India! They had finally arrived. The airport faded behind them as they cruised toward the hotel.
Zach and Hailey gazed from the taxi in wonder: it was like being on another planet.
Back home in Eugene, Oregon, the streets were quiet. When the twins stared out of a car window, the most they saw was a young mother with a jogging stroller, a golden retriever trotting alongside.
The opposite was true of bustling Old Delhi.
“Hey, look at that,” Zach said, pointing, “a giant tricycle! I’m glad I don’t have to drag a whole bunch of people along on my bike.”
“It’s a rickshaw,” explained Mom. “It’s a kind of taxi, but…”
Suddenly the rickshaw came too close: the taxi driver honked and stopped short, almost hitting a motorbike on which sat an entire family: a baby hooked in his mother’s elbow, and a three-year-old perched on his father’s legs. None of them wore helmets.
“Hey Hailey, you can look now,” Zach said. Hailey’s face was hidden in her hands. Mom’s knuckles were white as she clutched her handbag. In the front, Dad talked on, as if nothing had happened.
“Look!” Zach cried. A man in a turban squatted beside a tall straw basket, playing a bamboo flute, as, head erect, a cobra uncoiled.
Hailey shuddered. “They’d better not be staying at our hotel!”
“Of course they’re not,” Zach snorted, “only tourists stay at hotels.”
Vendors hawked their wares from the sidewalk, selling spices, statues, and piles of shimmering orange fabric.
“Oh, Mom, look at that beautiful material,” Hailey said, pointing, “it’s really shiny. And that blue woman statue with all of those arms. She looks like an octopus.”
“That’s the Hindu deity Kali.”
“I’d love one of those to bring home to Anna,” Hailey said.
Mom laughed. “We just got here. There’ll be plenty of time to buy souvenirs.”
“Look,” Hailey continued, pointing, “they’re having a bath in the street!” Three small naked children stood by the curb, flailing their arms and laughing as a woman poured water down their backs.
“And cooking in it as well,” Mom added. A fire was burning just feet away from the bathing children: a steaming pot rested on the flames. A woman squatted beside it, wooden spoon in hand.
“It’s like we can see everything, without going in people’s houses,” Hailey said.
When the taxi pulled up to the hotel, Mom let out a sigh. “I think that just the cab ride was enough for one day.”
“Can’t we walk around?” Zach asked, as they checked in with the receptionist.
“Honey, it’s getting dark, and we’re all so tired: we have jet lag to recover from,” Mom answered. “Besides, India is intense: best to take it slowly.”
“And we need a jump start on getting our work organized,” Dad added.
So that evening, Hailey and Zach had to settle for the hotel lobby. It was carpeted, and decorated with huge ferns which reached outward like tentacles. There were low tables scatteredthe streets about. On some were backgammon sets, on others brass pitchers with small glasses.
A hotel clerk filled the glasses for them. “You’ll like this,” he said. “We call it chai.”
“It’s delicious,” Hailey said, as she sipped the warm drink.
“Chai is sweet and tasty,” the clerk agreed. He bowed and went to help a customer at the front desk.
“It’s delicious,” Zach said in a high voice, sipping from the tiny glass, his pinky extended.
“Stop making fun of me!”
Zach laughed, nearly spilling the tea. “You’re such a girl,” he said.
“Sure am. And this girl can kill you at backgammon.”
“No way,” Zach said.
“I want the brown pieces,” Hailey said.
Hailey was beating Zach for the third time when Mom came looking for them. Zach flipped the board over, scattering the pieces.
Hailey slapped Zach on the arm. “Sore loser.”
When Zach and Hailey had announced to their class that they would be leaving for a year-long trip around the world, they became instant celebrities. But Hailey and Zach were not convinced. They would have each other, but wouldn’t it be boring without anyone else? Their parents would be busy with their endless research.
“Well, at least I didn’t miss your thirteenth birthday party,” Anna said. The three friends were in the kitchen, picking on the remainder of the cake. After an action movie which both the boys and girls could agree on and the usual cake and candles, the party was finished but Anna slept over. “You guys are so lucky to be skipping school for a whole year.”
Mom looked up from her laptop. “They won’t be skipping anything. They’ll be home-schooling. Plenty of kids home school in Eugene.”
“Still, they don’t go flying off to the other side of the world.”
“That’s true, Anna, but we won’t just be jetting around. Professor Copperman and I will be working hard during our sabbatical year. And I’ve already spoken to the teachers at the school. Hailey and Zach are going to take the entire eighth grade curriculum with them. So they won’t miss a thing.”
Zach let out a groan. “Mom, you didn’t.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll get to replace some of the work with reports.”
Zach’s eyes narrowed. “What reports?”
“About our trip of course! You can share it all with your ninth grade class when we return.”
“Ninth grade! That’s like a zillion years away.”
Mom shrugged. “Or a year and a half.”
“Well, I guess it makes sense that we do some work. When we come back, we won’t want to feel totally behind,” Hailey said.
Zach pelted her with a pretzel, which made Anna laugh, as usual.
Now, as they rode the elevator up to their hotel room, Hailey thought of home. How far away it was! They had flown and flown, stopping for only two hours in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. Altogether it had taken nineteen hours to get to India. Curled up in airplane seats, earphones glued to their heads, they had kept the movies and music endlessly buzzing. Toward the end, Zach was doing everything possible to embarrass her: push-ups in the aisle
of the plane and pressing the call button every few minutes for the flight attendant. Hailey had sunk low in her seat and covered her face with her word-search puzzle. But now, as she climbed into the bed next to his, she was glad to have Zach close by. She remembered the cobra they had seen, its eyes bright and beady, tongue tasting the air as it rose to the music. Who knew what would be waiting for them tomorrow?
CHAPTER 2 - THE STREETS OF DELHI
Morning came early: it was not yet seven o’clock, but outside their window traffic buzzed and honked. It was August, and sunshine burned through the glass. Mom knocked on the door and Zach groggily opened it.
“Wake up and welcome a new time zone!” Mom pulled the room’s green curtains aside.
Hailey gripped the bed sheet and covered her head.
“The land of the Taj Mahal awaits you,” Mom tried again.
Zach yawned and walked to the window. “The Taj Mahal better not let you down,” he said. “I can’t believe that we’re going to be in Agra for three whole months, just because of some giant tomb.”
The Taj Mahal was a mausoleum. It was the reason why Mom and Dad, both history professors, had chosen to start their world tour in India. The book they were writing was about famous sites.
“I don’t expect to be let down at all,” Mom said with a smile.
Hailey sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes.
Zach turned toward them. “Come look! Is this crazy, or what?”
Hailey and Mom joined him by the window, which faced a park behind the hotel. A man was on his knees by one of the trees. In his hands were huge shears. He slowly clipped the lawn, metal blades dazzling in the sun. Behind him, a cow ate the piles of grass left behind.
“Some lawn mower!” Mom said with a laugh.
“You’d never see anything like that back at home,” Hailey said, thinking of the electric mower in their shed in Eugene.
No, they wouldn’t. But the wondrous sights were just beginning. After a breakfast of orange juice, toast, eggs, and plenty of chai – Hailey’s new favorite drink – the twins followed their parents out of the cool hotel lobby and onto the street. Hot, sticky air blanketed them.
“Wow, it’s like a sauna out here,” Dad said, “I think my glasses are going to fog up.” In front of them stood a cart piled high with fruit.
“Bananas!” the fruit vendor shouted, looking straight at them, “mangoes, papayas, sugar cane juice!” Glasses of cloudy white liquid stood in a row. Bananas the size of fingers beckoned to them.
“Those bananas are so cute,” Hailey commented.
“We’ll take a bunch of those little bananas,” Mom said to the man, “and let’s try some of that juice.”
As the vendor handed Mom the glasses, there was a sharp cry. Something brushed against their knees. Suddenly, a long, hairy arm reached up, grabbed some bananas, and disappeared. The arm belonged to a monkey!
“Look! Now he’s up there,” Zach shouted, pointing at the hotel. The monkey was climbing a drainpipe. Within seconds it scampered sideways to a second storey window where two other monkeys waited. Squatting on the windowsill, they peeled the bananas with human-like hands, and stared down with amused, wrinkled faces.
The fruit vendor stomped his foot and shook his fist. His face was beet red. He grabbed a mango and threw it in the direction of the monkeys. It missed its mark by several feet, crashed against the cement wall, and dropped in a splattered heap to the ground. The monkeys noted the wasted fruit with interest.
“You lousy monkeys!” the vendor shouted to the sky. Then he turned to Mom, his hands holding his head. “Every day those monkeys steal my bananas. One day I will catch them, and oh, will they be sorry!”
Zach and Hailey almost choked on their sugar cane juice. Mom smiled sympathetically.
“The juice was delicious,” Hailey said, catching her breath and handing her glass back to the man, “as awesome as chai.”
The vendor relaxed. When it was time to go, Mom took out the crumpled rupee notes that they’d cashed at the airport bank, and paid him for the monkeys’ bananas as well as their own.
The man held his palms together under his chin. “Namaste!” he said, with a slight bow of his head: within hours, they were bowing and using this greeting as if they’d been saying it all their lives. They also became expert monkey watchers: spying them on windowsills, lampposts and the top of courtyard walls.
“Look at how they pick through each other’s fur,” Zach said.
“They’re grooming,” Mom said.
“Look, they’re eating something from the fur.”
“Lice,” Dad said.
“Ugh,” said Hailey, turning away.
That afternoon they went back to the hotel to rest. In India, like in many warm places in the world, people sleep when the heat is strongest. Mom and Dad sat near their bedroom desk, laptops open, while Zach and Hailey stretched out on the carpet under the ceiling fan.
“I don’t think the air conditioning is working,” Hailey said.
“Why don’t you two go rest in your own room? Get started on your journals,” Mom suggested, peering at them from over her reading glasses. “Write about the monkeys. It can be part of what you share with your class.” Dad grunted in agreement, without looking up from his computer screen.
Mom was forever trying to get them to keep journals. Before leaving Eugene, she had bought them each a thick hand-crafted notebook, bound with turquoise silk.
“Girly notebooks,” Zach grunted, turning his over. “At least she’s not expecting us to do any real homework.”
They went to their room, sprawled out on their beds and wrote.
“Delhi is our introduction to India,” Mom said later, as they walked to a nearby restaurant. “By the time we get to Agra, we’ll be practically Indian.”
Hailey wasn’t sure about that: at the restaurant, Mom must have said “not too spicy,” about ten times.
“Ohmygosh!” Hailey cried, dropping her spoon at her first taste of curry. The other diners, who were Indian, laughed good-naturedly. All of the Coppermans were fanning their mouths.
“So sorry,” the waiter said. “I believed it was mild.” He quickly took the curries away. A few minutes later he returned with a tray full of drinks. “These are lassies. They are made from yogurt and are very refreshing. They will cool your mouths. So will the chapattis.” He motioned toward the thin round pancake-like bread on the table, and then hurried back to the kitchen. Later he brought out new curries. “Even the dahl is very, very mild this time,” he said, as he placed a silver bowl of lentil stew in the center of the table.
The manager came over to apologize. The Coppermans had put aside their spoons and were eating with their hands, like everyone else. The manager clucked his tongue. “Not with the left one,” he said to Dad, “the left hand is not clean.”
Dad looked down at his hand, puzzled. His fingers were sticky with sauce, but wouldn’t his right hand have been as well?
“In India, the left hand is used after squatting.”
Dad still looked confused.
“In the toilet,” the manager said, in a whisper.
Dad’s eyes opened wide and he quickly moved the chapatti from his left hand to his right.
“It’s a good thing the rest of us are right-handed,” Mom said with a laugh.
“Oh, yes, Ma’am, very good indeed,” the waiter said.
The next morning they went to a tailor shop to be measured for Indian outfits. Tailors were everywhere in Delhi.
“Well, we may not be Indian but at least our clothing will be,” Mom said.
“It’s amazing to be measured like this,” Hailey said to Mom.
Mom nodded. “It’s as if we were royalty.”
Hailey couldn’t wait to return in two days’ time, to see her new outfit. The tailor called it a ‘salwar chemise.’ He helped the four of them choose from bolts of fabric: both Zach and Hailey chose different shades of blue.
Mom nodded in approval. “Blue brings out the aqua in your eyes,” she said. The twins both had hazel eyes, and golden brown hair.
For the next couple of days, they all wore shorts and t-shirts.
“I feel like such a tourist,” Hailey moaned, fingering her camera.
“That’s what we are,” Zach reminded her.
“Not really,” Mom said, “we’re researchers.” She straightened her baseball cap.
“This is the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen,” Hailey said, as she took a picture of the Bahai lotus temple.
“It’s amazing,” Mom agreed. “A building shaped like a flower! Whoever heard of that? Still, it’s not the Taj Mahal.”
Hailey rolled her eyes. This was Mom’s mantra, something she repeated over and over.
When Zach thought that the Jantar Mantar, an astronomical observatory with several staircases, was really cool, Mom said
“Well, yes, but it’s not the Taj Mahal.” When Hailey admired the Parliament, with its many columns of pillars and palm trees, Mom said “Just wait until you see the Taj Mahal.”
Late in the afternoon of their second day, tired of curry, Mom suggested that they get some McDonalds French fries. Zach pointed to the familiar golden arches and said “But it’s not the Taj Mahal.”
Nor was it the McDonalds that they knew. The hamburgers were not beef. They were lamb – or mutton. There were also McVeggies: meatless burgers, and a “McAloo Tikki,”a patty made from potatoes, peas – and more curry!
“Even the McDonalds in India are Indian!” Zach said.
“India takes everything and turns it Indian,” Dad agreed, as he bit into a McVeggie.
Mom nodded. “It’s part of India’s greatness.”
The next morning, they went back to the tailor shop. “It doesn’t matter how many times we say ‘Namaste’ or what we wear – one look at us and you can see that we’re not Indian,” Zach said.
“But wearing a salwar chemise makes sense,” Mom insisted, “it’s beautiful and comfortable.”
Dad nodded. “And airy and light.”
“It’s a dress,” Zach said doubtfully, standing in front of a mirror. The tops came down to their knees.
“It’s a tunic,” Hailey corrected him.
Zach’s collar was round, with buttons at the top, which he immediately opened. Hailey’s v-line neck was embroidered with white and gold thread. Beneath the tops, their salwar-style pants were loose and roomy.
“I’m not sure how cool this is,” Zach complained.
“But just think about how cool it will keep you,” Mom said, smiling.
“When in Rome,” Dad said.
“I can just imagine what the guys would think.”
Hailey shrugged. “You’re not with the guys.”
They spent the rest of the day visiting the Red Fort.
“So, are we finally at a place as great as the Taj Mahal?” Zach asked. “After all, it was built by the same guy.”
Mom and Dad were noticeably more excited by the Red Fort than anything they’d seen so far. “It’s even called Shahjahanabad, after Shah Jahan himself,” Dad said, referring to the emperor who had built both the Red Fort – and the Taj Mahal.
“I’m so glad that we’re spending the entire day here,” Mom said happily, as they entered the first palace within the sprawling grounds of the fort. They saw the spot where the shah once sat, waterways which led from the nearby Jumna River, prayer rooms, towers and the imperial apartments, with their marble walls and colorful stones.
“This has been my favorite part,” Hailey said at the end of the day, as they left the small marketplace on the grounds of the fort, where miniature paintings and imitation ivory jewelry was sold.
“Shopping,” Zach snorted.
“But it’s a bazaar, not a shopping mall,” Hailey insisted, “like it was when people actually lived here. It’s educational.”
“I guess they’re also educational,” Zach said, pointing to the bangle bracelets she’d bought for Anna and two other friends.
“More educational than that,” Hailey retorted, pointing to the fake sword Zach carried under his arm.
Dad smiled. “Martial history is indeed educational.”
They wore their new outfits the next day, to the train station. “Okay, I’ll admit it: this top is pretty comfortable,” Zach said, as he stroked the sleeve of his salwar top, “almost like wearing pajamas. But no way am I ever wearing one of those skirts,” he commented, pointing to a man with a cloth wrapped around his waist.
“Shh! They’re called lungis,” Mom corrected him.
Their suitcases were piled high on a trolley. A station worker pushed it. They followed him to a rust-colored train.
A man with a handlebar moustache and carrying a clipboard checked their tickets. “All aboard.”
CHAPTER 3 - TRAIN RIDE
They had been traveling for over an hour. Mom and Dad’s heads were buried in books about India’s Mogul period, when the Taj Mahal was built. Hailey and Zach sat across from them.
Hailey turned to Zach. “All of this time on the train, and you haven’t even touched your iPod.”
Zach shrugged. “Looking out the window here is almost as good as an iPod.” He paused. “Oh, gross! Look at what they’re doing!” The train chugged past people squatting over nearby tracks, sari skirts and lungis modestly lifted.
“Yuck,” Hailey said, turning away. A few minutes later, Zach went to the toilet. Afterward he ran back to their seat. “Go use the bathroom,” he said to Hailey, practically pushing her onto the floor.
“Why?” she asked.
When she flushed the toilet on the train, the gaping hole at the bottom showed tracks whizzing by.
Hailey returned to Zach. “We’re doing the same thing as those guys out on the track, only in private.” They both laughed.
“Look at the tractors!” Zach said. He pointed to yoked oxen
pulling ploughs. Men and women stood barefoot in the mud, guiding the animals with sticks.
Dad looked up from his book. “Farming as it’s been for millennia,” he murmured. His sunglasses were perched on top of his head, and lost in his gray-brown hair. Zach wondered if he would remember that his silver-rimmed glasses were on his face, or if, as usual, he would lower the sunglasses on top of them.
Mom also put her book in her lap and gazed toward the scene. She had used her pencil to wrap her auburn hair into a bun, and was chewing absent-mindedly on the earpiece of her sunglasses.
“Look at those sweet kids,” she said, pointing. They returned the smiles and waves that greeted them from brick huts.
The train stopped. “Check that out!” said Zach. A troop of chickens paraded by, noisily clucking. The conductor shooed them away from the train.
“Imagine chickens at the train station in Eugene,” Hailey said, laughing.
During the four hour train ride, vendors walked alongside them at every station: selling deep-fried onions, bottles of orange soda pop, tea biscuits and bananas. At one stop, a man boarded and walked along the aisle, juggling small ceramic cups. He had six in the air, and as his grand finale, he caught them all in the lap of his salwar top.
“Hooray,” shouted Hailey. Dad managed to slip the man a few rupees before the conductor came and escorted him from the train.
At the next stop, men with painted chests and flower necklaces stretched their hands through the windows. They wore orange lungis. Their long hair hung down their backs and their feet were bare. They lay their hands on heads.
“They’re holy men,” Mom whispered, “giving out blessings.”
The people being blessed pushed rupee bills into the hands of the holy men, even as the train pulled away.
Beggars were everywhere. One woman, with a crumpled face, passed her wrists through the bars of their window. The hands were almost completely gone. In their place were rounded stumps of flesh.
“Oh, no,” Mom said, shuddering.
Hailey reached quickly into her handbag. She pulled out an apple and carefully balanced it on the mangled wrists. The woman flashed Hailey a toothless grin and maneuvered the apple through the bars.
“Namaste,” she said, holding the fruit beneath her chin with her wrists, and bowing her head.
Mom’s mouth dropped open wide. “Don’t ever do that again,” she hissed at Hailey. “That was leprosy – and it’s contagious!”
“But I didn’t actually touch her, Mom.”
An Indian man sitting in the next booth leaned over.
“It’s actually only contagious at certain times,” he said to Mom. “That woman was fine.”
“Well, that’s a relief. Still, you need to be more careful,” she scolded Hailey.
The man looked at Hailey and smiled. “That was very kind of you,” he said, cocking his head to the side, Indian-style. He turned to Mom. “My name is Mr. D’Souza. And what is your good name?”
Mom let out a sigh. “I’m Amanda Copperman, and this is my husband Joseph, and our kids, Hailey and Zach.” The adults shook hands.
Mr. D’Souza’s round cheeks shone. “What is your destination? I live in Agra.”
“We’re going to Agra, too!” Hailey cried out.
“Touring the famous Taj Mahal, no doubt?”
“More than that! We’re going to live there for three whole months. Our parents are history professors back home, in America: they’re writing a book about the Taj,” Hailey said proudly.
Mr. D’Souza clapped his hands together. “Splendid! So you are not the usual tourists, I see.”
“Not at all,” Hailey said, with a toss of her head.
As Mom and Dad talked to a British student in the row behind them, Mr. D’Souza stared at the twins and stroked his chin. He leaned forward, motioning for Hailey and Zach to draw closer.
“The Taj Mahal is a building of incomparable beauty,” he whispered. “But you must treat her with great awe. You never know what might happen there. It is a place of mystery and wonder.” He winked.
“What do you mean?” Zach asked, frowning.
“The Taj Mahal: it is waiting just for you,” Mr. D’Souza whispered.
At that moment, the train whirred past a vista of red brick and fawn-colored stone: a whistle blew and the train screeched to a halt.
“Agra,” sang the conductor.