Bye, Delhi! But not for long!
Today I left Delhi to go to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. I had to leave my hotel to go to the New Delhi Railway Station, which wasn’t terribly far but you can’t walk anywhere with a bag here. Instead of asking for a cab, I tried using Uber, and turns out it was super convenient -the guide said you have to pay cash, but I was able to pay via the app like you would anywhere. The car arrived in five minutes and cost just 120 rupees (€1.5) vs the 350 the hotel said a cab would cost.
Once I arrived at the station, things got a little chaotic, even if I had tried to plan and research as much as humanly possible. For starters, it was packed with people, lots of touts trying to get you to take rickshaws or use them as porters, and of course lots of travelers too.
The first thing I did was locate the Tourist Information Bureau, on the first floor, because try as I might I was unable to ascertain whether my reservation slip was an actual ticket or a voucher that I needed to exchange. I found the office, a very 60s looking room with desks and benches for waiting, where a clerk told me that I indeed had a ticket and showed me what my seat number was. He also told me to go downstairs and check the announcement panel, except the panel did not work so I had no way of knowing where to go (I’d checked online yesterday and saw that the train was expected on platform 3, but who knows).
I went to the departures section, where a guy standing next to the security gate asked for my ticket. I hesitatingly obliged, and he told me that the 11:25 to Agra had been canceled and I would need to rebook for the next train, an hour later, from Old Delhi Station. Here I dismissed him out of hand and went through the gate; this is a frequent scam where they’ll tell you your train is canceled or your hotel is closed, to get you to make another reservation with them, and the people can be convincing (this guy wore a yellow shirt very similar to the security people).
Right past the gate, another man asked for my ticket and also told me the train was canceled. I told him I’d just verified and no thanks, and he said “Go check for yourself, it’s on platform 3.”
Reader, I immediately went into a cold sweat. For one thing, “Go check for yourself” is an odd bluff for a scammer, for something so easy to verify. But, most importantly, platform 3 is indeed the reference point I had for the train, so for the first time I feared there may be some truth to that. As soon as I was out of sight of the lobby, I took my phone out and frantically searched for train status websites -needless to say the official one timed out and the second one required a subscription. Finally I found a website that said my train was indeed on time and expected on Platform 3, so off I went to the platform. There, at last, the display said everything was in order and on time. For bonus points, I got on the platform at the exact spot my train car would arrive!
I’m traveling on class 2AC, which is a car with compartments of four berths each. Because these trains make super long journeys, they’re decked out for people to sleep, but that makes it a little uncomfortable for sitting. In fact, when I located my berth and sat down, I could not sot upright without my head poking the berth above me! So I’m slouching back against the wall… It’s not uncomfortable, really, but it’s the only position I can take so let’s see how I feel in three hours! (As I’m writing this we just departed Delhi, on time mind you, and I’m sharing my compartment with an Indian group of two men and two older women. I think they’re a family, and they’re all having their own phone conversations.
All right, so the train ride wasn’t too bad. Around noon the others took out their lunchboxes and started eating; the lady in front of me sweetly offered me one of her chapati! Honestly, I was starving, because I didn’t get to buy anything at the station and didn’t fully trust the samosas they sell on the train, but she only had two and I didn’t want to impose so I declined. Later the same lady started chatting with me, except fully in Hindi, and I tried telling her I didn’t understand but she just repeated the question. I was like, lady, repeating the question except louder and slower is what white people are supposed to do to you, not the other way around! The other lady did speak a tiny bit of English, though, so very laboriously we managed to have a small chat. They were very impressed that I was from Spain (they had a conversation about it in Hindi, your guess as to what they said is as good as mine), they asked what I had seen so far and where I was going, they were from Kerala and had been to Delhi to visit their son… when I told them I was traveling along they immediately asked where my parents are!
Although the train had left on time, it took on about a 30 min delay on the way to Mathuba, the only stop between Delhi and Agra -the lady in front of me pointed outside the window and said “Krishna!”, which I now understand as meaning that Mathuba is the birthplace of Lord Krishna, the Hindu deity, I guess the way Varanasi is considered the home of Lord Shiva? Anyway, the train was stuck in the station for a further 30 minutes, so I ended up getting off at Agra Cantt (you’ll see lots of Cantt and Jn in station names in India; short for Cantonment and Junction respectively) with one hour’s delay.
How do you cope with delays when you’re a planner? You plan for them! I have made all my itinerary and my schedules allowing for at least 2h delays in all trains or planes, making sure I didn’t book tight connections and not arriving anywhere after 6PM. So I was fully prepared for an even longer delay today and didn’t stress about it!
Outside the station I took a rickshaw to my hotel, of course agreeing the fare beforehand -he seemed prickly when I double-checked with him that the agreed price was 100 R (€1.2) and that he was taking me to the right address; “Sir this is not Delhi”, he said, which: fair enough, I just came from there, but also double-checking is something that I do all the time even back home. He made sure to show me all his licenses and documentation.
On the way he offered his services as a driver for me tomorrow, and this is the thing that I would normally reject out of hand and book on my own, but he seemed easygoing and amenable to making a plan with the stuff that I wanted to see. The thing is, in Agra all the sights are far from each other, so I know I’ll need a ride of some sort between each one, and hotel tours are expensive and, what’s worse, they include a guide along with the driver and it stresses me out to have somebody hovering next to me while I’m trying to explore. So yeah, having a driver is better, and if we do everything tomorrow I can maybe go on a tour to Fatehpur the day after.
I’m staying at the Howard Plaza hotel, which is nice enough -the facilities are a bit old but the room itself is huge with a giant bed, a desk and an armchair. The location isn’t great; I walked out later in the afternoon to try to find an ATM and there’s practically nothing except dusty roads and honking cars (and a Domino’s, incongruously). If you look at the map, getting to the backpacker quarter is a very doable walk, but in reality it felt like a nightmare to go anywhere and none of the ATMs that showed on Google Maps appeared to exist so I gave up and returned to the hotel after like five minutes.
So this is it for today! Tomorrow: the Taj Mahal!