In a country that appears to thrive on chaos the railway system is amazingly efficient and organized. Trains run on time, tickets can be purchased ahead of time online with reserved seats. Chai, snacks and meals are served on longer trips courtesy of the “Meals on Wheels” service. Commuter trains are a different story. They are packed with less than “standing room only”. Indians are crammed into these trains and just when you think no one else will fit in another person will hop on and literally be hanging on to a hand rail while his body is dangling out of the train.
The Bhopal Shatabdi Express runs from Delhi to Agra in less than three hours and was our first experience of Indian Railways. Our train to Agra was scheduled to depart at 6:00 a.m. The Cabana is a 15 minute walk or a short rickshaw ride to the Main Delhi train station. In small groups we made our way through the quiet streets. At the station it was a different story. People coming and going; sleeping on the platform and bringing supplies to the train on large hand carts. The train heads out of Delhi through areas of extreme poverty. Slums, huge festering garbage piles, small children playing in the filth of the trash that they also use as toilets. Among all of this poverty many of the houses have satellite dishes for TVs. Having read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katharine Boo while in India I have a better understanding of slum culture, the lack of hope that so many people have, and the structure within the slums. However this does not make what we saw from the train and the continuing pressures of over-population any easier to accept.
Leaving the slums behind the train goes out into flat country. There are very few trees; man has literally taken them out of the landscape. Rice fields predominate and in other areas cattle and water buffalo graze in fields with rough grass and small shrubs. Arrival in Agra threw us back into the crush of humanity as we tried to make our way out of the train station while being bombarded with requests for taxi and rickshaw. We all had luggage to deal with so paired up to ride rickshaws to the Siddhartha Hotel.
After checking into our rooms Professor Bushoven with a glimmer in his eye said, “follow me,” which of course we did. He led us up to the roof top where we got our first glimpse of the world famous Taj Mahal. It is indeed breathtaking and incredible that we were so close to it. Later that evening on the roof at sunset we watched how the color of the marble changed as the light faded. Around 9:00 p.m. the Muslim call to prayer began starting over to our left. In the course of the next 30 minutes or so the call echoed from different parts of the city seemingly surrounding us with the call. Difficult to describe the atmosphere on the roof with the Taj as our back drop – very memorable evening.
|The Taj Mahal as viewed from the roof top of the Siddhartha Hotel|
|A closer look|
|This home is across the Yamuna river from the Taj Mahal. The wealth/poverty contrast is stark.|
|Pigs and feral dogs feeding on a small trash pile|
|Laundry on the banks of the Yamuna just down the river from the Taj.|
|Beating saris clean|