India is astonishing. One minute you are in a beautiful five star hotel and the next you are passing by a family of five that lives on a tarp. There is no way to describe what we have seen in India. It was astonishing and shocking and beautiful and filthy.
We just finished being trip leaders of 47 students to the Taj Mahal; a four day trip. I think I will post it in two or three blogs.
We began our trip by flying from Chennai to New Delhi. It was a little crazy in the airport trying to get our group of 47 checked in, but we got there and we had a great Indian meal on the plane. We arrived in New Dehli and went straight to our hotel, The Ashok. When we arrived they greeted us with the traditional greeting of a red dot on our foreheads and we were also given marigold leis. In the middle of the lobby was a flower sculpture that said "Welcome Semester at Sea" and they served us lemon water and soda when we arrived. This hotel was a beautiful 5 star place with shops and a nightclub. The students definitely took advantage of the nightclub. Some of them didn't go to sleep all night.
The next morning we had a 5:00am wake-up call and boarded the bus at 5:45am to go to the train station. The train station was a MAD HOUSE. There were street vendors and beggars accosting you and we were trying to stay together. We made it to the correct platform where we boarded the air-conditioned car. Most of the train cars are not air-conditioned and have bars instead of windows to help with the air circulation. The train ride was an experience! There are never any announcements and there are vendors that walk up and down the aisles selling coffee and some types of Indian food. The bathrooms, oh the bathrooms. In a nutshell, the bathroom is a hole in the floor and all your "business" falls directly onto the tracks. This is why the train station smells horrible as the trains are coming and going. Also, as you are waiting on your train, it is perfectly common to see HUGE rats just hanging out, as well as dogs digging through the trash on the tracks to find a bite to eat. We were also shocked by the amount of children begging in the station. Our group gave away food, pens, pencils and sodas while we waited for the train. The children were using the bathroom and playing on the tracks and they would help each other onto the platform when the trains came. It was shocking to see a 5 year old taking care of a 2 year old, but this is common practice here.
We arrived in Agra and went to our hotel, the Howard Park Plaza. From there we visited Agra Fort, did some shopping and then visited the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal - WOW!!! The building was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to be a symbol of love for his late wife. That is truly the only purpose of this building, to show his love! Now, more than 3 million people visit it each year. It combines Persian, Islamic and Indian architecture.
Shah Jahan's wife died while giving birth to their 14th child. The construction began one year after her death; it took 9 years to finish the entire structure with a labor force of 20,000. Soon after the construction was complete, Shah Jahan was placed under house arrest by his son who believed that he was spending too much of his inheritance. He imprisoned him in a room in Agra Fort where he could see the Taj Mahal from a distance. We could have stayed there for days. It was absolutely the most beautiful building we have ever seen. The whole place had a really wonderful peace about it and we were so glad we got to see this wonder of the world!
-You shouldn't brush your teeth with the tap water in India
-You have to keep your mouth closed in the shower in India