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Thursday 25th November - Kanpur to Agra
By Claire
Monday, 29th November 2004 11:08

We arrived in Kanpur at 5am, and Mikey woke me up about ten minutes before that. I felt great, as I always do after a migraine tablet, but Mikey looked terrible: the bottom bunk was made up of two setas facing one another and was not comfortable to sleep on at all. I felt a bit guilty. We lugged all our bags onto the platform (they've increaded by a factor of... whatever it is that turns two into three or four and a half into five and a half) and thought for a moment. We had a ticket to Agra, but the train didn't leave here until midnight. And it would get into a station an hour away from the town itself at 4am... it wasn't a good plan. The train bible had several alternatives, which were the ones that no-one would book for us, so Mikey attempted the ticket desk to buy them. After two goes, he came back with tickets for a train that didn't exist but which should be arriving any second. We made it to the platform as the train approached. Unable to decipher the Hindi on the ticket, we waited for a man in uniform to help us. Someone else came to our assistance, though, and said that there was no room in first or AC class (the nice ones), only in second class. The uniform man piped up that that was full too, and we weren't allowed on the train. So we went back to the waiting room and Mikey tried again and again to get some sense out of the unhelpful helpdesk man. In the end it looked like we had to spend our twenty hours here. Kanpur wasn't in our guide book and the touts on the platform were offering rooms for only a handful of rupees, which didn't bode well. I decided to find out how much a taxi would cost to take us to Agra. I figured that a four-hour journey of 200 miles might be preferable to waiting in a station that smelled of wee.

I fought through the crowds of touts and managed to get a sensible answer from three of them: Kanpur to Agra would cost us 2000 rupees, about 25 pounds, which is more than we wanted to spend, but seemed to be the going rate. I went back in to tell Mikey and to get the bags. By the time I came out, the price had gone up to 3000 rupees. We refused to play their game, and a young man tried to help us. He spoke wonderful, careful British English, and phoned his father, a taxi-driver, to ask how much we should pay. His father was ill, or he would have taken us himself for 2000 rupees. The man called a bunch of drivers over and talked to them. He sent them away and then called them back and told us that this man would take us to Agra for 2300. We thanked him and waved as his sick father drove him home, and he called to us to look after ourselves. Our bags were squished into the back of the taxi and, after a bit of pushing to start the car, we were off.

We were in one of the beautiful old Ambassador taxis, huge, white, cavernous monsters that look like classic cars but are new. This one reminded me a lot of my dad's Wolseley, with its bench seats, no seat belts, little triangular front window panes and knobs on the dash board, but without the smell of leather, the bakelite or the trafficators. Ten minutes into the journey the driver demanded 1000 rupees for petrol, which is a tactic to get us half way and demand more money, but we had to pay up because it was unlikely he had that much money on him at 7am. So we just sat back and enjoyed the ride. Except that at this time of the morning it was obviously the time for men to sit in fields and relieve themselves: I saw more naked bottoms this morning than in the whole of the rest of my life so far!

My general view on life is that if you're not having fun you're probably not doing it right, so I decided that to enjoy India, I have to look at it a different way. I came up with a list of things that I do like about the country so far.

  • I like the fact that Indian women all dress immaculately, that their saris or salwar kameez are bright jewels in a dusty world and every colour of a rainbow and their scarves and accessories ALWAYS compliment the outfit.
  • I like the fact that on a single taxi journey you can see pigs, horses, donkeys, peacocks, cows, buffalo, monkeys, goats, dogs, chipmonks, camels and elephants.
  • I like that perfect strangers can give you generous gifts and expect nothing in return.
  • I like the fact that no matter how poor someone is, they still manage to paint the horns of their cows, put bells or turbans on their buffalo or give their donkeys a pink mohican hair-do before going out for the day.
  • I like that cow pats can be used as building materials and that all along the road there are small huts made of shaped dung.
  • I like that you can get eighteen sacks, eleven men, four goats, two dogs and an old woman on a motorbike.
  • I like these last two because now that I know these things, the voices in my head will stop pestering me to find out for myself.
  • I like that no matter how many people are in a rickshaw, there is always room for six more on the outside.
  • I like that every lorry, no matter how battered, is painted with bright colours and decorated with tinsel.

Which will do for now! The journey took eight hours, and we passed all sorts of interesting things. The driver spent most of the time chewing red tobacco called pan, and opening the door to let a stream of it out between his teeth. At one point he found a tiny cigarette in his pocket that didn't smell entirely of tobacco...

The mark of a successful taxi ride in India is that we didn't hit anything, so that's good. We stopped briefly at a cafe, or rather a table at the side of the road, for the driver to get some chai and while we were sitting there a man came along, took all his clothes bar his loincloth off, poured a bucket of water over himself, soaped all over and rinsed, then dried and got dressed, right next to the table and no-one, except me, seemed to notice. In fact, we drew more attention just sitting there, as everyone going past stopped to stare for a bit, and a few of the children waved or called hello.

We passed a wall on which a wild peacock and a monkey were sitting. The monkey was chattering away and it looked like the peacock was nodding wisely at everything the monkey said. We also passed villages made entirely of tents, and small settlements round kiln chimneys which were built of piles of bricks stacked against one another. By 2.30 the taxi driver had made it to Agra and refused to negotiate the horrendous traffic in town. He dropped us off at a hotel on the outskirts and three doormen rushed to take our bags. They and the driver were disappointed when we took our own bags and began to walk into town. We were hoping to find an auto to take us to the hotel that's actually inside the walls of the Taj Mahal, but there were no autos in sight, for once. Instead, a rickshaw pulled up next to us, and we laughed at the thought of the two of us, and five and a half bags, going on the back of a bike. The rickshaw-wallah didn't though, and he seemed quite impassive while we loaded the tiny seat with everything and then climbed on top. He cycled quickly through the town, past the incredible red sandstone of the Fort, and we were perched precariously above the world, holding on to bags and seat for dear life as cars, bikes, camels and horse-drawn carts rushed by. Outside the gates to the Taj Mahal he let us off, and we were bombarded by people wanting to sell us things and show us rooms and take us to places. We ignored them all, and found our way to the hotel we wanted. Our reservation got mixed up anyway, so being here a day early didn't matter. There was no hot water until 7pm, so I couldn't wash off the three inches of dust that the taxi-ride had produced. We went out to find some food and the internet instead.

We had to run the gauntlet of touts, all persistent and annoying and offering rickshaws, postcards and souveneirs. A bunch of children pulled on our clothes and demanded sweets until I hit them and shouted at them to go away. We had supper on the roof of the sister hotel (with a view of the Taj Mahal), and we could hear a wonderful combination of noises: the call to prayer from a local mosque; the heavy bass beat from a car stereo somewhere; monkeys chattering in the woods; car horns and a bunch of children arguing. Back at the hotel, Mikey put up the mosquito nets to thwart the insects and fell asleep. I tried to catch up with my diaries, but didn't really manage it too well.

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