We are now in Agra. Simon has mostly recovered from his “Burfi-Belly” and we did the drive from Delhi starting early to beat the heat (side-note: always pack immodium, it’s a life-saver!). The Indian highways are an experience unto themselves. The 300 km trip took almost 5 hours, mostly because it is impossible to attain usual highways speeds in spite of fairly well-maintained roads.
The main obstacles are the slow-moving vehicles. These include something called “pubic-goods carriers”, seemingly the Indian version of semi-trucks, which are decorated with very colourful paint jobs and use wildly musical horns to engage in the constant honking that is part of driving in India. Another staple on the Indian highways are state transport busses crammed to the rafters with people, and when no more would fit inside, 50 or so would sit up on the roof! We didn’t manage to get a photo of some of the more outrageous examples of this, but we snapped one or two of some pretty crammed vehicles. Finally, we counted at least 15 people crammed into one of these tiny little 3-wheeled carts that we would consider suitable for maximum 6 occupants (this was common). They take the back off and stack them up row on row, with people either sitting or standing on the back, children laying across the laps or in the arms of their parents, and 3 to 5 people on the roof (sometimes with goats). It was really something to behold! The final point of interest was these small structures scattered about fields and near the roadways made of neatly stacked piles of cow pies.
Rural people collect, dry and store them at this time of year for the monsoon season which is much cooler. They are burned as fuel for everything from heat to cooking, contributing to a significant portion of the smoky haze that has permeated all parts of India we’ve visited. It is amazing how integral livestock is in daily life; not only are they revered as being holy (cows, anyway), but they serve as a source of food (milk, not meat of course), fuel, and transportation. It certainly explains why there are ubiquitous and random cattle on the roads, in yards, and yes, even in houses.
The Agra Fort also has stunning views of the Taj Mahal, so Shah Jahan could watch it being constructed. This turned out to be fortuitous as his son overthrew him as Emperor and had him under house arrest at the fort while the Taj Mahal was being completed. We exited the Agra Fort through the requisite street vendors and beggars that mob anyone Western where we were to carry on to the Taj Mahal on a Tonga ride. James, for some reason, had in his mind that a Tonga ride was riding on a elephant, but it turns out it is essentially a horse drawn rickshaw. Despite our disappointment we climbed aboard the rickshaw, and tolerated the stench of the filthy, undernourished equine pulling the cart and carried on to the Taj Mahal. One persistent woman with a child in her arms, and begging for money to feed this poor child, was beginning to crack our defensive posture of not giving money to street beggars. We both always feel terrible ignoring them, but have been warned that if you give money to one, you will be swarmed by throngs of other equally needy people, which can become almost like a stampede. This one lady had been following us for a while before we boarded the tonga and it was clear that she meant business for her kid. We had some bottled water and she held out her cup after we declined giving her money. Given the +46 C heat, Simon couldn’t resist and filled her cup from his water bottle. The child in her arms drank most of it immediately and she had what was left over, but still was asking for money for food. Just as the Tonga began to pull away Simon reached into his pocket and gave the woman some money as our exit strategy was already in play. A growing throng immediately formed in our wake and followed for 20 m, but we managed to make a clean break. It probably did more for us than her and her child, but we can’t change the world on one vacation. Unlike street people in North America and Europe, these people are not mentally ill, or addicts, they are truly desperately poor and hungry – it can be very heartbreaking.
There is so much hype about the Taj Mahal, that on some level you worry you might be disappointed when you actually see it up close. This was most certainly not the case, it is absolutely stunning from near or far. It’s perfect symmetry and scale make it an absolute marvel to view and the intricate work in the marble is truly a sight to behold. No detail was overlooked in it’s construction, including the size of the script surrounding the arches – it gets physically larger as it gets higher up so that it subtends a constant angle to the eye at all points (in non-optom jargon, it makes it all look the same size even though the top is farther away and would appear smaller if it was all the same size). Truly an amazing sight that we feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit and experience. James bought a small marble piece nearby the Taj Mahal with the same semi-precious stones inlaid into the marble after seeing a very interesting demonstration on how the craft is done. He likely overpaid as he is loathe to haggle, but is happy with his purchase and that is what matters.
We were so hot by the time we finished at the Taj, that we headed back to the hotel for a quick shower and to have some dinner. We had a drink on the veranda overlooking the pool, and the Taj Mahal of course, then to Esphahan for dinner. The food was excellent and we were entertained by live Indian music while we ate and had a team of wait staff catering to our every need – they did everything short of lifting the food to our mouth and chewing.
Off to Ranthambore