Taj Mahal was a pipe dream. I didn't think it would happen. When it did, it took a lot of planning, and reading. But getting there was a different matter altogether.
Getting an Indian visa from
There are no flights that directly fly to
The Taj Mahal stands in the heart of a polluted and industrial city called
More importantly, for tourists,
The 2 most common train rides were the Shatabdi Express (which leaves
Thirty minutes and a gallonful of sweat later, I found a taxi that would take me to another terminal that services buses bound for
I looked at my watch – 2:30 PM! I had wasted a lot of time just to get this ride! I purchased my ticket and handed 200 rupees to the bus assistant. The old man beside me signaled that I still have a change. My fare was 117 rupees ($2.55 or PhP109), which is a far cry from the 400 or 800 rupee fare had I taken a Shatabdi Express train. We would travel for 5 long hours (instead of the train’s 2 hours). But I didn’t mind. It was exciting!
We left there after. I was, once again, in a sea of locals, many of them giving perplexed gazes. But I knew I was in good hands. My seatmate – the old guy – was chummy. He kept offering me stuff, like peanuts (remember never to take food from strangers?). I accepted then pretended to consume them (they were lodged conveniently at the side pocket of my backpack). It’s bad manners to refuse when they are earnestly offered. He said he was an employee at the Radisson Hotel, this was relayed in hand signs. Later, he called the bus assistant and demanded for my change – 83 rupees. I was in good hands, didn’t I say?
The ride was a vibrant movement of people coming and going, people mostly standing along the aisle. At 4:15, we passed by Palwal; 4:40 – Haryana; 5:48 –
It’s never an easy thing arriving in a strange distant land in the throes of darkness. It conjures the sinister ministrations of the less appealing side of humanity. By 7:30 PM, we passed by Idgah Bus Station (
Ten minutes from Idgah, I was the lone bus occupant. I kept anxiously looking at the bus assistant and the driver for further instructions, but they kept telling me to stay put. We turned right from
Destination: Shanti Lodge, a guesthouse recommended by both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. The driver knew the place. He suddenly blurted, “Fifty rupees.” Did I have a choice? I was in the middle of nowhere. I nodded, knowing fully well I could get mugged by my driver and his friends. In less than 10 minutes, I was deposited in front of Shanti. I retrieved my backpack, then the driver demanded, “100 rupees! ($2.19)” From the agreed 20 to 50 to 100! Had I stayed a minute longer, it would have exponentially multiplied. I was too tired to disagree. Somehow I expected this to happen.
This beautifully composed photo only courtesy of QT Luong. Please visit www.terragalleria.com for more of the artist's splendid work.
Vegetable Fried Rice (40 rupees), Sweet and Sour Chicken (80 rupees) and a bottle of coke (15 rupees).
My comfortable bed at Shanti Lodge.
It was already 8 PM when I checked in for a room. I was tired after a 5 hour journey and a bit frustrated from my CNG ride. I saw grime under my nails, coating nastily like a scourge. Shanti Lodge has been recommended for several things: it’s cheap (“you can’t beat the price,” says LP), it’s close to the south gate, and it has a serviceable restaurant at the roof deck with a great view overlooking the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. In fact, LP mentioned it twice for the accommodation and the restaurant. The foyer was small but inviting. Since it was November, and
My room was located at the third floor. My bed could accommodate two. It looked comfortable and clean. Even the duvet was beckoning me to rest. The tiled floor was spotless. However, when I checked out the bathroom, I had the nastiest case of chill, like a synapse suddenly running current through my spine. (see photos below) I wasn't pleased with the bathroom. It didn't have toilet paper or a garbage bin, but then what do I expect from a room worth 400 rupees ($8.80 or PhP373), right? I contented myself with the fact that I won’t be spending most of my time in the bathroom, heaven forbid.
FIRST CLASS BELLBOY SERVICE
Later that night, since I saw the other beds supplied with towel (I peeped), I asked the minder for one. But instead of waiting for him, he took me with him and we navigated through the guest house’s intricate hallways I was almost breathless. The guy escorted me to the laundry room and handed me my precious towel. This was either a lesson of some sort (never to ask for a towel) or he was just being hospitable by touring me around the hotel at 9 PM. Three days later, the guy would joyously greet me with a “my friend” every time he’d see me. It was a frustrating time, to be honest about it. But mostly, I was also hungry.
This is what 400 rupees ($8.80 or PhP373) will get you: mildewy shower head (left) and stained sink (right) and I don't even have the heart to describe the toilet bowl and walls down below.
After a quick visit at the internet shop (40 rupees or $0.88 an hour), I went up the roof deck where the restaurant was located. True enough, it boasted of a magnificent view of Taj Ganj and from a distance, the majestic slumbering Taj Mahal. Every morsel of regret evaporated. This was worth all the trouble and anxiety.
I ordered sweet and sour chicken (“not spicy please”), vegetable fried rice and a bottle of coke. Both were beautifully served on big silver cups. While waiting for food, I gazed at the dimly-lit moon. And suddenly felt a presence beside me! “Ohmygod!” I shouted! A macaque monkey, hairy and ravenous, was standing on my table - inches from my face, ready to secure the early arrival of my chicken meal! Agra has hundreds of stray monkeys. A waiter shooed it away while I gathered my wits back to propriety. Late dinner was jittery.
I had been welcomed in
This is the Eye in the Sky!