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Published: October 26th 2014
Taking the train from Delhi was a relatively painless experience, with comfy seats and even a mostly edible breakfast thrown in. It would also turn out to be the best transport I ever took in India, by a long shot.
I lost my Brasillian friends from Delhi when we arrived at Agra, the solitary nature of my adventure becoming instantly more apparent. Fortunately I quickly found a new travel buddy: a friendly Belgian girl called Louise, who was a dancer on her way to Cambodia. She was to be my next door neighbour at the new hotel I'd checked into: Hotel Sheela
. Checking in was also a brilliant experience for me, as I'd made no booking at all. I was just a lone man, on the road, who rocked up out of nowhere and asked for a room (Thanks to a Lonely Planet recommendation mind you). I've never done this before, and found it quite liberating! Maybe it's the fact that nobody in the world knew where I was, or maybe I just enjoy the impulsiveness, but either way there's an immense sense of freedom that goes along with it. Considering my itinerary for the trip was literally a
hastily scrawled list of place names I'd got from recommendations on Facebook a couple of weeks prior, it was something I'd quickly become accustomed to. If you're planning on doing India around this time of year, I'd highly recommend it.
My new Belgian friend had arranged a tour with a driver, Sahib, and offered me a place in the car. At 650 Rupees (£6.50) for the both of us, how could I refuse? The first thing we saw was Agra Fort, which in my opinion was way better than the Red Fort in Delhi. It's somewhat less dilapidated, and gives a bigger glimpse into Persian Mughal
life, being their royal residence from the 1500s onwards. But most exciting was that we spotted the Taj Mahal from a window, which made my heart skip a beat. This is no coincidence though, seeing as the Taj was built as a mausoleum for the wife of one of the Mughal rulers that lived in the Red Fort, and he wanted to watch over her. Romantic, right?
The next stop was affectionately called the "Baby Taj", though actually the Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah
. I was slowly building my way up to seeing
the actual Taj, and the suspense was palpable. The baby version could easily be a draft copy, though impressive in its own right, and very Persian. It must have been amazing back in the day.
The scenery on our drive was interesting enough, what with all the people going about their business, sacred cows, and the obligatory goats that were being sold for Muslim Eid. There also happened to be a 9-day festival going on (Navratri
), which was everywhere, and it was relentless. We drove past multiple groups of people throwing coloured powder in the air whilst dancing themselves into a frenzy. Part of the festival also involves giving away free food, and we had kids running up to our car passing free food through the windows - bowls made of leaves with little chapatti things that had sweet or savoury filling. They were actually quite tasty, but also came with a side of humility. Here I was, practically a millionaire next to some of these people, and they were happily handing me free food. I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere, especially as it wouldn't be the only time I experienced this in India. I
Free food from the children of the festival. Tasty too!
quickly snapped out of my humble reverie when Sahib, our driver, decided to pull a fast one on us by saying it was 650 rupees each, which clearly wasn't what we agreed on. We ended up just getting out and walking away. Uncomfortable is a feeling you get a lot of when you're new to India, and Sahib had definitely made me feel uncomfortable - Especially as he had been crudely flirting with Louise the whole way, even asking her to a Bollywood film the next day! What a creep.
The early start and oppressive heat had got the better of us, so after a tactical afternoon nap we spent the rest of the day checking out the rooftop restaurants, lots of which overlook the Taj. We befriended a couple of Israeli girls in the process, one of whom was an intelligence officer, which was interesting! (Also interesting was that due to her religious beliefs she wasn't allowed to willingly make any physical contact with a man. I kept poking her with my spoon, just for kicks. I'm like that.)
The next day was a complete whirlwind, and possibly the most exciting on the
The Taj Mahal!!
Every bit as amazing as I'd hoped.
trip. It started with a 5am wakeup. On a Monday. Whilst this would normally be the approximate equivalent of a strong kick to the groin, this was no ordinary Monday! I was going to the Taj Mahal
- Something I've wanted to see since I was just a wee lad reading up on the 7 wonders of the world. And it didn't disappoint. The first thing that struck me was just how massive the thing is. Not to mention the courtyard and outer courtyard, which could easily be major tourist attractions by themselves, even though they still pale in comparison to the mausoleum itself. We were lucky enough to be the first people to get to the Taj, and got photos without without the masses in front. It felt so much more majestic and personal to have the place to ourselves!
After eventually tearing ourselves away from the Taj, we had a breakfast of curried potatoes, chapattis, and some sugary things that were reminiscent of Koeksisters
from South Africa. This would be my 8th curry in a row, in just over 2 days, but I wasn't tired of it yet! The kid that served us reckoned, through the
medium of charades and broken English, that I was his hair twin, which made me laugh.
I went off on my own to buy some train tickets to Jaipur, my next destination. Simple task, but it turned into a massive ball-ache. For starters I mistakenly caught a cycle-rickshaw, which is decidedly slower than a motorised one. I also got talked into using a travel agent rather than the train station, for which the driver no doubt got commission. I figured I'd save some hassle, but I was wrong. They told me I had to wait half an hour for the booking, which was enough time for the driver to take me to a shop! How convenient. As I'd handed over my money already, I begrudgingly accepted, and spent the rest of the time evading a hard sell on hand-woven carpets. I made it easier by announcing on arrival that I wouldn't buy anything. I finally got my ticket, and made the slow journey back into town with a cyclist that needed a drink stop and a tyre pressure check on the way. It was unbearably hot, so I don't blame him.
And then the
We passed one of the many groups celebrating the 9-day festival, which usually comprises of a truck with loudspeakers and a bunch of rowdy dancing people throwing coloured powder everywhere. My cycle-driver insisted that we stop and join in, and though hesitant, I agreed. I was welcomed ecstatically into the mob with a handshake from everyone, as I instantly became the resident celebrity, and danced in the middle of a circle of excited people that were imitating my moves, all the while getting splattered with coloured powder. I was just getting into my newfound stardom when an angry looking guy came up to me, yelling at me to leave. Everyone else seemed to be oblivious to angry guy, and continued to smile and shake my hand around him. I took the hint anyway and left. My cycle-driver told me that the man was worried that something would happen to me - like getting my wallet stolen - and it would cause tourist police to come in and ruin their celebrations. Fair enough.
Now I became a marked man. Every local was smiling and shouting random things at me, as I was covered
Hanging With Randoms
During festivities by the river
in the colours of their festival. I found Louise chilling at the hotel. She laughed when she saw me, and also wanted to join in. We were in luck - all the celebrating would culminate in a procession that would be passing right next to our Hotel as they head down to the river to submerge effigies of the Goddess Durga into it. We stripped off all our valuables and jumped right in. The festivities were much like my dancing episode earlier, but way more intense. Everyone wanted to know where we were from, how we liked India, and wanted to point out all their family members at the festival, like it was of the utmost importance that we meet them all. I carried one guy's daughter along for a bit, shook a million hands, rubbed coloured powder on randoms (and visa versa!), sat down with a group of guys who all just wanted to ask questions (and all laughed whenever I called their friend a word they just taught me), took photos of people on request, and of course, danced with them. I was also Louise's boyfriend for the proceedings, just to play it safe for her. I got
Riding a Motorbike With a Local
We needed an ATM, and the one we were at was broken. This kind gentleman offered us a space on the back of his bike to the nearest working one, free of charge.
quite a few compliments for having such a hot girlfriend, while she was standing right next to me. It was mostly friendly and fun, but there was definitely a growing element of danger that I became conscious of as things progressed. Something was going on which I couldn't quite put my finger on. A few people warned us to be careful, as if something was afoot. A couple mentioned our skin colour as potentially problematic. At one point a serious dude came and shouted at all the people around us to leave us alone - I was told he was police, though he was in plain clothes. One guy invited us to lunch, quite demandingly, and it took a lot of talking to get out of it. It did get just a touch scary having such large groups surrounding me. Louise felt a quite intimidated at times too, which is when she caught my attention so the dutiful boyfriend could step in! Still, it was a unique experience, and I'm glad I went. The best part was that I could actually interact with the locals without feeling like it was leading up to another sales opportunity. We eventually decided enough
Watching the Taj After Sunset
From the top of Hotel Shanti Lodge
was enough, and made it back to the hotel with everything intact. It was only 3pm too - what a day! After jumping in the shower with all my clothes on, I had another serious power nap. As much as I love it, being the center of attention is draining!
We ended our action packed day sitting on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Taj, with the 2 Israeli girls again, and watched a beautiful sunset. We laughed as we saw pretty much every available space at the Taj being taken up with queuing tourists. Suckers.
Skip to the 4 min mark for this story's movie!
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