With great anticipation we arrived in Agra, ready to tick one of the world's wonders off our list, the Taj Mahal. Built in the 1600's by the Mughal Shah Jahan for his wife, who died in childbirth of their 14th child, the Taj is arguably the most stunning mausoleum in the world. The stunning exterior did not disappoint, with its gleaming white imported marble, architectural details designed to inspire (e.g. stripes widening at the top to look more symmetrical from the ground), and inlay of precious and semi-precious stones. Unfortunately, the Indian visitors kept prying these out with pens, pencils, cards, etc. so now an intricate security system is in place. We did not pass. Fran had to run back to our hostel with a mechanical pencil and a headlamp (actually recommended by Lonely Planet to bring with us). Luckily it was not too far away, but how aggravating!
Don't let the glamour fool you. This is still India. The inside of the mausoleum has two fake tombs to represent the Shah and his wife (the real tombs lie deep below the public area, along with other graves of the royal family members). Signs posted all over warn visitors to remain silent and reverent to these fake structures. To enforce the rules, the guards are equipped with whistles and strict orders to maintain the peace. So once inside, you are constantly besieged with regular ear-splitting whistles, poked by angry guards if you pause for even a moment to marvel at the fake tombs, and jostled by Indians who are ignoring all rules and yammering away in their usual loud voices. It is not in the least a spiritual experience. One is eager to escape the chaos.
Once outside, the fun continues. A sign and several large cans exhort you to take off your shoe covers and deposit them in the large cans. Ahh! You might think. At last, they have decided to try to do something about the trash instead of letting people just drop their shoe covers anywhere. Happily, you take off your covers, hoping that they might even get around to recycling them some day. You smile at the guard and saunter down the stairs. A few second later...oops, if you want to continue to explore the grounds, you will be in need of, you guessed it, those damn shoe covers! Oh, handily they have some people selling you new ones. No! You cry. I just turned in my shoe covers! Too bad. You try to go back to retrieve them but the guard (the very one you just smiled at) angrily bars your entry. No getting around him. You point at the barrels just a few steps behind him and ask again if you could just grab a couple. Nope! You need to buy new ones! There is no mistaking his message.
Sigh. Even in the Taj Mahal, they have figured out a way to further rip you off.
So we walk underneath where the unsuspecting visitors are removing their shoe covers, point out that they will still need them, and then find two people willing to turn them over. Used covers firmly on our shoes, we persevere.
After the Taj, we head over to the Agra Fort, where poor Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son, forced to look longingly out of prison over the river at his now world-famous tomb of his loving wife until he died.
Delighted at our success in seeing the Taj and Fort, we had ambitious plans for sight-seeing for the next two days in Agra. However, I struggled that night and woke to a morning that left no possibility for going anywhere. I had a splitting headache, fever (intense chills), a body full of aches and pains, stomach cramps and some diarrhea. The hostel owner did not think it was food poisoning and frankly, neither did I. In fact, I was thinking that it felt somewhat like dengue fever but we hadn't really seen many mosquitoes (tho I did have a couple bites). Coincidently, Fran later found out that a large outbreak of dengue fever had just occurred in Delhi. So I'm pretty confident I had another bout with it. Luckily, by the third day I felt ok to travel. This was the ONLY time that I ended up getting sick in India! I consider that a huge success.