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View from the backseat of an auto rickshaw

On this trip, Nellu and I try to avoid taking cabs whenever possible for several reason. 1) It is often very difficult to explain to drivers where you are trying to go, even if you have it written down in the local language. Drivers know where the big locations are but very few know the neighborhoods. 2) There’s no guarantee that if you get in you’re going to get where you want to go. (Remember Nellu’s fun ride in Beijing?) For us its much easier to determine where we want to go via public transportation. 3) Cabs tend to be relatively expensive. 4) Even if the fare should be reasonable, when many cabbies pick up foreigners, the meter suddenly breaks and the price automatically goes up in multiples…that is if they bother to stop and pick you up at all. This last reason is by far the most irritating.

In India, we had no choice but to rely on a not cabs but the hordes of auto rickshaws (or autos as the locals call them) that pack the streets. (Delhi does have nice new metro but it mainly runs vertically through the city and not as far west as we needed to go. We hear that they’re building a new line, which would run east/west. I’m sure it will be quite lovely and convenient when it’s up and running.)

It took us awhile to get used to taking autos because in India drivers see dollar signs (or rather rupee signs) when they see foreigners. To be fair, the fares were mostly reasonable. We could get clear across Delhi on less than USD$2.50. But some drivers would try to charge us double. We tried to insist autos use the meter when we got in. This barely ever worked. Our Delhi host Nyamat told us she often offers to pay autos the meter plus 10 rupees (about 20 cents). We did relatively well using this strategy although most drivers sternly resisted. When it did work, it gave us a chance see how much it cost to get certain places so that we could more efficiently negotiate with those who refused to use the meter.

The frustrating part about the negotiation process is that there are always dozens of autos sitting around doing nothing in most places. It was hard for us to understand why they would follow us for three blocks trying to pick us up, but they wouldn’t take us for honest fare (and frankly a good tip if they get us there without much hassle).

Here are the standout stories of our attempts to take auto rickshaws in India:

Trip to the Taj – Agra – 8am to 6pm on a Wednesday

The train station in Agra has a pre-paid auto rickshaw booth. We love pre-paid booths because they seem to provide a small sense of order to the chaos of the auto world. When fares are published, you don’t feel like you’re getting ripped off as much (even when you are). It cost us 80 rupees to get from the train station to the South Gate of the Taj Mahal. Totally reasonable. It was clear across town. We met an Australian kid at the station and offered to share a ride. One of the drivers insisted we could not take three people in an auto, which of course was a complete lie. The guy who did end up driving us downtown seemed nice. On the way to the Taj, he shared a diary with us of testimonials he had from other foreigners who had hired him to drive them around for the full day. He would take you to the various spots around town, wait while you saw the sights, and then take you to the next place for a fixed price of 500 rupees. Nellu and I had already decided that we were going to walk as possible so we politely declined this offer. He continued with the hard sell until we got out.

Later on in the day, we went looking for a driver to take us from just outside the Taj to a bar halfway on the road to the train station. We first got into an auto with a driver that said yes to the meter but then changed his price to 70/80 rupees when we got in. We quickly got out. We started walking and found a bicycle rickshaw that said he would take us for 10 or 20 rupees, but it was clear he didn’t know where he was going. To make matters worse, instead of peddling on the bike, he walked the rickshaw on foot the way you would walk your bike up a steep hill. Our four legs were better than his two so once again, we hopped out. After roaming around and getting lost for a while, we were finally picked up by an honest driver who took us where we needed to go for 30 rupees.

From the bar we needed to go to the train station still about 4km away. The first driver we passed was another bicycle rickshaw driver. When we asked the fare to the station, he replied, “As you like.” Ha! Truthfully, I would like to pay nothing. We offered 30 rupees. He countered with 40 rupees (apparently he didn’t like our “as you like”.) We got in. The one detail that I left out is that this particular driver looked a lot older than many of the others we had seen. I don’t know if it was an act but he appeared to struggle as he peddled us there. I felt horrible, swore off ever taking bicycle rickshaws again, and we gave him 100 rupees for the effort.

The Cheat – Delhi – 11pm on a Wednesday

Our fun with drivers didn’t stop that day in Agra. When we got back to the train station in Delhi, there were swarms of drivers waiting but no one would take us for the meter or the meter plus 10 rupees. The standing offer was 250 rupees or about $5. This was more than double what it should cost. Even though there were easily 50 auto rickshaws waiting outside the station, they all seemed to stick together on this outrageous price. Finally, one driver quietly told us he would take us for the metered fare.

But we should have known there was a problem from the beginning. I was never sure this guy knew where we were going. I kept asking him and he would just shake his head yes. He also kept looking at us in the rearview mirror. By this point in our trip to India, Nellu and I had been around Delhi for about a week and we had started to get to know the city. We were both suspicious that he was driving us around in circles (very easy to do in Delhi because it’s a lush green city with hidden landmarks and many traffic circles). When we passed Humayun’s Tomb on the east side of city north of the train station, when we needed to go west and south, our suspicions were confirmed. Nellu asked him if we was driving us around and he wiggled his hand in a “kind of/so-so/little bit” motion. We insisted he pull over right away and only did when Nellu put his foot on the ground outside the rickshaw. We refused to pay him the fare and walked away (there was a lot of yelling involved).

Less than two minutes later, we were picked up by another auto rickshaw driver, who took us for the metered fare and didn’t drive us around. He got a big tip.

In retrospect, our strategy should have been to walk out of the train station and down the street where we would have found a driver less intent on ripping us off. That was the advice our guesthouse host had told us in Rio de Janeiro: If you walk a block a way from the station (in Rio it was the bus station) you are more likely to find a ride that hasn’t been cooking up a scheme.

The Joy Riders – Amritsar – 4:10am on a Monday

This is by far the most entertaining of all our auto rickshaw rides. Nellu and I had to catch a train that left from Amritsar station at 5:00am. We checked out of our hotel room and walked out into the street. The street was empty but we were soon approached by several drivers. The first two drivers insisted on charging double what it cost to get from the train station (We paid 40 rupees, which was clearly double the locals price already.) Once again, they thought if they double-teamed us, both holding firm on their inflated prices, we’d have no choice but pay it. While I was negotiating with these two drivers, Nellu started talking to a pair of kids who agreed to take us for half. We hopped in.

What was interesting about this trip was that the two kids appeared to be quite young. As they sped to the train station, they talked and laughed, and every once in a while you could clearly understand them saying “40 rupees” and they would laugh again. Of course we’ll never know the real story, but to us they seemed like two kids joy riding around town in someone else’s auto rickshaw getting a huge kick out of making 40 rupees for taking two tourists to the train.

Overly Suspicious – Delhi – 10:30pm on a Saturday

This last story doesn’t quite count in this list because he wasn’t actually an auto rickshaw driver. In fact he had a van. But our interactions with autos across the country shaped this experience so I feel justified to include it.

We headed back to Delhi after our brief tour around Northern India. After arriving by train for the last time, we walked out of the station (a different station this time) to find the usual mob of auto rickshaws. We were approached right off the bat by several drivers asking for 200+ rupees. No way. We kept walking. We were approached also by several cab drivers. Cab fare is usually double that of autos even when they use the meter. No way. Finally, we found a driver who promised to take us home for 100 rupees. Great. As we approached his vehicle, we realized he had a van and not an auto. We repeated several times that we were only going to pay 100 rupees total and would not pay more for a real car. He confirmed again and again and we got in.

For some reason on the way, the driver turned on the meter. This made Nellu and I weary. Was he going to insist we pay 100 rupees over the metered price? Was there another scheme here that we hadn’t seen before? I started to protest but it was clear he didn’t understand. The driver stopped the car, pulled over, and turned around to address us both. In exasperation, he tried to confer that he didn’t understand our English. He repeated over and over that he was only going to charge us 100 rupees total and turned off the meter. He stuck to his word.

. . . . . . . . .

By the time we left India, most drivers offered to drive us for the metered fare. I don’t know if we gained a certain air of experience evident only to auto rickshaws but our suspicions never subsided. Instead of being grateful to drivers who gave us the courtesy of going by meter, we thought to ourselves, “Why does he want to use the meter?”

~ Molly

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Nellu Mazilu

We call shots like this a “for the parents” picture.

“Do the cheesy touristy things.” That was one of the pieces of advice I got before embarking on this trip and the person that gave it specifically mentioned the Taj Mahal. It’s funny because in real life, doing the touristy things would be last on our priority list. But if you’re doing a broad world survey like we are, they are unavoidable. You cannot go to India on an exploratory mission and not visit its most famous landmark. And Nellu loves a good UNESCO World Heritage site so off we went…

We took the early morning express train to Agra from Delhi. The trip took just under 2 hours.  (A word of advice to future travelers: all the touts know this is a big tourist route. There is a scam where a man approaches you at the train station and tells you that your e-ticket for the train is not valid. The guy has you run you around the station looking for a place where you can get a boarding pass so you miss the train and take their high cost taxi to Agra. One of these guys did approach us the morning we got on the train and started to mumble something about just having an internet ticket. But our Delhi family had warned us and we got on the train and into our assigned seats. The conductor comes around to check tickets once the train has departed. We booked our tickets online through cleartrip.com per the advice of one of my new favorite sites seat61.com. It was wonderful and easy!)

We arrived at the gate of the Taj Mahal just before 9am after wandering around for a few minutes trying to find the entrance. The Taj is quite funny the way it’s tucked away behind a wall inside the crowded city of Agra. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d certainly not guess. We entered from the South Gate, which is practically hidden.

But once you find it, the Taj Mahal does not disappoint! We walked through the gate to find the white marble structure practically glowing on its pedestal framed by a blue, blue sky and postcard perfect clouds. We read the chief architect of the Taj actually designed it so that there would be nothing but sky behind it.  It looked so perfect, it looked fake. We keep joking that all of our pictures look like we’re standing in front of a green screen rather than the real thing.

Nellu Mazilu

They gave us booties to put over our shoes so we didn’t have to take them off.

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the mausoleum that is the Taj for his wife Mumtaz Mahal after she died giving birth to their 14th child (I know!). We spent a good part of the morning just wandering around marveling at its beauty. We couldn’t stay for the golden hour but I can imagine pictures taken at this time would be breathtaking.

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Our one set back: Little Jimmy McMillian was denied entry into the Taj Mahal as he was deemed a security threat. I tried to explain to the guards they could fully check him out by pulling off his head and hands but they were unconvinced. To be fair, the day we went to the Taj Mahal, the Delhi High Court was hit with a briefcase bomb that killed 11 people. It’s quite reasonable to think that guards are wary of unknowns like Little Jimmy. But Nellu was able to get a shot of Little Jimmy with the Taj from the perch at Agra Fort down the river. (Check out all the Misadventures of Little Jimmy here.)

Nellu Mazilu

Photo by Nellu

Agra Fort is truly another gem of the city. It’s about 2km from the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. Nellu and I walked there even though every 50 feet or so drivers of all kind – auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and even camel drawn carts – approached us. We also managed to avoid the persistent tour guides hovering at the fort entrance – one in particular who was sure we’d miss out if we didn’t hire him. Emperor Shah Jahan refurbished Agra Fort replacing much of the red sandstone with white marble. The complex also has intricate water fountains running through it. (You know I’m a sucker for a good water way). It was renovated as a palace but later became a prison for the Emperor when his son overthrew his rule.

A veranda in Agra Fort

There are a few more things to do in Agra including a visit to what people call the baby Taj but Nellu and I skipped on the last. We got some good food at rooftop restaurant with views of the top of the Taj Mahal, watched monkeys jump from building to building, and hopped on the evening train back to our Delhi home.

~ Molly

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