The train shook. It was our first journey on the pale blue locomotives through India, and despite dire warnings about the sleeper class, it was not really that bad. Perhaps our expectations were lowered from the multitude of horror stories, from the purported sureness of being robbed and murdered in our sleep. With these things weighing upon us, the surprisingly strong metallic slats seemed like positive luxury, and after wedging ourselves comfortably atop our bags to fend off what we were told was to be a constant barrage of thieves and sleep-gropers, we managed to drug ourselves into glorious unconsciousness.
Our only problem with the train system involved knowing when to disembark. Our train glided through stations and stops and towns regularly, arriving in a hush and departing again in a whisper, with never an announcement of our current location, our eventual destination, or whether we were technically still within Indian borders. Despite the lack of clear delineation of our current place in time and the world, the Indian commuters and travellers seemed to have absolutely no difficulty recognizing local landmarks, even 10 hours deep into the ride, even in the middle of thunderstorms at midnight. Regularly, without us even knowing that the train was likely to stop, people would suddenly evaporate from their seats in puffs of smoke and otherworldly mystery. We rode into town on a train full of ghosts.
We eventually managed to find our way to central Agra, and conscripted a rickshaw to take us to our hotel. We were absurdly early and were allowed the generous boon of a bonus room to rest within until our actual rooms were prepared. Like a fool, I put my bag down for an instant as I filled out the rigorous and thorough paperwork required of all travellers moving more than 12 metres in India. While I scribbled, a bellhop managed to snag my gear and ferreted it off to the room, engaging my hair-trigger tipping guilt and forcing me to part with some of my precious rupees.
The staff proved agile and crafty about this. If a bellhop or waiter or receptionist so much as looked in your direction pleasantly or caught your breath against their neck, a hand would appear along with a cautious, hopeful grin: perhaps a tip, sir? Within days we were entrapped in a game of cat-and-mouse over our money. As I switched rooms, I gathered all of my belongings, a towel, and the toilet paper that had been bestowed upon me like a sacred gift, and shuffled heavily to my new abode. A plucky hotel staffer appeared at my door, a pink shard of forgotten single-serve hotel soap in his left hand, and the lonely, desperate need for a tip in his right.
We decided to shelve our petty indignations, for we were within sight of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal: white curves against an enormous wall of azure. From our vantage at the balcony it was just a tiny, ramshackle thing, and it was difficult to conceive of the kind of magnificence that was, in a way, acting as an entire industry supporting this city, perhaps even the country. This was a building that had its own orbit, its own gravitational pull, attracting bodies from distant places with effervescent magnetism. We heard a dozen languages around us, from travellers and ticket-takers and niche-linguist tour guides. We saw bags with flag patches from places we’d never heard of. Snatches of conversation: some people who had zipped down from Delhi for just a few hours, others who had flown to India for the express purpose of this one building.
We woke one morning in darkness: all suggestions about the Taj recommended arriving absurdly early, before the roosters of Agra even began rustling from sleep. It was cold and desolate in the streets, as a scant few shop-owners sleepily began opening shutters, half-heartedly carrying around steaming pots of tea. Wranglers tromped by with camels, painted in white and fuschia and green. We purchased our tickets, were chastised were not having exact change for the ticket office (which regularly takes in thousands upon thousands of dollars on the daily), and made our way into what had been built up in our imaginations for years.
It was, of course, beautiful beyond the telling. Aqua-marine reflecting pools shimmered in pale purple-dawn light, and shoes and feet slipped and clacked across polished stone and tile. Fountains splayed in early morning haze, and guards and guides and photographers roamed like predators stalking the savannah for an easy kill. It was quiet, people were still few and completely ensconced in trying to orchestrate a photo with the illusion of plucking the Taj by their fingertips. We slid delicate slippers over our feet, distributed to each entrant to keep from scuffing all the magnificence. There was a hush, strong and heavy.
Left to our own devices we roamed the grounds without guidance or the abundant need to photograph. This was well-covered ground: hundreds of years of travellers and historians and post-card designers and t-shirt makers had captured every angle, every slide, every textured and moulded surface and immortalized them in some form or another. Nothing was left but for us to experience this place.
The day passed along sandstone paths, under architectural trees, around carefully designed and pristine symmetry. We wandered the mirror mosques, stood before the waters in the outer reaches of Agra, and considered the millions of feet that had slipped over these stones and tiles before. Awe crept into our hearts, and talking felt dull and pedestrian. This was an old place, and a grand place.
Our perfect, pristine day under the shade of the Taj was not even ruined when we spent much of the following day attempting to plan our route out of Agra. Inept as we were with navigating the Indian internet, we thought it possible to buy our tickets at the train station for the following day. After queuing in a dozen incorrect lines and being redirected by long-suffering sales clerks, we were informed that the trains for the next three weeks were completely booked, every single one, and if we wanted to get these tickets we probably should have booked at least a century before, it really was thoughtless of us, and maybe we could run alongside the tracks like vagabonds and leap upon a moving freight, if we were open to that.
We needed to get to Varanasi, and desperation began to set in. Our plans for the future included only plane tickets we had purchased from Kolkata to the south, and we needed to get across the country without going insane or broke. We found a travel agent, who had a smile like the V of a pigeon in flight, who had an office shellacked entirely in Japanese-text recommendations of his services on dire white paper, who kept rambling on that India was a great country, in that you could do anything if you had money, ha ha ha. As it turned out, this was not an implication that he had murdered and buried several urchins, but that he wanted to gouge us for some train tickets, and would we be interested in paying twenty times the value in markup?
We eventually settled on an overpriced personal driver, slid our way into the vehicle, and prayed that Varanasi would be less thoroughly greased and capable at siphoning rupees.
We hit the long, lonely road out of town, the sun on our horizon. The Taj Mahal grew small in the rear-view, white domes sinking into blue, red sandstone swallowed by cloud and daylight. Our wallets were lighter. It was probably worth it.