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We checked out of The Tree of Life Resort, and I sighed inwardly at the thought of returning to Gurgaon later that day. But first we had more sights to see, namely Amer Fort.
Located high on a hill, Amer Fort was built in the early 1600s, and is today the area’s main tourist attraction. Our driver dropped us off, and we became just 3 more of the 5000 daily visitors.
Birds were everywhere. Alfred Hitchcock would have been impressed.
As we approached, I tried to imagine what it would have been like as a scrawny 17th century foot soldier ordered to attack the palace.
Looking up at the huge fort sitting way up on a steep hill, I imagined the scene…
“You there! Rajesh!” Captain Singh brought his horse around and stopped in front of the gaunt and trembling soldier. He was just a boy. A boy with a bow and arrows. Hardly the type of soldier Singh was hoping for. “Run up that hill, Rajesh, and give those bastards what for! Go now, boy!”
Rajesh stood in place while his trembling fingers picked at a scab on his left elbow. How the hell had he gotten himself into this pickle? Join the army, Aadhya had said, it will make you a man, Rajesh! He wished he hadn’t listened to her, but how else was he to win her heart? If he didn’t prove himself, he’d lose her forever to Sundar Ramaswami, the muscle-headed jerk who had already fought in two wars.
Rajesh tore his eyes away from the steep hill with its tortuous path and looked at Captain Singh. His crimson turban gave him a regal bearing, and Rajesh felt small before him. And weak. It was an all too familiar feeling. Perhaps it was time for him to feel something new.
Captain Singh tugged his reigns and turned his steed aside as Rajesh let out a mighty scream and charged up the hill, his two thin legs pumping as fast as they were able. The Captain smiled and spurred his horse onward, its hoofbeats unheard over the battle cries of Singh’s battalion.
I was wondering how the heck I’d manage the climb. Oppressive heat and long climbs are not on my “favorite combinations” list. I was sweating and my right hand started to pick at my left elbow. I must have been channeling poor Rajesh. As we neared the bottom of the path, I spied my salvation, and they had two tusks and a wrinkly gray trunk. Elephants! Fortunately, Handan and Barish took no convincing, and soon we joined the long line of tourists waiting to hitch a ride with an elephant to the top of the fort.
You ever join a really long line, and your only consolation is that eventually you won’t be last, and there will be even bigger suckers than you behind you? Yeah, well that didn’t happen here. We joined in last place, and we stayed in last place almost until it was our turn to hop on an elephant. What a jip!
But all thoughts of the long line under the hot sun evaporated when our turn came up. We stood on a high platform, and our elephant drove up and parked underneath us. The attendant removed the safety rope and ushered us onto our elephant. We sat sideways in a cushioned basket strapped to the beast’s back. Our driver sat astride its neck. The elephants could not have enjoyed this. Day in, day out, ferrying pasty-white Westerners up the steep and narrow road to the top of the fort. We didn’t see any Indians riding the cushioned baskets. Perhaps it was too costly. Or perhaps they understood the absurdity of it all. In any case, there we were, and there I was – just the latest pampered and privileged American, too precious to use his own legs to carry him up the hill. But, like riding the camel in Agra, I’m glad we had the experience. Injustices abound on this planet, and our refusal to ride an elephant would have stopped exactly nothing. So when in Jaipur…
We settled into the cushions atop our beast as the slow, plodding journey to the top of the fort began.
We passed a group of tourists that was walking up the hill. Not many foreigners in that group.
The elephants were beautifully painted and adorned.
I wondered if they ever rebelled. Elephants are remarkably intelligent creatures and can turn on their handlers if provoked or threatened. What a mess that would be.
As we neared the top, the view opened up below. Maota Lake stretched before us.
The Saffron Garden lies in the middle of the serene lake. We only saw it from above. The saffron that grows there is said to have been planted in the 15th century by a Maharaja.
We had an incredible view of Jagat Shiromani Temple – a place of worship dedicated to the Hindu gods Meera bai, Krishna and Vishnu.
When we reached the top of the hill, we passed through a gate into a great courtyard full of elephants, soldiers, tourists and those who prey upon them. Our jockey sidled the lumbering beast against the exit gate, and Handan, Barish and I disembarked and bade farewell to our weary elephant and his disinterested human.
The courtyard buzzed with activity, and we took a moment to get our bearings. There were people everywhere, the locals in brilliant colors.
This woman was offering henna tattoos. For a fee, of course.
Unlike the Taj Mahal, which incorporates architectural and stylistic elements from both Indian and Islamic cultures, Amer Fort is uniquely Indian, with many artistic Hindu style elements.
We posed for pictures in all the obligatory alcoves.
And then we wound our way out of the sun and into the cool shade of the fort. Inside, we toured the Sheesh Mahal – by far my favorite name of the day.
We wandered here and there and snapped a few pictures.
And then we descended on foot through the narrow passageways of Amer Fort. A sign for a craft market caught my eye, but what really got my attention was sitting across the small courtyard beyond the doorway.
I ran over to him. I was so excited.
I’d always wanted to see a snake charmer, and now here he was. He offered me the cobra, and I was all too happy to accept. He even let me wear his stylish hat. I kissed my new friend.
You may be wondering how Handan was able to take those pictures. As you may recall, Handan is afraid of snakes. I mean like batcrap insane afraid. She can’t even look at a cartoon picture of a snake on TV or in a magazine. So how was she snapping those photos, mere feet from a vicious cobra whose only goal in life was to devour her whole? Well, it went something like this…
I was already squatting in front of the snake charmer when Handan came through the door and into the courtyard. When she saw me, she stopped dead in her tracks, grabbed Barish by the shirt and yanked him back.
She screamed a little girly scream.
“Oh my god, babes, don’t let Barish near that thing!” She said.
“Relax, my babes! It’s not real!” I said.
“It’s not?” She sounded wary.
“No! It’s rubber! Silicone!” I said, easing my way over to sit next to the charmer.
She yelled from where she was rooted, about 20 feet away, “Do you want me to take pictures?”
“Yes, of course!” I said. “And send the boy over. There’s nothing to be afraid of!”
Barish was curious but also a little scared. He came closer, but stayed a safe distance.
Handan continued snapping pictures, moving ever closer as she became comfortable with the thought of a fake rubber snake. But when I kissed the snake, doubt flared in her mind.
Why would he want to kiss a stupid silicone snake?
“OH MY GOD IT’S REAL IT’S REAL IT’S REAL!” She shrieked and did a little peepee dance, but to her credit, she kept taking pictures.
She nearly fainted when I called Barish over to join me. Reluctantly, he came to my side and sat beside me. I gave him the super stylish hat, and the charmer handed him the cobra.
He was a brave little boy that day. His mother is bok bok bok chicken when it comes to snakes, so it took a lot of courage for him to wear a cobra necklace without shedding a tear.
And Handan was a brave little wifey that day. I’d seen her freak out of her mind over a tiny garden snake and a piece of rebar, so it must have taken every last ounce of courage for her to do what she did.
After we had our fun with the cobra, the charmer sold Barish a little gourd flute, and they both charmed the snake back out of his basket.
We left the snake charmer behind and made our way down and out of Amer Fort. Our driver picked us up, and on our way out of town, we passed the Jal Mahal, or Water Palace.
It was the last sight we saw before pointing northeast and heading back to Gurgaon.
On the long ride home, our driver decided he wanted to rock out to some contemporary Indian pop. I have never. Ever. EVER. Heard such god-awful noise in my life. I told him to turn it down a few times, as I was sure my brain was hemorrhaging. After seven eternities, his soul-piercing music was briefly countered by a new noise – the thwap thwap thwap of a flat tire. It was the sweetest sound I’d ever heard.
We pulled over at a roadside café to change the tire.
I snapped some pics of the roaring traffic.
When we had mounted a new tire, we hit the café. As usual, Barish ordered whatever he wanted…
…while I abstained for fear of Vishnu’s Revenge, or whatever you call the gut-churning finale to a reckless Indian meal.
We piled back into the car and resumed our journey back to Gurgaon.
We drove in relative silence for a while, the hum of tires on asphalt the only sound. I rested my head on the seatback and watched the Indian countryside slide by as we wound our way back to Gurgaon and the bustle of city life.
At once, my reverie was shattered as a thought pierced my mind. I snapped my head around to look at Handan, eyes wide with terror.
I didn’t have to say a word.
She understood from my look.
“The passports!” she said in a panic. I nodded, but the fear was still in my eyes.
“Did you take them?” I said.
“No, didn’t you?” she said.
I turned to the driver. “Pull over here!” I said.
We pulled to the side of the road, and Handan and I leapt from the car and opened the trunk. We rifled through our suitcase and backpacks, desperately searching for our passports.
They weren’t there.
We had forgotten to retrieve them from the front desk when we checked out, and apparently, they forgot to give them back to us.
Handan was in full panic mode while I spoke with the driver about placing a call back to the hotel.
Barish, to his credit sat in the car, unfazed, and played on his iPad. Ah, the blissful ignorance of youth!
After a time, our driver was able to reach the hotel, and he handed me the phone.
“Yes sir,” said the voice on the other end, “we have your passports. We will send them to you via FedEx. Please tell me where to address the package.”
“It’s okay, my babes,” I said to Handan. “They have them, and they’ll FedEx them to us.”
Handan’s panic abated a bit, but she looked like she’d been put through a wringer. I hugged her and told her all would be fine. I think she partially believed me.
We got in the car, and our driver pulled back onto the Delhi-Jaipur Expressway. I looked back at my babes and my boy and smiled at them.
What an adventure! I looked forward to many more.
As November 2012 rolled over to December, my constant sickness and our displeasure of the filth and crowds of Gurgaon weighed on our happiness.
We were alive, but we weren’t living.
After much consideration, we decided that India, though beautiful in certain places, was not a good fit for our family. Handan and I gave notice to our company that we would be leaving in the new year.
In January 2013, we headed to Connecticut to see my family, look for work and get Handan and Barish their green cards. We figured we’d be there for a few months – enough time for Barish to finish 4th grade in the same elementary school I attended – and then we’d head back overseas. Abu Dhabi, maybe? Handan had some prospects.
What happened instead was that Handan got a job offer right there in Connecticut while we waited for their green cards.
And thus began our American adventure…