namaste, agra!

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December 1st 2009
Saved: February 12th 2014
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it may be winter but mid-days in north india can be sweltering. as beads of perspiration trickled down my forehead, i knew i had to take off my hoodie before i suffered a heat stroke. clearly, my little striptease act made the old indian lady sitting next to me on the bus very uncomfortable. she turned to her husband sitting in the window seat and complained in hindi about my lewd behaviour. she bitched and bitched and bitched some more until the husband could not take it and they started quarrelling. if only i understood hindi. i would have changed my seat if i could but the bus was full. i never saw or sat on an indian bus that was not at least packed to 20% in excess of its maximum passenger capacity. one would present offerings to lord shiva if they managed to score a seat. so bitch, i ain't getting up. to show her contempt at my intimately close presence, she forced a bag in that sliver of space between our bodies lest my unclean thoughts got the better of me and i decided to get me some rubba rubba. get real, woman. i would rather do a cow. and i wonder which is socially inappropriate - me taking off my jacket or her spitting paan juice (betel nuts, leaves and tobacco) on the bus? i looked down and saw a disgusting pool of blood red spit on the floor between my feet and hers. oblivious to her lack of social graces or perhaps, she did that on purpose, she continued spitting throughout the one-hour bus journey. i inched my feet away. i swear if she got some on my sneakers, that old hag would get it from me. eventually, her husband switched seats with her.

that happened on my ride back to agra from fatehpur sikri. but let's turn back the clock by eight hours.

it was 6.15 a.m. the bhopal shatabdi express train rolled out of the new delhi railway station on time. after a sorely disappointing ride on its sister train the swarna shatabdi express three days ago to amritsar, i had very low expectations of my second shatabdi experience but i was pleasantly surprised. i rode first (or as it is called on shatabdi express trains, executive) class on both trains, however, the contrast could not be starker. the bhopal shatabdi train was much newer, cleaner and the seats were really plush. it was heaven in a hellhole that is new delhi railway station (but it was not the worst as there were many more worthy contenders for that coveted title). sadly, the meals were catered by the same company "meals on wheels". although mediocre to average at best, they were free, so i shall not complain. well, actually, we paid a huge premium (by indian standards) for the speed, punctuality, comfort and meals offered only by the shatabdi and rajdhani express trains. breakfast was a multi-course affair. first, we had tea and biscuits, followed by corn flakes with sugar and milk, a choice of either non-vegetarian (the boring omelette) or indian vegetarian (what you get on that day depends on the mood of the chef, but i tried them all and the vegetarian options were generally tastier), more tea and finished with a cup of mango/orange juice and a banana. the shortfall in quality was made up for by its sheer quantity. i usually skipped lunch after that. a week later, i was onboard the bhopal shatabdi express again, this time all the way to bhopal. i had lunch as well and it was one hell of a meal, complete with kulfi or ice cream.

two hours later, i and almost everyone else on the train disembarked at the agra cantt railway station, a few kilometres west of the legendary taj mahal.

the next morning, i joined the hundreds of expectant admirers in queue waiting to step foot in the sacred grounds of one of the seven modern wonders. interestingly, the taj was the only world heritage site i had been to in india where there were almost as many foreign tourists as there were locals. elsewhere, foreigners were few and far between. no prizes for guessing correctly the numero uno reason for visiting india. it also hit home how bad the recession had been. the devastating impact of the recession on tourism was even more telling when i got down to goa two weeks later.

i digress. i wonder which genius at the agra development authority gave the orders to shift the ticket booth that used to be right outside the east gate now one kilometre away from it and for what reason. it defeated the purpose of me staying next to the gate. i had to walk one kilometre in the pre-dawn chill to purchase my ticket and back. on the way to and fro the ticket booth, i passed by the ostentatious oberoi amarvilas and wow, if only i had the cash to burn (US$700 a night for the cheapest room, i checked). my 'hotel' looked like a slum dwelling in comparison.

i shall not bother waxing lyrical about the beauty of the taj mahal as all the superlative, flowery expressions ever known to and conjured by mankind i am sure have all been used. suffice to say, the cynic in me was blown away, especially by the sight of the taj shrouded in the dawn mist. lovely. i took too many photos, many of which are of the same shot but from a different angle or of the same angle but in a different light. For the 750-rupee admission fee (understandably the most expensive in india) and foreigners pay 75 times that of what locals do (which is utterly ludicrous), i made sure i had my money's worth. a year and a half ago, i met an israeli traveller in koh tao who told me that he had stayed from sunrise to sunset, which was way too much work even for me, to see the taj bask in different lights. i left after four hours when the sun went into overdrive. if only our exorbitant admission ticket entitled us to multiple entries for the day.

the next stop was the agra fort whose walls were far more impressive than the empty shells of halls and palaces on the inside. i say, go to agra fort a couple of hours before sunset and admire the burning red walls of the fort from the outside. then, take a leisurely two-kilometre stroll back to taj ganj and have a pot of kingfisher beer at one of the ubiquitous rooftop restaurants overlooking the taj (many eating establishments in the area do not have a liquor licence, so they can only sell beer by disguising it in a tea pot).

after an obligatory whirlwind tour of the agra fort, i was vacillating between going back to my hotel to rest and heading to the baby taj, followed by sunset at mehtab bagh. just then, an old man walked up to me and introduced himself as a cycle rickshaw wallah, offering his services. i told him my plan b and after some hard bargaining, we agreed on 120 rupees to drive me to the above-mentioned places and then back to taj ganj. just moments after we set off, the rickshaw wallah stopped and turned around to say that i would have to visit a couple of shops on the way back to my hotel. otherwise, i had to pay 30 rupees more. a deal was a deal, and there was no way in hell i was going to let him go back on his words. there was yelling back and forth. either of us refused to back down. in the end, i was so pissed that i got off the rickshaw and walked back to my hotel from the fort. from that moment on, i became even more distrustful of taxi and rickshaw wallahs. i prejudged them, treated them with scorn and disdain, and would curse and humiliate them whenever they tried to mess with me. those were not my proudest moments, and i felt really awful about my mean attitude when the driver turned out to be a nice guy. however, whenever you thought you could start trusting them, you got bitten again. oh boy, did i just describe a bad relationship?

while making my way back to my hotel, i got lost in taj ganj after making a wrong turn at the west gate. as tourists usually had no business venturing outside of the tourist strip, the rest of taj ganj was an eye opener of sorts. it turned out that taj ganj was in fact a labyrinth of small alleys with litter strewn all over and fresh, piping hot cow turds everywhere. the walls were stained with and smelt of pee. the already narrow lanes and streets were shared by pedestrians, cows, goats, dogs, motorcycles, rickshaws and cars. the tourist strip was not clean and green, but nowhere as appalling as that. i shudder at the thought of living in such squalid conditions but hundreds perhaps thousands call it home. what made the accidental stumble into poop town bearable and frankly, even a little enjoyable were the children. they were so cute and friendly. the timid ones would wave and say hello or namaste from the doorsteps of their homes. the bolder ones would run after me to shake hands or ask me a series of the usual questions or just utter something nonsensical.

back to fatehpur sikri. on the same morning i arrived at agra, i made my way to fatehpur sikri by a local bus where i met hiro, a japanese traveller who had quit his job seven months ago to travel around asia and europe for fifteen months on a shoestring budget (he should be in central asia by now). i noticed from my limited contact with japanese travellers that while they hail from one of the most expensive countries in the world, they are amongst the thriftiest of backpackers. they sure know how to make their yen stretch and make me look like a big spender!

together we explored the magnificent mosque (free), the picturesque ruins (also free) and parted ways at the entrance of the palaces (250 rupees) when he took a little peek and decided they were not worth it.

later that evening, i bumped into hiro again at the rooftop restaurant on top of his 'hotel'. i told him he had made the right decision of not touring the palaces. it was a royal waste of time and money. it reminded me of the forbidden city in beijing but even less photogenic. so, a piece of advice to future travellers to india: visit the mosque at fatehpur sikri and walk among the nearby ruins, but do your wallets a favour and skip the palaces. do not make me do the i-told-you-so song and dance routine.

next stop, 'sexy time' at khajuraho.

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Comments only available on published blogs

26th December 2009

A great blog. Really interesting and amusing to read. I love your description of your unpleasant companion on the bus. Very amusing to read although I doubt it was much fun at the time. Beautiful photos of the Taj, well it would be hard to take a picture that makes it look otherwise wouldn't it? Happy travels!
27th December 2009

Just stunning pictures. well done.
27th December 2009

Hi there, Nice pictures, I'm leaving for India in a week, can't wait to take my own pictures.
28th December 2009

Same things again and again!!
Hey, I just read your blog and loghted about your experiences, they are so similar to mine hehehe BTW is the Taj entrace fee now 75 times higer to foreigners? it used to be just 50 when I was there!! And just a tip from a stranded backpacker: taxi drivers, rikshaw, boda boda and every other payd transport all over the world are the same. NEVER trust them!! Just learn not to get pissed when they try to rip you off. It is not going to change anything and it will ruin your trip!! Safe journey Fernando

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