The Taj Mahal!!! This might be one of the things we were most excited to see during this entire year of travel. While India in general was high on our list, the Taj was on our bucket list. And since we had to skip the pyramid complex in Egypt, which is another item on our bucket list, we anticipated the Taj that much more.
To get to Agra from Delhi, we could choose between the Indian train system or a bus. Some seasoned travelers – a couple we met in Jordan that had spent three months here in India – advised us that the train would be “experience” enough, and that the booking system in general here can be quite difficult. I told them I really wanted the full experience, the “chicken bus” as I call it, like we had had on our journey from Kenya to Tanzania and back. (No, there weren’t actually chickens on that bus, but it was *truly* a unique cultural experience. See the related post: Out of Africa.) And I’ve heard there *are* chickens on the buses here.) This couple, however, said even the trains here have chickens, and highly recommended we not take the bus. Since they are backpacking like us and have roughed it even more than we have, I felt it was prudent to take their advice.
So with the help of said seasoned travelers, we booked ourselves some train tickets from Delhi to Agra before we even arrived in India. It was indeed a confusing process – there are many train stations in each city, and not all are connected by public transport to the metro, airport or other stations. The trains sell out way in advance and have long waiting lists of hundreds of people, many of whom end up having to stand or sit on the floor of the train car, if they are lucky enough to fit on the train. And even choosing the seats can be quite complex as many of them convert into “sleeper” cots and they are not in a simple arrangement like we are used to in the States. You can choose which seats you want but that doesn’t mean you will be assigned those seats. To top it off, we were told to be prepared to suddenly have to pay more money once we boarded the train, because if the ticket price goes up between the time you book and the time you ride, you must pay a conductor the difference on the spot!
We left for the train station two hours before our train departed and we were very glad we did. After taking the metro and finding our way outside and across a very crowded road to the station, we stared wide-eyed at our surroundings. We were in the middle of a sea of people. There were lines all over the place, and some were over a hundred people in length. There were people sitting on the steps, the floor, and people lying on the floor. There were signs everywhere pointing in different directions, in English, but still often confusing to us since they use terms we don’t use. Outside, a train was slowly moving and people were hanging on to the outside of the train as it moved, allowing themselves to be dragged with it! All I kept thinking was, thank god we have confirmed seats.
The trains are very long, so even finding and walking along the length of the train to your car can take 15 minutes. Once you find you car, you look at the list posted outside of the car – it contains every person’s name who has a confirmed seat, and their seat number. I got the seat I had chosen, but Elliott did not. Luckily, two other girls who were traveling together were also split up and offered to trade one of their seats so they could sit together and we could sit together. They also managed to score the best two seats out of the eight seats in the little compartment. Only four of the eight seats have windows. Two of those are across the aisle from the other six and face each other, affording you a cozy spot for two. The six that are together are basically two bench seats for three people each, and we were on one of those benches with another guy. We’ll know for next time.
It was a lot to take in but we had wanted the experience and we were getting it. After the eight of us sat in our compartment and the train started moving, more and more people poured into and through our car, looking for seats. These were the waiting list people who had managed to get on the train. Some of them managed to get sets of three people on bench seats to squeeze together, making room for a fourth. Some of them managed to rearrange luggage on the sleeper bunks above us, and to climb up and sit up there. And some just stood between cars, sat on car floors or on their luggage.
During the ride, I looked out the window a lot. We saw everything from countryside to crowded city slums where the only roofs were corrugated metal, to literal tent cities. Boy did we feel lucky. On the train, salesmen constantly came by with chai and other Indian snacks. Elliott was craving a samosa but one of the Indian girls with whom we had traded seats warned him that the hot snacks might not be “so nice.” He held off. We did try the chai, which had come highly recommended from the couple in Jordan who helped us book our tickets, and it was good indeed. There were no chickens.
Once we arrived in Agra three hours later it was good and dark outside, and we had the fun of trying to figure out at which train station we should disembark. One of the Indian girls told us one thing, another young Indian kid told us another thing. And most of the stations didn’t have any signs that we could see from the train. Not trusting anyone in particular, I sent Elliott off to ask a few other people, and we were able to come to a consensus. We said goodbye to our new young Indian friend who was already insisting we add him as a Facebook friend after he and Elliott chatted for all of five minutes. Wow, people here really seem to like Americans.
We got off the train and walked through the station not even knowing how to get out. In a rare circumstance, we were headed to a hostel I had booked just before getting on the train in Delhi. (We had had little luck getting a host in Agra.) I had put a deposit down and then sent the hostel an email asking if they could pick us up when we arrived. They had advertised free transportation to and from the train and bus stations here, which is a very big benefit when you see how confusing they are! But I knew I wouldn’t have an Internet connection by the time they responded to my email, so we were on our own
I had one little hope in my head that I didn’t even share with Elliott, in fear of giving him false hopes. And I was so thrilled when it came to be! As we were finding our way to the exit, someone said my name. I looked up, and there was a local man holding a sign up with my name and the name of our hostel. There’s something really nice about arriving somewhere and having someone there to pick you up, who knows exactly how to handle all the craziness going on around you. As he led us out into the parking lot, I thought , “So there were no chickens.” I realized we had many other things to be thankful for as we stepped over people sleeping in the parking lot in order to load our luggage into the car.