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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

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*†*

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.

*

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.

*

Part II: Trust in the Flow

Shimla

We arrive in Shimla at dawn the following day without any prior knowledge of what the place looks like or where we would stay.

Its effortless remember?

Rubbing the sleep from our eyes we notice no one else is on the bus, so we ask the driver to help with the bags. A young taxi driver is waiting outside and tells us we should have gotten off at the Old bus station, the previous stop. This is the New bus station 8 K’s from town.

Good Morning

He agrees to help us find accommodation but the first 10 guesthouses are full. It seems we are in ‘high season’, even though we are the only non-nationals in sight! It gives us a chance to see the area though, which is a massive hillside township made up of colorful stacked housing, strewn across steep hills and ridge tops. Impressive given the landscape!

After an hour, we are fatigued from the search and buy the driver breakfast, who decides to call his friends to meet us. They inform us that there is one room remaining which won’t cost a pot of gold and shows it to us. Walking over to the window, I watch a family of monkeys playing in the foreground of a beautiful, sweeping vista.

This is the place.

With the help of the driver, the hotel concierge and a baggage handler I affectionately call ‘Toto’ we stagger into the room and order tea for all.

We made it! 

Any bus ride that is over 8 hours in India requires a lot of rest the following day, due to lack of sleep, rag doll neck and some vigilance. This was no exception, so it wasn’t until the following day, that Toto hooks us up with with a friend who takes us on an amazing tour of the area. With Christine armed with her trekking pole and I with my heightened instinct for care, we explore the monkey temple where there’s a towering statue of Hanuman overlooking the township.

Next we travel to Shimla’s highpoint where hundreds of donkeys and small horses assemble to pick up their tourists for treks into the elevated wilderness. After a brief meditation at a local temple, we leave the courtyard, adorned with a blanket of red and orange fallen leaves, and resume the tour.

We then visit the British Institute of Advanced Learning which is oddly enchanting due to its British – Indian architectural  fusion. It’s more like a summer home for European royalty. The evening ends with the two of us strolling at midnight, along the cobbled high street with the anglo-christian church lit up in the background as we sip a glass of red wine under the moonlight.

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The B.I.A.L / Summer Residence. Photo: Christine Idilbi

Are we still in India?

*

Waking early the next day, we leave with Toto, to grab our bus tickets for Delhi. We purchase them from the Old station but leave from the New station, which leaves in an hour. Weird.

Quickly, we pack our things and Toto helps us load the bags into the taxi which was 20 minutes late, giving us only 20 minutes to spare. Poor Christine is still in pain so I try not to rush. Pulling out of the driveway we head straight into gridlock. Damn.

But Indian buses hardly leave on time do they?

15 minutes to departure and we are in a traffic jam. Rising panic is calmed with trust in being. We’ll make it. I fidget for a while before calling Toto to get the number of the bus operator, who asks me to speak with the driver. Rightly so, he pulls over to talk. No! we’ve got ten minutes left, don’t stop!…Ok, maybe we’re not supposed to get on the bus…Breathe.

5 minutes left.

The driver hangs up and continues his causal crawl looking nonchalant, but we haven’t even left town yet. 0 minutes left, the bus should now be leaving. We finally start to leave town and wind downhill, so I call the bus operator again and explain our situation to which he replies “Sir, the bus has already left!”

After a defeated sigh of acceptance, the operator kindly informs me that we are allowed to flag down the bus. Game On! Giving the phone to the taxi driver, he grunts in reply and speeds up as the operator gives him the details of the bus. Minutes of dodging, beeping and hair-pin turns later, we make our way through the traffic. Eventually we see the big green bus and drive alongside it, leaning out of the window and flapping our arms about desperately until the man with a turban sees us, laughs, slows down and opens the doors.

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Phew, Delhi here we come!

*

Delhi

That evening, the lovely AC bus drops us off by the side of the highway on the periphery of town. There is a rickshaw waiting that takes us into town without any problems, only the temperature has increased considerably. We check into ‘Yes Please’ guesthouse all slimy and sweaty. It’s 40 degrees and we are tired from hauling bags but very grateful to the many people who have helped us along the way.

It really is Effortless India, as long as you keep an open heart.

The ‘Guy with a stiff neck’ who we know from a previous stay is friendly and laughs throatily as he checks us in for the night and arranges a morning train the next day to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

This will be Christine’s first train ride. Once on board, a man on the platform  walks by our carriage and stops to drape his arms through the bars of the window and stare at her for an uncomfortably long time. I mean, a really long time, like 10 minutes. I look at my watch and thank heavens we are leaving soon.

I watch Christine silently meditate and pray. About 30 seconds later, an old man walks onto the train and sits in front of the creepy starer.

I am astonished and inspired as I look on and feel the words inside;

“All you have to do is ask”.

An affirmation that the help is always there if you trust in Life.

10 days until my visa expires.

What will happen and how?

Only God knows.