
We initially started our journey to Agra clamoring for the front seat – best view, most comfortable position. This rapidly became know as the "most likely place to die in a wreck" seat. Our driver, bless his heart, had nerves of steel, and the inner peace of Buddha. Like sitting in the front row of an IMAX, India came at you, over and around you, faster than you can say "I’m about to throw up my curry chicken". Trucks brightly painted with every imaginable color swarming with passengers packed onto the sides, roof, and hood, lurch aggressively towards you (on the freaking highway, on all the freaking lanes – I mean ALL the lanes), only to swerve at the last moment, escaping sudden death by just the smallest mark of the yardstick. Does it count as a win in the game of chicken if you wet yourself? Each automobile has an elaborate dashboard alter for protection. I think we all secretly added a Ganesh to our driver’s display just to aid our own salvation.
A drive that would normally take 2 hours took almost 5. Exiting the car, we touched Ganesh’s head, kissed the ground, and headed for the bar.
I could write forever just about the hotels of this journey. Magnificent, spectacular, almost ridiculous in opulence, the Maharajas would be proud. I had read about the Taj and Oberoi hotels (I’m a bit of a hotel junkie) before the trip, but you really have to see these places to believe them. No expense is spared. No request too extravagant. And the staff …the staff …impeccable. The Oberoi Amarvilas overlooks the Taj Mahal. We arrived in the early evening with the glorious dome capturing the setting sun. The hotel is positioned so the rooms face this absurdly lavish pool beyond which is a stage with the Taj Mahal as the backdrop. At sunset it’s like one of those bad oil paintings – color too vivid, detail too real – but this actually is real, it’s absolutely breathtaking. Anyway, more on the Taj Mahal tomorrow.
Earlier in the day we stopped at Agra Fort, a huge red sandstone complex with exquisite marble palaces. This place has all sorts of nooks and crannies that are usually closed off to tourists. This is one place where a good guide and some well placed rupees turns wow into WOW!
at 6:59 PM