Just as we expected, the Oberoi staff (beardless young men in robes and turbans and attractive women in fake saris) were a bit confused when we trundled up the long driveway towards the imposing tan structure of the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel. “Are you staying here?” we were politely asked three or four times at various intervals as we made the long walk, dragging our luggage. When we got off the train, we figured that it would help our bargaining power with the rickshaw drivers if we didn’t tell them that we wanted to be dropped off at the most expensive hotel in the city, so we had our driver drop us off at the Taj Mahal’s eastern gate, about a kilometer from the Oberoi, and walked the rest of the way.
The touts and sellers are thick in this city, as you would imagine, and nowhere thicker than in that kilometer. To cut back on the pollution that is slowly staining the Taj from its magnificent white to a sludgy grey, only bicycle rickshaws and electric golf carts are allowed in that zone. Every few feet there was another bikeshaw driver grinning at us, or an ice cream cart, or a restaurant, or a jewelry salesman, or a kid selling postcards with the Taj on it. And we finally did tell one driver where we were going when he followed us for a hundred meters – “where you go? where your hotel?” – we replied, “the Oberoi, it’s very nearby” his eyebrows danced like black caterpillars and he said “ahhhh very nice!”
The Oberoi could be summed up as a perfect example of form over function. Everything about it was perfectly set – perfect volumes of music, perfect softness of bed, perfect temperature of the pool (Christine, reading this over my shoulder as I type, points out that it was astounding how the pool was attuned to the right level for the day’s heat) – and of course, the reason why it commands the highest price in the city – a perfect view of the southeastern corner of the mausoleum itself, visible over the tops of the trees on the private land that the hotel owns behind the building (that land itself, with no hiking access on it, must have cost the hotel an insane amount of money, but they have to keep it clear in order to guarantee that every room in the building can see the Taj, which is part of their brochure).
Of course, it seems to the fashion that any hotel that costs more than $150 in third world country charges outrageous amounts for internet access. I speculate that this is because they were probably some of the first businesses to have the internet, and their infrastructure is still set up to require it (versus just having a series of routers strung out throughout the floors like any American mid-range hotels might have). My parents and I found the same thing while staying on the banks of the Dead Sea in Jordan, too. For 400 rupees for an hour of access, it was flabbergasting – but they did have a free option: one half hour free, every 24 hours of your stay (when we checked out, I was 10 minutes into our 2nd 24 hour period, and it promptly logged me out and cancelled the rest of my 20 minutes because we were no longer in their system).
But besides the the price on Internet and the extraordinarily high price of the minibar items (like the bottled water, which was selling for 75 rupees the same size bottle of water that would have cost 5 rupees in the city) the place was perfect. The pool area in particular was a multi-level series of terraces, trickling fountains that fed into waterfalls, and perfectly manicured turf. As we arrived at 7am, I watched numerous Indian employees in nondescript brown trousers and shirts painstakingly cutting the grass and bushes, practically blade by blade. They never spoke to us though – only the turbaned men and saried women did, smiling brilliantly and making perfect eye contact whenever we passed by. At the pool, if I would even so much as take a step in the direction of one of them, they would immediately stop whatever they were doing (except if they were serving someone else a drink or interacting with another customer) and wait to see if I was walking towards them or pass them, before they would resume their activities.