At the Maryland Renaissance Faire, there is a performer by the name of Johnny Fox. He is a sword swallower by trade and always pours water in a circle surround him, from a small brass carafe, “Sacred water from India,” he says, which he uses for protection. The joke is that he always dumps out all the water, and it “magically” refills itself. We love watching him when we’re state-side, and we often wondered if or when we’d see India. We have now checked off that box and here is what happened…
T-minus two weeks, we figured out we could order train tickets for the journey to Agra (Taj Mahal) from Delhi. Should take about 30 minutes, says the website. We were in Bali, so I put it off until we returned. We also had to use our passports to get our visas, so we couldn’t do that until we returned to KTM either.
We got our Indian visas ok. I attempted to purchase train tickets, but was stymied by the fact that the railway website wanted me to have an India mobile number to confirm my registration. Jean’s colleagues in Delhi referred me to a very helpful travel agency from whom I sought assistance. They also pointed me to a hotel with “US Gov’t discount rates.” I let them know our situation: three adults (our friend, Krissy accompanying us) and three children, and their ages. And please to have an airport pickup.
T-minus three days, and the hotel couldn’t give me a straight answer as to whether the rates (which kept going up as less expensive rooms disappeared) were per room, per night, or a combined cost. I basically threw my credit card at them.
T-minus one day. The travel agency informed me that all trains were booked and we’d have to take a car. This changed our journey from two hours each way (we were going to make a day trip of it) to five hours each way in a cramped car. The hotel let me know that I’d be paying about $160/night/room. I hoped the gov’t discount off that rate would be good.
Day of travel! I asked to have Merrill and Lucas dropped at the Embassy, and Jean took an hour off of work, working through lunch to keep her schedule. Eleanor and I showed up at the embassy to collect our family. Jean came out on time, and the bus showed up with Merrill and…no Lucas. Where was my kid? The driver didn’t know. This was critical; we were leaving in just under three hours and had to make it on time! I drove home, zipping through the back streets of neighborhoods to avoid traffic and Jean parlayed with the school on the phone. We discovered that Lucas had magically become enrolled in after school activities that day, (which the school insisted was always the case, despite the Google Doc they published saying otherwise) meaning he was JUST NOW leaving school. In traffic. My blood pressure shot up and I began doing the math on leaving times.
T-minus 90 minutes. We zoomed home, crammed some early dinner in, and zoomed back down to the bus stop to wait for Lucas. The bus pulled up across the road some minutes later and Jean and Lucas navigated traffic, Lucas in tears from the misunderstanding, and we made for the airport. Traffic was crazy.
T-minus 70 minutes. We found a parking spot. Jean talked her way past the guards in the airport, despite their insistence that the airline was no longer checking people in! The airline checked us in and told us they didn’t have time or staff to check bags anymore. I had helpfully packed Jean’s pocket knife with cork screw…oh sh*(!
T-minus 40 minutes. The guards catch the pocket knife. Jean uses her Jedi powers to have one of the main inspectors hold the knife personally and gets his cell number. She’s such a nice person, people generally just are pleased to help.
We board the aircraft. The seats coddle my gangly legs like a well fitting iPad case. We taxi down the runway and lurch into the air, the kids raising their arms and squealing during take-off, a practice I condone in order to make fellow passengers appreciate how quiet they are the rest of the time. The pilot manages to hit every thermal on the way to Delhi, making me reconsider this flight more than once. We order drinks and get “sizzling jalapeño” chips with them. The attendant forgets Krissy’s drink and we have to ask for it. And the change. Twice. I fill out our collective customs paperwork and try to make my whisky last the whole process. We bounce down onto the runway in Delhi, and I wonder just how it looks from the outside and how often they have to change the tires on the aircraft.
We cruise through customs, and the large stautary hands with hindu symbology protruding from the wall above us threaten to squash or flick, making me feel like a tourist mosquito. We scan the hand-written and printed welcome signs being held by men in turbans, cell phones jammed up inside them in a hands-free fashion. There is no hotel pickup. We take a taxi.
Hotel Diplomat welcomes us, and I immediately plea for less expensive rooms, and the tall mustached manager lets me know we have already received a 7,000 INR discount (about $140) off each room (meaning they are something like $300/night!). I relent. I ask if we missed the airport pickup and they let me know I never asked for one. (You are wrong sir, I care nothing of customer service) I remind them about the email. They impolitely let me know I never mentioned flight details; I acknowledge that and remind them that those in the customer service business should be asking questions more than pointing out flaws in their patrons. This is going very well.
We get checked in and go up to our room. The stark black and white interior is met by an unfinished concrete wall, and the entire thing is lit extremely well with massive CF bulbs hidden in the ceiling. It’s sort of a 2001 meets Jeff Bridges’ house in the grid (Tron Legacy). There is ONE King bed in our room. I ask them where the beds are for the children. They say I never asked for extra beds. I again reference the email. They underline the part where I mention our children and their ages, and ask me where I asked for extra beds. I do a mental summersault and Jean begins to get less diplomatic. We decide to leave and find accommodation elsewhere and they politely let us know they will be charging a one-night (that’s $320 total, folks) cancellation fee. Jean pulls out the angry mom voice and Krissy retreats as far as she can from the lobby without actually stepping outside. The children are manic. We have words and the hotel concedes to let us have additional children’s beds “for free,” and we decide to stay, simply cancelling the second night. We go back up to the rooms and I book another hotel online for the following evening. Emotionally and physically exhausted, we sleep.
Saturday morning arrives and a decent night’s sleep clears our minds. We can say goodbye to this place and we’ll be at the Taj in no time! Jean wants a shower. No hot water. A bus boy advises Jean to keep the handle to the left for hot water and she thanks the condescending person for his advice and lets him know she knows how to operate a shower. He says to let the water run for 5-10 minutes(In this luxury hotel!) Jean skips the shower. We ask the mustached manager about this; he also advises Jean to divert the handle to the left. I’m very glad her pocket knife is in Kathmandu at this point, but wonder if her fingernails are capable of disembowelment. He asks if I work at the Embassy in Nepal and I let him know that, no, my wife does. That’s the end of that conversation. We check out; a luxury tax (what luxury?) brings our bill close to $400. Breakfast is complimentary, but doesn’t start until we have to leave. Stomachs grumbling, we depart in the car we’ve ordered, and detour to the new hotel to drop our luggage. We drive to a shady part of town, and we’re pleasantly surprised to find a well appointed hotel with friendly staff and two King size beds in each room. Done and done! For a third the cost.
We’re off to Agra! The air-conditioned SUV cruises through traffic and we struggle to exit the city. Much like Nepal, the outer city landscape is dotted with shops, and busses with wind-spattered vomit move people around. Wild pigs, goats, water buffalos and cows forage for sustenance. Vendors sell sliced cucumbers and fruits, or juiced versions of all, to passengers. Our driver assures us breakfast is near.
A couple hours later we’re finally on the open road and manage to stop for a brunch of sorts at the Maharaja Hotel and Restaurant. A lipstick smeared monkey in a dress jumps up and down at the end of his (her?) tether in the hot sun, his master lounging in the shade. Sword-bearing turbanned men open our doors and we enter the restaurant. The gift shop, and indoor version of a market, is between us and food, and we navigate the gauntlet of dusty trinkets to the tables. An eclectic mix of Indian and expat tourists shares our company. We order various indian dishes and I make my brunch complete with both a coffee and a beer. The waiter struggles with Krissy’s dairy-free requirements, insisting she have at least some cream on the side. She finally ends up with a batter-free fried chicken of sorts, the waiter making a violent chopping/ripping motion to show how the dairy was ripped, unwillingly perhaps, from the recipe. The beer tastes, what I can best describe as “India.” A unique combination of sulfury, less than fully carbonated, sweet grass-like beer. I share with Krissy and we finish it. The kids are great, and we take it all in.
A couple trinkets richer, we leave the restaurant and set forth again. The four lane highway stretches straight before us and the dusty, thirsty, brush-speckled landscape whizzes by. Jean’s iPhone adds flavor to our ride. Our friendly driver points out various palaces, temples, oil refineries, etc.
Reaching Agra around 2, we get tickets for the Taj Mahal and our driver gives us helpful tourist advice. I get his number and put it in my phone, we agree to meet around 3:30. We get complimentary water and an electric tram ride to the gate. We walk through the hot sun to get checked in, and smear ourselves with sun block. It is VERY hot. The outer compound is immense and we follow the crowds to the gateway, through which we can see the Taj. It’s beautiful and immense. And still pretty far away!
Emerging onto the steps that descend to a level viewing ground, we stop to take photos and can’t help but notice a group of four girls in their mid twenties going ALL OUT with the sexy clothes and looks in various photographs. All the way there. This had to have taken some planning. I wondered aloud what other monuments they’d conquered. Jean and Krissy hammed it up a bit.
We walked up to the Taj, taking various photographs along the way and following the “foreign tourist” signs, eventually donning little dryer-sheet like booties to keep our feet from touching the ground. A lot of Indians simply went barefoot. I suspect the pretties did as well, because those booties just wouldn’t work. They last we saw of them was a few of them holding up a flowy scarf in the wind and having more pictures taken. We entered the mausoleum and Eleanor mounted my shoulders so as not to get squashed in the human morass inside. A single CF bulb shed dim light on everyone and we filed through. We made it in and out in under five minutes. And in that five minutes, someone pocketed my phone.
We tried searching for it using “Find my iPhone” and tried calling it to hear for the tones of Star Wars main title theme. Nothing. This is craptastic. An Indian family comes over to have their photos taken with the token caucasians. I berate myself with my stupidity. Krissy has a great photo of me sullenly holding up Jean’s phone, scanning the network for my phone, while everyone else poses with the Indian family. Deep breaths and a keen sense of perspective help me to overcome my loss and we do the next logical thing, find the tourist police (Insanely helpful people, really) who drive us to the station (instead of seeing Agra Fort) where I explain I’ve been pick-pocketed for my mobile.
This is probably the most interesting thing they’ve had all day; it is late and the shade has not quite gotten cooler than the sun, and their sleepy demeanors are piqued. Chattering amongst themselves, eventually the commissioner himself comes over. “How can you be sure you were pick pocketed?” he asks, “Perhaps you left it in the hotel?” I’m unprepared for this rebuttal, and am confused. Some more prodding. I ask why they are afraid to have a theft reported. Back-peddaling. Jean, familiar with police in Nepal, strikes on an idea. “If you report a theft, do you have to do an investigation?” she asks. They collectively breath a sigh of relief, as she touches on this, and they suggest I report it as missing. We all agree this is for the best, and the commissioner takes me into his office to write a letter, carefully spelling out each word and applying it in ink to the double paper, between which is sandwiched a carbon copy paper. The ceiling fan energetically washes cool air down over us and his ergonomic ikea-like desk. Satisfied with the resulting script, I sign it and we take it to another office for a stamp of approval. A policeman brings in an apprehended suspect and strikes him to the ground with a blow to the head. I clench my jaw as the man cries in pain and the official stamping my paper doesn’t notice. Another guard goes over to the suspect and whacks him on the head, more cries. The commissioner says something to the stamper and they both wave off further beatings, and I get the idea that this is being postponed until the tourist (me) leaves the room. We thank the police for their time and they repeat over and over again that this is fine and we are happy, in a subtle commanding way. They drive us back to our car. It is late and we need to leave town, another five hour drive ahead of us. We’re on the road by 4:30 or so. We’ve not had a lunch.
We drive and drive. The sun sets and the parched landscape is washed in darkness, slaking its thirst by swallowing up field workers, buildings and livestock. Lights wink on. We push on, hoping to make it back to Delhi for a late dinner. Closer to Delhi, the traffic builds up and our driver, weary from the day’s drive, begins to get closer and closer to vehicles and people, bicycles and livestock. He flicks his brights (“Use Dipper at Night” is painted on most trucks) and leans on the horn, even when no movement is possible. I’m in the passenger seat and am entering early phases of shock, or perhaps just sheer mental exhaustion. I split my one bite-sized clif bar into three pieces for the children. We make it to our hotel near 10 o’clock. The children have all fallen asleep and we wake them for dinner. Our inner-city hotel (Hotel Krishna) has a rooftop restaurant, and we pull a couple tables together and order copious amounts of food. They don’t have wine, so I journey out for some accompanying drinks, they point the way. My heart beating faster than normal, I walk the backstreets of Delhi to the liquor store. It’s as if Thamel was painted over New York City. Street lights illuminate the uneven streets spattered with various fluids and trash. I cross a highway split with a median, the dust kicked up by traffic lit with autorickshaw lights. The liquor shop is as busy as a bookee office. Small in stature, Indians wave cash and shout their orders at the workers behind the high bar-like barriers. I sidle up and put my arms on top of the carpeted surface, immediately gaining the attention of one of the sellers. My order placed, it arrives and the seller exuberantly offers to box it up. He is very entertained. I exit the shop with my parcel and Yeti-like, a large slightly less hairy albino one, make my way back to the hotel, my large strides overtaking even the most enthusiastic walker.
Jean and Eleanor are absent from the table, and Krissy (and the kids) explain that Eleanor puked. Indeed! There it is on the floor! A short while later they return, and our food arrives. Staff cleans up the watery bile. We tuck in to our dishes, my Chicken Tikka Masala never tasting so good. The girls decide their various dishes are too spicy and settle on white rice. We devour everything. We order the kids ice cream for being so spectacular. Eleanor pukes hers up. We discreetly exit the restaurant after alerting the staff and tabbing our bill to our room.
The kids abed, we stay up late and talk and relive our misadventures of the day.
We’ve seen the Taj Mahal now. I am fine not going back.
On a side note, we didn’t see any sword swallowers. Maybe the sacred water is to protect him from India. Just maybe