He was a smooth talking showman, of that there was little doubt.
We sipped beers and huddled against the cold on the balcony of his restaurant, the Pahar Ganj, Delhi streets below still in full swing at 11 pm. He made the requisite small talk before hinting broadly that, in addition to running a fabulous restaurant, he was also a tour operator. He could arrange anything that we wanted. Anything. We wanted to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri.
He went to work, fingers flying over the keyboard of his computer, mobile phone pressed to his ear. He promised the best of everything, until we told him that we wanted to take the train to Agra. He briefly argued that point, citing the notorious delays that plague the Indian train system, and the foggy weather that had recently seized the area, but we insisted. I had my heart set on riding the train.
He easily obtained outbound tickets, leaving two days hence, but had a problem booking our return journey to Delhi, as the trains from Agra station were full. Consummate problem solver that he was, he booked tickets for a train that departed from Tundla station, 10 miles outside of Agra. No problem. No problem at all.
In the predawn hours of that day, we made our way to the Delhi Railway Station. To our delight, the train left on time, and as we rumbled south, the atmosphere lightened, to reveal a landscape shrouded in thick fog. I rested my forehead against the glass of the window and gazed at the monochromatic scene, broken periodically by bursts of red and purple bougainvillea. While the train gobbled up the miles, the soupy sky remained the same.
We arrived in Agra, into the chaotic madness that I had imagined when I thought of Indian train stations. I clutched the back of Will’s shirt as we waded through the tide of people. At the far end of the crowd, we spotted a beacon, a sign with our name on it. This driver whisked us away from the train station and into the city.
Upon meeting with our English speaking guide a few minutes later, we arrived at the famed Taj Mahal and purchased tickets. I eagerly entered the park, only to find that that first view of this magnificent building was denied to me. The fog had other plans. Undiscouraged, we made our way closer, and the Taj finally came into view.
We entered the building, and I was anticipating some time to absorb the beauty on my own, but our guide had other plans. He was intent on delivering a detailed diatribe on the marble inlay of the walls, to the exclusion of everything else. We would later find out why this was his singular focus. Will and I huddled against the bitterly damp cold, and listened politely, but our patience began to wear thin.
As we returned to the car, our guide informed us that we would now be going to a Taj Mahal museum. However, as we turned down a narrow side street, I realized that was not the case. We stopped at a marble shop, and were hustled inside to listen to a sales pitch poorly delivered by a man who instantly realized we were never going to buy even one of those pieces of rock. We emerged from the shop to find our guide, eyes glittering in anticipation of a fat commission. When he realized that we hadn’t purchased one thing, he informed us that his job was done, and we would continue our journey to Fatehpur Sikri with only our driver, who spoke no English, for company. Additionally, we only had a little over three hours until our train departed for Delhi.
We barreled out of the city in the rickety car, hurried through Fatehpur Sikri, which was bordering on blasphemy, as it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. We rushed back to the car and made our way to Tundla station for our train back to Delhi. As we arrived at the station, with only about 20 minutes to spare, our driver, whose English suddenly became very good, demanded more money. We had already intended on tipping him more than the amount he “requested”, and I hope he understood when we told him that.
Irritated, cold and hungry, we entered the station, complete with a cow lounging in the lobby, to determine what platform our train would depart from. The loudspeakers announced departures and arrivals, and as I stared at the rats navigating the trash and piles of human feces on the tracks, I heard our train number called. We looked at each other in shock. Delayed five hours. My eyes frantically searched the lobby. No benches and no chairs. Nothing but cold, dirty concrete and an insolent cow.
The decision that we made in that moment was an easy one. In some early morning stroke of brilliance, we had elected to bring our passports, which we don’t usually do for a day trip. With those passports, we could find a hotel, have a warm shower to chase away the chill, some food and a cocktail or two, then figure out how to get back to Delhi. Problem solved, at least until we tried to wrangle a taxi.
The taxi mafia lurked just outside the station, and when we approached it was like a feeding frenzy. The boss made a big show of pushing his underlings aside, and when we uttered the word “hotel” he whipped out a laminated list that we could choose from. We selected one at random and the boss allowed one of his minions to escort us to a car, and we were back on the hellish roads of Agra in the rapidly waning daylight.
As the light completely faded, we neared the Taj Mahal area, and the location of our randomly chosen hotel. A billboard for the Radisson hotel came into view, and Will and I looked at each other. Of course, yes, after the day we’d had, we deserved the Radisson. Will informed our driver that we now wanted to go to that place of a nice room and a great bar. It couldn’t be as simple as a change of course.
Without uttering a word of English, our driver made his point very clear. He was taking us to the hotel we had chosen initially. Why? The ubiquitous kickback, of course. No matter, we arrived at the Lotus Taj Mahal View Hotel, looked around for a moment, then hopped into a another cab bound for the Radisson. We sat back and relaxed. It was almost over.
Our cab pulled up to the Radisson, and smiling doormen ushered us into the expansive lobby. Glassware and laughter tinkled from the nearby bar, and it was warm in there, so warm. We approached the front desk, credit card in hand, our faces adorned with gleeful smiles. The clerk looked up and asked for a reservation. No, we have no reservation, just a room for one night, please! I’m sorry, sir and madam, we are fully booked.
There was no time for defeat. We recalled passing another hotel on our way to what was supposed our salvation, so we hit the sidewalk and walked. The wind was damp and bone chilling, but we walked, and we arrived at the Crystal Hotel. They had a room. They had a restaurant. They had a bar. We took it.
We spent the evening sitting at our room’s small table, devouring the Chinese food that was the restaurant’s specilaty, sipping from large bottles of beer, and laughing. Because that’s all you can do after a day like that. You laugh and realize that it’s going to make a wonderful story.
The next morning we hired a car to take us back to Delhi. The two hours on the expressway were uneventful, and we arrived at our hotel without incident.
However, the next day would change everything. Something horrible happened, and Delhi reacted, and we were there to to witness it.
To be continued.