Ask a hundred people where in the world they would like to visit most of all and a significant percentage of them will say Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Indeed there are tours (and we met a few people on such) that fly into Delhi, drive to Agra for a day and then drive back to fly out. That these people can claim to have experienced India is to some laughable.
But then they are probably not trying to, instead they are after a unique chance of visiting the worlds greatest monument to romantic love ever constructed. For that is what this strange tomb is; one man’s attempt to express his love and loss. Seen in that sense, flying half way across the world just to see the sun rise here is perhaps not so crazy after all.
Cesca and I arrived a different way, a much more down to earth way; by train. Agra was one of the few places that we had phoned ahead and booked. This is because Agra has quite a different reputation amongst backpackers; a deadly reputation.
Surrounding the great tomb is, what some might call, a shanty town. In the past it probably was, just a place for the Mountebanks, snake charmers and con artists to live when they weren’t begging outside the tomb proper. Then came the era of international tourism and the arrival of backpackers. I can hardly imagine what courage it took to backpack India in those first days. I get some of the stories from fifteen years ago when my sister-in-law was in the north of India. Back then, the population was tiny compared to now and everyone much poorer. Staying in the area around the Taj, called the Ganj, was probably taking your life in your hands even just from the point of view of the water quality (drawn directly from the great river flowing behind the Taj and very polluted). You may consider this an exaggeration, but even in our more modern times there has been deaths here. The story I was told was that there was a con being played, which went like this:
Tourists would stay at a hostel and naturally enough ask at the desk for a food recommendation, the helpful staff would call up tuk tuk and direct them to a “quality” restaurant. At the end of the meal the tourists would start to feel ill and eventually collapse in pain. The tuk tuk would then take them to a doctors clinic who would check them in and claim that they had a well-known local infection that he could treat no problem. He would then give them medicine once they had called their insurance company. Over the next few days to weeks they would remain ill and eventually “respond” to the treatment. Thanking the doctor they would probably fly home none-the-wiser to what really happened to them. You see, the hotel, the tuk tuk driver, the restaurant and the “doctor” were all in on a nastily little scam. That the restaurant poisoned the tourists is obvious, but worse so did the doctor’s “treatments”. Why? Because western people are insured up the wassoo and all this money flowed directly into the doctors clinic where he would pay off the others. It worked pretty well for – I hear – a couple of years until two German tourists died from the treatment. After that the Indian government went though the Ganj area and forced out all the scammers. Or so we should hope.
Cesca and I were hearing this tale from a guy on our tiger safari whose face was covered with hundreds of painful looking bedbug bites – the result of a visit to a bad hostel in Agra. We were only slightly more concerned about the story than the painful looking bites, surely going to scar.
We later read up and found that the tale was true.
“What shall we do?” Cesca asked me, knowing that I was the more security conscious (read: paranoid) of the two of us.
I thought for a moment before the answer hit me, “we will stay with Muslims,” I announced. My hope was that the famous Muslim hospitality would prevent them from any such behaviour as it would be against one of the Pillars of Islam. So, we called ahead and booked into a hotel in the heart of the Ganj area owned and run by a Muslim family. It was very close to the Taj itself and the view out the back of the room was over the houses leading up to the great Tomb.
The view from our room / a local women takes in the street view.
We were just deciding to take a walk around the area when we met one of the most memorable people of all our travels. I stood outside in the dusty street out front of the hostel and perused my Lonely Planet. I was considering where we might find something to eat. Then suddenly, amongst the endless sounds of India; chatting in Hindu, Indian music, etc, came a vocal accent it was wonderful to hear; Scottish.
“Hey pal, may I borrow that from ye?”
I looked up to find a thin late thirties bald man standing over the frame of a road bike and indicating my Lonely Planet. He was dressed in cycling shorts and a sport top and his bike was ladened down with large specialist bags over each wheel. Clearly this was all his gear.
“Sure,” I said handing him the book, which he took without hesitation, “it’s nice to hear an accent from home.”
“Aye,” he said reading the book and not really listening. Cesca and I shared a smile. It really was nice to hear the Scottish brogue, it’s a reminder of my little island and my people who I often missed. It has occurred to me since that we spent a lot of time travelling in the company of Scottish and Irish people, I wonder if their voices had anything to do with it, or that the legendary gregariousness of these nations commutes to friendship all over the world? The man flicked through the book for a few more moments and then looked Cesca and I up and down, “Do you know where I may get a beer?” he asked.
“Not off the top of my head I’m afraid, we are new to the area, but there will be one in there I am sure,” I said.
He seemed to come to a conclusion, “Would you two like to come for a beer?”
“Why yes, we would”.
“Grand, I know a good place over there,” he gestured at a building 100 yards away.
“Basho,” I said holding out my hand to shake, “and this is my wife Cesca”.
He smiled a broad grin, “I’m Eric”.
And so we went to have a drink. We were fascinated to learn more about this strange fellow on his bike. The fact that it was early didn’t bother us at all; it was still very hot, ‘tis true, but more than that you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth when meeting people. Some of the greatest people are met in the most unlikely ways; sometimes thrown together by fate like Lenin and Bobbits in Laos, sometimes met through hardship like Gwenny in Kerala and sometimes unavoidable like Connor and Marie-Lou who we gratefully met over and over and over. Sometimes it’s just meeting someone who you just know you will enjoy the company of, like Eric.
We went to the rooftop bar/café and the owner greeted Eric like an old friend, we sat overlooking the Ganj and the Taj poking over the rooftops; all the pretence of needing a guide book was gone.
The Ganj viewed from the café.
Eric ordered us all beer from a little boy waiter,
“He has to go buy it,” he explained, “it’s illegal to serve beer, but he likes me so the lad goes and gets it. We must drink it under the table in cups, OK?”
“Sure,” said Cesca, “so tell us, what’s with the bike?”
He told us.
I’ve met quite a few courageous people in my life and Eric is right up there with the best of them. A postman in Scotland, Eric was struck down with ME; the strange and not understood exhaustion disease/syndrome that usually puts people into homes for the rest of their life.
“I recovered,” he said, “and I said to myself I wanted to do something different, so I became a Yoga instructor”.
“Of course, why not?” I said.
“Aye I did that for a while to earn enough money to leave on this journey.”
“Where did you get the bike?” I asked.
“No that’s what I mean, I left Scotland on the bike, I’m cycling across the world from Aberdeen to Adelaide in Australia.”
There was a silence as we took in the enormity of this challenge. Then my talent for saying stupid things at the wrong time came to my rescue,
“Adelaide is lovely,” I told him. You’ll love it there.”
He smiled, “I hope so”.
“You must be about half way through,” said Cesca.
“Aye, but I’m stopping here for a few days as I’m bloody exhausted from Pakistan.”
And he told us about his experiences cycling through Pakistan. They had not been very pleasant to say the least. The Pakistani government had given him a police escort through the country because they were worried that he might be murdered. This escort stopped traffic as he came to roundabouts and junctions and he felt very isolated from the people. They forced him to sleep in police stations at night and, as he tried to sleep, his “guards” ordered up prostitutes for themselves and eyed his gear.
“It was horrible,” he said, “eventually I decided to just power through it and so here I am trying to recover from the effort.”
“How long will you stay in this area?” Cesca asked.
“Oh, maybe just a few days,” he said.
Sometimes a husband and wife think as one. Perhaps it is a form of mental connection beyond cues, something psychic. Whatever it was we both knew right there and then that this guy wanted company, that he needed some help to right his mind and that this was exactly what we were going to give him.
We sat and ate and drank with Eric all that day. He talked a lot, like a man who had missed the sound of his own language. We listened and talked to and it seemed to me that we had a lot in common.
The next day we did the same. This time we met up with some other travellers (including a graffiti artist and his partner from my home city of London) and long, semi drunken conversations lilted off into the day and night on all sorts of subjects. Life, the Universe, travelling to name three of the topics. We all benefitted from the company and I guess we all needed it, but Eric most of all. Slowly I could tell he was coming right again.
In the distance the Taj still sat. Waiting. I watched it out of the window of our hotel, poking high above the buildings. It wasn’t going anywhere and I wanted to wait until we were ready.
So the next day, we agreed to meet up with Eric at dinner and went off to the Red Fort.
The fort is very large and impressive, if a little barren.
This being the part of India that fought against the British, the fort had long been looted, but still it was an incredible day with the sun high in the sky making the red bricks glow in the light. The fort had been the prison for the Khan who built the Taj for his beloved wife. Almost bankrupting the nation, his son usurped his rule and placed him here for the rest of his life. To add insult to injury the son built a special optical illusion from the prison cell that makes the distant Taj appear to grow closer as your eyes focus. I imagine the old king crying, to be so close to his love and yet unable to touch her, lost in memories.
You cant capture the optical illusion with a 2D camera, but it’s very eerie.
That night we dined with Eric and a nice American couple on the “tour” of India where you fly in and out in a few days. I don’t meet many people quite this rich in such circumstances and certainly not with the same outlook on life, and so it was interesting to spend some time in their company. However, their story of that day’s visit to the Taj was the last straw and Cesca and I determined to visit it the next day. As darkness fell the local people of Ganj had a festival and we went down into the crowd to see the procession. It was very colourful and bright, but I am not sure what it represented beyond the obvious gods.
The next morning we made for the Taj. There are a number of entrances, but only some are open early.
The early queue, with me right at the back…
I remember that tourists are charged a vastly inflated price in comparison to locals, but then; their disposable income is far less in relation. Once into the gateway, and through the very thorough search protocols, you are greeted with an outer courtyard of prodigious size which leads all the paths to the main entrance in to the famous park. Even though we were very early, the place was busy and I could tell that once the bus tours arrived it would get seriously packed in and not too much fun.
The main inner entrance.
Through the giant main entrance (where you have to leave your camcorder for some reason) you arrive in the garden proper. From here the building itself is breath-taking. Again using the optical effects seen in the Fort this is the best moment of the visit as you cannot fail but to be impressed.
In front of you is the spot that Lady Diana made famous and this is the start of the trouble because everyone wants the same shot.
It becomes an inelegant scrum very quickly. In this garden, supposed to be a private place, there is now unnumbered people climbing all over the top of each other and since these are the sorts of people up at this time in the morning they are the sort of people with “photographic agendas”.
I started to feel the magic of that first view drain away, so we approached the tomb. As you get closer you quickly realise that it is a lot smaller than it looks. The design is following some secret principle of making things look bigger, but only from particular angles. From others it shrinks.
Through the hundred meters of garden you arrive at steps and up up to the platform on which the tomb sits. As we drew closer we could see that the entire buildings façade is slight in need of repair with the fine inlaid stone being endlessly chipped off and stolen.
We walked around and spied the river running behind the structure. It is large and very dirty. We then entered inside the tomb, which was quite bare and amongst the throng of people there really wasn’t much to see. Soon we left the building and, avoiding the oncoming hordes, we went into the garden areas to the right. In these there were lots of plants and squirrels and we had some fun feeding the little blighters before deciding to leave the Taj.
Maybe the Taj can be seen in the way it was intended, maybe it is just me, but the large crowds meant that I got very little romance from the occasion and less from the ambience (which is one of busy frustration). If people visited the Taj with the quiet solemnity that one visits, say, Stone Henge then it would remain a magical experience. However, for me the Taj gave very little. What did surprise me was how nice the people of the Ganj area were and how good the food was! Surely this place has changed since the stories we had heard about.
That night we said our goodbyes to Eric. He was moving on to further adventures on his epic journey across the world. I later learned (from his blog) that he not only made it across the deserts of Australia to the wonderful city of Adelaide two months ahead of schedule, but decided to cycle back the other way! Returning to his native Scotland via New Zealand, America and Ireland. He is truly a lesson to us all, and one that was not lost on me.
Cesca and I held hands all the way to the station watching the Ganj area, and the wider roads of Agra, fly past our tuk tuk. Perhaps the Taj had some magical effect after all?
We boarded the train and took up our beds, still holding hands. Ahead was Rajasthan and the great lake city of Udaipur, with its pure quiet romance, huge forest fires and hordes of dancing virgins with giant puppets on their heads…truly.