Postcards from India: Agra

By Michael Karlo Lim

 

I’D CITE history subjects, the National Geographic Channel and various reading material for building my interest in India but it was Wes Anderson and The Darjeeling Limited that turned that into sort of just short of an obsession. I missed Mumbai four years back when I bailed out on a trip over a semestral break scared by horror stories from people who, I realize now, haven’t even been there. My equal was luckily equally enthralled by the exoticism of the subcontinent and of Anderson, as well, so plans were drawn for our first trip together abroad.

“Like Bollywood, you know?” – Raj the photographer at the Taj Mahal

Both heat averse, we booked roundtrips for the cooler weather period of February. Our friend Alexis had enjoyed his trip there with friends last year and graciously referred us to Heritage India Private Tours for arrangements. The lowest fares were from Cebu to Kolkata with welcome stopover in Kuala Lumpur at which we took the opportunity for making a quick side trip. Stuck in my Wes Andersen daydream, I realized too late that the train that ran the route from Kolkata to Agra was nothing like in the movie and the palatial sleeper train of my dreams was also an upper six figures above my budget. We flew domestic to Delhi, instead.

The Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport – rated most improved airport in Asia Pacific region for 2014 and 2015, and the Indira Gandhi International Airport – the Best Airport in 2015 – both by the by the Airport Council International , were first to roll out the red carpet and shatter all our preconceived notions. It all seemed too good to be true but the surprises kept coming.

Meet my new pets, Khaliwah and Keenan.

Our first bite of India was sadly chain but their Twin-tailed Siren offered exciting local delicacies of Date – Walnut and Ginger Tea Cakes. I swear their Matcha-Espressso Fusion Teavana was more intense. We knew we were in good hands when met our driver, VJ. We knew we were in especially good hands when he started talking textiles, showing us swatches for materials to be made into three sets to wear to his cousin’s upcoming wedding. Velveteen prints, high threadcount cotton, silk and fine handblock printed fabrics. VJ whisked us away on our own sedan to Agra with a quick rest stop for a stretch and lunch at Highway Masala. There we had the all-too familiar Tikka Masala, Butter Naan and Golab Jamun but with more pronounced flavor nuances.

We were checked in to the quiet and quaint Taj Villas to wash off the past twenty-four hours before making good of the rest of daylight to tour the city. On our way to Agra Fort, we were warned about vendors and guides and instructed to strictly ignore them. Bees to the honeypot these were and with no one succeeding in selling services, one pushed everyone aside like he-got-this and spoke to me in better Mandrin than I could muster. The urge not to be one-upped and to reply in my pidgin Chinese was met by the PussyKat’s feral eyes in a stern reminder to “ignore, ignore, ignore.”

Candy-coated anise or fennel seeds to freshen the breath, cleanse the palate and aid digestion.

The fort’s walls in thick, red stone opened into palaces, pavilions, courtyards and manicured gardens too many to explore all in the intended time frame. We were to catch a view of the Taj Mahal at sundown and made do with the hour. A quick drive away had us on the backroads of the royal hunting grounds. VJ had us close our eyes and counted down to open as the domes of the Taj came into view. A short hike up a dirt road had us on the banks of the river to the left of the monument glowing in the setting sun. With time to burn before dinner, we made a roundabout of the city in-car.

Valentino India is a locally registered Indian shoe brand not in any way connected to the house of Garavani. I have a pair of embroidered jooties back home and was hoping to score a pair in all-leather. I asked to be taken to a traditional shoe shop and we ended up at this factory showroom. The confusion was without regrets as there was this pair of hair-on printed goat skins that leaped from the shelf as I entered the doors.

Highway Masala Meal. Tikka Masala, Butter Naan and Golab Jamun

We insisted on traditional, our driver wanted us to try a popular dining concept and the compromise was Bon Barbecue. You begin with a live coal grill dropped into your table recess and an assortment of unlimited kebab items and side dishes served. Garlic Prawns, Kasturi Kebab, Drums of Heaven, Mutton Kena Kaljis, Paneer Tikka, Tandoori Mushrooms, Makkacholam and Honey Coriander Pineapple.

The already filling starter above was only a prelude to the buffet of Tanatar Daniya Ka Shorba, Manchow, Changezi, Punjabi Gosht, Murgh Dum Biryani, Lemon Fish, Paneer Methi Masala, Makai Palak, Soya Chaap Masala, Makai Padak, Dal Burkhana, Daltadka. I did not bother with dessert but we were served after dinner refreshers of Dried Gooseberries, Brown Sugar Candy, Tamarind Candy and Sugared Anise Seeds.

Agra Fort

We rose at the crack of dawn to catch the sunrise at the Taj Mahal complex. There was a considerable line at the ticket counter at the visitor center, a crazy rickshaw ride to the venue and an even longer line at the East gate. By the time we entered the courtyards there were already hundreds of people dotting the view and ruining our #followmeto pegs.

We got hit by their version of the Philippine maniniyot. We stuck it out as long as we could with the instructions to ignore service offers but failed when we allowed him to take our photos with our camera before the deft transition to his own. Out of character and definitely out of our comfort zone, we were directed into many kooky poses this photographer would not allow us to say no to. Over two dozen shots later, we were left to marvel at both his salesmanship and, thankfully, his photographic skills.

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