Throughout my six weeks in India, I was asked this question more times than I could count. Usually while visiting tourist attractions, but sometimes even in supermarkets or simply walking down the street – complete strangers would stop and ask to take a photo with me. The first time it happened I was walking around Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial, and I was more confused than anything else. I accepted and posed for an awkward photo, only because I couldn’t think of a good reason to politely say no on the spot.
By the second and third time, I stopped caring about being polite and got into the habit of quickly declining anyone who approached me for a picture. If people thought I was being rude, it didn’t bother me: in my eyes, asking a total stranger for a photograph just because they look different is far ruder. In front of the Qutub Minar, I even asked one man why he wanted to take a picture of me just because I was white and bald, when there was a 1000-year old, 73 metre-tall monument behind him. He skulked off awkwardly, not sure how to reply.
I bring this up now because the first thing that happened when I boarded my train from Lucknow to Agra was – you guessed it – my seat neighbour asked me for a selfie. Given that I was about to spend nine hours sitting next to the guy, I decided to swallow my pride and do it, if only to avoid making things unbearably awkward.
As it turns out, the man (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) was a father of three and on the train with him was his entire family, grandma included, making their way to Firozabad outside Agra. His youngest daughter, no older than five and absolutely adorable, introduced herself to me in very shy English as Minal, after a bit of encouragement from her dad. And when I opened up Midnight’s Children again, she was sat reading it over my shoulder, trying to make sense of the English words.
“A pair of barely concealed royal boobies”
Later, I was watching an episode of The Crown on Netflix when I realized the dad was also watching it from the seat next to me, so I gave him one of my headphones. To my infinite horror, almost as soon as I did this a sex scene started playing, and I found myself holding up my phone for a stranger on a train to watch a pair of barely concealed royal boobies. I was just about ready to die of embarrassment, but he broke the tension by laughing and then nudging me in the side, raising his eyebrows suggestively.
I couldn’t help but find it hilarious then, and I ended up having a nice conversation with the man and his family afterwards. It was the kind of brief but memorable encounter that travelling is all about, when people whose paths would never otherwise have crossed get to meet and briefly catch a glimpse of each other’s lives. I regretted not asking them in turn for a picture, because that, to me, is what photos are for: capturing a shared moment with somebody you want to remember. Not collecting trophies of weird-looking foreigners.
The family got off in Firozabad and I continued on to Agra. My seat was a window seat, and I was pleased to discover that Indian train windows open right up, meaning you can shove your head all the way out of them and feel the wind rushing into your face while staring up at the stars. I passed the final leg of the journey in this way, and arrived into Agra, peacefully tired, at two in the morning.
Geometric Gardens & Exotic Birds
My hostel was called Zostel, a lovely place with a very relaxed atmosphere that was just five minutes away from the Taj Mahal. I spent the whole next day lounging in bed, recovering from my long journey while soaking up the sun. And I met two very friendly guys sharing my room, Ricardo and Jim, who also had plans to visit the Taj the next day.
The following morning Jim, Ricardo and I woke up at 5:30am to see India’s most unmissable tourist attraction at sunrise. Few places in the entire world attract so many travellers, or have so much hype behind them, but the Taj Mahal easily lived up to, in fact surpassed, all my expectations. It was an incredible experience which I won’t ever forget.
The moment you step through the enormous gate is enchanting: the building’s architects repeated the same dome shape throughout the entire complex, so the main structure is perfectly silhouetted through the doors as you approach. And then you come out into the courtyard, where the geometric gardens stretch off into the distance, and exotic birds fly overhead.
The pale blue light of morning shrouded the Taj in a misty, mystical cloak, and as the sun came up onto its east side, the white marble turned a gentle shade of dawn-yellow. The scale of it is just unfathomable, and until you get right up close it’s hard to comprehend just how much of an achievement its construction was, and how well preserved it still is today.
“There were people photographing bushes”
But what fascinated me just as much as the Taj itself were the people visiting it. Something about the building inspires a unique kind of tourism, one where people seem compelled to photograph absolutely every single moment of their once in a lifetime experience. There were people photographing bushes, and I noticed that whenever someone in the front of a group would stop and take a picture, everyone else in their group would suddenly scramble to take their own, as if they were terrified they would miss the perfect angle.
I think the reason for this bizarre behaviour is that, in 2018, we all feel so much pressure from social media to turn our lives into stories, and everyone who visits the Taj Mahal senses that it is an important chapter of that story. You have to tell it perfectly – whether it’s the sexy backpacker girls all practising the same pensive Facebook profile pic pose, or the guy trying to perfectly time his kooky mid-air jump picture.
For my part, I was trying to appreciate the moment as much as possible while I was in it, rather than recording every second of it through a phone screen. I think it’s important, in the twenty-first century, that travelling doesn’t just become a social media slideshow. But I can’t pretend I didn’t get some snaps of my own, so maybe I’m just a huge hypocrite.
Israeli Potheads vs Monkeys
After the Taj, we found a rooftop cafe where we ordered some sandwiches and tea. But when the waiter came to deliver our food, he also gave us something which none of us had ordered: a gun. Answering our baffled looks, he explained it was an airgun to defend our food from monkeys, who had been known to sneak up and steal people’s bacon butties while they weren’t looking. There was nothing inside, it just made a loud noise to scare them away.
We were joined on the roof by a group of Israeli backpackers who were about to visit the Taj, and swapped some stories about where we’d travelled to and what to see in Agra. As we were talking, two of them casually pulled joints out of their pockets and lit them. I didn’t expect to find myself shooting at monkeys on a roof in the company of Israeli potheads, but life is like that sometimes.
Exploring An Ancient World
Agra Fort, where we headed next, was just as impressive to me as the Taj. The whole complex felt infused with history as we walked around it: in enormous courtyards there are lavishly decorated pulpits where I imagined ancient kings making oaths of war and peace, and in lavishly decorated palaces full of mirrors, plaques told stories from another time.
There was the king who built a solid gold chain from his chambers to the entrance of the fort, which his subjects would shake if they mistreated. And then there was my favourite – the Musamman Burj, an octagonal marble temple at the top of a tower inlaid with precious stones. Shah Jahan built this temple for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, much like the Taj, and the two of them used it to worship the sun every morning. With a twist of the most beautifully cruel poetic irony, Shah Jahan’s own son Jahangir exiled him into this temple when he seized power from his aging father, locking him away with one of his daughters, who cared for him until he died.
There were countless stories like this inside the Agra Fort, and exploring it really did feel like walking through an ancient world. The Fort and the Taj are probably the two most impressive tourist attractions I’ve ever visited, and my day exploring them both was one of the most memorable I had in India. After it was over, I retreated to the hostel and zonked out for the remainder of my short time in Agra. The next and last stop on my journey to the north of India: Delhi!