From the Taj to the Eiffel

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The plan was to go to China next. Last week I booked airfare from Delhi to Hong Kong on Bangladesh Airlines that departed on the eleventh of May. The price was $330 and I put down a $100 deposit. I also bought a bus ticket from McLeod Gange to Delhi for last Friday. I’ve always wanted to see that half of the world and I’d have about two months if I was to make it London by the good weather in early July.

When I went to pick up my tickets on Friday, they weren’t in. Evidently there was some mix up and they wouldn’t be available until the next day. The travel agency offered I pay the balance in Delhi and pick up the tickets at their office there. I’ve heard plenty of stories of proof of deposits in India suddenly becoming invalid, so I insisted in getting my money back. They gave it to me on a handshake. I gave the travel agent a $2.50 tip and told him I’d pick up the tickets in Delhi.


The bus ride was long and I had lots of time to think about my upcoming travels. I didn’t think about China much. I thought mostly about Europe. We rolled into Delhi early, before the sun had broken through the dust and haze. The smells of sewage and burning plastic snuck through the bus windows and I remembered all the big cities I’d seen in India. Stepping of the bus I was bombarded by rickshaw drivers, touts and hawkers. The AC in my hotel didn’t work and the day got hotter and hotter. Later I’d find out that Saturday was the hottest day Delhi had seen in five years. After attempting a nap under the warm wind of my room’s ceiling fan, I took to the streets for some food. My stomach was not well during the bus ride, but I thought maybe it had gotten better. As soon as I ate, it hurt. On my rush back to my toilet I bumped into Steve. He’s an Australian I spent some time with after the meditation retreat at Tushita. When I shook his hand, he said “careful!” His cast was now off and I forgot he’d broken his arm paragliding in northern India a month ago.

“Where you going?” Steve asked.

“My room. I think I’ve got ‘Delhi belly’” I said.

“You want to meet up later?”

“Yea sure, what time?”

“How’s one o’clock.”

“Sounds good, where should we meet?” I asked

“I don’t know.”

“How about right here?”

“Ok, see you then.”

“See you.”

I made it to my room and let the food out. I turned the TV on to CNN to fill the air with something familiar. It was too hot and I sweat bullets. I took a cold shower, sat down again, then guessing it was about one o’clock I went out to meet Steve. I couldn’t find the place, but I bumped into him again.

“Hey, sorry I’m late,” Steve said.

“Your late? What time is it?” I asked.

“I don’t know, I don’t have a watch.”

“Oh, me neither. Is this where we were supposed to meet?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hah, me neither.”

Having a second chance at airfare to Hong Kong, I figured I should find a travel agent to compare prices. Steve told me he had just bought a ticket from Delhi to Paris for mid may and that the travel agent he used was great. We went there. The guy was great, but his price to Hong Kong was a bit more.

“Why is that more than the price I have? What about Bangladesh Airways?” I asked.

“My friend, yes, Bangladesh Airways is much cheaper, but will it land?” he said.

“Hah, are you serious?” I asked with a laugh.

“My friend, Bangladesh is the poorest country in the world. What do you think? I want repeat customers and if you don’t land, you don’t come back!”

“Ok then!” I said. I knew I wasn’t going to pick up my tickets to Hong Kong anymore.

“How much to Paris?” I asked. The words just seem to come out of me; probably because that’s where Steve was going.

He searched the airfares.

“Four hundred and thirty dollars my friend. That is a much better deal. Paris is much further than Hong Kong!” the travel agent told me.

“True. Can I leave on the eleventh?”

”Let me check!”

He searched the airfares for availability. Nothing was available on the eleventh or for the rest of the upcoming week. There was one earlier flight available.

“I can get you a seat on Kuwait Airlines that leaves on Monday morning at six am” he said.

It was Saturday afternoon and I didn’t want to stay in Delhi for another week. It was too hot and I was ready to leave India.

“Hmm…will that give me enough time to see the Taj Mahal?” I thought out loud.

“Come with me to Agra tonight,” Steve said.

“Tonight? Then come back tomorrow?” I asked.

“Yea”

“I just got to Delhi this morning and already paid $5 for my room for tonight.”

I stared at the cursor blinking on the ‘C’ in CDG; the airport code for Paris. The screen was black with green text. It was old fashioned, but it probably always worked. I thought about paragliding and the good clean food.

“Ok” I said.

I bought the tickets to Paris and went back to my room to watch the tile floor and sweat some more. Then I repacked my bag. In Delhi, the dirt in the hot air finds it’s way into your skin within minutes, so I showered a third time before checking out.

I needed to be at the airport by three am on Monday morning and I didn’t want to risk being late on Sunday night, so before we left by train for Agra, we booked a return ticket on the express train. It was four times the price as the train to Agra ($10 versus $2.50), but it was twice as fast and the latest train, which would allows us to see the sunset on the Taj Mahal. We hiked our bags across all ten tracks to the last platform and boarded the waiting train. I was moving fast and I liked it.

I tortured Steve with my card tricks the whole train ride to Agra. “One more time mate!” he would say, but I’d only show him once. Then when he wasn’t expecting it, I do the trick, catching him off guard and making him ask again. It was fun.

We shared a room in Agra for $4 each. The air conditioner worked very well and we both shivered all night. Maybe we were too lazy to get up, but I think really that I wanted all the cold I could get for my money. Steve woke up with a stuffy nose. He was mad he was getting sick. I wanted to remind him of the Buddhist philosophies we’d learned about suffering, but instead I told him not to worry and that the heat will burn it off. I’m not sure what that meant, but it seemed to work. He felt better later in the day.

We had gotten up at 5:30 to try to make it to the Taj by sunrise. We got there in time. There was nobody around and it was closed until 6am. We had ten minutes so we figured we would walk the perimeter of the surrounding fort. We saw the back of the Taj Mahal and took some pictures. Behind the Taj was a dry river and there must have been sewage draining into it. Agra smelled worse than Delhi. My stomach was still weak and it wasn’t keeping food. The stench made it worse. I tried breathing through my mouth, but I could taste it. My lips went numb and my vision tunneled. Steve was talking but I was focusing on my breath. I wished my nose was stuffy like his. Walking back to the entrance, I barely escaped my seven-year no-puking streak.

There was a long line at the gate now. We waited behind some blond Sweedish girls to buy our tickets. They were nice to look at and passed the time, but after buying their tickets they took the security line marked for girls and were out of sight within minutes. That line took longer. Steve started to get agitated with the wait and inefficiency of the system. He was muttering things. I wanted to remind him of the Buddhist philosophies we’d learned about, but I knew I was guilty of the same ways at times and I didn’t want to come off preachy. I reminded him anyway and it helped. I knew they wouldn’t allow electronics through, but I didn’t want to leave my laptop, iPod and phone behind a $1 lock manned by a beggar, so I tried hiding it in a secret pocket of my daypack. They searched my bag and found it. I acted surprised the things weren’t allowed and they suspected nothing. When the locker guy handed me the key, he said “Be very careful. Do not lose!” I figured this meant he didn’t have another key, which made me feel better. When I came back later, he asked me for a tip. I said what about those other people (as I pointed at the Indian couple who had just left)…why didn’t you ask them? He understood and shook his head saying “it’s ok, it’s ok”.

By the time we reached the Taj Mahal inside the fort, the sun was up high and bright. People were filtering in quick and the heat was coming fast. It was a pleasant time to be there. Steve and I split up and explored the Taj Mahal and surrounding grounds, taking tons of iconic pictures that would verify our trip to India. No shoes were allowed inside and there was a room where everyone put them. It had no ventilation and there was a line, because each person was given a ticket which they could use to reclaim their shoes. I breathed through my mouth, because I knew my stomach wouldn’t like the smell. Once, I took a quick sniff with my nose and found it was good that I’d been using my mouth.

Inside the Taj was not so marvelous. It was big and grand, but plain. From the outside, it was magnificent. I is no wonder the Taj Mahal is a world wonder, I thought. It sits so majestically and profound at the end of a long, well groomed walkway. There were fountains empty of water, but I imagined them full and flowing. Many visiting Indian’s families talked to me. Some wanted me in their pictures, some wanted me to take pictures of them and all wanted to tell me how special the Taj Mahal is. Their pride in it was my favorite part. It’s surly something to be proud of.

On the way out of the Taj Steve asked the attendant if we could come back in. I was sure what we’d bought for twice the price as our hotel was a day pass, but in fact it wasn’t. No re-entry was aloud in the evening. If we wanted to see sunset, we’d have to stay the whole day, without food. This was not feasible, so we missed sunrise and we missed sunset, but it didn’t mater. I’d spent hours there and saw that the Taj Mahal was magnificent and something to be proud of.

There were other sites to see in Agra. After breakfast, we haggled with some rickshaw drivers and got a pedal powered ride to Agra Fort. It was hot and I was fighting to ignore the waves of pain in my stomach, so I suggested we just ride around the fort instead of going in. Steve expressed interest in seeing the inside. I thought my last day in India was not a time to be lazy, so I joined him. I’d seen so many forts already, that I was ill impressed. However, there was one spot that I really liked and will remember. It was a kind of hall with many arches and a giant door that opened to a balcony. It was a place the King must have come out to speak to his people. I stood in the shade and daydreamed about it. I wanted to keep the imagined memories to myself. I took no pictures.

I followed Steve around after that, watching my breath and sweat respond to my calmness. There was a western girl with died red hair, wearing yellow Indian pants and carrying and orange backpack. She looked interesting and I wanted to talk to her. We glanced at each other as I walked past, then I followed Steve down a hallway and out of sight from her. The path through the fort was a loop and brought us back out to the same place. There were some beggars there, but the girl was gone. Steve had only bills, so he gave the beggar the bill and took some change back from him.

“What a good idea!” I said. I often don’t give beggars any money because I don’t have coins with me. I’d never thought of making them give me change!

The girl came out while Steve split up the coins between the two beggars and his pocket. She overheard us and did the same thing.

“Are you making change too?” I asked her.

“Yes. It works good, because then I have coins to give to all the other beggars I run into,” she said.

“Man, what a great idea!” I said. I continued to think to myself out loud about how great of an idea it was. Often I get overexcited about simple things; like a few weeks ago when I saw an English kid crush his empty
water bottle down and put the cap back on so he could carry the trash without it taking up much space. This was better than the bottle though.

Barbara walked with Steve and me for bit. Her accent sounded German and we learned she was Swiss. She told us it was nice to finally meet some other travelers and asked if she could spend the afternoon with us. We obliged and the three of us headed out of the fort to see the next sight…

Only two would fit on a rickshaw and Steve needed to go to the ATM, so Barabara and I headed off on a twenty minute pedal powered rickshaw ride to “Baby Taj”. Steve went to get cash, then he would meet us there.
On the ride we talked about our home life and our past travels and I talked about how much I love traveling because I thought I was going to e in Delhi today and now I’m riding on a rickshaw with somebody I didn’t know fifteen minutes ago. I asked Barbara what she did in Switzerland besides work at the bank and the gym. She told me she paraglides. I was surprised and intrigued, so I started what would be a day long bombardment of questions. She told me all about the sport. I told her about Steve and his broken arm. She said that paragliding is one of the safest adventure sports in the world, the only one insurable one in Switzerland and that Steve got hurt because he did it in India. I remember my guidebook mentioning paragliding in India was shut down for awhile due to extensive accidents. I never new much about paragliding. At first I confused it with hang-gliding, the sport where a person has a fixed wing and soars through the air at high rates of speed, but from talking to Barbara I learned paragliding actually uses a parachute attached to a seat. It’s a specially designed parachute that gives forward motion and has the ability to turn. I’d been parasailing and skydiving before, so I figured any means of floated flight would only last a few minutes. Barbara told me her longest flight was four hours! She said that most of the time, people only come down because they have to pee. I was shocked. What she was telling me is that she could fly. That I could fly. I know everyone has dreams of flying, but I don’t know how often. I have them almost everyday. I always have. It’s an escape for me. Becoming a pilot has been a long time plan of mine, but this sounded simpler and safer.

Steve finally showed up and we were still talking about paragliding. We went for lunch and talked some more. Back at the hotel the three of us sat around. I did some card tricks and made Steve think hard about them. Then we talked some more about paragliding. We realized Barbara was on the same train back to Delhi as us.

“What car are you in?” I asked, hoping maybe we could talk some more about how, where and when I could learn to fly.

“Let me check,” she said as she went through her bag.

“What car are we in Steve?”

He went through his wallet but couldn’t find it. He checked twice.

“It’s got to be here,” he said.

“If it’s not, don’t sweat it, it’s only $10. I’ll pay to have a taxi drive us, because I have to get back to the airport.” I said.

“Nah, it’s ok, I’ll find it. We won’t need a taxi.”

He checked again. Barbara was holding her ticket now.

“If I lost it, I’ll split a taxi with you,” said Steve.

He checked a third time and found it.

“Ah, I knew it was here. Car six, seats eleven and thirteen,” Steve said.

“Shut up!” said Barbara.

“What? Why?” said Steve.

“I’m in car six, seat twelve!” she answered.

She grabbed the ticket from him and inspected it line by line. Ten plus trains per day, twenty to thirty cars, and thousands of seats and the girl in the yellow pants, with the orange backpack and red hair was in the same train, same car, same row and sitting right between us.

“It’s true, I can’t believe it!” she said.

I watched them talk. Any hesitations I had about heading to Europe earlier than planned faded. We talked about other things and more about paragliding for the rest of the day and on the train ride back to Delhi. Steve and Barbara got rooms at a hotel near the train station and I hung out with them until it was time for me to head to the airport. I shook Steve’s hand goodbye; softly. I told him about the time I’d injured my hand and how in my work I have to shake hands a lot, so I would often stick my left out instead of my right, since every time it got crushed it took longer to heal. He thought it was a good idea. I also suggested a small brace to remind himself to be careful. He said he’d look for one.

Barbara and I exchanged emails so she could guide me to a good paragliding school where I could learn to fly. Then we hugged and she kissed me on each cheek. It was goodbye to a new friend but felt more like an early welcome to Europe.

When I got out into the street it was dark and empty except for dogs and drivers sleeping in their rickshaws. I stepped over one clean and healthy looking dog who was sleeping soundly on the ground. I watched him and smiled thinking about how even the stray dogs are friendly in India. A man carrying a large stick passed me. I gave my smile to him too. As I turned the corner, an endless series of yelping came from behind me. Startled, I turned back around and the guy with the stick was laughing. The dog was running down the alley, still yelping. It had been so sound asleep; I couldn’t imagine it did anything to deserve getting hit.

Out in the main road, a taxi driver I’d told to meet me was waiting. I went towards his car and he woke, then stepped out to put his shirt on. While waiting, I saw the man with the stick come out of another alley. He swung the long stick hard and whacked a dog that was walking by. The dog burst into a frenzy of yelps. “HEY!” I yelled down the dark brown empty street, but the guy couldn’t hear me over the dog’s screaming. He chased another dog towards an alley. I was so angry at the sight, that with little thinking, I picked up a rock the size of a baseball and hummed it as hard as I could towards the man. It just missed his ankle as he chased the dog down the alley. Everything fell silent and I could hear the rock skid and tumble down the street. I got in the taxi and we left.

I was on time for my three hour early arrival at the airport. It took me thirty minutes to get through baggage check, boarding pass issue, immigration departure and security. I had another two and a half hours to wait for my flight.

At six am on Monday I left India with a million memories, a list of places to come back to and no regrets. I had almost escaped without getting sick, but since the Friday night bus ride, I still wasn’t holding food in for more than twenty minutes. I spent five hours at a layover in Kuwait and tried out every toilet in the airport. It’s a nice airport; very new, clean and modern. There is a prayer room that faces Mecca and a duty-free where I bought some DVD’s. McDonald’s had free internet, so I talked to some friends online who were up late.

During the flights I got to try all the toilets out as well. The plane from Kuwait to Paris had over eight toilets and each one was set up different. The faucets were different, the soap dispensers were different, the flush buttons were in different places and some where cleaner than others. The ones near the plane’s main doors were colder and my feet went numb since I’d taken my shoes off for comfort during the flight. I was sick of being sick, but I was also getting use to it. I started eating again, with the expectation that I’d be sick anyway. Even the fifteen minutes of fullness I felt was worth the trip back to the vacuum bowl and mini sink. I took the experience as a chance to see how I could affect pain with meditation. It was more difficult than affecting muscle pain, but it passed the time.

Traveling with no plans and on whims is more expensive, but exciting. I feel like for the first time in my life I’ve opened up my sails to the winds of chance and coincidence. It’s never been my style, but I’m loving it. Paris is amazing and it feels perfect to be here.

Me in Paris

6 Thoughts on “From the Taj to the Eiffel”

  1. stacey Says:

    more pictures! more pictures!

  2. Aunt Zeth Says:

    Dear Cousin Uncle,

    We hope your belly is better. Remeber the BRAT diet -Banana, Rice, Apple Sauce and Toast. It’s all binding and hopefully will give you 25 minutes until the next WC. Get better. Paris has awesome food.

    The kids loved the post card. Keep them coming.

    Au revoir,
    Aunt Zeth

  3. gert Says:

    good story, crazy with those tickets on the train.

  4. richele Says:

    you look like you are having a blast! keep safe! Richele

  5. Kevin Says:

    awesome story.

  6. -eric- Says:

    John-
    The photo – 2nd row from the top, on the right : tiny tiny person in front of massive building – is incredible! One of my favorite photos of yours ever. Nice work man!

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