Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Perilous Road to Agra

It was on the road to the Taj Mahal that I thought I would die.

If you get nervous passing on the wrong side of the road, do not ride in a car on India’s highways – take a train. Over there, it is not enough to pass the odd camel cart, autorickshaw, elephant or truck. A driver must also pass a car passing a slower vehicle (or animal) if possible. What that works out to is being three-abreast on a two-lane highway.

And the other side is doing the same thing.

My friends Deon and Peter were sharing my experience, but being Iraq War vets, they were taking it better. I eventually settled down as we screamed past fields so thick with the smoke from cooking fires that the trees at their far edges appeared as specters.

I was smack in the middle of third-world nowhere. I found it ironic that to get to one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, I had to pass through ugly poverty, where farmers in filthy clothes with leathery skin sharpened their axes by grinding them on the pavement and camel carts were almost as common as private cars.

But this was one of the reasons I had come to India. It is unlike going to Europe, which is like going to an American city where the inhabitants speak a different language. I wanted to get completely out of my comfort zone, and I did.

Our driver pulled to the side of the road for food. Even out there, Mountain Dew and Doritos were available. We had some of the delicious “ready-made” tea (loaded with cream and sugar), and got back into the SUV.

Unlike most of the vehicles I rode in in India, this one had seatbelts, and I was very thankful for that. Our driver also had an illuminated plastic statue of some god or other on his dashboard, which is a common practice. Maybe it had something to do with my survival.

Deon asked our driver to put on some music, and I cringed at the thought of hearing high-pitched, screeching noises, but it was actually very nice, a mix of current pop music and Punjabi folk music.

We had to stop at a toll booth, and while our driver was paying, a man wearing a beanie, a shawl and a shotgun slung over his back walked up to my window. He stared at me, unblinking, and I wondered if he wanted a bribe. Then his face broke out in a toothy grin and he waved at me. So I smiled and waved back. Light-skinned, blonde-haired people are very uncommon out there, and I wondered if I might be the first one he’d seen up close.

Just after the checkpoint, our side of the road was closed. In the States, that would be cause for a signalman stopping one direction until the other had passed. Not so in India. In India, it’s a free-for-all. And the best part is that there were no signs to warn the other drivers.

Fortunately their trucks are painted bright colors and heavily decorated. They can’t be missed.

Wondering how American drivers would handle that situation, I turned around and saw a bus behind us. The word “Panicker's” was painted on the windshield, and a banner reading, “Welcome” was hung underneath that. I thought it fitting.

We eventually reached the Taj Mahal. It was absolutely worth the trip there and back, especially since I still had a pulse at the end.

(For my experience at the Taj Mahal, keep checking back. It will be up in a few weeks.)


CODY K said...

Even in the United States, there are lots of really beautiful cities / buildings surrounded by poverty. Crazy.

When was this?

Brandon Darnell said...

True, but not poverty like in India. I thought I knew what to expect with the poverty, but it's out of control. Maybe we come close in our worst inner cities, but I doubt it. I rode through a slum larger than the city I grew up in, which has a population of 80k+

This was in mid-December of 2007.