18.01.2016 - 18.01.2016
Our alarms woke us up on day 1 of our India tour at 4:30am. We had a train to catch to Agra at 6am and we had to get ready, pack, check out and navigate the temperamental traffic of Delhi. It was a cold and foggy morning and this coupled with our sleepiness made for a dazed few hours. After a very sweet and delicious masala chai tea at the station, we boarded our train and settled in for the 'supposed' 2 hour journey. Lauren and I were sat separately which was mildly disappointing at first but in the end proved the perfect way to get to know our tour-mates. The train carriage we were on was classed as 'luxury' but it was just like your average 20 year old Merseyrail train; basic seats in a 2 and 3 configuration, with overhead storage, fold down tables (many of which were broken) and limited leg room. One of our tour-mates Mona has brought a HUGE heavy suitcase instead of a backpack (that we’ve affectionately named 'Big Blue') that didn’t fit in the overhead compartment and so had to be stood up in the aisle. This meant that people had to squeeze past it. Everyone was very understanding; one particular Indian man even proclaimed that he was 'too fat' to get past and chuckled as he scraped his protruding belly along it. The only real 'luxury' part of the journey was getting fed. Men wandered up and down the aisles and handed out cutlery followed by a peel-lid carton of lemonade, a pack of digestive buscuits, a cup of tea (Tetley) and then breakfast; which consisted of two vegetable fingers, 3 chips and a few peas along with two pieces of toast, butter, jam and some curious spicy liquidy ketchup. Lauren and I enthusiastically chowed down on it all - always excited to receive free food from strangers.
The fog was immense; for the whole journey all we could see through the windows was white nothingness. At one point mid-nap my brain told me that the train had transformed into a plane and that we were cruising at 30,000 feet amongst the clouds. Perhaps our veggie fingers contained special mushrooms... Because of the fog, the 2 hour journey became 4 and a half hours but amazingly we both somehow managed to not need the toilet, therefore postponing our inevitable Indian rail lavatory experience for another day.
When we arrived at Agra train station, overtired and under-prepared, we were met with a wall of 50 men touting for tuk tuk business. They were shouting and gesticulating with great enthusiasm (edging on aggression) and as soon as our fat Caucasian heads broke into daylight all hell broke loose. Squabbles erupted, with guys pushing and fighting over who had dibs on us and our fat wallets. The commotion got us a little disorientated and at one point Jack, Helen and Lauren were following a random man they thought was our tour-guide Raj. Luckily, Raj quickly re-claimed us and we got on our way to Hotel Amar Yatri Niwas.
On arrival to the hotel we were instantly bemused by the presence of a Costa Coffee, KFC and Pizza Hut. Unfortunately you just can’t escape certain capitalist megaliths even in the less ‘developed’ corners of the world. After freshening up we got on a minibus to Agra Fort, an awe-inspiring palatial UNESCO world heritage site, built by the Mughals and dating back to the 11th century. Our tour guide was called Nadeem but we dubbed him Armani due to his choice of designer garb. After wandering, oooing and ahhing for a few hours Raj took us to a nearby restaurant called Dasaprakash which specialises in dosa; a south Indian filled pancake. For some reason, the paper dosa I ordered was significantly longer than everyone else’s (see pic); I just have to be different... Lauren had the sudden urge for a cream soda but after a few slurps she’d had enough, so obviously being a dutiful girlfriend I helped her out.
After a few minutes of digestion we made our move to the legendary Taj Mahal (Crown Palace). Naturally it’s respectful for women to dress modestly so we brought our sarongs and wrapped them around our heads and shoulders just to draw attention to our tourist-status even more. I won’t go into the history and background of the Taj as you all know how to Google, but I will say that it came into existence as a result of a loving promise between a husband and his dying wife. You might call it the most expensive and impressive romantic gesture ever given. After a short orientation we approached the palace and I can honestly say it took my breath away. Lauren was impressed but also a little underwhelmed (typical). We walked around the grounds trying to imagine whether either of us could be bothered to build a palace for one another if we were dying. We came to the conclusion that even if we had the money and resources we would probably just say we’d build one and then just not bother when the other one finally died. Ahhh love.
Weirdly, the majority of our time at the big T was spent posing for photographs with other visitors. Lauren was eager to replicate the infamous 'Princess Diana sitting on a bench in front of the Taj' scene, but because of the crowds and our new celebrity status, it took 20 minutes just to get the photo set up. After many snaps with random people and their whole family we made our way out and back to our meeting point (the Indian equivalent of Starfucks; Café Coffee Day). We sat out the front and were treated to an impromptu zoological parade; first a large bull came by, followed by a camel and then an old lady with her pet goat. Of course there were a few monkeys and dogs roaming around for good measure too. The bull actually tried to get through the turnstiles into the Taj but was turned away. He must have had a laser-pen on him or something.
That evening Raj took us to a restaurant called Maya where we were seated on a rooftop under some beautiful trees. We were also serenaded by a musical duo playing the sitar and tabla drum, who I jumped on after my meal and forced them to let me have a go on their instruments. It turns out I’m a natural on the sitar. But maybe the guy was just being polite. Lauren’s hand and wrist technique were pretty damn decent on the tabla too. We’re considering starting up a band when we return; the Grones collective.