There were only two occasions on the World Trip during which I felt my life was actually in danger. One of the incidents took place during our Everest Base Camp trek (more on that later). The other took place in Agra.

We arrived in Agra after a two-hour train ride from New Delhi, our inaugural India train experience. The city was dusty and hot. We paid 250 Rs. for a taxi to our lodging, a two-storey home located in what seemed to be an upper-class neighborhood near Vibhav Nagar. Even so, domestic cows and stray dogs roamed the streets and macaque monkeys jumped between the gated homes. Just outside the neighborhood’s walls was a roadside trash heap where the cows seemed to congregate for meals. Once, when we walked by, we spotted a man among the garbage. His back was toward us, and we couldn’t discern whether he was dead or simply sleeping. We returned a few hours later, but his body was gone.

Amusingly, the business cards for our hotel listed the name of the next-door neighbor, a politician, as the address as in “Next to Mr. So-and-so’s House,” because everyone in town knew the man and where he lived. His spacious home was a very uniform, four-storey affair that resembled a hotel much more so than the one we stayed in. I’m not going to name our hotel because the owners were extremely sensitive and concerned about what transpired there during our visit.

Taj Mahal Map

Taj Mahal Map

Agra’s claim to fame is a little-known monument called the Taj Mahal. Thanks to the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” I already knew the Taj once functioned as a 5-star hotel and that you shouldn’t leave your Chuck Taylors at the gates because orphan children will steal them and sell them on the black market. FALSE. As it turns out, that’s what they call “artistic license,” in Hollywood.

No, the Taj was never a hotel (although the grounds do include the Mehman Khana, a place for honored guests to crash), and the guards don’t make you shed your shoes. Your 750 Rs. (about $12 USD) ticket includes a bottle of water and a set of paper shoe booties – the kind doctors wear in hospitals.

FACT: The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628 – 1658), aka Khurram, aka A’la Azad Abul Muzaffar Shahab ud-Din Mohammad Khurram (being royal requires multiple pseudonyms) ordered the Taj Mahal’s construction in honor of his beloved third wife, a Persian princess born Arjumand Banu Begum but later renamed Mumtaz Mahal, or “Jewel of the Palace” by Jahan. She died in 1631 while giving her birth to the couple’s 14th child, and architects began building her mausoleum the next year. Sixteen years and 20,000 laborers later, what many consider the greatest Indo-Islamic architectural achievement ever was complete.

Each year, the marble mausoleum is said to attract between 2 and 4 million visitors, the vast majority of whom seemed to be in town when we were. Read my deranged Taj Mahal Action Plan, “If I did it again,” on

The Taj Mahal is crowded in the morning. The Taj Mahal is crowded in the afternoon. The Taj Mahal, if it was open at that time, would be crowded at 3 a.m. We joined the line outside the West Gate at about 6 a.m., 30 minutes before the Taj opened, and yes, it was crowded then.

Oddly, there are four different lines to enter the grounds: a foreign men’s line, a foreign women’s line, a domestic men’s line and a domestic women’s line. The female lines happened to be significantly shorter than the male lines, so I informed Him of an “every man for himself” plan of action and prepared to (in as dignified a fashion as possible) speed walk to the obligatory Taj Mahal photo spot, the one taken from the Darwaza-I-Rauza (entrance gate) with the mausoleum reflected in the Lotus Pool, and snap a few hundred photos of the sunrise before mass humanity arrived.

Saddled with my illegal monopod, poor Him was actually turned away at security and forced to run a half mile to leave it at the “locker” tent. It was quite possible I’d never see him again.

(Reflection four months later: “How did you end up with the monopod, anyway?”

“We figured it might not be allowed, so I held onto it. My photos of the sunrise were obviously less important.”


The official Taj Mahal audio guide (Rs. 118) instructs visitors to “prepare themselves before passing into the chaotic world of the living into the serene peace of an earthly heaven.”

I say, prepare yourself to be jostled.

By the time I reached the Darwaza-I-Rauza, about 50 people were elbowing one another in front of a bank of colorful flowers placed at the end of the Lotus Pool. I assume the flowers were potted there to distract from the fact that the pool was bone dry and occupied by sleeping stray dogs (Fun fact: India is considered the rabid dog capital of the world). Everyone – including me — was attempting to frame their pictures so the flowers perfectly aligned with the distant mausoleum. I dropped to my knees and, working from the east side of the flowers, strategically maneuvered inches west whenever a more centrally positioned photographer had snapped their fill. Working this way, I managed to crawl into the central, most-coveted shooting position right about the time Him surfaced from his sprint to and from the lockers.

The Taj

The Taj.

Despite the inescapable frenzy, viewing an iconic structure like the Taj Mahal is undoubtedly surreal. Throughout my life, I’ve viewed countless photos of couples and families posed before this massive monument – most of them idiotically positioned to appear as if pinching the tip of the central onion dome, a photograph destined for placement beside the one of Johnny ingeniously “straightening” the Leaning Tower of Pisa. All these posed shots – ours included – appear two-dimensional, like drop screens employed for low-budget travel montage scenes. Even in person, the Taj Mahal resembles a plywood facade from a distance, a hazy mirage that slowly grows ever more substantial the closer you are.

I advise to set aside several hours to leisurely explore the grounds with the aid of the audio guide. It’s pleasant just to sit in the niches carved into the mausoleum and people watch or admire the slices of amber (imported from Burma), malachite (Russia), ruby (Sri Lanka) and black jade (China) arranged to form flowery arabesques in the marble.

Of the photos I took of the Taj Mahal, my favorites are actually the ones I snapped on the opposite side of the Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges. It’s possible to capture breathtaking photos of the back of the Taj from the Mehtab Bagh garden on the far river bank, but this costs money and I hear the garden is not well-maintained. Instead of entering the garden, take the road toward the river. There’s a free view point at the road’s end. Just look for the guard with the rifle keeping tourists from stepping on to the riverbank, and try not to slice yourself on the razor wire.

Nearly every tourist comes to Agra for the primary purpose of visiting the Taj Mahal, but there are several other sites that, when added together, present a good argument for spending two or three nights in the city.

While on the far riverbank, we visited the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, commonly referred to as “The Baby Taj,” (Rs. 110 a person) because it is said to have inspired the construction of the Taj. The grounds are peaceful and overlook the Yamuna.

I’timād-ud-Daulah, aka Mirza Ghiyas-ud-din, aka Ghiyas Beg, was born in present-day Iran and became a poor merchant. When Beg’s wife gave birth to a daughter, he considered abandoning the baby because they could not afford to care for her. It was good for him that he did not because the “unspeakable beauty” of Mihr-un-Nisa, aka Nur Jahan, aka Nur Mahal, charmed the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (reigned 1605-1627) into marrying her, and bestowing Beg with the title of I’timād-ud-Daulah, or pillar of the state. When Beg died in 1622, his daughter had the tomb built. It is said to be the first in India constructed entirely of marble.

Continuing to step back in time, we paid our respects to Akbar (reigned 1556 – 1605), Jahangir’s father. Akbar, a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, is generally considered the greatest of Mughal emperors for his expansion of the empire across the Indian subcontinent. He’s represented by Fatehpur Sikri, a city he established as his capital, and his tomb.

Jama Masjid

Jama Masjid

Fatehpur Sikri, the “City of Victory,” is located about an hour-long drive (40 km) from Agra. We paid Rs. 1550 to have a (non-A/C) taxi at our disposal for the day and then Rs. 250 each for entrance to the complex of monuments and temples, including the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. Akbar ordered the city’s construction in 1571 on the very spot a holy man named Shaikh Salim Chishti predicted his son and heir, Jahangir, would be born. Today, childless women tie colored thread to the latticed marble of Chishti’s tomb as an offering so they too may be blessed with children.

Akbar’s own tomb is located in Sikandra, a suburb of Agra. In line with Akbar’s religious tolerance, the building incorporates elements of Hindu, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and Jain architecture. There’s practically a zoo outside with spiral-horned blackbuck antelope freely grazing on the lawn, langur monkeys and chipmunks scurrying about and rose-ringed parakeets chasing one another. Inside the tomb, the strikingly painted arched recesses of the ceiling provide a pleasurable neck strain.

Him and I were working on our neck strain when a pot-bellied man approached us and asked where we were from. Then, following the script, he asked if he could give us a tour. Him didn’t have enough cash for a tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel, let alone a impromptu tour around a tomb, and he told the man so.

“No, no, no,” the man said. “You only give me money if you want to.”

“I’m not going to give you anything,” Him said. “I don’t have any money.”

Knowing exactly where this conversation was going, I promptly distanced myself from both of them and explored the remainder of the tomb alone. I watched as Him and the man continued conversing and then began strolling together, the man pointing to this feature and that.

“This is the part of the tour where you give me a tip,” the man told Him at the end of the tour. “People from your country always give good tip.”

Him, true to his word, did not pay with the money he did not have. He politely thanked the man and walked away to find me. Even from a distance, I could tell the man was irate.

Though we made few friends among the locals, we did happen to meet some interesting fellow tourists staying at our hotel. There was the lanky marketing professional from Mumbai performing freelance research for BBC Travel. We made his acquaintance while admiring the monkeys in the hotel’s neighborhood. He warned us they could become aggressive and gave us a lift into town. Later, he questioned us about our experiences within his country. He was friendly during the interview, but his constant head waggling made me feel as if each of my answers was wrong.

We had a grand time conversing with Annie and Roger, birding (and Pizza Hut) enthusiasts from England who travel the world to spot and record rare avians. Once, they lived in some South American country while Roger, over the course of a month, painstakingly coaxed some rare bird specimen from a hole. From them, we learned the phrase, “Bird of Interest,” intended to be exclaimed in a high-pitch, sing-song voice upon the discovery of a specimen previously unrecorded within one’s personal birding log. If Annie and Roger lived in South Florida, we would totally hang with them.

Unfortunately, none of my friends – not even Him – were around when disaster struck. And by “disaster,” I mean me, Her, because I brought what transpired unto myself.

It was our last day in Agra, and the owners of our hotel had graciously allowed us to kill time on the property until our overnight train to Khajuraho, land of erotic temples, left at 11:30 p.m. Him was downstairs with the laptop, using the hotel’s WiFi. I was seated at a table upstairs on a semi-enclosed back deck, first writing in and then sleeping on my journal. That’s when he strolled by, a hairy, red-cheeked knuckle dragger intent on mayhem. Ignoring me, he proceeded to tip over and then rifle through a garbage can. When the spoils failed to interest him, he turned the corner behind a shed and then climbed a bamboo ladder to the roof. Fascinated, I followed with the videocamera.

His gang had congregated on a second, flat roof between the politician’s towering house and where I now stood. At first, the gang members failed to see me and occupied themselves by chasing one another around. The big one – I think he was the trash tipper – even got fresh with one of his toadies.

It was the violated toady who finally noticed me. His mouth formed a perfect “O” and, eyes narrowing, he began to hoot.

“Wooh! Wooh! Wooh!”

Approximately 15 heads turned to look at me. Each one echoed the toady’s “Woohs!” Then 15 bodies raced toward me.

At this point in the video clip, the camera drops and shuts off. It fails to record the booted leg I suspended to deter the gang leader lunging at me or the smaller toadies ducking in and out of grating like deranged Whack-a-moles in an effort to bite my legs.

One of toadies managed to sink his teeth in before a figure emerged on the third-storey balcony of the politician’s house. By banging two sticks together, my savior managed to scare off the attackers.

So that, dear reader, is how I came by the monkey bite on my right calf. According to the World Health Organization, the incubation period of rabies is 1 to 3 months. As this all happened in March and it’s now July, I had hereto felt confident I am in the clear. However, just now, in the past 5 minutes, I stumbled upon this article while writing my blog post:

Oh boy. Maybe I’ll get back to you in a few years. For now, here’s video footage of that fateful incident: