Heat. That is the first thing I felt as I disembarked the plane and headed to customs. We picked up our luggage, filled out some forms and we were in. Then we changed some money for a few thousand rupees. This was the easy part. As we walked out into the madness of the arrivals hall, I searched for our cab driver who would take us to our hotel in New Delhi. I had no idea what this hotel would be like, but Lonely Planet recommended it, and it was past 11 at night, so I said a prayer, hopped in the car, and drove through the dusty, car-filled highways to our first destination.
We arrived at our hotel sometime around 12am, in the Parah Ganj area of New Delhi- some dusty, construction-filled hole-in-the-wall motel with dim lighting and questionable-looking staff. The manager took our information, and our passports-something we were not used to (why did they need our PASSPORT information??), we paid for 1 night’s stay, and walked to our rooms, exhausted, needing a shower and a toilet. We open the door to this box of a room, with oil-spotted sheets, ragged towels, and tattered red carpet, turned brown form years of neglect. Eli and I glanced at each other, and headed to the bathroom, which was, let’s say, useable. The shower was much like the ones we were used to in Africa-no tub, just a showerhead, a drain and a bucket. We asked the hotel employee to bring us a fresh pair of sheets, and some toilet paper. 10 minutes later he brings us a pair of equally dingy, oily sheets, and offers a roll of expensive toilet paper for sale. We resolved to sleep on top of our clothes from the day, spray the bed with bug repellant, and say a prayer for the night. But we were still hungry, and we needed toilet paper. We headed out of our hotel onto Main Bazaar road in search of a toilet paper bargain, asking several street vendors for their best price. Eli is a bargainer, so this was sport for him. I was more interested in grabbing a cup of chai, or maybe some ice cream, getting the toilet paper, and heading back to the hotel. We found a vendor that was making fresh chai, and in hindsight, I realize I got ripped off by paying 75% more than I should have for that cup. My first ripoff!
Eli and I noticed quite a few other hotels open, and decided to peer into a few. We definitely would be checking out of ours the next day. We bumped into this hippie Israeli woman-about 50 or so-and she gave us a rundown of the area. Then the unthinkable happened. We turned around and noticed a small rumbling of voices. A white guy, around 30 or so, was being surrounded by about 5 Indian men. As they yelled and made jokes at him, their taunts became progressively angrier, and the group grabbed the man, slapping him in the face. The mob stopped a few feet from us, and the Israeli woman, seeing the commotion, bravely stepped in to stop the abuse on the man. One of the Indian men flashed an ID, saying that he was the police, and that this man was selling drugs, but he really wasn’t that believable. Eli and I watched in horror as the Indian men beat and slapped the man, stealing his belongings from his pockets. I remember distinctly the fear in that man’s eyes, his dirt blond hair covering part of his face. He was obviously extremely high, as he could not fully decipher the situation, and was at a loss for words. The men continued to harass the hapless man, and then dragged him into a back alley. We quickly walked away when we had the chance, grabbed our toilet paper, and booked it back to the hotel. Welcome to India.
I wasted no time getting up the next day, because I generally don’t sleep for longer than 4 hours. But I think my body was just whacked out. It was 8:30 am. Not wanting to spend any more time in our tragic motel, I headed out to find an internet café and book a hotel for the next leg of our trip. Stepping out of the hotel was stepping into another world. It had rained that morning, so the streets were filled with soggy, reddish mud cluttered with trash, animal feces, food and other effects. Lone dogs walked alongside pedestrians, scrawny buffalo eased their way through narrow pathways, and sidewalk chefs whipped up fried concoctions. Rancid body odors mingled with the sweet smell of freshly cooked Indian candies, and the streets teemed with people just starting their day. Simple shop owners hawked their wares, and sparkling saris hung from makeshift shop stalls. Overwhelmed by the sensory overload, I failed to realize that I was walking on the wrong side of the street, and nearly got flattened by a rickshaw. Every step I took, there was a honk, as cars, auto-rickshaws, and cow-hearders, pronounced their frustration at the foreigner. I quickly found an internet café, and popped in side, away from the madness.
After lingering on the ‘net I ventured back outside into the frenzy, determined to get back to the hotel in one piece. But I was struck by a sari shop, and without thinking stepped inside. I was surrounded by explosive colors of fuchsia, olive, purple, blue, and orange tunics. Delicately embroidered tops and pants caught my eye, The shop owner, seeing my eyes glazed in amazement, threw down a large pillow and implored me to sit. I explained that I was in a rush, but the owner ignored my pleas, piling my arms with endless heaps of colorful salwar kameez* and richly-colored saris. He then lead me upstairs to an even finer collection of womenswear, and after much deliberation, I ended up buying about 5 outfits for my friends and family.
I returned to the hotel, exhausted from my tiny excursion, only to find Eli still asleep. It was only 10:30, but I felt like I had been out for hours! We only had an hour and a half to find a new hotel, pack our things, and head out. And knowing that Eli easily spends a good hour in the shower ‘cleansing’ I knew this task could be a problem. But we made it out at 11:30, and despite the 12:00 check-out time, the manager extended our stay for an additional hour.
I mentioned how Eli is a born haggler. We must have looked at about 10 hotels, just for the sake of looking. We walked down the Main Bazaar road in the direction of what we thought would lead to the New Delhi train station. Instead we had walked to the opposite end, arriving at a nondescript albeit bustling street, all the while looking at hotel prospects. At one point I had adamantly decided on a clean, well-sized hotel near this same street, and while I thought we both agreed that the price and accommodation were a great deal, Eli still searched for other possibilities. Hot, sweaty, and annoyed, I wandered off to a vendor selling fresh mango lassis and settled down, away from the crazy streets. The shade of the vendor offered hardly any comfort as the 110º heat mixed the funk of the streets with the sugary smell of over-ripened mangoes. I watched at he sliced the fleshy mangoes and put them in a hand blender filled with ice. He then opened a large vat of chilled yogurt, poured a bit into a metal cup and mixed in the blended fruit. Handing it to me, I told him that I wanted it to go, and he simply put the mixture in a plastic bag and sent me on my way. I bit off the edge of the bag, sat on a dirty bench, and savored the icy sweetness of the treat. For one moment I was relaxed, happy, and careless. The pristine white dress I wore was now covered with street grime and the unidentified splashes from wild animals and pedi-rickshaws. I was ready to shower, and settle down. It was 12pm.
We finally decided on Hotel New, my original selection, at a bargain price. We made our way back to our original hotel, collected our belongings, and headed to our new hotel. Eli, ever the haggler, insisted on finding yet another hotel, because someone offered. I had already made my decision, and kept walking to our selected hotel. Walking around with a traveler’s backpack, up and down steps, viewing trashy, overpriced hotels in hot, humid weather was not how I wanted to spend the little time I had in India. Once we settled down and showered, we headed back out to get our train tickets to Agra. We spent nearly the entire day walking down one street popping into several shops. Eli was comparison-shopping. I was trying to get to the train station; I could always shop later. Business first. We got to the New Delhi train station, and were horrified to see the main floor of the station covered with sleeping Indian families, suitcases, chickens, and aggressive men pushing forward on a line with no apparent lines. We glanced up to try and decipher the train queues and departures but were dismayed to find them all in Hindi! What to do! I finally pushed my way to the front of an information line and yelled “Shatabdi express!” The woman at the window directed me to a tourist room above the main lobby that could assist me in buying a ticket. Eli and I quickly made our way upstairs to the serenity of the Tourist Information Center, where there was no line, friendly staff and air conditioning. We were well on our way to ordering all of our tickets until the ticket agent asked us to produce our passports. I had made it a point to carry all of my most important documents close to my body at all times in a discreet body pouch near my chest. No way would I be leaving my documents in some shady hotel. Eli left everything he had at the hotel except for his cash, which would not do. So we basically had to go back to our hotel at the opposite end of the Bazaar, get his documents, and come back to Station before 7:30. Given that we started off late and spent half the day looking at hotels even though we already had one, my mood wasn’t exactly friendly.
And it was 4pm. Going back down Main Bazaar Rd was an exercise in self- restraint. And when it comes to shopping, I have absolutely none. So I ended up purchasing a bunch of shirts, and shoes, and… so many things, I can’t even remember! When we finally got back to the hotel, it was nearly 6pm, and we had little time before the ticket window closed. So we hopped into our first rickshaw, but not until Eli haggled with the 20 or so drivers for the best price. And we arrived at the station with 15 minutes to spare.
After a day of shopping we were ravaged. Along the streets surrounding Connaught Place, we found a slew of “Vegetarian” and “Pure Veg” restaurants. Eli, a vegan with stringent requirements, was elated. After surveying a few places, we settled on a place that was well priced and smelled absolutely delicious. In front of the several of the shops, the chefs worked at a maddening pace over huge woks and boiling pots of curries and exotic sauces. I could smell the sumptuous mix of onions and coriander, tomatos, salt, cilantro and various other spices.
We step inside and order; Eli orders mix vegetable masala, and I ordered a vegetable korma. We were practically salivating as our dishes came to us, until Eli noticed tiny pieces of a certain shredded something that looked an awful lot like cheese. But when we inquired the waiter about it, he spoke no English, so he couldn’t understand Eli, when he tried to explain the concept of Vegan. We quickly learned that “Pure Veg” meant occasional dashes of paneer, doodh, or makkhan, without apology. I ate Eli’s plate, and we headed for another spot where he would possibly be a little luckier.
We found a place, and he indulged in freshly baked garlic nan, and mixed vegetable masala. And this time the waiter understood—no cheese, no milk, and no butter. Satisfied, we made our way back down the main bazaar strip. It was past 8pm, and Eli still had the urge to comparison-shop. I was intent on getting my hands henna tattooed, and I would leave him if need be. Which is exactly what happened. We agreed to meet at an ice cream stand that we recognized within 2 hours if we weren’t in each other’s sight. I found a group of artisans working in a huddle along the bazaar offering their henna styles. I quickly sat down to get my hands done, after haggling for a price I thought was appropriate. Before long, the artist’s friend sat own beside us, and began designing an extremely ornate design on my arm, even though I explicitly told him that I would only be paying a certain price. And I’m splayed out, and unable to move with all the wet henna on my arms. Well, apparently they tried to con me by saying that I had agreed to pay my price for ONE arm, and not both. A disagreement quickly escalated to a full-blown argument, and I ended up dragging in an officer standing nearby to settle the dispute. In the end, the thieves let off, I paid them my original price, and left, in search of Eli.
He was nowhere to be found. Frustrated, I waited by the ice cream stand before going back to the hotel. But not before snagging some mangoes from a fruit stand. The manager at the hotel hadn’t seen Eli, so I ventured back out. By now, it was pretty dark, but still lively, the streets buzzing with men and women drinking chai and watching the latest cricket game. I finally came upon Eli nestled in a bookstore reading about Sri Lanka, a place he had no idea about, but desperately wanted to go. He had made friends with Josh, a man who claimed to live on the Upper West Side. On 119th St. Eli and I laughed and gently informed him that he actually lived in Harlem—not to far from Eli’s house—and that we would visit some time.
The day starts early. Our train to Agra leaves at 6:15, and I am worried because Eli takes forever to get up and get ready. Me being the female and the primper, I thought it would be the other way around. But somehow, I was ready, new outfit, hair, makeup, and all. We hopped in an auto-rickshaw in the pouring rain, and jetted to the New Delhi train station where we boarded the Shatabdi express with 10 minutes to spare.
Stepping out the car, we were greeted with a strong fecal smell of the open sewage that ran along the perimeters of the buildings on the small road. Inside, the rooms were dark and dusty, and the view wasn’t anything to rave about. Especially when the rooftop restaurant was dilapidated, color-less, and distracting. I definitely wasn’t in the mood to look around, but Eli insisted that we try out other hotels. I was in no mood to cart around my huge travel bag, but luckily Sam let us keep our bags in the rickshaw while one of us inspected the hotels.
We finally settled on a neighboring lodge called “Saniya Palace Inn”. I actually liked this one –it was bright, airy, and had a wonderful mid-level courtyard that was outside and inside at the same time. A perfect place for lounging with a book and some chai. We were given our rooms, and finally settled down to begin unpacking. Maybe 30 minutes later, Eli decides that he wants to explore the hotel and maybe find a better room. My nerves were absolutely frayed. I was not only about to take a shower, but I had unpacked my clothing when Eli decides that we should move across the way to a better room that has a small view of the Taj Mahal. The room was a little nicer, and had a little table, so I grudgingly agreed, packed my things, and moved to the new room.
Sam took us all over the place in Agra, although in hindsight, we probably should have went to the Taj first. Then we would have known that our entrance fee would include admission to several other places that Sam had taken us to, but had no interest in paying for. We visited Agra Fort, the Baby Taj, and a series of other architectural monuments throughout the day, but we basically looked to Sam as our personal driver. At one point we were pretty hungry, and needed a vegan spot. But all the places Sam was taking us to were Vegetarian and Meat menus, which is a strict no-no for most vegans. I saw one restaurant that listed ‘pure veg’ but Sam took us to the one right beside it! Frustrated, Eli saw the ploy, got out of the rickshaw, and walked to the restaurant I had pointed out. Sam was taking us to all his ‘spots’ to get commission. What a farce! We went to our restaurant, against Sam’s suggestion, which pissed him off, since we hadn’t been to many of his suggested sights all day. He was basically getting paid to be our personal driver at 200 Rupees-his price- and no perks.
After enjoying our meal, I was in the mood for a massage, and what do you know—Sam knows of an excellent masseuse in town. So we go, and Eli thankfully haggles down the price for 2 treatments: an hour-long massage, and medicinal heat compress. Unfortunately for Eli, the women would not massage him, as it is custom for women/women, man/man bodywork. This didn’t sit well with him at all, so he had to sit it out while I indulged. By this time Sam is fed up, because we made him lose commission on several stores, and Eli had agitated him to his outer limits. We headed back to the rickshaw, but Sam instead pointed in the direction of our hotel. “You can go this way. It’s not far”. He wasn’t driving us home-he was going home to watch the cricket match! So we found our way back in the night along the bustling streets of Agra.
Back at the hotel, we had hoped to view a moonlit Taj, but that would not be the case. The sky was overcast, so we instead had to settle for the deep outline of the monument against the grey sky.
It may have been 2 am when I woke to a drip on my face. Half sleep, I rolled over towards Eli, in dream-state. Another few drips fell on my shoulder and I slid closer to him subconsciously as the drips followed me. Then the random sound of drips could be heard on his side of the bed. Eli popped his head up suddenly. “Water! It’s…raining! In… the room!” When our minds finally deciphered what was happening we immediately jumped out of our beds before the ceiling came flooding down with rain! Outside we could hear the winds whistling as torrential rains surrounded the building. We quickly moved our belongings towards the door, and flipped the light switch. And then the lights went out in the village. We could hear the footsteps of some of the staff who brought up battery powered florescent lights to help us see. Outside of our rooms you could hear the cries of people who had likely slept outside and gotten caught in the storm. Who would have known it would rain? It was as hot and arid as it could be that day! WE eventually moved our stuff bag to the original room we were given, and I silently cursed Eli for being so damn picky. But I slept soundly, eager for the Taj at sunrise.
Despite our lack of sleep, Eli and I woke up promptly at 5am to go to the rooftop restaurant to view the Taj. We waited eagerly, but we wouldn’t see a sunrise that morning. The sky was overcast, and we could barely make out the silhouette of the Taj over the city buildings. The sun never came, and instead the Taj sat, whitewashed against a dull grey sky.
The singing from the mosques reminded me of waking up my first day in Africa. Beautiful, and haunting.
We decided to get dressed and go to the building early to avoid the crowds. Luckily, it was only a 5 minute walk away from the hotel because when we arrived at the gate it started to lightly drizzle. We purchased our entrance tickets and headed back to the hotel to sleep it out in hopes of a sunnier view later on in the day. Back at the hotel, I took some time to drink a little chai, read, have breakfast, and chat with the staff. Since Eli was asleep, I finally had some time to myself without Eli’s irritating, obnoxious behavior. An older staffer, Babou made me a fresh pot of chai and told me about his simple life in Agra with his wife and 2 daughters. He was about my height, and spoke a little English, but a soft gentle tone, and easy conversation were welcome after dealing with Eli’s boisterous personality the first few days of the trip. Babou, a man in his mid-50’s, appeared to be worn out from life. His wife always suspected him of cheating, so he spent most of his nights sleeping in the street in an empty rickshaw. He had taken in an orphaned boy to come work with him in the hotel. The boy’s father had hung himself after suffering the depression of his wife leaving him. The little boy brought me my kettle of tea, and in his inexperience, handed the boiling kettle to me without a cloth to shield my fingers from the heat. It was a simple annoyance to me. All I could think of is how this boy’s life would most likely be relegated to serving people. The stories of Babou and the boy would be a theme that I would hear throughout my trip. A simple life riddled with depression, and the constant search for a way out. Any connection with a foreigner was a potential for change.
Eli finally awoke at around 2pm, and we got dressed to have breakfast and view the Taj. I though I would wear an orange butterfly-like dress with a scarf.
Was that a bad choice.
The wind blew my skirt every which way, and groups of men stared expectantly, waiting for an opportune moment to view some skin. But what started as groups of men staring, quickly became older men, women, and children. I thought that it couldn’t be the dress, but I felt awkward anyway, and stood to the side while Eli busied himself taking pictures. That was when we were first approached.
“Can we take your picture?” A group of teenage boys boldly asked. Suddenly, we were the star attraction, as everyone stopped in their tracks to see what the funny “African” couple would say. I was mortified. I came to see the Taj Mahal not be the main attraction. Throughout our visit, we would encounter groups of Indians slowly passing us by, staring in wonderment. Had they never seen Black people before? Probably not, as I was later told that many Indians don’t travel as much, and that travel is considered a “Western” phenomenon, though the younger Indian generation is more hip to the idea.
After a while the joke became tiring, and I actually started charging people 100 rupees to take my picture. I couldn’t enjoy myself with people staring at me, pointing fingers, and touching me to see if I was real. I felt like a freak. Somebody pulled one of Eli’s locks and he flipped out on the kid. Another girl came to me, looked up, and simple said “Wow.” Who knew that we would come to India’s star attraction, and become superstars ourselves!
The next day I woke up early, took care of my laundry, and got a few items of clothing ironed for 10 rupees by a local tailor. The local children surrounded me in excitement, shaking my hand, and greeting me. A superstar in Jaipur! When I came back to the hotel, Eli was laying on the bed in dead-man’s pose, meditating, and listening to Indian chants on his Ipod. What a fool. “Eli,” I said, annoyed, “we’re in India. There’s an ashram down the street where you can meditate and listen to a real live person chanting.” I couldn’t believe that he could be so clueless and superficial. But that incident wasn’t the last. We quickly got dressed and headed out to explore the Old City (Pink City) and Monkey Temple.
We spent the rest of the day, exploring the endless array maze of bazaars in the Pink City. The history goes that the king divided the city into several blocks, each specializing in a different type of craft. We ventured to the jewelry bazaars, a favorite of Eli’s. The entire day was exhausting, and we ended up going back to the hotel to shower, change, and visit the Monkey Temple.
Making a delicious drink of pressed sugar cane and bits of lime. So delish!
We got into Goa, and it was hotter than Delhi. I hired a car for us, and we took the hour long drive from the airport to one of the southernmost beaches in Goa-Palolem. We found a bright, clean hotel right off the main beach road, and settled in. Thankfully Eli wasn’t so picky because he was so sick. He just went in the room and crashed. I made him a concoction of salt and seltzer water to try and calm his stomach, and then ditched him to hit the beach. (I was on vacation!)