Feeling cheerful and relaxed, fueled by our extended stay on the Grand Trunk express, we exited the train to find ourselves surrounded once again by a crowd of people, offering all manner of goods and services to us, not the least of which was the opportunity to provide them with handouts. We quickly found ourselves walking next to a fellow who wished to drive us to our hotel. Though we had not yet determined where we were staying (despite much hacking at the internet cafe in Chennai, and much calling from our stateroom on the Grand Trunk), we felt optimistic about the fellow and decided to trust him. We haggled a little with him, got what we thought was a decent price (only 5 or 6 times what an Indian would pay) and we were off. We looked though our notebook and chose a place. The driver informed us this as a bad place. So we chose another. he seemed to like that one much better, and in no time, a tall man in a turban was opening the door to the Hotel Amar for us.
The joint looked clean and there was a fellow savagely raging away on the internet right in the lobby. So we asked to see a room. 3500 rupees, the fellow said. We frowned and gesticulated about the expense, so the man (who later turned out to be the manager) asked us how much we wanted to pay. We said 2000.
“You are my first customers of the day… so you may have it for 2000.”
First thing is, as always, first: bicycles. So we consulted the scanned copies of lonely planet that we had obtained through inter-library loan, and set out for Raja bicycle shop. During the walk we were averaging one solicitation for a ride on a bicycle rickshaw for every 15 steps, all manner of traffic –car, bus, sheep, bicycle, camel, bullock cart. But we strode unfazed. Why were we so cool headed? Were we beginning to develop the savage asiawheeling mind like water? Were we becoming the masters of our own destiny. Or had we forgotten to take the Malarone pills? As you, dear reader, have no doubt guessed, it was the latter.
We arrived at Raja Bicycles and found it to be quite literally a crumbling hole in the wall. Inside which we found Mr. Raja himself, presiding over a pile of rusting bicycles. We (admittedly weakly) tried to haggle, but Raja stood his ground. So 100 rupees later Raja had pulled a rusted and dilapidated hunk from the pile. This bicycle’s bent frame was held together with bits of string and was it first so malformed that the wheel would not even spin. Then, before our very eyes, he produced a giant wrench. He did not use it for wrenching, rather he set upon the bike with a furious beating, attempting to align the wheel and pounding the heads of the breaks back into position. Before 2 minutes had passed, he had produced two somewhat ridable bicycles. They, however, had no bells. Bells had been so vital a part of our previous riding that we were instantly uncomfortable. Also, as we rode away on the bikes, it became obvious that the fixes that had just been performed were of the most temporary nature.
On our way back to the hotel for that so pleasantly forgotten Malarone, we passed a stand selling water, cigarettes, and little packaged snacks. The owner was a vast man in an impressive black garb. His outfit, however, was only a dim glimmer in relation to his great beard, which was flecked with red hairs. He apparently took a liking to us and asked us to have a seat with him on the plastic chairs outside the stand. We sat and drank water while he smoked bidis. We spoke of AsiaWheeling, the disrepair bicycles we had just purchased and he even brought up Barack Obama. Perhaps the first time on this trip that I have even considered the notion of a small world.
With bellies full of Malarone, we remounted our medium-faithful steads and took off for the Taj Mahal. The streets of Agra were quite different than any we had yet navigated. Agra is in the province of Uttar Pradesh, and being a poorer province than where we were in the south, the ratio of cars and auto-rickshaws to beasts of burden: camels, bullocks, horses, and humans straining away on bicycle rickshaws had increased sharply. As we rode to the Taj Mahal on our crumbling bicycles, we passed one bicycle rickshaw after another, and while we had been offered rides (for 10 or 20 cents) it became clear that giving tourists rides was unfortunately not the main focus of these fellows careers. Most had been hired by other Indians to carry obscene loads of metal, towers of water bottles, or clusters of 3-4 50 gallon oil drums.
Since pollution from cars and auto-rickshaws has begun to dull the white marble of the Taj, we soon crossed a barrier past which nothing but cycles, camels etc. were allowed. We rolled to the parking lot where we were given conflicting instructions and a number of slips of paper. In the end we gave some person 10 rupees to stop hassling us and locked the bikes to a metal fence.
The Taj Mahal was, of course, amazing. I’ll let the pictures speak.
After hours of ambling through the Taj, Scott in particular was boiling over. So we exited the palace and sat outside a water kiosk, collecting ourselves. On the advice of our bearded friend at the water and cigarette stall, we set out on the cycles once again, all manner of traffic whirring abound us, in search of a restaurant called Indiana. The front rim of Scott’s Cycle, which had to this point been held on via an ancient length of what appeared to be a twisted and woven plastic sack, broke free of it’s proper place and began to ride gratingly on the front tire. We stopped to fix it with a length of garbage that we found in the street. Immediately we were surrounded by beggar children vying to give us a hand with the repair. As Scott fumbled with the bit of garbage, 3 more hands with alternative bits of garbage appeared on either side. Finally, we relinquished the task and gave the fellow 10 rupees. This act brought on an onslaught of solicitations, more vehement than any we had yet endured. Despite the cold pit which had replaced my stomach, I climbed back on my cycle and attempted to coax motion from its sickly frame.
Exhausted and fully aware of the fact that we had not eaten all day, but had walked around in the glaring sun for 5 hours, we wheeled our jalopies into the parking lot of the Indiana, hidden at the end of Fatehabad road, behind the hotel Ratan Deep (in case you are ever in Agra). We parked our bikes outside and immediately ran into the manager, just leaving. He said he thought we were perhaps the first customers he had ever had who arrived on bicycles. And such tattered bicycles.
We grinned and entered the restaurant. The it was cool and dim, smelled great. We were seated at a table which was so high that our lamb and cheese tandoori, palak paneer, and grahm rotis came, they hovered a mere foot under may face (the better to eat you with my dear…). When we got the check there was a 20% discount: “for arriving on cycles it said.” Yes, yes, I know what you are thinking dear reader: a more foolish man would think the deck was full of aces…