After experiencing the glory of the Taj I allowed everyone a moment to purchase sundry souvenir items. Then it was back in a rickshaw and on to the train station. We stopped at the tourist information desk and told them we wanted to go to New Delhi. He wrote down the names and numbers of two trains and we then proceeded to the women’s ticket window. Train stations in India are one of the most hectic places on earth and that is why I am grateful for these two inventions. The tourist information desk is available in every train station that tourists frequent. They speak English and know the train station and can help you out. They don’t sell the tickets, though. You must go to the ticket window for this. You could wait in line for a ticket for hours. Not only that, but cutting in line is widely acceptable in India and its all about jockeying for position. If someone’s train leaves in two minutes, they won’t hesitate to jump the line and shove their hand in the window, doing anything they can to promote their cause. Thankfully, there is a window just for women. It is, as you might imagine, far more civil. We used this window to get our New Delhi tickets. We gave the man the paper with the two trains written on it. He looked at it for a moment and then said, “New Delhi?” Yes. New Delhi. He printed out five tickets. We had a little less than an hour until the train would leave and everyone wanted to get dinner. There wasn’t a restaurant in the station so we began walking away from it. Outside the train station there were plenty of restaurants, none particularly clean or tourist friendly, but we were crunched for time and hungry, so we picked one of the cleaner looking ones and ordered food. The three of us guys had no trouble with this, seeing as we had survived the roadside restaurant we considered ourselves delhi belly immune and ready for anything. The “kitchen” was out in the open and we watched as our food was freshly prepared, then we scarfed it down in a matter of minutes and headed back towards the train station.
We found the platform for the train we were going to take. I pulled out our tickets and tried to figure out which coach we were assigned to. The tickets clearly said Agra to New Delhi, but there was no time, train number, or coach listed. A young indian man asked us if we needed help. He didn’t have an Indian accent though. We asked him for help finding where we were supposed to be and showed him our tickets. It turns out this guy is American-born and lives on Long Island, but he’s Indian and is here, staying with his uncle for a family wedding. He spoke Hindi and offered to help us. We raced back to the ticket office and tried to find out what the deal was with our tickets. They began talking in Hindi and after the conversation ran longer than a minute I realized this couldn’t be good news. As it turns out, the tickets we bought do not guarantee a seat on any particular train; they are like flying standby. We could get on a train and if there were left over seats we could take them with the conductors permission. This was not what we wanted. We needed to go to New Delhi tonight and these trains run full. We might be able to return our train tickets and buy new tickets on the train that the Long Island guy was taking to New Delhi in 45 minutes. This involved racing back to the ticket window, returning the useless tickets, and then going to a third window to fill out paperwork and get tickets on the other train. There were other Indians trying to get tickets on this other train, though. This time it was us pulling the shove-my-hand-in-the-ticket-window routine. There was shouting and hurried voices but no violence. We were at the ticket manager’s mercy. It would be his decision whether we received these last tickets on the evening train. Long Island told us to fill in the paperwork and have our money ready, exact change. There was uncertainty right up until the last minute. With ten minutes until the train arrived we received tickets for the last seats on the train. We thanked Long Island profusely. Surely without his knowledge of Hindi and how to get stuff done in India we’d either be standing up on the slow train or cramped into a taxi cab for four hours to New Delhi. Instead we had tickets on the Taj Express, a “super fast” train to New Delhi. Superfast by India standards means it only made one stop between Agra and New Delhi. There was food service on the train, which was an added luxury. Standing on the platform waiting for the train we found all the SAS kids who were in Agra on an SAS trip.
We swapped stories with our fellow voyagers and essentially our India experiences could not have been different. They spent their time being shuttled around on coach buses, staying in five-star hotels, their whole days planned out for them minute by minute. I wasn’t jealous in the least, but they too were staying in Delhi that night and returning to Kochi the next day. Their plans for the evening were simply to check into a hotel for the night. After some careful scheming we decided that we would try and spend the night with them. When we got off in New Delhi we asked Kat, the trip leader, if we could ride their bus to their hotel. Of course, as with everything else Semester at Sea related, this had to be approved by a higher-up, but after a phone call we were permitted to bum a ride. We arrived at the Royal Plaza hotel, had to put our bags through an X-ray and go through a metal detector, but then entered the most illustrious hotel lobby I have ever seen with glistening marble floors and columns, a giant chandelier and a ceiling that looked as though it were painted my Michelangelo himself. Obviously, this place was not in our budget. No matter. We had enough friends on the SAS trip that each of the five from our group could stay in a different hotel room with a different friend. Erica, my best buddy from Long Island, was sweet enough to take me in for the night. The first thing I did was shower for the first time in three days and change into my one coveted remaining pair of clean clothes. After the shower I felt reborn. The dirt, the dust, the sweat, the sunscreen, the bugspray, the funk of five indian cities covering my body and drifting down the drain, it was delightful. I looked at my white shorts that I had worn for three days and they were tinted gray. I know what youre thinking. Why did I wear white shorts? Because when you’re living out of a backpack for 72 hours you have to be functional not formal, and the zipper cargo pockets and fabric weight were ideal, I just looked a little nasty by the end. Anyways, I showered, someone ordered some pizza and we all just hung out. It was a great change of pace but I’m glad that our other nights had been much more eventful and lively. A few hours later it was time for bed. Gianna, Erica, and I pushed their two twin beds together into one kinda-big bed. I put my head on the soft clean pillow. With total darkness and nothing but the gentle sound of air-conditioning flowing into the room I’ve never fallen asleep faster.
The next morning, the stowaways met up and slipped out of the hotel undetected. This was our only day in New Delhi so we had to do it big. We hopped into a cab and headed to Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque with capacity for 25,000 worshippers. Non-muslims were allowed in after the morning prayers but they had to be shoeless and covered appropriately. I brought jeans for the occasion but Adam and Jane had to rent blankets to wrap around themselves. Giovanni didn’t particularly want to go inside so he stayed outside with all of our bags. Not going to lie, after the Ganges River and the Taj Mahal, the mosque didn’t enchant me from a religious perspective or an architectural one. Adam and I opted to spend an extra Rs 200 ($4) so that we could climb up one of the minarets for a view of all of New Delhi. We scaled a spiral staircase that led to the top of the narrow minaret. From the top you could see everything within a mile radius, but the Delhi smog prevented any chance of a broad sweeping view. From the minaret you also appreciated the mosque more, seeing how the outer wall is laid out with the three gates, noticing the detail in the dome, etc. We came back down and moved on to our next thrill. Next religion, Jainism. We stopped by the 16th century Digambara Jain Temple, which is only a few blocks from the mosque. Although it was much smaller, the temple was far more beautiful. It had many polished marble surfaces. The building was pristine. A jainist temple reminds me a little bit of a cathedral. In some cathedrals there are little stations, each one to a different saint, and you can light a candle and say a prayer. In a jainist temple, each room is for a different deity. There is a statue of the deity and jainists come and offer some uncooked rice to the deity, say a prayer or do incantations from their holy book. I was a little surprised at how “normal” the building was from the inside. Although each room had a different statue, the deities were not incorporated into the walls or the architecture. Instead, there were photos or paintings or prayers in picture frames on the wall. It was like when you go to applebees and they have all the memorabilia on the wall, except it was all jainist-themed. I also noted how busy the temple was in the middle of the day on a Friday. There were people circulating all around the world, ringing bells, praying, chanting, lighting candles. It was a hoppin’ place.
After the temple we decided to get food. Originally I figured we’d go to McDonalds again because I wanted another Indian big mac and also we were obviously pressed for time. Instead we found a “fast food” restaurant that was Indian. We stopped here and ordered more delicious and hard to describe indian food. I tried my first sweet (delicious) and salty (gross) lassis. We ordered far too much food, ate as much as we could, and then headed off for the Chandni Chowk metro station. I didn’t know exactly where it was so we decided to try one more form of Indian transportation, a bicycle rickshaw. Impressively, this man pulled four of us on his bicycle. We gave him Rs 50 and proceeded into the station. This metro was more modern than the Kolkata metro. The cars were new, clean, and all air-conditioned. There was even a ladies-only car! We rode for a few stops and got off at Connaught Place, a circle in the city centre. Coming above ground in Connaught Place was like arriving in a different city all together. It wasn’t crowded or noisy. There was no traffic. All around us were western restaurants and shops like Gucci and KFC. In the middle of the circle was a park called central park. We walked around the circle, and then I did something dumb that worked out for the best in the end!
A man approached me and introduced himself. He asked me where I was from and I told him the United States. He then showed me a little notebook, which various tourists had written in. I took a moment to read what was written, and essentially this man cleans people’s ears out. A number of people had written in his little book that he did an awesome job and was a friendly guy, so I said, sure, why not, I’ll do it! He sat me down and inserted a little metal wire into my ear. Obviously I’m not sure what he was doing in there because I couldn’t see, but just like when your nose has been stuffy and then suddenly it is clear, my ear felt suddenly clear. The air was exposed to the inside of my ear and it felt bizarre. He pulled out his little wire and showed me a wad of brown earwax about the size of a thumbnail. I was floored. That thing had been in my ear this whole time and I didn’t even know it. He did the opposite ear to the same effect, and then used his “medicine” (drops in a bottle) to break down the remaining dried wax. It felt great. He then asked me for Rs 1000. Of course at the beginning of our meeting, he said you pay what you feel like, and I certainly didn’t feel like Rs 1000. He then showed me his little book again and pointed to where the other tourists had written that they paid Rs 1000 and they were glad to have done it. Well buddy, just because other tourists are chumps doesn’t mean I am. And if I am, I’m certainly not a chump to that same degree. He explained to me that nothing is more valuable than your health, blah blah blah. He did a good job, I’ll give you that, but Rs 1000 is nearly a month’s salary to some Indians, and it had only taken him 2 minutes tops to take care of my ears. Given that he did a good job and didn’t poke me deaf with his metal wire, I gave him Rs 500 ($10) and he accepted. Oh, in the meantime another man had been cleaning my shoes. These shoes were originally white. I’ve had them for a year and a half and now they’ve been trekking all over the world. They were essentially disgusting and I planned on throwing them away once I got back to the ship. I looked down at my feet and my shoes were as white as the day I bought them. I couldn’t believe it. Again, this guy expected the tourist price but this time I paid it because his Rs 300 ($6) cleaning prevented me from tossing out a $60 pair of Adidas sneakers. I walked away with my ears feeling great and my kicks looking fresh as they day I bought them.
I don’t like to interrupt the continuity of my blog posts, but I’m going to make an exception. When I got back to the ship I was worried that maybe having a random Indian man shove a metal wire in my ear on a street corner in New Delhi wasn’t the smartest idea so I went to the ship doctor and had them take a look. They looked inside my ears and she said, “Everything looks normal. There’s no visible infection or inflammation from being poked with a metal wire… But have you been somewhere where there was sand?” No sign of the ear man but two weeks later and I still had sand in my body from sand boarding South Africa.
Back to Connaught Place. Our flight was at 2:25PM and at around 1130 Jane and Adam asked when we were going to head to the airport. We had sat around in the airport on the way out here and this was our only day in New Delhi so I wasn’t going to waste it at the airport. Fifteen minutes to get to the new subway link to the airport, which takes half an hour, and we’re taking a domestic flight, which you need to check in for an hour before departure, which meant we could stay till about 1245 and be fine. They accepted this answer. At around 1215 Jane started asking when we were going to leave, and I said soon, but then we found this place called Rodeo. It was a cowboy bar and restaurant. I wanted to go inside and check this out. A wild west bar in India. Classic. There were saddles for bar stools. I said we’d stay for one beer and then head off for the airport. Jane felt we didn’t have time for it, but I felt we did, and so did Adam and Gio, so we saddled up to the bar, literally (bahaha) and had a pint of India’s finest, Kingfisher. 10 minutes later we were out the door and airport bound. The subway link between the city and the airport is amazing. They have the arrival/departure board right there and you can even check into your flight and print your boarding pass. We didn’t check in because Sydney wasn’t with us. She had spent the day with some of the SAS kids from the hotel and was going to meet us at the airport. We boarded the train and any anxiety I had about missing the flight (minimal) was erased. Sydney wasn’t at the terminal so we assumed she had already checked in and was at the gate. We got our boarding passes and right as we walked away, I asked the ticket agent if passenger Sydney Fisher had already checked in and she said no she had not. DUN DUN DUN! Where was Sydney? Just as we began fretting, she ran into the terminal. Apparently she came to the airport with the SAS kids but they were departing from a different terminal. She then discovered that the terminals were not connected and she was a 10 minute taxi ride away with hardly any money left. She begged a rickshaw driver to take her for what few rupees she had left and he obliged (ahh the perks of being an attractive white blonde girl). She had made it just in time to check in for the flight. We found out as we boarded that it was actually overbooked and some SAS kids that had checked in too late discovered that their seats had been given away. Another epic close call by Sydney Fisher…
Oh wait, I forgot to tell you about the first one in Kolkata. When we were in Kolkata, we caught a river ferry, remember? Well, when we arrived, the ferry was just about to leave. They casted off and were floating away from the dock. I decided to run for it and ran down the dock, jumping the gap into the ferry. Jane jumped behind me. Little did I know, Sydney was not immediately behind us but rather separated by a fair distance. She sprinted down the dock and leapt into the ferry, bridging the gap by only a few inches, much to the awe of the all the Indians on the ferry. Who knows whether they were sad or happy that they almost saw a white girl wearing a backpack plunge into the river. Jane gave me an earful for it: “Why did you do that!?” but Sydney was just laughing about it and bragging to her sorority sisters on the phone the next day…