Leaving Pushkar to drive to Agra turned out to be quite the adventure. For this leg of the journey we were due to leave Pushkar and head to Agra for the final stint of our car and driver portion of the trip. The plan was to hit Agra and then leave from a nearby town, Mathura, via train to go to Mumbai, and then begin our journey south. But en route from Pushkar to Agra it looked like the roads were closed?? All of them in the direction of Agra? Billu was not happy and not very pleasant about it at all. We first hit a major traffic jam and that kicked off the rest of the day. The drivers have their own form of channel 9 on the highways and were quickly yelling out of windows at one another as they pulled U Turns to head in the other direction. This is where it got fun. With everyone saying the main highway to Agra was closed, it was time to find an alternate route.
This is where it got tough. The drive from Pushkar to Agra was supposed to be a long day but this turned into over 12 hours of driving. We would veer down a dirt road through a village only to find that road not functioning or not connected to the next road. Complete country villages came out to see the convoy of cars snaking through their towns. When i say dirt road. I mean more like a cattle straight or pathway. Most were barely wide enough for our tiny car, and some just weren’t. It was fascinating to take in the scenery though. Like a cliched 80’s save-the-children informercial, the kids came out en masse, waving and screaming at the cars and running along. The dust was thick and abrasive but it didn’t seem to bother them. Groups of men seemed to ponder the events; slowly gazing as we passed. And the women. Well the women just kept working. Thats the big observation we have both had here. The women of India freaking work, but every 15 feet you see a clutch of men, just hanging out. Or at least seemingly hanging out. The women were in the fields, tending animals, hauling loads of wood on their heads; but the men were just there. And that trait seems to be holding through a lot of small towns at least.
While the journey was hard, and the temp increasing with no AC, and the air too thick with sandpaper to want to inhale it; it was exciting to be on an adventure. In the beginning it was annoying, and i swear i wanted to jump into the communication chain and use my GPs to help the convoy, but after a while we just settled back to enjoy what is India.
We arrived late in the night to Agra. Billu didn’t want to drive to the old part of town by the Taj but he serendipitously offered help finding a rickshaw driver for each of us. This is where it got mildly uncomfortable for us. Each of us climbed into the PEDAL driven rickshaw to head to the hotel. And we had to have the skinniest and smallest drivers in all of Agra. We were killing these guys. Especially me. And as he heaved with each press of the pedal, I just felt bad. Must go on diet! But it was also just too much of a physical toil for him for me to feel good.
We crashed quickly at the hotel in preparation to see the Taj Mahal the next day and then head out of town to catch the train to Mumbai. We got up before dawn to go get our tickets for the Taj. Walking around this quarter of the city was spooky. The smog is so thick, that it looks like fog, and beings seem to emerge from it suddenly as you walk past. Looking ahead we saw these massive creatures that looked like something out of Cloverfield, but they turned out to be camels. But it’s scary that the smog is THAT thick.
Tickets in hand, it was time to join the queue. It was a cool assortment of people. Both westerners & Indians. It was also cool to see the long list of the restrictions for entry. They really do try to prevent anything that could be used to make a statement (flags & propaganda) and/or deface the monument (gum, candy, plastic).
So let’s get it out of the way. The Taj Mahal is beautiful. It’s just like all of the photos and it’s exactly the image you have in your head. Going before sunrise was smart because it wasn’t so hot yet and the number of tourist was still low.
When you enter, you see massive gardens and water fountains surrounding the Taj in the center. And when you get to the actual White Part of the monument you have to either take off your shoes or put on little booties to protect the marble from your feet. Nice touch. We searched for a unique place to take in the sunrise.
Photographing a crazy popular place or known monument is hard for me. I want to try and find an angle that’s unique or special but it’s almost impossible. You see clutches of tourists in the classic spots making lesser versions of the post cards you can by for $.03. Chuckles jumped up and out on a balcony and found a cool spot for some shots and we took those.
Looking at the shot above, it’s very volumetric and “foggy” as that’s what the morning was like. But remember that haze/ fog is pure pollution that you can taste and smell.
I didn’t realize that the Taj was set along a body of water either.
Post sunrise, we just explores the grounds and took it in. It’s quite the monument. The actual interior of the building is quite small and blocked off for tourists. So it’s a fast exploration. It’s not like Al Hambra in Spain or Angor Wat in Cambodia. And I guess that was slightly a let down. If you have seen the post cards you have seen the Taj. There aren’t a lot of nooks and crannies to explore. But it is nice to just sit on a bench and think with it as a back drop.
With the number of tourists and the temperature rising. It was time to grab a few more shots. Remember the post card shots. Ugh. I still felt compelled to get them.
The plan post Taj Mahal was to check out, rickshaw out of the old part of town, meet Billu and head to Mathura to take a night train to Mumbai.
Given our early start, we had a few hours to burn. So we went and explored Agra. We met an eager shop merchant, who wanted to help us find the ATM. For some reason we felt good with him and went on an errand adventure through the old city of Agra. It was cool as he led us through the real city. The main streets are fronted with stores selling trinkets but then there is a network of streets and alleys behind that have the real commerce. Like the Souks of Morrocco. We needed to get a SIM card, withdraw money, and food for our epic train ride.
The Real Agra
To get our cell phones activated we needed to get pictures taken and copies of passports made. Let me just say our mugshots are awesome! We look like criminals or middle school yearbook. Sorry can’t post those… Yet.
With the errands run, it was time to meet Billu and get to the train. We were early, so we dropped the bags with him and went searching for street food. We settled in on the shop below.
Doesn’t look like much but one of the shops up the street suggested it. We each got two Samosas and a Cola. Would this be the time that got us sick? We were out of hand sanitized and had been haggling through the old city. Oh well. These Samosas were delicious. Spicy, piping hot and fresh, and little dumplings of happiness. Yea, I love indian food. The best part though was the sense of pride that the shop owners son had. He was psyched we were eating there and he knew his stuff was delicious!
Post Samosas and stomach feeling great, we headed back to car. We saw this pimp shoe smith offering his services. I am not sure how many of you played street fighter growing up, but this guy is a a character from that game!
From here is where it all goes down hill. You can see from the other posts that the trip started to come off it’s intinerary.
There aren’t a lot of pictures at this point because it was that stressful. When we arrived at the station we checked to see what track the train was leaving from and where to wait. Just getting help was a nightmare and then when we got it the information was all over the board. One person said it was going to be 4 hours late and the other said 24+ hours late. yup the discrepancy was that broad. Meanwhile Billu is getting annoyed because he is ready to leave. This was his last point and then he could go back home and deal with his aggression solo. But we didn’t want to cut Billu Loose without having a plan because it was Mathura. This was not the Delhi train station. Mathura felt rough. The people stared more intensely than any other place and the men seemed to want to push us to fight. They formed circles, stared angrily, and started to encroach personal space. Mildly grabbing an arm to try and get your attention. Not good and not welcomed. I am used to staring, comments, jeers, yells, and even an arm grab now and then. I know the difference between cultural curiosity and just plain aggression. And these guys were just fucking with us. We finally told Billu to just leave us and we would deal with it/ figure it out. If we had to we could take like 50 of them, like Neo in the matrix. But Billu showed a rare moment of caring and said no and to call the travel office. Another few hours on the phone and it was decided we should cancel our tickets at the station and double back 5 hours to Delhi. On top of that, all of this took 5 hours to sort so it was now dark. 5 hours of Indian highway night driving. Ugh. No fun. But we made it back to Delhi, found a dirty and cold place to stay and went to bed.
Waking up, we were done with the north. With the trains not trustworthy, we turned to the planes and plotted a plan. We went to the train station first thing in the morning to try and get a refund on our tickets. While the bureaucracy was taxing, we did learn we were entitled to a full refund on the tickets! But we had to hurry and get it from the travel agency before the train departed. Doubling back to the rebel agency, the guy of course starts his hustle about cancellation fees. Nope. Not going to play that game dude, we just got back from the train station and it’s all ours. Ok ok, he goes. Ugh. Really. He still got us for a $1 but if it’s that important to him, he can have it. We booked fights and it was off to Kochi in the south.
We had high hopes for the south. India hadn’t yet caught the flame in my imagination or heart.