...We certainly finished up 2011 the right way! On the night of the 30th, we ate at a restaurant in an area of town called Taj Ganj where we had the best seat in town albeit probably some of the worst food. You can't have everything all the time!
On the 31st, we visited the Taj up close and made by our trip to Fatehpur Sikiri. We returned to Agra around 5:30pm, showered, and planned to have an incredible night ringing in the new year in the bar of the Oberoi Amar Vilas Hotel.
A short tuk-tuk ride through dark polluted streets led us to the small but tempting entrance of the Amar Vilas. Two guards saluted and welcomed us but asked for our information. We said we were just going to have dinner and visit the bar, which we were looking forward to tremendously. Then, the impeccably dressed gate manager came out in an ornate kurta pajama to tell us that the hotel was completely booked and therefore closed to non-guests. I was so disappointed. Knowing that someday I would love to stay here, I asked to simply speak with the receptionist about room options. The manager disappeared for a few minutes to make phone calls inside. He returned and waved to the guards to open the towering gates.
Entering through the gates was like walking onto a different planet. The poverty and chaos of the streets vanished and were replaced with the most plush opulence I believe I have ever seen (the Amar Vilas is consistently ranked as the one of the overall top 15 hotels in the world, top 10 for service, and top 5 in Asia). The night was nearly pitch black but the lighting and water features of the resort gave it an almost mystical quality. A lone guard in stunning blue and white military regalia stood watch over the driveway containing perfect infinity pools and sculptures. Even though I wasn't staying there, I felt like Shah Jahan must have felt entering the Taj.
We were greeted by eloquent, articulate, and royally dressed staff. A congenial man who greeted us at the door escorted us around the public spaces of the hotel and then onto the balcony overlooking a spectacular infinity pool and restaurant swarming with more waiters than there were guests. The icing on the cake was the silhouette of the Taj Mahal dominating the skyline directly in front.
He explained that non-guests are not allowed when the hotel is full for fears that, as he put it, "the service would deviate." I would have taken many more pictures but felt privileged that we were able to see it in person and did not want to wear out my welcome. The two photos I showed here were just of the walkway to the lobby from the driveway and the small bazaar of fine shops. I hope I will be back!
With plans ruined and images of the Taj Mahal and Amar Vilas in my mind, we relegated ourselves back to suggested eateries in the Lonely Planet. We ate our last meal of 2011 at a plain characterless restaurant surrounded by other tourists with Lonely Planet books on nearly every table. The food was indeed quite good, but the celebratory mood we searched for was non-existent.
Private hotel parties open to guests only at the cost of $100 per person and up were the trend throughout Agra. We just went back to the hostel expecting a small get-together. Instead, we found a party hosted a few doors down with a DJ, fireworks, and legitimate Indian dancing. The rain began to pour at about 11 and the power went out shortly thereafter. We counted down in the dark, in the mud, and with fireworks that were handled a little too carelessly for my taste. However, we had found an excellent celebration.
Like the fireworks in that man's hands, nothing is predictable in India. I wake up every day not knowing what I will do, where I will go, or whom I will meet. In a way, the unpredictability of life is infinitely magnified here. The locals here marry people they have never met before, ride on the roofs of buses at night in driving rainstorms, and eat foods that I am afraid to even touch. They take uncertainty and stare it in the face, never knowing but always trusting.
Two thousand eleven was a year in which I struggled extensively with the uncertainty of my future. At times, I was discouraged and disappointed when the paths that I had prepared so hard for dissolved in front of me or led to dead ends. I felt unproductive and lost. However, I am now one month into my five month stay in India and my perspectives on quality of life, the definition of success, and the utilization of opportunity have already been completely transformed. I enter 2012 feeling more alive than ever, with more appreciation for loved ones back home, and excited to not just pursue a career in medicine but to excel in it.
Even though we sometimes lose sight of what it means to be American, to live in a first world country, and to have access to the finest education, healthcare, entertainment, and justice systems on Earth, the locals here never do. We epitomize equality and fairness, ensure opportunity, and still stand as a beacon of light and hope to the world. Many times, I have been asked by people on the street where I am from as I shake their hands. As I say America, they usually respond with a gigantic smile, raised head, and simply say "Wow!" As you enter 2012, be proud and humble. But most importantly, take advantage of the blessings you have been given.
Happy New Year everyone! I pray that 2012 is a blessed year for all of us.