Agra-essive India: 10.09.2013

What a full on day we’ve had here in Agra; I can safely say that after what we experienced – rather, endured – today, I am never coming back here in my lifetime. The Taj Mahal really will be a once-in-a-lifetime for me.

Our day started wonderfully, we took a tuk tuk to the station (after one ridiculous driver tried to charge us 300 rupees for a 15 rupee ride!) and boarded the one train I have been waiting enthusiastically to take in India! The Shatabdi Express! – once described to me as “luxurious, by India standards.”  It was pretty awesome; we had comfortable upholstered seats, leg rests and the train was clean and spacious. We had room to store our bags above us, a tray table, and staff who served us with a news paper, water, tea, breakfast, candy, buiscuits and chai. Very luxurious, I’ll say. I felt like I was on India’s version of the Japanese Shinkansen, and I was almost a little disappointed that the train ride was to be only three and a half hours – it was so lovely!

On the train, I sat admiring my surroundings and wondering if I’d made the right decision to book us flights to Japan… then I heard a little voice say “Ah-gu-ra?” I turned around instantly, recognising that cute accent. A little Japanese man sat down in the seat behind us, and I had to smile. By the time we exited the train, we had an offer from the Japanese man to show us around Osaka when we arrived, and I was feeling 100% sure we’d made the right decision.Thank you, to who ever sent me that little sign of confirmation.

Stepping into Agra Fort train station, we dumped our bags in the cloak room and were immediately preyed upon by a rickshaw driver. We were cautious – evidently not cautious enough – and tried to shake him, however, he oddly seemed like maybe, just maybe he was being a little less schemey than the rest of them… We took him up on his offer for a days sight seeing, and hopped into the rickshaw where his son was very helpful in telling us what scams to look out for in Agra. He forgot to mention the one him and his dad were running.

We arrived near the South Entrance to the Taj, and proceeded to walk through a lane way packed with shops and touters, all begging and pleading and trying their hardest to hassle us into their shops. I kept my backpack on my front, with my arms hugging it tightly.

We lined up for our tickets, which cost us 750 rupees each (just a little more than the 20 rupees that the locals pay for their entrance tickets) but absolutely worth it.
We were then waved through to the front of the security line, passing through and being patted down by officers before they went through every section of my bag, wallet and possessions. They accepted my bulging pack, but declined my lap top, a tiny torch and a deck of UNO cards entrance into the Taj, so it was back to the cloak room to store my goods. I’m not sure what was so dangerous about my UNO cards, but it was all made clear to me when they said gruffly “Government Policy.”

Stepping into the Taj was exciting! It was crowded with people, but it didn’t matter, we were here and it was incredible! The entrance gate was magnificent in its own right, and walking through gave us a glimpse of what was to come, with the Taj coming more and more into view with every step towards it. I had butterflies!

We stepped through the entrance gate to see the Taj in full view, and it was really exciting! People were everywhere, lots of domestic tourists taking hilarious photos of themselves in strange poses. It was a big competition to get a photograph without several men posing with borrowed sun glasses and arms folded, but we succeeded eventually; I guess everyone wanted a piece of the Taj.

We spent a good hour or so wandering about the grounds, around the Taj and inside it, where we were speechless. It was beautiful, spectacular and just so massive! How amazing it was to be here…
I was left speechless again when I watched a man very obviously and intentionally grab a female tourist’s bottom. Not good.

It was very special to be there, but eventually we left and wandered back through the lane of touters, where I had to yell at a small child to leave me alone, after he followed me for way too long trying to drag me into his 1-rupee per-post-card shop, grabbed my arm and harassed me aggressively almost to breaking point. The Taj Mahal was indeed beautiful, but stepping back out was simply walking into a feeding frenzy.

Back in our tuk tuk, the drivers took us to see the Agra Fort, which we decided not to enter and instead, marveled at from the outside. Seeing as 75% of the fort is inaccessible to tourists and is used by the military, the Red Fort was pretty impressive from the outside without the hefty foreigner entrance fee.

Tuk tuk driver then took us to a chai shop where he assumed we would pay for his drinks, and spent a lengthy amount of time explaining to us in detail, with lots of “true stories” to back up whatever he said, that apparently every guest house with a restaurant in Agra has a network with tuk tuk drivers, doctors and the local hospital, and intentionally poisons tourists in order to get commission from each of their networks, and earn more money from sick tourists who are forced to pay use a tuk tuk to go to the doctors, then to the hospital, then pay to stay extra nights in their guest house recovering… Whilst we’re not sure how true this is, he was very persistent about just one restaurant in Agra being safe to eat at, and ensured us it was in our guide book (it was not). Driving past the place to “just show us,” I was pretty sure that if any restaurant in Agra was actually out to make tourists sick, it was that one, and we gladly declined his ‘generous’ offer.

After originally promising not to, and then attempting to lure us to a Government shop , which I flatly and continually refused, tuk tuk driver must’ve realised we were in no mood to “shop” just so he could get commission. I think he got a bit shitty, as he then declined my request to take us to an orphanage I wanted to pay a visit to, to donate some stationary and colouring books for the little children. He had originally agreed to take us there, but suddenly 5km was “too far,” and just like that, our “seven hour tour of Agra” with the tuk tuk driver was over – just two hours later… Furthermore, when I asked for my 100 rupees change, he refused and basically shoved us out of his tuk tuk, telling me how wonderful his shit service had been and that he deserved that extra 100 on top of the already ridiculous fee, simply for doing not a whole lot.

That bitter taste in my mouth was becoming unbearable, and it was only 1pm. We still had 10 hours to spend in Agra, in the heat, with the thousands of sharks (touters), before our train to Lucknow arrived.

We decided to walk through the train station to cross over to the local bazaar, hoping it would entertain us for a while. Fending off monkeys with my backpack, we crossed over and through a filthy area where dozens of men were urinating and shitting on piles of filth. The bazaar was jam packed and traffic was heavy, congested and dangerous. Wandering about was difficult, and it wasn’t long before we made the attempt to walk back to the near- by fort area, passing cows, dodging rubbish, poo and touters and dogs mating in the street.

By the time we walked to the top of the road, we were hot, stressed and sick of having to duck and weave and dodge hectic traffic and constant touting. We attempted to hail a rickshaw, but no one wanted to use their meter (of course not), let alone give us a price anywhere even near reasonable. 300 rupees for a 1km distance was out of the question. Declining one driver who refused to use the meter, he quickly changed his tune and immediately tried to repair two very obviously severed wires. Whilst doing so, we were suddenly surrounded by at least 20 men who all wanted to know what was happening, and why we hadn’t chosen their rickshaw. One man was particularly aggressive, and demanded we get into his tuk tuk for 100 rupees. Declining him politely, he quickly dropped to 80 telling us that this was the local price. Then again dropping to 70, all whilst I was politely saying no thanks, no that’s too much, that’s not a fair price, no, no, no, please – no, listen – no!…NO!”  He continued to yell “70! Okay! Get in! 70!”, and we were stuck in a circle of men who seemed to be really enjoying the show whilst I tried to escape. I thought it had ended with me screaming at them and pushing through the crowd… but then the aggressive man got into his tuk tuk, drove after us and screamed at us to get in. It officially ended with Jacob screaming – and I mean, screaming (never had I heard him scream before!) at the driver in Hindi to leave us alone. It was an awful experience and left me almost in tears from sheer exhaustion; I was sick of this bull shit and we’d both had enough of the horrible treatment we were receiving from everyone we came into contact with. We walked away in silence, feeling rotten and wanting to get out of this city as quickly as possible, yet knowing we still had hours to go.

Eventually, we found a tuk tuk driver who finally agreed to a price that was only a reasonablye rip-off, rather than just simply ridiculous, but before we could get in to his vehicle, we witnessed a hit and run accident; a tuk tuk on the wrong side of the road smashed into a young boy on a bike and immediately sped off at a ridiculous speed, leaving locals chasing after the driver and running to the boy’s aid. He was fine, but after seeing that and the distress written all over that poor boys face, I was now at almost breaking point.

Our driver took us to a café – but not the one we’d requested; one much closer and more convenient for him. We argued that we did not want to go to this cafe, and a passing cycle rickshaw driver told him where to take us, but not before offering us some “very good weed,” which we declined angrily. I was expecting to have to fight with our driver to get our agreed price, after he drove for several minutes more to take us to the correct café, but it came as a sheer relief when he accepted what we had agreeed upon.

Entering Café Coffee Day – the Indian version of Gloria Jeans or Hudson’s Coffee – we simply needed respite. It was just 4pm, and we still had 7 and a half hours until our train arrived. We dragged our packs up the steps, dumped them by an empty table, slumped into our seats, and did not move from there for another seven hours. Yep. That’s right, we, along with many other tourists, bunkered down and hid from Agra for seven whole hours until our night train arrived.

Whilst whittling away the hours, we spoke with a girl who’d just come from Lucknow – our next destination. Jake and I had heard great things about Lucknow, and were looking forward to a less touristy area with great food! However, had left her with memories that were obviously less than perfect; she’d been quite distressed by her experience there, and she really put fear into me about our next destination… after today’s events, I didn’t feel I could handle anything else distressing… This meant our last few hours in Agra were spent with me worrying about what was to come, and wishing we could just go to Delhi and fly away.

Still cautious about the possibility of food poising, we hadn’t eaten all day, besides our bits of bread, biscuits and tea on the Indian Shinkansen at 7am. Outside the café, still within the distance of our safety net, was a vegetarian street stall cooking up great food and packed with locals. Food we could trust; Jake had some sort of Indian street food, and I ate a piece of naan. That would do.

Around 11pm, we braved the streets and I bartered a tuk tuk driver down from 200 to 50, my first (little) win in Agra. He took us down  narrow bumpy streets and dropped us at the station, just as another tourist got out; another Japanese boy.

On the platform, surrounded by thousands of staring eyes, we and the Japanese boy found another pair of tourists and congregated near them. Then another few tourists found us, and soon we were one big group on a platform surrounded by families on blankets eating and drinking and staring and sleeping and pooing over the rail tracks.

We had sleeper class tickets to Lucknow; we’d taken a few sleeper class trains when we first arrived in India, but had switched to taking  3AC class berths after discovering they were a little safer and nicer, and not packed with people on waiting lists for a seat. This train was really dirty,  the worst we’d come across, and I missed the luxury of having a sheet to protect me from the grime and several sets of staring eyes. I lay awake for ages thinking about India and Japan, whilst attempting to block out the strange noises coming from the train.

I really hoped Lucknow would be as great as we’d originally hoped.