The pros of Agra are many- with the lovely Taj Mahal topping the list. There’s more, of course: the imposing Agra Fort, Sikandra, Itmad-ud-Daulah, and more- which makes this city one of India’s most visited. Which actually translates into more cons and scams than you can imagine. No, not everybody’s out to crook you, but too many of the so-called tourist guides, the souvenir-sellers and the hundreds of other people who make a living out of tourism feed off the gullibility, ignorance or whatever, of the thousands of tourists who come to Agra. Here, then, is a brief guide on how to handle the cons without missing out on the pros:
1. Go well-armed- which means carrying a good guide book and reading up beforehand on the places you want to visit. If you’re going as part of a tour group this won’t matter so much, but if you’re on your own, it can mean not having to hire a local guide. Many of them are good, of course, but a large number cook up fancy stories and know precious little about the history and architecture of Agra’s sights.
2. If you’re going to Agra for the day, carry adequate supplies of mineral water- there have been instances of people buying so-called `mineral water’ in Agra, which turned out to have been nothing more than tap water. If you do buy bottled water, make sure the bottle’s sealed.
3. Beggars, souvenir-sellers, touts and other pests of every ilk abound in Agra- and they swarm around anybody who looks even vaguely like a tourist. Ignore them, no matter how persistent they may be. If that seems impossible, try using the broken record technique: "No- no- no- no- no- no..." They get the message after a while.
4. Don’t buy souvenirs from the shops right outside the Taj. They do stock very nice stuff- pretty little Taj Mahals carved from white marble or soapstone; little stone elephants, and lovely marble coasters- but don’t succumb! These shops sell their wares at much higher prices than you’ll pay elsewhere in the city for exactly the same stuff.
5. If you use local transport- especially auto-rickshaws or cycle-rickshaws- negotiate the rate before you climb in. And watch out if you’ve hired a cycle-rickshaw to take you to Sikandra: a very common ploy used by rickshaw-wallahs is to pedal not-in-the-know passengers to a series of low, exquisitely Mughal buildings in red sandstone, very much in the heart of town- which they’ll tell you is Sikandra. This complex, incidentally, is St John’s College, Agra’s premier educational institute! A beautiful building, but definitely not Sikandra, which lies 10 km outside Agra, on the highway to Delhi.