Journey to the North: Agra and the Gohad Express

When Philippa and I arrived in Agra, a rickshaw driver had been sent by our hotel, and his engine wouldn’t start because of how cold it was! Manish, as he turned out to be called, was extremely talkative and friendly, and spoke great English. After he had yanked and yanked at the rickshaw and finally got us going, he asked all about Philippa and me and our plans in Agra, and, when we got caught in a wedding procession on the way to the hotel, explained what was going on. Men and women and children and musicians and a silver float bearing the bride came by, cheering and playing music and celebrating, and Manish told us that it was a Muslim wedding–“you can tell because her face is covered.”

When we reached the hotel, Manish offered to give us a tour of Agra the following day. He was so charming and so friendly that we took him up on it, and then proceeded to settle into our lovely little hotel with a big, warm comforter on the bed and a cozy little restaurant that fed us a great dinner. We went to bed early and fell asleep at once, and all too soon, it was five in the morning, and we were up, ready to visit to the Taj Mahal.

We put on our saris in semidarkness, cursing ourselves for being silly enough to want to wear saris to the Taj when it was freezing and dark and early, especially when we discovered we had forgotten safety pins to pin up the pallu! Luckily, Phlip had tons of bobby pins, and we haphazardly pinned the pallus that way before adding a layer of sweatshirt and trotting off to the Taj. It was only a two minute walk, and the walls loomed up before us so impressively in the pre-sunrise light. The emptiness of the streets, with only a few open shops and some sleeping dogs, was somehow perfect. It felt like traveling back in time, and that feeling stuck with me even after we encountered the other tourists queuing up for sunrise entry. We got some odd looks for being in saris, and lots of hawkers faux-complimented us on our Indian dress (or perhaps they were sincere–hard to tell!), but the best moment was in the security check, when I had to unzip my sweatshirt and get poked and prodded by a lovely Indian policewoman. She gave me my first genuine smile of the morning, and I like to imagine that it was because she got to see my pleats up-close! I had worked to make them particularly lovely and neat that morning, even with sleepy, fumbling fingers.

We carried on through the gate and towards the big, arched door that leads through to the Taj and well–it did take my breath away, the sight of that white dome through the perfect, deep-red, minaret-shaped archway. Even in the early light I could see the incredible detail, like lace, or cake icing, and I was standing yards away. It was huge, too, so much bigger than  pictures make it seem, and the crowds seemed to fall away at the delicacy and the beauty. Since it was still early, we rushed past everyone standing at that perfect picture-taking point so we could get up close right away. We did stop to take a few photos, though, at the halfway point, and a lovely French couple took some of Philippa and I together. It was really nice to speak French even for those few sentences, and it was another lovely international moment that I so enjoy at Sangam and was really thrilled to have there, at the Taj, this otherwise over-touristy, overblown monument: that moment when you have overheard someone speaking a language, and you choose to use it, and they just accept, in that friendly, global family sort of way, that you share that language, and use it back. They had heard Philippa and I speak in English to each other but totally went with it when I spoke French, and even asked us, in French, to take a photo of them, and–well, it was a nice reminder of world citizenship at its best. (So was this dusty, beat-up car parked at our hotel, covered in signatures and messages written in dozens of languages: European languages, Arabic and Asian ones….This car had been literally driven around the world, and I assumed it was a relic, a souvenir parked at the Hotel, until it pulled away, full of luggage, that afternoon! It also belonged to French people. Two good French moments!)

But back to the Taj Mahal, and India. Amazing. The gardens leading up to the mausoleum, with the ponds and the trees and the perfect pathways, were gorgeous. You forget, I guess in the same way tourists to New York forget that the Empire State Building is surrounded by other buildings, and sidewalk, and shops, and people going to the work, that the Taj Mahal is surrounded by gardens, and pathways, and stairs that lead up to the central domed bit, and that two buildings, one a mosque and one “added for symmetry,” according to Philippa, frame the mausoleum, and that the site itself is surrounded by a huge wall that encloses all of it but is still too short to block the domes rising up, up, up into the gray-blue morning sky. All of that, you don’t see on the postcards, but in real life, the enormity of it is astounding–the marble islands floating in the water, perfect places to stand and admire; the benches, and the trees labeled with their proper names, and the gardens. And then, to counter all of that awe and splendor, is the detail, the infinitesimal detail. We went up close and saw the inlaid marble and the ridiculously intricate carving and the yellowing of some of the marble and the brilliance of it in other spots, and then–just when you think it can’t get any more astounding, you begin to process the design, the architecture–the gorgeous way the doors and windows and outer chambers were placed to let light into the central tomb. I got to run my fingers over this incredible artwork put into place centuries ago, and look out at the gardens across the river, which was dry and muddy but somehow still impressive in its barrenness, and then–we were standing on the eastern side of the mausoleum when the sun really came over the horizon and the trees. And the entire right side of the Taj Mahal glowed. Just glowed, golden, perfectly, the color of the sun, or butter, or gold, really. And it was gorgeous.

We left the Taj slowly, headed back to our hotel, ate breakfast, climbed up to the roof of the hotel to take a few aerial-view photos of the Taj, and checked out just in time for Manish to come pick us up. Then we began the rest of our Agra adventures. I loved the Agra Fort, because, as with the Red Fort in Delhi, I loved imagining the lives of the people who had called it home. The courtyards, the balustrades, the beautiful mosque, the two halves of the palace–Hindu and Muslim–decorated in the styles of those two Indian cultures, one side for each of Shah Jahan’s favorite wives. It was beautiful, and enormous, and we wandered around for a good while, constantly taking photographs. The whole day was like that–every time I turned around, I saw the most beautiful thing I had seen that day. So I had to take a photo. And again, and again, and again, after we left the Fort and went to see the “Baby Taj,” built before its more famous cousin and about one thousand times more intricately decorated. The marblework was breathtaking: floor-to-ceiling inlaid flowers, geometric patterns, and the sun illuminating hidden corners and sharp angles to bring out the vibrant color–unlike the Taj, which gives the impression of being pure white, the little Taj is all color, like a kaleidoscope. Then, the camera came back out at the gardens behind the Taj, across the river. There it was, the Taj Mahal, almost as close as that morning, but I was surrounded by fruit trees and green grass and fresh air and freedom in a way the wall-enclosed Taj did not permit. This was where I took my silly Taj photos–pushing it over, holding it up–and Philippa and I relaxed and ate Kit Kats under the trees’ shade.

It was after visiting these sites that Manish proved himself to be an amazing rickshaw driver and tour guide. Already he had informed us he had no fixed rate for his day-long tour–“pay what you feel in your hearts,” he said–and had provided us with lots of information about each site we had visited. Then he took us on a tour of various workshops, and at each one, the staff were extremely friendly, spoke great English, and were not particularly pushy (for India) about Philippa and me purchasing items. As a result, we learned all about inlaying marble, and got to see the process of shaping the pieces of semi-precious stones to insert into the marble, as well as the extremely fun surprise of the way carnelian literally glows when you turn a light on it. We learned all about carpet-making, and saw each step of the process at the Kanu Carpet Factory: the drawing of the patterns, the weaving, the scrubbing, the shearing, and, finally, the finished product, which our carpet tour guide unrolled and laid out, one after the other, with the most incredible snap, like a salesman version of Aladdin. Then, also, a jewelry store, where the owner explained about star rubies, and other jewels unique to India and even to Agra. Then, finally, a fabric store with saris and punjabis and cushion covers and bedspreads, where I spent too much money on the most gorgeous, hand-sewn, patchwork elephant quilt, for a double bed that I do not yet own in an apartment I do not yet rent with money from a job I do not yet have! But it is wonderful, and I have been saying since day one that I wanted to buy a bedspread, so I feel less guilty now than I did while handing over my debit card.

Manish topped off his incredible tour with two visits to this lovely garden cafe, tucked down three side alleys, where the kitchen was simply part of the owners’ home and a baby and dog came out and played. We had really amazing food at lunchtime, and came back before catching the train to have chai (either on the house or on Manish–incredibly generous either way) and to sign Manish’s book, which is full of recommendations and messages written in dozens of languages. We sat and chatted, and Manish expounded with his theories on family, and love, and life, and travel, in a remarkably forthright, not superficial way. It felt as though Philippa and I were really getting to know him, just then, and he seemed genuinely interested in us, especially as I was in Indian dress and we had told him about living and working in Pune. The oldest son with many younger siblings, he supports his entire family, and spoke wistfully of traveling. I really hope he has the opportunity–he deserves it. He took us to the train station, found our platform for us, pocketed the money we “felt in our hearts” without even glancing at it, and shook our hands twice each before sending us on our way. A really down-to-earth, fundamentally goodhearted guy, and it was a pleasure to meet him.

The train arrived not long after, and Philippa and I settled in for twenty-tour hours of sleeper train, with only one berth between us, all the way down to Pune from Agra, via Hyderabad and Jalgaon and other out-of-the-way places. The night was freezing, particularly as we had not brought blankets (my elephant one was packaged up, and there was no way I was ruining it on the train!) and my window latch was broken and kept flying up and letting the cold wind in. We curled around each other, and our bags, like jigsaw pieces, as Philippa put it later, constantly readjusting our arrangement at 9 PM, 11 PM, 2 AM, 4 AM, to get comfortable. We woke with the rest of the train at 7 AM, not particularly well-rested but having survived the night, and began to read station names as we finished out nine more hours of train travel accompanied by daylight, showing us the enormous expanse of India we were zipping across. I saw so many things out that window: tiny villages and open fields and little, out-of-the way stations full of people of all types, old and young, rich and poor, weary and well-traveled or fresh, about to start off on journeys. The train rarely stopped, just coasted slowly through stations, and people hopped on and off. A bunch of young men sat by the carriage door with their feet dangling out, playing cards and listening to music. Philippa and I ordered biryani and ate lots of chocolate and mashed-up Oreos (I slept on them when I was too tired to care) and stared out the window. India is amazing. The Deccan Plateau is amazing. The lives, each individual tiny life, carved out of this country–every country–continue to amaze me. The same feeling I have on the subway, of the enormity of all of these individuals packed into one place, going about their own impossibly unique business, struck me again and again as I watched mothers carry babies across fields, smoke waft out of tiny shacks, laundry hang from a dozen lines, boys on train tracks washing under pipes, fruit sellers and drink sellers passing goods through the bars on the windows. The looks Philippa and I drew were curious but (except for one man, who stared at us unblinkingly the entire time he was awake) not rude, and we were cozy and comfortable and safe in our little window-seat berth as we headed home to Pune.

And that was another incredible thing–that Pune really was home. We got off and hailed a rickshaw and knew exactly where to go, and passed by a dozen familiar landmarks. We took a shortcut I knew and loved, rattling past shops and houses and some pigs that are always at that shortcut intersection, without fail. We got to Sangam and signed in at the gate and there were the usual faces at Reception, at tea, setting the dinner table. We were home. Dirty, tired, exhilarated, and home.