The second weekend following our return from Dharamsala, the group was itching for another adventure. We had all enjoyed a little respite in Jaipur with home cooked meals and chai three times a day, but a short break from school work and a change of scenery was definitely now in order. As we were all in the process of deciding which direction to head out in, I heard that my roommate from Richmond, Georgia, who also happens to be studying abroad in India this semester in a program in New Delhi, was planning to visit the Taj Mahal that weekend. Hoping against hope that I might get to meet up with her, I decided to accompany the group of 8 other students going to Agra. The rest of the students in the group were all newbie students – none of the other pre-session girls I was used to travelling with, so I was excited to get to know them all better!
We set out at 5 am on Saturday, taking a train to arrive in the city by around 11 that morning. It was the first time any of the new students had ridden on the train so I felt a bit like a mother duckling shepherding her chicks around as I took them to the right platform and helped us all find our seats. We arrived in Agra without any hassle and lassoed up a few auto rickshaws to take us to our hotel. Driving through the streets of Agra, I was pretty unimpressed. It was just as noisy and at least twice as dirty as Jaipur and seemed to be catering primarily to tourists, not surprisingly. But our hotel was very lovely, with a rooftop restaurant which offered my very first view of the most famous monument to love ever created – the Taj Mahal. One of India’s ancient Mogul rulers built the Taj as a memorial and tomb for his favorite wife and was later buried there himself. I must say that despite my poor first impression, the Taj made the trip to Agra completely worth it though at present I’ll save my description for a few lines down the page.
After lunch and a short rest, we headed off for an afternoon of site-seeing. Our first stop was the Red Fort, Agra’s second most popular attraction. Though not as impressive as the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur in my opinion, the Red Fort is certainly a beautiful palace, with many stories of great historical interest milling about its corridors. The inner courtyard garden was my favorite part, both because it was utterly gorgeous and also because the little chipmunk-squirrels found all over India were so used to people there that they would come and eat right out of your hand! They were positively adorable creatures and left me quite smiley and giddy and seriously wishing I could bring one home. The Red Fort also offers a stunning view of the Taj from a distance, made doubly attractive by the wide river flowing alongside the two monuments.
We then left the fort and made our way towards the gleaming white beauty in the distance. After waiting in line for about 15 minutes and paying a rather exorbitant foreigners fee of 750 rupees compared to the Indian nationals fee of 20 rupees, we had finally reached the outer gate to the Taj. Despite having seen countless pictures and even catching distance glimpses from the top of my hotel and the Red Fort, nothing could have prepared me for the splendor of the striking white marble rising up before my eyes as I walked through that gate. You could palpably feel the collective admiration emanating from hundreds of people, both Indians and foreigners alike, gazing up in wonder. I felt very small and very young sitting in the shadow of its great and layered past. We spent about two hours wandering through the surrounding gardens and making a few trips inside to see the two tombs resting in the dark interior. We watched the sun set tranquilly from the top steps and only made our way out when it started to get dark. All in all, it was a truly brilliant experience and I am so glad I’ve been lucky enough to see one of the many great wonders of this world! We spent a relaxing evening at the hotel, sitting on the roof eating delicious Indian food, having a few beers and getting to know each other a little better.
The next morning we set out to explore some of the more well known bazaars around Agra, though the shopping was sub-par compared to Jaipur. We finally decided to get some lunch and I very enthusiastically suggested we head to the McDonalds in the center of town (anyone who knows me in the slightest may find this very strange and out of character but you will soon why). Walking into that small, unassuming McDonalds in Agra I made perhaps the biggest spectacle of myself I have yet to make in India. Imagine, please, two very enthusiastic, very noticeably American (one of whom is very blonde), very squealy girls rushing towards each other at full steam ahead, colliding in the middle of a very crowded restaurant and proceeding to jump up and down vigorously while hugging. Now add in happiness vibes multiplied by a million and you have the reunion of George and Marv (aka Georgia Sills and Mary Brickle). It was wonderful beyond words to see my lovely Richmond roommate Georgia! We sat and exchanged stories for about half an hour as her group finished eating and it made me so exquisitely happy to see a familiar face that I was walking on sunshine for the rest of the day. The train ride home that evening offered another chance to talk to people I was missing in my life as my family called and chatted for a good hour. Apparently at some point during the ride home that evening there was an earthquake which had an epicenter near Sikkim, which is considerably far north but apparently you could feel it all the way in Agra so I’m guessing the motion of the train kept me from noticing anything. When we finally made it back to Jaipur we were all exhausted and had to be up early the next morning to head out for a three day field trip with school so after Rama-Ji stuffed me full of food and sent me upstairs I very graciously climbed into my bed, noting with a smile how nice it felt to be able to call someplace in India home.