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Agra – All you need is love

Monday, August 24th, 2009

We knew that after Nepal, we wanted to head down towards the south of Asia, through Malaysia and Indonesia before hitting Australia, and the easiest transport hub to head for was Bangkok. However, after a bit of googling, direct fares from Kathmandu to Bangkok were out of budget. After even more googling (I love how ‘to google’ has become a verb), we found a cheaper way to do it – a flight to Delhi, followed by a flight to Bangkok. And after a final bout of googling (don’t worry, it really is the last mention, I’m just trying to get some sponsorship is all), we found that to do this, we would need a transit visa, allowing us a little bit more time in the country that technically shouldn’t be used for tourism but hey, when Delhi is just a 2.5 hour train ride away from Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, what’s a girl to do but encourage her boyfriend to have a whistlestop tour to the world’s most beautiful building?

Luckily, he didn’t need too much persuading and so we found ourselves, transit visa in passport, on the very plush Shatabdi Express heading for Agra. To make it even more special, it was our 3 year anniversary, possibly. I say ‘possibly’ because we can’t actually agree when our anniversary is, having different ideas of what constitutes a date, apparently. Fortunately for us, and possibly the reason we are actually celebrating 3 years together, this is one of the few things we disagree on. We get therefore to pick a date each year, and the day when we were going to see the Taj Mahal, the iconic monument to love, seemed very apt. The Indian Railway system agreed with us, and presented us (all of us in the carriage, not just us two – that WOULD have been service) with a rose. Possibly the most random item I’ve ever been presented with on a train, but I certainly wasn’t complaining, especially as this rose was followed by the day’s papers and a very ‘hearty’ (to use the local terminology) breakfast. Makes getting a 6.15am train all worthwhile. The journey passed like a dream, fortunately – when Mum and her cousin Irene visited India a couple of years ago that same train was delayed by 6.5 hours, which would certainly have put our ‘lightening visit’ plans under considerable strain.

We got to Agra and managed to find a tuk tuk driver who would take us to our hotel with only the slightest amount of coercion to stay at another hotel owned by, surprise surprise, his brother. “Your hotel a long way from Agra, you know that? Well, your holiday, your choice. I guess.” The hotel turned out to be fine – budget for sure, but still fine, within 10 minutes’ walk of the Taj, which was where we headed straight away, despite the scorching midday heat.

Now I did post another blog entry all about my first visit to this amazing building, so re-read that if you want the descriptions, although a million words and a million photos could never convey just how beautiful it is. Despite it being my second time, I still got exactly the same goosebumps I’d had the first time. Just as enjoyable to me this time was seeing Andy being blown away by it for the first time also, such a relief when I’d convinced him it was all worthwhile. It really, really is. Like I said, the descriptions you can read in my first blog, but I will just say for sure – if you are ever ANYWHERE in the vicinity (and I count the UK in that vicinity!), then GO. Don’t think about it, don’t hesitate, just GO.

We headed back to the hotel to escape the sun for a while, before heading back out to dinner, which we had at Shanti Lodge, where I stayed last time and probably has the best sunset view of the Taj. Strange experience – apparently they no longer have a licence (I distinctly remember getting a bottle of beer last time) – and now serve any beer you order out of a teapot, and in mugs. First time for everything, and the first rule of backpacking is not to question, but to accept. We stayed there as long as possible, lingering over an aloo gobi curry with naan bread, numerous teapots of beer, taking plenty of sunset Taj Mahal pics on Andy’s camera (my camera battery packed up, plus I thought it best not to inflict another 100,000 photos of the same thing on the world – again, see my flickr photos from the first time round if you want to see my complete lack of restraint when it comes to photos) and listening to the call to prayer echoing out around the city.

Wandering back to our hotel, we decided to have a nightcap at the plush hotel next door, the AMAZING Oberoi. Wowzer. One of the most beautiful hotels you can imagine, dotted with fountains, beautiful details and wonderful service. We spent as much on a drink as we did on our budget hotel next door, but hey, it was our anniversary (and I’m worth it, right?).

Another early start the next day, to get the train back to Delhi. Initially the plan was to get out and see some of the sights, not that there were many places I was desperate to return to in the capital, but unfortunately the left luggage facility at Delhi Airport has been suspended for security reasons, so we were stuck with our big backpacks. Even though we were on the pleasant 2AC carriage, we were still stuck for anything we could do with our bags in tow, considering it was pushing 100F outside, so our only option was to kill some time when we got back. For lunch, we headed to the Banana Leaf at Connaught Place, a restaurant I remembered from last time and the food was as good as ever – unfortunately our plan of making 1 lunch between us and 2 drinks drag out for as long as possible was sussed by the management and we were presented with the bill by the management before we asked for it – first time I’ve ever been kicked out of a restaurant! Luckily there was another coffee shop next door so we lingered there, people watching, until it was time to head. Just as we were deciding the best course of action, we were offered a taxi ride to the airport in a wonderful old Ambassador Car, so we ended up travelling in style.

Unfortunately we couldn’t say the same for the plane ride to Bangkok…

Fr Xavier

Monday, October 30th, 2006

While I was away in the Cook Islands, I heard the tragic news that my good friend in India, Fr Xavier, had been killed in a car crash along with his brother. I was, and am, completely devastated by this. Fr Xavier was a wonderful man – intelligent, wise, compassionate, funny, and spent his life in the service of others. His brother was married with three young children. My thoughts and prayers are with their family, friends, and the community in India where I was given such a wonderful home away from home. RIP Fr Xavier. You are greatly missed.

Fr Xavier RIP

Bangalore – Photos

Monday, April 24th, 2006

I'm currently uploading all my photos, and they'll be on my Flickr site soon (look right and you should see the link).

Meanwhile, here are some of my favourites, about the people I've been talking about.

This is a bad picture of ... [Continue reading this entry]

India – Final Thoughts

Monday, April 24th, 2006
First of all, apologies to everyone for the lack of blogging over the last couple of weeks. My days fell into such a happy routine that would have been incredibly dull for you to read - "Woke up, had ... [Continue reading this entry]

Bangalore/Mangalore – The Animal Kingdom

Tuesday, April 11th, 2006
While my reception from the fathers and brothers here has been nothing short of wonderful, the welcome I got from our animal friends has been, shall we say, mixed? We're surrounded by animals here, from the ones kept as pets to ... [Continue reading this entry]

Bangalore – Decoration

Monday, April 3rd, 2006
Something that I've really noticed since I've been here is how interested the brothers (so I'm making the generalisation to mean Indian men - sweeping generalisations are my speciality!), are really interested and knowledgeable about what I wear (or rather, ... [Continue reading this entry]

Bangalore – Characters

Saturday, April 1st, 2006
Each and every one of the brothers and fathers here in Bangalore is an absolute joy to be with.  Here is an introduction to just a few of them - I just wish I had time to tell you about ... [Continue reading this entry]

Bangalore – Getting to know you

Saturday, April 1st, 2006

My first few days in Bangalore fell into a happy routine. I'd wake up either naturally at about 7 o'clock, or would be forced awake by the really loud music they play at the crack of dawn - it's a ... [Continue reading this entry]

Mumbai/Bangalore – From the ridiculous to the sublime

Monday, March 27th, 2006
When I went to book my train ticket from Mumbai to Bangalore, I had planned to buy 3AC class.  This means an air-conditioned sleeper berth, with three tiers.  However, the guy at the counter told me this was full, and ... [Continue reading this entry]

Udaipur/Mumbai – Luxury travel

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006
When I was younger, the children's programme Blue Peter ran a series all about Japan.  We watched enthralled as our minds were introduced to the delights of sushi, and amazing technological advances.  One thing that stuck in my memory quite ... [Continue reading this entry]