I guess we should start at the beginning.
Which is a pretty inauspicious place to start, actually. Because within 10 minutes of leaving my apartment, I managed to lose my debit card, leaving me cashless for my transcontinental journey. An hour later, in an unrelated incident (by which I mean it’s related only by the fact that I’m an idiot), I found myself being questioned by a train conductor after a mysterious ticket turned up with a receipt baring my credit card info. Yeah. By the time we pulled into Newark, I was feeling pretty great about my ability to travel across the world. Since I was evidently so adept at getting myself across state lines and all. Leg #1: fail.
Leg #2 of the journey was surprisingly fine, though, thus proving that most things I worry about usually end up okay (while other random shit that never even crosses my mind generally hits the fan.) The fifteen hour flight went by super fast, even though the Ambien I finally convinced my dad to prescribe me DID NOT WORK. Let me repeat: prescription medication so ubiquitous it’s referenced in a Jay Z song was no match for my anxiety and adrenaline. In case you ever need quantitative proof of how much of a freak I am, just remember I’m apparently impervious to sleeping pills.
Anyway, I make it to Sar’s apartment, tired but happy to be reunited with the red-headed, tap dancing alcoholic who first stole my heart freshman year. (And by stole my heart, I mean drank me under the table. Like I literally had to go to the hospital because I tried to go shot-for-shot with her.)
Anyway, we’re both way more mature now.
Note: outfits will be explained in recap #3 #4 #5. All in due time.
Sarah was a wonderful hostess. We traipsed around to a few tourist attractions over the weekends: Humayun’s tomb, Lodhi gardens.
On Saturday night, we went to a chic Asian fusion restaurant. With its rooftop bar, inflated prices and fish flown in daily from Japan, it felt like I had been there before. Like in my own country. I was left wondering where all the 50-cent three-course meals my Rough Guide had touted were. I wanted the real, authentic India, dammit, poverty, pollution and all! I didn’t fly around the world to go to a Stephen Starr restaurant!
As it turns out, I was wrong. I didn’t want the authentic, real India. In fact, after finding said India the next day, I practically begged Sarah to take me to a Stephen Starr restaurant. Actually, fuck Stephen Starr. By the time I got to Bombay, I was ready for the new Morimoto restaurant at the Taj.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The turning point that left me running for the five-star hotel buffets was my trip to Agra – home to the Taj Mahal – on Monday. I left Sarah’s apartment at 4 a.m. to catch a “two-hour long” train, which deserves its own quotes, because in India, there are no rules, let alone timetables. After about hour four, the Asian tourists around me started getting restless and a bunch of Americans started complaining, but I noticed this older Indian guy just kind of laughing at all of them. By the end of that day, I totally got it.
We arrived in Agra too late for me to join a tour group I had researched, so I headed off to the Taj on my own. Sarah had suggested I hire a driver – super cheap in India – but I was convinced I could handle roughing it on a rickshaw. I blame the Stephen Starr syndrome and a total lack of sleep (I had terrible insomnia for most of the trip.)
Anyway, it didn’t go down so well. I don’t know how to set the scene, except to emphasize that everything is just so difficult in India, especially when you’re alone and female and painfully white. You can’t just walk places, which was hard for someone as taxi-adverse and stubborn as me to accept. All day, I kept finding myself in situations where I was the only tourist – surrounded by barefoot children, cows, bubbling pots of curry and just people, people people – all of them staring at me. I still can’t really figure it out – there were a decent number of tourists at the actual Taj, how did they manage to seemingly disappear immediately outside the entrance booth? Um, maybe they read the following advice (sadly read by me prior to the trip and then blatantly ignored) from the Miami Herald: “Hire a regulated guide: You do not want to endure the ride leading to the Taj or the final walk to its gate alone.”
Yeah. Well, I endured it. I also endured a rickshaw ride during which a MAN ARMED WITH A RIFLE jumped on and sat in front of me, the butt of said rifle aimed disturbingly close to my head. And then, just for kicks, I decided to endure a mile-long walk to Agra Fort train station – the train station on the wrong side of town. Again, I don’t even know how to explain this, except to say that the train station on the right side of town? You don’t even want to be there alone.
I stood in line after line at several ticket windows, where no tourists ever go, because there are special tourist tickets online. And I actually had one of those special tourist tickets, but it was for 8 p.m., and I quickly realized there was no way in hell I was going to survive in Agra until then, especially when the trains were running five hours late. So I eventually pushed my way up to the front of a line, attempted to communicate that I wanted to go to Delhi and purchased…a 60 rupee ticket. Which is about $1.20. Not a good sign, considering my trip to Agra had cost $15 and still made me miss Amtrak.
By the time I made it on to the train, I was missing Metro North, New Jersey transit and even Septa. Just the simple act of boarding made me want to throw my hands in the air and hire a driver. I had thought that the train was coming on track #3, but two super nice San Franciscans (hi Iggy! hi Allison!) directed me to track #2. Sure enough, a train soon pulled up there – and hoards of people started jumping on it. While it was still moving. Because there are no doors on trains in India. Never one to give up a seat willingly, I followed suit, using my Longchamp bag as protection from jutting elbows. I wedged myself in the middle of a bench and watched as the car filled with people. Though everyone was staring at me already, I decided to whip out the hot pink-encased blackberry I had borrowed from Sarah’s roommate, just to make me stand out a little bit more. As I’m trying to convince both her and myself that I am indeed fine and can handle this, I see Allison running down the platform, screaming “get out!”
It was the wrong train, and Allison and Iggy had felt so bad for giving me the wrong info that they had searched for me. After coming up empty-handed in a few cars, they finally asked someone, who immediately identified my exact location. Like, the white girl? Of course we know where she is. Hard to miss.
By the time the real train came (four hours late, I believe), I had decided there was no way I could make it three hours in the general seating car. Instead, I tagged along with Iggy and Allison to the second-class sleeper, eventually convincing the conductor to let me upgrade my ticket. It actually wasn’t that hard of a sell – I think he realized there was no way I could cut it back there and had no choice but to take my 100 rupees and let me stay.
I met up with Sarah in Gurgaon that night for a late dinner and finally accepted defeat. “Do you want Indian food? Takeout?” Sar asked. No. Absolutely not. At that point, I was ready to cry at the drop of a samosa. Instead, I requested something vaguely American, zen-like and extremely fancy, and off we went to the Trident hotel’s mediterranean buffet, where we ordered four different types of ice cream (in addition to cakes and pastries, obv) for dessert. Here’s Sar with a sampling:
Yes, it was pricey, even by American standards. Yes, it was food I could have gotten anywhere else in the world, especially Philly. But you know what? That night, for the first time in almost a week, I slept more than 45 minutes. Which was a very good thing, considering all the sleepless nights – and corresponding disasters adventures – to come.