I’m hanging out in my hotel room in Agra, hometown of the Taj Mahal. I arrived yesterday afternoon after a 5-hour drive from Jaipur.
My mood was not good. My body was not much better. I went up to my room, closed the door, turned on the TV and tried to forget that I was still in India. Eventually, the fact that I hadn’t eaten became a mental health issue, so I ventured out into the town. I had to walk about half a mile to get some chips and water, which was about all I thought my system could handle, if that.
Agra is like every medium sized town in India I’ve been in, full of dust, dirt, trash and people trying to get something. Two little begging girls started to follow me, one even turned on the water works, “Meeeessssss (Miss), sob sob sob, Meeeeeessssss, sob sob sob.”
I discovered that I had no feelings whatsoever for those two little urchins. I snapped, “Chelle Jow, Chelle Jow” which is a really rude way of saying, “Get lost.” They hung on. As I kept saying, “Celle Jow,” and the one girl upped the histrionics of her routine, “MMMMMeeeeeeesssssssss, Mmmmmmmeeeeeeeessssss,” the younger quiet girl started laughing.
Eventually, a man on a motorcycle came and put himself between the girls and me and told me to go on ahead. I was grateful for the help. I tried to let his kindness reignite my love for India and the majority of kind, warm, helpful souls that I have met, because they have held the majority. Unfortunately, when a country has billions of people, the minority can take up a lot of space and sap a person’s energy.
Eventually I found a store, bought some supplies and started the walk home. When I was looking for the store, I had told a bicycle rickshaw man that I might get a ride on my way back. By the time I reached him on my return journey, I was being followed by 5 auto-rickshaws that I’d already told to go away, and several bicycle rickshaws. I went up to the guy I thought was my guy and said, “Are you the guy I spoke to?”
I pulled out the card with the map to the hotel to make sure he understood that I had only a short way to go, and where we were going. Ten other drivers crowded around me and started trying to say they knew better how to get back to the hotel.
I waved my finger at all the interlopers and said, “I’m talking to this man!”
How much has changed since those first days in Mumbai and Fort Cochin, huh? Remember when I let rickshaw drivers boss me around?
I got home and hid in my cave of a room, determined not to go out unless absolutely necessary. I even thought of not going to the Taj Mahal this morning, staying in my cave till I had to get on the train tomorrow to go to Delhi.
By dinner last night, I was in my darkest mood yet since I arrived in India. I sat at the table in the small hotel with the two couples that had freshly arrived in country, all four people full of wonder and awe at the color and spectacle that awaits them. They talked about the difficulty of dealing with drivers and salespeople almost as if it was cute, not nearly as annoying as people say it is.
I am really proud of myself. It took all of my effort not to rain on their parade. I held my tongue and squelched all the bile that has been building up from the dealing with the harassment of never being able to walk down the street without being yelled at to buy something, to look at something, to take a picture with so and so and then being asked to pay for the picture I was asked to take.
That morning I had not been as reticent to speak out. My Jaipur guide, RV, who lived next to the hotel I was staying, had asked me to dinner with his family on my last night in town. I had repeatedly told him that I was sorry, but my stomach was not up for food. I was very nervous about having a 5-hour drive the next day and being caught in the middle of rural India with the desperate need to find a bathroom. After the seventh or eight time I had said I couldn’t come over because I couldn’t eat, RV said, “Just come over and meet my family. No food. I’ll introduce you to my niece.”
Of course, I had to say, “Yes.” Mostly because I didn’t seem to have a way out. When I got there, I met his lovely sisters, his mom and dad and his three year old niece. I aped it up for the little girl who found me, at first, very disconcerting, but who warmed to me eventually. Soon she was dancing and flirting and we were all having a great time.
Then, RV said to me, “Now you eat.”
“No, RV, I’m sorry, but I can’t eat.”
His whole family was staring at me, expectant. I was informed that the desert I would have was made especially for me. It was good for an upset stomach. It was made out of milk and cheese.
I said, “RV. I’m sorry. I’m allergic to milk and cheese.”
He said, “No. Come one just a little it won’t hurt. If you eat this every morning you will never get sick.”
I said, ”RV. Milk and cheese has been known to paralyze me. I can’t eat it.”
He literally rolled his eyes.
Everyone else stared. He told them to get the food. It was brought to me. I had a bite or two, thinking," I will eat this, go home and take an aleve and hopefully not be any worse off".
Then, when I was done with that, they brought out more food, rice and veggies in spicy sauce. I said, once again, twice again, three times again that I couldn’t eat. No one would take no for an answer. I was going to look like the rudest American ever if I didn’t have a few bites. Oddly they didn’t think it was rude to make a sick person eat food while they all sat around not eating and just staring at her.
I went home and was up all night running to the bathroom. So, in the morning I very strongly told RV, “Here’s a piece of advice. If a tourist in your care says that they are sick in their stomach and that they cannot eat food, you must listen to them. I was up all night and now I have 5 hours ahead of me where I may be in distress, all because you made it impossible for me to not eat without being very very rude.”
I was almost enjoying my righteous anger. I was becoming more and more sure that this is what India has been trying to teach me all along: how to have a backbone, how to say “NO”, or something like that. I actually wasn't sure if I was more mad at RV or myself, for caving in and doing something that I knew would be bad for me just to make other people happy.
I carried all this anger and frustration with me to the Taj Mahal this morning. I got there at 6:15, having not eaten or had water for a long time only to discover that the provisions I’d packed were not allowed in. So, low blood sugar and dehydration also accompanied me into one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The Taj Mahal is breathtaking. Even in my state, my breath was taken when I stepped through the arches of the gate that faces that most famous white mausoleum. It is perfect. Because it is a world heritage sight, the grounds it sits on are also very beautiful, green, mostly trash free. Because I was part of the early crowd, there weren’t that many people, only a thousand or so, would be my guess.
Sadly, the splendor couldn’t distract me for long. I obviously had more important brooding to do. I’m sure the cloud around me was as black and ugly as the Taj is white and pure.
I wanted to shake my mood. I wanted to break through the darkness so that I could enjoy the moment of being at the Taj Mahal. I dutifully walked around and took it in, along with all the people looking almost as miserable as I was feeling. All their sour, hot faces would have made me laugh if I wasn't feeling so contrary to even myself.
I kept wondering, "Why can't I let all this anger and animosity go? I know I'm making the choice to be miserable, why can't I shake it off."
I found a bench to sit on, in the shade, out of view of the monument, but surrounded by some truly great trees. I was watching all the families go by, all the couples, all the friends. Miraculously, no one came and sat next to me or tried to sell me anything. I could just sit and watch.
Maybe it was being in nature, or being left alone in a beautiful spot, or the hunger finally getting so great that I went into another dimension, but something started to release in me. I started to shed all my defensive anger and began to feel open space around my heart. What I discovered past the gates of darkness was that though I am not lonely, I am no longer enjoying my solitary adventure, but not because of India and all the hastle and the stomach bug, etc....but because the Taj Mahal should be shared.
Adventures should be shared.
It was a new feeling, a new sense of understanding. There was no self-pity, no “poor me”, no sadness, grief, regret for my loner life up to now. Just an acute understanding that sometimes an experience really is only half experienced when you can't share it with someone, family, friend, lover. I realized, too, that there were other adventures back in the good old USA that I'm so much more excited about now......I knew that after the exotic wilds of India that the only place I have any desire to see right now is back home.
I got up and walked around a bit and found another bench with a better view of the Taj. I got to thinking about what the place is about. Built by a king for his dead wife, it is about love, of course. But it's also a requiem to death. So, as exquisite as it is, there is something very dead about the Taj Mahal. It is an empty place devoted to what must have been quite a passionate affair.
As I sat there I felt something on my leg. I thought it was a fly, but I discovered, instead, that it was a beautiful green caterpillar. I picked it up and it began crawling on my hand. I watched it crawl up and down my arm for about 20 minutes. I found it infinitely more beautiful than the Taj. It was so small and perfect and alive, so in the present. The eagles flying around the gardens and the perfect white dome of the Taj also enchanted me. The things of the earth, tiny and large were so much more beautiful to me than the absolutely amazing creation of man that is the Taj Mahal.
While I sat there a transformation was taking place. My black cloud was breaking up and floating away. By the time I got up and started ambling again, I felt completely free, free of all the angst, the anger, the frustration. I only felt full of love. I could really see the people around me again. They weren't all sour and miserable. Some of us exchanged smiles, I felt like the darkness that has been around me for the past week was lifting and I was visible again.
Simple things. I'm interested in simple things now. A touch, a look, a nod, a moment, a kiss. Dinner. Holding hands. Laughter. Good conversations. Work. Telling stories. Digging in.
Yesterday, I talked to a Nicole. She was in exactly the same place I was…tired, fed up with India, contrary, angry at this crazy place. But she said that she knows she will be back within 6 months, that this insanity has made her want to travel even more.
She thought it would be different. That after three months in India she would want to settle down for a while before her next travel adventure. I'm the opposite. I thought this would be the whetting of a great appetite to travel as much as possible, as far as possible, as soon as possible. And now, I just want the simple things for a while. A long while. I'm not saying I don't want to travel. I'd love it if somebody wanted to pay me to travel for short periods of time and to write about it. But as for the shape of my life in the near to not so near future, I'd like to settle in, settle down, connect with home.
I'm so tired, but I feel good. I feel broken newly open. I have felt that so often on this trip...broken open, newly. But I keep discovering layer after layer. I keep thinking I've hit the core and that there's no deeper place to find.... and then something like today happens and I feel gutted to a point I'd never known existed.
Yesterday my driver from Jaipur had smashed a bug on the inside of the windshield while he was driving. It left a big splat on the glass. He looked in the rearview mirror and said to me, “This is India.”
I began to laugh quietly, cynically. Then a little more. Then even more. Soon the driver was also laughing.
As we went along the road, whenever something very Indian would happen, a cow would block traffic, a car would be driving the wrong way down the highway, two camels would get loose and bolt in front of the car, one or other of us would say, “This is India,” and laugh. It was slightly comforting that his laugh was as cynical as my laugh, and just as tinged with a deep and bittersweet kind of love.
About 40 miles away from Agra I had to decide if I was going to take a detour to see the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, a gorgeous red complex of buildings high on a plateau. As you can already anticipate, I decided not to. My driver helped me choose.
He said, “It’s hot. You are tired.”
“You’re right. I’ll save it for next time.”
“Next time. With family.”
“With family,” I echoed.
"Next time," he said again.
"Next time," I echoed.
It feels blissful to be free of the anger that has possessed me for the last week, to feel, instead, full of love, excitement for whatever adventure lies ahead closer to home, the adventure hidden in the familiar, in what I had previously known, but which I will now discover anew.
And it was lovely to drive around town this evening, looking at the daily life of India with all it's color, it's squalor, it's friendly faces, it's children waving "hi" to me from the side of the road, and to feel, once again, how lucky I am to be here, to know something of this transformative and transforming place. I was excited to find myself imaging returning, next time.