From Bangalore, we flew to Agra, which immediately appeared to be a dingier, rougher Hubli, its streets peppered with camels instead of cows and pedal-ricks in addition to the autos. Apparently wedding season, we frequently sped by venues decorated for the celebrations, with huge, but temporary, arches draped with colorful cloth and hundreds of white plastic chairs awaiting the hordes of guests invited to every party. We often passed caravans with horses carrying grooms through the crowded streets or rusted tractors hauling mammoth models of Hindu gods and goddesses toward the ceremonies.
While the city didn't impress, and our hotel wasn't anything special, the Taj made the trip more than worth it. Agra might be out of the way, but I wouldn’t hesitate to tell anyone flying halfway across the world to India to make one last detour to this incredible structure. Built starting in 1632(ish) by Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, the mausoleum is buttressed by two mosques on either side (I think they only really used one, but they put in two for the sake of eye-pleasing symmetry). Later, Shah Jahan's son put him under house arrest in the Red Fort where he could still see the Taj from afar (also worth a visit), where he died, and he was later buried in the Taj with his wife (unless this part of my half-fictional book on the subject was, indeed, fiction). The interior design is full of precious stones; you're not supposed to take lights inside, but all the tour guides do anyways to make the gems sparkle.
Next we took what turned out to be a less than pleasant overnight train to Udaipur. The train itself was an hour or more late to begin with, so when it got there, we were worried it would only be in the station but for a few minutes; imagine us frantically searching for our car and finally jumping on something we thought was close, the four of us lugging our bags through narrow, packed walkways. Oops. Even in second class (us cheapies are used to traveling in third!), my mom didn't sleep a wink thanks to the creepy man across from her that stared at her all night. All sites indicated that 2nd class = two-bunk (private) room, but no, sir. Not the case.
Udaipur, I might add, City of Lakes, was recently rated number one in the World's Best Cities list by Travel and Leisure Magazine. We checked out the Lake Palace from afar; while non-guests typically can still dine in this palace-turned-Taj Hotel, the Mumbai bombings kept us from getting anywhere close.
Instead, we took a little boat out to Jag Mandir, another island in Lake Pichola, and enjoyed a beautiful night view of the City Palace and Museum, which we later toured in the daylight. Cool, but not as cool as Mysore Palace, no question.
We also unintelligently trekked out to Shilpgram, a craft village, which we'd been warned was only hopping during a certain time of the year. I take full responsibility for this decision. That said, we did come away with a pretty sweet table cloth, and both my mom and I are still mourning two specific purchases we failed to make; me, a bedspread and her, a handspun silk something or other. Someday, I will be back…
The shopping and markets were huge, boisterous and full of color - no surprise there. Our driver was getting hungry so led us back to his favorite spot for - what else? - tea and snacks. My mom couldn't even make it to the end of the alley, she was so disgusted by the swarms of flies flitting around the carts full of fried food, but Kraemer's empty stomach got him to the end. I eat a lot of things, including a cooked mushroom from my pasta that fell off my plate onto the table at a restaurant in Georgia that he will never let me forget, but there is no way I was going to touch that samosa he downed in three bites, which had certainly been handled by a cook who hadn't washed his hands recently and poked and prodded by a series of passerbys checking for appropriate samosa temperature. Mmmm, mm! ;)