Back at the Bombay Palace, I had been considering Imran’s package deal since the day before, but I finally decided to save the cheese and and give it a go on my own. To that end, San jib booked me a bus ride to Agra and back the following day to visit the Taj Mahal and a couple of other sites.
Fortunately I’d switched to an A/C room, upgrading from deplorable to dubious. I now had my own bathroom and was much more comfortable, although I still was up rather late and didn’t manage to get much sleep.
The next morning I was in the lobby at 7:00 AM waiting for San jib. He finally arrived sluggishly and handed me off to an unfortunate looking fellow who would walk me to where I would get on the bus.
I get on the bus to find that I am the only foreigner on this field trip. That is until I see a Japanese woman, Saiko, who I would meet a bit later. As I walk down the aisle toward the rear of the bus, Indians steal uncertain and skeptical glances up at me from either side. No one speaks to me.
I found a comfortable reclining window seat toward the rear of the bus where I figured I could catch a few z’s during the four or five hour journey (so I thought) from Delhi to Agra. Just as I’d gotten settled in for a little doze, a wily looking Indian man posing as an authority figure taps me on the shoulder and tells me I need to move to the back row.
“No, this seat is ok for me.”
“No, you need to move to the back.”
Hmm. Not thrilled about this. I reluctantly comply, to find that of course the back row seats do not recline and further seem to prop me forward at an exaggerated perpendicular angle. My knees press firmly against the seat in front of me (which I’d left in the reclined position). At least there are a couple of extra seats next to m– ….more Indians file in. I’m further pressed into the corner. This is not looking good.
Ok, at least I can get some water before we depart. I ask the wily fellow if I can step off briefly to buy some water. He assures me there will be water brought aboard, which I would learn was a flat out lie.
Dehydrated, cramped, uncomfortable and tired, the bus rolls tardily at 8:00 AM.
We stop several sleepless hours later at an outdoor roadside restaurant. I tried to order some food, but the chef and I really weren’t on the same page. His reply seemed to indicate affirmative, so I wait. Indians all around me have their food brought out. I wait. Indians are cleaning up. I wait. The bus engine fires up. Indians start boarding. Still no food. I get on the bus hungry, but now with two waters.
Giving up on trying to sleep, I’m typing away on my computer at the back of the bus and a teenage Indian boy suddenly approaches me in the back.
Whoa buddy, you better start explaining yourself.
“I can see your computer over bluetooth and you’re the only person on this bus who would be named Christopher.”
This was Mohan Sai, a sixteen year-old from Kharagpur in Eastern India on a family vacation. He is well-educated, studies hard, is incredibly smart and very ambitious. We became good friends and he sat next next to me for the rest of the trip.
A bit later Mohan’s sister Priyanka came back and was introduced to me, and soon after, one by one, other kids on the bus nervously came to the back of the bus to talk to me. Before long it was the kids section. I met Kritika, a very cute Nepali girl and her young brother who spoke at least three languages. From many places and many walks, almost all of them spoke excellent English, even the youngest ones of three and four years old.
Once the kids had befriended me, soon the adults started warming up as well, shaking my hand and trying out a few English phrases. It was a stark contrast from the earlier stares.
After perhaps seven long hours we finally arrived in Agra, where dogs, cows, monkeys and people live together in harmony. See for yourself The Streets of Agra (can you see the monkey at 1:24?). Sorry, no cows on this one but I promise they are there.
Before going to the tourist sites we stopped for food. I introduced myself to Saiko, who was sitting alone, and we had lunch and became friends. Even though the food tasted good – a vegetable curry with chipati – something wasn’t right.
Our first stop was Agra Fort, and my introduction to “foreigner prices.” Typically Indians are charged between 10 and 25 rupees, where foreigners are charged between 300 and 750 rupees, as in the case of the Taj Mahal. I told them I was Indian at the window, but my Giants hat must have given me away. The Agra Fort was really impressive, although we disappointingly got only about 45 minutes there. I would later find out why.
Finally we arrived at the Taj Mahal. Some tourist sites get a lot of hype that they fail to live up to, but this was not the case. Taj Mahal was stunningly beautiful. The short story is that the Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj in mourning for his deceased wife. After it was completed, he cut the thumbs off each of the thousands of workers who crafted the Taj to ensure that another like it would never be built. Again, our time here was conspicuously short.
Leaving Agra we stopped about an hour later in another town to visit a pretty interesting Hindu temple, which was in fact the birthplace of an important Hindu leader. Saiko and I stuck together on this one to avoid getting lost in the dark and had a nice time.
We left this little town as it was getting late and things really started going downhill. Back on the bus, some yahoo who I’m not sure was with us from Delhi got on the microphone and started going into some kind of prolonged, enthusiastic speech. First off, it was ALL in Hindi, so I couldn’t understand a word; secondly, the speakers were broken, producing a particularly acute crackling sound that just tickles the inner eardrum enough to force you to cover your ears. Trying to be respectful, I simply sat and tried to tune out.
This went on for a solid 30 minutes. The speaker would get worked up and excited, then start in on different chants that phrases that the passengers would repeat after and throw their hands up and cheer and all kinds on nonsense. I was literally getting sick of it.
Mohan, still next to me, seemed to be equally perturbed. “What is he talking about?” I asked him.
Mohan told me he’d heard this before many times and was really not interested.
Once this diatribe was finally over, we stopped in another small town. This time it seemed the entire group would stick together, and Johnny Microphone leads all 38 Indians, one Japanese and one American through ever-narrower and dimly lit streets and alleyways. We finally came to a shoddy looking building where we endured another five-minute lecture.
We were then essentially forced to leave our shoes outside on the street as we were led into a “temple,” but conspicuously missing was any sense of holiness or sanctity…..it’s disgustingly dirty and grimy and we’re walking barefoot becoming more suspicious by the moment. We’re led back into a chamber and seated on the floor in a group facing an old man, sitting in front of a red curtain. The walls in this room are made of marble tiles, each inscribed with a different person or family’s name, a date, and a number of rupees. The tiles appeared to be the classic “buy a brick” campaign.
By this time it’s about 10:30 and we have at least another three hours drive back to Delhi. Sitting next to each other, Saiko and I are absolutely fed up by this time, both anxiously looking at our watches and wondering how much longer this is going to last. Meanwhile I’m certain my only pair of shoes is going to get stolen sitting on the street outside.
More chants and cheers and finally the curtain is flung back to reveal a cheap-looking handful of statues and idols. The lecture continues.
Sure enough, after the lecture was finished, the guy takes out a notebook and starts asking people to pledge money. I’m respectful of all religions and people’s own beliefs, but this was clearly no more than a sham under the guise of religion to get these people’s money. This guy hops on tour buses and takes them to this “temple” and other shops and restaurants for a commission, which Mohan confirmed for me. I found it extremely distasteful and underhanded, and especially considering Saiko and I who couldn’t understand a word spoke the entire time.
I gave Johnny Microphone a very clear and deliberate “WTF” stare down, only to have him offer me the clipboard to make a pledge. I nearly slapped it out of his hand.
Disgusted by now, Saiko and I were the first ones out of the building. While my shoes were still there, we found out that Mahan’s father’s brand new shoes were in fact stolen. When they complained to the phony tour guide and clergy, they were told…. “the monkeys must have taken them.” Because monkeys always make sure to take matching shoes.
On the way back to the bus we’re stopped at more shops.
By the time we arrived back in Delhi at 2:30 AM my health was declining rapidly. I was having serious body and lower back aches and could feel a fever coming on. Saiko and I navigated our way through Pajar Ganj to her hostel and then I made my way back to the Palace. Arriving at 3:00 AM my room had been moved to the fourth floor and I’d barely enough strength to make it up the stairs. I was fairly furious with San jib for booking me on on this preposterous journey but certainly didn’t have the energy to fight him on it at this point. I walked into my room and immediately slept.
* * *
I woke up the next morning at 10:00 AM with a full-blown fever and flu-like symptoms, exhausted, dehydrated and very crabby. I had no food, little water, was supposed to check out at 12:00 and barely able to move.
Meera had told me to get in touch with her when I got back from Agra, and in fact both her and Jitender had insisted on getting me out of the Bombay Palace as soon as possible after seeing the place when they’d dropped me off the night before.
To call Meera though, I had to get an internet connection, which is not a feature available at my luxury guest house. I would have to make my way back to the Hotel Shelton lobby across Pahar Ganj, which would surely be a task.
Downstairs I made my case with San jib about the joy ride he’d sent me on, not to mention that I’d still had to pay to get in to the tourist attractions despite his assurance that everything was covered. He finally gave in to a lousy 100 rupees off and an hour late check-out, but he’s still a bastard.
I would’ve rather walked over broken glass than through the bazaar with full-blown flu symptoms in 110+ degrees. On the bright side – they’ve all been bright since I lost my second pair of shades – all the jokers normally approaching me would take one look and think better of it, leaving me at peace in my misery. I guess they could see I wasn’t feeling too chatty.
I finally got up with Meera and debriefed her on the situation. Concerned, she sent Jitender straight away on Operation: Get Chris the Fuck Out of the Bombay Palace.
I said my heartfelt goodbye to San jib and his cronies – although I actually liked the boy, he was a good kid and had a great head-bob.
Jitender on the spot, we took the longest 30-minute ride of my life to Meera’s. Finally there, she had a guest room for me where I immediately passed out. Over the next three days I recovered slowly while Meera got me medicine, food and pretty much saved my life. As it turns out it was food poisoning, from that damn veg curry.
I absolutely could not thank Meera and Jitender enough. Being sick and taking care of myself on the fourth floor of the Bombay Palace would have been absolutely miserable. It’s good to have good people.