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On the road . November 2001 . India

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Broad Band Café, Taj Mahal East Gate Road, Agra 17-11-07
What a nerve!

So, after two-and-a-half weeks, it is well and truly time for a new update on our site. Because Son is still recuperating from her trapped nerve (sciatica), we are still in Agra. We spend our time reading, internetting, enhancing our websites, eating out and stretching the legs and muscles (Son that is). Things haven't been easy though...

She has been in great pain and the process of getting her lower back into shape has been a long and grinding one. After one-and-a-half weeks she ran out of pain killers and decided that it was time to try and do without. She was gaining mobility and the signs were looking good. The last week however, has been a real setback, the pain hasn't receded and her movements haven't got any smoother either. Since we have been in Agra for so long, everybody on the street now knows who we are, where we are staying, where we eat and what we do. And they all know something about relieving Sonya's pain: be it the best bone doctors in Agra, the best warm packs and liniments to use or the best exercise to practice; Agra is full of helpful advising citizens. Still, internet has been our most useful source up till now. We've sourced several exercises on sites like and Son is rigorously doing two 1-hour sessions each day. And it looks like she found the best ones so far just a few days ago, because yesterday (Friday 16th) she was walking almost normally (whatever that means...) Could possibly have something to do with a lot of the street vendors and restaurant holders also praying for her well being, (that's several different gods from different religions), but we're not 100% sure about that one.

So, hopefully, we'll soon be able to see some sites here in Agra and plan a route out of India and into Nepal, which we are now more familiar with than before, because of the Nepal Lonely Planet we received from Pierre-Yves, who we have just met for the second time, (last time in McLeod Ganj).

In India's defence
After resting in Agra for what seems like way too long, it has definitely become apparent that, even though the day to day hassles of India do exist, the fact that we are not riding our bikes through it makes life just that little bit more pleasant.

In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle that frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it's right there, so blurred you can't focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

(from: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 1974)

So, while I am adamant that I would never return to the Indian subcontinent with my bike, (no qualms about Pakistan at all - sorry patriots), I wouldn't want to put anyone off from coming to experience the chaos of Indian life. It is pretty interesting if you wish to fix your eyes upon contrasts and extremes side by side one another. India is certainly good at that. Though, I would recommend coming with ample money: scrimping and saving a couple rupees here and there is just an added stress to your day and strangely enough, travelling is not as cheap as I thought it would be. Misconstrued information carried over from the hippy era I guess.

If you would like to prepare yourself for some of the more genuine sights of India, then here's a couple of enlighteningly good reads: Tales from Firoza Baag by Mistry Rohinson; A god of small things by Arundhati Roy; and The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple.

Some disturbing facts we should have researched before we came to India, I suppose...
* In 2004, as many as 98,618 people lost their lives in road accidents in India.
* The Delhi based Institute of Road Traffic Education of India says the country accounts for nearly 10% of fatal accidents worldwide (currently estimated at 1,200,000 per year)
* India appears to have one of the worst accidents rates in the world. Despite having less than 1% of the worlds vehicles, the country accounts for 6% of total road accidents across the globe and 10% of total road fatalities.


land area:
vehicles on the road:
population density:
accident rate:
fatal accidents per year:
fatal accidents per 100,000 vehicles


3,287,590 square km
336 per square km
35 per 1000 vehicles
98,618 (2004)

The Netherlands

41,526 square km
395 per square km
4,2 per 1000 vehicles
800 (2005)






Tales from the Taj
Agra is a tourist destination, there's no doubt about that and its biggest assets, the Taj Mahal (foremost), followed by the Red Fort, keep the main drag full of tour groups and guides, sightseers, optimistic rickshaw drivers and touts laden with Taj books, t-shirts and (fake) marble trinkets, six days a weeks. The jewel inlayed, marble mausoleum is closed on Fridays to the public. One day when they can't reap the profits from the 750 rupee entrance fee; Indians pay just 20 rupees by the way. Putting that into perspective: it's equivalent to two nights accommodation for a couple in a budget hotel room with private bathroom; ten beers; or better still, one and a half weeks of very satisfying evening meals. The dual pricing code is at it's best in India and if you are into visiting all the so called places of interest, then there is simply no way around it but to pay the price.

There's a nice walk along the side of the Taj Mahal complex; nice in terms that it takes you through areas where locals are working. Stone masons meticulously hammering away as if tranced by the large sandstone slabs laid in front of them and men beating the bulky washing on rocks at the edge of Yamuna River while women lay the fabric across bushes to dry in the slight breeze. The water on the other hand is far from nice and although the men are up to their knees in its thick blackness, I wouldn't risk dipping my big toe in it. You can wander along a dirt track running the full length of the Taj Mahal's back. From this vantage point, you can actually absorb quite a good view of this monumentally extravagant structure.

I would much rather these sorts of meanderings around the area, to take in what the locals are up to, than fork out loads of money on overcrowded sight-seeing traps. As in all the other towns we've visited: a couple of side streets away from the tourist industry's obvious infiltration and the atmosphere completely changes. It's just like stepping out of one movie set and into an entirely different one. You could say, the real India lives in these back lanes: complete with it's mud brick housing and shanty-like existence, children playing boisterously in the street, women sweeping never ending piles of rubbish from their frontage to someone else's, men sitting haunched together in groups chewing on betel-nut and staring outwards and towards something that deludes me altogether. You will inevitably come across every animal under the sun, sniffing and rooting up what they can find in the thrown out scraps and litter. For some reason, cows just love cardboard, though the vision of a large horned beast munching most agreeably on discarded food packaging is a little silly to say the least. Young donkeys will skedaddle past playfully nipping at one another's necks; dogs lie lazily in view and only really come to life when food appears or a territorial dispute arises; goats, sheep, water buffalo and lines of camels jingle jangle up and down the already congested streets. Rats, mice and other smaller scurriers reveal but a fleeting glimpse of themselves before expertly diving into a side-crevice. The pigs: well I'll just leave it up to you to guess what they are there for.

Hotel Sheela is a comfortable place with exceptionally friendly staff, though a few can tend towards the lazy side of life at the best of times. Generally, the lower in rank (caste) the friendlier, more obliging and the harder working the people are. Some of the antics, though in principle pretty sad are really quite comical to view.

Manager walks around complex with a towel in his hand looking for the 'boy' who handles this department. He finally seeks him out and hands over the towel with the instruction to throw it in the washing pile which was closer to him than the young lad in the first place.

We ask for a couple of glasses to take to our room at reception. The manager goes over to the kitchen and emerges with two wet glasses and some newspaper in his hands. He then walks around the complex to find a boy to dry them and in turn give them to us.

Hot water comes in a bucket in the cheaper rooms at Hotel Sheela and when I walk out into the courtyard, bucket in hand, the manager will first call any available lad to come and fetch it from me. This person will shout at the guy sitting closest to the kitchen, who will in turn take the bucket inside and pass the message on to the next in line that "the lady in room 106 wants hot water". This process is repeated until the cleaner finally catches wind of it. He has to leave the room he is tidying to run the water in the bucket and bring it to our room. Meanwhile, the others involved with the initial part of the process have all resumed former positions and watch as the cleaner delivers the hot water to room 106. He always manages a great big smile before returning to his cleaning chores.

Unfortunately, the cuisine in the restaurant is not quite as interesting as the staff's activities. It is more a watered down and unflavoured version of what the chef thinks westerners would like to eat. Their version of tomato soup is a couple of squirts of tomato ketchup diluted down with boiling water. There is no fooling my taste buds I'm afraid. The food is also, comparatively, very expensive and the portion sizes are so tiny, we need to spend a small fortune to dull Ali's meal time cravings. Luckily, we have found ourselves a little gem of a eatery near the south gate: Treat Restaurant. Food is as the name says, a real treat and while I recommend the cheese mughlai, Ali thinks the vegetable curry or fresh french spinach dish should get first votes. Anyway, after the owner down the road at Joinus Restaurant lied to us on several occasions and the food is a difficult flight of stairs away in most other places, we have made Treat Restaurant our regular nightly rendezvous. And no, we haven't got bored yet, not even after 12 meals. Seems strange that such a place doesn't get a mention in the holiest of guidebooks, but then just between you and me, it is rumoured that certain researchers ask the restaurants here for anything between 100 and 200 US dollars for a recommendation. Gee, and I thought it was all such an honest business...

Diwali has been and gone without too much affair. More akin to a family Christmas party with street fireworks for communal enjoyment than a festival in the sense that we know it. The days are pretty much routine at the moment and both of us can't wait to get out of Agra and back on the bikes again, even though it is quite a reasonable place to be stuck in. It's not too hectic and the weather is pleasant at the moment: cool evenings and warm sunshiny days, though a little on the hazy side. We've been befriended by plenty of locals and everyday we stop to chat with a few of them as we wander up and down the main street. The fact that we make these regular walks never seems to stop the rickshaw boys from trying their luck with us everyday. And everyday the same conversation.

"OK Rickshaw Madam?"
"No thank you."
"Please Madam, come, rickshaw?"
"No thank you."
"I help you Madam. OK?"
"No thank you."
"Only ten rupees, anywhere.OK. Where you go?"
"I don't need a rickshaw. I have to walk"
"You walk now, maybe later OK?"
"No thank you."
"When you come back, OK?"
"No thank you."
"Tomorrow, Madam?
"You remember me Madam. Sanjeev Madam, Sanjeev. Tomorrow okay Madam?"
"Maybe tomorrow"
"What time Madam?"
"I don't know, I only said maybe."
"You remember me Madam. Sanjeev"
"Yes, I'll remember you Sanjeev, how could I forget". Goodbye"
"Yes, goodbye Madam. Tomorrow, you remember. OK?"
"Yes, I'll remember!!"

Broad Band Café, Taj Mahal East Gate Road, Agra 30-11-07
There's no overtaking an Indian!

My goodness, we still have the hazy view of the Taj Mahal in our midst after one month and my trapped sciatic nerve is, ever so slowly, wriggling its way back to freedom. The touring stress we faced in the beginning seems so long ago now and resting in Agra has done wonders for all of our nerves and not just the one preventing me from pedalling out of here.

The last day of the month marked the first cycling experience in just over 4 weeks. It may have only been a few kilometres but it was a pedal in the right direction. And just to remind us that nothing has changed on Indian roads, the first cyclist we overtake pushes his legs to almost breaking point in order to overtake us and then pulls directly in front of our bikes and slows down. We brake and hang back a bit, after all we know the drill quite well by now, but soon become bored with his now laboured pace and with complete riding ease, we overtake him. He repeats his manly performance three times before we despairingly drop well away and release ourselves for good from his foolish quest. You just have to face it: there's no overtaking an Indian!

Apart from the fairly rigorous exercise schedule, we while away the hours, reading the books in Hotel Sheela's library, experimenting with new website techniques, chatting with other travellers and hoping that any day now, I'll awake with a leg functioning well enough for us to make our great escape. The routine of staying in one place is completely opposite to what we are used to. The travellers' faces may constantly change, since most use Agra and the Taj Mahal as a short stopover on their way to somewhere else, but the locals are following my progress with as much anticipation as we are. Walking up the street is a "thumbs up... you walking good now Madam" experience. With the help of a couple of extra newspaper articles they also know a bit more about us as well, which contributes to more and more colourful conversations.

At this time of year, hundreds flock to the Taj Mahal to get married. It has got to do with the moon and the stars and the gods and all that. And not to forget that it is one of the greatest "monuments of love" of all time. Every night for the last month, there has been at least one wedding. The festivities can start at any time of day and tend to last all night long and generally finish at dawn, when the Muslim call for prayer begins. Basically, the wedding party roams up and down the streets, gyrating madly while following a deafeningly loud music making contraption with massive silver speakers on wheels. This comes complete with a brass band and men employed solely to support enormous crowns of fluoro-lights. Bit like the International Follies headdress only a lot heavier, I would imagine. The choice of music is definitely a taste thing and Hare Krishna chanting for hours upon end, something that you need to get used to, especially in the wee hours of the morning. This in mind, I would advise guide books to make a note under the 'sleeping in Agra' section about the difficulty of getting any at all during the "wedding season". Should you do venture here during this time of year, then you could quite easily get an invite to one of them. Just make sure your stamina is up to it: there's no out-dancing an Indian.

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