Hundreds of tuk-tuk and rickshaw drivers wait outside of the train station in Agra. They see me coming from a mile away. A rickshaw driver tells me he’ll take me to the Taj Mahal for 150 rupees ($2), which seems reasonable for hauling me 10 kilometers on a bicycle. Then a tuk-tuk driver interjects that he’ll take me for 100 rupees, and besides, it’s much faster. I consider this and decide it seems like the better option. I start following him to his tuk-tuk and after about 10 steps, he whips out his laminated tour price list and starts trying to sell me various tour packages. I decide the rickshaw is the better option after all and start trying to lose the guy. He follows me all around the parking lot, trying to convince me to purchase a tour. Eventually I circle around back to the rickshaw driver and tell him I’ll pay the 150. At this point there’s six guys shouting at me to go with the tuk-tuk driver and buy a tour. We’re on the verge of physical violence but somehow I manage to push through and hop into the rickshaw. The rickshaw driver forces his way out of the crowd and we set off for the Taj Mahal.
I thought the traffic in Hanoi was bad but nothing could have prepared me for the roads of India. The streets are shared by bicycles, pedestrians, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, cars, cows, trucks, mules, dogs—you name it. The cacophony of horns and engines is deafening. The exhaust fumes make your eyes water and your nose sting. Drivers muscle for every inch of pavement, accelerating suddenly, swerving, and driving against traffic. I’m feeling very fragile sitting on the back of this bicycle. At one point the rickshaw’s chain comes loose and the driver stops in the middle of the road, hops off the bike, and spends about a minute getting the chain back on while frenzied drivers blare past us. Then he keeps going as if nothing happened and asks if I’d like to buy a tour package.
Eventually we arrive at the road to the Taj and I thank the driver for the experience. He laughs and starts biking the 30 minutes back to the train station.
On the road to the Taj, I pass by several people who follow me and beg to be my guide. They persist even after I tell them no and try to walk away. As I understand it, these are official guides hired by the local government, because otherwise they wouldn’t be let inside. It’s an interesting culture where even the official tour guides sell their services so hard. I wonder if the Indian tourists find this behavior as insufferable as I do.
At the entrance to the Taj Mahal, even more “touts” wait for me. They can smell my hesitation as I read the list of items allowed inside, and see that the only electronics allowed are cameras and cell phones (which must be turned off). I still have all my luggage (well, a small backpack, but I have a laptop inside) and I’m trying to decide whether I should rent a locker or drop my stuff off at the hostel and come back. Five or six guys swarm around me, all offering to buy the tickets for me and telling me what I can and cannot bring inside. The frustration of this rule that I can’t bring my laptop inside and all these people shouting at me is too much and I decide to just start walking away from there.
Agra is not a pedestrian-friendly place. There are no usable sidewalks here. I don’t like to walk in the street anywhere, but in Agra it’s the worst. It’s extremely stressful because you constantly have to avoid getting whacked by oncoming traffic, and the drivers are completely unpredictable. Meanwhile you’re melting in the oppressive heat. Now, if it was just these factors, I could probably deal with it. But on top of all this, as a foreigner, you’re incessantly pestered by tuk-tuk drivers begging to give you a ride. These people seem to think that “No” means “Yes! I want a ride!” They’ll drive beside you for 50 meters shouting at you to hop in. I tried walking on the other side of the road but some of these guys will drive in oncoming traffic to sell their services. It’s a tragic situation. As a tourist, you quickly become conditioned to ignore anything the locals have to say.
I walked all around Agra that day. I really can’t recommend the place, unless you like tacky tourist traps with a side of extreme poverty. It’s one thing for a city like Paris or Amsterdam to be touristy, because that’s expected. But when I’m traveling to the other side of the world and every shop and restaurant is for tourists, it feels like I’m the last to learn about an open secret. The best decision I made all day was to turn off the main street onto one of the little side alleys. It was like piercing through the touristy veil and into the real Agra. This was where people actually lived. While dilapidated, the interior of Agra was far more inviting than the cheesy surface. I passed by many people who seemed genuinely excited to see me, especially the kids. When they asked where I was going, they were satisfied when I said I was just exploring. The road is covered in potholes and garbage so you have to look down to avoid stepping in something, but at one point I looked up and was shocked to find myself face to face with a monkey. The girl walking behind me thought I was crazy.
Eventually I reached my hostel. I was so drenched in sweat at this point that the guy at the desk thought it was raining outside. When I told him it was sweat he broke down in laughter. He showed me to my room and I said hello to my roommates. It was around noon at this point and I explained to them that I had been awake for 36 hours. I told them that the only way I knew of to beat jetlag was to power through it and stay awake until nighttime in the new timezone. I fell asleep about 10 minutes later.
After 12 hours, I’m awake and starving. The earliest open restaurant in Agra is called Joney’s Place. Walking around Agra at 4:30 am is infinitely preferable to walking during the day. It’s slightly cooler and most of the tuk-tuk drivers aren’t awake yet. It’s amazing to see all the sleeping animals, especially the horses which sleep standing up. I order a feast of a breakfast at Joney’s Place, and after a 400% tip it’s still less than 10 dollars.
I wander around the alleys for a couple hours, taking advantage of the morning light for photography. Eventually I head back to the hostel and take a nap. At lunchtime I check out this place called Bon Barbecue, which is a 5 minute walk from the hostel. I’m the only customer but there are at least 10 waiters standing around. Indian barbecue consists of skewers of chicken, mutton (lamb), fish, prawns, and more chicken. No beef, of course. After the skewers came the main course, a huge buffet of Indian curries, breads, and rice. Many people go vegetarian while traveling in India, but they are really missing out.
I head back to take a nap and plan to see an abandoned city 30 km outside of Agra afterwards. The nap ends up lasting 10 hours. So much for beating jetlag.
My train to Jaipur was departing at 5:00 am so waking up early wasn’t a bad thing. The guy at the front desk arranges a tuk-tuk to take me to the railway station. Even though it’s 3:30 am, there are still lots of people standing around waiting for trains. After 90 minutes of curious glances (I’m the only foreigner on the platform) my train arrives and I depart for Jaipur. I reflect upon how I saw neither the Taj Mahal nor the Agra Fort while in Agra. I guess that makes me a bad tourist.