After reading a lot of India travel blogs, one thing becomes clear: Agra is not a place many people are fond of after actually visiting there. It’s often the place where travelers end up getting really ill during a visit to India. It’s filthy, smelly, has packs of wild dogs roaming the streets, and aggressive touts are at every turn. The thing is, none of that matters. People will still come, and they know it. There are limits to how disgusting the town is permitted to be though, but all of that is mostly to keep up appearances on paper. Pollution levels are monitored and industry is more heavily regulated in the area. The Taj Mahal is nearly white, and has a lot of ornate engravings. Token efforts are made to keep it that way. In recent years there was a proposal to drain the (somewhat) picturesque river behind the Taj Mahal and build a dense complex of definitely not picturesque shopping malls for tourists. When UNESCO threatened to withdraw the “World Heritage Site” status of the Taj Mahal, that plan was scrapped. Interestingly, a large portion of investor money for the project “disappeared” without any explanation. What a lovely, exploitive little town.
Well, like I said though, people will come, and we came. In our last post, Martha mentioned a cola beverage called “Thums Up.” The night before we left Jaipur to Agra, she had picked up a two liter of this as a nighttime drink. Through dinner and before bed we probably went through 2/3 of that bottle, and it was not necessarily the best choice. Maybe Coca-Cola uses a special caffeine-guarana-amphetamine-cocaine mixture, but it had both of us totally wired. We got maybe three hours of sleep before getting up at 0530 to catch our 0610 train to Agra. We made it there no problem though and the train was on time. The train station was a more hectic and crowded version of the bus station on our first day. People sleeping everywhere, others up and shirtless washing and brushing their teeth in a big water fountain thing. It was a big mess. The price difference betweenthe first class “soft sleeper” and second class “hard sleeper” train tickets amounts to only a couple of dollars, so the first class tickets sell out very, very quickly. Martha bought our tickets in early April, but was still only able to get second class tickets for the Jaipur to Agra segment.
I read some stories online of thefts in some of the lower class train berths, so that was kind of in the front of my mind as we boarded the train. One story I read specifically was of a person who had went to sleep in one of these open air hard sleepers. She had gotten inside of her “sleep sack” and had her backpack in it with her. When she woke up, someone had slit open the sheet as well as her backpack with a razor and pilfered a bunch of stuff. So yeah, that was kind of on my mind in addition to hoping to get some sleep on the four hour train ride. I’m thinking, if I catch some scrawny bastard with little raccoon hands trying to dig into my locked backpack, there WILL be blood in this train. But alas, it wasn’t bad at all, even with the hard mattress. I took the top bunk, Martha had the bottom. They passed out clean pillow covers and sheets. Our bunks were facing away from the common hallway, so we were able to secure our stuff and actually get some pretty comfortable sleep.
When we stepped off the train at Agra station, it was walking into the lion’s den. Predatory touts stalking us immediately from all directions. Hey, if you have to ask me if I want something, the answer is no. Taxi? No. Tuk-tuk? No. Souvenirs? No. Drinks, Snacks? No. Tour guide? NO…. It was amazing how difficult it was just to get to the “prepaid taxi stand” as advised, and just pay for a straightforward fare to a straightforward destination. You have to fight off dozens and dozens of these guys. I think it may helped to have just woken up, look just a little bit crazy, and carry yourself in a way that says that at any moment you might just turn violent. Got to our hotel called “Hotel Taj Plaza.” Everything in this town is named Taj-something. The hotel is literally next door to “The Oberoi,” the only five star hotel in Agra with rooms ranging $200-$800 per night. The best room in our place with A.C. and “Taj View” (which we got) was $35. The view is pretty awesome, but the hotel is pretty meh. It’s safe and, well, clean enough though. Martha will put up a full review in our “accommodations” section.
We went ahead and visited the Taj Mahal on our first day, as we were all checked in and unpacked by 1300. lt’s maybe a 10-15 minute walk from our place, and we figured we’d hang out there until the sunset at around 1930. At most crowded monuments, I’m usually able to work some magic and find a way to get some pictures without any background strangers in them. If it’s crowded and indoors, long exposures are an option to make the other people abstract and blurry. Otherwise, finding the right angle and timing it with the movement of crowds usually allows for some decent shots with no one in the background. Well, the Taj Mahal reaches far beyond critical mass for those techniques. There are hordes of people there. Like little ants everywhere. The idea of grabbing some beautiful postcard shot there devoid of tourists roaming in all directions in the background…. forget about it. Despite this, I came away fairly satisfied with some of the shots we managed to get. Absolutely no tripods or “camera stands” of any sort are allowed in the Taj complex, so getting any crisp HDR shots like we did in Red Square and the Kremlin are pretty much impossible. I managed a few handheld HDR shots and also used a few ledges and things to get a few shots. It’s actually kind of an interesting technique to neutralize the effect of hordes of tourists in your shots. Instead of some obese Hindu lady in a bright pink sari standing there picking her nose and ruining your shot, she is rendered into a muted pink blur amongst hundreds of other blurs when the bracketed photos are blended.
The Taj complex really is beautiful. Crowded and hot as hell, but beautiful. The streets around the Taj in every direction are anything but. Filthy, stinking, and jam packed with shops aggressively selling overpriced sun-baked garbage that no one really wants. Oh yeah, and lets not forget restaurants. They all have loudmouths outside trying to lure you into their establishments. I’m sorry, but I’m accustomed to walking by a restaurant and smelling, say, delicious food aromas being piped outside and tempting you to dine there. If the smell outside of your restaurant is dominated by animal feces and all manner of rotting garbage, I’m pretty ok taking a pass. If flies are landing on your face as you try to convince me it will be a good idea to eat there, I’ll take a pass. No wonder everyone gets sick in Agra. Well, driving to our hotel earlier in the day we had noticed a certain familiar golden set of arches that we decided immediately would be our default dinner plan as we drove past endless disgusting squalor. After getting back to the hotel and grabbing a few more last minute sunset pics of the Taj, we headed out for a lovely civilized meal at McDonalds. Getting there involved a 1 kilometer walk made extra annoying by endless pestering from rickshaw drivers, food vendors, and shopkeepers. Indian people seem to think that white foreigners need to be carried around any distance greater than one block. They also seem to treat you like a walking ATM. Little do they know, the only thing we’ll be taking away from Agra are some pictures of the Taj Mahal, and some pictures of Agra Fort.
The McDonald’s menu in India has to be the most interesting (as in, different from the U.S.) in the world. I mean, they don’t serve beef there at all. That really changes things. The only meat there are a few chicken sandwiches (including something sort of like a Big Mac called the “Chicken Maharaja Mac”). They have several really Indian inspired offerings that are quite good, including the popular “McAloo Tikki” (a potato burger with spicy big mac sauce), the “McVeggie” (a deep fried veggie burger with Indian spices), and the very delicious “McSpicy Paneer” and “Big Spicy Paneer Wrap” (Battered & deep fried Indian cheese either in a sandwich like “Filet-o-fish” or in a grilled flour tortilla with a couple types of spicy Indian sauces). Everything, despite coming in a foreign form factor and being flavored all sorts of ways that you would never find in the U.S., still tasted like home. Starchy, calorically dense breads. Limp lettuce, completely flavorless but with a preparation that tells you it has been chemically preserved and hermetically sealed until being sprinkled on your sandwich. If there is a place to enjoy McDonalds in India, it’s in Agra. The handful of westerners in Agra (and I do mean handful, we were outnumbered at least 5000 to 1 amongst the visitors at the Taj Mahal) seemed to have all had the same idea and maybe 1/10 of the restaurant was white and asian tourists. It turned out to be a safe (and delicious) plan, and we repeated it for what amounted to single daily meals and a few snacks while in Agra.
On our second day, we planned to visit the other “main” attraction here: Agra Fort. Shah Jahan (the guy who built the Taj Mahal as a monument to his dead wife) renovated the fort in the 1600’s in his preferred style of white marble. He ended up spending his last years there, imprisoned by his son in a section of the fort with a really pretty view of the Taj Mahal. Agra Fort wasn’t nearly as crowded as the Taj Mahal, and the touts were way less aggressive. It’s a really huge complex that takes a few hours to explore, definitely worth a stop for anyone that visits this otherwise dump of a town.
One phenomenon worth bringing up again is Indian people asking to take a picture with us. This has happened SOOOOOOO many times it’s completely ridiculous. I mean, at the Taj Mahal, I took a lot of pictures. A lot. But I bet we had our picture taken with Indian people even more than that. Sometimes it’s just sneaky people trying to video us or take a snapshot of us as they walk by. Another thing that will happen is a group of (usually young and well dressed) people will start stalking us until one of them gets gutsy and asks if they can take a picture with us. When we agree, the whole group proceeds to come in one by one for a shot with us. One of them, might, say, be brazen enough to go for an arms around both our shoulders shot, and then the whole group wants to do it again, each with their arms on our shoulders like they’ve known us their whole lives. Sometimes an older Indian person will come up and want us to pose with their children. When we do, an army of children descend, each wanting their picture taken with us. At one point at the Taj Mahal, Martha and I were sitting on the steps of one of the four minarets (a picturesque spot) and I was composing some handheld HDR shots. Apparently, us sitting there with that backdrop was just too much to bear. One group came up for photos and that started group after group, at least fifty in just that spot. They’ll come up to me when I’m alone, they’ll come up to Martha when she’s alone, and they really come up to us when we’re together. Oh yeah, and a lot of the time they’re using film cameras…. as in, cameras that use film. One guy in a group of well dressed, well-to-do college students said to me (thick accent) “I just have to tell you it is coming to my mind that you are looking like the James Bond.” I thought that was pretty funny. I think what that really means though is that they don’t see very many white people and we all kind of look alike. I’m gonna take it as a compliment anyway though. I mean, we were at the Taj Mahal and here they were taking pictures of us like WE’RE the attraction. It was pretty interesting and entertaining for a little while, but after a few hundred times it is honestly get’s a little taxing, especially given that you have to always be on guard for touts and scammers. The giveaway for the harmless ones (besides being well dressed) is the cell phones though. They’re kind of a status symbol here.
We closed out our second day at the “TDI Mall” and a lovely meal at McDonalds. God I love the Spicy Paneer wrap. It is so damn good! Really spicy, not faux spicy like any crap they’d serve in the U.S. and call “spicy.” We wanted to see a Bollywood movie in the afternoon there, but the last showing of the only English-language one was just before we got there. We’re told though that they put English subtitles on a lot of the Bollywood movies when they’re shown in New Delhi, so we’ll try to fit that in there. They serve fried samosas at the movie theatre that looked really good too. Before leaving, we found a guy that does henna art and Martha got some work done on one arm front and back. It should brighten up as it sets over the next few days and then stay for a few weeks. The henna work got a lot of smiles from locals as we got back to the hotel and the guy at the front desk seemed really surprised that she managed to get that done. The design on her arm has a peacock on it which the guy just did randomly. It’s kind of funny because we’ve noted that peacocks are starting to be a theme on this trip. We saw them everywhere on the grounds of a museum in Mexico City, in a park in Moscow, in artwork in our hotel in Jaipur, and now in random henna work in Agra. The other theme is Baskin Robbins, but she didn’t want a “BR” on her hand for two weeks. But seriously, they can really be found everywhere.
Well, that wraps up Agra. I can’t say we’re sad to go. I mean, Jaipur made us miss Moscow, and Agra made us miss Jaipur. But really, we still managed to have fun. Tomorrow we’re up really early for an 0600 train to New Delhi.