22-24/11/2017, Agra and Jim Corbett’s National Park (India)
“So I’m taking you to the Taj Mahal now”
“No please, it’s too late and we will have to rush it, plus we want to be there at dawn to see it in the daylight”
“Alright, so can you take us to Agra’s centre? We need to find traditional shoes for the wedding”
“So… Where are you taking us now?”
This is the template of one of the thousands discussions we had with Nagar, our driver. An eternal nerve-wracking fight!
AGRA- Taj Mahal (day 3/4)
We eventually managed to be driven to Agra and to bargain for mine and Tobi’s wedding jootis (kind of ballerinas with a pointed front end, only worn by men) in one of the many street stalls, located right on top of open sewers. Honestly, the little we saw of it, didn’t really make a big impression on us. On my travel diary I scribbled: “Agra looks like a total chaotic and dirty mess!”. And if somebody asked, I would still go with this same definition.
After being quickly shown what the highly celebrated Agra Fort consisted of (unfortunately our schedule was too tight for a visit), we finally made it to our accommodation, Aman Homestay, run by a lovely Indian lady with a big passion for cooking and relaxed get-together dinners.
5.45 AM, the alarm went off. Our aim was to get to the Taj Mahal, a 15 minutes walk from our homestay, right before sunrise. Unfortunately dawn happened while the gates were still closed! Not a big deal anyway, at least we knew that visibility that day was not an issue. Apparently not long before we went the only thing that visitors could see of the mausoleum was a thick grey layer of mist, due to a ridiculously high level of air pollution.
After the security checks, that prohibited me to bring in my travel diary (I stopped asking myself a lot of questions since I had landed in India), we finally rushed in the complex, joining a horde of neurotic, selfie-stick geared, Asian tourists.
One of the New 7 World Wonders, UNESCO world heritage site, the most famous expression of Mughal architecture and, possibly, the first thing, along with yoga and curry, that comes to peoples mind when they think of India, the Taj Mahal is nothing but an opulent and everlasting evidence of love. Commissioned by a Mughal emperor to house the tomb of his favourite wife, the ivory white marble mausoleum was completed in about ten years and costed (in the seventeenth century) an equivalent of 730 million euro.
Does it live up to its reputation? Fully.
This place is just one of a kind and a safe harbour in case you suffer a little of OCD and the previous days in India have started to take a toll on you: not a single blade of grass is longer than the others nor a single stain appears all over that white marble extravaganza. Everything is meant to be utterly and almost overwhelmingly perfect and I guess that’s the reason why people finally start to shut the f*** up, or at least to be less noisy than their usual: astonishment.
We spent three hours there, explored every corner of it and, as you can see, made a good use of it as the idyllic background of few portraits. This time around I really forced myself not to shoot as much as I wanted to (the memory of Machu Picchu’s 4 rolls of the same identical picture was still fresh in my mind).
After few minutes spent petting a lovely calf on the street (because why not?), we made it back to the homestay, had breakfast and embarked on a loooong journey north to our friends’ wedding location: Jim Corbett’s National Park, not far from Nepal’s borders.
JIM CORBETT’S NATIONAL PARK and the (royal) Indian wedding (day 4 to 6)
Well. 260 km can’t take so long, right?
We made it, emotionally and physically worn out, to the opposite side of the park (unfortunately that is where our accommodation was) more than 12 hours later.
Blame it on the driver (yes Nagar, you! We perfectly know that you should have used a GPS instead of getting lost every half hour), blame it on the crazy traffic jams we got trapped into every time we had to drive across a town, blame it on our engine that decided to work on and off… I still have to admit that the exposure we had on that everlasting drive was probably the most real until that moment. Exposure on everyday life, city life, countryside life, people chilling, people working, people eating, people staring, people smiling… so many people smiling, especially kids, some of the most beautiful smiles ever. I don’t regret doing that: it was the moment when I finally felt something for this country that wasn’t annoyance, and my first step on the way to finally embrace it.
Same way I don’t regret our masala chai under a starry sky in the middle of nowhere, the best one I ever and, most likely, I will ever have.
But coming back to the wild sides of India.
Since our driver was clueless about which direction to take, and one of the roads looked particularly steep and not suitable for cars, he sent me and Tobi on a reconnaissance mission. FYI, Jim Corbett’s National Park has a reputation for hosting lovely endangered big felines aka Bengal Tigers. It was pitch dark, the air was thick and me and my mate smelled like somebody who’s been stuck in a damp car for more than half day: an interesting mixture of sweat, Indian sneaks and greasy skin. I guess something that could quite easily draw a tiger’s attention. He told me quietly, and absolutely seriously, these words “Andrea, if something jumps out of the bushes, you need to run backwards because tigers don’t attack if you stare at them in the eyes”. I laughed hysterically and a second after the jungle went silent. Something started to move in the bushes next to us. Next thing I know was that both of us were running backwards as fast as you can imagine, until we made it to the hotel entrance.
We had to ignore our driver’s requests to get him a room, and to gently declined our nasty smelling welcome drinks (Tobi actually tried a sip and his expression convinced us not to make the same mistake), before we could finally collapse in bed.
New dawn, new day.
And what a day was ahead of us!
Refreshed from our sleep, we left our bedroom and took a second to stare at the mountain landscape that, due to the late hour of our check in, we completely missed.
Had breakfast with quite a few weird moments. The whole pot of milk Tobi was given after he asked for a caffé macchiato, and the complete lack of understanding between German practical sense and Indian nonsense, will never be forgotten.
We grabbed our bags, said goodbye to the staff and walked down the road to meet Nagar and finally get to the wedding location, meet our friends and get ready… but, wait, where is our driver?
Turns out the driver wanted to take his revenge, since the previous night we refused to pay for his accommodation, and simply didn’t show up to pick us up.
- Nagar had all our wedding outfits and gifts (basically a s*** load of gin) in the car;
- the car was on the other side of the park, something like one and half hour away from us, apparently being fixed;
- we were in the middle of nowhere, with little or almost non existent public transports.
- the chances to miss the initial ceremonies started to get considerable.
I first played a mix of my best dramatic Italian and the evil British complainer on the phone with the boss of the drivers company. However, I soon had to come to terms with the fact that, even if Nagar had come to get us, we still would have been late for the wedding. So I decided to focus on the car’s content instead and to demand for our stuff to be delivered to the wedding as soon as possible . “Sure sir, yes sir” and I knew that, at least, our outfits would have made it in time…
Now, we were the problem.
How on earth were we supposed to make it through the jungle???
We asked the reception and got told that a bus for locals was on its way. We rushed back to find the bus waiting on the side of the road. “Thank God” we thought, we walked in and realised that there was no free seats for us. “We’re in India, c’mon!” I said to my friends “Of course nobody cares if we just stand” (clearly I had in mind those overcrowded trains we’re shown in the documentaries). As soon as the guys started to nod, some of the passengers on the bus informed us that NO, it was not allowed to stand up, that bus was full and had no plans to leave before another couple of hours. What were we supposed to do? To wait for the next one, but, most likely, it would have been full too.
We all started to lose hope that we could make it to the wedding at all. The main reason why all of us had come to India!
Tobi turned in my direction and hopelessly asked “Andrea, what do we do?”
In that exact moment an old jeep appeared on the street. the first vehicle we saw since we made it to Jim Corbett’s national park. Without hesitating I sprang up in front of it and made its driver pull the brakes. One minute later the 4 of us and our backpacks were squeezing on the jeep’s back seat while the driver rushed his way out of the park and his wife relentlessly vomited out of the window. It was scary AF, I won’t hide it, and the vomit-covered window right next to Anna Kaba’s face was the last thing we all wanted to witness right after breakfast. However, we were moving in the right direction and that’s probably why none of us dared to complain.
An Indian wedding is something that everybody should experience at least once in their lives. And I would describe it with the same three words I would pick for India: chaotic, colourful, magical.
Why chaos? Well, the only person in the whole ceremony that seemed to know what was going on was Aish’s mother. We all had to stop asking Anna questions after her 15th “I have no clue”. But c’mon she’s Polish, so that makes total sense! So we asked Aish. Funny enough, it turned out he had no clue either. There was obviously no room for being uptight and strict Westerners. If we wanted to make the most of the whole experience, we should have just gone with it, without buts or maybes, and this chaos needed to be embraced.
And it really worked.
Soon I found myself eating pakoras, while Isa and Anna Kaba had their Henna done, while our friend Paulo had his beard shaved and the whole crowd was busy catching up loudly with each other. All of this, while the Hindu priest was on stage with Anna and Aish, going through a long series of litanies and rituals, whose meaning will probably never be disclosed.
But how beautiful was that? And how surreal if compared to a whichever Roman Catholic wedding ceremony I had been to?
Turmeric paste smeared all over the bride and groom’s faces, enough delicious food to satisfy whoever’s taste, outfit changes, turbans, huge golden nose rings, colourful saris and leehenga cholis, Aish riding a white horse on the upbeat notes of a marching band while a rioting crowd dances all around and throws bills at him, Anna getting more and more beautiful in her private room with us sneakily smuggling vodka bottles to calm her nerves, the newlyweds putting on an awesome dancing show for the guests, us on stage dancing to Bollywood tunes (my traditional shoes couldn’t keep up and they kinda fell apart…).
Something none of us will ever forget.
Olympus OM 1, Zuiko 50mm f/1.4, Lomochrome Purple 100-400 (35)
Lomo LC-Wide, Agfa CT Precisa 100 (35, cross processed)
Nikon N55, Petzval 58 Bokeh Control, Kodak Portra 160 (35)