On my first trip to India I had the chance to visit friends living down in the southern part and see parts of Mumbai and Coimbatore. Several years later while visiting all Seven Wonders of the World I finally made it back to India, this time traveling with one of my girlfriends to explore more of the northern region. Since we were on a tight schedule we decided to hire a private car to drive us around for three days instead of dealing with public transit. This was much cheaper than we anticipated (about $40 a day) and our driver was extremely helpful in finding places to eat, shortcutting entrance lines, and providing a detailed history about each place we visited. Although we experienced first-hand the chaotic Indian traffic, we did so from the comfort of an air conditioned car and made it to Agra in about 3 and a half hours. There is a Delhi to Agra express train that is supposed to take only 2 hours, but the reviews of the stagnant heat and pungent odors on the train dissuaded us from using public transit. When all was said and done, the added convenience of having door to door delivery with the car instead of searching for a rickshaw to take us to and from the train stations was well worth the relatively low added cost of the car.
Our driver Rahul was a wealth of knowledge and told us the wonderful story about how the Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century as a memorial for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. He also filled the role of photographer, effectively allowing us to avoid awkward selfies as he moved us to the best locations and shooed away the other groups of tourists to capture the best shots. Rahul also insisted that we stop at the Lotus Temple on the way out of Delhi, which is a Bahá'í House of Worship that encourages people of all religions to worship their god there. Although the Lotus Temple fulfills its name and is architecturally beautiful, we were hesitant to stop because of the long queue of tourists waiting outside the gates. Not to be impeded, Rahul came through again for the win, telling the guards at the entrance we were someone important and on a tight schedule so they let us cut the entire line.
We were able to do our trip to India rather inexpensively, which helped to balance out the cost of somewhat expensive flights since we were traveling on a budget. There are a variety of public transit and hostel options available in both major cities and plenty of tour group options that can be done very cheaply. Hostels in Delhi with ratings of ‘Superb’ and ‘Fabulous’, (which usually indicate a relatively clean facility or central location but were definitely ranked relative to the city) can be found for about $6 a night. That fact should not really have been a surprise, but after wandering through windy streets filled with chickens searching for our hostel and then sharing a twin size bed with sheets that looked (and smelled) like they had not been washed in weeks, we decided we were going to indulge a little and upgrade accommodations. When we arrived in Agra, we opted for a lovely hotel called the Orient Taj Hotel. Even with the expansive gardens and the maze of pools in the courtyard, the Orient Taj only cost us about $45 a night, a bargain for clean sheets, a Queen size bed, and wifi. It is amazing to me how easy it is to find affordable yet gorgeous hotels in other countries. Staying at the Orient Taj was worth every penny, as we arrived the next morning to our Taj visit well rested and well fed!
The beauty and expansiveness of the Taj Mahal is hard to capture in a simple photo despite the seven million visitors that try each year. Located in Agra, India, this eternal monument of love is not the easiest to visit since it is located several hours from the closest international airport in Delhi. However, the influx of tourism has simplified the inland trek as well as the visa process. The Taj Mahal sits on sprawling grounds and we spent well over an hour walking around the neatly kempt gardens and reflecting pools. For a few extra dollars we went inside the Taj, where we could see the intricate details of the inlaid marble with delicate designs and flowers covering the exterior and interior of this massive monument. Shoes are not allowed to be worn in several areas inside the Taj so Rahul recommended that we wear sandals, but cloth coverings are also available for purchase for those who do not want to remove their shoes. It was hard to leave such a beautiful place, but I was able to eventually pull myself away and we continued on to visit the Red Fort in Agra before beginning the return to Delhi.
Must do: Wake up early to watch the sunrise at the far end of the reflecting pool. Not only does this help avoid the flocks of tourists and the heat of the day, but watching the morning light gleam off the white inlaid marble makes one of the most incredible sunrises in the world.
Hostel Average Cost: $10
Currency: Indian Rupee
Drink: Indian Lassi was my favorite drink and a fantastic way to cut the spice when getting adventurous with the cuisine. It is a yogurt based drink that comes in sweet or salty, but my favorite by far were the mango lassi drinks!
Food: Despite not being a huge fan of Indian cuisine, obviously it was much different (better) getting it in India. The various chutneys served with dosa was fantastic and of course the different curry dishes, but beware that when something says spicy on the menu.. it really means it!
Electric Outlet: European-Type C