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Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoSummer 2009

Adventures in the First Person

After Mumbai by Nick Blake ’03

On November 19, 2008, my wife, Laura Dunn-Mark ’03, and I flew to Mumbai for our honeymoon. We planned on exploring the old backpacker haunts and rising industries across the world’s largest democratic country. We didn’t plan on the outbreak of long-held regional and religious tensions. Two days after we boarded India Rail for the desert state of Rajasthan, terrorists attacked the Mumbai neighborhood of Colaba where we had stayed.

shave

Close shave in Mumbai
Photo by Laura Dunn-Mark ’03

After Mumbai our honeymoon was fraught with suspicion and fear. In Udaipur I stared helplessly at the explosions and gunfire on live national television. I was aghast but the Indians around me wobbled their heads with frustrating fatalism. In Jodhpur I shared contraband whiskey and a sense of impending doom while watching cable news with the eldest son of an otherwise austere Muslim family. In Jaisalmer, 100 kilometers from the border with Pakistan, bad macaroni and cheese left me bedridden for days with traveler’s sickness. I was trapped in a run-down hotel watching Jerry Maguire and cricket between gut-twisting news segments featuring two pissed-off nuclear rivals. The BJP, India’s ultra-right-wing Hindu party, recited bombastic cries eerily reminiscent of earlier declarations that had sparked anti-Muslim riots across the country. Condoleezza Rice arrived with desperate diplomacy. John McCain threatened to send troops. President-elect Obama allowed that India was a sovereign nation with a right to defend itself while Indian jets scrambled into hasty formation over our hotel. Our honeymoon retreat had become the epicenter of a multinational conflict.

Meanwhile Laura happily explored Jaisalmer, returning periodically to check on me. One afternoon she found me in high panic. “Look,” I said. “I know this sounds crazy. But if I suddenly say we gotta go, then we gotta go. I don’t care how sick I am.”

She rolled her eyes. “Nick, everything’s fine. Nobody’s going to war.” She summarily rejected my cable news—fueled paranoia and offered instead the word on the street. Everyone was calm. No one wanted war. When I was back on my feet I saw what she meant. People lamented the bombings but everyone rejected the idea of war. “War is no good for anybody,” I was told by shop owners, autorickshaw drivers, and passers-by. “It only hurts the poor.”

Yet the tension between Hindus and Muslims was palpable in the wake of the Mumbai attacks and we weren’t sure how far peaceful sentiments could be trusted. “I no friends with Muslims now,” a silversmith’s son told Laura. “Before, had friends, we meet and drink chai together and talk. Now I will say namaste but no more. Because I don’t know. You see, Muslim support Muslim and Hindu support Hindu. So this not good situation. I come away from all my Muslim friends now.”

Despite a security alert from the U.S. Embassy that warned us to avoid large crowds and tourist spots, we made plans to travel to the Taj Mahal in Agra. It was our honeymoon. We had flown halfway around the world. We weren’t going to miss one of the subcontinent’s wonders.

After boarding the train, however, we were besieged with doubts. The guidebook warned of overcharging autorickshaw drivers and gem scams. Fellow travelers uttered grim prophecies. “The Taj is beautiful,” an older businessman named Ravi declared. “But Agra is very dirty. Be careful of the food. Will make you sick.”

“It’s a—how you say?—tourist trap,” a Spanish traveler warned. “See the Taj, por supuesto, per…so expensive! The dirtiest place we stay in all India.”

Between warnings from our government, the guidebook, tourists and Indians, Agra was a practice of fear. By the time we disembarked we were braced for the worst. Exhausted after the 16-hour ride, we plowed through a barrage of autorickshaw drivers in search of a prepaid taxi stand. Finding none, we reluctantly turned to a driver who agreed to take us to the Taj Ganj area for a reasonable fee.

The city was blanketed by fog and dirt. “Surely you do not want to stay in Taj Ganj?” our driver asked. “So dirty!” He led us to several upscale accommodations that we had to decline due to our budget. Reluctantly he delivered us to the crowded alleys just south of the Taj Mahal. We settled into a decaying 1970s faux-wood-paneled room in the Hotel Saii Palace whose rooftop lounge offered surreal views of the south gate and Taj Mahal through the mist.

The east gate of the Taj was a short walk from our hotel. As we approached, three boys wearing kufis warned us to visit the monument the next day.

reed magazine logoSummer 2009