India is huge and wildly diverse and full of little quirks that can drive you insane if you don’t relax a little and go with the flow. Those of you who know me well might be raising their eyebrows at that sentence because honestly, I’m the LAST person to tell others to chill - I’m terrible at relaxing, I’m a control freak, and I’m ridiculously impatient. But I guess that’s the good thing about traveling, especially to places that are really different from home. It teaches you stuff. And more than anything else, India is teaching me about patience and letting go of control.
Agra in itself is a lesson in patience. It’s arguably the most famous (and DEFINITELY the most touristy) place in India, what with the Taj Mahal and all, and it really shows. There’s a reason most blogs and guidebooks say to only spend at most one night here. Apart from the monuments, the city isn’t great - it’s polluted, traffic is a nightmare, everything is overpriced, and there just aren’t a lot of good food options or activities beyond the monuments.
Another issue is that autorickshaw (aka tuk-tuk) drivers are super aggressive, and there’s no Uber here, so you’re stuck dealing with them. Agra was the only place in India where our driver dragged us to a shop - and it was a guy we trusted who we had arranged through our guesthouse! It was annoying, but we were honestly a little curious to witness the inner workings of this age-old scam. If you don’t know, auto drivers often get commission for dragging unsuspecting tourists to shops and hotels, and they are inevitably sketchy places or just sell heinously overpriced junk.
The salesman was very slick (he had a whole presentation clearly designed to make unsuspecting tourists ooh and ahh), but once he realized we were broke-ass backpackers who could not afford a $600 piece of marble he got rid of us pretty quick. I guess it’s kind of like attending a timeshare pitch in order to get a cheap vacation. Just smile a lot and don’t pull out your wallet. I’m going to publish a short guide for dealing with autos in India, because there are sooooo many scams it can be overwhelming, so stay tuned for that.
We arrived in Agra on a Friday, which is the one day a week that the Taj is closed. Fortunately, there’s a decent amount of other Mughal era monuments around town, so we weren’t out of luck. Our aforementioned auto driver took us to the Baby Taj, the Agra Fort, and the famous lookout point over the real Taj in one whirlwind afternoon.
The Baby Taj, aka the tomb of Itimad ud Daulah, looks a lot like the Taj Mahal in terms of its structure and the abundant amount of semiprecious stones inlaid in the white marble. It’s across the river from the main city of Agra, and you can look down on the water behind the tomb to see tons of buffalo just casually hanging out. And also some children bathing. It was crazy.
The Agra Fort turned out to be our favorite sight in town (other than the Taj, obviously). There are a LOT of forts all over India, in varying states of disrepair. They’re all pretty cool, and it’s an interesting glimpse at the history of the country, but the Agra Fort is definitely the coolest one. It’s huge, and encompasses a castle, a mosque, a zillion different gardens, and more. And it’s not terribly crowded, at least once you get past the first section and into the fort grounds. Remember, patience! We spent a good two hours exploring the fort before moving on.
Finally, we headed to the spot our driver referred to as Sunset Point. I’m not sure if that’s the real name, and anyway we were there at like 4pm and not sunset, but it’s a huge park with an incredible view of the Taj Mahal. You have to pay 200 rupees to enter, which is kind of a ripoff considering there’s NOTHING else here, but it’s worth it to catch a glimpse of the majestic mausoleum. We found a helpful guide who took a zillion photos of us in various poses all over the park…for a small tip, of course.
But honestly, all of this just pales in comparison to the actual Taj Mahal, which we finally saw the following day. Alex and I were feeling kind of cynical until we saw it in person, and then we changed our tune. It’s worth all the hassle Agra throws at you. Even though it costs 1000 rupees for foreigners (it’s like 1/10th that for Indians). Even though it’s crowded beyond belief. Even though you have guys in your face asking if you need a guide every 5 seconds. It’s still worth it.
We arrived at sunrise (which is when all the guidebooks tell you to go) and we were underwhelmed at first, to say the least. You guys might have heard about how Delhi is suffering toxic levels of pollution right now. Well, Agra is only two hours from Delhi and is being hit by a lot of that same smog. That, combined with the early morning fog that settled over the whole city, meant that we couldn’t see a damn thing when we first walked into the complex. That famous photo op with the pools and the trees leading up to the Taj? Yeah, it may as well have not been there for all we could see. We tried to snap some pics, but they just look tragic.
We resigned ourselves to not getting any decent pics for the blog and wandered on in to the main mausoleum. This was approximately when it started to hit us what a colossally incredible work of art this place is. The whole building looks white from a distance but it’s actually inlaid with countless semiprecious stones, inside and out. It’s seriously mind-boggling to look at up close, and the overall effect is really beautiful. Some of the stones glow in the dark or let the light in just perfectly, and we saw lots of people shining flashlights at various parts of the stone to make them glow.
Once we emerged from the dark mausoleum and wandered back out into the complex, we were relieved to discover the fog had cleared and though it was still smoggy we were finally able to snap some pictures! Of course, everyone else realized this too, so there are zillions of people in the background and I got shoved by this crazy Spanish lady while trying to take these photos. Clearly she was not learning the same lessons in patience that I was.
Still, it was a truly incredible sight to witness. The Taj is definitely the most majestic building either of us have ever seen with our own eyeballs. It does NOT disappoint. Agra isn’t great, but you would be crazy not to stop by. It’s worth it.
After we left the Taj, we went to the meeting point we’d established with our driver and he…wasn’t there. So we got stuck waiting almost an hour, during which time several cows, a very pregnant goat, two dogs, and four or five angry monkeys all wandered past our little corner. It felt like a zoo. India is nuts.
Finally he showed up and brought us back to our guesthouse, where we managed to score a late checkout which was key because our train wasn’t supposed to leave until almost 11pm. We checked out at 8pm and moved up to the roof to have a beer and chill, at which point I decided to check our train status.
This brings me to our second major lesson in patience: Indian trains. We’ve gotten a little overconfident with regards to trains here - no major delays or trouble at the stations, plus we booked waitlist tickets on a popular route and managed to secure seats at the very last minute. As a result, we got into a rhythm when it came to riding trains, thinking this was all normal and that things would continue to go well.
When I went online to check the train’s current status, I was horrified to discover that it was delayed by NINE HOURS. That’s the thing about India - they don’t notify you when your train is delayed - it’s not like America where if your flight is delayed you get 8 emails, 3 texts and a push notification about it. Nope. Here you just have to guess. And it’s common to be delayed once you’re on the train, too. There’s no announcement or anything, you just wake up and realize the train hasn’t moved for an hour and a half and then you make it to your destination three hours behind schedule and no one else seems the slightest bit concerned. I’m not bitter or anything.
Anyway, to make a long story short, thankfully our guesthouse had a room available that night because we would have been screwed otherwise. It was annoying to be stuck in Agra, but it was just one night and we’d be leaving early in the morning. Except…we did wake up early, only to discover we were delayed AGAIN. We didn’t wind up leaving the guesthouse until almost 10am, a full 12 hours after our train was originally supposed to depart!
It was like the universe was punishing us for being overconfident. By the end, we just stared at each other like zombies with bags under our eyes like ‘get me the hell out of this town.’ We finally made it to the train station but were forced to wait another three hours until our train showed up, and that was just the beginning. The train ride was supposed to take 12 hours but actually took 18 due to delays, so we ended up in Varanasi almost 24 hours late.
I began slowly going insane about halfway into this whole delay, but at some point after our second hour-long unannounced stop, I realized that everything was out of my control and decided to try letting go. It helped, a lot. India has a way of forcing you out of your comfort zone, and this was a great big slap in the face from the universe reminding me that I’m not in Kansas anymore. I’m an outsider here and things work differently.
I’m slowly learning that it’s easier to smile and nod and go along with the insanity, because India is a raging current that will take you wherever she wants you to go. Resistance is futile. And that’s the beauty of traveling here.