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Expect the Unexpected 

Trip to the Taj

by Gary T. Johnson

My law partner, Steve, and I were on a business trip around the world. It was December 11, 1997, and we had spent an intense week calling on colleagues and potential clients in both Hong Kong and Singapore. The business goal for the trip to India was to visit our colleagues at our New Delhi affiliated office, but it was the weekend, and we planned to squeeze in a visit to the Taj Mahal.

The first sign of trouble was our Air India flight from Singapore to Delhi. There were two unexplained sudden drops in altitude, followed by more tension than we had experienced on a flight in a long time. When we approached Delhi, it was almost midnight. We were close enough to make out the cars and service personnel at the airport, but the pilot suddenly veered back into the air. He announced that he would try landing once again, but that if the visibility was not good enough, we would fly to Mumbai (Bombay). We came around again, the pilot shied away, and it was off to Mumbai.

Only later did I learn why the pilot was unwilling to land when there appeared to be adequate visibility. In the recent past, there had been a collision of two jets in the fog. The airport had no modern landing devices; visual landings were the order of the day, and even a small amount of fog was enough to spook a pilot.

Delhi is in the north central part of India, and Mumbai on the western coast. We were flying to Mumbai, despite the distance. We landed with no problems, despite the presence of cats wandering around the tarmac. We deplaned and the business and first class passengers were told that we could use the so-called Maharaja Lounge. We walked through an airport teeming with groups of passengers all desperate for information on flights to Delhi. There were no flights to Delhi.

The Maharaja Lounge was equipped with Salvation Army-style cast-off chairs, lined up in rows. This is the kind of furniture that college dorms hand down from one freshman class to the next, each class leaving more residue on the seats. The idea was to fall asleep, but this was hard when the room was full of anxious people, and there was no telling if our flight might leave on short notice.

In fairness, the Maharaja Lounge did have certain advantages. There was a woman at the door who shooed the cats away with a stick. Also, there was a man assigned to scrub down the washroom, a primitive facility that saw a lot of use and needed this attention. The lounge offered a refuge from the increasingly edgy crowds in the main terminal, and, from time to time, someone came by offering tea and vats of porridge.

Information was scarce in the Maharaja Lounge, so we ventured out. The scene in the corridors was a glimpse of life in India, a place more diverse than anywhere in the world. Many sat or lay on the floor, both young and old. Some wore turbans, and some fezzes. Some Indians wore Western suits, and some Westerners wore Saris. You could write a volume about the footware. The variety of clerical garb was astonishing, from saffron to sackcloth. At appointed hours, the Muslims would fall down and pray to Mecca, while the Hindus displayed indifference. Once, there was a great to-do and a slight, elderly man in a wheelchair, dressed like Gandhi in cotton of pure white, made his way through the respectful crowd, accompanied by several guards.

But what to do? Obsessive efforts to find a way to Delhi came to naught. "Sorry, sir, there is fog, so there are no flights to Delhi. None." This situation, however, did not allay the crowd's anxieties, and whenever an official from Air India appeared the crowd would surge forward shouting inquiries and demands. "Why will you give us no information?" "I have a right to turn you in, so I demand your name!" "This is as bad as colonial times!" "If there are no flights to Delhi, why will you not give me my luggage, so that I can go home? I do not want to sleep on the floor!" Some Air India officials shouted back, some answered patiently and some simply retreated.

We cornered them when we could and secured a few pieces of intelligence. The way to tell that there were flights to Delhi was to see that flights were taking off and not returning a few hours later. (Apparently, there was no way for the airports to communicate.) This would happen sometime after sunrise, when the sun started burning off the fog. Second, we secured a promise that when our own flight was scheduled to take off, someone would inform the Maharaja Lounge. This was useful to know, because we could return to the lounge and try to catch some sleep. Easier said than done for me, but Steve managed to sleep a little.

We kept visiting the main terminal in case there was new information. I don't know what triggered the crowd's reaction, but I witnessed a near riot. There was considerable shouting and waving of arms at the Air India counter, and the crowd stampeded forward. Guards appeared and pushed the crowd back with weapons. I decided that I belonged in the Maharaja Lounge, despite its limitations.

One priority was keeping our friends in New Delhi informed. They had dispatched a car to meet us at the New Delhi airport, and they must have learned that the flight had never arrived. It was important to us, though, that a car be there when our flight finally did reach its destination, so we made many efforts to contact Mrs. Singh, the office manager in New Delhi. This was not easy. Air India made the telephone in the Maharaja Lounge available to us, but there was no way to dial directly. A long line formed at our phone, and we would give our information to an operator, whose patience ebbed and flowed. The phone would ring, signifying that one of our calls had gone through. The lucky caller would talk for a minute, then the operator would interrupt to say that another call had gone through and that the first call was over. Then the first caller would find the second caller, and get back in line to make another call.

Somehow we connected with Mrs. Singh, and her reassuring and competent voice gave us the feeling that matters were under control. Yes, there would be an office car and driver to meet us; yes, of course. She strongly suggested that, because our arrival time would be late Friday afternoon, the car should take us directly to the Taj. She had arranged a hotel room for us. Since we were due to leave India Saturday evening, this was our only shot at seeing the famous Taj. We could take a tour in the morning and head back in time to visit our colleagues later on Saturday. This sounded like a good plan.

We finally arrived in Delhi at about 6 p.m., and the representative from our office welcomed us with a driver. We stretched our legs in the back seat, feeling like real maharajas. The linen seat coverings were particularly welcome.

Making our way through the streets of Delhi meant dodging both people and cows. The cows have the run of the city, and it seemed that every traffic island and stoplight had its resident cow. Daily life spilled out into the streets, with stalls and markets crowded together along the way.

We rode wide-eyed down the road to Agra. This is the best inter-city road in India, I understand, the successor to the trunk road built by the British. The trucks came in incredible shapes, often overloaded, many quite tall. We saw a number that fell over, sometimes blocking the road with spilled cargo. Once, a fistfight ensued among those involved in an accident. Many trucks had backwards swastikas painted on them, a time-honored symbol from India, but nevertheless off-putting to Western eyes.

Horns blew constantly. In fact, trucks typically have signs asking other vehicles to blow their horns. You blow your horn to get through any situation -- to disperse a crowd as you pass through, to let other vehicles on the road know that you are there. It is all very noisy, even out in the country.

After a short stretch of divided highway, the road narrowed to two lanes, and sometimes one. A lane can end with no warning by running straight into a pile of dirt at a construction site. Or there might be the equivalent of a small village that has taken up residence on the road. (I later learned that these squatters often establish a temple on the road, which gives them a license of sorts to stay.) Sometimes one or both lanes divert off the main path, following dirt roads.

We stopped briefly at a small restaurant for dinner, and Steve and I enjoyed a pleasant conversation in the back seat after night fell. At about 10 p.m., we began to see signs for Agra. We had been right, we thought, to have pushed ourselves to Agra after our 17-hour delay in Mumbai.

Then the car broke down. It wouldn't start. We looked under the hood. We had no clue what was wrong, so we did the only thing we could think of:  push the car and hope it would move. The driver took the wheel, and the three of us struggled down this busy dark highway, with trucks careening around us, and puddles everywhere. We went a few hundred feet, and it started up! We jumped in the car and congratulated ourselves on our good fortune. Once again, we were two maharajas on their way to the Taj.

Then the car stopped. Again we pushed, but fortune was not with us this time. The engine was dead as a doornail. Suddenly, the night became sinister and our adrenaline pumped. Our first plan of attack was to find a telephone. We weren't far from Agra, after all, maybe twenty miles away, and the hotel surely could send a car for us. Our friend from the office told us that there would be little signs on certain houses indicating that a phone was available there for a fee. We pushed our car toward such a house, and knocked expectantly. No luck. The door would not open. We found another house with a sign. This time we tried to tell our story through the door. There were people inside, but there was no response.

An old man came walking along with a cane, with the assurance of a village elder. He approached us curiously. He listened to our story sympathetically. No, he did not have a phone himself, but he would help us with his neighbors. We knocked on a number of doors, but even with his help, nobody would open a door.

Now it was past midnight, and the whole neighborhood was aware of our presence and ready for us to leave. Shouting came from some of the houses, saying, we were told, "Get away from here before something happens." The village elder shook his head and left us to our own devices.

We knew we had to leave, and we gave the car another push in hopes that the car's "rest" would make a difference. It started, but only moved a few hundred feet. This took us toward a Sikh temple. Our friend from the office said, "Let's try the Sikhs. They have a religious obligation to offer hospitality."

The temple complex turned out to be a combined temple and truck stop. A parade of trucks driven by Sikhs turned into the temple area. Drivers in their turbans visited the temple, then spread their mats on the ground for the night. We pushed our car past the entranceway and into the grounds.

We approached a priest, who looked at us suspiciously. Yes, there was a phone, in fact, two phones. Yes, we could use them, but we needed to take off our shoes and walk upstairs through the temple. The temple floor was filthy with very suspicious looking puddles. One more thing: we had to wear something on our heads. They gave Steve a dirty scarf and me some used gauze wrapping. (I wish there were photos!) We made our way through the temple, and soon our stocking feet were very wet.

We found the first phone, and it was broken. We found the second phone, and it was broken. We returned to the priest, who told us that he was sorry, but that now we had to leave.

We approached some of the truck drivers. Would they drive us to Agra for a fee? You would think they would; after all, hauling was their job. They all refused.

Now it was 1 p.m., and we were running out of options. The possibility of walking to Agra was discussed, but there were obvious drawbacks. First, we didn't really know how to get there or where to look for the hotel. (It turns out, Agra is not a village, but a city of about a million people.) Second, we easily could become road kill walking along this highway, dodging the trucks. Third, we would need to leave the car and our luggage behind. And fourth, there was the safety risk of four strangers walking at night in an unfriendly area.

Time to push the car again. Once again, it ran a few hundred feet before it stalled. We were blocking traffic, so we shoved the car into a side street. This was a neighborhood where people slept out in the open, the darkest and the filthiest place we had seen. Mosquitoes buzzed around pools of standing water. (Did I mention this is an active malaria zone? We luckily had a spray can of "Deep Woods Off.")

Eyes came near to us from every direction. A car pulled into the side street, and it couldn't get past us. We approached it. There were two young men in it. We established that they were two kids returning from college for the holidays. Would they please drive us to Agra? Why, of course they would!

Could this be true? It was. Their trunk already was full of luggage, so we piled our suitcases on our laps. (It was particularly galling to know that much of the weight was due to our left-over law firm marketing materials, all spiral-bound in the firm's regulation crimson binders, each jammed with brochures, bios, dividers and deal lists.) We insisted that our friend from the office get in with us, but the driver refused to leave his car. We had a pleasant, if crowded, ride to the hotel in Agra.

It was almost 2 a.m. when we arrived, and poor Mrs. Singh from New Delhi was beside herself with anxiety. She had called the hotel repeatedly, only to learn we were still missing. Her plan was that at 2 a.m., the hotel would send out a search party to look out for us all the way back to Delhi, if necessary. This was the only way to find someone; road services were non-existent. She had no idea what the search party would find, but she feared the worst.

Our friend from the office worked on finding a tow-truck, and by the time we got up Saturday morning, the car was in a repair shop in Agra. If we were lucky, it would be ready for our ride back.  No thanks, was our answer. Without sounding rude, we would never climb into that Ford again. We hired a car from the hotel that took us to the Taj and then back to Delhi.

One highlight of the return trip was the sight of Jain holy men, stark naked, walking by the side of the road preceded by women in white who brushed the path in front of them with peacock feathers, lest the holy men kill an insect as they walked.

By the way, the Taj was great. We highly recommend a visit. No picture does justice to the marble, which is indescribable. Allow plenty of time. Expect the unexpected.

"Trip to the Taj"

ę 2002, 2002-2004 Gary T. Johnson, all rights reserved.