It didn’t make any sense to me… someone would drive us for many hours and then put us on a train for the final three hours. Why not just drive us to Agra? A country famous for mysticism and faith is a tough place for the analytical. While it didn’t seem to make sense, I was excited to get out of the bubble for a few hours and experience this “real” India I had been reading about and glimpsing through the windows of an air-conditioned SUV. C liked the bubble. I hadn’t appreciated how freaked out he was until I wandered off to take photos in the train station and he chastised me. It was just a train station, not a bazaar. I wasn’t jumping out of the jeep to pet a baby lion (believe me, it is REALLY tempting but you SHOULD NOT 😉
Lots has been written about the poverty in India and it is heartbreaking. What is disturbing is the extreme wealth and the extreme poverty living side by side in different centuries. It was the part of the trip I could never wrap my head around. As a tourist, it is tough to know what to do. I do research and try to support organizations that employ local people and tip generously. It was young ambitious Africans who taught me what people really want is not charity but a good job (and possibly to make out with you 🙂
Count your blessings. It is what I think every day at home but travelling in the more challenging parts of the world just brings home the point in such a poignant way. We are all accidents of our birth. It irritates me to no end when people born in privileged countries feel a sense of entitlement to their good fortune. But not everyone is so unenlightened. I have been travelling like crazy this year so there are many stories still to come but I was in Romania last week and stayed up until 4:30am discussing life with someone who thought he might like to emigrate to Canada. It was obviously an interesting conversation but the one point that really warmed my heart was how he appreciated having been born in Romania rather than South Sudan. It’s all relative.
As is the train station in Jahnsi. There is no question an Indian train station is an intimidating place. I think many of them are the same. You enter a decaying Victorian building, like visiting a 110 year old former beauty queen in a nursing home. But inside there is only chaos. It’s hot. There are oodles of people of all ages in various states of slumber and attire. We had arrived WAY too early so spent a couple of hours just hanging around, mostly in the SUV without the air conditioning.
We engaged in another Monty Python sketch with our driver. Once we discovered how early we were, we began chatting with the driver about finding a nice hotel bar or equivalent where we could have a drink, chill in air conditioning and use a nice toilet before we got on the train. We had this conversation several times, trying to change the syntax sufficiently to get him to understand our request… but to no avail. We had gone off-script and he couldn’t figure out what we were nattering about. Being totally spoiled western brats… most of the people waiting for trains were sitting or sleeping on the floor in the steaming train station.
We were hanging out in our bubble until we got on a first class train. But we had been on the road a long time and we really needed a bathroom. Apparently there are no public bathrooms in Indian train stations. I have always considered indoor plumbing and proper sanitation as luxuries but India gave me a whole new level of appreciation. I will not supply too many graphic details. I will never be able to do reality TV because I refuse to eat live insects for sport but I have a pretty strong stomach for discarded toilet paper, flies and stench (just hold your breath as long as possible!). I always thought peeing in a pitch black pit toilet near the bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand was going to be my worst toilet experience – but I had yet to experience a “luxury toilet” in India 😉
What the hell IS a luxury toilet? Obviously, the adjective is not well understood in India 🙂 First, you had to pay of course. Not paying to use the toilet is a kind of North American luxury so I always carry small coins in local currency. Ever the girl scout, I had to pay for C as well. If you haven’t travelled a lot you might not appreciate that the western flush toilet is a lot less common than you realize. Most of the world squats over a hole. I’ve had plenty of practice so that wasn’t a problem. Normally though the hole is a similar size to the bowl of a flush toilet. But not when you go luxury! I have no idea WHAT the designer was thinking… I hate people who can afford to pee indoors? It’s possible I was just doing it wrong – but there was a tiny cylindrical hole that I assumed you were supposed to aim for. Good luck. Needless to say, that just results in backsplash and the most disgusting toilet experience of my life. Always carry wipes and hand sanitizer when you travel! What was funny though was that when I went to the sink to clean up I saw there was also a western flush toilet around a corner. So, when paying for a luxury toilet, check carefully before choosing your stall! 🙂
The most extraordinary part of the trip was boarding the train. I had packed light and had a backpack. C’s backpack had wheels. It didn’t really
matter. It was an old Victorian building full of stairs and long halls filled with people so luggage was carried. Our wonderful driver had engaged a porter to assist us. When the time finally arrived, the porter tied his scarf into a luggage rack on the top of his head and hoisted both suitcases onto it and then gracefully walked through the train station with two backpacks on his head.
Standing on the platform freaked C out. An Indian train is unlike anything I have yet seen. We met an Australian expat living in France with an adopted Chinese daughter at the camp in Bandhavgarth. She had been in India before as a young woman but it was her daughter’s first trip. They were taking trains. She said her daughter had been scared in Delhi about boarding the train. When I saw the trains come though the station, I totally understood. The 1st class train was fine. Nothing terribly special but we had a reserved seat and the train was clean. In other classes, it is a totally different experience. People are crowded in and out of the cars and there are bars on the windows. It looks like the passengers are being involuntarily transported to a place they don’t want to go but it is normal travel for the vast majority of the population.
Our driver and porter loaded us onto the train and said goodbye. Our driver said he would miss us. I would miss him. He had taken excellent care of us and shepherded us through our “real” adventure so that it felt more like a ride in Disneyland than any intrepid journey through the sub-continent.
And before long, we were in Agra! From the “luxury toilet” to a five star luxury hotel. The kind of place with a choice of cuisine and a shopping mall among other features. It was technically C’s birthday for a few more hours so I took him to the trendy looking bar for a cocktail. The cocktails took an incredibly long time to make but at least they tasted fine when they arrived. I can’t say the same for the chicken satay. I’ve learned by experience to be wary of ordering a Caesar salad or nachos outside of North America but the satay countries were right next door. I live in Canada so never eat the same type of cuisine for days on end so was excited to have a change from the “mystery Indian food for westerners” I had been consuming for two weeks. DON’T do it! Just eat Indian food in India. I don’t know WHAT they did to that poor chicken but it was so disgusting I couldn’t eat more than a couple of skewers. Luckily I’d taken C for a nice Indian birthday dinner in the hotel the night before because I knew we were arriving in Agra very late.
And would then have to be up really early the next morning to beat the crowds! By that point I had just accepted I was ready to be brainwashed by the cult due to sleep deprivation.
The Taj Mahal!!! C hadn’t even bothered to see it on his first trip to India because he only cares about tigers but the travel agent had done me a solid and I was going to finally see it. I have seen almost all of those things… the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, Angor Wat, ETC… the list is almost complete… but the Taj is one of the most famous. It’s like the Pyramids. There is a lot of buildup and anticipation. Apparently some Indians weep when they see it.
First you go through an irritating entry procedure. Then the guide didn’t give me my souvenir ticket even though I had paid for it (C thought she was using it again later in the day). She did give an informative history of the mausoleum though and it was nice to hear about an Indian man who really loved his wife as opposed to seeing her as chattel. It is a spectacular building. What is spectacular are the details – the symmetry, the materials, the intricate inlaid gemstones. It’s full of tourists taking selfies but you should go. It’s less exciting though than some of the other spectacular sights in the world so, if you can’t do them all, I would likely go to Bangkok (Grand Palace) or Siem Reap (Angkor Wat).
We also visited the Agra Fort, which is also worthwhile. Sandstone forts seem to be an Indian thing so you likely don’t need to visit too many but this one is impressive. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and Akbar sounds like a good guy.
Luxury toilets to the Taj Mahal… India is a land of great contrast. The Taj is better 😉