An early start to the day coupled with anguish with a tad of excitement to visit The Taj Mahal loomed as Agra was about a four hour car journey away, which meant self-induced dehydration to avoid the ghastly toilets on the trip, and the unnecessary need for frequent pit-stops which is ever-so popular when hiring a tourist travel guide car. After all, commission is how one survives in a tourist fueled city.
Delhi awakes around as the drive to Agra leads the path to the interior of the capital where industries thrive and the chaos of the city falls behind but kept alive with the chatty radio stations of the capital that capture the true essence of the nation.
Peace and serenity surrounds the 230+ km highway without the constant blaring sounds from the car horns as kilometers of smoothly paved highway connects Delhi to Noida and Noida to Agra which offers a glimpse into Uttar Pradesh, a perfect and unplanned aspect to the North India trip.
Along the route, to my delight and much surprise, a stretch of India’s much loved Dhaba’s makes an unanticipated appearance. A rough count estimate from my window seat viewing, I’d say, nearly 100 dhaba’s are established on both sides of the highway, competing for tourist attraction with massive striking signboards doused in red paint and images to provide constant drooling on the way to Agra.
Dhaba’s are essentially a name given to a roadside restaurant in India which is situated on highways that generally serve local cuisine, and also serve as truck stops. Dhaba’s are heavily influenced by the Punjabi culture and initially set up by enterprising Punjabis to cater to the needs of truckers, who initially were mostly Punjabis, for wholesome, clean, and authentic Punjabi food at any hour of the day or night, typically offering a 24/7 service.
The taste buds could not resist, thus, a mandatory pit stop was attained at one of the many dhaba’s in plain sight. The red brick walls of eatery provided an open pan view of the kitchen, with the tandoors set ablaze from handy wood fire along with natural biogas. The air was filled with chatter of the dhaba owners and from the few customers along with the constant chopping and commotion at the kitchen which kept the liveliness intact.
I order the most cliché item: Aalu Paratha. Potato flat bread (roti) doused in what I could only measure as two teaspoons of pure Desi ghee.
The magnificent experienced hand which kneaded the paratha dough and tawa-fried the ghee soaked paratha is what one can only relate to be filled with generations of love for fresh and warm food made from hand-me down ancestral recipes that strike a homely loved filled memory with each bite.
All in all, the paratha was accompanied with standard condiments: a katroi (cup) of fresh (I hope so) mint chutney and of course, mixed pickle to be paired with the appetizing aalu paratha and a steamy, frothy masala chai. This dear travelers, is what one would label as a ‘blissful’ moment, a memory worth cherishing for years to come.
With a satisfied appetite and a hop back into the car, I bid farewell to the dhaba experience for the day and zoomed past the highway where once empty plot of fertile land is now overtaken by fields and fields of mustard plantation. The yellow hue attracts the eyes and proves evidence of the Punjabi influence that’s taken over the highway with the acres of mustard seeds from the farming used mainly as supply for the dhaba kitchen.
I watched as the dhaba’s slowly faded to a distance and the city of Agra appeared with its splendid Mughal-era beauty – notably visible all around.
The Tāj Mahal & more.
I spot camels as I walked to the facade of the Taj, odd but a tactical business strategy used to attract weary tourists and for a split second, reminding me of home away from home, Dubai.
Now, before one can see The Taj Mahal:
• one must purchase ticket(s),
• attain a protective cover for the footwear and;
• stand in a queue longer than traffic during peak hours.
Or, if you’d like a VIP treatment, empty those pockets, it’s a hardly a pinch – trust me, and avoid the massive queues present on a weekday, weekend and more so during a full moon.
Opting for the VIP treatment, obviously, my sly smile comes to frame as the hired guide, one of many available at the Taj, guides us to one of the four main entrances. Albeit a walk, the alleyways lead inwards towards small tourist shops displaying marble mini-replicas of Taj and various other items for sale.
At last, the magnificent Taj Mahal in all its glorious beauty.
I forget I am surrounded by fellow tourists, locals, along with the leering group of gawking men and of course, “professional camera-men” who despite a stern and frequent NO!; latch on firmly with cunning words.
I HAVE AN iPHONE 5 Damnit, I DON’T NEED YOUR INSTANT CAMERA. If only, I could yell that out. If only.
Mesmerized by the Taj, the guide fuels the ears with all the facto which one can easily find over the web but all the more enlightening to hear when a guide is truly passionate and amazed by the wonder that is the Taj.
Agra is a city molded by history and Mughal ear architecture that’s truly illuminating. Now, although the cleanliness factor is a major issue, personally, the one day visit was perfect and covered the major tourist locations in Agra and treated the palate to the famous Petha sweets. A magnificent experience all in all.