Monday, 16 February.
Despite the fact that our hotel was basically 2 blocks down and across the street from the train station, we decided it was worth the 50 rupee (under a dollar) tuk-tuk ride to help us get ourselves and our bags through the chaos of traffic, urine-soaked and broken up sidewalks, and tourist-hunting touts.
Since we’d been there before, we knew where to find the sign displaying platform information and made our way to the one for our train. We walked up and down, looking for the sign for our coach number so we’d know where to wait, but found what seemed like every car number BUT the ones starting with A (for the 2nd class/2-tiered/2AC car we were in). We tried asking a couple of people, but nobody was sure. Eventually we found a board with printouts posted of all the cars and passengers’ assigned seats. We were happy to find our names listed, and by using the helpfully-listed information about the other coaches and their position from the front and the same information about ours, we extrapolated that we should wait out beyond where the awning ended. When the train arrived, we turned out to be right! Success!
While we waited, we got many more stares. A short woman in a saree carrying a duffel bag on her head kept her eyes fixed on us even as she walked by. Impressive! Near us, groups of men standing around with impressive mustaches and groups of women sitting in beautiful sarees also kept their eyes on us.
On the train, we learned that unlike on Thai sleeper trains, they don’t fold up the upper bunks during the day. Still, once our companion in the section showed us how to fold up the lower bunk to have a seat back (and enough headroom!) it was comfortable enough.
We chatted with him a little, and when we got to Agra, he was really kind in walking with us to the far end of the platform where there was a ramp (rather than steep stairs) which made it easier with our bags. He also pointed us at the fixed rate taxi stand so we wouldn’t get ripped off on the way to our hotel. By this time, J’s cough (which we’d hoped was allergies to Delhi pollution) was leading to a full-blown cold with fatigue, and she was moving slowly, so we took our time.
The taxi brought us to a busy street, parked, and we navigated a trip-hazard laden, raised dirt path back to the hotel. To either side of the path were dirt pits filled with garbage and, often, sleeping dogs. Just outside our hotel, we saw a litter of puppies napping in the sun. Street dogs. But cute!
We talked with the hotel about getting us night train tickets to Varanasi, and they said there was a 99% chance they’d be successful. Okay!
We had dinner at a rooftop restaurant on our side of the street. The stairs were steep and narrow and unfortunately were harder than usual for J, due to her fatigue. She didn’t eat much, but I enjoyed a paneer dish while watching and listening to the wedding party on the rooftop across the street. And then the power went out.
Tuesday, 17 February.
Up early to see the Taj Mahal. We walked to the nearby west gate but were surprised to find long lines both for tickets and to get in, since we got there so early. There were 4 separate entrance lines: General ticket holder ladies, high-value ticket holder ladies, general/men, and high-value/men. Indian resident tickets are much less expensive than tourist tickets. All the lines were together, with cattle gates between to keep people in their assigned lines. The lines weren’t moving at all and we probably stood there for a good 30 minutes. Meanwhile, J was feeling worse and worse, with waves of nausea and lightheadedness, but no way to easily get out or sit down.
We talked about just coming back the next day, but her mind was set. We’re doing this. Today.
Eventually, they started letting people in, we went through security, and we slowly made our way in. Crowded, but beautiful!
Afterwards, we had breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant across the street and then rested for a bit.
We decided we wanted to get away from the Taj Mahal & touristy area, so I looked at the map for another part of town with a lot of streets close together, found a nearby landmark, wrote down the name (“Kachori Ghat”), and out we went to find a tuk-tuk.
As we were heading over, the driver asked us exactly where we wanted to be let out (not really sure…) and who told us to go there. “Nobody…” (Hmm…)
It was a different world. Still crowded, but with cows and locals, not tourists. Narrow and winding streets. Tiny shop fronts and some food stalls (but none with seating). In some areas, we saw open sewers flowing just under the front porch/steps of buildings. A boy squatting down and peeing a perfect arc into one. Carts with beautiful displays of vegetables. Men in shops with stacks of flat cardboard outside to make into boxes. Stacks of boxes of sweets in the next shop. Men working on various machines. Flies. The smell of urine everywhere. Even smaller side streets with a band playing. Scooters weaving & honking their way through. Streets too narrow even for auto rickshaws.
When J got tired, people would invite her in to their shops to sit, or bring a bench down off their porch for her to use. A beautiful and colorful and busy place, but not one where I took many pictures. Nor a place where it seemed we were going to find what we wanted for lunch.
When we were ready to head back, there wasn’t an auto rickshaw in sight. We made our way to a busier area and I saw a shop with a few 20-something guys who I thought might speak English and be able to point us in the right direction to get one. After spitting out some tobacco, the guy behind the counter conferred with a customer/friend and one went out to talk with some folks outside. The answer: a bicycle rickshaw to some other part of town where we could get an auto rickshaw back to our hotel.
We climbed in, and the rickshaw “driver” (rider? cyclist? captain?) carefully negotiated the crowds and rough streets. J and I were squeezed in tight, and I had to sit near the front of the seat so I could slouch down enough to avoid hitting my head on the canopy as we rode. The whole apparatus felt rather unsteady and as we went down a steep and bumpy hill and back up again, I asked J if she’d ever been mountain biking before! We tipped the driver handsomely for his hard work (you know, about 50 cents). He grinned and wanted to shake both our hands.
Then, into an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel. We passed by the Agra Fort enroute and it looked quite impressive. On the list for tomorrow!
A late lunch at ground level of the rooftop restaurant from the night before. I enjoyed the thali and J had a biryani dish.
The hotel people hadn’t been able to get the night train we wanted, but after some back and forth were able to get us on a different one that left later. Since it left around 11pm, I asked if we could keep our hotel room until that evening, as it would just make things easier logistically. Yes!
Showers and early to bed. And then came the full body aches and the chills.
Wednesday, 18 February.
Spent all day in bed. J and I both feeling horrible. Missed out on Agra Fort, but at least we recovered enough to make it to the train station by 10pm for our 10:55pm departure to Varanasi. Which turned out to be a 4am departure due to delays. At least we found a place to sit while we waited. Sometimes it’s the little things.