Wednesday, July 15, 2009

December 30, 2008 - Agra - Part One

Up at 4am to be ready to go at 5:15. Of course the train to Agra was then 40 minutes late.

We had four seats reserved in a compartment for six--but it was still made up as a sleeper compartment. Ugh! I am not looking forward to a night in one of those later this week!

No privacy whatsoever. Six bunks on one side of the aisle perpendicular to the window, and two on the other side parallel to it--so in one "compartment" there are actually eight people, not six.

There are no doors--other passengers can use the aisles as they please. There are no curtains. Just bunks that convert to seats for daytime.

Sitting across the aisle this morning was one of the most beautiful young men I've ever seen. He struck up a conversation with us in order to flirt with Kyle, and his adaptation was amusing. First he was an Aryan. Had he stuck to that we probably would have believed him. But then he decided it would be more impressive to be a Sikh, despite being barbered and dressed western style. Bad luck for him--I had not half an hour before read in the newspaper an article about Sikhs being outcast if they ever, even once, trimmed their hair. Couldn't help showing him the article. He did what our guide does when we press him for information he doesn't want to give up: he changed the subject.

In Agra we stayed in a nice, clean, shabby genteel hotel. We are all getting very tired, though, of two or three mile marches to points where we get local transport that we could have boarded right outside our hotel, and then dropped off a mile or more from the attraction we came to see, so we always arrive too hot and tired to enjoy it. When we asked our guide why, his answer was a very annoyed, "Look at what you signed up for. It says all local transport."

But we came back with, "All we want is more local transport! Other people get dropped off at the entry point, and so can we!"

At that he became incensed and told us we had to obey the rules of the tour, and our choices were to go on the excursions or stay in the hotel. Has this guy never guided Yanks, Brits, and Ozzies before? The result of his tantrum was that after we had seen the day's two attractions his tourists scattered instead of marching back to the hotel as he wanted us to do. Those who had been dying to go shopping, and never allowed the time, went shopping. Lois, Eric, and I paid for our own local transport (a tuk-tuk, cheap), rather than senselessly wasting our energy reserves by walking.

In the meantime, though, we had other adventures. Early in the day, after we had walked a couple of miles, we were put in bicycle rickshaws to go to Fort Agra. The poor man driving (pedaling) the one Kyle and I were put into was scrawny, and his bicycle was not geared. We did not realize that the order our guide had given was "Follow us," so at first we were not worried when all the other tuk-tuks passed us and then disappeared into the distance. We were sympathizing with the driver, who, we thought, knew he was taking us to another red fort.

But the ride went on and on, and soon we were off into side streets of a shopping district. When our driver stopped at another tuk-tuk rank to ask directions, we knew we were lost. But, we still did not know that our driver didn't know where we were going till one of the other drivers, who had a bit of broken English, asked if we wanted one hour or two.

"No, no," we said. "Not hours. Red Fort. Fort Agra."

There was consultation in Hindi, and we started off again, hoping our driver now knew where we were supposed to go.

It had to happen, of course, on the day we were going to the Taj Mahal. We had been warned that if we did not want to stand in hour-long lines to check bags before we went in and again after the visit, we could take only what was allowed inside: money, passport, keys, camera, water.

So--there we were without either a cell phone or the card with our guide's cell phone number on it!

Kyle and I started planning how to get to Fort Agra--dump the current tuk-tuk the next time we saw a stand of them, and see if we could find a driver who could understand that we wanted to go to Fort Agra. But just then one of the other tuk-tuk drivers from our group pulled up beside us and spoke to our driver in Hindi. He then turned to us with a big grin and said, "Fort Agra!"

Ummm...why had he been unable to hear those words from us for the past half hour?

Then our tour guide pulled up in an auto-rickshaw, we transferred to that, and we were whisked off to the fort.

All the forts we are seeing are really fortified castle/palace complexes. Agra's Red Fort is important as the home of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal. A local guide took us around, pointing out things like the double moat--first a ring of water, with crocodiles, and inside that an actual jungle, with tigers. The water and the jungle are still there, but although monkeys live in the jungle, the crocodiles and tigers are long departed.

The Emperor Shah Jahan, though, was not conquered by an enemy from outside. His son decided his father was not getting out of his way soon enough, and imprisoned him in his own palace. He was able to look out over the magnificent tomb he had built for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, but he never did get to build the matching black monument for himself.

(To be continued. Next post, the Taj Mahal.)

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