When we arrived in Agra, the home to the Taj Mahal, I was taken by surprise. It wasn’t how I imagined. Agra is a busy stop-through thriving from tourists who specifically go there for one reason and one reason alone. It isn’t pretty by any means and not a place you’d want to spend any amount of time in.
I recall having a long drive on the road when we finally arrived. All of us starving. Once we’d dumped our bags and bid goodnight to Manesh, we went for a wander. Although we decided not to stray too far as we had to be up at the crack of dawn. I don’t know how we found the restaurant, or what even made us think it’ll be any good but we we’re seduced by the promise of fabulous views of the Taj and the surrounding vista.
And the best thing of all… It was revolving!
I recall nothing of the food but I do remember the four of us howling with laughter at the ‘view’ ie: pitch black and the ‘revolving’ motion which amounted to a slight position shift every five minutes. It was like the man powering the pedal bike to turn the gears had been on a long tea break. We really should have turned away when we saw the restaurant was empty…
At 4.00am the next morning, I woke up with a sense of nervous anticipation. Manesh told us this was the quietest time to go and visit the Taj Mahal, so we left to watch the sun rise over this world-famous heritage site.
For about 30 minutes it was very peaceful and I was able to recreate the famous ‘Diana’ pose without too much interference. It was enjoyable to walk around the gardens and to explore what essentially is a tomb, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. I marvelled as the white marble glistened as the sun rose higher in the sky and, even though it was a lot smaller that I had imagined, it was still mesmerising.
I was also fascinated by the myth that Shah Jahan planned a mausoleum to be built in black marble as a Black Taj Mahal across the Yamuna river – and we spent several minutes trying to see the blackened remains where the moonlight garden is now situated but there are many theories which dispel this myth. I like to believe the story, though – there’s something mystical about it.
When the crowds starting descending in their droves, it was time to make a hasty departure.
So our time with Manesh was drawing to a close… Once we jumped back into the car, we headed back to New Delhi on our last road trip with him. It was a muted, awkward goodbye but we thanked him profusely for looking after us and of course gave him a parting gift, hoping our little collection would go someway in helping him and his family.
The train station was nothing of the platforms I was used to back in London. Large families huddled together eating their food; hawkers and chai sellers whistled up and down, streets kids were looking for their next targets. We were to spend three days journeying south, past Mumbai and to the coast. I was exhausted. And feeling rather fat. I had eaten delicious curries at breakfast, lunch, and dinner and it was beginning to show. I yearned for some seafood and some sea air.
We had opted for second class naively believing this would be fairly luxurious. Of course, compared to the other standards it was – so a curtain and some folded down seats was to be our home for the next 72 hours, sharing it with cockroaches, insects, an Indian family across the way who couldn’t stop staring at us and anyone who walked past our ‘compartment’. Our food was served through the open window at station stops – where we mainly opted for simple fare, bread and dhal supped down with tea and bottled water, or by uniformed boys running up and down the carriages.
We read, played games, stared out of the window taking in the madness of the station stops and the mass of people going about their daily lives and the changing scenery which was beginning to turn more green and more sprawling. But as the journey went on, we began to worry about where we were actually going… Because there were no announcements made at any stops. And it soon dawned on us that we could be heading somewhere else entirely… We had no idea where we were. Impatiently, we waited for the train guard to come past and grabbed him. He couldn’t really understand us but we kept asking when we needed to get off. He just kept pointing at our ticket and insisted we stayed until the end.
We didn’t feel any better. It was clear in his demeanour, he was fobbing us off. Defeated, we all lamented that we’d never get to Goa. Then, a friendly Indian woman popped her head through our curtain and reminded us about the kindness of strangers.
‘Don’t listen that man,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t help overhearing, but you’ll need to get off the train way before the end.’
We thanked her profusely when she told us she would let us know the right stop, and not to worry. She told us she studied at Oxford which is why she could speak English and introduced us to her friend. We chatted a while and then suddenly became magnets for others to join in, including western travellers we hadn’t noticed before. It made the last part of our journey much more enjoyable. Even the Indian family across the way started grinning at us. As promised, our new friend gave us the nod when we had arrived, wished us well and we finally departed the train.
The smells, the air, the surroundings – everything was different to the city, that much was obvious as soon as we exited the station. We didn’t even have a plan, where to stay, where to head to. We were all just so happy to be there. We hailed a taxi truck, climbed on the back of it and told the driver to take us somewhere nearby, as long as it was by the sea.
I was finally in Goa and about to start the next chapter of my adventure…