We finally reached India. Alicia and I flew for 14 hours and spent a whole day in Singapore, which actually was pretty cool because we got to see an entirely new country. We arrived late at night in Mumbai to meet up with my mom and her friends, Ellen and Karin. After a hurried night’s sleep we went right back to the airport (ugh) to catch a flight to Jaipur.
Flying in India is always a hilarious ordeal. Ellen’s catch phrase covers it: “Do you have the paper work?” I’m never sure what paper corresponds to what but every five steps in the airport I find myself presenting a slowly collected stack of documentation that receives an equally growing assortment of colorful ink stamps. Eventually you make it to the gate clutching a handful of printouts and looking a little like a papier-mâché peacock with an array of tiny, colorfully stamped tags hanging all around you and over your luggage. Don’t lose the tags! My mom once had to go back out to the check-in desk just to get new hand luggage tag before boarding the plane. Summary: no idea what the tag means but it’s damn important.
The flight to Jaipur is short and I have to admit, I really like flying in India—this is so embarrassing—a flight means you get Indian airplane food! There is a really cute mini parantha bread wrapped in tin foil and a vegetable curry separated from yellow dal by jasmine rice. I’m sure its just as bad as American airplane food but somehow it just doesn’t taste bad to my dull American palate. Manish and Ritika, always going above and beyond, welcomed us at the gate to make sure we had a smooth transfer into the car to Agra. They came bearing a box of things that are not samosas but are something more like an Indian version of a blend between British savory pies and what American’s would think look like pastries: phyllo crust stuffed with any combination of curried potatoes, lentils, stewed mildly spicy vegetables ect. After a quick hello and goodbye and a completed food handoff we were on the road again, beginning the drive to Agra.
Driving in India is about a million times better and more fun than flying, minus the exciting food. Driving safety is simple: don’t hit cows and honk when you change ‘lanes.’ Wait, that’s it? The road in India is noisy, death defying, and shared by camels, cows, and elephants. For the first hour of the drive I was entertained simply by taking about a million fail photos of things outside my window… they are all intensely blurry. Duh. Eventually, though it might seem impossible, I got a little camel-jaded. I moved on to cows and monkeys for some variety but the cows just aren’t rare enough on the road to be any fun to spot and the monkeys are just a little creepy, with their human faces and long tails. It’s really easy to believe that packs of monkeys can cause a lot of damage to cameras and purses, and that even one monkey is a tricky problem when it gets into the kitchen. Ritika told us that this happens to her at least once a year! She has to let the monkeys have some bananas before they are content to move on to another target.
The best part of the road turns out to be looking at the different colors of saris that dot the brown desert between Jaipur and Agra. The women in this region take it upon themselves to wear all the colors missing from nature. In fact, they wear colors so bright I’m pretty the hues are impossible in nature. From my cozy seat in the car I felt sort of like a Wordsworth on psychedelic drugs, watching distant women traversing agricultural fields in spotless hot pink.
It was dark when we arrived at the Oberoi hotel overlooking the Taj Mahal. From the hotel’s balcony the Taj loomed out of the night, still a clear and iconic mass on the horizon. The building can seem all at once like the heaviest thing you’ll ever see and the most ethereally, perfectly, beautiful. It’s tough white marble but it always looks like it might just ‘’pouf” up into the rays of the sun or dematerialize back into the rest of the shadowy night. You have to see it to believe it.
But we couldn’t really see it, up close and personal, until our tour the next day. So we ‘filled the time’ with an incredible dinner! Five orders of vegetarian Thali arrived at the table—a sampling of appetizers, five little cups of different curries, and a dessert plate. From the table area in the restaurant you can see into the kitchen with Tandoor ovens. I decided to ask whether or not they would let me actually go into the kitchen since I could already see it. The answer was yes! After an appetizer of baked breaded paneer, the Indian version of cheese, and disks of seared spinach packed into cakes with centers holding dried apricots and rice, I was guided back into the kitchen. The chef attempted to explain, pointing to his ovens and long prongs for putting things to-be-baked into the deep tandoor, how he made what I had just eaten. As far as I can really understand, Indian cooking just takes a freaking long time and a lot of spices that I will never be able to pronounce or find in my grocery store. I guess I’m happy to continue just eating it and not cooking it. We stuffed ourselves with the deceptively small half-moon of curries presented to each person. Then we rolled ourselves upstairs to be up early for the Taj!