Dispatch, India: Paying the price for too much spice

India DispatchTravel Weekly Destinations Editor Kenneth Kiesnoski is spending three days in New Delhi, India, detailing experiences about his first trip to the country.

DAY 4: I took baby steps in discovering India yesterday. Today, I experience my first growing pains … as in stomach cramps. Overindulging in a scrumptious Indian meal at lunchtime, I paid for my enthusiastic embrace of spicy subcontinental cuisine with a bout of queasiness and irrepressible indigestion. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
 
Delhi lies within a short distance from Agra, ancient capital city of the Moghul Empire and site of the legendary Taj Mahal. I can’t imagine being so close and yet remaining so far.

Travcoa and Rainbow Travels arranged a day trip to the iconic landmark -- train going, private car coming back. I rise long before the crack of dawn to catch Indian Railways’ southbound Shatabdi Express, which departed hectic, crowded New Delhi Station at 6:15 a.m. The station, in the rough-and-tumble Paharganj neighborhood, is a hive of hustle and bustle even before sunrise.
 
My fellow passengers and I in first-class coach E1 -- foreign tourists and a handful of local business travelers -- settle into our spacious seats. Male cabin attendants dressed in turbans and historic Indian costume hand each of us a single rose in greeting, as a soothing, recorded female voice repeatedly notifies us, in two languages, that we’ve boarded train number 2002 (in lovely, lilting Hindi, “Doh-Shunya-Shunya-Doh”), bound for Bhopal.

As we pull out of the station, the attendants move up and down the aisle to the accompaniment of instrumental Indian music. They distribute a choice of newspapers, tall bottles of cold spring water, coffee or tea with sweets, and then a two-course breakfast with juice. In contrast, there is desperate urban poverty outside the train window. Shanties, tents and lean-tos roll by -- too near the trash-strewn tracks.

The hovels soon yield to the picturesque countryside of Uttar Pradesh state. This is the Braj, holy land to the Hindus and reputed birthplace of their beloved god, Krishna.
 
We pull into Agra at 8:05 a.m., 10 minutes early. I alight and am quickly picked out of the backpack-laden crowd by Rainbow’s local rep, the charming Roshan Lal Bhasin. We pop by the Mughal, an ITC hotel and a member of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, where gracious General Manager Anil Chadha generously offers both breakfast and, unbelievably, a room.

I accept a coffee and washroom break, and then Lal hands me off to my dashing guide, Rishi Garg. (Yes, all the Indians I meet all seem to be charming, gracious or dashing, or a combination of all three.) I see from his business card that Rishi is general secretary of the Tourist Guides Federation of India. I take it to mean that he knows his stuff. And he does.

We head straight for the Taj Mahal. Making my way to its gates, I try hard to ignore the persistent sales pitch of an underage postcard peddler named Lucky. Today, he’s out of luck. If I bite, I’m bait for the other slingers of overpriced souvenirs hovering nearby.
 
I tour the Taj. I won’t try to describe it. Rishi put it well: No postcard, painting or moving picture -- and certainly not the proverbial 1,000 words -- can do the site, or the sight, justice.

indiadispatch4tajI will say this: Some dreams turn out to be underwhelming, even a letdown, when achieved after years of built-up expectations. Seeing the Taj Mahal is not one of them.
 
After a tour of Agra’s amazing Red Fort, an even more glorious iteration of the bastion back in Delhi, Rishi takes me to lunch at a local restaurant owned by a friend, also named Rishi.

Rishi the restaurateur is a former bodybuilder who, he sheepishly admits, reigned as Mr. Agra in 1993.

Not a big fan of Indian fare, I nibble at the Mughlai cuisine served: bright pink Tandoori chicken; steaming saffron rice; dal, a spicy bean stew; garlic flat bread; and cucumber-and-yogurt sauce.

Surprised at how much I like it, I begin to eat with abandon. Alone. The Rishis are fasting, as it’s the second day of Navratri, a biannual festival dedicated to the Hindu goddess Durga.
 
Sated with my foray into north Indian fare, I part ways with the Rishis and climb into my cab for the ride back to Delhi. What follows is five hours of swerving and swaying. There are scores of auto-rickshaws, mopeds, trucks, cars and even the occasional camel and cow vying for the right of way (sometimes in the wrong direction). All of this is accompanied by the incessant honk of horns, a necessary annoyance on windy Indian roads.

Unaccustomed to exotic Eastern spice, my stomach begins to gurgle as the car begins to lurch. I steel myself and put my faith in my driver. For extra protection, I offer a prayer to India’s gods. After all, this is Krishna country.

Kenneth Kiesnoski is Travel Weekly's Destinations Editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

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