I didn’t check the map before I booked my flight. I didn’t care, I just wanted the cheapest flight from Bangkok to India, and Delhi is what I found. How hard could it be to get around India anyway, Paul Thoroux did it in the 1970’s and look how far technology’s come since then. No matter what, I’d be able to figure something out.
After I booked my flight and researched the location of the Taj Mahal, I was ecstatic; only four hours away! I had always dreamed of visiting the Taj Mahal, but discovering that it was so close to Delhi made visiting it an actual possibility. Even better was the fact that I hadn’t made any plans. All I knew what that I needed to be in Darjeeling for a mountaineering course two days from my arrival in Delhi.
When I arrived in Delhi all I had planned was a visit to the train station so I could book a train to Agra. With my backpack slung over my shoulders I headed straight to the Delhi airport train. Before I knew it I was in Central Delhi dressed in my finest beachwear, a bright green set of boarding shorts and a t-shirt.
As I walked off the new and comfortable airport train out onto the dusty platform near the New Delhi Railway Station I finally realized I was in India, and I wasn’t prepared.
The tropical lush green climate of sunny warm Thailand was gone, everyone was wearing drab dark coloured pants and sweaters and the cool dry mid April weather was so dusty I felt like I was walking busy streets more suited for the desert setting of a Starwars movie.
There was so much going on that I couldn’t even process what I needed to do or where I needed to go. All I saw was people, cars, tuk tuks, animals, beggars, children, dust, and chaos. I was totally lost, and no one I knew had a clue where in the world I was.
Scared, excited, taking everything in, trying to problem solve and figure out my next move is what I love about traveling, and the moment I walked down the stairs of the airport train platform that’s exactly how I felt.
With no guidebooks, smart phone, or research, all I knew was that I was in New Delhi, India and needed to get to Agra. Thinking back to my trip across Asia on the Trans-Siberian, taking the train was my best bet for a smooth ride there.
I was wrong. As I walked through the pandemonium of the train station, where it seemed entire families were living, I wasn’t very optimistic. Stepping over sleeping mothers wrapped like corn husks in colourful shawls their children snugged in tight, I headed towards the ticket booth as it neared 5 o’clock.
I stood in what appeared to be a line listening to the sounds of the people that hung over the room like rain cloud, their voices filling the station like the pitter patter of a light rain on a warm summer day.
“No train to Agra,” the ticket attendant reasoned in his thick Indian accent, “tomorrow is better for you”. Problem was I didn’t have until tomorrow, I needed to get to Agra that night. As I stepped out of line wondering what to do next I saw an English sign leading English tourists to a small room at the side of the station.
Inside, an English couple sat in front of a solid wood desk talking to an attendant. Turns out they were in the same predicament as me. After some discussion they decided to take the train the following day where, to my disappointment, I could only opt in for the 7:30pm bus.
A few minutes after discussing the bus option, armed with a set price to offer a tuk tuk driver, I set out to find my ride and was soon on my way to somewhere. As the sun started to set over the city the tuk tuk rumbled through the streets of Delhi. Freezing in the back I managed to throw on a sweater and sometime later, as the dust and darkness crept closer, I arrived at the bus station.
There was nothing there. The bus station was a big empty parking lot with a few overhangs and a small building with toilets. It sat next to an apartment building, and between the two was a garbage dump where the shanties of India’s poorest stood.
After paying the tuk tuk driver I asked for the bus to Agra, and was sent to a platform at the back of the parking lot. Thankfully, I was early, and had time to change out of my summer clothes into something more appropriate for the early spring weather.
After some time, a man came to sell tickets from a small box on the platform where the Agra bus was slated to depart. Unfortunately I ended up being ripped off, first paying double the price of a single ticket, then having to return to him several times because he gave me the wrong change. It took me several attempts to get most of my money back, and in the end the attendant kept 2 rupees and I cut my losses.
When the bus finally arrived it was well past dark. On the nearly four hour drive we stopped for a snack and coffee at a roadside eatery before we arrived in Agra nearing midnight.
Stepping off the bus onto the dirt parking lot in a strange dark city at night isn’t the best first impression. Seemingly left to fate, I asked a tuk tuk driver to take me to the hotel area near the Taj Mahal. For all I knew, during the drive, he could have been taking me anywhere.
Thankfully, we arrived where I had asked and I managed to find a room for $2 a night. As I walked up the rickety red stairs that squeaked and squawked with every step, I new I wasn’t in for a night of luxury.
When I finally dropped face down on the double bed in my room I was pleasantly surprised when the sheets moved to reveal that the entire bed was covered in mouse droppings. Yeah, the entire bed was covered in mouse sh*t. So I did what any normal traveler would do with a $2 room in an unkown city at 1am in the morning, I rolled onto my back, closed my eyes, and slept until 5 am.
When I woke up, I washed my face in the communal sink located in the hallway and headed to the Taj Mahal for sunrise. Recalling the night before I realized I had made it, and what an adventure to get there!
In the end I would see the Taj Mahal, meet an incredible artist, and see several of Agra’s most important sites. It was the beginning of the most epic month of my life, and as I walked back from the Taj, I realized I was in for another travel adventure. Mission two: get to Darjeeling, a city located on the complete opposite side of the country 1, 427km away, and the location of the Himalayan mountaineering course I was traveling to India for.
Live life, travel like a local, and learn about the world; you wont regret it.
Have you ever had an adventurous travel experience that opened your eyes to a new country?