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Agra Reprise

Started: 2016-01-05 11:12:48

Submitted: 2016-01-05 14:28:25

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator revisits Agra and the Taj Mahal

My alarm woke me up early on Wednesday morning, 23 December, so I could catch the tourist train from Delhi to Agra. Like my last visit to Agra, I chose the 07:05 departure from the Hazrat Nizamuddin train station (somewhat closer to my hotel on the southern side of New Delhi) on the Taj Express to give us an extra hour to sleep in the morning.

I felt guilty to wake Calvin up to drag him out of the hotel in the pre-dawn gloom. We checked out of the hotel just after 06:00 and picked up our breakfast boxes, then waited for Bethany to arrive. We caught a taxi to the train station, driving through the nearly-empty broad boulevards of New Delhi and then the narrow crowded access road to the train station, packed with a scrum of taxis and auto rickshaws and vendors and other people trying to make their way to the train station in the morning.

The night before leaving Delhi, I took everything out of my suitcase, unzipped the lining, and investigated the problem of my broken telescoping handle in detail. I saw that the pins that were supposed to retract to allow the handle to telescope were not retracting on one side when I pressed the button on the handle. I put the suitcase back together, but five minutes before I needed to leave my room in the morning, I got the idea that I should be able to tape pins into position using the first-aid tape I brought with me. (I wanted to use duct tape but I didn't bring any.) I didn't have enough time to actually try out this idea, so I had to lug my suitcase through the train station, which proved somewhat awkward, since it was a good-sized suitcase weighing about 45 pounds total.

We found our train waiting on the platform, found AC chair car carriage C2, and found our seats inside the train. We had three adjacent seats, numbered 36, 37, and 38, but they were separated by the aisle. (I was pleased that my luggage fit in the chair car's overhead luggage rack.) We sat in our assigned seats until the guy sitting in the window seat to my right took pity on us and offered to trade his window seat (which didn't have much of a window) with Bethany's aisle seat on the opposite side of the aisle.

(I couldn't shake the feeling that everyone who looked at us would think that we were a nuclear family — especially since Calvin spent most of his time clinging to Bethany. But there wasn't much I could do about that, so I didn't let it bother me.)

The train sat in the train station for nearly an hour after its scheduled departure time before finally moving, without an explanation or any sort of announcement. (When we mentioned the delay to various locals over the next few days, they mumbled vaguely about "fog". It was foggy (and/or smoggy), though that shouldn't really impact the operation of a rail system unless the visibility was poor enough to prevent the driver from seeing the signals. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that India doesn't have fancy in-cab electronic signaling.)

I bought a couple of cups of chai from the chai-wallahs walking up and down the aisles of the train, served in tiny paper cups stamped with the Indian Railways logo. Despite feeling under the weather the previous day, Bethany drank and liked the chai — it was served hot, so it should be food-safe regardless of its input ingredients.

As we traveled out of Delhi, I watched the scenery change outside my window, from the concrete-and-brick construction of the Delhi suburbs, interspersed with informal developments, where people of all ages went about their daily routines within view of the tracks. I saw pigs munching their way through the trash in the gutters, and cows wandering placidly through the alleys. As we traveled further out the development gave way to fields, mostly fallow in the middle of the cold winter dry season.

As we approached Agra, the train stopped on the tracks several times, apparently to let other scheduled service through. I tried to keep Willy apprised of what was happening by text message, but when I crossed the state line into Uttar Pradesh, my phone had trouble camping on a network on which it had a good roaming agreement. (I knew exactly what was happening: my phone was trying to camp on the strongest network, but that network wouldn't let it authenticate. If I had full access to the inner workings of the phone, I could have blocked the offending networks, or updated the preferred roaming list, but none of those options were available to me.) I had some success rebooting the phone to get it to reacquire its network from scratch, but even that wasn't especially stable.

At length we arrived in Agra around noon, two hours late from our scheduled arrival. We emerged from the main entrance of the train station into the scrum of taxis and touts and pushed our way to the prepaid taxi stand, where we got a taxi driver for the day. The taxi came with a guide, who would clearly demand a payment at the end of the day. Both Bethany and I insisted that we didn't need a guide, but the guide stayed in the car as we were driving out of the station until we insisted that we really really didn't need a guide. The driver looped back to the train station to trade our guide and driver for a driver who spoke English.

We headed to our hotel, where we planned to meet the rest of our family — my parents and Willy — who had taken the train in from Jaipur that morning. They were supposed to arrive half an hour after us, but they'd already been there for an hour and a half by the time we arrived. We checked in, dropped our luggage in our tiny stuffy rooms (a far cry from the spacious rooms we'd stayed in in Delhi — my mother had picked the (much cheaper) hotel in Agra while I was sidetracked by changing jobs this fall), and tried to find our family. The hotel desk mentioned vaguely that they'd gone "out" or had gone to lunch. I finally power-cycled my phone, got it to acquire on a working network, called Willy, and learned that they were in Pizza Hut next door, where my mother had insisted on eating because she couldn't handle any chillies in her food. (This seemed to be a serious liability while in India.) We joined them for lunch (Calvin was thrilled to eat pasta), then headed out to see the sites we'd come to see.

We found the taxi that Bethany and I had hired for the day and decided that we could squeeze the entire family in the car, as long as we didn't need to worry about seat belts. (It was India, where no one seemed to worry about seat belts anyway. Kiesa would have freaked out, but I didn't see any point in fussing about it.) Our driver dropped us off at the tourist-trap west gate of the Taj Mahal, at the edge of the motor-vehicle exclusion zone to protect the Taj from air pollution, where vendors sold cheap trinkets and battery-powered rickshaws and camel-pulled carts vied for attention from weak-willed tourists. A construction project was underway to build an elaborate sidewalk paved with red sandstone with fancy sandstone-clad street lamps every couple of meters. I was most interested in the methods used for construction: the meter-and-a-half-deep foundations for the street lamps were dug by hand with pick and shovel, and the gaping holes were left totally unmarked on the sidewalk, requiring more attention to avoid falling in the holes, which could easily have swallowed Calvin whole.

We purchased our foreign tourist tickets (Rs. 750 for each adult, or about US$12 at the current exchange rate), which entitled us to a small bottle of water and covers for our shoes, and also let us skip the lengthy entry queue for Indian tourists. We went through a security check just inside the original west gate of the compound, and stopped where we could see the top of the brilliant white dome of the central mausoleum peeking above the red sandstone wall of the interior gatehouse.

We joined the crowd heading through the interior gate, where we were presented with the full view of the central mausoleum in all of its glory, framed by the gate, and by hundreds of tourists trying to photograph the view in all of its glory.

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal

We stopped just inside the gate to get pictures in front of the Taj Mahal, and Mom let herself get talked into getting our pictures taken by a professional photographer skulking around with an SLR. This did give us the opportunity to get a full family photo, and the photographer posed Bethany and Calvin in various poses, including the obligatory holding the Taj shots.

Calvin and Jaeger at the Taj Mahal
Calvin and Jaeger at the Taj Mahal
Bethany takes a selfie at the Taj Mahal
Bethany takes a selfie at the Taj Mahal

We headed further into the gardens toward the central mausoleum, stopping for more photos at the fountain in the middle of the garden, and headed to the foreign-tourist entry to the mausoleum itself. We put our shoe covers on, intended to protect the intricate marble floors from millions of shoes, and joined the line of people climbing up the steps onto the platform on which the mausoleum sat. The inside of the dome was a bit disappointing; it was packed with noisy tourists and guards who kept blowing their whistles to scold misbehaving tourists, or just to move traffic along, or for no obvious reason at all. The whistles reverberated in the dome to a piercing screech, making it impossible to appreciate the beauty of the dome, or the intricately-inlaid marble calligraphy on the walls, or the screen surrounding the empty crypts placed at the center of the dome, or the crypts themselves (which duplicated the actual crypts a level below). The dome inside the mausoleum should have been a magical place, but the cacophony made it impossible to appreciate it.

Tourists at the Taj Mahal
Tourists at the Taj Mahal

We walked around the outside of the mausoleum, looking at the towers that were enclosed in scaffolding for "scientific restoration work". We walked back through the gardens and left the Taj Mahal, having enjoyed our visit to the world's most beautiful building (and a UNESCO World Heritage site).

Setting sun behind the entry gate at the Taj Mahal
Setting sun behind the entry gate at the Taj Mahal

Mom found the photographer's assistant outside the Taj, who sold us the prints of the pictures he took, along with a CD with the files. (This was the one time I regretted not having a CD-ROM drive on my computer.) We walked back to the west gate, past merchants selling the same cheap plastic trinkets, and Willy amused himself by arguing with them in Hindi.

At some length we found our driver, who took us to the Agra Fort, the other nearby UNESCO World Heritage site (and also somewhere I visited on my last trip to Agra). We wandered around the fort, and could only vaguely make out the bulk of the Taj a few miles away from the fort through the haze that settled onto the city as the sun began to set. (On my last visit, the Taj was clearly visible from the fort.) We poked around the fort until the guards started shooing tourists out at sundown.

My parents wanted to buy another rug for their sitting room in their house, so our driver took us to a rug-making store, which happened to be the same place my parents visited on their last trip to Agra, where they also purchased a small rug for their house. They showed us the process of hand-tying knots on a vertical loom and sealing the knots, the pattern-making process (which included some bizarre rug patterns based on family photos taken in front of the Taj Mahal — which seems all well and good for a framed print but kind of bizarre in a rug), the trimming process, and the process of separating the strands to improve the contrast in the image. Then they took us upstairs to the showroom, where they started throwing out rugs at random to try to drill down into what my parents really wanted. (They also tried a half-hearted effort to sell rugs to Bethany and I, but we both demurred on the account of having (or, in my case, moving into) small apartments — though I did notice one bundled rug waiting to be shipped to a customer in San Francisco. The store said they get an export tax credit from the Indian government which covers international shipping.)

Our next stop was supper, at a restaurant with a lengthy veg menu down the street. By the time our food came, Calvin had fallen asleep at the table, and I was about to fall asleep myself. We took our food in take-out containers, and by the time we got back to the hotel Calvin was awake enough to want to eat, but he was upset that his veg noodle had so many vegetables in them and wanted me to pick out all the vegetables so he could eat just the noodle. I accommodated his request (since it seemed superior to asking him to go hungry, and because on vacation all food rules are optional), and let him eat some of my paneer, before we both went to bed not looking forward to getting up early the next morning to catch a train to Jaipur.

For more photos from my day in Agra, see Photos on 2015-12-23.