Our time in Agra was short and fast. We arrived from Delhi in the afternoon and very promptly filled our bellies with cuisine from Southern India, from sambar and dosa, a sometimes spicy sauce with a rice and lentil crêpe to dip in it, to thali, rice with about six different sauces to choose from. And since decision making is one of the most difficult parts of eating for me, this combo was just great.
We made our way to the hotel, where we were given bindis once more, and quickly turned around to go to the Red Fort in Agra, a UNESCO Heritage site that seems more like a mini-city (and is filled with beautiful white marble and inlay tile). Shah Jahan, the guy who had the Taj Mahal built, was annexed here for the last years of his life (by his son no less!), and died in a tower with a view of the Taj Mahal. We all empathized with this: having to see your creation but not actually be able to leave to experience it.
After the fort, we began our somewhat-impromptu adventure to the Taj Mahal. We ended up walking down a dusty street then getting into a battery-powered bus, prompting my professor to say, “Anne, don’t say I never take you anywhere!” We charged past pedestrians and tuk-tuks, dust rising up against the wheels.
At the Taj Mahal, there are two lines: one for women and one for men. Beyond the airport, this is the only place I saw this, and — in a shocking twist — the women’s line was much longer and slower (purses to check, tripods to confiscate). The entire layout was surprising for me, because my whole life I envisioned the Taj Mahal as kind of like the Washington Monument or the Arc de Triomphe, out in the middle of the city with no entrance ways or barricades. Of course, that isn’t true.
We got there right at sunset and took an embarrassing number of photos with and of the mausoleum. As we were getting lost and walking around the building (instead of actually going in it…oops) we saw the most beautiful sunset over the Yamuna River, with monkeys running around the platform. Another surprise was that at night, there are no lights shining on the Taj Mahal, so it just gets eeriely dark really fast with a silhouette in the background (like in Aladdin when Jafar takes over Agrabah) as everyone is ushered out.
We took tuk-tuks back to the bus, swerving around stray dogs with kids running after us trying to sell Taj Mahal snow globes. Our next stop was Sheroes Hangout, a café and restaurant that’s run by survivors of acid attacks (which is fairly common in India — we were told that the acid is usually sold for fertilizer or at school supply stores — and happens for a variety of reasons, whether its bad relationship with a spouse/mother-in-law or a spiteful mother. All of the reasons are horrifying). We had the opportunity to speak with a few of the women who work there, who were able to completely restart their lives despite the experiences, and in some cases, disabilities. They had a refreshing outlook both on how one should live their life as well as how to define beauty, and had such impressive, uplifting spirits. They told every one of us how beautiful we were while laughing and talking with their friends, and were so welcoming and open to sharing their stories. Many days spent in India were humbling; this one more so.
The next day, our route to Jaipur was barricaded by members of the Jat caste, so we ended up going to Fatehpur Sikri before having lunch in a secret garden and finding our escape route. Since we were there so early in a failed attempt to get through before the barricades went up (a plight which ended with our tour guide convincing all the cars and trucks behind us to back up so we could then drive backwards down the highway to get out of traffic), the fort and mausoleum were mostly empty except for us, making photo opportunities much easier.
Though our time in Agra ended with stress (to be continued) and was filled with traffic and spitting camels, it was effective in showing us that there are few things in life that aren’t made better by a fresh lime soda or masala chai in a secret garden. ♦