Adventures in India: The Taj Mahal, Elephant Polo, and a Pug Named Buddy
“One of the advantages of working for the government is that you don’t have to do anything and they buy you a house,” Puneet Dan says as we drive past the Delhi neighborhood where most of these government-sponsored homes are located. We’re making our way from the airport to our hotel, and we’re stopped at a traffic light, surrounded by swarms of yellow and green motorcycle rickshaws just north of Delhi’s posh West End. Most Indians live with their parents and grandparents all under the same roof, so the sprawling homes here look more like apartment buildings than single-family dwellings.
Our group of six has just arrived in India — my first trip to the subcontinent — and Puneet is our guide. It’s just 20 minutes into the trip, and Puneet has already revealed a sneaky sense of humor, a love for Scotch, and an energy level that seems Superheroic to someone who just spent 24 hours on three flights. A tour director with U.S.-based Micato Safaris, Puneet will be bringing us to Northern India’s greatest travel hits over the next ten days.
It’s a trip that starts in Delhi and ends in Agra — home both to the Taj Mahal and Puneet’s family (including his pug, Buddy). He promises us that he’s never met a traveler who hasn’t been utterly blown away by the Taj, and that when we visit his house, Buddy will be waiting for us by the front door. But before the Taj or Buddy, we’ll explore Varanasi, billed as the most ancient city in the world (a claim I’ll get around to fact-checking at some point on this trip); the fortress city of Jaipur (where I plan to play elephant polo, just because I can); and Udaipur (about which I know little except the very important detail that our hotel — the Taj Lake Palace — has a spa boat).
A network of luxury travel agencies recently deemed India the top emerging destination in the world for travelers. I had no idea about the rating before I decided on this trip. But now that I’m here and will be sleeping at the outrageously posh Taj Hotels all the way, it’s nice to know the rest of the world would like to be in my shoes. For the first time, and very likely the last, I can say that they’re the same shoes as Hillary Clinton and James Cameron, both of whom have stayed at the Taj Palace Hotel in Delhi, our hotel for the first two nights of the trip.
Cameron was here just a week ago, presumably consoling himself post Oscars, and Hillary stopped in about six months after the 2008 Mumbai bombings — which, Puneet later reveals to us, Indians refer to as 26-11 (the date the attacks occurred), and they consider it to be their 9-11. Hill and Jim both stayed in the presidential suite, which is just a touch fancier than my room (most notably the private spa, giant bathtub in shape of a saucer, and neverending square footage). But we share the same incredible views of the Central Ridge Reserved Forest, which is Delhi’s version of Central Park.
After settling into my room, I decide to go for a run around the outside perimeter of the hotel — an idea that leaves me sucking in Delhi’s notoriously polluted air and feeling like I’ve smoked a pack of cigarettes. The real purpose of the run, though, is to get me outside the tourist bubble, if only briefly, to start getting a handle on this place. Delhi’s population is a staggering 12 million, and India in general is massive and amorphous. I’m expecting Puneet’s social commentary to fill in some gaps, but for me, there’s no way to get to know a place without seeing things like where people buy their groceries and how they get to work. In my brief huff around outside the hotel, I pass taxi drivers taking naps in the shade next to their cars, and a group of boys playing soccer at the Bangladeshi embassy shouts out Hello to me.
After dark, Puneet and the group convene on the outdoor patio of the hotel bar. While we sip plum martinis and eat crispy baby eggplant, the general manager of the hotel, Taljinder Singh, sits down to chat with us. Singh, wearing a red silk turban, reveals that he has recently moved to Delhi from Calcutta, and the conversation quickly turns to the differences between Indian cities — Delhi is India’s version of Washington, DC, he tells us. And Mumbai is the financial center, like New York. Calcutta isn’t like any other place Singh can think of. And in general, he says, India is pretty hard to pin down. “Every 200 kilometers you drive,” he says, “India changes completely.”
Singh mentions the fact that each of the country’s 26 states has two dialects, distinct customs, and its own dress and food. “You can’t figure India out,” he tells us. “We can’t even figure it out, so you won’t be able to.” But Singh does give us one important insight into modern Indian culture: “Work is the religion here more than actual religion is,” he says. “It’s about what you can do and accomplish. Everyone is working hard to raise their standard. That’s the real India.”
It’s too early in the trip to know what to make of Singh’s thoughts. And the whole point of being here is to see India for myself. We have two days in Delhi, and then I’ll be ready to explore the world’s possibly-oldest city, work on my elephant polo game, let myself be blown away by the Taj Mahal and welcomed to Agra by a pug.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 2 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook