the first stamp, part two

After a busy first day in Delhi, Kara and I embarked on a little day trip.

Part of the reason we selected Delhi over Mumbai was its proximity to the Taj Mahal. The Taj is located in the town of Agra, roughly 3 hours outside of Delhi. We reasoned that if we were going to visit India, we better see the Taj.

During her time in Southern India, Kara had worked with some of the other people on her trip to book train tickets for us. The train is a fraction of the price of a private car or a tour group so since we were both working on a limited budget, we opted for the cheaper route. We still booked an air conditioned car on the train.

Bright and early Monday morning we went to the station, a short 5 minute walk from our hotel. The man at the entrance asked to see our tickets and then informed us that the train had been cancelled. Since we weren't about to miss our chance to see the Taj, we jumped in a taxi to a tour office to discuss our options.

It didn't look good. The next train wasn't for many hours and it was waiting list only. The buses were full too. So we resigned ourselves to a private car. While the first several quotes were well above our price range, we were thankfully able to talk the company down to about half what they originally quoted us. We handed over the cash and hopped into the car to set off on our journey.

After cruising down the highway, we arrived in Agra. Our driver asked if we were hungry. We happily agreed and he took us to a restaurant, where we feasted on some delicious palak paneer and naan. It was first time trying palak paneer--a dish made from sauteed spinach, paneer cheese, and spices. Our bellies full of spinach & cheese, we piled back in the car and headed into the heart of Agra.

Here's the thing about Agra: despite being home to one of the most famous landmarks in the world, it's a very poor town. It's also a very vibrant one.

Cows are considered sacred in the Hindu faith and since much of India is Hindu, they're allowed to wander freely wherever they please. I had been looking forward to seeing some sacred cows, especially after the pictures and videos Kara sent me of them just overtaking roadways in Kodaikanal. There weren't many cows in Delhi so I'd only seen one or two up to that point. When we arrived in Agra, that changed. While they weren't blocking roads, there were plenty of cows standing around on street corners and outside of stores.

After weaving through the thick traffic, we were dropped off. We weren't quite at the Taj but the roads were too narrow to accommodate a car so we hopped into an auto rickshaw to finish our journey.

Unlike in the States where your cab drops you off and leaves you to pick up a new cab to get somewhere else, in India many of the rickshaws and taxis will drop you off and then pick you back up again. Our drivers took us to the south gate of the Taj. Before letting us get out though they explained that the south gate was generally less crowded but that we needed to guard our things carefully because there were lots of pickpockets lining the walk to the south gate. They also warned us that we shouldn't buy any "marble" marketed to us on the walk in; most of it was fake despite what the vendors told us. We made plans to meet  in an hour and trotted off to buy our ticket to the Taj.

A common feature of tourist attractions in India is that locals will pay significantly less to enter than foreigners. The Taj was no different. We paid around 750 rupees to enter the Taj, versus the 300 or so Indians pay.

Prior to arriving in Agra Kara and I had discussed getting a guide to show us around but after the debacle with the train, we had decided to nix the guide.

Luckily for us there were very few visitors to the Taj that day. There wasn't even a line to get in. When we walked up to the table to buy our tickets we were given little booties to cover our feet so we wouldn't have to take off our shoes to enter the Taj itself, a cold bottle of water, and a free guide to show us around the grounds.

Thankful for our good fortune, we followed our guide into the Taj.

Even the red sandstone front gate to enter the Taj was beautiful. The Taj took around 22 years to build. Each small white dome on top of the gate represents a year in the building process. There are 11 on the front gate, and 11 within the Taj.

Walking through the gate, you get a peak of the Taj itself. The way the gate is structured, the Taj is perfectly framed and the view is breathtaking. Unfortunately because of the lighting I wasn't able to capture the view.

The Taj is one of those buildings that is even more beautiful and breathtaking in real life than it is in photos. No picture could ever do that place justice.

Not only is it beautifully designed, the Taj is full of optical illusions and perfect symmetry. For example, around the door is some script from the Koran (the rectangular portion just below the main dome). The script appears to be the exact same size from whatever angle it's viewed. In reality, it's not. It's just carefully engineered to appear perfectly uniform and symmetrical from multiple angles. This is even more amazing when you consider that the Taj was built well before technology entered the picture. Everything was done by hand. Even when you look closely at the building and the craftsmanship, it looks machine-made. The lines are perfect. The cuts are clean. It's mind-blowing.

Even the smaller buildings flanking the signature white building are perfectly spaced. They're exact copies of each other, placed directly across from each other.

The Taj was built as a mausoleum for one of the 3 wives of Shah Jahan, the emperor of India. Shah Jahan originally planned to build a second identical version in black across the river for himself. While the space was cleared, Shah Jahan died before construction began. Since the first Taj Mahal had cost quite a fortune, plans were scrapped for the second one. You can actually see the spot that was cleared for the second building.

After looking inside the building, our guide took us to a store owned by descendants of one of the families that did the marble work on the Taj. We quickly ducked out to meet our rickshaw drivers, who took us to see Agra Fort. We only had about 30 minutes at the fort before we had to catch our train back to Delhi. Our driver was adorable: he would get excited every time he spotted us and wave enthusiastically with a big smile on his face. When he dropped us off at the fort he told us not to do anything he wouldn't do.

We quickly scuttled into the fort and began to amble around. At one point we got a little turned around and had to pause for a moment to remember which way we had come from.

The fort itself is beautiful. Thankfully the 30 minutes we had was plenty of time at the fort. One of my favorite parts of the fort was the view of the Taj across the river. It was a beautiful, sweeping view.

After we finished at the fort, we found our rickshaw and raced off to the train station. We were originally wait-listed for the train back to Delhi but while at lunch we found out that we had been granted seats on the train. Unfortunately we didn't have printed tickets showing our seat numbers; we only had the printout showing we were wait-listed. While Kara waited in the women-only line to get to the ticket counter, I ran around the station attempting to find a train station employee to find out if we even needed the printed tickets. As it turns out, we didn't. I quickly grabbed Kara out of line and we rushed onto the platform with only 5 minutes to spare...

...only to find out that our train was an hour delayed. We got drinks and headed over to the platform to watch the trains come and go.

Train stations in India are not like Amtrak stations here. Never have I seen people so cavalier about train tracks. Not only did vendors just walk across the tracks, so did passengers. They would climb down from the platform, amble across the tracks, and climb up on a different platform.

Then there are the local trains. We saw a few go by while we were waiting. Here's the thing about these trains: they don't actually stop at the platforms. They just slow down. And as they slowly pass the platforms, people jump off and new people jump on. There aren't really even doors, just people hanging out the side of the train. Down in the village Kara had volunteered in the buses worked the same way. She even saw someone fall off a bus, stand up and run after it. Somehow he caught up to the bus and vaulted back into the open door.

As an American, it was a bit shocking to see people just flinging themselves into and out of the open door of a moving train.

After an hour of watching people jumping on and off trains, monkeys scampering through the scaffolding, and parrots hanging out on the buildings, our train arrived. Kara had explained that in the air conditioned cars there were beds, not seats. The beds are stacked generally 3 high. We both prayed that we got a bottom bunk.

We both got top bunks.

Kara's side only had two beds so she had a few inches more headroom. I wasn't quite so lucky. I ended up laying down because I wasn't able to sit up fully.

Instead of a cafe car, vendors wandered up and down the train selling food. They weren't random vendors; they were all from a company called Meals on Wheels, which amused Kara and I to no end. Kara bought a cup of chai from a man with what appeared to be an old fashioned metal milk jug brimming with hot tea.

We quickly realized that they didn't announce the stops and we had no idea how many stops the train would be making. From our top bunk vantage-points we weren't able to see the station names. I asked the ticket checker how close we were to Delhi and he told us that the people below us were actually going to Delhi as well so we should follow their lead.

Back in Delhi we quickly grabbed a bite to eat before calling it a night.

Here's the thing about India: it's not an easy country to travel to. It's not Europe. It's not Bangkok.

But it's worth it. It's absolutely worth it. It's worth the extra caution when it comes to food. It's worth the struggle to find a bathroom. It's worth the vendors hawking wares at you. It's worth it.

India is a vibrant, beautiful country. The people are warm and friendly. If you look confused or lost, someone will stop to ask if you need help.

There's a rich cultural heritage there. You can feel the centuries of history everywhere you go. It's fiercely Indian and that's a beautiful thing. I can honestly say it's the most unique place I've ever visited.

On my way over I was far more excited about Thailand. I've wanted to go to Thailand since I was young. Sure I wanted to see the Taj Mahal, but I could take or leave the rest of India.

Now that I've been to both, I fell far more in love with India than Thailand. Don't get me wrong, I loved Thailand and would go back in a heartbeat. But India was just a different type of special.

Yes it has its drawbacks and as two women without a man we had a hard time getting vendors to leave us alone.

But I still loved it.

If you have the chance, go to India. I can't emphasize that enough. Go to India. Go with an open mind and an open heart. Just go.

I promise you won't regret it.

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