September 27th, 1989
Hyatt Hotel, Delhi, India
Instead of falling into bed this morning, after flying all night, Laney and I booked a trip to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal.
Forty minutes after checking in, we caught a taxi to the spot where the coach was due to depart. When Laney concluded that the taxi driver was trying to rip us off, she started arguing with him, which only made him drive even faster through the heavily congested streets.
Fifteen minutes and several close calls later, the two of them were still bickering. The driver stood his ground and it was obvious Laney wasn’t getting anywhere with him. I didn’t want to miss the coach, so with just a smile and three words, I got him to agree to a price, less than half of what he originally quoted.
“Honestly Laney,” I said, when we finally stepped out of the taxi.
She laughed. “I can’t believe it was that simple.”
“British Airways crew. That’s all you had to say.”
“Yeah,” she said, “but I think it was your smile that sealed the deal.”
Instead of the coach we were expecting, the transportation was a rusty, old van, with gaping holes where the windows should have been.
“This is it?” Laney asked the driver, while he checked our tickets.
“Yes miss,” he said. “You make comfortable yourself.”
“How long is the journey?” she asked, in a somewhat snippy tone.
“Miss, travel time is for Taj Mahal three hours. Maybe more.”
“Three hours in this?” she screamed. “We’ll never last that long with no air conditioning.”
“I am promising, miss, I drive fast,” he replied in his lovely lilt, with more than a hint of a smile.
Laney glared at me when a slight chuckle dared to escape my lips.
Half an hour into the journey, weighing at least (hopefully!) half a stone less from perspiring, the van suddenly screeched to a halt, propelling us forward.
“What the…” Laney yelled.
The driver interrupted her. “Miss and misters, please in seats stay,” he announced, as Laney made her way to the front of the van.
“There’s a cow in the middle of the road,” she enunciated. “Do you see it?” she asked nobody in particular.
There was much clicking of cameras and general sounds of disapproval, uttered in various languages.
“Can you shoo it away?” she asked the driver.
“No, no, no, miss,” he said, shaking his head. “Cow is the source of progress and prosperity.”
Laney pursed her lips, clearly at a loss for words.
“The words of Mahatma Gandhi,” he smiled. “A wise man.”
“Indeed,” she said, stepping out of the van.
The sacred cow made no attempt to move off the road, during which time the local children surrounded the van and held out their hands while Laney and I dished out fruit pastilles and polo mints.
“I wish we had more sweets on us,” I sighed.
“Or something to draw with,” she said.
“I’ve got some hotel stationery and a few pens.”
“You do? Why?” she asked.
“Eh, I just always carry something to write with in case I feel the need to, eh, write.”
“Go and get them,” she ordered.
I thought the heat outside was unbearable, until I stepped into the van. I grabbed the pens and the one pencil I had, from my backpack, as well as the embossed stationery from the Hyatt.
“Brilliant,” Laney said, as I passed her my precious stash.
I looked at the sea of young, questioning faces gathered around us. “We don’t have enough paper or pens for everyone.”
She waved her hand in a dismissive fashion. “Who wants a picture?” she shouted.
Her raised voice caught the attention of some of the children.
Laney sat on the ground and quickly sketched a picture of an aeroplane. She held it up and passed it to a little boy standing over her. Then she tore a sheet of paper in half and handed it, along with a pen to a tiny, barefoot girl, who looked about four or five.
“Your turn,” Laney said softly.
The little girl smiled shyly and sat on the ground beside me. Laney passed me a few sheets of paper that I tore into four pieces, each. She gave me an approving nod and did the same. When I doled out the pieces of paper, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the younger children were missing either a few fingers, or toes.
I stood up and held up a pen. In a bold voice I never knew I had, I shouted. “Do any of you have pens or pencils?”
Everyone started rummaging through their bags and pockets and not only did we gather enough writing utensils for each child but more sweets, most of which I didn’t recognize.
Feeling beyond wilted but not daring to complain, I got Laney’s attention.
“Look,” I mouthed, tilting my head in the direction of the cow, as it raised itself from the road and started moving slowly in the opposite direction.
“Time to go,” Laney said with a heavy sigh.
Back in the van, the kids reached their hands through the window openings and we squeezed their fingers and retuned their sweet smiles and waved as we drove off.
We learned today that Taj Mahal, means, “Crown of Palaces.” And that the beautiful, unique structure was built to house the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the third wife of the emperor Shah Jahan, who was heartbroken when his wife died giving birth to their fourteenth child. It took some 20,000 workers and assistance from 1,000 elephants, twenty- two years to complete. It is made mostly of white marble, laced through which, are intricate pieces of various gemstones, which make it sparkle.
But I think what I truly learned today went above and beyond any facts on the construction of the Taj Mahal.