WHILE ON THE ROAD FROM DELHI TO AGRA — I woke up dazed from a nap: “Are we there yet?”
For someone who is used to sleeping at least eight hours a day, the past few days of transiting from one place to the other with little amount of sleep has been physically taxing. Right before I checked out from the Maidens Hotel in Delhi, I took four individual 500 mg of Vitamin C just to boost up my immune system. I keep telling myself that I can’t afford to fall sick.
The three hour drive from Delhi to Agra became an opportunity for me to know my concierge a little bit better — after all, he is my primary key to understanding India.
“I was a software engineer previously. Now I’m a travel concierge after pursuing my passion. I dream of visiting all the places in India and working as a concierge makes me do that, and also a way for me to help others travelers who wish to explore India,” Rajat explained with his eyes lighting up every time he mentions his favorite buzzword: travel. He was sitting in the car’s passenger seat as he constantly turns his head towards me who was sitting at the back while engaging me in a banter. Rajat, who hails from a middle class and an educated Indian family, has family members who are all achievers: a dad who’s a businessman; a mom who’s a teacher; an older brother who has completed MBA; and a sister who’s a future lawyer. And typical to most Indian families, they consider education and careers as a family’s gauge of success.
The modestly dressed Rajat broke barriers for choosing his passion in travel as opposed to working in the engineering line. It does seem like India’s siloed traditions are indeed progressively changing among the younger generation.
While on the road, Agra shook me from my casual intermittent car naps upon hearing the melodious honks of passenger buses and trucks aggressively cutting our way. Although “Mr. Singh-our driver” knew how to manage these vehicles (which were probably powered by gas and a mix of extreme caffeine), I still fastened my seat belt for security reasons nonetheless.
Agra is how I imagined it to be: a city born out from a historical and beautiful time-lapse. Everything seemed to be a mix of the old and a constant struggle to bring in the new. In one street you will find a row of worn-out barber shops, fruit stalls, and car/bike repair shops and in another, you will see a spectacle of Western influences such McDonald’s (which is branded in India as a family restaurant), Costa Coffee, and the signages of luxury hotel brands proliferating in every possible street lamp post possible.
My first stop in Agra was to bring a bag of clothes and candy packs to the orphans of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity (Prem Dan | 8 Ajmer Road, Pratappura, Agra 282001). Visiting the orphanage only days after Mother Teresa’s canonization as a saint was truly a humbling experience.
“Mother Teresa walked in these same halls,” I was brimming with joy. I was impressed by the generous space and cleanliness of the whole foundation — I felt at home myself.
Unfortunately, the kids were taking their afternoon naps when we arrived. We took a peek at some of the children’s rooms and found some kids who were already awake in their individual cribs. Some of them were smiling when they saw us. They seem to be very used to seeing random strangers visiting them.
The nun who gave us a tour passed me two medallions which bore the image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, which I immediately kept in my wallet — “my mom will be very happy to see these,” I told myself.
Already famished, we ordered two cold glasses of Masala Lime Soda and a plate of deep-fried vegetable fritters at probably the most unique cafe I’ve been to in my life: the Sheroes Hangout (Opposite The Gateway Hotel, Taj View Chowraha, Fatehabad Road, Tajganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh 282001). The cafe, fronted by a brightly-colored graffiti wall outside, is run by a group of courageous women who were all victims of horrendous “acid attacks” by men in their respective locales. These girls who all had a bad past decided to start anew and build a non-profit organization and a cafe to inspire other acid victims.
When you order food from them, the prices are not shown at all as you are free to donate any amount of money for the items you’ve eaten — it can be as little as a dollar and can be big as hundred bucks.
**Story on ‘An Encounter with the Acid Victims’ – to be published on this blog separately soon**
We then picked up Mr. Babar, my new tour guide in Agra. Upon setting foot in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Agra Fort, the second most famous landmark in Agra, its red brick walls which stands by the river Yamuna shone brighter than ever as Mr. Babar narrated the rich history behind the 16th century walled city. Probably outshone by the nearby and more popular monument, the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort remains an important landmark in India housing various Mughal rulers in the past, such as Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. Shah Jan (who built the Taj Majal as a mausoleum in loving memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal) was later imprisoned by his own son Aurangzeb in the same fort.
With Mr. Babar, my Agra tour guide
At one of the terraces in the Red Fort’s palace, I got a glimpse of the Taj Majal. It was surreal feeling seeing this glorious and iconic monument from afar, just across the river Yamuna and less than 3 km away from the Red Fort. Now I understand why it became the inspiration of the Sultan’s Palace in the animated film Aladdin. It was magical — and I couldn’t wait to visit it the next day.
Later that evening, we then headed to a central market where we bought boxes of petha, an extremely sweet rectangular-sized soft candy made from winter melon or white pumpkin. Pethas were first introduced in the kitchens of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan which dates back to more than 300 years ago. Nowadays, these petha shops offer a multitude of flavors from coconut, chocolate, and pistachio. But to err in the side of caution, I ordered the regular dry pethas instead.
We walked briefly to experience the markets that night. The alleys were dimly lit, barely illumined by lamp posts and cars passing by. In one little corner just across the temple of Ganesha, locals — of different age and gender — scampered for food that were given for free by the temple administrators. In Hindu calendar, they will soon be celebrating one of the major festivals in honor of the elephant-headed god and the free food rations are given as part of their customs. I was told not to go further inside the markets as there are cases of pickpocketing.
By around 8 p.m., we had dinner at Pinch of Spice, an affordable Punjabi fine dining restaurant which presents a fusion of Indian, Western and Chinese menu. I got surprised to see Singaporean noodles on the list — I’m not in anyway eager to eat anything Singaporean at this point of time anyway. Typical to most lavish Punjabi restaurants, Pinch of Spice also plays around with golden mirrors, sparkling chandeliers, and modern furniture.
Overfed from garlic naans, chili chicken, and malai kofta, I then headed back to my hotel at Radisson Blu Taj East Gate for an hour of Indian deep-tissue massage at their Alive Spa before capping off the day.
I kept my alarm nearby as I need to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the sunrise and the opening of the Taj Mahal gates the next day. Another adventure awaits the following day…
Read my Day 1 in India: Delhi
I wandered in India with Ravishing India Holidays, a luxury tour operator headquartered in Singapore which specializes in travel concierge services in this rich, beautiful South Asian region. With a personal concierge who will help craft your itinerary even before you arrive and who will customize it depending on your mood and requirements while you are on journey, everything became easier and more fun than I expected it to be.