Thursday, 9 March 2017

#5 Trains, thali and the Taj

The next morning I was woken by the sound of people singing.

It was like some kind of Bollywood movie except without the dancing.

I was on another overnight train. This time to Agra. Home of the Taj Mahal.

The lovely old aunties I was sitting with must have noticed I didn't have any food with me as the train was running six hours late so they bought me chai and offered me some kind of strange savoury spicy cake and lemon muffins. I was so touched. A little boy even offered me one of his chocolate wafer bars.

Everywhere I've been people have gone out of their way to be incredibly kind. Except when it comes to money. If money is involved then they are ruthless. I guess that's the same in all countries.

So I arrived midday in Agra and took a rickshaw to my accomodation, had a quick wash and took a rickshaw, or tuktuk as they call them in the north, back into the main part of town to a cafe I had read about in the Lonely Planet that promised good, cheap Thali (a combination of vege curry, rice, a lentil dish and naan) and a nice atmosphere.

I was just about to walk up the stairs when a large Indian man with crooked teeth approached me and wanted to know where I got my earrings and ring from. I was a bit suspicious because that to me sounded a bit like the beginning of a mugging.

I told him they were just cheap from New Zealand and then he wanted to take a photo of them. I was still a bit suspicious but I told myself there was no harm in that unless he had some cunning plan that I wasn't clever enough to forsee. He told me he was a jewellery designer from Goa and was just interested in new designs from around the world. I don't know whether to believe half these stories but let him go ahead and take the photo.

He shook my hand and followed me upstairs to the cafe asking all sorts of other questions. He told me his name was Ali and that I had good energy. He and Mr Travel Agent both said that. I think it's the beginning of a typical sales pitch. Or perhaps I'm too cynical.

I wonder how many other tourists let their guards down with that flattery? I wasn't falling for it. Any way Ali went on to tell me he had spent a lot of time in the Himalayas with his grandfather disconnected from modern life so had developed a sort of sixth sense.

"You have an honest heart," he said.
"But your brain is too busy. You should do yoga and meditation."

He then asked how long ago I'd broken up with my boyfriend because he could see some kind of romantic hurt in me. I told him fortunately he had missed the mark on that one. I wasn't one of those a heart broken solo female travellers on a journey of self discovery this time thank you very much.

He also had a friend who could take me to the gardens across the river from the Taj Mahal that afternoon for a good price. I was still guarded but my instinct told me he was honest and to stop being so paranoid.

So I agreed for his friend to drive me in his rickshaw to the Taj gardens. And he kept to his word. His friend took me there and back and helped me find some fresh papaya I had been craving on the way home. All is well that ends well!

The Taj Mahal was beautiful. It's such a strange feeling seeing something in the flesh, or should I say marble, after seeing so many pictures as a child and thinking it seemed so exotic and far away.

I was wandering around the gardens and began to feel a that little niggling loneliness that you get sometimes when travelling solo. 

It usually hits me at all the big sights and I began to think how nice it would be to share these experiences with someone even if they are someone you've just met and only spend the day with. But it's not an unfamiliar feeling and I knew it would pass so I focussed on the Taj and it's astounding beauty.

I sat down in the shade of a tree for a bit to have a drink and to take it all in.

A friendly local girl gestured for me to sit next to her. She only spoke Hindi and I only English and a few words in Hindi so neither of us had a clue what each other was saying but I gathered she was asking if I was sad because I was on my own. Indian people are incredibly intuitive. 

We sat for a while in the shade looking at the Taj Mahal chatting in our own language and laughing because it was a pointless exercise. I should have, on reflection, read out some Hindi words from the language chapter of the Lonely Planet but I didn't think of it at the time. As I was leaving a little boy ran up to me.

"Photo?" he said.

Sadly I had absolutely nothing to give him except money and I have a strong stance against giving money to children. Giving to a charity that can make a lasting difference is a better option in my opinion. Instead of getting upset he gave me a flower and ran off. 

This country breaks my heart.

View of the ol Taj itself from Taj Bagh (gardens) across the river. March 6, 2017

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