Saturday, September 24, 2011

Out of Agra and Into Magical Rajasthan

Marudhar Express departs for Jodhpur at 9:15 PM. But I failed to secure a seat or sleeper on that ride. My next option would be the earliest one the next day at 6:20 AM. I honestly thought I’d catch any seat that leaves that night from the Foreigner’s Ticket Booth at the Agra Fort Cantonment Train Station which is a small pink-and-yellow building. The ticket booth is located at the right side from the entrance; a separate building without much customers. But that deceptive calm had all the seats sold for departures within 12 hours. In fact, I was lucky to have gotten a 3rd class seat, i.e. a seat assigned in a non-AC car. And the assignations are nothing but numbers. It’s really a free-for-all, first-come, first served ride in that class. I hated the thought of worming my way through a crowd that had homeland advantage. They knew their platforms; they’re familiar with the train system, which, up to this day remains a big mystery to be. Despite my several encounters with Indian trains in several classes, they still intimidate me.

This ride would take 12 ½ hours, heading west, stopping by several stations: 19 stations, to be exact! I was clueless as to how this ride would play out. This covers 563 kilometers (350 miles). That wouldn’t be too painful, right? But I had valid concerns. What if I needed to use the loo, do I leave my baggage in an open compartment? Or do I have to carry them inside the WC with me (which is such a marvelously cramped space)? Will I find my seat back after my potty break? Or do I have to stand the remainder of the ride along the chaotic aisle? Solitary travels have their obvious disadvantages, you see.

Agra Fort Station. The Ticket Reservation booth (below) is located at a separate building from the right side of the entrance. The 1st counter is for foreigners only.

Sunday 4 AM. I woke up and hastily ate the left over Chinese style fried rice from my Saroj dinner. I wasn’t exactly hungry, but when I am on the move, I operate on the concept of “gassing up a vehicle”. My rickshaw driver picked me up and I handed him 70 rupees upon reaching Agra Fort Station. What greeted me was a surprise.


The lobby of this small station was a sea of people plopped down the floor, you had to carefully step over personal effects to get from one spot to the next! Yes, they were sleeping – camping it out – on the cold floor. The entrance gate was still shut so I had to find a spot at the lobby for myself. I sat beside an old lady who was snoozing beside a ticket counter. It was a fascinating experience, a Technicolor dream amidst a drowsy lot. Marudhar Express 4853 was expected to pull into the station at 5:55, and since it’s a major station, it will stay on for 25 minutes. Most other stops from this ride just take 2 minutes, except for Jaipur Junction which has a 15 minute wait.

At 5:30, the gate had opened and I stood to look for my platform. I had to find my platform number, car number, and seat number. Sounds easy? I could only wish! And since I was at the free-for-all section, I had to get ahead of others. That wasn't easy since signs in this part of the world weren't always present. Nor in English. By 6:30, I was starting to worry. No train arrived. Did I miss it? I kept asking people but they kept pointing me to different directions and platforms; it was driving me nuts.


It turns out, Marudhar Express was running late. It came at 7:30 AM, and if 1 hour and 10 minutes wasn’t enough, the train waited forever to depart. Cargo? Harry Potter? Shahrukh Khan? The Prime Minister? We eventually pulled out of the station at 8:30 AM – a two-hour-ten-minute delay! I found my seat alright after shooing someone who occupied my assigned seat. Of course, everyone was looking at me as though I was from Planet X. Assigned seats only work in 2nd class AC seaters, not in 3rd class! But I stood my ground. I was the visitor, I have to follow “rules” – a semblance of civilization and order. Arrogant enough? LOL

Lobby of Agra Fort Station at 4 AM as people waited for the Marudhar Express' arrival at 5:55 AM (it came at 7:30 and left at 8:30).

People sleeping on the floor at the Agra Fort Station lobby at 4 AM.

Mad scramble to get to the right train car number.

Arrival at Jaipur Junction the next day.

This is actually my carriage - S5 - which is wonderfully non-AC, with free-for-all seats.

Long stop (25 minutes) in Jaipur, the state capital, and a pit stop among backpackers. Didn't like the place though because of the flurry of scams.


I had a window seat. Five people were cramped beside me where there should be 3. The seat across me had 7 including 3 children. I placed my sizable backpack between my legs. Gawd! Twelve hours in this position would test my endurance, but with the wind on my face and a parade of mystical sights before me, it was a breeze. I eventually settled into a calm ennui as the landscape gradually evolved into reddish, dusty, sandy land. We were moving away from the state of Uttar Pradesh to India’s biggest state, the magical land of Rajasthan which straddles India’s most inhospitable desert – the Great Indian Desert aka Thar Desert, among other deserts. Thar Desert represents a boundary between Pakistan and India and is, thus, unwelcoming by way of geographical features as well as political divisiveness. Rajasthan is also India’s largest state, comprising 10.41% of the whole land mass of the Indian Territory (see map below).

If it seemed like I would be miserable in this ride, it would be an erroneous statement. An hour from Agra, my phone roaming service had informed me that I'd been disconnected from my network, and that I should switch to manual. (Huh? How do I do that?) I lost signal from there. F__k! Will I lose my means of connection from home? I had my Indian sim, but my friends and family didn’t know the number, and informing the 300 listed numbers would be expensive. Two hours later, another SMS message came back, welcoming me to the state of Rajasthan. I heaved a sigh of relief. In India, roaming services change as you go from one state to another.

More than my cramped seat and intermittent phone signal, I was in awe of the rough, dusty and dry scenery before me. I was spellbound! Landscape had gradually changed; the number of dwellings had dwindled and vegetation became sparse. The soil appeared reddish too. There were sheeps grazing on arid lands. I saw camels, olive trees, etc. Cotton and tobacco are the state’s cash crops, but how do they grow in such conditions? Ditto wheat, barley, sugarcane, pulses and oilseeds.

My VIP seat: that's a rubber shoe I bought in Cambodia. The wind and my window seat to the majestic sights of Rajasthan.

Bobas Station - we didn't stop here.

This was a house near Bobas Station (below).


I am not sure how I fed myself during the ride. I knew I bought bread from Agra but I was starving by mid afternoon. There were ambulant food-wallahs selling roti, but I might as well eat paper. We reached Japiur, the state capital, and the train waited for 25 minutes.

By 3 PM, I saw one of the most fascinating viewsSambhar Lake, India’s largest inland salt lake sitting 96 kilometers southwest from Jaipur. From a sparsely populated land of dust, it was magical to view a virtual sea of white (see photo below). The lake is an extensive saline wetland with water depths varying from 24 inches to 10 feet. People harvest salt from this region, and this rail track I was on was constructed by the British even before India's Independence from the Brits in 1947. It is a spectacular place to see. Heck, even the Mahabharata referenced it as a part of the kingdom of a demon king named Brishparva. The same lake is India's largest saline lake and made Rajasthan the third largest salt producing state in India. It produces 196,000 tons of clean salt every year. That’s a lot more salt than Infanta, Pangasinan’s production in a year.


At 5:35 PM, my back was already aching and stiff from the limited mobility as we passed through Degana Junction. A little more than 3 hours later, we finally reached our destination, and Marudhar’s final stop – the Blue City of Jodhpur! It was 8:45 PM. Bright lights lit the platforms as though Bollywood number was about to commence anytime. Jai ho! The concrete was free from litter and, unlike Delhi or Agra, no one was sleeping on the ground floor! It was beautiful! On a different hour, things could be different. There were no immediate departures at that time. Besides, Jodhpur had a lot more space, marbled and shiny, for us who sleep on floors.

As for my accommodation and destination that night, that would be another adventure!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Sambhar Lake, India's largest inland salt lake (above and below).

Sambhar Lake's aerial view. Check out the rail track which is a pre-Independence British construction. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia.

Sparsely occupied dry lands, usually beside the rail tracks, painted in bright pastels.

Train stops from Agra Fort Station to Jodhpur: Agra Fort, Idgah Agra Junction, Achhnera Junction, Bharatpur Junction, Nadbai, Kheril, Mandawar Mahwa Road, Bandikui Junction, Dausa, Jaipur Gandhinagar, Jaipur Junction, Phulera Junction, Sambhar Lake, Nawa City, Kuchaman City, Makrana Junction, Degana Junction, Merta Road Junction, Gotan, Jodhpur Junction.

A salt mining area around Sambhar Lake. Beautiful white fields amidst arid dusty lands.

Train trail from Agra as it goes westward. 25-minute stop at the state capital of Jaipur; 15-minute stop in Agra before that.

Rajasthan occupies 10.41% of India's total land mass (red colored northwest area of the map above).

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Agra Cloaked in Darkness - The Story of Young Sayed

I have a story to tell.

I long waited for this to be told. This was one of the reasons why this blog is a selfish endeavor, as it is made out so I don’t forget singular moments during travels. I always knew that in the scheme of things, it wouldn’t matter to me if not a single soul gets to read these stories, although I am grateful for my dear friends and followers who do, but when I am old and grey or forgetful, I just want to be able to relive my solitary adventures and reminisce through these "journal" entries. And this was one of such moments.

It would be my last night in Agra. I’d seen the Taj Mahal that morning, and I was to check out of Shanti Lodge for my Marudhar Express train that pulls out of Agra Fort Train Station at 9:15 PM. From here, I was heading westward to the direction of Pakistan, but more specifically to the Blue City of Jodhpur!

After fixing my luggage, I headed out to take my last stroll in Taj Ganj. Right across my guest house was a restaurant that read: Chinese, Continental, Japanese, and Korean. I gazed at a sign that says “Saroj Restaurant” and the hooking line, “Recommended by Lonely Planet” followed by “Tibetan Kitchen”. But having been cited by LP, the place couldn’t be bad, right?

There was no one there, but myself so I took the stair to the second floor as it provided a better vista of Chowck Kagziyan street down below. I was attended by a boy. That actually surprised me. He handed me a menu and I ordered Chinese style fried rice (30 rupees), potato curry (40 rupees) and a bottle of Coke (15 rupees), one of my cheapest meals. The friendly owner, who apparently cooked my meal as well, came to say hello for my welcome pleasantries. “Cambodia? Japan?” He asked. I shrugged and chuckled, still amused of the constant reference to Japan. Heaven knows I’m too far removed from being a Japanese. “Filipino,” I proudly uttered, but it was lost in his blank stare. Then something so weird came out of his mouth, “You look like an angel!” Lost in translation perhaps? He must mean “devil” I just knew it. He excused himself to prepare my meal and my younger host took over.

His name is Sayed Nazem Ali, sporting a shirt 3 size bigger than him. He regaled me with his story which made me wistful. Sayed is the restaurant’s waiter, and he is only 12! He told me that he goes to school, but had to work to help his family. It wasn’t even one of those woe-is-me tales as our conversation was matter-of-factly. Sayed has 6 brothers and 3 sisters. His father earns by peddling trinkets and Bengali bracelets around Agra, while his mother is a home maker. He says life is hard, thus he had to work to supplement the family’s meager income. Do you know how much he receives waiting tables per week? 100 rupees! My heart really went to Sayed, but such is life, and I admire his determination.

There was power outage, a frequent occurrence in Agra so I was left with a huge lamp, I was almost tempted to rub it just in case a genie pops out. Sayed, like most Indian children, asked me to take his photo, and I gladly obliged. He made me promise to send him a copy, but the address he wrote at my notebook was my guest house’s (Shanti Lodge). Sometime during the conversation, the owner’s children came to greet me. Indian children, in my travels around India, have been a constant source of delight and hospitality, and one of the country’s most charming elements.

Food was delicious. Check out the size of that rice meal, I had to take away half of it for my train ride. 85 rupees and delectable!

Much later, as I paid for my meal, I called Sayed and gave him 100 rupees as tip, but as I headed down the stairs, I caught him turning the money to the owner. It could have been his one week salary. Darn! I was mildly upset, but there are things in the world that can’t be changed in a heartbeat. Is child labor an issue here? Not as far as I am concerned! Would you rather his family stay home and starve than Sayed earning a little bit more for tomorrow’s meal? If he doesn’t work, who would provide a better option?

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Chinese style Fried rice at just 30 rupees.

Potato curry (above) at just 40 rupees.

Saroj Restaurant is located at 3/155A, Chowck Kagziyan, Tan Ganj, Agra, UP, India. Phone: 9319492103

Adorable fraternal twins as among my hosts. They were smart too; they could converse in English.

Sayed and the twins.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Agra's East Bank - Of Drying Colors, Maya Restaurant & Simah

After seeing the Baby Taj, Simah (my cycle rickshaw driver) suggested I check out Mehtab Bagh which is a charbagh (Mughal style garden) right across Yamuna River since I was already at the East Bank. Mehtab Bagh translates to “Moonlight Garden”. What makes this garden special is the fact that it actually figures in the original design of the Taj Mahal complex. Even the river is part of the design!

As we left Baby Taj, the road turned rugged and dusty; the houses grew scarce. I trusted Simah, but there was a sense of unease in visiting a seemingly remote garden. I read somewhere that the area – with very few souls - isn’t safe to visit as the afternoon draws to a close. Not that it's notorious, but if anything happens, you'd end up screaming your hearts out and no one will hear you.


Simah had been preoccupied heavily pitching his trade; if I wanted to visit a leather shop, a money changer, a store selling marbles (with miniature replicas of the Taj Mahal), sari stalls and finally, a restaurant. I said no to every enumerated item, but I understood Simah’s industrious tries. Drivers like him get commissions if they take tourists to any of these places. Simah was laboriously pedaling his bike away so I couldn’t tell him to just shut up. It’s easier to just say “no” than act up on my annoyance.


Along the way, my eyes were greeted by rows of colorful garments and sarees being air-dried down the dusty road. It was one of the most fascinating sights in my Agra visit; a proverbial visual feast. Yes, they wash these garments at the Yamuna then dry them here. But what about the dirt and dust on the ground? I'm not sure I get it. There must be an explanation somewhere.


The road narrowed until we arrived in front of the garden entrance. I was going to pay 100 rupees for my entrance, but navigating the park alone felt eerie and brought me unease. It looked like I was the lone tourist here, but beautiful gardens and I do not harmoniously agree all the time – I was mugged at Parque del Retiro in Madrid, and that brought a few lessons on misplaced confidence.

There was no official ticket booth from where I stood. Though I was already there, I stepped back and decided not to get inside. It sufficed that I saw the front of the garden which was teeming with equal sized vegetation. Some 20 meters from where I was standing, I saw a small fountain, right where a central structure stood as demarcation. It wasn’t the garden I expected it to be, on cursory glance. I expected a park!

Since this charbagh stood by the riverside, I headed towards the river and saw the Taj Mahal from across. It is such an arresting presence. I never get tired of it. From there, I instructed Simah to take me back to the other side of Yamuna. I needed sustenance so I acquiesced and told him he could take me to a “good restaurant”. In tourist parlance, that meant pricier than average. Simah wore a grin wider than the river. I wondered how much he'd get by merely taking me to this restaurant. I had been scrimping needlessly, so I figured I didn’t mind spending more for food that time.

The place: Maya Restaurant.

Mehtab Bagh's entrance. Fee: 100 rupees.

Maya Restaurant

Maya Restaurant also offers accommodations, but I was there for their food. Maya is located right at the heart of Taj Ganj (which, if Shah Jahan got his way, would have been called Mumtazabad), just a 5-7 minute walk to the Taj Mahal. Though the front of the restaurant was deceptively austere, the atmosphere inside was lush, sophisticated and a coterie of colors (the chairs were painted yellow and orange). I ordered what the menu called Mughlai, a mild curry of chicken, eggs, spices and dry fruits (160 rupees), a bowl of boiled rice (40 rupees) and a bottle of Pepsi (20 rupees). Though this may not be much by Manila standard, a backpacker’s meal should be much cheaper than its accumulated total (220 rupees). It was delicious! After getting the bill, they brought me another bowl filled with white and green mint, and toothpicks. This is a traditional post-meal offering, even in Bangladesh and elsewhere in India. I had to mention this because this isn’t customary outside the Indian subcontinent.

Maya Hotel and Restaurant is located at 18/184 Purani Mandi Circle, Faehabad Road, Taj Ganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh. For more information, check out their website:


Traditional post-meal serving (white and green mint and toothpicks). I wish I knew what they're really called.


Before taking a short rest back at my guest house (Shanti Lodge), I asked Simah to take me to the Agra Fort Cantonment station so I could purchase my onward train ticket. (I like that word, “cantonment” which refers to a military training camp. Only the Indians seem to be using it these days, and it bears a pleasant lilt to the ears.) I queued at the Foreign Ticket Counter. All over the country, a separate booth for foreign tourists can be found in most train stations. Foreigners, in fact, have a specially allotted quota so that even when most public ticket seats have all been sold out, a certain number of tickets have been set aside just in case another foreigner requires one. This, however, does not guarantee a seat, as I’d bitterly learn in several legs of my Indian journeys. You need days – DAYS – ahead for a sure seat, especially to popular destinations.

I must have slept for an hour later that afternoon in my room. I was leaving Agra that night, on a sleeper. I was bound for the Blue City of Jodhpur. It was darn exciting. But I still had a few more hours to summon a little more “adventure” if it's indeed out there.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Simah, my cycle rickshaw driver (above and below). He's a great young man who works hard for his family.

The Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna River's East Bank.

This is a monument of someone I forgot to check, but it's a familiar sight near the Agra Fort Cantonment. This is probably emperor Shah Jahan. I first saw this when my Delhi bus dropped me from a dark and eerie intersection nearby. No soul in sight for half an hour. I half expected Mr. Hyde or the boogeyman to pull me away. But what came was scarier - an enterprising autorickshaw driver who doesn't understand the honor of a deal sealed by a handshake.