Saturday, March 13th, 6 am
My first trip to India and as everyone told me, it is truly a place of contradictions! Unbelievable beauty, juxtaposed with abject poverty and despair. Beautiful natural vistas, littered with trash. Saris and turbans made with cloth of stunningly vibrant colors, which seem to be made brighter when viewed against the grayish backdrop of the dirt, grime, and smog that is ever present. Then there is the fact that pretty much everyone speaks English; yet, the cultural divide can still make communication rather difficult. It seems that they often say “yes” even if the answer is really “no.”  Or they say “yes” and “no” at exactly the same time. Of course, all the contradictions just make this experience that much more interesting. I’m absolutely fascinated by it all.

After spending a few days in Rishikesh with my friend Laura (from Washington DC), we made our way to Agra, where we were joined by Barbara and four other Voluntourists: Leitia and Ruckus (a couple from New Zealand), as well as Caroline and Megan (a mother and her teenage daughter from Austin).

Meaghan and Caroline

On Friday morning we all set off for Fatehpur Sikri. The trip was fascinating. First, there is simply the experience of the drive. Everyone speeds along, with no apparent concern for the mundane rules of the road, like staying in their lane. They simply honk and then accelerate, weaving in and out, driving fearlessly towards the oncoming traffic in an attempt to pass the cars, motorcycles, buses, and trucks which are blocking their way. All the while, the drivers are also dodging the cows and dogs, which all seem to make their way into the middle of the traffic as well. I’m convinced that Indian drivers must have the best spatial relations of anyone in the world. Somehow they are able to instinctually judge, within an instant and at high speed, which areas they can squeeze their cars through and which are too tight. It is truly an amazing talent!

As we made our way through Agra, we witnessed the daily routines unfolding on the side of the road: men having a morning shave in an open air barber shop, a man on a small carpet bowing and praying to a shrine, men sleeping in their bicycle rickshaws while waiting for a fare, women in stunningly colored saris carrying their infants, merchants selling their wares, entire families on motorcycles, and beautiful children in clean, pressed uniforms heading to school. Outside of the city, we began to see many people carrying red and gold flags and wearing sparkling red and gold headbands as they walked along the road. Our driver explained that they were Hindu devotees on a pilgrimage to pay homage to a goddess. They walk 4 to 5 days to reach the temple destination, some even walk barefooted in order to show their devotion. Along the way, we also saw a motorcycle carrying two goats, and, as we arrived in Fatehpur Sikri, we even saw a camel pulling a cart. It was definitely one of the more amazing drives I’ve ever been on.

Built by the Emperor Akbar in the 1560s, Fatehpur Sikri is a remarkable well-preserved palace located approximately one hour outside of Agra. We learned all about Emperor Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605 and was an amazingly enlightened man. Although he was a devoted Muslim, he believed in and promoted religious freedom during his reign. He had three wives: one was Muslim, one was Christian, and one was Hindu. Akbar was the grandfather of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife of 19 years, who died giving birth to their 13th child.

After touring Fatehpur Sikri, we were dusty and tired from our excursion into ancient history and returned to our hotel in the afternoon for a bit of a rest by the swimming pool. At 5:30, Kumar, our driver, took us to a small rooftop restaurant with an amazing view of the Taj Mahal. As we watched the sun set, we enjoyed a nice Indian dinner and Kumar regaled us with his experience as a location scout for Slumdog Millionaire and working with Brad and Angelina.

All of us on the rooftop restaurant

It’s now Saturday morning. Barbara, Laura and I have already visited the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, so we are staying back at the hotel while the rest of our group head off with Kumar to see those two amazing sites. Following lunch, we will head off to Delhi, where the rest of our fellow travelers will join us: a group of 15 students and 2 chaperones from the UT Catholic Center. Tomorrow we head to The Miracle Foundation’s Children’s Homes and the real reason for our trip begins!