I have always considered India to be exotic.
China was foreign, Europe was romantic, Fiji was tropical, but India held the title for exotic.
I formed this opinion in the second grade, when my teacher, Mrs. Kimmel, brought in a guest speaker from India.
Dressed in a beautiful sari, she wrote the word ‘sacred’ on the board and started talking about cows. Dazed by her unfamiliar accent, I thought that all the cows in India were scared of something and maybe that was why no one ate them.
That wasn’t exotic. That didn’t make any sense. What did they serve at McDonald’s, then?
Next she showed us a picture of the Taj Mahal.
That was what did it.
It was far and away unlike anything I had seen before.
Anytime I saw a picture of the Taj Mahal after that, it burned a little hole through my insides. I wanted to see it. I needed to see it.
Except that it was in India. Which, in direct contrast to its exotic buildings, clothing, elephants, and maharajahs, was also crowded, dirty, loud, far away, and kind of scary.
As I got older, I collected further evidence of India’s exoticism:
1) Mary from ‘The Secret Garden’ grew up in India, and any girl my age who had ridden an elephant outside of the Indianapolis Zoo was exotic.
2) In ‘The Legend of Zelda’ they traded in jewels called rupees, so for several years I believed that people in India also used precious gems instead of regular banknotes. Definitely exotic.
But 22 years after that guest speaker, I’m finally here, and it’s mostly because of one thing: the Taj Mahal.
After one day in Delhi, we caught a train to Agra and hired an auto-rickshaw driver for the day. He took us straight to the South Gate and agreed to meet us there 2 hours later.
At first, you don’t see it. There’s a lot happening: tour guides hassling you for business, shopkeepers trying to sell you trinkets, security guards dividng you into lines of men and women, and the impressive entrance gate.
We were nearly through when a man stopped Jared and asked for his ticket.
“No,” he said firmly, waving the man away. We’d been warned by our rickshaw driver not to let anyone take our tickets because we might not see them again.
The man was very insistent and asked again.
Which was fair, because he was the official ticket-taker.
Jared apologized, handed over our tickets, and we were through.
And there it was.
Sometimes when I see a monument for the first time, it’s ever-so-slightly disappointing. Bells don’t ring, a choir of angels doesn’t descend, and there are no fireworks.
But at the Taj Mahal, I felt it.
Confession: I cried a little. An old dream of mine had come true, and it hadn’t disappointed.
“It’s impressive, but I thought it would be bigger,” Jared said.
Ignoring his comment, I fought through the other tourists and took a few photos.
It was like photographing a ghost. The building kept disappearing into the hazy blue sky every time I clicked the shutter.
What I’d forgotten in my awe is that you can go closer, and when you do, it becomes clearer.
We spent nearly two hours walking in and around the Taj Mahal, basking in its gleaming white marble. Even though there are lots of other people there, it seemed peaceful.
That probably had less to do with the building and more to do with the absence of steaming cowpats and screeching auto-rickshaws, but whatever. It was peaceful.
When we were done, we exited into the decidedly un-exotic city of Agra, where I saw yet another goat wearing a jumper/cape.
Then we had an un-exotic meal at a vegetarian restaurant, which may or may not have been what made us so sick on the train later that night.
We trekked through Agra fort with our backpacks, sweating un-exotically and squinting for glimpses of the Taj from the archways.
The rest of the day paled in comparison to the morning, but it never really had a chance.
I’m not sure that I still consider India to be exotic: in two short weeks I’ve seen too much that says it isn’t. For one thing, rupees are just paper notes. Lame.
But, having seen it with my own eyes, the Taj Mahal will always be a symbol of the exotic India of my childhood. It’s nice to know that, as a kid, sometimes you got it right.