Agra, India • November 2018 • Length of Read: 6 Minutes
I perused the breakfast buffet with a disgruntled look on my face, the smell of spices splitting my nostrils as I lifted the silver hot plate covers one by one to be faced with a spectrum of colourful curries; a welcome sight had I been spending a Saturday night out with the lads and there were beers involved, but less desirable at 8am on a muggy Sunday morning in a polluted country with questionable plumbing and hygiene standards. People visit Agra for one thing and one thing only, and it’s most definitely not for ‘brunch’.
Cobbling together an assortment of vegetarian and savoury snacks, I took first pick of the twenty empty tables in the restaurant, put down my plate, and left to get some fruit juice and a coffee. When I returned about seventeen seconds later, there was a pot-bellied Indian man slumped in a chair at the very place setting I’d reserved. This wasn’t on.
“Eh, can I help you?” I scowled as I approached him, noticing that my own breakfast had been brushed to the other end of the table.
“Hello,” he smiled, bobbing his head. “Oh, where you sitting here?”
I slowly and deliberately looked around, the restaurant deserted apart from the twice-as-many-as-necessary number of waiters each doing the job of half a man to compensate for the over-employment. “Yes,” I answered in somewhat disbelief. “If I’m interrupting something, however,” I continued, sarcasm dripping from every syllable, “I can move elsewhere?”
“Thanks very much,” he said with no hint of irony before handing me my plate.
“Cheeky bastard,” I muttered under my breath as Dad appeared from the room upstairs.
We were on a father and son tour of India’s Golden Triangle; a three-city round trip taking in the sights and tourist attractions from Delhi to Agra to Jaipur. And despite the hostilities at breakfast, as soon as we got in our driver’s lemon-scented Toyota and met our guide for the day, I began to feel rather zestful. We were on our way to visit the Taj Mahal, a palatial mausoleum and one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the ‘Crown of the Palace’ was built to house the tomb of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Dominating the hazy skyline from the south bank of the Yamuna River, the Taj Mahal complex covers an area of 42 acres and took in excess of 20,000 employees approximately 21 years to complete. In addition to the ivory-white backdrop of Princess Diana’s iconic bench photograph, there are gardens, a guesthouse, secondary tombs, and four ginormous minaret towers. Present day cost adjusted for inflation: circa $1billion.
Passing through the ticket inspection gate of my third ‘wonder’ was like entering a portal to another dimension. I’d already trekked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru and taken in the same vista of Rio de Janeiro as Christ the Redeemer, but both of them had rightfully felt like cultural extensions of the countries in which they were constructed. The bubble of tranquillity and serenity that housed the Taj Mahal, on the other hand, felt somewhat eerie in comparison to the chaos and poverty that laid outside of its high, guarding walls. The sounds of car horns and beggars were muted, instead replaced by the chitter chatter of excited tourists, all trigger-happy with their camera phones and DSLR lenses in the hope of getting that perfect social media snap. Even our guide was in on the action, more concerned about getting us an album of holiday pictures as opposed to providing informative historic dialogue. #India #Culture.
The couple of hours we spent wandering around the grounds in the early-morning heat, however, were extremely pleasant, and I was in awe of the intricate details encased in the brickwork of the domed mausoleum; everything impeccably symmetrical and thought-out to the nth degree. Visiting the Taj certainly hasn’t inspired me to give any additional thought just yet to the funeral care of my loved ones, but has instilled in me a greater desire to leave something of value behind on this Earth, or elsewhere in the Universe, that will benefit others when I’ve moved on to the afterlife.
As soon as we exited the complex, the bubble well and truly burst. Dodging dehydrated and slouch-humped camels, motorbikes with entire families perched on the back like amateur trapeze artists, and health-and-safety rulebook breaking construction works, we made it to our lunch stop. The tour briefing had stated that lunch could be eaten at our ‘own preferred place of choice’, but nepotism wasn’t going to go into hiding that easily. As Dad and I sat down and tucked into our curries, our guide left with the restaurant owner, the pair chatting away like old school buddies.
“Are you finished, Sir?” the waiter asked Dad when he returned to replenish our drinks. “May I clear your plate?”
With a mouth full of food, knife and fork in each hand, and a substantial amount of curry and rice still left on his plate, Dad looked up at the waiter like he was from another planet and almost spat out his lunch. “Eh, no.”
Neither of us could get our head around the immense contrast to Western culture that is India was proving to be; none more blatantly stark than when it came to manners or tipping. From personal experience, it felt that a staggeringly large percentage of locals we met during our trip were just trying to get money out of us. Bellboy rips your bag out your hands and carries it 5 metres – wants a tip. Hotelier holds the door for you upon arrival – wants a tip. Toilet attendant hides paper and then tears it off strip by strip for your use –wants a tip. Guide takes you to his friend’s souvenir shop and demos marble-shaping techniques – wants a tip. It really did start to drain my patience very quickly.
“What’s there to see in Delhi?” I asked our driver when he dropped up back off at the hotel that night, having spent the afternoon dodging the crowds at the spectacular Agra Fort and the underwhelming Baby Taj; as impressive as a Lego construction when compared to its big brother.
“Traffic,” he replied bluntly.
I couldn’t help but let out a chuckle. That was the most honest answer anyone had given us all day.