Our orange-scented ride dropped us on a nondescript street in Agra at 5:50 AM. We had eight hours until our train left for Delhi. We hired a rickshaw and got going.
The streets were refreshingly cool, dark, and silent. Cows and dogs slept on either side. The put-putting tuk-tuk plied on. Nearing the no-engine zone – a five hundred meter radius optimistically designed to alleviate smog around the Taj – we caught up to the tourist tide. At that point, I was encouraged to see it was only a trickle. Our plan was paying off. Get in, get out. As quickly as possible. As early as possible.
Walking up through the surrounding park, the morning sun’s tentative rays shone up through the trees, only to be trapped ingloriously in the soupy haze overhead. We were right on time.
I’ve been wracking my brain about what to say about the Taj Mahal. The truth is there really isn’t much for me to say. It’s nice. It’s pretty. Please don’t build one for me.
On that note, here are some pretty pictures, because I know you want them.
I suppose I should say this is when the adventure starts.
We left the Taj, and picked up our checked bags. Yes, checking bags in what I’ve heard described as the pickpocket capital of the world sounds stupid, but sometimes your back’s to the wall and you have no choice. We were encouraged to find our bags undisturbed. Trust, my friends.
It was less than five minutes later when Mariah realized she’s lost her phone. She’d brought it with her into the Taj, where she was pretty sure she’d left it on a bench. Pickpocket capital was echoing in my brain, as she unpacked and repacked her bags looking for it again and again.
If there was a way to test any assumption about Agra, this was it. Agra passed – or failed, depending on how you look at it.
It was only after we’d run up to the gate and solicited the help of unexpectedly friendly armed guards; after Mariah reentered, escorted while I stayed back with our bags; and after she’d returned, defeated and phoneless that I tried calling it. Thinking back, I suppose I had so little confidence in retrieving it I didn’t initially think of it. The phone rang, twice, three times, four. Then, on the other side, a male French accent: “allo?”
We arranged to meet at his hotel. We had a comfortable hour to get there.
Stupidly, we hired a bicycle rickshaw in the no-drive zone and got going. It started off well. The slight downhill and the combined weight of three people and the vintage steel contraption had us going at a good clip. The driver was relaxing, feet dangling as we hunched under the low roll bar. Then we hit the hill. Pretty quick we were inching along, and I was feeling sorry for our sexagenarian driver. Undeterred, he was shifting his full weight from side to side, begging the pedals to turn with his frail body. Then he was out on the ground, pushing us along. I felt bad, but I didn’t want to insult his ability by offering to pay him to let me cycle. We still had seven kilometers to go, and that hour was looking less and less generous.
Fifteen minutes and 500 meters later, we reached the edge of the no-drive zone. We paid him the full agreed upon amount and politely stepped down to find a motorized ride. The driver was sad, and insisted we continue the ride with him, but we couldn’t wait.
By 10AM we’d recovered the phone. That part had gone rather seamlessly. We showed up at the hotel and bumped into the guy in the lobby. Mariah delivered her thank yous and we all went on with our days.
We hadn’t eaten yet. We found a patio restaurant and enjoyed a relaxing breakfast after running around all morning. The overnight travel was starting to catch up with me. When we were finished, we still had a couple hours left before our train, so we hopped in another rickshaw to catch some more sights before heading to the station.
Across the river, the tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah – colloquially known as the “baby taj” – was deserted. If you’re in Agra to see the sights, it’s worth going to.
When we arrived at the station we found out our train was delayed four hours. We weren’t too keen to stay longer. The now-overbearing sun was taking its toll, and the pre-booked shower and bed in Delhi beckoned. We decided to ditch our train tickets and go in search of a bus.
A friendly driver showed us to a local bus. It was relieving to step on board, despite the heat and the long wait to get going. I was happy to move on.
Agra didn’t excite, but it didn’t disappoint. If we’d stuck to our original plan, I would’ve felt a little dishonest saying that. Under that plan, we didn’t really give ourselves a chance to experience Agra. It was to be go go go, just get it done. In losing her phone, Mariah prompted a mini adventure around the city, and a string of events and acts of kindness that still make me chuckle.
Whenever I think about Agra I think about the kind French dude who picked up the phone. I think about Mariah giving her email address to the assigned guard and receiving a message a week later apologizing they still hadn’t found her phone (he attached a nice selfie of himself to lighten her mood). I think about the humble pride of the bicycle rickshaw driver, ready to honour his contract in the sweltering heat. I don’t think too much about the domes of the Taj Mahal, but they sure were pretty.
I wrote this on my phone. There’s probably a few more typos than usual.