Chai! Ch-ch-ch-Chai, Ch-Chai! Touts scramble down the tight aisle of the train spouting India’s famous tea, a local spiced black tea with hot milk and sugar for a measly five rupees, about 13 cents. I indulge and instantly fall in love, ordering one nearly every time a tout passes by. In and out of head-nodding sleep, we finally arrive in Agra and upon exiting the station are bombarded by auto rickshaw drivers looking to secure our business for the day. We are initially hesitant, but one driver speaks excellent English, is well-dressed, and has all of his teeth. VK as he calls himself, becomes our driver for the entire day and agrees to take us to the Taj, Agra Fort, and the Baby Taj as well as a stop for lunch. His services for the entire day cost us $5 each.
VK takes what he thinks will be a detour down a narrow alley big enough for one auto rickshaw. We, of course, run into a barrier where a truck is unloading goods. As we sit and wait, we hear some ruckus behind us and look out the back window where we notice roughly eight kids running in our direction full speed. The custom has it that foreigners should buy chocolate, candy, or small fruit such as oranges to give to the children. We don’t have anything like that but luckily we had snuck a bag of mangosteens in from Thailand and I cracked into them, giving each child a piece or two. Realizing the wait would be too long we backed out of the alley and made our way to the West entrance to the Taj Mahal.
The ticket is expensive, especially if you’re a foreigner, but once you get your first glimpse it is worth every penny. We walked around the grounds for about two hours, snapping photos and taking pictures with Japanese and Indian tourist at their multiple requests. We often feel like celebrities. Built for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahl is actually a mausoleum for both him and the wife. Speaking with a group of Indian tourists, we learned that the Taj is not even Indian, but built by a Persian and is considered to be Muslim. Most Indians are Hindu and from our conversations, tend to not be very fond of Muslims. We were instructed that if we wanted to see a true Indian architectual marvel, then we needed to visit the Golden Temple in Amristar. The view from each side is identical, given to the fact that symmetry is beautiful. The heat is overwhelming so we spend the majority of our time in the grounds tucked beneath the shade of a nearby building, viewing the Taj from afar.
The rest of the day was spent visiting the Agra Fort and Baby Taj, both equally impressive. I personally preferred the Agra Fort, but only because once we were inside, there were monkeys running around and playing and on the way out, there was a snake charmer playing his flute-like instrument. Next to him was this unique percussion instrument that I really took a liking to and upon inquiry, they insisted that I try to play. It was so bad the snake even howled, but everyone laughed and we hung out listening to their set and enjoying the authentic music before leaving.
We spent some time in the late afternoon shopping for gifts at the numberous textile factories, and even tried on traditional Indian dress. VK dropped us off at the train station and we hurried over to our platform to wait for our train. After 15 minutes had passed, the train hadn’t arrived and we began to worry. Erin asked another passenger and we learned that our ticket was for another train station! We ran back to the entrance of the station and fortunately VK was still there having realized that something was wrong. He drove like a madman, weaving in and out of traffic, saying “you’re going to make it.” Rest assured he was right and we were on our way to Jaipur, sipping on Chai.
Our first day in Jaipur, we met two English twin brothers who were back in India exploring their roots. We agreed to meet up with them that evening for dinner and set out for a day of sightseeing. Bartering with a nearby auto rickshaw we secured a price for the day and were off to the Pink City – the site of the recent bombing, which luckily we were not around for – followed by the Amber Fort. Everything is starting to look the same considering we had just seen so many forts and temples. Making the best of it, we snap some pictures with traditional Indian guards wearing their garb consisting of all white and a red turban, not to mention sweet full-handlebar mustaches. The Amber Fort is perched high atop a hill on the outskirts of Jaipur and is by and far the best fort we visited. Our favorite part was the room that was covered in mosaic mirrors. We spent the rest of the day in a textile factory pricing out fabrics and getting ideas for different clothing styles before returning home. We are running late and VJ and AJ are waiting for us to go to dinner. I am starting to not feel so well.
The twins are great guys and we talk about everything under the sun, sports, politics, culture, america, britain – all of their problems and also why they are the best. When we arrive at Chokhi Dhoni, we pay the entrance fee and walk around, listening to music and watching dancers. My stomach is aching terribly by this time and I excuse myself to go the toilet. I feel extremely hot and ask to borrow VJ’s Manchester United scarf to use as a towel with some cold water on my neck. We go to the restaurant and are served what could be considered a 15-course meal. Between toilet breaks, I eat a total of a half of a course and break the news that I probably should go home since I’m not feeling well.
I lie down on our hotel bed and I’m burning up. Erin places cold rags and towels on my body to cool me down which leads to me shivering and convulsing terribly. I’m scared, crying, and am mumbling nonsensical things.. I’ve never felt this awful in my life. Erin, knowing my stubborness, says she is going to get some water downstairs and returns five minutes later to say she has made arrangements for me to go to a hospital. I love her for this. She knows me so well. The hotel manager drives me around the corner on his motorbike to the hospital. I am skeptical but not as much as Erin. My temperature is at 104 degrees and before they can inject me with medicine to slow it down, Erin is asking to inspect the needle. She asks “Is this sanitary? Are you sure?” They won’t tell us what medicine they are injecting and my skepticism is making things worse. I decide to give in and let them do what they need to do. The hospital is dirty and the equipment looks like it is as least 40 years old. They decide to keep me overnight and hook me up to an IV drip. The next morning as I’m on one of my numerous toilet breaks, I notice a used syringe under my bed as I’m climbing back in. Dr. Shah decides they are going to run numerous tests on me to figure out the problem. After an ultrasound, blood work, an EKG, x-rays, stool samples, and urine samples, they tell us it’s Typhoid Fever. This doesn’t sound right because I had been vaccinated for this before leaving San Francisco, but Debby called the clinic in SF and they alerted us the vaccination only guarantees 75% success rate. Given our previous experiences in India with being constantly ripped off, we feel that they are trying to pull the wool over our eyes, and even to this day, still think they have. While it is possible that I had Typhoid, I’m not certain that all of those tests were necessary to achieve that diagnosis. It’s almost as if they looked at me as their golden ticket and they were going to milk me for all I was worth. Fortunately, health care in India is super cheap and the bill amounted to $325 after I checked myself out on the 3rd day. They would’ve kept me there for a week had I not. Our hotel manager confirmed that we paid the “foreign rate” while we were checking out of his hotel that afternoon. Still, I was terribly sick going in and came out walking and feeling at about 90%.
There was only one way I could think of to get me back to 100%, and that was a week of trekking in the Himalayas. Next stop, Mother Nature’s favorite Indian state, Himachal Pradesh. I was supposed to take an overnight bus from Delhi the next day and meet up with Damien in Kullu, but given my health status, he hooked me up with an airline ticket. Such a generous thing to do and I’m grateful to him for having done so. Thank you, Damien.