Asia | India | Indian Himalayas | Uttar Pradesh | Agra – War of Attrition
I always start out a trip by losing something. Old habit. Tradition even. I am a tremendous loser of things, and my mom once joked that if you could gather together everything I’ve ever lost in one room you’d be wealthy. Once I realized that losing something was inevitable, I got more philosophical about it, sort of a letting-go, ‘Well, I’m glad I got that out of the way.’ sort of feeling.
On this trip, it was my Swiss Army Knife. The Wenger kind, with the Philips head screwdriver instead of the corkscrew and the scissors. I loved that knife, and it slipped out of my pocket on the jeep ride up from Joshimath to Auli, on the first day of our trek.
But India seems to be a special case. I left my camera in a rest house in Jenjipani, about four days into the 8-day walk, not realizing it until three days later (I’d run out of film and thought I’d tucked the camera safely away in the bottom of my pack…the Himalaya are incredibly photogenic). And now I can add my return air ticket and several hundred rupees in cash to the count.
This last one was a bonafide theft, though, so there’s a certain pride there, that at least I don’t have to attribute *all* my losses to boneheadedness.
After that rough day in Rishikesh, I met up with one of the guides I’d run into on the trek, a really great Indian guy named Arvind who works for a company called Red Chili Adventures (very tight company, worth a look if you’re thinking of trekking or rafting in the Indian Himalaya), and was introduced to an American who’d just come out to guide rafting trips on the Ganga for the season. We locked onto each other for a few hours, as people do after rough days and hard news, and ended up having a big bang up meal at Arvind’s house, complete with rum drinks smuggled up from the next town down the valley (Rishikesh is a dry town). Then a sleep on my first real mattress in ten days or so, a 5:30 wake up call, a bus to Haridwar and onto the Ujjaini Express for Agra.
This train journey is a good summary of my experiences meeting people on this trip as a whole: half of them want to cheat me out of something, the other half be as sweet and generous as possible. First I was offered lunch by a couple in my compartment. Then struck up a conversation with an asthmatic woman from Saharanpur and her 12-year-old son reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Then I set my pack on one of the top bunks, lay myself down on the opposite bunk so I could keep an eye on it, and dozed off for maybe 20 minutes. And during that 20 minutes somebody pushed apart the padlocked zipper-pulls of my pack and reached in just far enough to pull out my airline tickets and something like 600 rupees in cash.
Of course I didn’t figure this out until the thief was long gone, and once it was discovered, the couple, the asthmatic mother, the Sherlock Holmes-reading son, and a couple of other random passengers joined me in a frenzy of searching the compartment and offering stern advice (‘You should use hard-side luggage!’ ‘You should not sleep unless your pack is with you!’ ‘You cannot trust people on these trains!’ ‘You must travel air-conditioned car! There they are not letting other people into the compartment!’).
So my first experience upon arriving at Agra Cantonment Station, after pausing for a few seconds to watch a couple of dhol drummers walk past, beating out a fierce bhangra rythm on the platform, was to find the local police station and file a report. If I’d known what an ordeal it was going to be, I think I would have forsaken the ticket and swam home.
I’m not going into too much detail here, suffice it to say the process took three hours and involved me writing a description of the theft while being shouted at in equal parts Hindi and English by the World’s Rudest Police Officer (‘Write good! Use block letter!’ ‘No, not this, must start with ‘Dear Sir’!’). I got to re-write the description three times, the last time dictated to me word by word by the World’s Rudest Police Officer so that the grammar was to his liking, and then observe while another, slightly kinder police officer copied the entire thing again by hand onto another form. A framed photo of Mahatma Gandhi draped in flower garlands watched from above while Hindi music videos played on a TV in the corner.
All this finally taken care of, police report in hand, I did what one must do in this sort of situation: check into an expensive hotel, eat a lot and drink lots of beer.
There are at least seven different people at the hotel where I’m staying eager to help me in these endeavours. There’s little else for them to do: out of 52 rooms at Laurie’s Hotel, three of them are occupied. Agra is a ghost town these days, almost every package tour has been cancelled, which makes bargaining for a room easier, and means the Taj probably won’t be too crowded when I go this evening, but also leaves a slightly desperate look on the faces of the local service industry. And it is a big, big industry in Agra. The auto-rickshaw driver who drove me to dinner last night has offered to be my personal chauffeur for my entire stay, for whatever money I am willing to offer him. He’s affiliated with the hotel, and I’m his only customer.
But I hired a bike instead, and have spent the day so far riding around town — which is fantastic, if a little hectic — changing money (to replace what’s missing from my pack), and now checking email. I had to explain to the kid working in the shop where I’m now sitting about six times that I wasn’t interested in buying anything from the shop, and finally that if he kept trying to get me to buy, I was going to leave. I’m the only customer they’ve gotten all day.