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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Stories I haven't shared

In the past few weeks several people have enquired about the lack of posts, more specifically—the lack of posts on India and Sri Lanka. I thought I had shared enough, but I guess I was wrong. I also haven't had much of a writing spirit in me. Sometimes it just pours out and other times(like the past couple months), I am as dry as the Sahara. But in the spirit of sharing, here you go...

After leaving the fresh hell that was Delhi and Jaipur, I wondered what new agony would await me upon my arrival in Agra. I was miserable, hot and tired. At this point, I just wanted to see the Taj Mahal and get the hell out of dodge.

The train pulled into Agra station, the doors opened and there he was waiting, right outside my carriage. His name was Babloo. He was a short, sprightly young man. He stood there, in 30°C weather, in a long sleeve dress shirt and slacks. This seemed to be the young Indian man dress code. He held a sign with my name, smiled and said "Rhodesia? Welcome to Agra!", in his heavily accented English. At that moment, a calm came over me and I knew I would be taken care of. I trusted him immediately.

I was escorted to my hotel, where I showered and put on my Taj Mahal outfit (a white and rust coloured salwar kameez that I had purchased in Chennai). On the ride there, I got to know Babloo. He explained that he had been in the travel industry for twelve years (he was only twenty-three). He told me of his family and life in Uttar Pradesh. There was something about his energy that I knew I could trust and that he would protect me.

We arrived at the complex and went through a thorough security screening, where a female guard pulled out my pepper spray and asked me what it was. I told her it was dog spray. She gave me the side eye, handed it back to me and I went in. The moment we reached the archway and I caught my first glimpse of her, I was overwhelmed with unexpected emotion. I had seen the Taj Mahal in photos and documentaries countless times, but to lay eyes on her...I asked Babloo to give me a minute. I just stood there staring for a long while. A hardened traveller, who has seen it all, might find my awe of the monument pedestrian, but for me it was simply unforgettable.

It was a Sunday, the sun was blazing down and it was extremely crowded. We walked around the perimeter, I touched the marble, ogled and took countless pictures. There were many people staring at me, but I didn't care. A few people yelled out random countries at me " Kenya, Nigeria, West Indies!" I paid them no mind. A man in his 20's with his girlfriend and family saw me and was urging his girlfriend to take a picture with me, like I was a monkey in a zoo. She didn't want to and I told him no. He gave me look a that said "how dare you say no to me!" He urged on, Babloo interjected on my behalf and spoke to him in Hindi. The guy pulled in close to Babloo, whispered something in his ear, smiled and patted him on the back, then walked away. I didn't have to understand Hindi to know that what he said to him was of a sexual nature. Babloo was visibly upset as we walked towards the line up. He wouldn't tell me what the man had said. He just shook his head and said " these people they don't understand. I work with tourists. They don't understand it is rude!"

We stood in the line up for a glimpse of the mausoleum (the only part that is open to visitors). You're herded in like cattle, given one minute to take pictures and then ushered out. We stayed on the grounds for a while, chatting. Babloo, my protector, would block people as they tried to photograph me or get in my personal space. I knew without him my experience would have been a lot more frantic and unpleasant. After the Taj we wandered for a bit. I then went back to my hotel, had dinner and marvelled at the day's events.

The next day Babloo was absent. It was just me and my driver (whose name I can't recall). He was a nice young man, mildly handsome but had a mouth full of teeth the colour of tar from chewing tobacco— which(to my delight) he indulged in on several occasions throughout the day. I was taken to Fatehpur Sikri to marvel at more Mughal architecture. For two hours, I wandered through the site and met a bus load of Indian tourists from Kerala, who were incredibly sweet and inquistive.

I had several hours to kill before my train left, so my driver dropped me off at Babloo's office, right in the centre of busling Agra. It was the size of a small walk-in closet and adorned with maps and posters of India. He had a small desk, on which he managed to fit a computer, hard drive, modum, antenae, papers and countless wires.  I sat on a tiny wooden bench,which could barley hold my rotund ass but would end up seating two of us.

I would spend the next five hours, just hanging out with Babloo and his dear friend Harish, in a shoebox. My suitcase was just outside the office and I was paranoid about someone walking by and swiping it. Several shady characters came by and spoke to Babloo, some stayed for a while, but when he sensed my uneasiness, he sent them away. My solo female traveller mind said" WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING!" Hanging out in a plaza in the middle of Agra with two dudes and less than desirable characters strolling by. My instinct told me I was safe. I knew I could trust Babloo. He was also two inches shorter and 80lbs lighter than me. Harish was as sweet as apple pie, didn't have functioning legs and walked with his arms. I relaxed but my spidy sense was always alert. We added each other to Facebook, shared pictures of our friends, discussed Bollywood stars.

Harish went home and Babloo took me to the train station in an auto-rickshaw. We said our goodbyes and I gave him a big hug, which from all the peering eyes, I knew was inappropriate. I headed back to Delhi and another ten days of travel. Agra and Babloo were the turning point of that trip. It started off great and then it went to shit. But then, you get off a train, someone holds up a sign with your name and smiles at you and all is well again.

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