We woke at 5:15 in the morning to catch the 6:15 express train to Agra. We were staying at the Ginger Hotel1 right behind the New Delhi station so we didn’t have far to go. At 6am it was still dark, but the station was swarming with activity. In the two hundred meters between the hotel and the station was a freight yard of sorts. Large bundles were being shifted from one place to another in the dark, each carried on someone’s back. There wasn’t a palette or fork lift in sight. I’m positive that they exist in India, but I have yet to see one.
Porters are waiting throughout the station. For Rs100 (or less, about $2) they will take two large suitcases, balance them on their head, and lead you through the station to your train. Manual labor is cheap. Two boys, about 15 years old, pull a large card loaded with about 100 cases of mineral water to replenish the stock on an incoming train.
It’s foggy, and thousands of people move through the station, towards their trains and their eventual destination. There is a donkey on the platform, standing tied to a post. The train to Agra is late, and people are sitting on the floor of the station in family groups, both men and women wrapped in shawls trying to stay warm.
Dan waits with the bags while I go to find the passenger manifest. When I do find it, it contains Dan’s name but not my own. I head to the Station Master’s office, and he brings me to a different room where the train conductors are sitting. After extensive conversation with the Station Master, one of the conductors takes my ticket and begins scanning a dot-matrix printed list about a half-inch thick.
This room is where old technology goes to live forever. Near me is a glass-fronted server rack. Instead of servers, however, it contains a motley assortment of old windows boxes, most looking like they were made in the early 1990′s. There are a few screens in the rack, all old monochrome tube displays.
In the next room is a row of desks. On each desk is a small dot-matrix printer, the sort you might have purchased for your first home computer (if you’re my age). Each printer seems to have a piece that is missing… a cover, a side panel, etc.
Each of the three conductors checks my ticket against their stacks of dot-matrix printouts, while I nervously look over my shoulder to see if the train has arrived. It hasn’t. None of them find me on their lists. The last conductor, his list not providing me a seat, issues a great sigh. He puts down his list and slowly swivels his chair around (15° at a time, glaring at me pointedly after every turn), and fires up a black-and-white display. He slowly types in my name L-U-S-S-I-E-R, hunts around for a little while, and then smashes the ‘return’ key.
My seat appears, listed right next to Dan’s… car C-4, seats 58 & 59.
The train to Agra appears at the station and departs a little late, at 6:30am. Yay! Dan and I settle into our comfie chairs on the Shatabdi Express (the fastest train in India) for the 2 hour trip to Agra.
We arrive in Agra at 2:15pm, 6 hours late. Apparently if the Shatabdi Express (the fastest train in India) is late leaving the station, it has to stop frequently on the way to Agra to allow every other train using the track to pass. We pause for a half hour at a time, first waiting, then watching as a slow freight train passes in the opposite direction. Then we move perhaps a mile before slowing and stopping again. Each time the car porters get out and sit by the tracks, as though expecting a long wait.
I’m amazed to find Mr. Azeem Khan2 waiting for us outside the station in Agra. He’s a jovial guy and has hand-drawn my name in large block letters rendered in chiaroscuro 3D on a sheet of notebook paper. The hotel was supposed to send a car, and apparently Mr. Khan has been waiting for us since 8am.
We climb into his autorickshaw and we’re off, careening through Agra traffic on our way to the Hotel Kamal. Along the way Mr. Khan seals the deal. For Rs1500, he will be at our beck and command, to drive us around the sights of Agra, for the next three days. Of course, he assures me, that does not include tip.
We check into our room3, spend a few moments getting settled in, and then we’re off with Mr. Khan. After a brief visit the ‘baby Taj’ (the mausoleum of a persian nobleman on the banks of the Yaluma river), we go down-river.
The river levels are very low, a few thin channels of water passing through the sand of the river bottom. Out in the river I can see the dhobi-wallahs working far out where the water is, washing clothes in what remains of the river. Along the road, they’ve laid out clothing to dry, both on the warm pavement and on the bushes alongside the road.
This evening I’ve asked Mr. Khan to take us to a park that is across the river from the Taj. It was built by Shah Jahan as a pleasure garden from which he could look across and the remember his favorite wife. It’s filled with fruit trees and is a remarkably quiet place to view the Taj in the way it may have originally been viewed, without the noise or clutter of the city or crowds of people.
From the park, I take a head-on photo of the Taj, but I’m not pleased… the sun is setting behind the Taj, so the side facing me is in shadow. I really want to be in the river, or at least further up-river. I leave Dan in the garden and go off in search of a better angle.
Along the way I meet Brijesh Singh, who tells me that he can help me get closer to the river. He is a photo guide, he tells me, and he shows me some of the photos he has helped stage for photographers. I’m impressed, because Mr. Singh is only 18 years old.
He takes me along a walking path to a location a few hundred meters up-river, and it’s exactly the angle I was looking for. While I’m waiting for the sunset, Brijesh and I talk about photography. He loves photography, and wants to become the best photo guide in Agra4. If there is a shot you want, describe it to Brijesh and he’ll help make it happen. He can get local girls to fluff colorful saris riverside, or camels to be led in a train in the foreground while the sun sets on the Taj behind.
The next morning I get up at 5:30am, wanting to arrive at the gates of the Taj Mahal when it opens. It’s freezing. (The hotel room is open to the air, through holes drilled in the concrete for ventilation. Heat is a rarity in India.) I skip the shower, throw on my clothes, and head out into the darkness. The fog is thick, and I can barely see 100 feet. I hope it will lift as the sun rises. (Photographers dream of magic moments like these…)
I get to the ticket counter at 6am. The ticket seller is there, but he won’t sell me a ticket. “Open at 7am!” he says. “I was told the gate opens at 6?” “Not today. Too cold, open at 7am.”
I go back to the hotel, which is thankfully very close, and climb under the blankets. Fourty-five minutes later I’m back. I purchase my ticket and enter the grounds of the Taj Mahal. There are about a hundred photographers like me, all wanting the Taj to themselves. Compared to the crowds later in the day, this is pretty close.
The fog is still thick, and I can’t see a thing. This is the view looking directly towards the Taj:
Halfway along the front garden, there is a raised marble platform. On the platform is a marble bench where a famous picture of princess Diana was taken. Here, in the fog, two guys are taking turns posing like princess Diana did. The Taj is not visible. Against the fog, the bench is barely visible. But for a moment each of these men can be a princess.
Finally when I’m almost against its walls, the Taj appears in the fog, white on white, like embroidery:
It’s still freezing, and the fog isn’t thinning. I spend the next hour wandering around the Taj, circling it twice, waiting for the Taj to smile for me. But the Taj Mahal a mausoleum, and today it is feeling sad. And perhaps more than a little cold.
1) Mini-review: Think Motel 6, only shabby. ↩
2) Mr. Khan was an excellent driver, and we really enjoyed meeting him and having him ferry us around. You can employ him when you come to Agra, his mobile number is +91 9837400191 ↩
3) Like inner-city project housing, but without the drugs or (hopefully) stabbings. ↩
4) Brijesh Singh, mobile +91 9267256335. ↩