Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wandering Wednesday - Agra, India

Agra, India: like many others, the key reason we visited this town during our travels in India late last year was for a must see stop at the most well known icon of India - the magical Taj Mahal.

After our first overnight train ride from Varanasi, we hopped off in Agra bright and early in the morning and were starving for some breakfast. We had discovered the night before that train food in India leaves much to be desired, unlike the rest of the cuisine. I firstly couldn't find my 'spork' and after spilling my dinner on Mitch and myself, decided to just bring on the dettol and eat with my hands. A few bites into my tasteless meal, a friend discovered her meal was in fact not vegetarian, containing some crawly little caterpillers. Every train ride following this one, we came prepared with our own food and just enjoyed the tasty little cups of chai!

Upon exiting the train station, the strong smell of sulphur (that the guide books do not warn you about!) became even more evident - I had been smelling this on the train coming into Agra and sat there silently, trying not to pin the blame on one of my fellow travel buddies. After navigating our way through the hoardes of auto rickshaw drivers asking us if we wanted a ride in their helicopter, we finally agreed on a price for someone to take the six us to a hotel to store our bags for the day, as we were not planning on staying overnight in Agra. As we were whizzing along, I remember looking out and seeing elephants, monkeys and the distant shadow of the Taj Mahal through the smog. The hotel came recommended to us from a guide we met in Varanasi and after seeing our bags (minus any valuables) locked away in the hotel basement, we started to make our way to the Taj.

The next stop was breakfast, in a typically dirty little cafe where we ordered up on honey on toast, eggs and chai, only to be left waiting for what felt like hours while the owner sat and chatted on the phone in the next room. Not to worry though - we were thoroughly entertained by the droning singing on TV and the discovery of Connect 4 games to play, even challenging the owner to a game (thanks to one of my travel buddies who snapped this shot of what appears to be a rather tense game?).

After we finally figured out how to split our bill, much to the amusement of the owner (we happily left it to the two engineers in our group, who spent much time figuring it right down to who owed who the last 5 cents - a tradition that followed us 3 times a day for the rest of our trip in India) we took a short walk and arrived at the entry to the big white dome....

After making it through security, where the guards were a bit puzzled by Mitch's portable photo storage device and couldn't decide whether to let him keep it or not, we made our way down the long entry path and finally, the Taj emerged through a doorway...

It was honestly spectacular - so incredibly huge and one of those things that despite being very touristy, is something that you will never forget. We donned our shoe covers and spent some time wandering around the grounds, through the Taj itself, swatting scary looking insects, using the flashiest squat toilets ever (they flushed!), posing for photos with Indian families and just being in awe of this mighty symbol of love. I loved how everything is perfectly symmetrical and the intricate carvings and semi-precious stones adorning the outside of the building.

For some reason, us girls kept getting asked to pose with Indian families... We'd sit and pose with one family member, then the next one would jump in, then another one would want their photo and so it went on....

I happily obliged but many photos later, decided to turn the tables. I worked up the courage to go ask an Indian family if I could in fact get my photo taken with them, and despite the language barrier, Aurysia pointing the camera at them got the idea across and they posed with me. A little while later, they chased me down and then got me to pose with their kids - I was loving it, felt like a bit of a celebrity for the day.

After a lunch stop at Joneys cafe, where we feasted on toasted sandwiches and awesome banana lassis while playing with the local crazy cat (or in Julian's bags case - was attacked by), we made our way over to the Red Fort. By this time of day, it was stinking hot and the touts were out in full force, but despite the heat and constantly repeating, NO, NO, NO, I really enjoyed exploring this squirrel filled old fortress. It has beautiful views of the Taj from a distance, and a fact I found fascinating about this place was how (according to my basic understanding of the story) the son of the guy who built the Taj Mahal overthrew his father and locked him up for the rest of his life in a room with a view of the Taj. The Taj being the shrine this man built to his wife, who died in childbirth with his son that locked him up. As I stood in the room, staring in wonder at the this big white mausoleum in the distance, I could only imagine the pain this poor man must have felt. Rumour has it he was also planning on building a black version of the Taj, but obviously the whole being locked up by your own son kinda puts all plans on hold.

After a day of exploration, we hired some cycle rickshaws to take us back to the hotel. Although a lot of people think cycle rickshaws to be cruel (and I don't disagree), I preferred to take these over auto rickshaws for small distances and when we were without baggage. I guess you could say these cycle drivers are lowest in the food chain when it comes to public transport, so I would prefer to give my money to them rather then to an auto driver who will likely get other business anyway. We encountered a hill on our cycle back to the hotel and our poor, skinny old driver (I was feeling terribly guilty at this point and ready to pay him the fare and just walk) was struggling up the hill. Mitch offered to take over and he gladly agreed, perching himself on the edge of the rickshaw giving Mitch instructions with a huge grin on his face! We rode past our friends, who were doing a similar thing, and the looks on the faces of passing cyclists and drivers was priceless!!!! We finally came to a skidding halt, narrowly missing running into an auto rickshaw after Mitch discovered the braking systems on these things isn't particularly well maintained.

After an amusing ride to the hotel, we collected our bags and were on our merry way (armed with packets of pineapple cakes, biscuits and Limca - our healthy dinner choice for that evening) back to the train station for our next overnighter to Udaipur.

Despite the smell and heavy pollution, Agra is still a town well worth a visit. The Taj Mahal is one of those places that you have to see to believe and fully grasp it's splendour. I imagine a visit to India without seeing the Taj would be a bit like a visit to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower.... It's a must while in India :-)


  1. India! Isn't it fascinating! Am staying in New Delhi, India for almost two years and i can't get enough of it. THe weather sucks pretty much but just love this country. Great blog you have here

  2. Wow, I imagine that would be a pretty incredible (and challenging) experience living in India - how fantastic! It's an amazing country, so much to see - I loved the short time I spent there!

  3. Love these Lu :) Great memories!! Hopefully will be seeing you guys soon - will be in Switzerland in just a couple of days... :D

  4. Wow, not long til you're in Lindt land now - how exciting! Sounds like you guys have had a great time in the UK. We'll be seeing you soon no doubt - I think Mitch is already planning a work trip to Switzerland, once we get back from Greece :-)

  5. It's great to read these because it brings back things that I have forgotten about. It was such a fun holiday! We definitely have to travel with the same 6 again!


Thanks for reading, your comments make my day :-)


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