Once I get in a conversation with someone about my time in India, I am usually asked "where have you been in India". Up until now, I had only been able to say that I stayed within New Delhi and Gurgaon. This past weekend, I went to Agra which is famous for the Taj Mahal.
On Thursday, while driving to visit family in Ghaziabad (in Uttar Pradesh), we somehow got on the topic of where I had been and whether or not I had been to Agra before. Rather than ending where the conversation had ended in the past when I said I hadn't been, my host parents started formulating a plan to go see it this weekend or the following weekend. The only concern was getting permission for me to go from AFS since they need to know when I leave the Delhi region. Since Agra is a very popular tourist destination and AFS already plans on taking us at the end of the program, we didn't foresee any issues getting the permission. As expected, getting the permission was painless; it was obtained in a 2 minute phone call from my host mom to Vyom. The next step was getting a hotel room which we managed to do despite the whole trip being last-minute. The rest of the day went by very quickly with all the Diwali celebrations going on. By the end of it, I was pretty much falling asleep during the final rounds of the card games which lasted until 12:30 am. Muskaan and I decided to pack for Agra the same night so that we would be ready to go in the morning. As I have already told Muskaan, she is the most organized packer I have witnessed. I am used to seeing Katherine stuff all of her belongings into her duffel bag in no particular order every time we switch from my mom's house to my dad's or vice versa, but Mus had a written plan of what she would wear and when in order to match our schedule. Despite the high level of organization, it was 1:30 am by the time I finally sunk into the mattress and fell asleep. We had decided to wake up the next morning at 6:30am so we would have time to shower but it was closer to 7 by the time we actually got out of bed. We had leftover Instapizza for breakfast and were ready to get going. I saw Cherry (the neighbor's French Bulldog) that morning and couldn't resist stopping to pet her for a little before actually getting in the car.
It took about 4 hours to get from Gurgaon to Agra by way of the Yamuna Expressway. I must say that road trips are much more enjoyable/relaxing when you aren't travelling with a younger brother and sister, I actually managed to sleep for a good chunk of the trip. The time I spent awake was just as nice. The expressway was pretty much just a straight road so the inner NASCAR driver came out of my host dad a few times along the way when we couldn't see any CCTV cameras in distance. When we stopped for a break 2 hours into the trip, we had brunch and visited the gift shop. I did not buy anything because the prices clearly reflected the fact that the target consumer was a tourist who had no idea of the true value of the items. Some of the jewelry was 3 or 4 times the cost you would pay at a market like Janpath. Even though I am also a foreigner, I still couldn't help but look at the others. There was one guy who Muskaan dubbed as 'Maggi Hair' because his curly blond hair looked like a plate of masala noodles. Agra marks the other end of the Yamuna Expressway, and we arrived at around 1pm. The hotel was only about 3km from the Taj Mahal and was really nice. After all the formalities of checking in as a foreigner (passport and visa check), we made our way to the rooms on the third floor. We could see the 1st floor outdoor pool with the Taj in the background from the window in the hallway. It was such a great view and was the first time I laid my eyes on the iconic masterpiece. The pool, but not the Taj, were visible from the hotel rooms. My host mom and dad shared one room and Muskaan and I shared the other a couple doors down the hall. We settled in and waited for a plan to be made for the day. As I ate the complimentary chocolate chip cookie, Muskaan sat on the other side of the desk reading from the guest services book. I think all hotels have these books but does anyone ever really read them? Long story short, we found the kids menu items very entertaining but got even more amused by their 'Careline' service. Careline was everywhere. Have any queries? Call Careline. Before you open the door of your hotel room, what should you do? Call Careline. I am not joking when I say the first step in their fire escape plan posted on the door is...you guessed it... Call Careline. Since then, it has become one of our inside jokes and whenever it's mentioned, neither of us can help but laugh.
Soon enough a second ring of our doorbell was heard and (without calling Careline) I opened the door to my host parents. The plan for the day was to relax for a while, go swimming and then go for dinner followed by a light and sound show at Agra Fort. Originally we were going to see the Taj that day, but we decided it would be better to go early the next morning to beat the crowd and the heat. Mus and I spent some time watching sports on the TV while laying in (a very comfortable) bed. After some time, I changed into my swim suit (which is called a swim costume here) and Muskaan and I went to the pool. While I swam, she studied Indian history. The inner lifeguard in me cringed when I saw a younger boy try to get in the pool with the rescue ring but luckily someone came out and directed them to the shallow end where the water was literally only 6 inches deep. I swam laps for a while and soon realized how out of shape I am. After I found where the towels were kept, I went with Muskaan back to our room for a shower and then we headed over to my host parents' room where my host dad, Mus and I all played Trivia Crack while laying in the bed. Trivia Crack became very addictive for us - whenever the notification came saying that it was our turn to play, we would immediately sit up and play the game. I didn't contribute much to answering the questions because the questions in Entertainment, History, and Geography categories were all related mostly to Indian facts. Muskaan proved to be very knowledgeable in the areas of Entertainment and History and is also pretty good at guessing the answer when no one is confident in any response.
Soon enough, it was time to head out for lunch. On the way to the restaurant we stopped at Panchi Petha to get some petha (pumpkin) sweets. This particular shop makes the best ones, so we got quite a few. After stopping there, we drove to an area that was filled with huge red signs adverising "Mama Chicken Mama Franky House" which was quite hysterical. We did not eat there, instead we went to a sit-down restaurant very close by. We had butter naan (highly recommend you try this) and chicken which was really nice and very filling.
We got back to the hotel at around 6, so we had just under an hour before we had to leave for the light and sound show. We thought the show started at 7:45, so we wanted time to get tickets and seats. We continued our game of Trivia Crack and then left for Agra Fort at 6:50ish. Since it only took about 10 minutes to drive there, we thought we would be pretty early for the show. There was a pretty sizable crowd at the front entrance and were happy we came early because we soon realized the show's timing had been moved up by 30 minutes to 7:15. Even at night, the fort was quite the sight. It is made from red sandstone and is massive. To enter the fort, you go cross a (empty) moat and two huge gates. We passed through a stretch of the fort which would have held the market twice a week for the women that lived there and were not generally allowed to leave at their leisure. The light and sound show took place in one of the yards of the fort and told the story of Agra through the time of the Mughal Dynasty. The history behind the fort and of Agra in general is quite impressive but I won't go too much into detail since it is something you can easily Google. The show took about an hour to finish and was well put-together.
After the show, we went out to eat again. Driving to the restaurant, we passed through a busy area that was also showered with lights. It was very crowded and I joked that if I had to drive in those conditions, my car would have a million scratches by the time I made it through. In the car, Muskaan gave me a lesson on how to pronounce Taj Mahal because Americans have learned it the wrong way haha. If I don't think about what I am saying, I still tend to mess it up. Despite the crowdedness, we made it to the restaurant. This time, I ordered one of my favorite veg Indian dishes: Pav Bhaji. On the way to the restaurant, we passed by Keventers, a famous milkshake place of Delhi. I had not gone there before, so we decided to go after dinner. From the street, it looked as though Keventers had closed. Just to be sure, we walked up to the store front and found that they were closing because the supply had run out. After some talking, we managed to get three milkshakes in the only flavor left: chocolate hazelnut. My host dad drank his right away while Muskaan and I waited until we got back to the hotel, 10 minutes from then. The milkshake was very delicious. It tasted very similar to Reese's candy (which is sadly not available in India).
After playing Trivia Crack, it was time for bed and we set our alarm for 5:30am the next morning so we could get to the Taj Mahal early. As always, we hit the snooze button until 6am when my host dad rung the doorbell to our room. We slid out of bed and got ready to go to the Taj within about 30 minutes. My host mom stayed behind to sleep since she has seen the Taj before, so it was just me, my host dad and Muskaan who went. The Taj Mahal was only about 10 minutes drive from the hotel. It seemed so surreal to input "Taj Mahal" into the GPS system and get a result so close to where we were. Mr. Paintal parked the car and we made our way to buy entry tickets. The tickets are quite cheap for Indian tourists, but Rs 1000 for every foreigner. We picked up our shoe covers and my complimentary water since I was a 'high value ticket holder'. As soon as we stepped outside, we were surrounded by bhaiyas who offered us Rickshaw rides down to the entrance of the Taj Mahal. We finally gave into one of their offers and ended up taking a ride in a horse drawn cart to the entrance. It was the closest I have been to riding a horse since I came to India. Riding there was a neat experience, and not something I expected to do that day.
We still had to walk a little ways to get to the actual entrance of the Taj, but along the way we passed quite a few shops and cafes, most of which were not open that early in the morning. All three of us had to go in separate lines to enter the Taj. The line for 'high value' (aka foreign) females was the longest of all 4 lines. Muskaan's was the shortest and my host dad's wasn't too long either. In the line, there were people from all over the world. The people in front of me were from Italy and Germany and the people behind me were from Malaysia. It is amazing to see how a wonder of the world can attract people from everywhere to one location. If only there was that sort of unification of cultures outside tourism. I finally made it through the line and into the area outside the Taj Mahal. Here, there was another gate to pass through but not before a bunch of pictures were taken by my host dad and sister. A lot of pictures were taken that day, but in the long run, I would want as many pictures as possible. As the saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words". The most amazing thing to see is the first time you the Taj becomes visible through the outline of the gate. Even that early in the morning, there was a crowd of people shuffling through the opening, but that did not make the view any less spectacular. Right past the gate is the best overall view of the Taj Mahal because you can see everything: the garden with it's fountains and the Taj. In the morning sun, the view was breathtaking. We slowly made our way down towards the Taj. We made it to the photography region (I call it that since this is where the hired photographers make the tourists pose). It was a little hilarious to watch the types of poses people were placed in. Some sat with their legs up on the bench, some with their arms spread wide open. But I am not really an exception to this crowd. As you'll see in the photos, I got the very touristy picture of me 'holding' the Taj Mahal. After that stop, we continued towards the Taj. We didn't hire a tour guide, but we still got some information just from overhearing the others talk to the tourists. I was lucky enough to have my host family take me, and they told me everything I needed to know. Once you get to the actual building of the Taj, you have to put on shoe covers so that you do as little damage as possible. We joined a mob of people headed up the stairs and I had to interlock arms with Muskaan so that I would not get lost in the commotion. Muskaan translated what the guard said: "Why are you in such a hurry, the Taj isn't going anywhere" (or something to that effect). It didn't take long before I could literally put my hand on the Taj Mahal. Seriously, it is crazy to think that only one year ago, I was looking at a picture of the Taj for my AP World History class, and now I was there in real life. No photography is allowed inside the Taj, but it is just as spectacular inside as it is on the outside. The carvings surrounding the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal were incredibly intricate and the flower decorations were beautifully done. Looking at the craftsmanship that goes into such a piece of art makes it clear why it took 21 years to complete. When we came out the back of the Taj, I was able to see the Yamuna River. The minarets around the building gleamed in the morning sun. We made our way to the front and laughed at a tourist who was doing stretches before finally assuming the 'namaste' pose for a photo. We walked back through the garden section of the Taj after taking off our foot covers. It was surprisingly green for being visited by so many people on a daily basis. I saw many different plants including the 'Beep Tree' to which I heard the people behind me start laughing while comparing the tree to a car's horn. I took a final look at the Taj before exiting the gate and captured a mental image I hope I will never forget.
On the way out, Muskaan and I got a picture peeping from the columns of the entrance gate structure (unfortunately I don't have that picture to share). By the time we left, there were a lot more people entering the Taj itself, but the line to enter through the first gate was virtually non-existent. The stores were also open by this point in the day, so we stopped and I got a miniature snow-globe and a marble turtle (to add to my mom's collection). My host dad also got a marble mortar and pestle for my host mom. We walked back to the parking lot and my host dad jogged to go get the car. We rushed a little bit when we realized there was only 1 more hour for the breakfast at the hotel to be open. My host dad woke up my host mom by calling her to tell her we were on the way and we met up with her at the hotel restaurant. She asked me all about my experience and whether or not my host dad and Muskaan were good tour guides (they were). We had a very filling breakfast and then went to relax until 12pm when it was time to check out from the hotel and go home.
Muskaan and I decided to go to the pool and dip our feet in the water. When it became too warm outside to continue, we decided to explore other parts of the hotel. First, we went past the spa and to the kids room. There, I practiced my driving skills on one of the kid's scooter things and shot some hoops using an inflatable soccer ball. It was quite fun actually, and I bet the security guards got a kick out of seeing the footage from that room too. After that we moved onto the fitness center where I did some running on the treadmill barefoot since I was wearing sandals. Muskaan was right next to me - we both reached the level 9 speed and then she spent the rest of the time 'cooling down' at a snail's pace. Before we knew it, my host mom called me and told me to meet her in the lobby because we had to check out.
We left around 12 and I was thankful to be out of the car at 4pm to go get lunch because the last stretch of roads we took made me feel nauseous. We went to Soul and Spice for lunch and the food there was amazing. Muskaan ordered her favorite egg biryani. I had bengali fish with rice which was really tasty. The food there was so nice, that we called out the chef to personally tell him how well it was prepared.
We got home soon after that and Muskaan tried to scare me by saying we forgot my sandals in Agra, but it didn't really cause me any concern. As it turns out, it was just a joke.
I had the most amazing time going to Agra with my family. I learned so much and really enjoyed visiting another part of India.
This weekend I am going on an AFS trip to Jodhpur! It really is a time of travel for me. I should be making a post about that shortly after I come back.
I had this post ready earlier but I am posting it today as a special way of saying HAPPY 18th BIRTHDAY MUSKAAN! I know you look forward to reading my posts, and this one took an especially long waiting period considering how long I 'worked on it'. I hope this one was worth the wait!
Hi! My name is Anna McKane. I am 16 years old and have had a pretty ordinary life up to this point. I believe this experience will change me for the better and I will try everything I can while I am abroad.