Agra, India. Yesterday we trained from Jaipur to Agra, and we were lucky enough to have a compartment for two, all to ourselves. Two notable events: our coolie at Jaipur Junction carried our 55-pound suitcase on his head up the escalator, across the track overpass, and down to our train, into our carriage. Made us feel like real wimps, but god bless him. The second event of note was that the Domino’s pizzas we ordered online the day before actually were waiting for us at a stop halfway through the trip. And hot! What service!!
It took us only about five minutes during the taxi ride from the train station to our hotel in Agra to realize that we had arrived at the Las Vegas of India. Being the main travel destination in the country means that there is a huge glittery and – dare I say – vulgar strip of every hotel brand known and unknown, and an enormous number of people milling around. This is a real scene.
We got in late and settled into our very comfortable beds at the Radisson Blu, blessedly off the strip, and supposedly very close to the main attraction in Agra.
Not having the strength to tackle that today, we instead went 40 km south to see Fatehpur Sikki, once the capital of the Mughal Empire, from 1571 to 1585, built by the famous emperor Akbar.
The story goes that when the British came to Fatehpur Sikri in 1583, they were amazed to see a city many times larger than London of that day, filled with more grandeur and more jewels than they could count. (They eventually rectified this inability to properly inventory the goodies of India.)
The complex is still beautiful, but its life as a capital was short, due to the lack of a reliable source of sufficient water. As a ghost town, it remained remarkably intact.
What is also impressive is the religious tolerance that Akbar practiced, integrating Muslim, Hindu and even Christian beliefs here.
The entrance garden is designed to impress, and the Hall of Private Audiences gives you the spirit of the place right away. It is supported by one single carved column, with a combination of Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist imagery.
Pleasure palaces for both winter and summer surround the complex, with remarkably intact carved sandstone columns and walls. Every season must have been a delight here. The stable area was immense, and the “Pachesi” Courtyard is where the emperor played this early variant of Parchesi with his concubines as living game pieces.
The women’s palace (aka harem) was also lovely, with a large private courtyard and the faithful eunuchs’ residence right outside. Oh, the intrigues….
We got a peek at the gate of the fortress where elephants entered, and the tower commemorating the spot where Akbar’s favorite elephant died. Not sure he was actually buried there…
Many lovely moments in this monument to engineering genius and eastern design. My relatives were living in huts at this point in history, so one has to admire the legacy left by Akbar.
Then we proceeded to the religious part of the city. The Jama Masjid mosque has India’s second largest courtyard and is still an active site of worship, designed to hold 10,000 people. The saint Shaikh Salim Chisti is buried here, along with his family members.
Don’s Food Corner
There’s more to Jo’s account of ordering pizza from Domino’s via an internet site that promises delivery when the train you are on pulls into a station that you select for your order. Frustratingly, the internet site requires that you give them an Indian cell number or it won’t accept the order. Since we only have an international cell number and one that is accessible only via a call to the U.S., I had to fill in the space on the form with a valid Indian cell number. So, I looked down my list of Indian cell numbers and found the number of a tuk-tuk driver in Mumbai and put that in. Did Domino’s call him up to confirm the order?
I was amazed then that the pizza actually showed up during the three-minute stop at the station we had designated. And it was hot! I looked out the door of our car and there was the kid in a blue Domino’s jacket. I waved him over. He ran the delivery bag over to me. I handed him the money as the train was pulling out. He tried to refuse the tip I had given him, but I pressed it on him and soon we were gone.
Later, after we had eaten the pizza, I had to get rid of the cardboard boxes and the delivery bag. I took it to the end of the train car where there is usually a trash bin. On this train, however, there was no trash bin. The steward in charge of the car took the paper bag with its cardboard contents from me. I thought that he had knowledge of a place to put it. And he did. He opened the door of the fast-moving train and threw it out onto the tracks. Out of sight, out of mind? And we wonder why there are mounds of rubbish everywhere in India.
As we might have mentioned before, you cannot drink public water from any faucet in India. You have to drink everything from bottled water. (You are also supposed to be careful to keep your lips closed when taking a shower. Some people suggest you swirl antiseptic mouthwash while showering, but we have not gone that far.) As you can imagine, all that bottled water creates a surfeit of empty single-use plastic water bottles. They are everywhere! Piled high at the side of roads. I was amazed, therefore, when I read last week that India is one of the world’s largest recipients of American recycled plastic and metals. Huh? Need some used plastic in India? Just scoop it up from the sides of the road. Otherwise, in about ten years, India will be wallowing waist-high in plastic water bottles. (Would it be cheaper to clean up the public water and make it potable? Or is that impossible?) There seems to be no recycling attempt here. Just drop the plastic and all other trash to the ground whenever you’re done with it.
The only meals we’ve had since our train-ride pizza have been hotel breakfast and a late lunch when we returned from our excursion to Fatehpur Sikri to the hotel. We made no attempt to search out any place special, as we were in the care of a guide and a driver. Jo was delighted to find pizza on the “multinational” menu. She figured that if they went to the trouble and expense of building a wood-fired oven, that she should reward that effort. And yes, it was too large to finish.
I opted for the buffet that offered an odd combination of Chinese, British, American and Indian dishes. I tried to limit myself to the Indian choices — some lentil dal, a vegetable curry, a strangely pale paneer dish and some rice and bread. Not bad, a little bland, perhaps on purpose so not to offend the almost entirely Western hotel guests. There was a pot full of rogan josh (lamb curry) but it was swimming in grease so I passed on it. You have to be careful with these buffet offerings without knowing how long the food has been sitting there.
Tomorrow, we’ll look for more variety.