I love this world because it is imperfect. It is imperfect, and that’s why it is growing; if it was perfect it would have been dead. Growth is possible only if there is imperfection. I would like you to remember again and again, I am imperfect, the whole universe is imperfect, and to love this imperfection, to rejoice in this imperfection is my whole message
With my travel companions not feeling so well, we checked into a hotel, offloaded our backpacks and then caught a cycle rickshaw through the colourful bazaars of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi.
My senses were bombarded by the smell of spices from food carts along the narrow alleyways that were packed tight with people, rickshaws, cows, and motorbikes.
Monkeys swung from the roof tops of the old buildings and the noise of beeping horns was deafening. This is what I had come here to see. The real India, far from the beaches and holiday vibe of Goa.
Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque that sits watch over Old Delhi, was our first stop.
Dressed with a robe, I walked through the central courtyard, which had room for 25,000 worshippers, and marvelled at the stunning architecture. Shah Jahan, the same Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, constructed the perfectly proportioned mosque which was built from red sandstone and white marble in the mid 16th century.
The southern end of the building provided spectacular views over the jumbled rooftops and chaotic streets of the old city and I sat for a while, like a fly on the wall, observing the busyness below.
We walked back down the steep steps to our rickshaw, and cycled through the chaotic streets to a crowded intersection outside the gates of The Red Fort. After paying our drivers way too much, we were suddenly bombarded by street kids, beggars and cripples, asking for money.
Feeling overwhelmed, we dashed in between cars across the busy main road, towards the entrance.
The massive sandstone Fort was the residence of the Mughal Emperor of India for nearly 200 years. It sprawled for miles and within its 18 metre high walls were marble and sandstone monuments that were constructed at the peak of the Dynasty’s power.
Mum and Yana were still feeling weak and unwell so they decided to wait in the taxi while I visited Humayun’s Tomb before catching our train to Agra.
The historical building was commissioned to be built in the mid 16th century by Haji Begum, the Persian-born first wife of the Mughal Emperor Humayun. The marble mausoleum followed strict rules of Islamic geometry, which emphasized the number 8, and it sat in the centre of beautifully manicured gardens which contained the tombs of the Emperors favourite barber and Haji Begum herself.
I managed to avoid getting lost in the maze like grounds before running back to mum and Yana who were waiting for me.
We still had some time left before catching our train so we decided to visit Laxminarayan Temple, a sprawling Hindu temple adorned with many shrines, fountains and a large garden in the middle of New Delhi.
It was our first time catching a train and we didn’t want to arrive late at the station so we collected our packs from the hotel, and after getting stuck in traffic, our driver ended up dropping us off 10 minutes before our train was scheduled to depart.
As you can imagine, we were frantically trying to find the right platform, train and carriage in a huge station that was packed with people and there were staircases leading up to dozens of other platforms in all directions.
Panic set in when we finally found our train waiting in the distance so we started to run, with our heavy backpacks weighing us down. I had planned on seeing the Taj in the morning and I didn’t want to be stuck in Delhi another night.
Once we found the right carriage number we banged on the door and when the conductor opened it he yelled out in Hindi, then slammed the door on us. Bewildered and out of breath, we were determined to get on this train so we banged on the door and tried to give him our tickets but again, he yelled back louder and slammed the door shut.
I could not understand why he was not letting us on the train and my heart sunk. We were going to miss it and be stuck in Delhi.
I turned around and suddenly realised that a lot of people were also standing on the same platform waiting for the same train and my franticness then turned into embarrassment when someone told me that the train was being cleaned and not yet open to passengers.
Starving hungry, I bought packets of chips and biscuits while I waited and we boarded a few minutes later.
The train was old, the seats were uncomfortable and the glass windows were cracked and broken but I was glad to be sitting and resting my tired legs. A day of sightseeing in Delhi had been fascinating but exhausting and I still had not eaten a proper meal since leaving Goa.
I decided not to risk eating the train food and instead filled up on chips and biscuits and 3 hours later we arrived, at night, in Agra.
I stepped off the train and was shocked by the overpowering smell of human shit. I covered my nose and walked past dozens of homeless people taking shelter in the station then was bombarded by the usual crowds of rickshaw and taxi drivers all harassing us to ride with them.
We went to the pre paid taxi booth and ended up in a taxi with a man who had tried to overcharge us earlier at the station. The drive to the hotel was scary and our driver’s presence creeped me out so much, it made my skin crawl sitting next to him. Allsorts of things were running through my mind and I feared he might drive us somewhere to rape us, so with every turn I was checking my guide-book, making sure we were going in the right direction.
Thankfully, we pulled up outside of our hotel that was located in a grubby part of town and a friendly young man at the front desk greeted us and led us to our room, which was the worst that we had stayed in so far.
The girls went to sleep while I stayed up chatting to him about the differences in our cultures then I returned to the room, lay my blanket on top of a dirty sheet in between the crack in the middle of the bed and climbed in between Yana and mum.
As I lay my head down on a pillow made up of foam pieces I hoped I would at-least get a couple of hours sleep.
The alarm went off at 6am and I dragged myself out of the horrible bed, still fully clothed and all ready to go and we caught a rickshaw to see the famous Taj Mahal at sunrise.
Our unscrupulous auto rickshaw driver dropped us off at the far end of the Taj entrance where expensive horse-drawn carriages and camels awaited us but we were already wise to the scam and walked the rest of the way instead.
We arrived to see remnants of orangey sunrise hues against the white marble of the most beautiful building in the world.
I stood at the entrance in awe, captivated by its beauty. Never in my life did I think I would end up there. In fact, I never wanted to go to India, it scared me.
The Taj was built in the 16th century when Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved third wife of Emperor Shah Jahan died while giving birth to their 14th child. A few years later the Emperor was overthrown by his son and imprisoned in Agra Fort where he eventually died and was buried underneath the Taj alongside his wife’s tomb.
As we walked along the path towards the mausoleum, my tummy felt like it was in knots and I suddenly had the urge to go to the toilet. Great I thought. I had been so careful with what I had been eating and now it’s my turn to be sick. I made a dash to the pay toilets where I was lucky there was toilet paper and then I walked back to the girls feeling terrible.
I decided to take an anti diaretic pill and after a while my tummy settled but I felt weak and tired and I just wanted to lay down and rest.
As the morning went on I gradually felt better and we made our way back to the hotel to check out, store our packs and decide what to see in Agra before catching a train to Jaipur that evening.
There was much more to Agra than just the Taj, which attracted 3 million tourists every year, and I ended up having a wonderful day despite my early morning sickness.
The friendly young guy at the front desk suggested a good rickshaw driver for us to use so we walked across the road towards an old man wearing the red t’ shirt.
We told him the places we wanted to visit, and he told us to pay him what we wanted at the end of the day.
This was a good sign, I thought.
Our first stop was Agra Fort, the place where Emperor Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son.
As we walked towards the entrance a persistent tour guide kept hassling us to pay him for his services, however, the more he tried the more my stubbornness kicked in and I was also getting used to being staunch rather than polite towards pushy tour guides, drivers and street sellers trying to make money; but mum on the other hand gave in to his persuasiveness and agreed to pay him for taking us on a tour through the fort, which I was eventually very grateful for.
If it hadn’t of been for our lovely tour guide, I wouldn’t have learnt so many fascinating facts about the Forts history.
The Fort was founded in 1565 by Emperor Akbar and within its 2.5-km long red sandstone walls, contained the imperial city of the Mughal rulers, including a palace, audience halls, two beautiful mosques and the Musamman Burj, a tower with a view towards the Taj from a beautiful marble balcony where the imprisoned Emperor Shah Jahan died.
After our guided tour, and admiring spectacular views of the Taj, we walked back to meet our trusty rickshaw driver who then drove us to the Yamuna river where we saw bright coloured washing being laid out to dry on its banks.
As we walked around, a couple of street kids, not more than 10 years old, approached us for money. We gave them what little change we had and I told them to share it then the one we gave the money to ran off towards the shops and left his friend behind. I felt sorry for the boy, who had just been abandoned by his friend, because we had no more money left to give, then from out of nowhere, a group of kids started running towards us.
All I could do was smile and wave and shake their hands as we left in our rickshaw, feeling sorry for the poor malnourished looking children who had nothing but hope left on their faces.
We drove to Chini-ka-Rauza, the Persian style tomb of Afzal Khan, a poet who served as Shah Jhan’s chief minister. The monument, which sits on the banks of the Yamuna River, was built between 1628 and 1639 and is rarely visited by tourists.
It seemed to be a hang out place for kids and stray dogs, but local men, who seemed proud to show us around, were lovingly restoring the old building to its former glory.
We stopped to buy the most delicious paneer samosas from a street stall before visiting Itimad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed the baby Taj and tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg, Mumtaz Mahal’s grandfather.
Afterwards, our driver took us to a roadside shop on the outskirts of town and we sat with the locals, whilst shooing away flies, and had cold drinks before visiting Mehtab Bagh, a beautiful park built by Emperor Babur, which provided the best views of the magnificent Taj.
I spent the rest of the afternoon marvelling at the picturesque building from the perfectly landscaped gardens, while I soaked in all that I had seen that day.
On our way back to the hotel our trusty driver took us to an emporium, which he said had very cheap handicrafts and jewellery and was popular amongst the locals.
Alarm bells instantly rung in my head as I knew that any driver that took us to a shop was paid a commission by the shop-keepers but rather than saying anything, I went along with mum who seemed overjoyed to be brought there.
Inside, there were shelves filled with carved marble elephants, candle holders, jewellery and the usual mementos aimed at tourists. It was Yana’s birthday in a few days and she found a beautiful amethyst ring that she loved so I negotiated a price and rather than waiting to buy with Sohail in Jaipur I bought it along with a few other things.
My Cancerian mum was so touched by this old man that she tipped him generously and he dropped us off at the smelly train station.
It was only later in our travels that we realised he had made a hefty profit out of us and I paid far too much for the ring I bought Yana which may not even be real silver or gemstone.
We caught a much nicer train to Jaipur and 3 and a half hours later we arrived in the Rajasthan capital.