I always knew that India was going to be filled to the brim with tiny hands asking for food and painfully skinny women asking for money. What I didn’t expect was the intensity with which it’s thrust into your face.
Rajasthan wasn’t that bad to start with, but things suddenly escalated in Jaipur, and it really got to me.
Absolute poverty in India
For the first time in almost a month, the children begging were about three years old, the old men were literally bent double with polio, the women’s arms were missing, the babies were filthy and wearing no clothes, and the stench of dirt rose from their skin as we brushed past.
We’ve been having many conversations about how to deal with the ever-present poverty in India over the last weeks.
Some people are of the opinion that the (practically invisible) NGOs are doing the real work here, and slipping ten rupees to a few dirty hands isn’t going to make any difference – so you may as well do it. Some people think it’s seriously detrimental, with the beggar feeling they can then continue asking for money, because they’re convinced they’ll eventually get it.
And yet more people rightly say that there’s always a shadowed face lurking nearby, probably mafia-related, ready to snatch the money and hit the beggar who doesn’t make enough cash.
We’ve all seen Slumdog Millionaire: we all know it’s happening. And it’s easy enough to say you’ll ignore it.
But seriously: when a child tugs on your trouser leg and asks for a chapatti, and you’ve just spent the last half hour eating a meal that cost 200 rupees? There’s something inside that can’t stop you forking over something like thirteen pence and watching them eat.
I still haven’t come up with the best way of dealing with this, or even what my official stance is on the matter, but I do know that when the moment strikes me, or when someone clearly is not begging just for fun but to simply stay alive, I am not going to feel like I’m in the wrong for helping them.
But India has a funny way of forcing you to compare your life with those of its own citizens. Just when I was worrying about the plight of the poverty stricken, I found myself faced with an attack of every traveller’s worst nightmare.
The name Bharatpur may not mean much to you, but this little town will live forever in my memory as the place where I contracted the weirdest and worst case of bug bites I, or anyone I traveled through the place with, has ever seen.
Bharatpur’s main tourist draw is a huge bird sanctuary, which we spent a pleasant afternoon cycling through a large amount of. It’s a beautiful area of land, and an amazing respite from the noise and bustle of the cities.
When we eventually made it back to our hotel, we quickly realized that Bharatpur really didn’t have much else to offer us – especially seeing as the hotel opened out onto a highway. We were leaving the very next morning for Agra, so we thought it was best to spend our evening playing UNO outside in the grass, drinking beers, playing two newly-purchased tablas – and getting bitten.
Without any mosquito repellent on.
Attack of the bugs!
By the time we reached Agra (home of the Taj Mahal, to those who weren’t aware), I had about fifty little red dots all over my feet and lower calves. At first I thought they weren’t too much of an issue, but they kept on growing, in size and swelling and redness, for three days, until I wanted to scream.
And while I managed to avoid making a scene, I still spent a great deal of time giving my travel companions half-hourly updates on how the bites were doing. I figured they wanted to be kept in the loop.
Luckily a visit to the Taj Mahal created something of a diversion from my leper legs – which was a welcome relief for my friends.
The teardrop of India
Billed as India’s star attraction, it’s the most romantic building in the world, and one that many people in our group were absolutely overwhelmed by. I hadn’t ever had the biggest urge to see the Taj, but I have to admit it was an incredible place – although the incessant queue to “sit at the very same bench that Princess Di sat on” left me stumped.
We spent a good couple of hours taking copious photos in front of the famous monument, and traipsing along the very well-labelled tourist track that weaves around the building, in through the mausoleum, and out again. I think I took more photos than I posed for – and there were no Indians asking for a ‘click’ with us.
For once, we’d made it to an Indian site that was clearly much more interesting to locals than a random Westerner. Success!!
But, if I’m honest, I much preferred our visit across the river the afternoon before, when we checked out the famous building from the back.
A brief history lesson
Most people know the story behind the Taj Mahal, but for those needing a quick reminder:
The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the ‘eternal teardrop’ in the 16th century to house the body of his wife, Mumtaz, who had recently passed away. On her deathbed, she had asked him to demonstrate his love for her in the form of a building, and clearly he complied to the best of his ability.
Once the Taj had been completed, he began on his next project, a copy of the same building, across the river, but made entirely from black marble – intended, so it’s said, to represent his grief at losing the love of his life. Unfortunately, this second Taj was barely built when the emperor’s son decided to rebel and imprison his father until his death – leaving the Black Taj to remain as a story and nothing more.
Of course, there’s little real proof that any of it is actually true. The mausoleum that thousands of tourists file through respectfully each day doesn’t actually house any bodies – the tombs of Shah Jahan and his wife are purported to be below, underground, out of sight.
The Taj, reflected
But while I didn’t feel much of a link to the tall Taj tale when I was one of a thousand tourists shuffling around the marble floors in plastic-bagged flip flops, I saw the building in a whole different light – literally – when I stood back, with the Black Taj’s site as my base.
We were separated from it by a river, by barbed wire, and by the locals who casually walked past, paying absolutely no attention to a place often lauded as the ‘most romantic in the world’. Maybe because it was the back, rather than the front, right? But when I realised that the emperor had intended his body to be laid facing his wife’s mausoleum in this direction, the back suddenly seemed like the most obvious side to admire.
There are so many sights to see when travelling that it can be hard to admit, even to yourself, that you don’t enjoy a few – particularly when everyone expects you to. But there’s also a chance that you’re just looking at these famous sights in the wrong way. And once in a while, the place where all the tourists aren’t flocking around is sometimes (shock horror!) actually the best place to get a unique viewpoint from instead.
Not to mention it’s a lot easier to get a photo of yourself and no one else. Or your feet, anyway.