To Agra and back

I’m exhausted once again, but want to get this down while I still have it fresh in my memory. (Though it’s already starting to fade and swirl and become confused.) The short story is that today we went to Agra, visited the Taj Mahal, and came back.

By “we” I mean me, a couple coworkers from Ottawa, and a couple more coworkers from Noida. We headed out from the hotel this morning in pretty sorry shape. The Ottawa crew and I only had a few hours sleep after unwinding with a couple beers the night before. We got a bit of a late start and headed straight into the worst traffic I’ve yet seen in India.  – I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but the entire Delhi area is undergoing a massive facelift. They are hosting the Commonwealth Games later this year and literally every street and public area is being revamped in some way. New hotels are being constructed, along with new roads, new freeways, new railways and more. I’d like to see the Delhi area again after the games and see how it all turns out. The folks doing the labor on all this construction seem to come from middle class on downward. I’ve seen children laying bricks and women removing dirt from an area by carrying it in baskets on top of their heads. Everywhere, gangs of men in dusty earth-toned clothes seem to be busy pouring cement, spreading tar and working on scaffolding. – So now that you have some background, and I believe that I mentioned what a raging snarling mess everyday traffic is, you can imagine what that’s like when it’s compressed down to 1.5 lanes along the main road from Delhi to Agra at Faridabad. I am continually impressed by the steady flow of traffic in this region, the constant honking of horns and the variety of vehicles overflowing with people. Four people on a motorcycle, 8 in tricycle taxi the size of a golf cart, at least 12 in a minivan about 3/4 the size of a US minivan, a couple dozen in the back of a flat bed truck on the way to a job, an uncountable mass on a bus. And they’re everywhere, going in every direction all the time, though not without the occasional crunch of bent metal followed by shouting and the thud of flatly landed punches. We saw a fight break out just before Faridabad at the scene of a crash where the back of a small car had been completely caved in by a truck. I didn’t see any injuries, just a lot of angry words and then the beginning of a fight. A large crowd started to gather around the men, attempting to break them up, and then traffic started moving and we were off.

I’ve been asked several times by friends and coworkers here, “Tell me what you’ve seen of India so far! Do you like it?” I tell them about going to CP with my friends from work, about my excursion on foot to the market under the light rail near my hotel here and about getting on the metro and going to Old Delhi. At this point, I usually get “You went to Old Delhi? So you’ve seen the *real* Delhi!” I don’t really think of Old Delhi as the *real* Delhi. It’s just a different Delhi from the one that my coworkers are used to. Inasmuch as Old Delhi might be considered the Real Delhi, the India that we saw today might be considered the Real India.

This is the India that happens outside the metropolitan areas. These people are living very much as they have for the last several hundred years. Some are barely scraping by a living on collected groundwater and subsistence farming. They are gathering and burning cow dung for fuel beneath signs promising blazing fast mobile internet. Everywhere there are examples of the most desperate poverty I’ve ever seen, right alongside wealth and convenience. But even in the poorest sections life persists and succeeds. Really, who is poorer? The person who lives with his whole family and has his hands directly on the wheel that controls his life, or the cubicle worker who cannot attach any real meaning to his daily labors and is literally employed ‘at will’ of his bosses with little opportunity for self-determination. Alright, I’d better get back on topic before I decide to run out in the street, flip over a cop car and start a Fight Club.

All along this road, the poor and outcast mingle and mix with the steady stream of middle class travelers on their way to work or adventure. There are poor people everwhere in India, and everywhere in the world. The difference is that when you’re in these areas, you’re on their territory. If you smile as a man with a trained monkey coaxes the monkey through a series of tricks, you’d better be prepared to cough up a few rupee in appreciation of the performance. I did not feel exceedingly fearful, but as we rolled through this area we could feel the eyes on us and hear them tapping on the window glass trying to get our attention. They’re more than happy to exploit your guilt, discomfort, generosity or compassion in order to garner a few rupees.

——Took a break from writing for a day here.——

We stopped along the way at a place called Maharaja Hotel to get some food and stretch our legs. I ordered a couple veg samosas that were pretty much the same as the ones I get back home at Gandhi or Gateway. Not bad. The prices for food at this spot, though roughly equivalent to the prices back home, were “bullshit” according to our local friends. It’s kinda funny that even though there is tremendous reverence for cows here, bullshit it still bullshit.

We got back in the car and made our way to Agra. The part we drove through was extremely congested, as were most of the cities we passed through on the way there. Vehicles piled right on top of each other and people trying to go in every direction. There were some traffic cops there which helped a little.

Once we got to the entrance to the area around the Taj Mahal, we found that there was a massive line to even get into the area. This was due to security checkpoints. Everyone has to pass through a metal detector and then a pat down and a bag search. Basically airport security. A couple people in our group were on a pretty tight schedule as their flight left early the next morning so we were pressed for time. Right as our spirits started to dip, a young man volunteered to show us the “back way” into the Taj Mahal. We paid him a little money and followed him around through some narrow streets and alleys and indeed eventually emerged near an alternate ticket booth. At this booth there was a very short line for women to enter, but a very long line for men. Again, our young guide pulled through. He led us to yet another “secret” gate where the line for men was only maybe 15 or 20 people. Within a few minutes we were inside the area.

The Taj Mahal grounds are surrounded by a massive wall with heavily ornamented gates on all sides. I don’t recall the names of all these other buildings, and there’s probably a map of the grounds on Wikipedia or something. To get to see the Taj Mahal itself, you pass through a huge red stone archway. Inside the archway is basically darkness, and then as you climb the steps you see the Taj Mahal rising through a portal. It’s indescribably impressive and beautiful. As you walk through the gateway the scene just gets bigger and brighter and you can see more of the building and the grounds. When you finally emerge it’s almost otherworldly in beauty. Everywhere the building and the grounds follow geometric patterns. We stopped to take some photos with the main mausoleum in the background, then walked across the grounds, through a maze of decorative pools and fountains and eventually ended up at the front steps. There, we donned some very classy white booties that you wear over your shoes so as not to destroy the marble. I was constantly falling behind the group, trying to snap photos of everything. To get inside there’s another long line, and there’s no one to bribe to get past this one. Fortunately it’s a fast moving line.

I won’t spend too much time describing the building itself. There are plenty of resources for that. I will say that the interior is somewhat less impressive than the outside, and fairly modest in it’s adornments. Of course I’m comparing it to the over-the-top baroque flourishes of European cathedrals. It’s quite beautiful. There are only a few rooms on the inside and within minutes you’re out the back door with a view over the Yamuna river.

After that we just walked back across the grounds, through the botanical gardens and back outside the main gate where there was an even larger line of people than there was before. With this many people standing around, there was a lot of security. Several guards with machine guns at various points. We stopped for a moment to get our bearings and I ended up buying a few cheap Taj Mahal glitter globe keychains for pennies from a young boy. We hopped aboard a camel cart – yes, a camel cart – and rode back to where our driver dropped us off. Along the camel ride there were tons of wild monkeys eating, playing and generally carrying on. I’m not sure what type they are. They’re plain looking, light brown with pinkish faces. I snapped several photos and a short video of them.

Once we got back to the car, we started the long trip back. There was less congestion, but still we had to deal with stop and go traffic and lots of horn honking in all the cities. Everyone in the car passed out, except the driver of course, and with one bathroom break at the half way point, we made our way back to Noida. There was a beautiful red sunset over the fields and I took several pictures of that. Once it was too dark to use a decently fast shutter speed, I just gave in and fell asleep.

I’m a couple days behind on the blog, but now that I’ve completed the Agra piece, catching up should be easy. I may add more about Agra as I remember more.


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