Aah Agro, the home slash prison of the 48-hour tourist and the happy jailers who service them.It’s package tourist heaven or hell, depends on which side of the reception desk you are standing on.
Pic: on the streets of Agra, but not very inspired. can you tell?
Everyone is in the tourist industry. Or related to it. The local kiosk guy doesn’t just sell water, he “meets needs”. Toilet paper? Chocolate? Tuk tuk? Money change? Postcard? What you looking for, hotel? Wifi? Where you going? The Taj? Where you from? If he doesn’t have it, he can get it. And fast. Everything is fast in Agra, even the Wifi. They know you are here for 1, 2 days maximum and they want to help you maximise your time. Fresh meat has a smell about it. You get the feeling that the locals have been put through a Masters course in “maximising tourist contact”. All they need is eye contact. If that. If the locals seem more agro than Agra, it’s because the industry is set up that way. The itineraries are so tight – the Taj, the fort, some other magnificent marble or Murghal structure – there is little room for personal interaction.
Luckily us tourists are pretty predictable. We all need hot water, Wifi and activities, preferably unique ones that offer new story angles or photo opps or “authentic” ones that help us brag to our friends about how we got the real local experience that no one else got. Get the ungettable.
Pic: Looking for pockets of interest at Agra Fort
But some things you can’t get – like an inside tour of the Taj Mahal on a Friday, the day we arrived. It’s closed to anyone except Muslims, who get to go in for an hour of prayers. We looked at our scarves and contemplated physical conversion for a moment. We thought better of it and walked to the Agra Fort instead where we did a behind the scenes tour along the perimeter wall, free gratis for niks. And there were no people – a downright luxury in India. Okay so not strictly legal/permissible but definitely more tranquil and worth slipping past the guards.
Pic: Loving the freedom and silence on our personal and private Agra Fort Wall Tour.
Our day in Agra was not all marble and Princess Di poses. It was drizzly and muddy in a way that made you want to seek out a small sweaty restaurant not a big drafty fort or palace. Even the dogs were sporting black knee-high socks. So we spent the day walking between food, forts and our luggage, which was storing our warmth and technology.
Walking in Agra usually means perfecting the art of “blanking” people, ie: trying to tune out people’s incessant inquests in a polite but don’t-mess-with-me way. Impossible. When every tuk tuk driver, restaurant man, gem-store owner, et al rattles off the tourist checklist starting with Hello Hello Where you from? Where you going?, you quickly learn to switch your left brain off and your right one in, turning their words into sounds that float through your ears. Or that’s the theory anyway.
There are a lot of bad to mediocre restaurants in tourist town Agra, so everyone ends up frequenting the same restaurants every meal time – in our case Shankara vegi. It’s owner prides himself on his food and how busy his business is, which he confirms by showing us the order book to show how many tables he had between our last visit and this one.
We did venture out to Shanti lodge rooftop restaurant, having heard it has a spectacular view of the Taj. It really does which means you can forgive it almost anything, except maybe ruining Garth’s favourite meal. Garth has spent the last month in search of the best palak paneer (spinach and cheese) in India. He quickly declared Shanti’s the worst so far. That’s probably from a sampling of 30 plus dishes. The dish was drowning in oil. Even the spinach was trying to distance itself from the swampy concoction but to no avail. Chapatti boats to the rescue.
Pic: The phoenix that arises from the ashes or the pearl amidst the trashes?
Agra is not a one-day wonder. It’s a town that needs more time to cut through the hard sell and reveal the soft underbelly. I’m sure it’s there. They just hide it well.
If I were to sell Agra today my payoff line would be: Agra: home to the India’s most precious find: fast WiFi.
Musing on. Just musing on.