18 February 2020

I must say my birthday was a day to remember – and not for all good reasons. After my wheelchair humiliation at the Agra Fort we returned to our hotel room which was filled with an acrid smell. It was coming from next door where an untrained lad was applying a polyurethane coating to some woodwork using a folded rag. In Australia, if you polyurethane your floors you have to stay out of the house for three days. Consequently, we stagger about gagging before going down to reception to threaten world war three. Nobody knows what we’re talking about, but they still put on puckered-face concern. We take the manager up to the room, where he bravely doesn’t flinch as he gets a toxic lungful. “It will clear in twenty minutes,” he feebly mumbles. Michelle has other ideas, like demolishing the hotel. The manager then hits on a solution. Send the rag lad away and place a small fan in the corridor outside our room – where the door remains closed and the fumes remain undisturbed inside. No, that won’t work, we say. We want you to place four air purifiers in our bedroom (the windows cannot be opened, incidentally) and we will return in two hours after our Taj II visit. Two hours later we find two modest fans in the room that have only succeeded in better distributing the stink. We pack up in a flurry and change rooms to a much-worn version of ours, one floor below. The manager and three staff try to help us but get in the way. We finally set up. The manager recites another stanza from the hotel apology guide and offers recompense of two free lunches. We don’t do lunch. What about dinners, I ask. “So sorry sir, but already charged and cannot be reversed. Electronic locking, you see.” 

When the lunch compensation failed, the hotel presented us with a small, decorated marble plate which we will take home to give to somebody who has everything – except a small decorated marble plate. 

Michelle is now sharpening her Trip Advisor dagger. 

Michelle’s superb shot of the Taj Mahal at dusk.

Although it felt like a recurring dream, we trekked back to the Taj Mahal for the second tranche of the viewing trilogy – this time to witness the sun going down over the mausoleum. While there was not the vanishing-point queue to get in as there had been for the dawn viewing, there was a massive crowd inside when we got through the grand gate and stood to again take in this remarkable building. In the hour before sunset the Taj firstly became luminously white, then pinkish and finally a failing grey as it gave up its splendour to darkness. The crowd comprised about 90 percent amateur photographers, which included us, all trying to get the definitive dusk shot which must include the reflection pond, of course. Many photos ended up accidentally being of people taking photos of people taking photos. But, in the end, we got what we wanted and trudged back along the tiled roadway being frantically prepared for Mister President. 

Hotel Toaster Report

A rare find at the Double Tree Hilton in Agra. A Toast Max memorial model

I’m pleased to advise that the Double Tree Hilton has a rare memorial model named after the famous hotel toaster designer Toastarius Maximillian, better known as Toast Max. He invented the sloping delivery tray. In one of his many compelling books on hotel toasters, Derek Breadchamber (hotel toaster critic for the New York Times, you may remember) says that Toast Max should have received a Nobel Prize for his advancement in delivery tray technology. Prior to that, the toast simply fell out of the toaster on to the floor where it was sometimes accidentally trodden on.

Our last day in Agra was, as usual, unusual. Being a fashion industry writer, I wanted to see where the average locals bought their clothing. We went into a big shop that I calculated was the equivalent of Lowes in Sydney. So definitely not upmarket. The offering did not move my needle, but the prices were rock bottom. I tried on one shirt in XXL that might have been a near miss, only to find that I could hardly do up the buttons. This was definitely a shop for skinny Indians, but where did the fat ones, who appear to be in the majority, shop?

I gave up in favour of visiting what had been recommended to Michelle as a must-see embroidery museum. Ho hum, I thought. This will be boring. It was anything but. The embroidery was simply astonishing, much of it by embroidery students and for sale. There was also an exhibition gallery showing the work of some of the great Indian embroidery artists. One huge work stopped me dead. It was a biblical scene of Jesus tending his flock of sheep and cradling a lamb in his arms.  It was the final work of Padmarshri Shams who took 18 years to finish it and then went blind. He died in 1999. My picture does not do it justice. It takes on a three-dimensional quality as you stand before it. We got the embroidery bug and had just started looking seriously at wall hangings when we were told that upstairs was a display of jewellery and sculptures. This turned out to be even more tempting than the embroideries. It was all in exquisite taste. We could have gone mahulla buying everything we liked. In the end we settled for an elephant in a stone new to me, labradorite, that looks streaky dark grey but pops out flashes of blue when light strikes it. It is supposed to have mystical and magical powers. I could certainly use a bit of that. The only downside, apart from the price, is that we’ll have to schlep it home with great care. I’d hate to have to araldite its trunk back on.

Our last stop in Agra was, yes, you’ve guessed it, our third scheduled visit to the Taj Mahal, but this time from across the river in extensive gardens. Legend has it that there was a plan to build a replica of the Taj, but in black marble. An opposing story is that the plan was to build a big pond with a black floor so that the reflection of the Taj was black. In the end, only the gardens and some foundations were completed – leaving the real intention a mystery.