Jude playing in front of the Taj Mahal. The line looks deceptively orderly.

The Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  Crossing through the Main Gateway and approaching the Taj on foot (Jude in backpack), we gazed up at the magnificent palace—resplendent in the North-Indian sunshine, a shining white beacon visible from miles around, the crowning achievement of the Mughal Empire—and it was easy to see how it made the list.

As recently as ten years ago, the reasons for the Taj’s inclusion might not have been so clear.   The pollution in the surrounding city (Agra) had become so severe that it was becoming hard to see the Taj.  More than that, the walls were turning yellow.  Visiting in 2000, President Clinton observed, “Pollution has managed to do what 350 years of wars, invasions, and natural disasters have failed to do.  It has begun to mar the magnificent walls of the Taj Mahal.”

But progress is being made.  Even prior to Clinton’s visit, the Indian government was taking steps to protect and restore the Taj.  In 1993, the Indian Supreme Court acted to close down much of the local industry.  Unleaded gas is now available in Agra gas stations (it wasn’t until recently).  All vehicles traveling nearby must run on electric battery power (when we came, our driver dropped us off about 1.5 miles away and we took a special electric bus to the Main Gateway).  This year, the Taj even received what has been referred to as a “facial” mud cleansing (like the kind women get at spas) to remove the yellow discoloration from its walls.

Black cows bathing outside of Agra

According to our tour guide, the efforts have been largely successful, and the surrounding air is much, much cleaner than it was 10 years ago, allowing for the type of spectacular view (of a “white” palace) that we enjoyed.  (The poverty in Agra was so severe—by the far the worst we saw in India, with sewage and garbage lining many streets—that we wondered about the wisdom of shutting down so much local industry, and thereby terminating so many local jobs.  This place is in a bad way, and a large increase in unemployment will not have helped anything.  Obviously, this is a thorny issue.)

Tourists in Agra

Arriving in Agra, one thing weighed heavily on our minds: not getting sick.  Like most travelers to India, we followed a couple of standard precautions for the duration of our stay in the country to avoid having stomach problems, i.e., “Delhi Belly.”  These included: no tap water, including ice in drinks and including exposure from teeth brushing (and keeping Jude from drinking bath water, one of his favorites); no raw vegetables or fruit (they may have been washed in the dirty tap water) unless we were able to peel them ourselves, or we saw someone else do it; no meat (because even though restaurants will prepare it, Indians rarely eat meat, so it may have been sitting out for a while); no street food; and no eating in places where nobody else is eating.

A German couple we met at the Diwali celebration in Delhi had done all of these things, but while in Agra still got floored with a nasty stomach bug that kept them both in bed for a week, and caused the guy to lose almost 10 lbs.  Ouch.  A French woman we met in Delhi said she had “nearly died” last time she was in India because she had become so sick, and had to be hospitalized.  She obviously did not find the experience too upsetting, since she was back, celebrating Diwali with us.

The German couple’s parting advice to us had been: “be careful in Agra.”  Once we saw the place, and how dirty it was, we didn’t need to be told twice: we took no chances.  While in Agra, Bliss and I ate only packaged food that we had bought at a rest area on the road from Delhi (crackers, potato chips and cookies), and a couple of unpeeled bananas we got from the hotel.  Eating that way was pretty gross, but we were only in Agra for one night, and, importantly, we didn’t get sick.  (Agra was the only place in India where we ate like that.  We had some great curries for Diwali in Delhi, and we also ate real food [i.e., not packaged “food-like substances,” as Michael Pollan would say] in Jaipur, which we plan to blog about in our next post.)  Jude had it a little easier: he would be happy to eat “food-like substances” all the time.  Second, if left to his own devices, he could also consume all or nearly all of his calories from milk.  Since we had brought some with us (soy milk, anyway), he was set.

Another health challenge has been malaria prevention.  We are all taking Malarone, a relatively new malaria drug; we take big pills, and Jude takes little ones.  It hasn’t been a big deal for us parents (no side effects), but it has been a big deal for Jude: he does not like taking pills.  How do you force someone who does not like to take pills to take pills, especially when that someone will kick, scream, and turn away, to avoid taking them, and when that someone will spit out the pills onto the floor (if given the chance) and you only have just as many pills as you need?  The answer at first was: we have no idea.  The first couple malaria pill takings presented a trial in parenting, and featured some spitting out of half-swallowed pills; a whole lot of crying and turning red; and dad forcing some pills into the back of Jude’s throat while holding him down.

Fortunately, there is juice.  We do not generally give Jude juice, viewing it essentially as vitamin-fortified sugar water, but in this case, our hands were tied into making an exception.  On morning four of the pill-taking debacle, Bliss had the brilliant idea of getting Jude to associate pill taking with juice drinking.  “Jude, do you want to take your medicine?”  “No.”  “Do you want some juice?”  “Yes.”  “You can have some juice as long as you take your pill.”  Simples.  Sometimes the path of least resistance is well and truly the only path.

We have already discussed how amazing the Taj Mahal is visually.  Another thing that is amazing about visiting the Taj Mahal is seeing how the line to get in works (or doesn’t work).  We were visiting during Diwali, and the overwhelming majority of visitors were Indian tourists.  (They paid 10 rupees to enter; foreigners like us paid 250 rupees.  There was separate Indian-foreigner pricing at every sight we visited in India.)

We waited in line for over an hour before things started to break down.  Before that, it had been fairly sedate.  The only sign of something amiss was the presence of menacing-looking guards, walking around, brandishing batons, and glaring at people.

According to our guide, up to 15,000 people visit the Taj Mahal every day (with higher numbers around holidays, such as Diwali).  We do not know how many people were waiting in line with us, but it felt like hundreds, if not thousands (you can’t see most of the line from any given point in it).  After about an hour, the line turned, and we were finally parallel with the Taj, standing about 10 feet away from it to the west, and packed in tightly with the other tourists.  All at once, there was a mad rush, a stampede really.  People were charging to the left and right of us, all pushing to get ahead of each other, everyone’s place in line up for grabs.  It’s hard to say how it started.  Apparently, someone was of the opinion that no guards were looking, and decided to start running, and everyone else decided to follow suit.

This happened a couple of times.  Each time the charge would eventually end when a couple of guards would show up waving their batons, and angrily yelling at people.  I’m not going to lie; I ran too.  I determined that it would be safer than standing still.  I lost Bliss (shortly) and we both lost the guide (for a long while) but we eventually reconvened and entered the Taj together.

Nobody ever ran into me with any real force, but there was definitely a lot of jostling (people may have taken it easy on me since I had a toddler strapped to my back).  As to the toddler in question, he found the whole thing very amusing.  (“Everybody running!”)  Some visitors did not take it so well.  I saw one western woman leave the line, crying, saying something like, “They’re all crazy!”

I wish I could say that this was the only instance we saw of “creative” line waiting.  It was not.  One of the more amusing examples either of us saw came while Bliss was waiting in a single-file, two-person line in the ladies’ outside of Jaipur.  The woman who had been standing behind Bliss stepped to the side, and then casually cut in front of her.  Why wait behind Bliss when you can just not wait behind her?  Exactly.  Bliss, to her credit, did not stand for it, and just as casually stepped back in front of the woman.  That was the end of it.

Although places in line are more discretionary than concrete, we never saw anyone be mean or bitter about cutting.  I passed a guy in the line on the Taj, just as the guards were starting to put down the latest stampede.  Rather than begrudge me, he simply turned to face me, looked at Jude on my back, and said, “Good running with baby.”


MORE LIKE THIS: India Part 1: Fireworks, Eunuchs, and Dippers




  3 Responses to “India Part 2: Malaria Pills, Mud Baths, and the Taj Mahal”

  1. In my generation (your parents) there were no liquid meds for kids – basically few meds other than chewable “orange” flavored children’s aspirin. On the rare occasion that pills were necessary, the standard practice was to grind them up and mix them with something like applesauce. For reasons that I don;t remember, Welsh’s grape jam was used in my house and the taste of it now leaves me searching for the pill bits. I suspect Jude is too savvy for this technique though!

    • Thanks, Barb! That is a great idea. We are still taking them, so if we run into problems again, I’ll definitely try the jam trick.

  2. LOVE the photo of Bliss and the Taj reflected in Patrick’s sunglasses! Really enjoying your blog– “see” you on Thanksgiving!

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