Nick and I left Delhi and took the train to Agra. We spent a day exploring the town, visiting Subhash Bazaar and trying local sweets (petha and gajak). We passed the Agra Fort and crossed the river for a view of the Taj Mahal at sunset. Although beautiful, the tuk tuk driver who previously scammed us and the dense air pollution slightly took away from the awe.
The next morning we woke with the intentions of seeing the Taj at sunrise. We walked to the ticket counter and because we arrived prior to opening, we were forth in line. Eventually the office opened, and for the next hour and a half we’d be pushed and shoved in a line that didn’t serve as a line. There were Indian males in the foreigner female queue buying 20 individual tickets for a group. As like most “lines” in India, it turned into a chaotic mess.
We stood in another long line divided by sexes before we finally entered the compound. As we walked trough a final doorway we were struck with the beauty of the grand white mausoleum. Built in 1632, it took over 20 years to construct the complex. It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan after his 3rd wife (Mumtaz Mahal) died while giving birth to her 14th child. Jahan was later imprisoned by his son and he could only see his work from the window of his cell in the Agra Fort. Although highly touristed, this must be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It’s simple yet ornate design, detailed calligraphy and huge arched recesses make for an extremely satisfying structure. Inside the main building we got a closer look at the extravagant marble screens and precious gems.
As Nick and I left the compound we tried to catch the free public shuttle back to the ticket office. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much luck. We were told it was reserved and to walk 50 m to another, only to walk back and repeat the process multiple times. We soon found out that the free shuttles funded by the government weren’t offered to us as guides were paying shuttle drivers to take their tour groups, so the free shuttle was no longer free or available to individuals without a guide. From shuttle drivers in Agra and teachers in Ladakh to guides at Ranthambhore, it is obvious there is an enormous amount of corruption within government positions.
Overall, Agra was an interesting place. High poverty and high tourism created an interesting dynamic. The majority of locals associated white skin with money. Multiple times we were told “Oh, USA, very rich country. You must be very rich,” or asked our salaries only to be told half of our salaries paid for rent. We hadn’t felt this degree of push, buy, money since Vietnam. Between the air pollution, 103-degree heat, getting counterfeit change, butt grabs, and unreliable electricity and water, we had an interesting experience that we hadn’t yet (entirely) felt in India.
The next day Nick and I took the bus to Fatehpur Sikri where we explored an ancient city built by the Munghal’s in 1571 and a mosque. The sandstone palace was fascinating and elaborately carved. As we walked around this compound it felt like we were walking through the set of the HBO show Gladiator. We left this compound and spent time around the local mosque, Jama Masjid, which reflected Persian and Indian design.
We soon found out our train to Sawai Madhopur was canceled and had to change plans. We ended up bussing to Bharatpur, where we stayed for 150 Ruppes ($2.30) and were certainly a sight as we were arrived during the off-season and there were no other foreigners. From there we took a train to Sawai Madhopur where we planned to visit Ranthambhore National Park and hopefully see some wild tigers!
As the train left for Sawai Madhopur, we watched the landscape quickly turn to desert. Sand covered fields, the sun was strong and the land flat. When we arrived we walked to a guesthouse and passed elaborately painted camels that were decorated in beads and pompoms. We took an afternoon safari in Ranthambhore National Park where over 70 tigers live. We saw a unique landscape, antelope the size of moose, deer, crocodiles, peacocks and birds. The jeep in front of us spotted a tiger but we weren’t so lucky. Although beautiful, our rowdy jeep of 20 local men didn’t seem phased that we were more likely to see tiger if we were quiet. We woke up the next morning at 3:50 am to try a morning safari but between our hotheadedess, corruption and not wanting a repeat of yesterday we decided to save the money and walk back to the guesthouse.
Days in India are long, especially when they don’t go as planned (and they never do). It’s hard work and easy to get down, but when you sit and eat the most delicious paneer punjabi and sip on chai in a rinky dink hut, you remember that you are in mother fucking India! And it’s not about the things you do or the wild tigers you see or don’t see, it’s about being present and watching cows eat cardboard and beautiful women peering through their sheer brightly colored sarais. It’s about letting go of the many butt grabs and stares and making friends on trains. It’s about shoving your face with street food, taking in Muslim architecture, eating with Sikhs, participating in Hindu festivals and sneezing at spice markets. All of it’s annoyances (and there are many) undeniably add to its magic.
*Another thank you to Nick who has done a terrific job with the majority of planning!
Sweets- try Petha, a square sweet made from pumpkin and glucose, it resembles a sugar water injected dried papaya. Also try gajak, a sweet crunchy biscuit, available October- April.
Cafe- 1/2 off any pizza over 150 R from 1-2 pm and 7-8 pm
Suoma Guesthouse, Bharatpur – We showed up off-season and were the only tourists in town. The owner “baby” was extremely friendly and only charged us 150 R ($3) for a room. We’d highly recommend this guesthouse.