excitement to our trip. In my previous blog of Delhi, I forgot to mention the cows who are sacred and wander the streets as if they own the city. I sometimes felt that the cow was held in higher esteem than the human and I believe this to be the case. They were definitely better fed than many people I saw on the streets and cars would slow to let them pass while simultaneously trying to mow me down for daring to cross the road. But here we were on the motorway, in the dark, just outside Agra and there strolling along the middle of the motorway were three majestic cows and yes they owned the road. I ask the driver "What would happen if someone crashed into one of the cows?" and he told me it would mean a minimum of 10 years imprisonment and a 500,000 rupee fine which is approximately €670. Very different way of thinking from my agricultural irish home, I think.
We arrive into Agra and as we had arranged our own accommodation, which Róisín had unfortunately booked. It was, dare I say... another hostel. Before arriving I had googled alternative accommodation, just in case this was a repeat of Delhi. In my searching I had found a 5 star Marriott for the reasonable sum of €90 for 2 nights. Our driver picked up our tour operator who happened to live in Agra. The first question he asked us was why we had not gone for the accommodation package that his company had offered. We explained that our accommodation had been booked before we left Ireland and so we did not need that element of the tour. Additionally, he wanted to know how we had found this particular hostel and Róisín explained that it had great reviews. He drove us toward the building but we actually couldn’t get to the door as it was down another of those infamous alleys. Here ended our budget accommodation days as Róisín refused to get out of the car. I booked us into the Marriott where we arrived to a beautifully clean and luxurious suite. Now here is a particular oddity of rooms in up market hotels in India. In the wall between the bedroom and the bathroom there is a full picture window with a curtain that can be opened from the bath/shower. Why it is there my brain hasn’t the imagination to explore but an interesting little bit of trivia for you to mull over.
The Shower Window
On the first day in Agra we went to see the Red Fort which was a huge imposing structure spreading over 94 acres. It has seen many occupations spanning over the centuries, from Emperors until 1638 to its final occupants, the British, in 1803 before being returned to the Indian government in 1947. Its now purely a tourist attraction and we were guided through its vast rooms with details of the Emperor's delights and how the Harem worked. It seems once in the fort, the many wives were relative prisoners. The wives were never allowed to be together unsupervised. Each had their own room which opened out onto a communal courtyard. The courtyard was guarded by eunuchs so that no conversation went unheard and unreported. Smart, couldn’t have the wives vocalising the inadequacies of the emperor that might lead to the realization that the emperor was no God and a rebellion might be on the horizon. The emperor had access to each wife via a secret corridor directly to their rooms. This was a massive walled fort. Agra was a place where Róisín and I turned heads. It was a little unnerving to see people staring at us as if we were, as Róisín liked to put it, creatures in a Zoo. Personally, I did not mind as it was clear at this stage that we were the only white people in India or so it appeared. We hadn’t seen white people since leaving our apartment in Jordan where a few Americans were also staying at that time. Anyhow as had happened in Jordan again we were being approached by people of all ages and asked if they might be allowed to take a photo with us. I did not mind but Róisín put it down to my great big ego as she, on the other hand, felt incredibly uncomfortable. For myself I thought what’s a picture? its such a little thing, it cost me nothing but it clearly delighted the people making the requests. They were genuinely so courteous and polite I did not like to say no. I did start to wonder if they actually thought I was a movie star, someone like Judy Dench from ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ and again Róisín says “Mam she’s way older than you. No way do the think your Judy” But with my snow white short hair and our chalky complexions I bet we have enough in common to be mistaken, just a thought. Leaving Agra Fort we were approached by a group of girls about the age of 15 and they asked for a picture with us. Now that did surprise me as I would have thought they were possibly a little more sophisticated than their parents. Moreover, I did expect them to be the same as teenagers from home and actively work at that considered boredom. Well they didn't and they do seem genuinely happy touring the Fort for the day totally unlike our home grown teenagers.
The Red Fort, Agra
The next stop on our guided tour was the Baby Taj, a really beautiful place. Our guide told us that this is where young couples came to be alone. So even though arranged marriages are a thing of the past some level of parental approval is needed, so if mam and dad don’t like, it's not happening. Ergo, young couples have their secret liaisons at the Baby Taj. I really am finding it hard to take to this guide. He is just too damn smarmy. I get the feeling that his entire reason for being in the tourist business is to get one over on the tourists. He really doesn’t like us at all and permanently has a stiff smile on his face while his brain works overtime to try figure what to say that we might want to hear. So when he starts waffling on about the handicrafts, the souvenirs, the jewellery and all without tax if we buy in Agra I’m not in the least bit surprised when he brings us to a Persian rug factory. In this establishment we are brought through all aspects of the carpeting weaving process. The detail, precision, and dexterity of these workers is impossible to describe. After the demonstration, we are brought to the warehouse where the rugs are stock piled. We are invited to sit and were offered tea. Then piece by piece the rugs are brought forward unrolled and presented at our feet. I had mentioned that we would be traveling for a few months and would not be in a position to buy anything just yet. Surprisingly they did not have a web site and so it would be impossible o purchase at a later date, it was either today or never! Wow! What a sales pitch they could even arrange postage to Ireland if purchased today. The rugs were beautiful and I truly did not want to leave without one. As the rugs are revealed I ask, “How much is that?” at each and every rug. We go from $500 up to $10,000. As I said I really wanted one of these rugs and more so just one in the family. So my lovely daughter Úna, having just gotten engaged, would make the perfect recipient of such a gift, so I bought one. We return to the car and there our guide says the next stop will be to see the specialist craft emporium not too far away. I honestly thought we were going to a craft museum until we got into the building, and as we walked through the doors the owner of the shop introduces himself and asks us to take a seat. He is preparing to show us some of the jewellery which are in cases running the length of the shop. I started to laugh say “you are welcome to show us but I haven’t a bob left since the carpet guy cleaned me out” Oh but he was good. He showed us the black star ruby, a specialty to this region and so very beautiful. Perfect gift for my daughter so I bought it. I have to say these sales were made with such style, such polish that it has to be acknowledged and admired. The owner of the shop told us how hard things had been in the past two years and this conversation was had after our purchases and in the comfort of his office. Pre-covid he would have had 2,000 customers a week and a very good living for him, his family and his son who worked with him. He was a most charming man and had the look of Freddy Mercury about him. I couldn’t help but admire the quiet dignity of this lovely man and I was delighted I had the opportunity to buy some things from him. We said our goodbyes and returned to our driver. As we are about to get into the car a man comes from the spice shop just across the road. it is very clear that our guide had arranged for us to also visit and that this man had come especially to open the shop for us. Anyone depending on tourists for their income in the past two years have really been struggling in India. Unlike home, there were no subsidies to support you while your business starved. This man is begging us to go into his shop and I just cannot. I was way above my budget for the day. I am really angry with our guide for giving this man false hope. I apologize to the shop owner and get into the car. He is desperate and even in his panic tries to contain himself. I am really, really angry with our guide.
Baby Taj, Agra
We left the area with our guide to catch the sunset at the back of the Taj Mahal. After a short visit here, we plan to head back to the hotel. As we drive away from the Taj our guide tells me there is just one more stop he wants to show us, the ancient art of marble inlay. I know this is another sales pitch and I said "No more shops, we are going back to the hotel". He did try to argue but I was having none of it. It was becoming clear to me that we were being driven around to all these establishments and that the guide was getting a kick back. As he argued the driver told him to be quiet and that if Madam (that’s me) wanted to go to the hotel that was where we were going. Since meeting our driver in Delhi, at the end of every day, I would give him a tip. It wasn’t expected and I know on the first evening the driver was a little taken aback but now he knew it was my routine. I had also figured that it was best to keep our driver on our side and today's events had proved me right. We were brought back to the hotel where I gave our driver the tip but nothing to the guide as we would be seeing him in the morning and at that stage I would decide if he deserved a tip.
We were hoping to get a package home for Christmas and so asked at reception if they might have a box and some tape. Incredibly helpful, they sent both items to our room and we prepared the package for posting and planed to send it the next day. We had dinner in the restaurant. It is always curry from mild to spicy but such a variety that in just the trying its like a taster menu, enough to satisfy even if you do not like too many of the dishes.
We raise at 6 am to be collected for 6:30 am to ensure we are there with the other thousand people who want to see the Taj sunrise. What can I say, every picture postcard you have ever seen of the Taj sunrise, well... it was exactly like that! What might be of note are the newly weds. Every major monument we have been to in India, there are always newly weds with their photographers. No messing with selfies on phones, I am telling you it is a full photography studio. Didn't pay much attention the first one or two occasions when I tripped over one of the brides splayed out on the floor of some palace, wistfully and whimsically looking over her shoulder for her photoshoot. But the Taj is a full on assault of newly weds looking for the best posing positions and not too patiently waiting their turn. It turns out that for Indian weddings there are pre-wedding shoots, wedding shoots, and post-wedding shoots and they are all in the style of a Bollywood production. We returned to the hotel for a fabulous breakfast. Love breakfasts here, not missing the bacon and sausages at all. There are always the curry dishes but there is also a great variety of fruit and pastries which is good enough for me! We pack up our bags, our Christmas parcel for home and meet our guide for the last time. I was hoping to get a post office before we left Agra so as to off load this goody bag but the guide proved again to be totally unhelpful. He was insisting on bringing us back to the jewelers shop to send the parcel. I had realized by this stage that I had no ability to say no to anyone and so rather than disappoint another shop owner I got angry with the guide and told him not to bother we would sort the parcel ourselves at our next destination. He got no tip and we headed into the lunchtime traffic for the next leg of our journey, Jaipur.
The Taj Mahal, Agra
Hi, I'm Olive and I am the writer of this blog. I am traveling the world with my 22 year old daughter, Róisín, who has just graduated University. I wanted to document this journey because it is unusual for a woman of 58 years old to go on adventure that most students do on a gap year. I will try to share my insights into this epic journey with you along the way and maybe inspire more people my age to go on these crazy adventures too.