Date: 4th November 2017
Hotel: Sai Palace
The Taj Mahal is located in Agra which is mostly a bit of a shithole and if not for a couple of things, wouldn’t be worth visiting…well, that might not be entirely true, but I haven’t found anything else yet *. For that reason after planning to go to the Taj Mahal, then deciding not to go because it is a bit out of the way, then changing our minds because an alternative was even harder, we went to Agra. The idea was always to take a train from Ajmer (Pushkar) to Agra, arrive in the evening, do the Taj in the morning, head to Sheroes for a while and then leave for Delhi that day.
In fact, that is how it turned out, but as you are about to discover, there is so much fun to be had within the plan.
Once again we had booked general seating on the train. This means you have a reserved seat, but it is a step above cattle class which doesn’t have reservations. We were the only westerners in our carriage of about 100 people and apart from a Japanese guy we pointed to his carriage, might have been the only westerners on the train.
As usual, it wasn’t long before we made friends with people around us and decided they needed a taste of western music. It wasn’t the first time we had done this, so we had a bit of a routine where the bluetooth speaker was fired up, a phone connected, a song played and a sing along commenced. Generally we started with Country Road by John Denver because we all knew the words, it is middle of the road and it is John Denver.
Indians have never heard this song, or most popular western songs. The do know Justin Beiber very well and a bunch of doof doof dance music, but the classic pop songs seem to have never hit the subcontinent. They have now…
This is a bad and great photo at the same time. Everything is wrong with it, but I think it gives the feeling of everyone wanting to be in the photo and the crowded conditions and the fun being had. People crowded the carriage as we sang a bunch of songs and then had a guy hook his phone up to play some popular Indian music to see if we could get them to sing along. Another complete failure.
A few people were quietly mouthing the words but there was no rousing chorus from the punters despite us trying to make it happen. This is not at all unusual, there appears to be a cultural taboo about publicly expressing emotion whether it be fun, love, excitement or whatever. I’ve mentioned the built up energy at music concerts where everyone is sitting on their bums, dying to dance, but just can’t do it. Same sort of thing, they kind of wanted to, but just couldn’t take the leap.
We danced, I did stupid (and real) magic, we sang, they loved watching and laughing and being part of what is likely an unforgettable train journey. It was so much fun that we didn’t even think to take photos. But many, many people were videoing the whole thing so we may end up on YouTube some day.
Agra was awful. The pollution was horrific. Have a read of this article about the pollution in Delhi at the same time, in fact, Delhi didn’t seem as bad as Agra, though it may have been.
This is actually how it looked on the day as the sun rose. So much for the beautiful Taj Mahal glowing in the sunshine.
Compare it to 2015 and 2016
It was disappointing, but at least I had seen it previously, for Dawne and Tiff it was their first visit. But it is best we go back an hour or so.
As you can see there are big crowds at the Taj Mahal, the photo would have been taken at about 0800hrs at the latest and there were already heaps of people. We had decided, on the advice of our hotel manager, to leave at 0545hrs, we had already planned to be there for sunrise. This wasn’t a bad plan, not withstanding that we hadn’t arrived at the hotel until 2330hrs the previous night.
It was dark lining up for tickets, there was no lighting in the area despite a couple of hundred people standing in line. I tried to jump the line by getting to the front of an Indian only line and pleading ignorance, that didn’t work. Dawne was in the women’s line. Tiff was in the men’s line. I was the runner deciding which line was moving faster and it was the women by a long shot, so Dawne bought 3 tickets – Jane didn’t join us. Step one complete.
The next stage is to stand in line outside the gate. It is starting to get light and on the left side of the entrance there are many hundreds of people waiting. We take a guess at an hour to get in…not good enough. On the right side of the entrance is a woman sitting in a wheel chair…and no one else.
“Do we want to get in quickly?” I asked and after quick agreement developed a pretty awful limp as we made our way to the right. We are ushered to a spot with wheelchair woman and pretty quickly another wheelchair appears and I am pushed into it. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the wheelchair was privately owned by Viru, this had implications we weren’t aware of. Sitting glumly (on the outside) I would adjust my position and whince in a way that I hoped was convincing. Someone tried to get Tiff and Dawne to leave me and join the line up and of course they objected saying I obviously needed care. I had a minor panic attack telling the cop that I obviously needed care. He let my obvious carers stay.
There were others on the right hand side. The poor woman in the wheelchair was on an expensive tour and had fallen over the previous day. The tour guide had pushed her to this spot and then gone off to deal with tickets without telling her anything. She was quite stressed having been there about half an hour and had no idea what was going on. Although we were scamming, we did do some good by reassuring her that it was all OK and calming her a bit ^.
There was also a blind woman who was told that she didn’t need a ticket (that they had already bought) and they were tossing up how to go and get a refund but not succumb to the chaos that is India. Not sure how that turned out, but later we did see the blind woman taking a photo…could she have…was she really…it shall remain a mystery.
The gates open and we are in…first!
While Tiff and Dawne went to the toilet, I tried to explain to Viru that we would pay him his 500R and he could wait in this corner and have a sleep, we would be back later. My leg was much better already. He wouldn’t hear of it. This job was given to him by god and he was going to do it. So I resigned myself to a seated tour of the Taj Mahal, getting up now and then because “my leg improves as the day goes on”.
Truth be told, I got an appreciation for how shitty it is for someone in a wheelchair if the pusher is not attentive to context. I was left facing the wrong way and felt excluded many times. I missed out on quite a few things that happened behind me or that others talked about that I couldn’t see. Though an hilarious adventure, it definitely changed my attitude to how wheelchairs should be handled. Towards the end Viru insisted on a photo of Tiff and Dawne in some position that was behind me. I was left stranded. A kind German woman asked me if I would like a push and I stood up and told her the story. She laughed and wished she had thought of it.
Of course, the agreed fee wasn’t enough for Viru, he wanted a tip on top of his already expensive fee. I kind of ran away…which might have had him wondering.
Disability is put into perspective when you visit Sheroes Hangout Cafe in Agra. This is a project to create a safe space and a business for women who are the victims of acid attacks.
It is a lovely place that has expanded in Agra and also opened in Lucknow. It made an impression on me the last times I was here and I think that Jane, Dawne and Tiff had the same experience. Unfortunately they didn’t have any calendars left this year.
The artwork is quite haunting, not sure I would want one on my wall.
One more day before we fly home. Off to Delhi by bus.