Note: This one's a little gross. Don't read over breakfast, or at all if you have a weak stomach.
I'm asleep. Lisa returns from dinner. I can mutter out a "hey" but not much else. She showers, climbs into bed. I doze off again.
I wake maybe an hour later and I'm shaking. Trembling, really, teeth chattering and cold beads of sweat dripping down my forehead. My breathing gets heavy, hastened. Lisa turns over. "Are you okay?"
I ask her to hold me, to keep me warm. I'm not sure what's happening. I think heatstroke, perhaps: it had been a hot day, and I had felt a little fatigued under the hot sun. Just heatstroke, I hope. I try to sleep. I can't.
Time passes. Hours, minutes, days, I can't say. My head swims. It sinks a little and sputters and splashes and begins to drown; everything becomes foggy, convoluted. And then it comes.
I jolt out of bed and stumble in the dark to the bathroom. I stand over the sink and wait for it, feel it rising up from my stomach and climb up my esophagus and burn its way over my throat, then violently eject from my mouth, the bile of my innards. I wretch into the basin, a sinking feeling of helplessness strangling me. Please, no. Not here. Not in India. Everything becomes frosted glass. I hit the floor.
My eyes open and the world outside the lids is just as dark as the world inside. Lisa is nearby, stroking my arm gently. She asks if I'm okay. I say no. She lifts me and walks me back to bed. "Sleep," she says softly.
It happens three or four or five times that night, the untangling myself from the sheets and running to the bathroom, the dropping to my hands and knees and vomiting breakfast all over the floor. I eventually make it to the toilet; that same toilet that has taken my phone has now taken my health. I watch the bits of Manchurian I'd eaten on the rooftop float around in the muddy brown water. I wonder if it was that food on the rooftop that had done me in. I curse ever stopping at this hotel. I curse ever coming to Agra. I didn't even care about seeing the Taj Mahal, and yet here I am, at sunrise. We are supposed to be walking to the Taj right now, oohing and ahing at its glamour. I am not supposed to be turning myself inside-out on the wet floor of a dirty bathroom just a kilometer from its gates.
The cold sweats get colder and the hot sweats get hotter. "You're burning up," Lisa says. She gets a damp towel and presses it to my forehead, and I push it away. Leave me alone, I scream inside, but am too weak to utter the words. She's doing the right thing, she's trying to save me, but all I want is to be left alone in my little fetal ball of bile and sweat.
I'm never asleep and I'm never awake. The room has no exterior windows and so I have no sense of time. I don't know if I've been in bed for two hours or two days. I shoot upright at some point and see Lisa still there and panic that she's missed her flight. Lisa, we need to get to Delhi, I say, or think, or maybe just feel. I cannot be going to Delhi anytime soon.
Lisa shakes me awake. "Jay, it's noon. You need to drink something."
I don't believe her. You're lying, I think. It can't be noon. I push the water bottle from my lips. I don't want it. I'm being petulant, stubborn, uncooperative. Just leave me here.
I think about death. I think that it must be better than this, these three weeks I've spent lying tortured in bed. In my mind, it has been three weeks, maybe more. I won't believe that it's noon, yet I'll believe it's been three weeks.
Eventually I let Lisa convince me that it's 2PM. "Do you want to eat?"
I don't. I can't. Anything I eat will hit my stomach and bounce right back up, and I don't want to be leaning over that toilet ever again, smelling my intestines waft back up at me. The toilet, by now, has clogged; it spills vomit and urine and shit onto the bathroom floor. I can't move, but I do want to get out of that room, away from that smell.
I let Lisa guide me like a blind man up the stairs. I trip and stumble and ask her repeatedly where we're going, though it's just one flight up to the roof. We sit in the shade and a cool breeze kisses my skin and I'm suddenly aware that everyone on the rooftop, all four of them, are looking at me. Why are they looking at me? Do they know? Make them stop.
I just want to be normal again. I just want to drink a glass of water and eat a plain bowl of white rice and sit upright and focus my eyes on something, anything, maybe the clean white Taj in the distance, but I can't do any of that. I eat three grains of rice and push the plate away. I take a sip of water and let it dribble from my lips. I bury my face in my hands. I'd cry if there were any moisture left in my body.
Lisa can tell this isn't helping and guides me back downstairs. We descend the stairs and I descend into an even deeper level of delirium; I remember almost nothing about the next few hours. Falling into bed. Tossing, turning, moaning. Lisa pulling me up. Standing in the bathroom under the showerhead while Lisa sprays me with cold water. Anger. Wanting it to stop. Not understanding why this is happening: the spray, the sickness, any of it. People knocking on the door. Lisa leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back. Something about a doctor. Something about soon. Something about being too hot, far too hot.
Men arrive. I don't want to talk to them. Hiding myself under the covers. Go away. Just let me die in peace. Questions. Staring blankly at an old Indian face with concerned eyes. Asking me things I can't answer. Something about a hospital. Something about now.
I don't want to go to the hospital. It sounds like so much work. I'm so, so weak. Lisa makes me. The doctor makes me. Something about socks. I'm handed socks and I look at them as though I couldn't possibly know what to do with them. Lisa putting on my shoes, changing my shirt. The doctor worried, shaking his head. "He needs to go to hospital, he is very, very bad."
Walking outside. It's twilight. Not knowing what day it is, what year it is. I think of friends back home, see faces, can't remember their names, or if I know them personally, or if they're still alive. If they ever existed. I wonder how long I've been in Agra, if I'll ever leave again. There's a car. Lisa opens a door and waits. Lisa, I don't understand. Pulling me inside.
Racing the streets, feeling that I'm being kidnapped. Paranoia running rampant through my system, holding hands with whatever vile thing is tearing through it. Agra is so pretty. I wouldn't mind dying here.
Arrival, somewhere. A room of fluorescence and antiseptic and dread. More concerned mutterings. More arms leading me. A bed. Finally, a bed. Male nurse, female nurse. "Tattoo," one points. They smile. Fade to black.
I wake up in a dark room. It's late, I think. I don't know where I am or what I'm doing here. Tubes run from my left arm to a clear glass bottle on a stand. There's someone in the bed next to me. It's Lisa.
Quietly, I stand. I wheel the IV stand to the bathroom and close the door and sit on the toilet. Blood pours out of me; I know because I can smell the iron, a sickening, unnatural, metallic smell leaking from my body. I clean up and rise and feel the bile rising too. I lean against the wall. I start to fall.
I wake up in Lisa's arms. She talks gently, lifting me and leading me back to bed. She calls the doctor. He pumps me full of meds and administers a few orally and takes my temperature ("no good") and blood pressure ("no good"). Sleep, he says. I do my best.
The next morning, the fever breaks. I feel like I've been run over by a truck, like I've swallowed bleach, but at least I can recognize the pain as pain and take stock of my predicament. I pull back the covers. The bed is covered in dried blood. This is my predicament.
I spend the day in bed, only getting up to go to the bathroom and shit more blood. I'm told the doctor needs a stool sample and a urine sample, and I'm given two small cups. I imagine it'll be a mess to procure said samples; it isn't. I fill the former with blackened blood and the latter with golden blood. The iron odor makes me gag. The gag makes me vomit.
The sink offers electric water. Somewhere in the walls, an uninsulated electric wire must press up against a copper pipe, for the water from the faucet shocks to the touch, liquid electricity. I'm left cleaning myself, every ten minutes, with hand sanitizer. My hands begin to peel.
Lisa and I play gin. I make it through one round and feel as though I've run a marathon. My eyes fail to focus on the cards, I put them down.
Lisa's flight leaves from Delhi, and I'm determined to leave with her. I feel terrible for ruining the last few days of her trip, and thankful for her company, and worried about her, a single woman, traveling to Delhi alone. I must leave today, I tell the doctor. You're not leaving today, the doctor tells me. I'm too weak to fight.
Lisa stays until the last possible minute. I tell her to go see the Taj, and she shrugs it off. I thank her for everything, for quite possibly saving my life. Were I alone, I'm not sure I would have known to leave that hotel room, to seek help; in fact, I would have actively resisted it. I would have curled into a ball and slept for days and probably not had anything to drink (as it stood, I didn't eat anything that entire first day), and if the dehydration hadn't done me in, the fever may have. That's the way these dangerous infections often work: it isn't the bacterium itself, but the way your body deals with it. Alone, I wouldn't have dealt well.
I look in the mirror. I've lost weight. My waist is notably thinner than just two days earlier; Lisa had noticed this too. I wash up in the electric water and brush my teeth and soak my bloody clothes in hot, soapy water. The doctor comes in. "You really need to eat something," he says, looking at yet another untouched meal with concern.
He tells me that my culture tests have come back; I have a very severe strain of E. Coli. It's very advanced, he says. Very bad. Everywhere. He starts me on heavy antibiotics. A nurse replaces my eighth IV bottle of the stay. Earlier, Lisa had told me that the first three were emptied into my bloodstream within a half-hour, so dehydrated I was upon arrival.
"And I can leave tomorrow?" I ask.
"We'll see," he says. "For now, sleep."
I feel much better the next day. I'm both conscious enough and capable enough to demand and actually get to a computer, and I send a few messages off to let people know that I'm alive. I do some reading and stare at the wall and pick at my breakfast.
The doctor wants to keep me, but I'm restless. We agree on a late afternoon checkout, once he's started me on my orals. In the meantime, I'm given more fluids by a nurse. He calls an orderly in to collect the disgusting, bloody linens Lisa had pulled off my bed the day before.
The orderly picks up the sheet and the blanket and starts to walk out. The nurse stops him in Hindi and gestures toward the blanket. No, no, leave that. Blankets are, I suppose, more difficult to wash.
The orderly and the nurse debate whether the blanket is sufficiently dirty and in need of washing. It most certainly is. I watch the orderly grab the corners of the blanket and open it wide; the nurse inspects its fabric for stains or splotches.
Um, hey, guys, I'm right here and I can personally attest that I have shitbled E. Coli all over that blanket. Please, for the love of God, wash it. There could be no greater reason to wash anything in the history of laundry.
They basically ignore me, only bundling up the blanket and removing it from the room after my third or fourth interjection of no, seriously, it needs to be washed. Most of me thinks they've removed it just to humor me, that it's found its way, unwashed, into the bed of another poor patient a few rooms down who came in with a hangnail and will be leaving with E. Coli. I suddenly feel much less secure about my treatment.
It gets worse. Around two, a pair of nurses come in to get me ready for discharge. My fluids bottle is almost empty, so they plug the IV and disconnect the tube and tell me my IV can come out. One nurse removes the bandages while the other sits on the next bed over and asks if I've been satisfied with their service.
"Oh, definitely," I say, "thanks so much."
"'Cause you know," he says, tone changing, "if you happy with our service, you can give money."
I'm a little baffled. I've grown used to baksheesh in India, tips for everything, but nurses in a pricy hospital? I assume the tens of thousands of rupees I'm paying would cover a fair salary. I'm against the notion on principle alone, and furthermore haven't a clue what an appropriate tip would be. Would a few hundred rupees be seen as offensive? I stall, saying that I don't have any cash on me. The nurse says his shift doesn't end until four. I say I don't feel up to getting out of bed until four. I say I can give the doctor a few extra rupees to send their way when I leave.
He leans forward. "No ... no tell Doctor Jaggi. This just between us."
Flabbergasted, that's what I am. I should just say no, instead I say maybe later, but either way the punishment is the same: the nurses leave the room with the IV still in my arm. The message is clear: when you're ready to pay us, we'll take it out.
I sit with the IV attached to the Little Prince's head for another two hours and then call a different nurse to remove it. He does, no problem, no baksheesh (baksheesh is an umbrella term for informal payments that includes both tips and bribes, because as my IV incident demonstrates, they tend to bleed into each other).
I pay the doctor. Or at least I try to. His credit card machine isn't working, and he refuses to admit that it's his machine and not my card, and all the while the sun is getting lower in the sky. I don't even have the time or patience to argue about the ludicrous five-thousand-rupee "ambulance ride," which was a two-kilometer drive in a sedan. Compared to American medical expenses, it's next to nothing. He processes my payment, sorta, and I'm on my way.
Clearly, the Taj Mahal is cursed. I go to Agra to see a building I don't really even want to see and my phone breaks and I get E. Coli and I spend three days in the hospital. Unable to do much else, I occupy the majority of these three days with one singular question: when I'm well enough, do I go see the Taj Mahal?
On the yes side, if I don't go all that suffering will be for nothing. I'll have contracted only bad memories in Agra, bad memories and bacteria, and besides, I have the time and am just minutes away and it's supposed to be something worth seeing, or so I hear.
On the hell no side, shit's obviously cursed. I'm not superstitious (I think it's bad luck to believe in superstition), but I'm fairly certain that if I defy the ghost of Shah Jahan again and make another attempt at his third wife's tomb, a tiny meteorite will strike me down on my way over, or the dome of the Taj will collapse on my intrusion, Aladdin-style, or the E. Coli will burst from my stomach like the fetus in Alien, grab my broken phone, and beat me over the head with it screaming in E. Coli-ese "don't you learn?"
Moreover, I know however pretty the building is, it can't possibly be pretty enough to be worth the sheer agony that the last three days have brought. Anything I see will be a letdown, not worth it, and perhaps it is better just not knowing than knowing and admitting to myself that I should not have come to Agra. Plus, it's seven-hundred-fifty rupees, one of the single most expensive sights in India. These are the arguments on the don't go side: cost, expectations, stomach-rupturing E. Coli monsters.
I go anyway.
It is pretty. That's more or less all I have to say about it. It's a really, really pretty building, with a beautiful garden and this gorgeous reflecting pool, and the inside of the mausoleum is maybe a bit dreary and could maybe use a little mood lighting, but all in all it's a nice place to walk around. Not worth bleeding out your insides to see, but worth the seven-hundred-fifty rupees, I guess.
I walk the lawns and trace a path along the perimeter and watch a monkey chew on a nut or something. I squat down with my camera to snap a shot of the macaque, and through my viewfinder I watch it hop from its perch to the railing in front of me, bare its jagged, yellowed teeth, and prepare to pounce. I hop back. I yell. "No, monkey! No! I will not be fucked with!" I unleash the anger of Agra on the little primate, scold him for the nerve to be yet another obstacle in my simple request for an enjoyable gander at the Taj Mahal and its grounds. When I'm done, he actually looks a little upset. He skulks away.
I tuk-tuk to the train station to catch an express train to Delhi. No express trains leave for Delhi until nine, so I grab a tuk-tuk to the bus station to take a public bus. The public buses, my tuk-tuk driver notes, take almost five or six hours; wouldn't I rather take a private bus, which arrives in just three? Fine, I say, and we reroute to a travel agency offering "deluxe" buses to Delhi.
I'm promised a three-hundred rupee bus by the driver, but when I get there the bus is four hundred rupees. I ask what makes it deluxe. "It's deluxe," the travel agent says. Oh.
"Right, so A/C?"
"No reclining seats."
This was a problem. Not that I was being sold a four-hundred-rupee ticket to a basic bus, but that the bus didn't have a bathroom. E. Coli was still strong in my system.
"Challo," I said to the tuk-tuk driver waiting eagerly for his comission. "To the bus station."
We get to the bus station and a government bus is preparing to pull away, and I head behind the depot to pee against a wall before boarding. I recognize this bus doesn't have a bathroom either, but I hope for the best.
As I pee, a different tuk-tuk driver tries to sell me on a different travel agency. "You don't want to be on government bus for six hours." He's right; I'd forgotten about the time difference. Okay, I say. Challo. We head to his travel agency of choice and it turns out they don't have any availability for buses tonight. Back to the bus station we go. I wait for the next public bus, resigned to my fate, but not two minutes go by before a cabbie tries to sell me on a deluxe bus. Yes, yes, I say. Let's go.
And back we go, to the first travel agency, where the price of a ticket has suddenly risen to five-hundred rupees. I scoff. What happened to four hundred? "That was last bus," he says with a sly grin. "This bus super-deluxe."
The super-deluxe buses, unsurprisingly, offer the same amenities as both the deluxe buses and the basic buses: a seat. I've been from train station to travel agency to bus station to travel agency to bus station to travel agency in the past hour, and it almost would make sense at this point to just get back to the train station, but I resign to get out of Agra as quickly and easily as possible and begrudgingly hand the agent a ripped five-hundred note. I board the bus, and I leave that cursed city behind me forever.