The train to Agra, India – comfort, beauty and poverty
This is part 5 of an ongoing post about my trip to India and Singapore. The previous post is Street shooting in Karol Bagh market, Delhi, India
After a night of not too restful sleep, I was up at 4:45am to get ready for my train ride to Agra. I only got a few hours of sleep on the flight between Austin and New Delhi, hoping that I’ll be tired enough to get a good night’s sleep. I went to bed at 10:30pm, quickly fell asleep and woke up promptly at 12:30am. Curse jet lag. For the next 3 – 4 hours, tossed and turned and only got a few winks. I had a couple of issues with my hotel room too. First, when I woke up at 12:30, the room was pitch black. I was in a daze but I could have sworn I left the light on in the bathroom so that I can navigate. I stumble around and attempted to flick on more lights, but nothing seemed to work. Maybe the hotel is trying to save power? Maybe the power would kick on later in the morning? Then I remembered that I needed to charge all my camera batteries for my big sightseeing trip. Also, what if the power didn’t come back on early enough? After all, I had to take my shower at about 5am and it would be challenging to wash myself in a dark room. I decided a trip to the front desk was a necessity. Luckily the hallway lights were on so it wasn’t a building wide power failure. On the ground floor, just next to the elevator, there was an unidentified lump in a dark corner that surprised me. It was one of the hotel staff taking a nap on the floor; definitely something that I have not experienced at a hotel in the U.S.
The attendant at the front desk looked groggy but awake. My questions regarding the lack of power seem to confuse him; but I did confirm that the power is supposed to be on all night; so it wasn’t a power savings ploy by the hotel. After a check by the hotel staff, the issue was narrowed down to a blown fuse in my room. Problem solved. I was back to charging my camera batteries. I tossed and turned, relaxed, read a book but I was generally unsuccessful getting any kind of meaningful sleep. And of course, the more you stress about trying to get sleep, the less you end up sleeping. 4:30 rolled around and I decided to take a shower but after 10 minutes of running the water, it refused to get warm. That’s strange, I got plenty of hot water earlier that night; I had taken a shower before I went street shooting in the market. I decided only to wash my hair, with cold water, which certainly got me going and fully alert.
The driver and guide arrived promptly at 5:30. In, what seemed like a 15 – 20 minute ride, I was at the New Delhi train station. Despite the early hour, the place was bustling with people, cars and all kinds of goods being transported. The beauty of having a guide is that they bring you right to the train and your exact reserved seat. I’ve read in guide books that you should allow up to an hour to find the correct train at New Delhi station. That’s because the signage is not too good and the darn place is quite big. The books suggest to listen to the audio announcements rather than trying to decipher the information screens. I felt lucky that I had an expert guild that whisked me through the chaos to the correct platform. We were there in plenty of time and before the 6:15 Shatabdi Express train to Agra arrived.
I had 1st class air-conditioned reserved seats on the Shatabdi Express Train to Agra. The travel agency told me that this is fastest way to get to Agra, a mere 2 hours from New Delhi. And I needed all the time savings that I can muster, I was scheduled to visit 3 locations in Agra and wanted to maximize my touring time before I take the 8:30pm express train back to New Delhi. A quick, one day trip to Agra was all I had time for. The express train was unimpressive by Western standards; its not the French TGV or the Japanese bullet train but it was clean and roomy. The dated decor was neither modern or old enough to be retro or cool. Most of the other passengers seem to be tourists and the occasional well to do Indians, like the couple that sat behind me. The couple lived in the United States and the husband worked in the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley; they were back in India for some sightseeing. At about $20 per one way trip to Agra, the 1st class Shatabdi Express is a nice way to travel that won’t break the bank for most Western travelers. I’m sure, however, that the ticket price is a luxury or beyond the means for many of the Indians, hence this section of the train seemed to be, more or less, dedicated for tourists.
There was a flurry of activity in the 15 minutes before departure. Porters carried heavy bags for what looked like American or British visitors. The Indian Railways staff first passed out 1 liter bottles of water and followed with newspapers in English and Hindi. The train left on time and it wasn’t long until we the cityscape gradually turned into the country. The sun was coming up and I was on the left side of the train, next to the window, which perfectly positioned me for sunrise photography. Shooting out the train was more difficult than I imagined. Initially, the light was dim so I had to have a higher ISO and larger aperture. However, even under better light, I kept the ISO high to increase my shutter speed and to have a deeper depth of field, Shooting into the sunrise, while beautiful also creates more challenges. The dynamic range is so wide, between the glowing clouds and the dark ground, that inevitably you end up with bright spots or shadows that are darker than you like them to be. I did my best to balance these factors and created a few misty and hazy sunrise photographs. Between the expressive clouds, and ground hugging fog these were some beautifully serene landscapes. I liked how the trees that dotted the landscape added another dimension to images
As beautiful as the landscape was, there was a another, more haunting scene, that would breakup the idyllic countryside. In little settlements and villages along the tracks, you see people sifting through the litter that was tossed out the windows. There was a wide swath of junk that is thrown out of the local trains, which have open windows, especially near the train stations. I saw maybe a hundred people walking along the track and searching through the garbage. I can only assume they were looking for bits of food that may have been tossed out. I guess any discussion and observation of India will not be complete without talking about poverty. I saw a small bit of that in the Karol Bagh market but certainly not on the scale I saw out the window of this train. And no doubt there are other places that are far worse. This was a gentle yet striking reminder that I live a privileged life in a privileged country.
During the 2 hour trip to the Agra Cantt train station, we passed though several stations and stopped at a few more. These were great photo opportunities for catching people when the train was slowing down or stopped. The ones below are some of the more interesting ones that I captured. The second image, with the colorful clothing and the luggage on top of the woman’s head, really gives an exotic feel. I would love to spend time just doing street photography at these stations. There were so many interesting people and with such different customs.
Finally, when I wasn’t shooting the photographs, I was enjoying the food service inside the train. First, we got some hot coffee or tea with cookies and biscuits. Then we got a cold breakfast with cereal and bread. I especially enjoyed that brown bread wrapped in the unassuming paper wrapper. The corn flakes were similar to the U.S. but I was not used to eating them with hot, sweet milk, which was served from steaming metal containers. I assumed the breakfast was complete but then there was yet another course, a hot entree. There appeared to be a choice of entrees but people who did not speak Hindi where just handed a container. My aluminum container had a spicy vegetable cutlet that really tasted good. Now, my perception might be clouded by expectation but I could swear that his food tasted better than the food I got in Business Class on American Airlines. Maybe I was expecting something fantastic on Business Class, which I didn’t get. And I wasn’t expecting any food on this train and I ended up with a nice two course meal. Either way, hats off to Indian Railways. They exceeded my expectations for a comfortable and enjoyable trip. I complimented the staff on the great tasting cutlet and I think he understood my happiness. He gave me another aluminum container of the same vegetable cutlet. Now that’s service. When was the last time you got extra food on the airplane? Of course, when was the last time you wanted extra airline food?
The train pulled into the Agra station on time and my real adventure for the day was just beginning. The two-hour trip was just a warmup and generally a pleasurable one. I was treated to great service, a fast and comfortable trip, tasty food and a beautiful sunrise. Of course, I got a small dose of reality in India. Seeing the poverty outside my window is certainly an eye-opening experience. One that I certainly have not seen in my limited travels to other countries. It is something that needs to be seen, however. The poverty is something that I wish more people in the developed world would see. Even if it’s just a small glimpse into a very tough world that I can not begin to imagine.
This post is part 5 of my travels to India and Singapore, Start from the beginning at, Quite possibly a trip of a lifetime and part 4, Street shooting in Karol Bagh market, Delhi, India.. Continue the story with part 6, Loving the train station bustle in Agra, India.
I took these photographs with my Olympus E-PL1 with the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7 and Olympus 45mm f1.8 lenses. Please make sure to click on a photograph to see a larger image and hover over the photo to see the exposure details.
See more images from India on mostlyfotos, my one photograph per day photo blog.