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Published: March 6th 2012
Last March, I received a message from an old friend of mine, Philipp. We’d traveled together in South Africa, and again in Costa Rica. This time he was coming to my hometown in California with his girlfriend, Franzi. For two short days, I showed them my old stomping grounds and waxed lyrical about my future travel plans in India – a dream I shared with Franzi. It took us a year, but we both finally made it, Franzi preceding me by a month. By the time I arrived, she had already planned a weekend trip for us to Agra, a small city with a huge monument: the Taj Mahal.
Franzi told me that she’d booked seats for us in a sleeper car. I liked the sound of that. But if an Indian sleeper car isn’t a misnomer, I don’t know what is. There was definitely no space for sleeping. There was hardly any space for sitting. It was a typical Indian experience for a foreigner. The cramped space, the stuffy air, the black mice scampering to and fro, and, of course, the men who seemed to come from the entire length of the train just to stop and stare. Five
minutes from our destination, the train stopped dead and didn’t budge for half an hour. When was this ride going to be over?
Tired and aggravated, we arrived in Agra. A man in a sparkly black shirt greeted us at our cabin and followed us through the station, incessantly pushing his services. We told him several times that we didn’t need his help. He’d disappear, then reappear again a few moments later with the same offers. Our tempers broke simultaneously. We yelled in unison, “WE DON’T NEED YOUR HELP!” He muttered something and walked away. Franzi asked me, “What did he say?” “I don’t know,” I replied, “I heard, ‘I am a vegetable.’” We laughed hysterically, the situation diffused. Hearing our laughter, Shiny Vegetable, as we started to call him, turned around and redoubled his efforts. “Okay. 50 rupees. You come now. This way please.” We found another ride to our hotel.
Our small room was next to a common area, but even with the noise right outside our door, we quickly fell asleep. A few hours later, we woke up scratching itches that covered us from head to toe. Bed bugs. I put on another layer of
clothes and somehow managed to fall asleep again. We were awoken again a few hours later, this time to the sound of a bag crinkling. A mouse had gotten into our stash of peanuts and was happily munching away. We’d hardly gotten back to sleep when the alarm started ringing. We dragged our tired eyes up to the rooftop and sat under the dark, pre-dawn sky, listening to nasal, off-key muezzins and looking at the black silhouette of the Taj Mahal in front of us. Three langur monkeys climbed out of the trashcan they were raiding and took a seat in front of us to share the view.
We left for the ticket gate and got there thirty minutes before it opened. The line had already snaked its way along the metal dividers. When we finally made it to the security gate we were told to leave behind all of our food, which we had plenty of. We’d heard stories about local restaurants poisoning foreigners and getting a cut of the thousands of rupees they shelled out to get better. As such, we didn’t want to leave our day’s sustenance behind. I claimed I was hypoglycemic (forgive my white
lie) and that I needed to have food with me at all times. “Okay,” the guard said, “But you can’t take fruit. Please take these chocolates.” Now, there’s a thought. Natural foods that leave no waste aren’t allowed, but processed things that make a mess are? Oh, India. I’ve only just arrived and already you make no sense to me. We stuffed our face with fruit, took the proffered bars and entered through the South Gate to face a scene seen countless times in movies and on travel posters. Nothing compares to seeing it in real life. With the light of the rising sun softly kissing the white marble it looked perfect, and ineffable.
For three hours, we slowly strolled through the manicured grounds, stopping every so often to marvel at the magnificence of the marble monument. As the sun rose higher, the marble glowed brighter, until the glare became strong enough to cause a headache. We sought refuge in the main mausoleum. Inside, it was dim and cool. A funky smell pervaded the air. In the center of the room were two tombs, tiny in the majesty of their surroundings. Suddenly, I remembered what the Taj Mahal is
all about. It’s a love story – one grief-stricken man’s way of commemorating the death of his beautiful wife. Almost 500 years later, millions of people still find his monument of love worth the trouble to visit. It’s very touching – even if I would never want to be immortalized in this way. If you’ll forgive the morbidity, I’ll share that I want to be composted and used to grow a tree.
Tired from the disturbances of the night, the early morning wake up call and the walk through the heat, we followed the lead of a starving dog and laid down in the shade of one of the lawn’s many shrubs to take a nap. I woke up to the sound of laughter – we’d attracted quite a crowd. I rolled over to better ignore their chuckles and again saw the brilliant white façade in front of me. My life is unbelievably blessed. It was a good moment to keep in mind when the journey back began fraying my nerve ends.
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