When our bus pulled away leaving Delhi we felt a sense of relief. Though there were holes and it was not well thought out, we now had a plan. We had only been together for about 24 hours but now Yohann seemed like an old friend. The five-hour bus ride was enjoyable. We had been ushered to the front drivers cabin and though it had no seat belts, we really just wanted to get moving and thought we would not put up a fuss. Plus there was much more room up there.
As we were nearing Agra, we started seeing some signs in English. Agra was the next stop on our list and one of the three major tourist cities in India because it is the home of the Taj Mahal. As usual we had no idea where we would be dropped off, but something different happened. As the bus was going through the busy streets, the bus driver pulls over and tells us to get off. He does not speak English and we do not move because we were not at the station and no one else was moving. The doors open up and a man comes on who does speak English. He tells us that this bus company gives complementary rides to tourists once they reach their destination instead of taking them into the busy and chaotic bus terminals that were outside of town.
The garden restaurant we ate at our first, and only, meal in Agra
off in the distance
It was our second day in India and we did not understand, but went along as I am guessing many tourists do. There was a tuk-tuk driver who spoke no English and a man with him who spoke it beautifully. Yohann already had a hotel, but we did not. Yohann also had a train ticket for the following evening to Jaipur. We did not. The man told us there was a bus service that could sell us tickets to Jaipur for tomorrow and told us the price. It was cheaper than what Yohann paid but would take longer and be less comfortable, but it would get us to Jaipur. If you remember form our Delhi post, we were broke and waiting on a money transfer that had failed to go through.
I had an email that I had sent my family at this time with exact numbers but I have lost it now so these are the most truthful estimates I can remember. At this time we had around $40 US between Veronica and I, and decided to buy the bus tickets to Jaipur, which took us down to $26. The tuk-tuk driver told us that he would not charge us anything to take us to Yohann’s hotel but just tell us a little about Agra on the way and if we liked his services that we could hire him for the rest of the day to show us around. Sounded fair.
So the three of us walk into Johann’s hotel hoping they may have a room in our price range. False. $20 was their cheapest two-person room. But we were able to check our email and found one from my brother, telling us that he sorted the transfer out with his bank and we would have the money in two days. Though we were very thankful for all the help David did for us on the trip, $26 for two people was not going to work for two days unless we skipped the Taj Mahal or skipped our bus ride to Jaipur.
We had not eaten the day before besides a few bananas, though Veronica does not like bananas and so she had nothing, so we decided to eat. There was a restaurant across the street and the three of us ordered rice, pan (flat bread) and two types of dal (lentils). We now had $23 but were full and needed the food to think. Over lunch we explained our exact situation to Yohann. He knew we were waiting on a transfer but did not know how extreme things were. We told him we had two options. First was that Veronica and I would have to stay in Agra for the next three days and let him go on alone to Jaipur. The two of us would hang out on the cheap, find a hotel that cost closer to $10 and wait for our transfer to go through. Then see the Taj Mahal once we had the funds (it costs about $12 for tourists, or 30 cents for locals).
Option two was that Yohann loan us some money. It might seem strange but being he had just been slightly swindled when he bought his bus/train/hotel combo in Delhi and was also on a shoestring budget, this was asking a lot. Plus Yohann had just met us the day before. What we asked for was 2,800 Rupees, or around $44 US.
Luckily Yohann agreed to loan us the money. It would mean he was tight on cash too until our money came through, but it was worth it to him to have some travel partners.
our driver on the right, our guide on the left
cow dung cakes that are shaped, and dried to be used as fuel in stoves
The Yamuna River
The man that had driven us to the hotel 45 minutes ago was still outside and we told him that Veronica and I were looking for a room for around 600 Rupees, he said that the one across the street would be around 700 and we went to see if we could bargain them down. We failed. But 700 was still around $11-12 US so it was close enough to our $10 goal. Looking at the guest book, we were the only American guests that had stayed here in the last few weeks, it was almost all India and Pakistan written in the COUNTRY section of the school style notebook the owner used to keep records.
I was thrilled to have my pack in a locked room and to have a plan that included staying with our new friend, seeing the Taj Mahal tomorrow morning and making it onward to Jaipur. The three of us agreed that the 500 Rupee fee to take all three of us around Agra for the rest of the day was well worth it, even on our budget. We started by crossing the Yamuna River that divides Agra. This region used to be world famous for its leather, but all of the chemicals used to dye and stain the hides would be poured into the river. Even though this trade is now better regulated for environmental reasons, the river is still not considered clean.
Our first stop was Chini Ka Rauza. It is a tomb that was right on the river and we met a group of young boys playing who tagged along as we explored the grounds. It was free to get in and a lovely first stop.
The Chini ka Rauza
catching a lift
Here is what Wikipedia says about Chini Ka Rauza:
Chini ka Rauza is a funerary monument in Agra, India, containing the tomb of Allama Afzal Khan Mullah, a scholar and poet who was the Prime Minister of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The tomb was built in 1635. Chini ka Rauza is situated just 1 kilometer north of Itmad-Ud-Daulah Tomb, on the eastern bank of Yamuna River in Agra.
We then stopped outside the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, which is often called the jewel box or the baby Taj Mahal. It was getting later in the day and cost money to go inside and so we only looked in from the gate but it looked very beautiful.
on the other side of the river
there was a family with their grazing goats on the riverbank, amazing to think
We then drove to the Mehtab Bagh. This is a “moonlight garden”, that is on the opposite side of the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal. Looking at an aerial map of how the Mehtab Bagh and the Taj Mahal fit together gives a lovely impression that they are meant to be together, forming a symmetric grounds, yet divided by the river. We were told that you can spend hours at the Mehtab Bagh enjoying the natural beauty but there was also a road that you could walk down next to the gardens that would lead you to the river. From there you could have amazing views of the Taj Mahal without the crowds and at no cost. We did not go inside the gardens because they were about to close and once again were on our budget, but we would highly recommend driving across the river to view the Taj from another view.
One the way back to the hotel, our guide offered to take us to a stonecutter, silver worker and fabric house. The stonecutter sounded interesting, and though we knew that we were only going because the drivers get a kick back from any sale made, it still seemed interesting.
Our stonecutter guide
It was in fact very informative and interesting. If we had an extra $5 would of bought one of the small pieces. The fabric house was nice too but more a store that could tell us about the different types of fabric from the region, and not so much somewhere they made anything. Veronica really wanted to get a Punjabi suit while in India and they had some that we would latter find out were a good deal, but at that time we did not have the money to buy anything. We talked our way out of the silver smiths because it was not dark and the bugs were out. They took us back to our hotels and we felt bad because the man who was such a wonderful tour guide told us that the 500 Rupee price was for the driver and that he would not see any of it, but that if we enjoyed his services that we could give him a tip. Every dollar left in our pocket had an exact place it would be spent but we gave him 50 Rupees explaining we did not have money. He seemed upset at first because this is an insulting low amount but he eventually said, “If this is truthfully all you can give then I am happy to know I could provide someone who has very little with the chance to see the city I love so much.”
That night Veronica and I hung out in Yohann’s room, talking and using his internet. We introduced him to Couchsurfing and tried to see if we could find a place for us to stay in Jaipur. We actually had luck! And someone told us they could put all three of us up for two-night. All we had was a phone number though and we could not get a response with the person’s address, but it seemed like it would work out! We were getting up early to be at the Taj Mahal by sunrise, which we were told was one of the best times to see it because of how the light hits the white stone. So Veronica and I traveled back to our bargain hotel room, got into our sleeping bags and tried to go to sleep. It had nothing to do with the hotel, but for some reason there was a pack of dogs that barked all night right outside our room! So we lay awake for a few hours before falling asleep, dogs still barking, from pure exhaustion.
front entrance to the Taj Mahal
The next morning we rose and were more excited than well rested. It was colder than we had expected, and we grabbed sweaters, jackets and light scarves as we headed out the door. We met up with Yohann and walked the ten or so minutes to the Taj Mahal. We waited in line for tickets and were one of the first hundred people into the compound. We will let our pictures, and yes we have a huge amount (IT’S THE TAJ MAHAL, COME ON), do most of the talking but I will give a few facts and things I did not know before visiting.
First thank you Wikipedia for the following:
The Taj Mahal is called the “crown of palaces” and is a white marble mausoleum. It was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
Taj Mahal is regarded by many as the finest example of Mughal architecture, a style that combines elements from Persian and Indian architectural styles.
Now for some things I learned first hand.
Though we think of it as white, the tomb is actually ornately decorated. It has very colorful flowers made of precious stones, Arabic writing made from inlaid black marble, and other beautiful patterns.
During the late 19th century the Taj Mahal was in need of repair and had faced a lot of vandalism and neglect. It was restored and brought back to the famous glory it has today.
I did know that the white building in the middle is a tomb but I did not know that there is a red building on the west side that is a mosque and a similar red building on the east called a jawab which is meant as the female version of the mosque that offers symmetry to the compound.
I did not know that during WW2 and again during the India-Pakistan War that scaffolding was erected around the Taj Mahal to protect it from bomber planes with the intention of misleading the pilots.
We saw men making new stones for the paths on the grounds using hammer and chisel by hand.
There is a military post on the northeast side of the compound right by the river to protect it from any trouble coming from the water.
You cannot take pictures inside the tomb and are not supposed to take video inside the compound at all.
We spent a few hours walking around the whole area, taking time to sit and breath it all in. There is a small free museum that was very nice and displayed art and historical artifacts. When we left we were not at all let down. The Taj Mahal had completely lived up to the amazing reputation it holds.
We had our bags packed and made it back in time to check out of the hotel around noon. Yohann’s hotel let us leave our bags in their lobby and we spent the next few hours talking with his hotel owner. The man was lovely and told us about his life in Agra and his wedding. My favorite part of his wedding tales was that they had a tub filled with some strange material (I can’t remember exactly), but you could not see through it, it was more sludge or gel like than water. There were things placed inside of the tub and there were three things in particular that you wanted to find. The husband and wife would compete at the same time to see who could find the items first. One was a coin. Who ever found it was said to have control over the family’s money for the rest of the marriage. The other was a ring and I think it meant that when ever there was an argument that they could not settle, who ever found that ring on their wedding day always won, for the rest of their marriage. I cannot remember the third item, just that there was one more. I thought this was such a fun idea.
Delta Gamma, DG, their the best sorority- India represent
There was much more in Agra that we could of seen. There is the Agra Fort, which was another huge complex that actually held Shan Jahan (ordered the building of the Taj Mahal) when his son put him under house arrest at the end of his life.
We decided to take our time and walk to the bus station. It would take an hour and a half but we got to walk next to the fort. We had not eaten yet today but had bought another water bottle and had been drinking at least to stay hydrated. Yohann seemed to not want to eat either, maybe because he did not want to be rude eating in front of us, or he was also on an extreme budget because he was helping us out, or maybe he too was not that hungry because of how busy we were staying. We were also hesitant and scared to eat street food at first, being told how many people get sick in India, we did not want to be sick if we were not sure we would have a place to sleep. Yohann bought a bag of chips and shared some with us as we were preparing to depart. Before we left a parade of protesting Lawyers marched down the street our hotel was on. We asked the owner what was happening and he explained that the main court for the region was not in Agra and that lawyers had to travel over an hour away whenever they needed to have a case. The lawyers wanted a new court to be built in Agra because it was a much larger city now and they thought it made more sense.
We left with our bags a few minutes after the parade passed and Yohann walked with us to the station. This was hot and especially a hassle because every tuk-tuk driver stopped to try to get us to let him drive us but could not understand that even if we had money, that we were walking because we wanted to see the city and had time to kill before our bus left. Yohann’s train was not until two hours later but we would arrive only an hour before Yohann because busses are generally slower in India. It would take us 4-5 hours and we would arrive between 8 and 9. Yohann was supposed to arrive in Jaipur just after 9 pm. We would all meet at the train station, call our Couchsurfing host to meet up and explore another city together. That was the plan anyways.