We had finally reached the portion of our India trip we were most excited about: meeting up with our friends Amy and Ben, who were coming all the way from Austin, Texas, and staying with friends Bion and Caitlin in Delhi, and then traveling with Ben and Amy to Agra and Rajasthan. Nick and I arrived in Delhi, the huge, bustling capital, a couple days early and stayed in central Connaught Place, where we enjoyed some Western comforts like espresso, Mexican food that wasn't worse than DC's, bookstores, and a shockingly clean and functional subway system. I wasn't in much of a sight-seeing mood, so we only took a walk down New Delhi's Rajpath, which connects the India Gate (a huge arch commemorating fallen soldiers that looks like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris) with Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President's residence), and reminded us a bit of the National Mall in DC.
Our last two days in Delhi were spent with our friends Amy and Ben from the US and Bion and Caitlin, Americans living in Delhi. Bion and Caitlin live in a gorgeous house in the south Delhi neighborhood of Hauz Khas, which is full of artsy shops, big parks, and yummy rooftop cafes and restaurants. After a couple days of relaxation there, Amy, Ben, Nick and I took a train to Agra to do the most touristy thing you can do in India: visit the Taj Mahal.
Everyone says the Taj is incredible, but Agra (India's capital under the Mughals) is not, and once again, common wisdom rings true. We woke up to see the sun rise over the Taj from our hostel's roof, then headed over to see it close up. Luckily the crowds weren't too bad at this time of the day, so we were able to enjoy the Taj hassle-free. The Taj Mahal was built under the direction of Shah Jahan as a shrine to his favorite wife, Mumtaz ("Taj") Mahal, who died in 1631 shortly after giving birth to her 14th child (that's what I call pushing your luck). The Emperor was devasted by her death, and ordered a workforce of about 20,000 men to build the Taj, which took over 20 years to complete. Marble and semi-precious stones were brought to Agra from all over Asia. It really is a magnificent sight: so huge and clean; the white marble exudes a calm and cool peacefulness, and trust me, any Indian sight that is this frequently visited but still manages to exude even a tiny bit of peace is worth mentioning! Personally, I found the inside to be a bit underwhelming-- perhaps I expected the interior to be covered in emeralds and diamonds or the like, but it was actually quite similarly decorated as the exterior.
There are many other sights to see in Agra, but frankly, if you begin with the Taj, the others are going to be disappointing in comparison. Nevertheless, we had several hours until our overnight train, so we headed to the Agra Fort, which we wandered for a couple hours before heading to the nicest hotel in Agra for a vacation from India. The Amarvilas (an Oberoi property) proved to be just the resting spot we needed. After being greeted by a number of overly friendly staff who we were sure were going to ask our scruffy selves to leave, we were shown to the bar and sipped cold beers on the patio while gazing out at the Taj all afternoon. As we've quickly learned, luxurious treats like this are the only way to keep your sanity in the crazy cities of India!