Cows, pigs, monkeys and goats forage through mounds of trash strewn in the streets. Shantytown dwellings dot the sides of the roads amid scattered mansions and a small number of very fancy monuments. You are in rural India, and the description also applies to large parts of urban India. To top it off, the air quality is poor. My plane landed after dark in Dehli, a city with one of the world’s worst pollution problems. The air was laden with a thick smoke that mixed incongruously with the aroma of pungent spices from nearby street food stalls. I could not breathe. Some locals wore breathing masks. I resorted to breathing through my handkerchief until I could get a mask the next day.
I was warned before I left for India: don’t drink the water or eat raw vegetables typically washed in local water. Drink only bottled water and make sure the bottle hasn’t been refilled. Don’t open your mouth in the shower. Brush your teeth with bottled water. I did all those things, and I stayed in 4-star hotels. Still I contracted what is colloquially called “Delhi belly,” a combination of upset stomach and diarrhea — not pretty in a country where toilets are not clean, and hardly ever have toilet tissue, soap or towels.
Everyone (I think) knows about the Taj Mahal. It’s a stunningly beautiful, even opulent, work of architecture. There are other similar monuments scattered around India, mainly outside the cities, but within the cities, also. Most are built as tombs. Obviously very rich people wanted a nice place to be after death. They built these monuments for that purpose, not to draw tourists to India, but it is their main purpose today.
The Taj Mahal is the most notable draw. It is located in what was once a small rural city, Agra, about two and a half hours’ drive from Dehli. “The Taj” is such a huge attraction that an entire city of about one million has sprouted to support it. Given its importance, the government is forced to protect it from the air pollution and terrorism, lest the city would be left without its draw. Local factories have even been moved into the surrounding countryside to lower air pollution.
People visit The Taj in droves, with long lines divided by gender amid tight security. The huge number of visitors converging on this one place is a little hellish, which is why my local guide humorously referred to it as “Taj Ma-hell.” You have to take a Taj bus to the monument itself, as car traffic is regulated. I visited at 6:30 a.m. to avoid the rush. Still I had to wait 30 minutes on line to pay the entrance fee as stern looking guards gave me the once over. Inside, air pollution, early morning haze, and maintenance scaffolding prevented getting a clear photo of the Taj. A few of the 1 million local residents were gainfully employed, cutting the lawn—with scissors, in bright yellow saris.
Inside Dehli another monument of the exact same scale as the Taj is the tomb of Humayun. Made of different material, it is just as magnificent, even if the grounds were a bit unkempt. It’s a lot easier to get to, but doesn’t have the same tourist clout as the Taj.
The contrast between the mansions you pass as you traverse Dehli and the garbage-ridden neighborhoods that surround them is stark. The homes of the wealthy, originally built by British colonists, surrounded by high walls, sit apart from their surroundings. Seeing such disparity troubles and astounds tourists’ sensibilities. Hotels have gates and guards. Prepare to be bombarded everywhere you go with beggars and hawkers of tourist junk that ask you to buy everything from souvenir pens, cheap bracelets and trinkets like tiny, brightly painted elephants. It’s hard to say no, but if you engage, others miraculously appear out of nowhere.
I am told that if you stay long enough you get used to India. If you have the time, there’s plenty to see. I prefer places where my conscience isn’t bombarded, and I don’t have to worry about food and water sanitation. But if you tough out these challenges, you are rewarded with magnificent glimpses into an opulent past, and, hopefully also into a changing society having great struggles tackling some very intractable issues.