Kajuraho feels like last week. Varanasi feels like a month ago. I do love how time slows down when travelling. Yesterday we traveled from Delhi to Agra on the very new superhighway “Yamuna Expressway’ that is India’s longest 6-lane highway and cost $2 billion to develop. It was empty once we got past the sprawling outskirts of the capital.
Agra is a big city – in the top 20 in India by population – but it feels smaller somehow. By comparison to Varanasi, it’s a new city, founded around 1500 as the seat of the Mughul empire that lasted until the British occupied. Agra is the top tourist destination in India with the Tajj Mahal, the Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri.
On the advice of my brother and a close friend, we are splurging on one of the worlds greatest hotels. The Oberoi Ambervillas is regularly on those ‘Top 25 Luxury Hotel’ shows and articles. It’s low season, so I got a bit of a deal and paid $270 a night for 3 nights. I’ve paid that for a Holiday Inn express in London during peak weeks but for family travel it’s probably the most I’ve ever spent.
I’ll cut to the chase. The hotel is amazing. It’s beautiful. And we have a room that looks out right on to the Taj Mahal, 1000 meters away. But the service is over the top.
We’ve been to places that are courteous and always open the door and tidy up the room for you. But the service here is the best I’ve ever experienced. Last night after we arrived, they brought Emma and Lily a cupcake with their name on them! (Lily hilariously drops hers on the floor as we were posing the cupcakes for the camera.)
And just now, when our car and driver are unavailable (the taxi broke down? not sure if that’s true or not but whatever) they bring us in an Audi SUV with a uniformed driver, a mini-bar and wifi internet access in the car. And it was complimentary.
The hilarious thing is that we went through the McDonald’s drive through like redneck millionaries. The downside of this place is that the restaurant food is shockingly expensive even by US standards.
We got two cups of soup, a ham and cheese sandwich and 3 nan for wait for it… fifty bucks! I choked when I saw the menu. Needless to say we are eating out. I wonder if they get a lot of guests that pay to stay at luxury hotels and then drive to McDonalds for lunch?
Today is a rest day. I didn’t mean it to be, but I couldn’t drag myself out of bed at 5am to get to the Taj Mahal. I make an impulsive decision to enjoy this hotel to the fullest today.
After the McDonalds lunch we head to the gym and the pool. All of us want to keep some strength for our circus school programs to which we return in another week. Two weeks is enough to lose some strength, so we make do with the little gymnasium. I teach them the stronglifts 5×5 workout.
Afterward we sit by the pool and cool off, although it’s so hot that the water is luke warm. “Let’s do shoulder jumps!” Lily says, momentarily acting like the younger Lily that I miss a little bit. Her 13-year old persona is all “shit, bitch, fuck” and lots of “I hate you guys so much.” In fact, Emma and I make a bet on how many times she says “I hate you” on this trip. I say 175, and Emma says 100. Lily is up to 40.
I crouch low undewater and they balance on my shoulders as I extend up, throwing them backward. “Three high piggy back!” I yell. Emma gets on my shoulders, Lily on Emma’s and I walk as fast as I can through the water without falling. Exhausted, we take naps at the room awakened by the evening freshly baked cookie service at 5pm. Did I mention that this place is awesome? We sleep well.
This time I wake up before the alarm and I’m excited to get out the door. 5:30 am and it’s light out. Downstairs they have some coffee and pain au chocolat which Emma devours. We buy our ticket right there with the concierge, and he hands us a chilled water and little tote bag with disposable slippers for walking on the marble. (Otherwise you have to walk barefoot) The golf cart pulls up and we roll silently to the East gate.
Happy Eid everyone! The mosque near the Taj Mahal will be packed later for prayers, but it’s still fairly empty right now. We pass through the outer gate and I get my first glimpse of what is probably the worlds most famous building. It does not disappoint. It’s still far from us, but across the reflecting pools it sits simultaneously heavy and light, delicate and powerful. I expected to be let down a bit as one often is by archetypes.
A guy about my age comes over and beckons – ‘Good photo spot here!’ I react slowly. I don’t want to get too deep with this guy because I know a tip will be expected, but I’m interested in better photo opportunities. I stand in his spot and take the shot. It’s okay, not really any better than the classic shot from the reflecting pool. “And back here, sir. I am a photographer too and it’s low season. Let me help you.” I try his second spot, and it’s interesting but also not great.
But this guy has charm, unlike a lot of the hawkers and touts. He’s doing the long sell, not trying to secure a payment up front but baiting me from ‘Good photo spot’ to the next. He even takes this cheesy one of the Taj Mahal reflecting in my glasses. He does a good job but I think he would go on forever if I didn’t stop him, so I give him a few hundred rupees and he jots off cheerily.
The Taj Mahal is a building of love, executed so perfectly in architecture that one feels the connection between Shah Jahan and his last wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth bearing their 14th. The Taj Mahal is considered the finest example of the Mughal style, but differs in that it’s done in white marble, unlike the red sandstone more prevalent. The Taj Mahal cost about a billion dollars in 2015 terms, so they say, although that seems low. It took almost 30 years to complete.
It’s enormous.You can’t really see that from the typical pictures. And yet it’s very refined. It causes your eye to move up down and around it’s shape the way great art often does. On the inside of the tomb are the words “Help us oh lord to bear what we can not bear.” This is the world’s finest tribute to a deceased spouse.
The memories rush in. The tears start to flow. I remember trying to memorialize Trish with a big service, and some writing that would stand the test of time. It’s stupid to even compare. It’s what I had to give.
It’s already 100 degrees in the sun where we stand and I can’t tell what’s sweat and what’s tears on my face. It all stings. The girls stop breathing, watching me, shaken. They have seen me cry a million times, and it freezes them every time. They’ve told me it’s frightening because I am their anchor, the one that they rely on to stay stable as we all slowly cope. But I also know that they need to see my vulnerability and loss. We are in this together.
The feeling stays with me as we walk out, but dissipates gradually. Grief comes and goes, but never lasts long these days. I’ll remember the Taj Mahal forever.