Category Archives: Part III: The Indian Jewel

Part III: The Indian Jewel

Agra

Reaching Agra’s railway station, we step off the train onto the platform with anticipation and excitement because we know nothing about the area and have no plan.

Good ol’ spontaneity.

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Entering Agra aboard the sleeper train. Photo: Christine Idilbi

The temperature gauge clicks up to around 41’C as we reach the station’s lobby and are greeted by an old Indian man in a blue shirt and khaki trousers. Extending a hand from his small frame, he meets us with a pair of kind chestnut eyes, blinking behind his large round glasses, his greying moustache lifted by a warm smile. He appears to have been waiting for us.

I like him already.

He offers to drive us to a friend’s guesthouse which hosts reasonable prices and a breathtaking view of the Taj Mahal. Driving through the well kept town, I’m surprised to see an absence of the craziness regaled by countless tourists I’ve met throughout India.

Arriving outside the doors of ‘Sai Palace’ we are relieved to find a cool room on the ground floor. The driver waits respectfully as we head to the rooftop to check out the view.

Lo and behold, it’s the Taj Mahal!

It is bathed in the orange-pink haze of a summer’s eve, making this wonder of the world even more enchanting and magical.

 This really is a magnificent jewel in the Heart of India.

Ecstatic, we agree to spend the following day with our eloquent driver. For the rest of the evening we sing songs and strum on the guitar with joy and gratitude in honour of India’s iconic symbol of love and devotion. Finally, the hour grows late and we notice the whole town is asleep, so we reluctantly shuffle to bed, taking one last look at the silhouetted gem before entering deep sleep ourselves.

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Sunset pose after setting eyes on the spectacular Taj Mahal

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Waking early the next day, we meet our driver who takes us into the practically empty town of Agra.

The first order of business is meeting the ticket agent for the train to Varanasi. The tiny room is filled with four old men drinking chai, leaving me crammed in the corner, opposite the salesman who’s slouched over the desk. Turns out this is the only shop on the street with AC.

After a long time navigating his Windows 98 computer, he turns to me and says “The train is full but I know a guy, who will have your tickets by the end of the day”. Assuming this would come true, I thank him and join Christine and the driver outside in the heat to begin the tour of Agra.

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It turns out that the ‘Taj’ is closed on Mondays. Of course it is but that’s alright, apparently there’s a riverside view you can walk to for free, which we will see later.

Our second stop is the large and impressive Red Fort of Agra, which is pretty much a walled city from way back in 1565, when Emperor Akbar had it built on some ancient foundation.

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The grand entrance to the Agra Fort

In the blistering heat we move across the beautifully symmetrical courtyards into the shade of the adjoining rooms. Most of the walls are made of red stone (obviously) with elaborate and intricate carvings. Some chambers are encased in lovely smooth marble for members of the royal family.

The meditation room overlooking Yamuna river is the most beautiful. It was for puja (ceremonies) and the king’s sunrise salutation / meditation on Brahman. It goes to show how long we humans, from all walks of life have at some point been drawn to meditate on the Supreme Being.

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A royal chamber made of marble.

We take a group photo with the umpteenth Indian family and withdraw from the crowds and into the heat to find our faithful driver who is waiting outside.

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With stomachs growling and sweat glands drying up it’s time for lunch. On the way out, we take a closer look at the Taj by a trickling tributary. A charming little boy selling key chains gives us a poetic account of why the Taj was built;

“It houses the tomb of the king’s favourite wife Mumtaz. He loved her so much he built the Taj to honour her in death. 20,000 people worked on it and today would cost the equivalent of 50 billion rupees to construct! It is my favourite building in the world, isn’t it fantastic!”

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Yes, quite the expression of undying love!

After a pit stop in a nearby shack where we cool off in front of a huge fan, we muster the courage to walk again in the heat and re unite with our friend who’s snoozing in the car.

After Christine and I mop up a delicious tray of Thali for lunch, we prepare for the end of the tour, which finishes with an obligatory circuit of shops. It’s O.K, the driver receives commission for taking us and we get to look at lovely carpets and jewels.

Instead, we whip out the guitar and drink chai with the shop attendants, much to their delight. In return they happily give us connection to their lightning fast internet, something you’ll rarely come across in this country. So Christine and I rest and look at a world map.

I have 1 week left on my visa.

Then and there we decide to fly from Kolkata to Bali via Singapore, the day my visa expires. Boom. As we sort our flights out, my cousin Natalie messages me and offers to host us in Singapore. My school friend Tim arranges a visa agent to meet us in Singapore and offers to pick us up from the airport in Bali.

How incredible spontaneity is. The needs of the moment are met effortlessly and through this experience, my faith in Being deepens.

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Two hours later, the sun begins it’s journey back to bed and we go to pick up our train tickets to Varanasi via Allahabad. Somewhat sheepishly, the man explains to me that he couldn’t bribe the usual official so we have no tickets, the train is full. Damn.

“Not to worry sir and madam” our driver retorts, “you can buy the general ticket, no problem”. So we head to the station and go for it anyway. Our loyal driver instructs the porter to help us as one last token of good will and bids us good bye.

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So we wait on the platform to see what happens.

A drunk man approaches and screams at us for Lord knows what. Something about “how much better we have it” and staggers off. I find it interesting that many Indians have this image that all westerners are rich and happy, maybe it’s Hollywood.

90 minutes later the train arrives jam packed. The porter and I try to negotiate two seats but it really is bursting at the seams. No way can I, the twenty other people or even a mouse get on this train.

Shutdown.

So we take a breath and I return to the ticket counter while Christine waits with the bags.  I’m shoved and squeezed by sweaty Indian men until I finally grab the cash and escape for air.  In the lobby, a young taxi driver asks where we are going.

“Ah ha, you are at the wrong station sir, if you wish to travel to Varanasi tonight” Double Damn.

He walks with me as I join Christine out on the platform and relay the news. A moment later he offers to take us to the other station, even Varanasi which is 9 hours away!

Christine and I look at each other. It is 11pm, hot and sticky. Oh India. So we decide to transfer to the other station and he helps us carry the bags to the car and pack them. Out on the street, I watch with dismay, as the fierce drunk man staggers toward us.

Quick, let’s get outta here!

We jump inside the shiny Honda and lock the doors behind us. Life gives us a confirmation as our new friend talks about his wife and child and his love of driving and Christine suggests we just go all the way to Varanasi in the car. We all agree, smile and set back for the long haul.

Thanks for the rescue!

Christine and I cuddle up in the back and watch the on going bedlam outside.  Our new friend sends us into night time flight with the soothing melody of Bollywood love songs.

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