Exploring the Golden Triangle in Northern India
(Warning: this post encompasses four days in India. Because it was all part of the same tour, I have decided not to split it up into smaller segments. In other words, it’s long!)
As part of the voyage, Semester at Sea offers Field Programs for which anyone on the ship can sign up for and participate. Field Programs are essentially tours set up by a tour operator. There are over 200 offered throughout the voyage, and they range from sightseeing tours of the country’s most famous landmarks, to homestays in villages, to visits to local colleges or non-profit organizations. There is a great variety of types of trips, offering something for all travelers, and anywhere from a half day program to five days. The costs for these programs are not included, so students and faculty/staff pay for these out of their own pocket. The advantage of Field Programs is that one can experience so much in the short amount of time we have in the country, and many of the programs are experiences that would be difficult to organize by oneself.
For India, I was offered to lead the 4 day/3 night Field Program called “Classic Jaipur and Taj Mahal”, a trip that visits the Golden Triangle in northern India. The Golden Triangle, made up of Jaipur, Agra (Taj Mahal), and Delhi, are some of the most visited places in all of India.
Before the voyage, all staff and faculty were able to fill out an interest form of which Field Programs they would like to lead, known as a Trip Liaison. The staff/faculty is responsible for the safety and discipline of the students on the Field Programs. A local tour director always takes care of the ins and outs of the tour, but the Trip Liaison is essentially the Semester at Sea representative to make sure participants are safe on the tour. The benefit of being the Trip Liaison is that TLs receive half price for half-day trips and are completely comped for overnight trips (free travel!).
I was offered to be the Trip Liaison on three Field Programs: 1) Classic Jaipur & Taj Mahal (3 nights), 2) Trekking in Northern Vietnam (3 nights), and 3) Hiking the Great Wall of China (4 nights). All of these last for a majority of the time we have in each of these countries, so most of my experiences will be on the Field Programs. A downfall is that it means I won’t be able to independently travel in these countries, but the plus side is that it is a great experience (personally and professionally), and I am able to take $1,000 trips for free!
Classic Jaipur & Taj Mahal
Work as a Trip Liaison starts before we even arrive in the destination country. To be proactive and create community within the group beforehand, we have a meeting to introduce ourselves, talk about expectations with group travel, to go through the itinerary a bit, and for the participants to ask any questions they may have. Trip Liaisons are given very little information, so only a small part of the time do I know something more than what is on the itinerary. Because of a meeting that took longer before this meeting, I had to rush through it and try to get everyone out.
My group for the Taj Mahal program was 34 people, including the counselor on the ship and her husband, and the ship’s librarian. College students are a new group for me to work with on tours, so I was a bit nervous. I knew I would have to change the way I interact with them compared to my 8th grade students.
This Classic Jaipur & Taj Mahal was a visit to northern India, whereas we were docked in southern India. This was the most popular Field Program in India, and four sections were registered, meaning there were about 140 people total who signed up (34 in my group, Section C). The tour operator worked the itinerary out to be that Sections A & B had the exact same itinerary, and Sections C & D had the same itinerary, just that each day was altered to have the reverse itinerary of A & B. Everyone was at the same hotels and ate at the same restaurants. Although this seems like a lot of people, I personally thought it worked out very well. Maybe it’s because I’ve led tours where we have three buses and 150 8th graders, but I never felt overwhelmed with people on this tour.
Our first morning was an early one, with a meeting time on the ship of 3AM. With our flight leaving at 8:10AM, the airport being about an hour away, and the need to build some buffer time just in case, this was an early one! As you may imagine, some college students don’t make responsible choices the prior evening, when the previous evening was their first night where they can have as many drinks as they choose (they are limited to beverage services on the ship, which happen about half the evenings and students are limited to two drinks). I’d say about 1/3 of the students in my group did not sleep at all that previous evening, though not necessarily out drinking but just not thinking they’d be able to sleep much anyway. One student had to be awoken at 3:15AM since she was nowhere to be found. Granted this was an early morning, but we had more trouble on this trip with people waking up than I ever had on 8th grade trips.
Anyways, we left around 3:45AM and got to the airport in plenty of time. Our flight on Air India connected through Mumbai and then to Jaipur. Air India still does airplane food, and pretty good food at that! Our flight arrived to Jaipur around 2PM, and our bus and guide were waiting for us there. From that point on, it was a whirlwind trip around what they call the Golden Triangle.
Jaipur, known as the Pink City, was founded in the 1720s by Jai Singh II, who was the Hindu ruler of the Kingdom. He shifted the capital from Amber to this newly founded city of Jaipur. This meant that Jaipur became the most important city of this kingdom, and it is still the capital of the state of Rajasthan. It’s a city of both stunning historical sites, including the city gates, the City Palace, and Jantar Mantar (I’ll talk a bit more about each of these), as well as modern commercial buildings like the newly constructed World Trade Park. It’s a city of over 2.5 million people, which is considered mid-sized in India, where Delhi has over 20 million.
Driving from the airport to our first destination was an experience in itself; it seemed like there was never a lack of something interesting outside the window. An old fortress up on the hill, a man throwing handfuls of bird seed to hundreds of pigeons, an elephant with its owner walking on the street, monkeys hanging out on the rooves of buildings, camels resting on the sidewalk, the Water Palace sitting majestically in the middle of a lake, a large statue of the Hindu monkey god. It was an experience just watching everything outside the bus windows. Our Tour Director, Devendra, who is from Jaipur, was happy to explain it all.
Our first destination was Amber Fort, located in the former capital of this Hindu Rajput empire before it moved to Jaipur. The Amber Fort was the palace where the Maharajas (kings) lived during their rule. It was built in the 1590s with red sandstone and marble. It is a four-storied fortress with defensive walls surrounding it for protection. The walls, climbing up the surrounding hills, remind me of pictures of the Great Wall of China.
Getting up to the fort was an adventure in itself. As part of the tour, we had jeeps waiting for us to drive us up the small and windy cobblestone streets up to the fort. Five passengers per jeep, we had four in the back and one up front in the passenger seat. The steepness of the roads, especially on some turns, definitely meant the jeep was required to get up there safely. Those fifteen minutes were definitely a ride!
Once inside the fort, we saw the public audience hall, the private audience hall, and the Sheesh Mahal. The public audience hall was actually the site of a movie filming, so it was decorated up and had many cameras around. The Sheesh Mahal was one of the most unique places inside the fort. The Sheesh Mahal is its own room and hallway, and the walls are full of mirrors from the late 1500s which were imported from a port near Venice, Italy. The mirrors are cut into various designs and shapes, and it’s impressive they are still here on these walls today.
The jeep ride back down from the fort was no less exciting. After getting onto the main road, a small lake sits down below the fort. There was some sort of a festival going on for women, so many women were knee deep in the lake, as many others looked on from the dry shore. Fireworks were being set off, and crowds of people were making their way to the festivities. I am not entirely sure what was going on, but it was a site to see.
From here, we went straight to our hotel for the evening. This trip was not necessarily a budget trip, and it certainly showed with the quality of the hotels and the food. For our two nights in Jaipur, we stayed in the Indana Palace Hotel, a brand new 4-star hotel which had been open for less than a month. Walking into the gorgeous lobby, they ensured that each of us felt like royalty. When we walked in each evening, someone was there to put the small Hindu dot above the area between our eyes. Servers were prepared with glasses of fresh juices for the guests. And everything was incredibly formal, almost too formal. One student had a duffel bag with her, and the bell persons insisted that they deliver it to her room. After going back and forth, she gave up her bag. After getting to her room, she realized they never took her name or room number, so there would be no way for them to know where to deliver it. She then went down to the lobby and found her bag sitting to the side. When she tried to grab it to take to her room, a bell person stopped her and insisted they would deliver it. Back and forth they went, and finally, the student gave up and told them her room number to be delivered. I never heard about it again, so I imagine they eventually got the bag to the correct room.
The hotel truly seemed like a palace. The restaurant, the lobby, the rooms, the pool and spa, it was all very well-done. Our dinner was set up in their back grassy area. In an area that is so dry, a grassy area really is a luxury item. They set up nice white chairs and tables for our dinner with 140 people, and they provided a beautiful buffet of foods ranging from a corn soup to fresh fruits, and from curries to naan bread cooked on the spot. The issue, as you can imagine, was getting 140 people through one buffet line. Like the hotel, the quality was excellent but they didn’t quite have it down!
(PS: I just now realized that working as a Tour Director, I have a new perspective on hotels and their service. Three years ago me wouldn’t say these same things!)
One of my all-time favorite names of historical sites, the Jantar Mantar was an intriguing place to visit. It is a collection of 19 astronomical instruments, commissioned by Jai Singh II and completed in 1734. It features the world’s largest sundial. Our Tour Director, Devendra, took us around to various instruments and showed how they worked and how to tell time, the current month, horoscope, etc. These instruments were created using astronomy and instrument design principles of ancient Hindu Sanskrit texts. In other words, they were built based on the mathematical calculations of the position of the sun as well as astrology beliefs.
The most interesting part I took away from the Jantar Mantar site is the prevalence of astrology in Indian life. Devendra explained that many Indians believe that the exact time and location of your birth is what decides your life – your characteristics, your career, your entire destiny. This is all based down to the minute of your birth and the latitude and longitude of your birth. When I asked if there is a certain guide that tells all of this, he said that only experts can explain all of this. Why this is so interesting to me is that I have never taken astrology seriously. It always seems to generic. “If you’re a Sagittarius, you are someone who loves the outdoors, but you also don’t mind being indoors.” I was not aware that cultures do use horoscopes in a much more extensive way, and I do find that interesting and curious to learn more.
Next on our agenda was to walk across the street to the City Palace. Originally the seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur (king), it is now a museum as well as the royal residence of the royal family of Jaipur. While the royal families across the country of India no longer have diplomatic powers, they are still prevalent in many states.
The City Palace was built by that same Jai Singh II, the king who decided to bring the capital of the region the area of Amber to this area he named Jaipur. The original palace was completed in 1732, and many additions were added later by successive rulers up until the 20th century. The City Palace really deserves an entire half of a day to explore. Not only does it have several beautiful public spaces and audience areas, but it has four museums, a traditional art demonstration, henna designers, a small market, and more. We had about two hours total inside, and it was fascinating.
The museums varied by subject, from historic weapons (including swords with pistols attached to them) to traditional dress. There were several “guards” in their traditional wear and loved to ask if you wanted pictures with them. It was certainly a beautiful and lively place to visit and to learn about.
That evening, we visited another “palace” for dinner (i.e. a fancy hotel), where we had another dinner buffet in their grassy area, and we also had Rajasthani folk dancers and musicians as entertainment. A bit later in the performance, a female dancer placed a container on her head, and they lit the inner part on fire. She moved around the dance floor balancing this on her head as we all held our breath. As you probably expected, she didn’t drop the flame but perfectly balanced it throughout the rest of the performance!
Train to Agra
The next morning, we started another full day of adventures. With another early morning, it was the same story for many students as the first day – too much partying the night before caused a few to be 30 minutes late (luckily not from my group). We departed at 5:30 and headed straight for the Jaipur Railway Station. The sun was just coming up as we arrived, and the train station was already active. There were just two platforms, and many people were sleeping on mats they had brought as they traveled. Many people traveling by trains have long layovers, especially overnight, as they wait for the connecting train to depart. Rather than getting accommodations (I am guessing mostly because of the cost), they sleep on the platform at the railway station.
The previous day, some of the female students in my group had bought traditional Indian clothing, including saris. Not being familiar with how to put them on, the ladies simply put them on however they could; however, they were still looking to improve. Having time to waste, our guide asked a few women at the station if they could help us out. Happily, at first, three women jumped up and went right to it. Soon, four others joined as more of our students decided they needed help. At 6AM at the Jaipur Railway Station, it was a spectacle to see, as it seemed like everyone in the station was looking on to see what the commotion was about. The women helping out were so nice about it, and they seemed to be excited to see foreigners wearing saris. Afterwards, both our students and the women helping out wanted pictures together. It was such a cool experience for all of us, and what a nice way to start out our day. Rather than being bored at the station, we had the chance for a unique experience.
One student from California, Camille, was especially excited about the experience. The day was her 21st birthday, and she was visiting the Taj Mahal on this very day!
Jumping on the train, we started our journey to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.
Agra and the Taj Mahal
The three and a half hour train ride to Agra was very pleasant and almost needed in order to relax after the amount we had already done in two days. We had first class tickets for the train, which I heard are not too much pricier than the normal tickets, but it does give a reserved seat in a car that isn’t too bad. With 140 people total, we had two entire train cars reserved. The train crew served morning tea and breakfast along the way. I liked the branding of their food service on the train: they call it Meals on Wheels!
We arrived in Agra, and a representative from the tour company was already waiting for us, and the buses were ready. This is a huge advantage of group travel; it’s all set up and waiting for you as you arrive. If I was by myself, I would need to figure out where I need to go, about how far it is, about how much it should cost, and then negotiate with the taxi/rickshaw driver with how much I should pay. Here, we just follow the guide to the bus, and they take us to our next destination. This time, it happened to be the Taj Mahal.
The bus dropped us off outside the Taj Mahal on the main road, and about a ten minute walk later, we were at the main gate. Because our visit to the Taj Mahal was so soon after Diwali, the Festival of Lights, the place was extremely busy with those who had traveled there from all over the country to take advantage of their vacations. This made the entrance process quite interesting.
There were four lines to get in, one for Indian males, one for Indian females, one for foreign males, and one for foreign females. The reason for these lines is that they charge foreigners a much higher price, charging about 1,000 rupees ($15) compared to the Indian price of 40 rupees ($.60). While I think the price is fair, it’s strange to have two different lines for these. This also came into play to get into the actual building of the Taj Mahal. The name of this foreigner ticket is uncomfortable in itself, called the “High Value Foreigner Pass”. I am unsure if they can, but I hope that Indians can buy the “High Value Foreigner Pass” if they want, paying extra to avoid the longer lines. Once through security, we regrouped and Devendra took us in.
The Taj Mahal is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. From a young age, we are exposed to images of the Taj Mahal along with pictures of the Eiffel Tower in France, the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, Macchu Picchu in Peru, and the Sydney Opera House in Australia. The Taj Mahal was named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and is considered one of the best examples of Mughal architecture and a symbol of India’s rich history.
Would you believe that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum? I think generally, people believe it to be a temple of some sort. However, it was built to be the final resting place of Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (he had 12) (Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to their 14th child). It was completed in 1653, about 30 years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and cost an equivalent of over $800 million in today’s money. This is so extravagant, and it shows just how rich and powerful the Mughal Empire was in its day.
Walking in through the main gate, we started to see glimpses of the Taj Mahal, wonderfully lit by the 11AM sun in October. To see something so iconic is surreal at first; it feels as if you need to pinch yourself to wake up. I talked to one student, who had recently found a drawing of the Taj Mahal she completed when she was in fourth grade. I can’t imagine she had ever even dreamed of visiting this site she was drawing at the age of 9.
The Taj Mahal from the outside was everything one would hope. It is palatial, extravagant, enormous, out of this world. The two minarets guard the ivory-white marble dome. The pools and walkways lead you to the entrance of this godly site. Seeing the people on the platform, just outside the Taj Mahal, made me realize just how large this is. Seeing the Taj Mahal in person was grander than I could’ve ever imagined.
As part of the entrance fee, one can enter inside the mausoleum and see the false tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal (false meaning they are not in these sarcophagi, they are actually in tombs below). While it seemed like a good idea, it was actually not a pleasant experience going through there, mostly because of the amount of people going through and the lack of serenity inside. The “High Value Foreigner Pass” line went to the left to get up onto the main level of the Taj, and the “Indian Pass” went to the right. Whereas the foreigner line went directly in without much weaving, the Indian Pass line wrapped all the way around the Taj, meaning that people were waiting for an hour or two to enter. Inside, signs said to keep quiet – it is a mausoleum – the guards inside were not enforcing this, and they were even blowing their whistles for no apparent reason. The heat and the cultural difference of spatial awareness (i.e. people nudging you from behind with every step as they try to make their way forward) meant that it wasn’t the most pleasant experience for me. The inside of the Taj wasn’t particularly impressive compared to the outside, and I quickly saw the false tombs and got out as quick as I could. When we only had about 45 minutes of free time at the Taj Mahal, 30 minutes of my time was spent going inside. I’m glad I went through to see what it was; but if were to make it back, I would probably skip out on that part.
A frustrating part about this itinerary is that we literally only had 45 minutes of free time at the Taj Mahal. The trip name is “Classic Jaipur & TAJ MAHAL”, so how could the tour company not build in more time to spend there?! It’s the reason people are coming on this trip! This can certainly be the negative side of group travel.
Seeing the Taj Mahal was truly incredible. I loved seeing all of the domestic travelers there, as well; many of them traveled from the far reaches of India, possibly the first time they had ever seen this icon of their country. Many of them would have saved up to bring their families here, traveling multiple days by train with layovers like I talked about earlier. I was very privileged to be here at this important site. Here I was, traveling around the world by ship, and in my five days in India was able to visit many of the country’s most important sites – many of them sites that many Indians can only see in photos. Why am I the lucky one?
After lunch, our last stop in Agra was the Agra Fort. The city of Agra was once the capital of the Mughal Empire, as you may have guessed based on the fact the Taj Mahal is located there. It was the residence of the Mughal emperors until 1638, when the capital moved to Delhi. The Agra Fort is really a walled city.
When at many sites, it was clear that many people were traveling from smaller cities based on the number of pictures taken with individuals of our group. When at any site in the Agra Fort, in Jaipur, Taj Mahal, etc., random people would walk up and ask they could take a photo with you; then they would take a selfie. Sometimes, there would be a group of 5-10 people, and they’d wait one by one to take their photo with you. I believe they do this because they haven’t seen many white people where they’re from. It honestly makes one feel like a celebrity. In this four day trip, I was in probably 15 or so pictures. However, many of the female students, especially those with blond hair, must have been in at least 100 photos in this four day tour. They could hardly go anywhere without being in photos. I think many of the students were flattered!
Devendra took us all around the fort. The fort was found by Akbar, the grandfather of Shah Jahan, the emperor who had the Taj Mahal built. In 1558, Akbar made it the capital of the Mughal Empire and created many new additions to expand the fort. Akhar built many of the buildings on site with red sandstone, but Shah Jahan tore down some of them to create buildings of white marble.
What I found most interesting was the room that turned out to be a prison for Shah Jahan, once the ruler. At the end of his life, his son had him restrained in the fort (essentially imprisoned). While it was imprisonment, Shah Jahan’s quarters were made of beautiful marble, featured a fountain, and a balcony with some of the best views of the Taj Mahal, his masterpiece. It is rumored that he eventually died in this space.
Train From Agra to Delhi
To end this day, we boarded another train to head to Delhi to spend our last night. The train station in Agra was a stressful experience. There is a required security check, so everyone must put their bags their the scanner and walk through the metal detector. The issue is that there is just one person monitoring the scanner and no one else at the other end of the belt, so people are going through very quickly. I put my bag down on the belt, and three others throw their bags on top of mine. I rushed through to make sure I could grab my own. With a mob of people going through, I was sure at least one student would have a bag taken in this chaotic process. While no bags were stolen, I was told that a few of the female students were grabbed by men walked through in this mob. It was not a pleasant experience.
The train ride was uneventful, and we were again served food; not knowing what to expect, this always intrigues me. The bus was waiting for us at the train station, and we were about 45 minutes in traffic to get to our hotel.
Because Delhi is such a large city and we only spent about a half a day there, I don’t feel like I got a great feel for the city. I do know that it is an extremely large city. With about 25 million people in the metro area, it is considered the fourth largest city in the world (after Tokyo, Jakarta, and Seoul). The highlight of our time in Delhi was definitely the rickshaw ride.
Rickshaws are essentially bicycle taxis. With a two wheeled carriage attached the back of the bicycle, it has a bench for two passengers. As part of our tour, this was all set up for us. I was especially excited for this, as I could only imagine what 17 rickshaws in a caravan would look like going down the streets of Delhi. As an adventure enthusiast, this was certainly a highlight.
We first went through a Sunday market, where vendors displayed their products on carts, in stores, and on blankets on the sidewalks. Anything from shoes to shirts to toiletries were being sold, and the people were coming to shop on this Sunday morning. We then went by several religious sites, all within half a mile from each other. We saw an important Mosque (I didn’t catch the name of it), a Sikh temple, a Hindu temple, and a Christian church. The most notable of these was the Sikh temple, something I had never seen before.
You probably most know the Sikhs by the men’s dress; the men wear turbans on their heads. From what I was told, the Sikhs, in general in India, are some of the wealthiest. But they don’t necessarily keep it all to themselves. Every Sikh temple offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner to anyone and everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are Sikh, Christian, Hindu, or whatever, they will give you food if you need it. Their goal is to not let anyone starve. When we went by this Sikh temple, there was a line of at least 100 people waiting to be served on the sidewalk. We were told that this line, a bit later in the morning, would be over ½ mile long. I think this is such an honorable thing the Sikh temple does, and it’s very inspiring to see.
After the rickshaw ride, we had a bus tour of the city. We saw the President’s Palace, embassy row, the place where Ghandi was cremated, the Red Fort, and a few other sites that I am now forgetting. Because it all happened so quickly, I would love to go back and learn more about India’s capital city of Delhi.
After our half day in Delhi, we departed for the Delhi Airport. All of the 140 people on the trip were on the same flight, except for me, who was booked on a flight leaving two hours later. It sounds like it would’ve been an inconvenience, but I actually really enjoyed the quiet time at the airport, where I hung out at Starbucks and sipped on the $4 large black coffee. The only time I would spend that much at Starbucks is when it’s a rare opportunity to something familiar. When I arrived at the airport in Kochi, a gentleman was waiting outside the baggage claim holding a sign with my name on it, just like I’ve always dreamed. He took me to the private car that was booked, and I was on my way back to the ship.