The Shithole, a short story from India.
The Shithole, a short story from India.
In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
It was early evening, the thick, smoky air buzzing with the sound of chattering voices and the hum of rickshaw engines. We’d just arrived in Agra, a city many westerners fail to recognise by name. Despite the fact that it houses one of the world’s most iconic and romanticised buildings. “Hotel Shahjahan?” the taxi driver asked with a furrowed brow. “No sir… is finished! Gone!”
“Gone!?!’’ I responded, half bent over the open window. The weight of my rucksack almost toppling me over. ‘‘Gone where?!” Had we stumbled upon some post-apocalyptic, alternate reality Agra? I envisaged an empty waste ground where our would-be hotel once stood. A clump of Lonely Planet pages fluttering despondently in the poisoned breeze. “But nooooo problem sir…. I take you Hotel Kamal, cheap cheap”.
I’d only been in India for a few weeks, but was already growing tired of the endless scams. This particular con was a personal favourite. A rickshaw driver informs you that your hostel of choice has mysteriously disappeared. However, fear not, this helpful chap knows of another place he can take you to right away! A joint almost certainly belonging to his brother/cousin/father-in-law/boss.
The Shithole, a short story from India.
“No… we want to go to Hotel Shahjahan” insisted Allan, both of us climbing into the rickshaw. “But sir, Hotel Kamal very…” “SHAHJAHAN PLEASE, or we take another driver”. The man rolled his eyes, emitting a groan of resignation. “Ok Ok” and fifteen minutes later we were sitting in the reception of our reincarnated hotel, waiting to be gracefully received.
Having filled out the usual forms, Allan and I followed a dumpy teenage boy up a steep and winding staircase. Eventually, we came out onto the rooftop where he led us to our room, which was uninspiring but acceptable. We were just about to give him the thumbs up when Allan made a grim discovery. The ceiling fan, (a colossal contraption resembling the front end of a rusty World War II spitfire) was broken. ‘‘Uh oh!’’ I said, gazing up.
It was a desperately humid evening and the staircase ordeal had left us both sweating profusely. In just under six hours we’d be up and off to see what we had come for. The main reason we’d actually come to Agra. As such, I explained to Dumpy that we needed a room with a working fan, a requirement he seemed genuinely surprised about. A working fan, eh? Scratching his chin, he motioned us across the floor where there was only one more available room. In no position to negotiate, we traipsed after him towards the last chance saloon.
Adventures in India.
The new room had its positives I suppose. It possessed four walls, a roof and an operational fan that clattered noisily when the boy flicked the switch. In fact, it worked itself into such a frenzy one of our neighbours briefly popped his head through the door to see what all the commotion was about.
The aforementioned plus points having been covered, all that’s left to say is that the place was an absolute shithole. Thick dirt clung stubbornly to the skirting boards and had even begun creeping up the walls. Said walls had presumably once been white. But now they were a deep smudged black, with occasional patches of splattered red. A fetching shade, if you will, of squashed mosquito. In the corner, indented with spidery graffiti, stood a lonely wooden table.
Zac woz ere.
Feeling genuine empathy for Zac, I regarded the room’s solitary window, virtually hidden behind a row of thick iron bars. “This is a place where people come to die”, whispered Allan. Gingerly opening the toilet door, I froze, held my breath, turned on my heels and exited, shutting it firmly behind me. Sensing that perhaps we weren’t overly enamoured with our surroundings, Dumpy gave us an apologetic smile. He then promised that the fan in the other room would be fixed the next day.
Reluctantly accepting the situation, we quickly settled in, deciding it would be best to go straight to sleep. Not even bothering to undress, I clambered onto my bed, doing my best to ignore the colour of the sheets. As I attempted to make myself comfortable, I suddenly recoiled in shock as my hand sunk into a small shard of glass. ‘‘What!?!’’ The resulting cut wasn’t much of an injury and produced just a trickle of blood. But I reacted as if I’d just been slashed with a samurai sword. ‘‘Glass in the fucking bed!?!’’ Now I’d seen it all!
Realising that complaining would be a pointless course of action, Allan helped me in the search for further injurious items. Luckily, the shard turned out to be a lone offender. After checking Allan’s crib for more of the same, we finally turned out the lights. Unable to drift off, I lay there for some time listening to the rotating fan and wondering whether it might spin off and decapitate me while I slept.
The Shithole, a short story from India.
When the alarm jolted us both from slumber barely four hours later, I couldn’t get us out of our communal cesspit fast enough. Springing out of bed, I announced a boycott of the shower (it was in that evil toilet), and threw on a T-shirt. “Allan!” I whispered, giving him an encouraging shake while swirling some toothpaste around my mouth.
Outside the morning sun had already begun its long, lazy ascent as we made our way through Agra’s dusty, near-empty streets. It was so early even the few hawkers opening their shops were too blurry-eyed to bother us. Peering up at the orange-blue of the breaking sky, I drank in the early morning silence. Across the street a couple of monkeys hopped playfully across the branches of a large tree. Then we turned a corner into a wide street dotted with flower-laden trees. And now I could feel my heart beating fast as a flash of ethereal white marble came into view.
For now the rest of the structure was shrouded by a mixture of the compound’s towering outer walls and thick mist rising from the banks of the Yamuna River. Thankfully, my patience would only have to hold out a few minutes longer as we closed in on the gated entrance. Having arrived early enough to beat the queues, we bought our tickets, went through the turnstiles and eagerly made our way towards The Taj Mahal.
‘The Shithole’ is the fourth chapter of my short story series Incidents In India.
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Well maybe hotel “kamal” would have been a better choice! Such hoteliers should be sued. I have rarely stayed in hotels, but none of the ones I stayed in were 10% as horrible as yours! Guess everyone harasses outsiders (or most)! 🙁
Hey, thanks for stopping by, I’m glad you ”liked” the story. Bear in mind this was back in 2004 when the power of the web wasn’t yet in full bloom. Nowadays, just a look on TripAdvisor or one of thousands of travel blogs would steer me towards a better choice. The funny thing is, there was a silver lining when it came to Sha Jahan Guesthouse. Which will become clear in the next instalment… 🙂
A shit hole, indeed! The perils of traveling.
Very descriptive. So much so that I could almost smell the filth.
Leighton, good to see you got to know about the tricks of the autorickshaw guys 🙂 He could have sold you the Taj Mahal itself. Usually there is good information available at tourist centres and I do agree govt should do more to help travellers. It is fun reading your stories!
You were brave to stay in such an awful place and to find, and worse still, be cut by a shard of glass hidden in the sheets. That doesn’t bear thinking about. However, it makes for a good story and gladly you are still around to tell the tale.
At the time it was not fun. But I have often thought back to that room over the years and it always makes me chuckle. Thanks for stopping by Marion!
No hotel is perfect, but unfortunately, some are so imperfect that staying there can turn your dream vacation into a nightmare. Sometimes, you may not realize a hotel is iffy until you arrive—but you certainly want to avoid that happening if you can, mm. But I suppose things were different in 2004 when there was no option to give the photos on the hotel’s site a good look and compare them with photos from real guests on travel review sites. Thanks for sharing and have a good day Aiva 🙂
Honestly, I don’t remember much about how we came to choose Sha Jahan. But I’m sure it came recommended, as we always did due diligence. These days it’s almost impossible to make such a mistake thanks to the zillions of online entries connected to any given hotel. I have often wondered if Hotel Kamal would have been any better.
And here I thought I’ve stayed in some pretty dodgy motels before, but that’s nothing compared to the shithole you stayed at. Glass in the bed?! That’s a new one. At least there were no bed bugs.
Maybe the bed bugs got done in by the glass 😉 Thanks for reading this unsavoury but hopefully fun account of accommodation misadventures back in the days before the internet really took off.
Nothing worse than a shitty room in a strange place. I would hate to always be on the watch for a scam, not being able to believe anyone. Customer service in those days were obviously just words. Thanks for sharing Leighton. Allan
It did get tiring after a while. Although this particular story has a bit of a silver lining, as the next chapter hopefully shows.
Glass in the bed?! Jesus, what a total nightmare. Sounds like a grim night’s stay!
Yeah, not exactly a night at The Hilton. But you know, it was cheap! 🙂
I’m not sure that even at 25 I would have stayed. We’ve had our fair share of dumps, but this one sounds like it might win the prize. At least today you’d be able to post a bad review online, maybe that increases the hotels’ standards, but I think it just helps me avoid them.
The amazing thing about Sha Jahan is that it still exists. It’s been spruced up a fair bit from what I’ve seen and the rooms are unrecognisable. But the facade, although improved, still bears a resemblance to its 2004 form. Glad to hear you’ve never stayed in a place as crappy as this.
Oof I’m not sure India is the place for me with all the scammers. I think id’ get too overwhelmed.
As a young inexperienced traveler it was a challenge for sure. But the rewards throughout the trip in terms of the history, architecture, food and landscapes were well worth it. Stay warm Lyssy!
That’s very true! Thanks – I stayed inside today 🙂
One of the worst parts of travel is the incessant scams in some parts of the world. Even if I recognize what’s going on dealing with the bs is aggravating and exhausting.
Exhausting is the word, indeed. And then your guard goes up and before you know it you’re being standoffish to someone who’s generally trying to help.
In Agra, I had the chance to go to Novotel, the only quality hotel of my whole stay. Back to Delhi I went in a hotel closed for works, but which continued to function for a row of rooms not yet renovated. you can guess their state. There was an armed guard at the entry, for the atmosphere. It was my last week in India, I counted the remaining half-days with impatience.
Ha ha, “for the atmosphere”. Not sure I treated myself at all with accommodation while in India. Those were the days of incredibly tight budgets. An armed guard at the door is a new one!
Oh boy, the adventure thickens…the scams really are annoying and can take a toll on you mentally over time. It definitely helps to have thick skin to deal with them (or you develop thick skin in the long run!). That hotel certainly sounds like a shithole…and honestly, you were putting it nicely! I’ve had my fair share of staying in less-than-desirable accommodations, and now I wouldn’t have the time and energy to forgo a couple of bucks for something truly atrocious. Can’t wait to see how you get on with the Taj Mahal!
Yeah, it’s funny how your attitude about accommodation changes as you get older. Wouldn’t dream of staying in anything as bad as that these days, even if the damn place were free. Thanks for following this series Rebecca, hope you’re settled in back at work.
It’s like you signed up to spend the night in a horror movie. Glass in the bed?!?! You should write up a list of the most common scams that you ran into and how to not get caught in them. Really excited to read about the Taj Mahal 🙂
Ha ha horror movie wasn’t too far off, especially in that bathroom. Thanks Meg, The Taj Mahal made it all worth it.
Great story. I stayed in some dumpy places in Mexico back in the 1980s, but the place you’ve described makes them look like five star hotels!
Ha! I keep expecting somebody to tell me “This place was nothing compared to…”. but it never comes.. It seems like it truly was the biggest shithole I could have stayed in. Mexico in the 1980 s must have been something else… You surely have a short story or two from that trip?
I think you get the award for finding the worst hotel in the world! Mexico was pretty laid back in the 1980s. Now that you mention it, I do have some stories. 🙂
Wow! I started to itch just from reading your description of the room. The walls sounded like black mold. I don’t even want to know about the bathroom. You need to pull together all the scams into another coffee table book.
Black mold! Oh lord, it’s possible. Thank god we were only there for one night. My coffee table book series is mounting. Better get started one of these years.
Out of all that, the thing that makes me shudder is the “doing my best to ignore the colour of the sheets. ” Nothing worse than a questionable sleeping situation.
Ha ha indeed. I think that room had enough going on that any given reader could pick out a choice low point.
Nope … not staying there, never, no way!! And I don’t like the scammers – had a couple of them in Egypt and didn’t like that at all! But what I hate the most, is a bed with dirty (questionable) linen. I hope you moved on to another hotel (or at least bought your own linen for the remainder of this adventure 😉)!
We actually stayed ha ha. But a different room at least. Meeting Guddu justified that decision I guess.
I agree, after reading your other posts, Guddu was a bonus! Ah, the things you do when you’re 25 😬.
Haha. I know I shouldn’t laugh but you gets what you pays for. Very entertaining though, makes me wonder what I complain about (in a light hearted way) when we pay a fortune for some of the worlds posing palaces.
I’m a bit moany too when it comes to accommodation. The fancier the place, the more likely I am to complain about the little things, ha. But nothing will ever measure up to this place I suspect. Ah, you’re only young and traveling around India once.
It’s quite sad that the scams are so relentless that you have to question the legitimacy of anything you’re told – I think many people probably end up traveling to that other hotel. Although it doesn’t sound like your night in your choice of hotel was much better!
I think unless we’d put our hands in our pockets, it was all going to be much of a muchness. Hotel Kamal… can’t help but wonder what it was like.
Ugh the memories. Reminds me of our experience with the giant cockroach in Bakkhali. Being in India is all about shifting expectations and changing your comfort zone borderlines. You don’t have any choice …do you!?
No, you don’t. The longer your trip is the easier it gets I think, at least that’s how it was for me. Glass in the bed remains a first, and so far at least a last too.