The excitement and anticipation had my mind filtering through thoughts faster than I could keep up. By 4:00 AM I realized I wasn't going to get any sleep. As I began my run, I felt the familiar firmness of the pavement beneath my feet. Soon I was lost in a memory of Mrs. Johnson's 4th grade class. I was sitting in the left corner of my classroom at Challenger Elementary with my elbows propped on my desk staring at a projector screen. We were learning about the ‘7 Wonders of the World’ in geography, and that’s when I first saw it, the Taj Mahal. Its white domes, stunning spires and gothic arches had me awe struck. Mrs. Johnson told us about the legendary structure. I took in the ornate details, and my young mind thought of Aladdin and Agraba. I began to dream about far away places and I resolved that one day I would make my way to see the Taj Mahal along with the other 6 wonders. Looking back, I believe this is where it all began- my desire to travel and adventure to different worlds to see for myself what treasures and beauty are hidden in cultures other than my own.
We had left Vrindavan a couple hours back. Our coworker had given our driver instructions to take us straight to the Taj Mahal in order to get inside before they closed the entry gate. I had my heart set on not only going to see the Taj, but riding there in style…and by style I mean on top of a large gangly animal with a massive hump on its back and a neck like a slinky. I practically leapt into the little cart being pulled behind the massive camel I would soon learn was named Riju. I was ecstatic to see such an exotic animal outside of a zoo. With a little sweet-talking our guide agreed to let Lisa and I ride on top of this foreign creature. Excitedly I volunteered to go first. In fits of giggles I balanced myself and walked across the bar on the right hand side of the wooden saddle type structure. With a quick stride, I swung my leg over and grabbed onto the rope. Wow. Riju was much taller than I’d expected and his head was larger than my entire torso! As he began to move I laughed half out of fear and half out of excitement. You see, before this I was scared of even riding a horse, but after I had such a great time riding Riju riding a horse will be a piece of cake! He walked slowly, and with each step I moved up and down. He had some personality and at one point slinked his neck back to face me.
I decided to give him a pat on his head. His hair was coarse beneath my fingers and I became even more aware of his grand size when I noticed my hand was approximately the size of his eyeball.
We made it to the entry gate in about 10 minutes. Completely giddy, Lisa and I basically ran through the ‘ladies’ line towards the entrance and our volunteer ‘tour guide’ had to hurry to catch up (Note: I have ‘tour guide’ in quotations, because at every tourist attraction in India random guys will come up to you offering to take you on a tour for ‘a very good price’). Normally we never have these tour guides tag along, but this guy volunteered to take pictures for us and said we could pay him whatever we liked so we happily agreed.
We entered through the west gate and I caught my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. I was breathless, and as I walked down the few steps onto the lawn I was just as enchanted as when I saw the photo on the projection screen so many years ago. We walked around the grounds and listened to all of the informative facts our guide spattered out. I’ve never taken more photos of a single structure before in my life or had as many cheesy tourist photos taken of me. I wanted to capture every single angle and detail of this moment on film. We saw the tombs of the notorious Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, and his wife he had built the Taj for, Mumtaz Mahal.
As I felt the cool white marble beneath my fingers and marveled at the fire red flowers I blissfully soaked in the fact that my dream had become a reality. I didn’t want to be anywhere else at that moment, and I didn’t want to leave.
After a couple hours, the sun had gone down and our guide told us the guards would soon begin to usher everyone out. In order to avoid being stuck in the chaos, we made our way towards the exit. It was the cherry on top of my fantastic Indian adventure, and I relished the fact that the adventure was not yet over. A smile as wide as the Grinch’s spread across my face when I gratefully thought of my parents. At a very young age my dad told me I could “do anything I set my mind to”. As I recollected this memory I was overcome with gratitude and a sense of fulfillment. The Taj Mahal had captured my heart…not only because it is undoubtedly a beautiful work of architecture, but also because it symbolically means so much more…to me it represents being able to accomplish my goals and holds future promises of adventure and cultural experiences. I left feeling completely blessed. It truly was an opportunity of a lifetime.