Oh, India! There are so many amazing places and things to see, but the ‘number one’ on my list has always been the Taj Mahal. On my first full day, I was pleasantly surprised by some homemade poori and curry for breakfast, made by my friends who graciously took me in to their home during my time in India. After that, the car that we scheduled the night before (through http://www.olacabs.com), picked me up for my five-hour drive to Agra. My friends assured me that Ola was a very safe cab company and they trusted that I would be safe on my ten-hour round trip journey to see the Taj. My driver spoke very little English, but my friends made sure that we at least had each other’s phone numbers to be able to schedule my pick-up after my tour. It was definitely very helpful that I had a burner phone with an Indian sim card; it saved me on several occasions! We struggled through a bit of conversation, but I eventually learned some helpful Hindi phrases and a little about my driver, who just recently became a father. We took the recently completed Yamuna Expressway, which cuts close to four hours off of the trip from Greater Noida to Agra. My driver said he was grateful for the new road because it made the trips down to the Taj Mahal much better for him and for his customers.
Upon arrival in Agra, we parked at the West Gate where you are instantly bombarded by ‘tour guides’. If I had to give one tip, I would say, be picky! Make sure their English is impeccable and ask how long they have been giving tours. Usually, the older the tour guide, the better. Mine had been doing it for 16 years (or so he says). Regardless, I made a good choice because he was a wealth of information and very willing to help take photos of me. Once you choose a guide, you hop on a tut tut and they zoom you down to one of the the main entrance gates. You pay the 750 Rs entry fee and then tourists are expedited to the front of the security line, which is great because the line is huge! For those curious, women are searched and checked separately from the men. Another thing to keep in mind is that this is a Muslim monument, and while a dress code isn’t strictly enforced, it’s curteous to be covered. I wore long pants and a kept my shoulders covered to whole time.
Once inside, you will be fighting other tourists for some of the best photos. This is when it’s great to have an knowledgable tour guide because they know where all the great vantage points are, and they can run a little defense while you are trying to get your shot. They are usually pretty experienced with a camera as well, and mine managed to capture some great pictures of me. While initially I was reluctant to hand over quite an expensive camera, he probably knew how to operate it better than I did. No joke!
One of the things I noticed about being a Western tourist is people will want to take pictures with you. Yes, complete strangers. I was a little surprised and taken-aback by the fascination that locals had with fair-skinned Westerners. My tour guide mentioned that being 5’11 and traveling alone as a female probably piqued their interests. I was included in pictures with lots of different people including entire families, but most commonly other people’s children. Everyone was very kind and I even had my tour guide take photos of me with them as well. All part of the experience, right?
Soon, the sun started to set, and the Taj slowly started to take on an orange glow. The three best times to visit are during sunrise, sunset, and a full moon, according to my guide. Pretty incredible that the Taj changes colors from pink to orange, to a milky white all in the course of a day.
Towards the end of the day the fountains are shut off so you can see the reflection of the Taj in the infinity pool that sits in front of it. This was probably one of the toughest times to take a photo, but you just have to be persistent. At the end of my trip, my guide accompanied me back to my car and asked for a donation as opposed to a set price. I gave him 1,000 Rs. Take note: that is a LOT for a tour guide, but mine was so great I felt compelled to give him more than what he is used to. 200-300 Rs usually does the trick, but if you think your tour guide did a great job, don’t be afraid to give more as well. Soon, it was back in the car and back to Gurgaon. Be prepared to sit in traffic in Agra, but don’t stick your nose in a book. This is one of the best times for people watching! At one point, I saw a family of six on a motorbike and another driver had stacked about 10 feet of boxes on top of his scooter. Once you’re back on the Yamuna Expressway, have your driver stop at one of the pit stops and pick up some somosa chaat. After you’ve had a quick bite to eat, you can rest your eyes until you’re back at your final destination.