y wake-up call for my first morning in India was not by way of the hotel’s concierge.  I was woken up at about 4:00 a.m. by a grumbling stomach that had me making 3 trips to the bathroom. I was breaking out in cold sweat despite the cold inside the hotel room. It was still chilly even after I’ve turned off the air conditioning before falling asleep earlier.

My first day in India and I was already suffering from an upset tummy! Since I haven’t had anything to eat yet after leaving the plane, I blame the airline food for this indigestion. They were serving Indian food in there (curry) and that was my first taste of Indian curry.

I thanked God repeatedly that my Mom made me bring along a packet of basic medicines, including the anti-spasmodic Buscopan.

I then decided to call up the restaurant and had my early breakfast brought to my room. I ordered mushy eggs, hash potatoes, grilled chicken sandwich and cereals. To my surprise, when the waiter brought it up, the orders were good for 2 persons. I called up Ma’am Lily – who was roomed two floors below mine – and asked her if she wants to share this feast of a breakfast with me.

After that hearty breakfast, I felt much better. By 6:50 a.m., after only about five hours of sleep, the ASEAN journalists – swathed in our thick, warm coats-- stepped into a frigid India outside the hotel. Icy air hit our faces and I felt the cold seep fast into my bones. I couldn’t board fast enough the roomy and warm tour bus that would take us to Taj Mahal.  It was about 11 degrees Celsius in India at that time.

Taj Mahal is located in the city of Agra and is about 200 kilometers south from the capital New Delhi.

We were told to leave as early as 7 am because it was a long ride of about 5 hours from Delhi to Agra. The distance is actually only about 3 hours but because of the crazy, messy traffic that India’s streets are known for, the ride stretched to almost 6 hours.

Despite the brief stomach upset episode earlier and India’s frigid weather, I was feeling warm from the excitement bubbling inside me. This was my first travel abroad. It’s India! And I was about to see one of the seven wonders of the world! My toes curled at the thought.

Fascinating Delhi: The Immortal City

As our bus eased out of ITC Maurya’s grounds and hit the highways of New Delhi, I got my first sight of India’s capital in daylight.

I was surprised to see that Delhi is every inch the bustling metropolis. It is more modern than I expected it to be. It reminded me of Manila in more ways than one.

The city was vibrant with early morning traffic that day. The highways are wide, even wider than Manila’s. The avenues are tree-lined. Soaring glass-encased buildings stood out everywhere. The homes that we passed by are stately and distinctive of Indian architecture. The commercial district was also rife with luxury shops and gourmet restaurants.

Spliced within the sleek panorama of Delhi is its old and rich history: stone-walled forts, monuments, ruins, tiered towers, and mausoleums. You can always tell them apart because of the Mughal-style architecture and the red sandstone.

Wikipedia describes Delhi as a “planned city” which means that the city’s layout was carefully planned from its inception and set in parks and shaded avenues for the British by Lutyens.

India was ruled by the British between 1858 and 1947. It was on August 15, 1947 that India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehur, unfurled the national flag signifying the end of British rule.

According to the Delhi City map that were handed out to us earlier, modern-day Delhi is situated on the site of seven ancient cities. It is the largest metropolis by area (1,483 kilometers) and the second largest metropolis by population.

‘Blow Horn’

I can’t help but compare Delhi’s streets to the narrow streets and highways of Dumaguete City and Negros Oriental province, a result of lack of foresight from the city’s engineers way back when the city was just starting out.

There were a lot of buses on the streets of Delhi, as it is the most popular means of transportation in the country catering to about 60% of the total demand.

Aside from cars and taxis, the highways are also dotted with the green-and-yellow auto-rickshaws or what some locals would also call tempo. The first time I spotted them, I had to stifle a giggle. It was my first time to see one and I found them funny-looking in a cute way.

The auto-rickshaws work like the jeepneys of Manila and the tricycles or pedicabs of Dumaguete. They are the favored transport of the ordinary Indians. Outside of Delhi, the auto-rickshaws are mostly crammed to overflowing:

Here is another version of an auto-rickshaw. This one I think is constructed to transport livestock at the back:

The first thing that I noticed as our bus cruised Delhi’s highways was the noise. Blaring horns from the vehicles filled the air. It was like all the drivers were honking their horns either at the same time or one after another.

Our tour bus driver was also as generous with his bus horn- I believe we were literally honking our way throughout the nearly six-hour drive to Agra City.

What aggravates the noise is that their car and bus horns are not like in the Philippines where the horn emits one fast bleep each time it is pressed. In India, the car horn lets out a longer sound for each press, sort of like a sing-song tune that one would use for a cellphone’s message alert tone, only louder and sharper.

So imagine that noise repeatedly being made by hundreds of cars on the streets. In fact, even inside my hotel room on the 22nd floor, I can still hear the horns all the way up there.

The noise gets worse as we started getting out of Delhi. There I saw written across the back of the buses are the words either “BLOW HORN” or "HORN PLEASE". It seems that Indian drivers are encouraged to blow their horn frequently to urge the driver of the vehicle ahead of them to give way so they can overtake.

Judging from the noise level on the streets, I guess all Indian drivers want to overtake each other.

As we started getting out of Delhi, the traffic gets messier. Now, joining the jostle for real estate on the highways are bicycles, foot traffic and cows.

Yes, cows.

You can see them everywhere: crossing the street leisurely or laying down on pedestrian lanes, eating or sunning themselves. The cows are also the king of the streets in India. Nobody shoos them away even when they’re clogging up the traffic. They are left alone to do what they want.

At one intersection point, our bus got caught in a bottleneck. Clogging the crossing were tour buses, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, a throng of Indians, cars, and again, cows.

I can understand the heavy traffic volume because India is, after all, the second most populous country in the world with nearly 1.2 billion (according to World Bank). You cannot expect all that people to stay indoors all day long.

What I cannot understand is the way Indians drive. Anyone who’s called Filipino drivers crazy have never obviously been to India. Like I said earlier, they all want to overtake each other.  And they all drive so fast and so rashly.

Twice, our bus driver stuck his head out of the window to scream what I assumed were Hindi expletives to motorcycle drivers who nearly hit our bus. One infuriated motorcycle driver slapped the side of the bus. On both occasions, the XP Ministry officials, in their ties and suits, would also stick their heads out the windows and wag their fingers to put an end to the dispute.

As our guide at Taj Mahal would later tell us, everyone is king of the road in India, even the cows. He also said that nobody follows traffic rules. He described India’s traffic as something like a video game. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. And that when an Indian gets his driver’s permit, he assumes that on the streets, everyone else is blind and he’s the only one who can see.

That kind of thinking makes for a big, messy traffic.

This was the only time I saw a traffic policeman, and this was outside Delhi:

As for this one, I have no idea what they're all huddled for. If these were kids in the Philippines, I would have said they were watching a spider fight:

One thing I love about window-watching India's streets is looking at the colorful, beautiful sari of the Indian women:

From sleek to seedy

From Delhi on the way to Agra City, we passed by the religious cities of Mathura and Vrindavan. It’s here that the sleekness that enveloped modern Delhi starts to disappear. Here, it’s India’s brand of countryside all the way.

The passing scenery was smudged with thick fog. There were fewer buildings, and most of them were either decrepit or falling apart. Garbage littered the sides of the streets. 

 Beggars carrying monkeys and souvenir crafts would approach our bus during our many halts along the way. For a dollar, one man with a monkey on his back would let tourists pose for a picture with his pet. Vendors selling peanuts, bracelets and necklaces would hold up their wares to the bus windows tempting tourists to come out and buy them.

At one point, our bus went through a toll gate. I couldn’t believe how in bad shape this toll gate was. The windows of the toll stations were broken. The columns and walls were thick with dirt and streaked with what looked dried bird poop. I say that because there were birds perched on top of the stations. It looked like it came straight from a scene of one of those end-of-the-world movies.

Staying at a premium luxury hotel and having seen the sophistication of Delhi, this side of India was like a splash of cold water for me. But then, isn’t it also the same in the Philippines? Poverty is as true and just as hard in India as it is in the Philippines.

Halfway through our road trip, our bus stopped at a popular tourist pit stop, the Maharajah Hotel. There, we were able to use the toilet and browse the steeply-priced items inside the adjacent souvenir shop. A small piece of figurine cost 25 US dollars. The prices were higher because a lot of tour buses brought their tourists in that place. When we arrived there, the parking area was crowded with tour buses and foreigner-filled cabs.

Beautiful figurine identifying the ladies' toilet. 

Lovely, silk handmade journals. 

Tea breaks

During the stop, we were served steaming hot milk tea to fight off the cold. I was able to make small talk with the other journalists. Business cards were passed around.

 For snacks, we were also given a meal box inside the bus by a uniformed waiter. The box contained chicken sandwich, cupcake, a spring roll, banana and a cup of yogurt.

Indians are big on yogurt. The meals served during the plane rides from Kuala Lumpur to Delhi, and later on from Delhi to Bangalore, and then back to Kuala Lumpur were not without yogurt. The buffet meals at the restaurants of ITC hotels in Delhi and Bangalore also offered an array of cups of yogurt in different sizes placed on trays of ice cubes.

Before we went in the Taj Mahal, the XP Ministry brought us first to ITC Hotel in Agra for a sumptuous lunch. We were already starving by that time because it was already past 2 in the afternoon. In there we were able to take photos with the exuberantly dressed mustached valets. 

The buffet at ITC Agra (above)

Another thing I learned about Indians is that they take their meals later than we do in the Philippines. Lunch is around 2 in the afternoon and dinner around 9 in the evening. Or maybe it was only due to hectic schedule they gave us during our stay? 

And they don’t take “snacks”, they take “tea breaks” which consist of cookies and, of course, tea.

Meet Ramesh

“Please leave your mobile phones and other electronic items inside the bus. Just bring your camera, wallet and passport with you,” said Ramesh Deewan, our sharply dressed Indian tour guide in Agra, as the journalists gathered at the entrance area of Taj Mahal.

Dressed like a businessman in a jacket and tie, Ramesh has been working as a tour guide in Agra for the last 12 years and speaks French and English very fluently. He talks fast, his English clear and slightly clipped and punctuates his points with hand gestures like slapping his palms together.

He then shooed us inside a small, boxy electric bus. Ramesh said no fuel-run vehicles are allowed inside the compound surrounding Taj Mahal. No planes are also allowed to fly over it. Taj Mahal is a fuel-and-fly-free zone in order to conserve the white marble and the precious gemstones inlaid on it safe from pollution.

Photo above shows the electric bus we boarded going to Taj Mahal courtyard. Below is another version of an electric vehicle:

As the electric bus slowly brought us from the entrance area to the gates of Taj Mahal’s courtyard, Ramesh started giving us the lowdown on Taj.

The palace is 363 years old and the Taj Mahal complex spreads over 42 acres. Taj, and the other historical monuments nearby, keeps the Agra city alive. “What keeps the city going is its flourishing tourism industry. There are no other industries in Agra,” said Ramesh.

The locals have built their livelihood around its tourist spots by selling handicrafts, jewelries, carpets and shoes.

“We make the best leather shoes here in India. And it’s cheaper than Italian leather. Look at mine,” he said, pointing to his shiny black shoes, which he said he has owned for years and still looks brand new.

February is one of the best months to visit the Taj as the weather is not too cold (on that I had to slightly disagree coming from a tropical country) and not too hot. Peak season for tourist arrivals are between the end of September to end of March.

When our electric bus reached the courtyard entrance, we disembarked and separated into two groups- male and female. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) paid for our entrance fees.

Well, they pretty much paid for everything! 

I later found out that there are different entrance fees for locals and foreigners. It’s $15 USD for foreigners and only 20 IND (Indian rupees) or 50 cents for Indians.

I was frisked by a uniformed female security guard who also inspected my wallet, passport, notebook and pen.

“You don’t need that inside,” she told me in her heavy Indian accent, pointing to my notebook and pen. “I’m a journalist, I need to write down notes,” I told her, speaking much slower than usual since I’ve found out that Indians have a hard time understanding my Filipino accent.

She looked at me first then waved me through. I was already playing out various scenarios in my mind had she not allowed me to go through. Let’s just say that those scenarios involved showing her just how mightier the pen is than the sword.

I wasn’t about to visit one of the world’s seven wonders without a pen and paper. 

Humbled and awed

As I walked into the spacious outer courtyard, I felt a sense of inner peace. There were sprawling green lawns and red, columned arcades around. I saw birds gliding in the sky that seemed bluer than usual. A cold breeze flitted through, making me hug my jacket tighter. Although there were crowds of people milling around, a sense of space and depth permeated the air.  It felt like I walked into something holy.

Looming ahead is the Great Gate or Darwaza, the main gateway into the inner courtyard of Taj Mahal. The white and red structure is immense, with its arched entryway topped with 22 domes or cupolas. Each dome represents a year that Taj Mahal was constructed.

As we walked nearer to the gate, Ramesh pointed out the elaborate calligraphy framing the entryway. The words are that of a Qur’an inscription.

The exquisite illustrated elements on the Great Gate is echoed all throughout the Taj Mahal complex. These are the work of highly skilled Mughal lapidarists whose techniques were taught to them by Italian craftsmen.

Excitement was building up inside me as we walked through the arched entryway. It was from here that I saw my first glimpse of the white marbled palace ahead.

It took my breath away.

The dome was topped by the bronze finial (originally it was gold) and surrounded by four minarets. The palace’s reflection shimmered in the rectangular pool in front of it. All these were once just images on a magazine for me. Now, there it loomed in front of me, immense and white, like a fairytale castle.

It dazzled.

I started choking up. Taj Mahal is so beautiful it makes you want to cry.

At the same time, I felt humbled. The sheer size of the Taj coupled with the fact that these were crafted by human hands- the structure exuded power and greatness.

Flashes from cameras among our group of journalists started going off. It took me a while to remember I had a camera, too, since I  must have stood there gaping at the castle, awestruck, for minutes.

Ramesh quickly cleared a spot at the entrance area so we each can take a photo with the Taj Mahal behind us reflected in the pool.

After the necessary shots were taken, Ramesh immediately led us closer to the palace. It was here that our guide started telling the love story that led a man to build an immense palace for his dead wife.

Tragic love story

In 1631, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan was grief-stricken when his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their 14th child. Mumtaz, the granddaughter of a Persian noble and whose name means “Jewel of the Palace”, was a beautiful woman who Ramesh said was captivating like a sunflower.

Although their wedding was arranged, Emperor Jahan was so in love with his third wife that he ordered the massive mausoleum built to house her tomb after her death.

Inside the Taj Mahal is actually Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb. Visitors can see a replica of the tomb when they go inside. The real one rests under the palace.

From one man’s grief comes the world’s most recognizable and most beautiful symbol of love.

Before going up the steps that would take us inside the Taj, we were each given a pair of orange shoe cloth covers that we would wear over our shoes so as to keep the palace pollution-free. We felt like Donald Ducks walking around with the bright orange shoe covers. 

The Malaysian Reserve News Editor Harbhajan Singh trying on the shoe covers.

As we walked near the main entrance door of Taj Mahal, we passed by a long, long line of Indians waiting to get inside. Ramesh said that Taj Mahal gets around 25,000 visitors per day or nearly 8 million a year. Of the total, 70% are domestic and 30% foreign. The Indians themselves are the local tourist spot’s biggest number of visitors in Agra.

Foreigners don't have to fall in line with the Indians. Foreign visitors can go straight inside.

Ramesh, however, said that recently he has noticed a surge of more tourists coming from ASEAN countries and Russia.

Getting inside the mausoleum, the romance of the whole experience is slightly blunted by the jostling and pressing of human bodies as we squeeze through the small door leading toward the tomb replica. Cameras are no longer allowed inside the palace. 

Inside, the visitors circled around the fenced white rectangular tomb, the central focus of the entire Taj Mahal complex. I reached out and touched the white marble wall. It was cold.

Afterwards, we walked around the inner courtyard, gazing up at the minarets. The four minarets were not constructed to stand up straight, but tilted slightly outwards so that when one faces the palace from a distance, all four minarets can be seen.

Diamonds sparkled in a portion near the dome. Elaborate and intricate details using more than 20 types of gemstones were inlaid everywhere. The skill and artistry of the artwork is truly incredible.

I looked around and saw locals and tourists walking around. Some were sitting on the floor. Couples were having their pictures taken, arms around each other. It is, after all, just 2 days away from Valentine’s Day. I saw one Caucasian couple passionately kissing while their Indian tour guide took their picture.

A final group shot of the 20 ASEAN journalists with the MEA staff in front of Taj Mahal. 

As our MEA escorts hurried us out of Taj Mahal, I took one last final look at the gigantic white palace and felt a deep sadness.

Mumtaz never lived to see what her husband did for her.


Stay tuned for the next blog post which is Day 2, Part 1: The Red Fort of Agra


  1. India is one of the most unforgettable place we've been my husband's shoes was stolen in Taj Mahal! Lol!

  2. Wow really? Unforgettable indeed. I hope your husband didn't have to get back to your hotel barefoot. :-)

  3. galing! sa pinas may askal,sa kanila naman may BAKAL (bakang kalye) n_n

    1. Haha korek ka dyan. Cows are holy kasi sa India. Etong askal naman sa atin eh hindi holy.

  4. Long post but very informative. I hope I get to visit India, too.

    Miss N of

    1. Hi Miss N! I agree it's a long post. It was a long day after all, too :-) Had I written it for print media, I would have pared it down to a more reader-friendly length. But since it's for my personal blog, I pretty much went nuts with the story. Thanks for dropping by! :-)


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