Monday, September 21, 2009

Excursion to Agra, part one.

What we wanted to do was take a bus to the city of Agra, see the Taj Mahal and maybe the Agra Fort, and come back in the evening. What actually happened was nothing of the sort. Welcome to India, land of the unexpected, unplanned, and totally unpredictable.

Plans being so last-minute, a crazy little Russian girl named Katerina and I set off at 4:30am Sunday morning to try to snag a bus ride to Agra. When we arrived at the station, we asked no less than a dozen agents where to find a bus, but to our frustration, each consecutive person just kept referring us to the next information booth. We were quickly fed up with walking in circles.

An auto-rickshaw driver noticed our situation, and said, pointing to his auto:

20 rupees, I take you to bus to Agra.
Uhhh... what?
Very short distance! Bus to Agra leaving at 7 o'clock!
No thanks, we're fine.
No bus, no pay! Only pay when you find bus!

Despite the initial suspicion, we realized we could either take this chance or not do the trip. The driver took us to a small road-side tourist information booth.

750 rupees, bus to Agra, round trip. (At $15, this was very reasonable.)
What time we leave?
7 o'clock.

What time do we return?
10 o'clock.
Are you sure that we go directly to Agra, no stops along the way?
Yes, sure.

Katerina and I considered our options, and finally decided, what the hell, why not. Ticket in hand, we found ourselves being shuttled to the station just as the bus was getting ready to leave. Our anxieties were quickly calmed when we saw that our bus was filled with middle-class Indian families with the same destination. We had come to the right place, or so it appeared.

That bus was hot . No air conditioning, no fans, three-digit-degree weather. Every pore on my body leaked sweat, my clothes stuck to my back and my hair to my neck, and the bus was rank with body odor. How long is this ride supposed to be? we asked the passengers beside us. Two hours, I believe. Nope, more like six.

Not having had any breakfast, I was happy when we stopped at a road-side cafeteria for a small meal. I had idli sambar, a type of floury cake, most commonly found in south India, that is paired with a vegetable sauce and yogurt.

When we finally arrived in Agra, the bus stopped in front of an enormous, imposing fortress, teeming with tourists and street peddlers, and I immediately knew it was the famed Agra Fort. But the question was, why were we here, and not at a bus station? Why was our driver giving an announcement in Hindiglish, mixed with phrases like "one hour" and "please remember bus number 9369"?

As it turned out, damn it all, we had paid for a guided tour of the city, instead of just a simple bus ticket! Curse our inability to understand Hindi and the broken English of our ticket salesmen! It wasn't long, however, before we became quite tickled at the situation. We had successfully arrived at our destination, and the full itinerary of the day was to consist of everything we had wanted to see, complete with explanations and transportation to-and-from sites.

The size of the fort was overwhelming. Some of the red sandstone walls rose up at least 50 feet, and the sprawling complex seemed to keep stretching on endlessly. Each massive courtyard had several gates which, in turn, led to more courtyards, and on and on until it felt like I could never hope to find my way back to the main entrance.

The fort was originally built for Mughal emperor in the mid-16th century. It was originally built as a citadel, but it could easy have been a palace as well, massive enough to house thousands of people.

Following this was lunch at a guest house restaurant, where I had dhaal makhani, spiced lentils and beans. It was too salty, but this, as I'm learning, is typical of real Indian food.

After wasting time at a few tourist shops, our bus finally dropped us off at the west gate to the Taj Mahal. We squeezed past the hoardes of tourists through the security entrance, ran to the entrance gate in excitement, and...

The rest is impossible to describe to any degree of effectiveness. The brilliance of the monument was simply staggering. I wanted to come to the Taj Mahal simply because it's something you're expected to do in India, but as soon as I saw it, I could only stand there transfixed for several minutes, trying to comprehend that it was actually real. At this point, I could try to spout off a stream of adjectives, but the only word that comes to mind is perfection. I could swear it was glowing.

India can be overwhelming in its dirt, noise, poverty, and non-stop street activity, but the Taj Mahal seemed to rise above all of that in a visually powerful way, almost as a symbol of constancy in a rapidly changing country. It's impossible to avoid thinking of the Taj Mahal in a symbolic, cheesily poetic way. Even the swarms of tourists did little to diminish its magic.

More pictures here. Rest of the trip to be continued...


Lexie said...

ahhhh! your pictures are so awesome! i cant imagine how it would compare to the dirty india image most people have.

Lexie said...

okay, my comment doesnt make any sense! i just get so overwhelmed by your travel posts, i dont always make sense, lol.