Let’s be honest about it, Agra sucks. When you plan to visit the tourist epicentre of India, you know it’s going to suck, and it does — badly. But the Taj Mahal, oh the Taj Mahal. What a magnificent sight. I don’t need to tell you that, though, everyone knows it and for good reason. So fine is the experience that it makes the lobotomy of visiting Agra absolutely worth it. Pushy touts and drivers are sure to pepper any destination in India but only in Agra is your suffering truly insured by a guarantee of brilliance. A brilliance that only the grand mausoleum and towering minarets of the Taj can afford.
The Uttar Pradesh tourism board have chosen not to light the Taj at night and I thought this a good thing. A sight such as this deserves the full illumination of daylight and no amount of incandescence could do it justice. Even for those game enough to arrive at sunrise, trying to avoid the crowds at the Taj is a futile effort. We, the tourist horde, number so many here that it’s packed throughout visiting hours. Fortunately no concentration of people is capable of detracting from the supernatural beauty of the grounds, especially at dawn. A box ticked, I left happy.
The next morning, I was halfway through an uninspired bowl of muesli when I began to feel my stomach tighten. Groaning, I took immediate survey of the nearest lavatory. A storm was brewing and my suffering was assured. It is an exceptionally dark experience to be sick while travelling alone and, as intense stomach pain gave way to a volcanic fever, I sat in the lobby of a nondescript hotel being steadily reduced to a whimpering shell of a man. Rakesh, the owner of the hotel and a man I had just met, showed me what felt at the time to be an immense level of humanity. Perhaps concerned I’d scare off his guests with my leper-like demeanour, he offered me a room and some blankets to lie down with and even a lassi to settle my temperature free of charge. Later, he sent one of his employees along with me to load up on prescription drugs before my train to Varanasi. Pale and emaciated, I shook his hand as one might an old friend. Sometimes even the smallest act of charity can make the unbearable seem markedly less so.