"There are three things you need when driving in India," says our rickshaw driver after nearly colliding with another taxi. "A good horn, good brakes, and good luck!"
He is right.
This is our welcome to Agra, a city that we were warned is chaotic and polluted, despite being home to the famed Taj Mahal. We aim to spend as little time here as possible and have crafted a plan to be in and out in less than 24 hours, advice that I would readily pass on to anyone visiting.
Although our three hour train ride from Jaipur has us second guessing this expedited plan, just for a moment. Given that the Taj is on every tourist's itinerary, we're delightfully surprised to find that we unknowingly booked a ride on India's version of a Eurostar. With enclosed glass windows, cushioned seats, clean floors—even a Western-style toilet not flooded with urine!—it feels like we stepped into another world.
Looking out the train window from behind glass, I feel disconnected from the living landscape, as if I'm watching a movie pass by. This train ride is so different from the rest of our rides in India, which were open-aired, filthy, chaotic, but alive. In contrast, this feels like cheating, like we're ignoring the spirit of the country. I feel guilty that I miss cleanliness, comfort, order and toilet paper.
If I thought Jaipur was tough, Agra proves to be far worse. It is dirty here. Thick, hazy pollution makes it hard to breathe. My throat stings. People are more aggressive than ever, trying to take advantage and overcharge us sometimes by ten times the cost. There is no doubt in my mind—Agra is the crappiest, overpriced tourist trap of a city that we've visited this entire trip. But there's a reason everyone comes here: the truly magnificent Taj Mahal.
Before we see the famed Taj, we have time to check out two other historical sites.
First, we visit the Mini Taj, or tomb of Itimad-ud-Dualah. It is cute.
Next up, Agra Fort, yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. From inside the intricate white marble windows, we catch our first glimpse of the Taj in the distance.
Maybe you're wondering why I loath Agra so much. Besides the fact that it really is very polluted here, we also encounter several major scams during our short visit. The more costly scam occurs when we learn that the taxi driver we brokered a deal with lied to us about the distance of our route, thus effectively overcharging us by nearly five times the normal price.
But it's at Agra Fort that I become particularly fed up at the principle that so many Indians we meet in Agra think they can bleed us for all we're worth just because we're Westerners. Now don't get me wrong, as I've written before, I'm happy to support the Indian economy, especially by spending money with artisans and hard-working locals. But there's a difference between being intentionally deceived and choosing to contribute to a healthy local economy as a tourist.
At Agra Fort, it's clearly marked that the toilet costs five rupees to use. I only have ten rupees. The bathroom attendant guy refuses to give me change, and this, on principle, upsets me. It is certainly not the first time I've been scammed, but something about how nominal the amount is makes me tick. I am certain that he has change, as I can see his open coin drawer filled with rupees. Surely he can give me back the coins I am rightfully owed.
But no. He waves me away.
I stand, refusing to move. I want my change back. He will not give it to me. Fine, then I want my rupees back. Reluctantly, he returns my rupees in full.
For a moment, I wonder what to do. I really do have to use the restroom. And so, I do.
I walk straight past him, and into the toilet.
Sure enough, he comes running after me. Hello, hello! He is stupidly waving.
"You refuse to give me change and I need to go!" I say.
I am sick and tired of petty scams, of northerners taking advantage of "naive" tourists. I stand my ground. I'm sure his little money scam adds up, but it's the dishonesty I stand against. When you set such a precedent, it makes it harder for other tourists to travel here without being hassled.
At last, he acquiesces. Half-heartedly, he pulls out the coins owed to me from his drawer—filled with coins.
It isn't until dawn that we see the star of the show, the great Taj Mahal build in 1631. The Taj is best experienced bathed in soft morning sunlight, so we wake while it's still dark and make our way towards the ticket line. At 750 rupees per person, the price is steep, but at least it includes a bottle of water and white disposable cloth booties to wear over your shoes when walking on the marble floor. I suspect they offer these two additional items to Westerners to more completely justify the higher entry fee.
After passing through security—women have a separate line—I walk briskly towards the first entry gate. The soft, morning light is spectacular, diffused by hazy pollution as the sun gently rises behind leafless trees. I spot my first glimpse of her, framed through an arabic style arched doorway.
She is an undeniable beauty, and completely worth braving the hell that is Agra. Milky white and soft, even though made of marble, the morning light is perfect on her. She's grand and delicate, beautiful and strong at the same time.
Crowds cluster at the immediate entryway jostling to take photos. I'm so far in the back, that I give up trying to capture a photo and decide to head directly towards the Taj. I find that the second reflection pool is far less crowded anyway, and laugh a bit to myself thinking that this is a much better photo than the first opportunity shot.
As I move forward to explore the inside, it's a mausoleum after all so there's not too much to see, I realize that today is Valentine's Day. Indeed, a coincidence to be visiting the Taj on such a romantic American holiday. Yet it feels like holidays don't exist somehow, when traveling like this. Everything is abnormal and out of sync when you're on the move.
Before we depart, we learn about recent dangers threatening the Taj Mahal. Both air and water pollution along with a weakening foundation put the Taj at risk today. It's strange how humans can create such beauty, but often our collective carelessness can end up eventually destroying it. What a shame to lose such an important part of history. Let's hope the government acts to curb pollution before it's too late.
As for us, we're already on a train again. Goodbye Agra, what a relief!