Taking the bus…

The Paharganj street in Delhi.

The Paharganj street in Delhi.

After flying back from Port Blair on the Andaman islands we spent a few days in Delhi sorting out our Chinese visas, then set our course east to try and see wild tigers in the Bandhavgarh national park. On the way we wanted to tick Agra and the Taj Mahal off the list (you can’t really go to India without seeing it)..though preferably without having to spend too much time there as it’s tout/hassle/scam heaven – precisely because all tourists go there and no-one stays very long meaning they’re all “fresh”. We booked a nice aircon tourist bus to Agra that would apparently include the tour, so that we could catch the 13-hour train out to Umaria 4pm the same day and get out of Agra. We had wanted to get the train the whole way but the guy in the hotel where we bought the bus tickets said it was sold out for the first stretch. He seemed ok, and gave us good instructions for how to buy the onward train tickets at the railway station; “go to foreign tourist office on 2nd floor, and don’t trust anyone anywhere else who says they can help you“.. The Agra bus was meant to leave at 6am so we showed up at 5:45 as instructed – half an hour later a kid with almost no english shows up to lead us to the bus – he takes us on a long walk through narrow streets dodging stray dogs and cow dung on the way, then leaves us standing by a bigger road then disappears. When he comes back some 15 min later he and another Delhi business-man in his teens stick us on a bus without a single other person where we sit and wait roughly 45 minutes..before they come back and tell us “this bus cancel“. We’re moved to a different bus – neither of the two actually has aircon, unless if you count that the new one is missing the back part of the bus due to a crash. This bus is full and the driver, an angry man in his 40’s, wants us to share a single seat at the very back – the worst bumpiest place to sit. After I explain about six times that what he’s pointing at is not two seats he eventually shuffles people around a little but a short while into the trip we’re back to seven people on five seats. That would usually have been ok if we’d bought public bus tickets but here we’d probably paid for about 10 seats, not the 1.5.. I’ve actually fallen for the good old sell-luxury-ticket-dump-on-public-bus trick once before, in Thailand with my brother Mikael a few years back. That time I think I’d even paid twice the amount of the other scammed tourists onboard!

Bus to Agra.

Bus to Agra.

There were no other tourists on this bus though. The crash-injured bus eventually limped out of Delhi around 8am and when nearing 2pm we still weren’t there. The trip was supposed to take 4-5 hours which with the 6am start would have given us time to see Taj Mahal before the 4pm train..now we were sitting in the bus and calculating the odds if we tried to pull off taking a tuktuk to the train station to store the bags in a locker, another tuktuk to Taj, running in to take two photos, catching another tuktuk back to the train station all within 2 hours…we were starting to give up. Then this guy hops on the bus and walks down to us saying he’s organizing the tour that we’d paid for and puzzled we explain our dilemma. He insists that “please, you are my guests now” and he has a tuktuk and driver waiting that can take us to Taj then drop us at the station in time for the train. He even has a hostel where we can store the backpacks, and everything is free of charge. This all seems a bit too good to be true..no-one else is getting off the bus here.. Edel asks which tour company he’s with and he says “same one” pointing at the bus that’s taking off “the..um..” – mumbles something that sounds like “Asia tours” – the one we booked with was Unlimited tours. What to do? We went along with it for the moment for lack of options, expecting alarm bells to ring at some point. The driver takes us to the hostel to drop the bags (we take down the name in case) then as close as he can to Taj Mahal (there’s a 500 meter exclusion zone as the thing is crumbling away in the smog). At the Taj Mahal there’s bag inspection and a completely random list of forbidden items such as: writing paper, playing cards, books (except guidebooks), mp3-player and other electronics (except camera). We leave one of our bags with all the forbidden items in the free (except backsheesh) locker outside. To get close to the monument itself you need to take your shoes off, and walking barefoot on the polished stone surfaces in the 40 something degree heat is the cruelest torture India has thrown our way yet. They did have a plastic mat put in for some parts of the walks, however for the mat they had chosen the colour black…

..hot..hot..hot..

..hot..hot..hot..

The monument itself is I guess pretty nice, though we cover it as quickly as someone walking on burning coal. Outside the driver is waiting – he’d mentioned on the way that there was something else he was going to show us and now he explains – there’s a couple shops he needs to take us to or otherwise the bus company won’t let him work with them. He seems pretty apologetic about this and we don’t need to buy anything, just please spend 5-6 minutes looking in each one. For the third final shop he explains he gets 50 rupees just for bringing us there so please look for 10 minutes. We joke at how funny it is that he told us, and feel more relaxed now that we know why someone bothered to pick us off the bus and drive us around for the whole afternoon. After buying some Darjeeling tea in the shop the driver takes us to pick up our backpacks that are still safe and to have a quick lunch before dropping us at the correct train station (there are six of them in Agra). We give him a good tip for being honest with us about what’s going on, though I would have absolutely loved to have the complete details of this setup… Do these guys have any connection at all to the ones we booked with, or do they just pick tourists randomly off the buses? Does the tuktuk driver get paid, or does he actually have to pay the first guy to get the tourists and then make money only from the shop commissions? We wouldn’t have managed to see the Taj Mahal without them anyway! (..though I’m slightly less happy with the miserable wreck of a bus that we’d royally overpaid for to begin with).

Final note on the Taj Mahal; Said to be the ultimate monument to romantic love, built by Shah Jahan for his favourite wife in 1631 (..who’d just died giving birth to her 14th child) – the Shah is said to have lived out his final years inconsolable and ‘gazing wistfully at the Taj Mahal’. The Rough Guide, which I love for it’s detailed history sections, tells that in reality he partied on quite energetically with the rest of his harem and when he finally died at 74 it was from a massive overdose of opium and aphrodisiacs!

Nothing is ever what is seems in India…

4 Responses to “Taking the bus…”

  1. Simona says:

    Hi Edel,
    Surprise…Steph gave me the link to your blog. So you guys are out and about once again, sounds great! Your blog is as interesting and entertaining as the previous one. I’m finally quitting myself to do the same. Heading off in November for 8 months. I’ll search for inspiration/motivation on your blog then…enjoy the rest of the trip! Simona 🙂

  2. Yvonnne says:

    Hey Mr & Mrs. Tryse,

    Just spent a nice evening getting updated on all your adventures. What an amazing experience. The video of the ‘road trip’ is too scary to watch! Love the pictures. Those carvings on the temples are certainly special! The both of you look soooo relaxed in every single picture. And yes of course.. am a tiny bit jealous. Then again, I can’t picture myself on that bus.. ever!

    Enjoy enjoy enjoy.

    Hugs,
    Yvonne

  3. Claudia Aguiar says:

    What is this bus?? Poor Edel!! It’s worst, really worst than in Brazil! hahaha!! xxx

  4. Chris says:

    And here I was in Athens yesterday complaining about the taxi drivers and vowing to never ever take a taxi in my life again. Kept my word on day 1 and took the metro to the TP office. Obviously, there is no metro station close to TP, so I ended up walking for 20 minutes, but still… I was happy to not have to take a taxi. The metro to the airport is currently closed, so I took another metro line, then switched to a suburban rail solution and managed to get to the airport as well without the use of taxis… So far, so good.

    So you can see my dilemma now… A country where ANY type of bus, state operated or privately operated has the ‘Athens taxi feel’, but then multiplied by 500… brrrr… shivers down my spine.

    Maybe when you guys get back you want to help me write a book about the best tourist traps in the world? From the big ones, like your “Taj Mahal experience”, or well… “Italy” to the smaller ones (Prague’s ‘You have to buy a photography permit in order to take pictures inside a dark building, but tripods and flash are not allowed even with permit’). I really think there’s a market for a book like that.

    And finally… (puts on his ironical hat) thanks for putting the concept and accompanying pictures of ‘dying of an overdose of aphrodisiacs’ in my brain. It’s been haunting me for days… Life will never be the same again.

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