On the Road and off to Agra

If you’re still with me on this journey – thank you. The combination of poor internet access and my having caught a whooper of a cold in the Thar Desert delayed this post. Enjoy – and I’m on the mend!

On Wednesday (Day 2) we were up early and off to Agra with a new driver “Raj”, who will be with us until Udaipur. We didn’t have any say in who our driver would be, but are so glad we are in his hands. Raj is our driver, not a certified guide, as are the city guides provided by Journey Sutra, but clearly loves what he does, and enjoys sharing his knowledge about Delhi, and Jaipur where he is from. On the way to Agra we stopped at a rest area on the“super fast” road (according to Raj) for coffee and masala chai. After all we’d heard about toilet facilities, it turned out that this public toilet wasn’t bad at all, though it did look like someone had climbed on the seat to squat as in a traditional toilet in India. The other note here is that despite all the advice to carry tissues for toilet use, there’s been either a roll or an attendant pretty much everywhere – though the tissues have come in handy for frequent nose-blowing due to dust.

The transport trucks, of which we’re seeing plenty, are painted in bright colors and have large black tassels (against the evil eye) and multi-colored streamers hanging from the antenna wires and mirror frames. We passed a roadside stall selling these truck decorations, and I’m tempted to bring one home to help identify our car in a large parking lot!

After arriving in Agra and checking into the Taj Resort, a purpose-built small hotel with a view of the Taj Mahal in the distance, we met our new guide “Kalpana,” our “lady guide.” Journey Sutra has had a local rep at each new city to review our plans and discuss any changes. We dropped our bags off, and then Kalpana took charge and off we went to the market for a tonga ride (horse-drawn cart); CW in front, me in back with Kalpana where it was very hard to see from under the canopy – but the market was still interesting and different from the congested and chaotic Chandi Chowk in Delhi.

Then, to visit a place that is probably recognizable the world over – the Taj Mahal. At first, it truly seemed like a backdrop, it was so perfectly proportioned and so familiar from the many photos and films in which we’ve seen it. It took more than a few minutes to simply absorb and then settle in to a quiet frame of mind. The crowds weren’t terrible. We were there for the sunset, which didn’t really change the color of the tomb – but it was peaceful to sit on a wall and watch the people and the nuanced changes in the white marble. We walked out through the south gate as it was closing, emerging into a narrow village lane, to get lassi (a yogurt based drink about which more later) at “Johny’s” – a real hole in the wall. Kalpana organized a tuk tuk lift back to the car – after the 2 men in the back moved to the front, there were 6 of us in the tuk tuk – a small 3-wheeled vehicle that we’ve seen versions of now from Vietnam and Thailand, to India. The ride cost 30 rupees – about 60 cents.

We’re sure to get more adventurous as the weeks go by, but for dinner, we took Kalpana’s advice and went to dinner at “Pinch of Spice,” where she and her family like to eat. It was good Indian food, upscale but popular with locals as well. Portions were huge. Dinner was followed by a mouth-freshening chaser – a “paan shot,” made of betelnut juice – very refreshing but a little medicinal.

A little more about Agra, and then how about some pictures instead of words? The next morning we got up before sunrise to go and see the Taj Mahal from the “backside” – it was very misty, trash seemed to be swept into piles to make it easy for the cows, dogs and goats to rummage through, and people are living in tents of plastic along the roadside. Barbed wire keeps you from going near the river – but we saw a pale Taj Mahal floating above the river bank. The rising sun turned the sky soft pink lifting to blue, and altogether peaceful. At a small stall at the corner of path towards the river we had masala chai (we watched the stall keeper grind the spices and then boil up the delicious spiced tea…)and channa masala (a breakfast dish made with black chick peas). Kalpana was so cheerful, and laughingly issued orders to people she wanted to get things done with – it felt like she knew everyone in Agra.

Agra’s Red Fort is stunningly beautiful – and I’ll have to stop commenting on how old everything is! I accept that India is like a river – it flows and renews itself and has been doing so for thousands of years.

After a “real” breakfast at the hotel, Kalpana took us to Nevi Ram, a famous Agra sweet shop where we bought gajar kA (carrot) halwa, a Punjabi dessert – delicious in small portions!

An incredible stop on the way to Jaipur was Chand Baori – a stepwell built in about 800 AD. An early and successful piece of water conservation engineering. By early evening we arrived in Jaipur and checked into the General’s Retreat, where the bed was “Maharajah” sized – big enough for three! Marble everywhere, and so far, no tubs. Here are a few photos of highlights so far.

Agra Hotel: Taj Resort http://www.hoteltajresorts.com
Agra Restaurant: Pinch of Spice http://www.pinchofspice.in/about.php

Taj at Sunrise

Taj at Sunrise

Taj Mahal Detail

Taj Mahal Detail

Chai Walla

Chai Walla

Chand Baori Stepwell

Chand Baori Stepwell

Stepwell Detail

Stepwell Detail

Carrot Dessert

Carrot Dessert