The Taj Mahal. Recently voted one of the 7 Man made Wonders of the World. Famous the world over as a monument to love. Believed by historians to have been more a monument to the ego of Agra's ruler of the time. Whichever version is more accurate, it is, undeniably, as beautiful as a building can be, impressive in its sheer size, its perfect symmetry, the detail of its inlay work and the way its marble subtly alters colour with the changing light.
Such a pity this incredible monument is situated in the filthiest, most aggressive, stinking hellhole of a city it has ever been my misfortune to visit. I had been warned by other tourists that the city is very full-on so I was relieved, stepping off the overnight sleeper train from Jaipur, to be avoiding the tourist ghetto with its unpleasant touts and dangerous scams. The worst scam in recent years involved teams of restauranteurs, rickshaw drivers and doctors operating a process of deliberate poisoning, followed by a 'helpful' ride to hospital and a 'diagnosis' and expensive prescription, and ending in a massive medical insurance claim with cuts for all participants. A couple of years ago the process also ended in death for a couple of unlucky Irish travellers, prompting an investigation and exposure of the racket.
I was to be in safe and welcoming hands, though, staying with a Servas family for a night. On arrival at their house, however, I didn't like its energy and somehow doubted the sincerity of its 3 generations of inhabitants. Members are vetted, though, and I have never heard a bad report so I put my uneasiness down to pre-existing low expectations of the city and spent the afternoon sightseeing. This certainly fulfilled all low expectations. I was constantly hassled by rude and pushy traders and rickshaw-wallahs, leered at by greasy-haired youths, cornered in the corner of the mosque courtyard by its caretaker and intimidated into donating towards 'restoration'...walking down the street, my foot slid into a puddle of dubious content
and a few steps later my sandal wobbled on a squidgy lump and I looked down to see I had trodden on a dead rat (better than a live one, maybe). As I looked down at the crushed rodent my awareness gradually broadened to absorb the woman begging in the mud, cradling a sick child; the deformed man moving crab-like on his hands, his legs ending in stumps at the knee; the mounds of foul-smelling rubbish every few steps; the mayhem of swerving vehicles creating choking clouds of fumes and a constant (and futile) ear-piercing chorus of high-decibel horns; the scrawny, undernourished rickshaw-wallahs in threadbare rags and flimsy flip-flops pushing loads many times their body weight; the swarms of flies buzzing over the steaming piles of cowshit; the intense, unbearable heat and humidity...It was as if the overwhelming slap-in -the-face impact I had expected, and not experienced, weeks ago on arrival in Delhi, had suddenly occurred.
And then one of the afore-mentioned oily teenagers started up: "Hello, you beautiful, Indian man like white lady, very sexy..." and I started to lose the head. My 'colonial lady' fašade was failing me! "Do you know what age I am?" I roared at him. "I'm 40! I'm old enough to be your mother! Is that how you speak to your mother? Is that the respect you show her? Is it?"
Clearly figuring he had a female Incredible Hulk on his hands, he backed away before I expanded and began to take on a green hue.
But my anger and frustration had not dissipated. A minute or two later I found and used a public toilet, only to find the entrance blocked by the attendant , demanding a ten rupee charge as I tried to leave, though I had read and been told that these rare facilities are free. We reached an impasse: I refused to pay and he refused to unblock the doorway. The big green monster inside me was growing and I was too furious to just pay the money, however insignificant the value. I threw 10 rupees on the floor and as he bent to retrieve it, I escaped, snatching the book he had been reading, demanding my money in exchange. And then he laughed. Oooohhhhh dear. I had a complete meltdown. In Incredible Hulk terms I was way past the "Don't make me angry, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry" phase and this was the shirt buttons popping to reveal a green lunatic. Like a maniac I started to rip up his book, scraps of pages adding to the street rubbish (and me a Green School co-ordinator!), hurling choice expletives as I tore and then storming down the street. All a bit embarassing in retrospect. I haven't lost it at maniac level like that since I threw that fella's watch down the stairs in Brasil 15 years ago (and, Sergio, Dani and Janet, you may remember that was all sparked by some guy's ill-timed laugh, too).
I slept poorly and my intuition about my hosts was proved accurate the following day when I returned from a sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal: I was taken to the family marble 'museum' (i.e. shop) and pressurized to make a purchase, feeling quite intimidated at being repeatedly and quite forcefully asked to buy, with the exit blocked (for the 3rd time in 2 days) by my large host. Back at the house I was ignored once it was known I had not spent any money, declining the opportunity to purchase at "special family members' price". As I sat in my room composing a report to mail to Servas I was visited by the children asking for presents, then their mother asking for any perfume or fragranced deodorant I had and then by
the witch-like matriarch wanting 'backsheesh' for the servant, whom I hadn't even seen. They all became quite hostile when I didn't co-operate. I was disgusted. This was a world away from the wonderful hospitality of the Mehtas in Udaipur and I wanted to remove myself from the negative atmosphere immediately. It was when I went to repack my bag that I realised by the position of the lock that someone had attempted to open it. I was relieved I had followed my intuition and carefully locked it while out of the house.
I shouldered my pack and left, walking to a western-style air-con coffee shop and drinking cappuccino for 4 hours till it was time to go the station, happy for the first time in weeks to be in a bland, safe Western environment.
Sitting in an auto-rickshaw in a torrential monsoon downpour en-route to the station, a sheet of lightning illuminated the looming mass of Agra Fort, giving it a sinister appearance which seemed totally in keeping with my experience of the city. For the first time since parting company with my Ladakh trek-mates, I was delighted and relieved, on entering the waiting room, to find 2 Western women and to learn that we were sharing the same train compartment, giving me ample time to vent my feelings. I felt much better after doing so and by the time I climbed up into my berth for the overnight journey to Varanasi, India again seemed an adventure after the blip that was Agra.
P.S. - I should also mention that since my last entry I spent a day in Pushkar: once a peaceful lake spot, now a soulless tourist strip full of rave music cafes inhabited by sick-looking, spaced out travelers doing more dope than they can handle (Mercy people, you can tell Eamonn he'd be disgusted with how it is now, compared to in his day!). It's a world away from the Pushkar camel fair of my dreams...if only I'd made it, as planned, 18 years ago...)
I also had 2 days in the 'pink city' of Jaipur, which I was geared to find too hectic and pushy to like very much. In contrast, I was charmed by its colour, markets, architecture and forts, especially at night when all the monuments were lit up and looked like fairy tale illustrations.