Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Agra Aggro

As we checked out of the gorgeous Pearl Palace hotel in Jaipur last Thursday to catch the afternoon train to Agra, the clerk casually enquired where we were off to next. “To see the Taj Mahal? You do know it’s closed on Fridays?”

We didn’t. Or at least, I hadn’t paid enough attention to the guide book, which clearly mentioned this fact, at the time of cleverly booking all our train tickets in advance. So off we trotted to the Jaipur railway station ticket office, and managed to change our onward ticket so as to spend an extra night in Agra and get to see the Taj Mahal on the Saturday. It being a Muslim monument, it is not entirely inconceivable that it would be closed on a Friday.

Getting off the train in Agra seemed like stepping onto another planet. The monsoon rains had come down heavily just as we were arriving, and we had nervously observed flooded streets with water coursing through people’s downstairs rooms next to the railway tracks. Beside the tracks were growing piles of refuse that at times threatened to overcome the jerry-built dwellings alongside. These were entire contour lines of rubbish that would appear on a decent map of the area.

On the platform we were greeted by the maddest orange sky. There was no sign of the sun, but the rains had provoked a power cut, and the only light was this orange light that felt like we were on Mars. In hindsight it might have something to do with the pollution that blankets Agra, but it wasn’t till we were leaving that my throat gave up trying to cope with the foul air and turned to sandpaper in reaction. Outside the station the streets seemed jammed with people, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary for country with so many people. Our rickshaw driver then explained to us on the way to the hostel that we had arrived right at the end of a three day festival at the Taj where the doors are thrown open to all-comers for free. Our hostel was next door to the Taj, so we were driving against the flow of a human torrent that started to make the flood waters look tame. Rickshaws crammed with easily a dozen people at a time (I think they’re supposed to take three in the back and a driver) stuttered past, while scooters with families of five wedged on tried to weave between the logjam of vehicles. The roundabouts were a free for all, the police just stood around in case witnesses were needed later, and there were people, bicycles, rickshaws, pigs, taxis, scooters, cows, goats and more people everywhere.

The hostel turned out to be the grimmest we’ve managed so far. Hopefully that’s rock bottom, and we’ll not have to step past the goats and their piles of shit in the back alley on the way to any other rooms in the coming months. Nor watch the mice scurry around the patio outside. Nor lay our heads down on greasy pillows. The only redeeming feature was the absolute kindness of the people who worked there – if only they’d take a moment to clean the bathrooms!

On Friday we headed out of Agra to see the abandoned palace complex at Fatehpur Sikri. It’s quite something, finished in 1585 and then abandoned, no one seems quite sure why, just ten years later. We nearly got into another row with the uninvited guides, who display a persistence to rival even Oisin’s attempts to live off ice cream, but eventually we were left to wander by ourselves. Ignorance is bliss – it’s a pretty building, I want to take nice photos of it and play with my boy, not spend an hour rushing after some blagger who will tell me what I can read in my book. The most striking image of the place is the lime green waters of the pool. I don’t know what sort of things grow in water to make it turn bright green, but I’m fairly confident they’re not conducive to human health. And of course there were a pair of Indian lads splashing around in it, having a whale of a time.

After missing the three day free festival, and after planning to visit it on the day it was closed, and after the vilest cup of breakfast coffee in recorded history, we made it to the Taj on Saturday. The only thing in my mind the whole time I was there was that image of Diana Spencer sitting all on her own in front of it. The soundtrack to that image should be Kim Jong-il’s song from Team America – “I’m So Ronery”. We found the marble bench she posed on for that photo, but a million tourist backsides have long since polished off any trace of that particular dead royal. The building is fabulous, but the heat and humidity got the better of us, and after a couple of hours we gave up trying to detect the ‘wondrous play of light on the surface of the marble as the sun crosses the sky’. We reclaimed our bags from the hotel and made a hasty escape for the night train to Varanasi.