I’ve always wanted to see the Taj Mahal. It is, after all, one of the seven wonders of the world.
Sharing a train carriage with a rat was not in my vision of the perfect weekend at the Taj Mahal. But that is how it started. Actually, the rat was in the middle of the beginning, but not the very beginning.
I think I’ll start again.
We decided to spend a weekend in Agra, city of Taj when my Dad and his lovely wife were visiting. I spent hours and hours trying to sort out this trip on the internet. I found a company that could handle our whirlwind visit and our complicated itinerary.
We needed 3 adults and two littlies on a plane from Chennai to Delhi on the Friday morning, then on a train to Agra. My husband would do the same trip but by himself the next day – as he only gets weekends off work. We would all travel back together on the Sunday.
This was all sorted without problem – except that our names were all wrong, backwards and topsy-turvy with last names as first names and middle names as last. That took a long time to sort out and was never ammended as such, just a “request put into the airlines to allow travel even though the names don’t match your passports”. As an ex travel agent I was shitting myself that this trip would end at the airport. But no. It was fine. In fact it was the only smooth part of our trip.
The airport has about 70 billion security checks and the process could benefit from some streamlining. And some signposting. After a long wait in the line at check in, we find out we had missed a step to first get our bags x-rayed and cable tied shut before check in. Of course. That would explain that x-ray machine in the middle of the airport with the line of people and guards. You know what else would explain that? A sign! Or maybe a note on the ticket – there’s a novel idea: readily available information and clear directions of convoluted processes.
Anyway – checked in, we have our boarding passes in hand and are set to go through the next security layer which involves the familiar screening of carry-on luggage and a walk through a metal detector. In this case the lines are separated by gender and the women are afforded a screen to shield the “frisking” from the menfolk. The frisking involves a metal detector wand being waved over my aura which is much less hands-on-clothes-off than I expected from the presence of the screen. I am relieved.
Carry on bags need luggage tags so they can be stamped after screening. I had shoved the luggage tags that check-in had given me, in the depths of my bag, because in all other airports I had been in, luggage tags are a personal choice that I seldom choose. Not here.
So we tag our bags and line up again and get screened and frisked and stamped and sent on our way to our gate.
Boarding passes checked and ripped and two steps taken to where they were checked again and then a bus to board that would take us to our plane but WAIT! Oh no, the baby carrier has no stamped tag!
Xanthe must have ripped it off. She has no respect for airport security.
My father rushes the carrier back to x-ray and gets the tag and stamp required and boards the bus just on time.
The bus takes us across the tarmac to our waiting plane where we climb the steps and find our seats. I am EXHAUSTED and we haven’t even left yet!
We settle in for our 2hr 45min flight. We are starving. We order some meals and get three out of four meals wrong in a what-the-hell-is-that kind of way. FYI – on spice jet, a “hash brown” is just some grated potato in a pile.
We arrive at Delhi and meet our driver who walks us a long long way to our car. On the way a boy tries to shine our shoes. None of us are wearing shoes that need or want shining. But he is really trying hard to sell the idea of black polish on my step mother’s white running shoes.
We leave for the train station.
Arriving at the station, our driver advises us not to talk to the porters and that he will do the talking and paying. He spends some time negotiating with a group of porters and one with a turban lifts our two large suitcases and carries them on top of his head. We follow him to our platform.
I would have liked to know that when booking seats on a train in India, you are unlikely to get those seats and that “comfortable for children” - as requested – means different things to different people.
We are allocated 3 berths on the train and two of them are second tier like top bunks with no safety barrier. Not at all safe or comfortable for children. I am told this is a high class carriage. If there is a higher class I would have been happy to pay the extra but was not given that option.
After seeing a large brown rat scurry beneath the bottom berths near my step mother’s feet, I suddenly feel that the top berths are looking quite attractive after all.
I booked the train because I was told one MUST travel by train to see the REAL India. I can’t see shit from my vantage point of the top tier looking down through the window that has condensation between the panes.
Maybe the real India that one must see was happening inside the train. There was the rat for starters. That thing was real. There was the silver haired woman with dark leathery skin and a tired yellow sari, snoring on the berth below us. I wonder how far she has travelled, as this train is a 50 hour trip in it’s entirety. Our leg is only a short 4 hour stint from Delhi to Agra.
The thermal engineering student across from us who is proud of his country and wants to tell us all about it to be sure we will be seeing all the amazing, famous and ancient sites that India has to offer. He is wonderfully helpful and pleasant and we discuss our mutual love of kaju sweets.
The Chai sellers walking up and down the train every ten minutes calling “Chai, chai, chai” in a low nasal tone and the idly sellers calling “idly, idly, idly” in a higher tone.
Then there was the hobo lying in the entrance to the bathroom causing us to step over him and lift Millar over him to get to the toilet.
The toilet… wow. I would have been able to avoid the toilet on a four hour train trip – but with a four year old boy, this is not possible. The metal squat “toilet” surrounds a hole over the tracks. Delightful. Here is a photo – be glad you can’t smell it.
I don’t want to talk about the marks on the wall or the wet floor so we’ll move on.
There is no announcement to tell you what station you are approaching so one has to keep their eye out. Luckily I am already aware of that so am keeping a look out for Agra Cantt Station.
The aroma that greets us at the station is a pungent one of feces and urine. With Xanthe on my back and Millar’s hand gripped tightly in mine, I walk briskly, breathing through my mouth and trying not to vomit. Dad and his wife follow behind with the luggage.
We find the exit thanks to the help of others, as it is only marked in Hindi. Finding our driver we scramble into the air conditioned Toyota Innova and laugh at our adventure. “Well, I can tick that off my list” I say. I am glad the train trip is over.
We are in Agra. We have arrived. Tomorrow we see the Taj Mahal.