I still wasn’t feeling too well, my nose was running and I was forced to take cough syrup several times a day to keep from disturbing everyone around me too very much. However, getting in a van and driving through the Indian countryside was loads more appealing than resting in the house for the next few days. We piled into the comfortable Innova van and looked forward to putting the Delhi traffic behind us.
On a recent visit to Delhi, Ajay and Neeta had taken us north of the city to visit the Punjab. We had driven through Delhi on the ring road and then branched off onto a modern highway. This was the first time that I had been on such a major road and I was really impressed at how easy it was to get out of the city and into the countryside. India is only now developing a system of highways around the nation. The British had developed an extensive network of railways and for the sixty years since Independence, most freight and passenger transportation has relied on the railways.
Agra is south of Delhi and I fully expected that we would be travelling on a new highway as well, especially because Agra is a major tourist destination and I couldn’t imagine that the government wouldn’t have wanted to impress the thousands of visitors that come to see the Taj Mahal each year. Instead, I found that we left the ring road and starting travelling along a narrow, winding two-lane country road clogged with traffic in both directions. Anil explained that we were passing through Faridabad, part of greater Delhi, which was developed decades ago as an industrial area in close proximity to the capital.
It took at least an hour before we were finally on a modern highway and we were just on the outskirts of Faridabad. There was no way we would ever reach Agra in three and a half hours; no way. At last, we were moving through the countryside, and I hoped that Raj and Vy would enjoy seeing something other that the clogged traffic of the city. I have always loved seeing the small farms and villages and getting a sense of the rural way of life.
We stopped along the way when we spotted a small restaurant that was serving South Indian food. We were happy to select idlis, sambar and coconut chutney. The place was pretty run down but the food was tasty and the toilets were basic but not too smelly. It seemed to take forever to get to Agra and we were shocked at how crowded and overgrown it has become. We headed straight to a hotel that had been recommended by a friend of Ajay’s.
The lobby was pleasant enough and they had a large fish tank that looked sparkling clean. I remember the advice of my brother David, if a hotel or a restaurant, in Asia, has a great fish tank, then he takes it as a sign that the place is clean and well run. We were shown two rooms that had an adjoining door between them. They were spacious but a little dated, but we wanted to get to the Taj so agreed to take them for the night. We used the bathroom in our room and Adia noticed a cockroach near the drain and I noticed mothballs in the drains of the tub and sink. Yuck! Not a good sign.
Raj wanted to look for another hotel, but it was almost 3pm and if we wanted to see the Taj that day we would have to hurry. We paid a deposit for the rooms and hurried off to see Agra’s most famous monument. It was very crowded near the parking lot, and we learned that for security purposes, vehicles are no longer allowed to park within a kilometer of the Taj. There were cycle rickshaws and horse and camel carts to take visitors to the gates if they don’t want to walk. We decided that Vy needed to try a rickshaw ride so we piled into two and hurried off.
We knew for some time that they have different admission charges for local residents and for foreign visitors, so we were not surprised to see that we would have to pay Rs 750, while others were admitted for only Rs 20. What was a pleasant surprise was that we were given shoe covers so that we wouldn’t have to go barefoot while touring the Taj itself, and we were also handed a bottle of chilled mineral water. I was pleasantly surprised to see that all the souvenir shops have been removed from the large arcade that leads from the entrance gate to the large Mughal gate that frames the Taj when you enter the site. The lawns were well-trimmed and I was delighted to see that there was water in the reflecting pools and fountains on the grounds. I had been so disappointed to find the pools empty on my last three visits.
We were really surprised to see so many others visitors at the Taj Mahal that day. The crowds had always been quite small in the past, and I have to say it really took away some of the charm of the place. It wasn’t until later that I remembered that we were right in the middle of a ten-day Muslim holiday and that this is first and foremost, a Muslim tomb to the beloved wife of a Muslim Emperor, Shah Jahan. It made complete sense that Muslims from all over India would choose to visit this special place during their vacation.
There were so many people, that we had to join a long line of people just to enter the inside of the tomb, and I was startled to see that the lights were not turned on. This meant that the visitors could not see the beautiful inlay work on the huge marble screen that surrounds the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. What was unfortunate as well was that teenage boys and young children were shouting out loud inside the tomb in order to hear the echo reverberate around the interior. The guards didn’t make any effort to hush the visitors, or to explain that this was a sombre place and not an amusement park.
I had seen the Taj in better times and in better light, but I was disappointed that Raj and Vy couldn’t appreciate the beauty of this famous place to its fullest. Raj had been here last when he was eight years old and Vy had never seen it before. I doubt they will ever make the effort to come again, so it was doubly disappointing. This was my fifth visit, and after this experience, I don’t think I’ll come again. How unfortunate.
It was getting dark; the sun had almost set. Raj and I had spent a great deal of time taking photos; waiting for the crowds to clear a little, or at least for people to give us a chance to get some shots without people in them. It wasn’t easy, but we each managed to get some memorable photos of this most beautiful of buildings. We avoided the pressure to take another rickshaw ride back to our vehicle, though I did look wistfully at the lonely camel waiting by the side of the path. I didn’t want to ride on him, but it would have been a first to ride in a cart drawn by a camel. No one else was up for the experience. They were all too worn out by the long drive to Agra and just wanted to have dinner and get a good night’s sleep.
When we arrived at our hotel, we were startled to find that someone had been in and sprayed insecticide throughout the two rooms. It was choking, but I didn’t want to make too much of a fuss and turned on the air-conditioner. Adia headed over to her bags that were sitting on the sofa and shouted when she moved her bag and a large number of cockroaches scurried off in all directions. Horrors! That was it, there was no way any of us were going to stay in this ‘roach-infested’ place! We went straight to the lobby and I told the receptionist to call the manager, we were definitely leaving and wanted our deposit back, thank you very much.
Well, to make a long story short, the management was most reluctant to comply and after almost a half an hour, Raj’s patience ran out and he told the manager that if we didn’t get our deposit immediately, he would start telling everyone entering the hotel that the place was swarming with roaches, and he meant it. I don’t think the manager realized how serious Raj was, but it only took a few minutes of Raj telling two separate groups of people about our plight, before we were handed our deposit and we left.
When we went to our van, the driver was still there and the guide who had shown us around the Taj was still talking with him. We explained the problem and asked them to suggest another hotel. They took us to one, but it looked too much like the one we’d left so we asked them if there was a new hotel in Agra and immediately, the Crystal Hotel sprang to their minds. We went there and couldn’t have been more delighted. It was only a few months old and was modern, clean and welcoming. We got two rooms; one for Raj and Vy and they three of us shared the second room.
Luckily, the hotel also had a restaurant and we headed straight there for a delightful dinner. As a rule, we don’t usually have drinks when we are travelling around India, but we needed to celebrate our escape from the roaches and our success at finding a perfect place for the night. Good hotels in India don’t come cheap, they are similarly priced to what we would pay in Canada, but we were so disgusted by the insects, that the cost wasn’t an issue. We all headed to bed relatively early; Raj and I made plans to get up at 5:00am and head out across the Jamuna River to take photos of the Taj at sunrise.
It had been an eventful day, but all’s well that ends well. It had taken almost six hours to get to Agra, we were so glad that we had planned to stay the night, it was unfortunate that we had to subject ourselves to a disgusting experience with the roaches, but we looked forward to seeing the beautiful Fatehpur Sikri the following day before heading back to Delhi.