I love road trips. What transpires in the distance between driveway and destination makes for the stuff of legend. Legend and a myriad of inside jokes that are funny to no one outside the moving vehicle.
Our Chengdu friends landed in town late on Friday night; bright and early Saturday morning, we shoved coffee thermoses into their hands and packed everyone into the car for a trip to see the Taj Mahal.
We had so much going in our favor: homemade trail mix, good coffee, enough wet wipes to thoroughly disinfect a cow dung-covered two-year-old, a handsome and daring driver who actually enjoys the blood pressure-spiking rush of a drive through Indian countryside, a toddler consumed by a white-hot passion for tractors, and a pair of friends seasoned and salty enough to deliver dead-pan warnings of oncoming goats, trucks and carts full of okra as if merely pointing out the nearest exist with a bathroom and a Starbucks (ha!).
After a day spent sight-seeing at the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, Chris drove down pitch-black village roads to show us the Taj in the moonlight from the opposite river bank. The view turned out to be less moon-lit than anticipated so I didn’t really mind spending most of our time there placating our hysterically overtired toddler with pictures of “dirty tractors” on my phone. The glimpses of a Hindu revivalist-type jamboree and quiet Saturday night village life along the drive though were fascinating.
Sunday morning we and seemingly 300 assorted tractors set out for Fatehpur Sikri, an astonishingly well-preserved one-time capital of the Mughal Empire. The capital was abandoned in 1585, just after it was completed due to a lack of available water.
unintended homage to history, Chris and I packed just 2 water bottles for 3 people before we climbed to the top of the ridge. This is also where I’ll mention—just once for posterity’s sake—that it was noon, 90 degrees out, and Will had inexplicably decided that only his 7-months-pregnant mother could carry him up the (many, steep) stairs and hills of the ruins—and only Daddy could carry him down.
We saw the giant mosque then skipped the rest of the official historical site to wander around the elephant garages and other ruins behind the mosque instead. The place was empty and the scale of the construction overwhelmed us. Through towering archways we took in the panoramic patchwork of green and gold fields in the valley below.
As much as I wanted to, it was hard to concentrate on taking photos while Chris struggled so valiantly to keep Will on the less dramatic side of the 30 foot sheer rock faces all around. As Chris helpfully explained to our two-year-old, the area was just a bit too “droppy” and Will was a bit too “tippy” for us to let go of his hands too often.
Punch-drunk from the heat and a lack of lunch, we took the scenic route back to civilization and nearly walked right out of town before we realized our car was parked a quarter of a mile behind us and our rickshaw driver to the mosque was still waiting for us another half a mile behind our car.
While Will shared his crackers with an extended Indian family on the side of the road and I mentally threatened to go into labor on the spot if forced to walk one more meter, the men in our party ran back for the car.
Car retrieved, we set out looking to pay our rickshaw driver. “Habib! Habib!” Chris shouted crazily out the window as our friend Phil charged into the crowded stand of stalls of and rickshaws to find the him. 5 minutes later, Habib found and paid, Coca-Cola, cold water and “crispy bits” procured and consumed and air-conditioning running, we all felt just a little more sane. Momentarily.
There may be narrower, less accessible, more poorly paved roads leading out of Fatehpur Sikri and through Agra’s oldest neighborhoods, but I’d like to think not.
While Will fell asleep muttering to himself about a purple rickshaw, Chris gamely steered us back in the general direction of Delhi and home through a swirling tide of donkey carts, bicycle rickshaws, gravel roads, scooters, road-clogging market stands and cows.
We spent 30 minutes of the journey trying to pass a herd of a dozen cows. 30 minutes. One herd of cows. Six times (I did count) Chris carefully crept up alongside the herd only to be boxed out at the last second by the lead cow’s hind quarters. Cow piss sprayed the hood of the car. Outside there were children and people on crutches moving faster than us. We laughed until we cried.
An unintended detour through Agra’s red light district followed, then a surreal moment in which we found ourselves sandwiched between two elaborate tractor-pulled parade floats. Teetering idols of Ganesh and Vishnu bounced overhead threatening, at every bump in the road, to bury the car in yards of gold lame and pink tulle.
Finally, 2 hours and less than 10 kilometers later, we reached the foot of the bridge that would take us out of Agra and back to Delhi. Chris revealed that he had, in fact, chosen our colorful route to avoid approximately 20 minutes of construction-related traffic jams on the city’s main thoroughfare. Our friends declared the journey to be the most “Super Deluxe Agra Tour” ever and the uneventful smooth pavement of the expressway back to Delhi felt so boring by comparison.
I imagine we will take many more road trips once we leave India than we will ever take in India, but I can’t imagine any of them being nearly as fun or as funny or as colorful as the few we’ve taken here.
A few more photos from the trip:
There was a “tractor” on the river back opposite the Taj when we stopped on our way into town Saturday morning. Also a crane truck lifting giant concrete slabs. If it had been up to Will we would have never left.