Agra, India—The sane traveler makes a simple calculation when planning a getaway: The longer it takes to get there, the longer the stay required to make it worthwhile. By that definition, my friends and I are not sane travelers. ¶ We did Peru's Machu Picchu over a long weekend in 2003. We used another long weekend in 2005 to see Iguazú Falls from the Argentine and Brazilian sides. We trekked to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan last year — and were back home by week's end.
There was no place in the world, we figured, that couldn't be conquered in a few days by a group of determined middle-aged suburban fathers with wanderlust, carry-on luggage and the ability to power through jet lag.
Oh, how we wanted to see the Taj Mahal. We talked about it frequently, over drinks in South America, in the Middle East and at our homes in the foothills near Los Angeles. But even with the best airline connections, a fast driver and little sleep, the Taj was a good 36 hours of travel from Los Angeles. And even if we were crazy enough to do it all in less than a week, would we even remember it?
In late December, one of my fellow travelers sent around an e-mail challenge: "I have a taste for tandoori. Are we on?"
It was all the push we needed.
Our plan was to explore India's Golden Triangle, the 430-mile tourist route from Delhi to Jaipur to the Taj Mahal in Agra and back to Delhi. With air travel, we would cover about 14,430 miles and spend five days on the ground.
Along for the ride were my regular travel companions, Richard Goetz and Steve Stathatos, and another friend from our first trip to Peru, Stan Blumenfeld. Our trip had the hearty endorsement of our spouses, none of whom wanted to endure such a long journey at such a quick pace.
Right away, a glitch
As we left for the airport on a Sunday morning in late February, we went through our usual preflight competition to determine who had squeezed the most stuff into the smallest bag. Stan won, though just barely; all of us easily fell within the carry-on limit.
On arriving at the American Airlines terminal at LAX shortly after 7 a.m., we got a sharp reminder of how vulnerable a quick journey is to even a small hiccup. The terminal was a nightmare of unmoving queues, due to weather cancellations the previous day.
Passengers like us, with carry-on baggage and confirmed tickets, had to wait with those passengers rebooking and buying tickets. We found a supervisor, but by then our flight had left. She booked us standby on the next flight to Chicago — our last chance to make our connection to New Delhi. Steve called his travel agent, and, as if by magic, an airport fixer named Anna appeared at our gate to make sure all four of us cleared the wait list. As we boarded, Steve gave Anna a spontaneous, grateful hug.
As our plane descended toward a night landing in Delhi, the pilot spoke over the intercom. The weather in Delhi, he said, was 72 degrees and "smoke." Like the landing, his forecast was right on target — a mild night and air thick with smoke from cooking fires.
We headed straight for the Imperial, approaching the landmark hotel on a private driveway lined with two dozen king palms. The hotel was built in the waning days of British rule in the 1930s, and Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Mountbatten met frequently there to discuss the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan.
We settled into soft leather chairs in the 1911 Bar (named for the year that King George V declared his plan to move the capital of India from Calcutta to a "new" Delhi) and gazed at the stained-glass roof, feeling a bit wobbly from the trek. Tall, frosty glasses of beer steadied us, though.
We were up early the first morning to meet our driver, Prakash Chandra, and city guide, and soon our comfortable, six-seat SUV was nosing its way into the cacophonous streets of Delhi. As one of my companions wryly observed, the honking horn seemed to be India's national anthem.
When we were arranging our trip, a tour operator quoted us $3,150 per person for a ground package matching our itinerary. But we did the trip for about $1,500 per person, using a Los Angeles travel agent to book the same hotels directly and a Delhi travel agent, recommended by a friend, to book the car, driver and guides.
Our first stop was Old Delhi and Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque, built in 1656. We climbed a narrow, circular stairway to the top of one of the minarets, marveling at the view of the Red Fort, the 17th century palace built by Shah Jahan, and the merchants selling raw lamb from street-side stands in Old Delhi below.
We emerged from the mosque and hopped onto waiting bicycle rickshaws, and our drivers weaved through the Spice Market, expertly — but barely — avoiding wooden carts loaded with rice, spices and flowers — the sustenance of this city of 14 million.