A blog about writing, reading, travelling and great characters I meet in life. I love these things more than cheese-on-toast times trampolines times monkeys.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Sickness and serenity in Agra – at home with the Taj Mahal

Bright orange projectile vomit.

I just make it to the bathroom in time.

I never knew sick could travel so fast. Its velocity makes my eyes water as I splatter the toilet bowl and the back of the toilet seat. And the tiles on the toilet walls for that matter. I’m like a burst pipe!

In terms of what comes out the other end, well I’ll just say this and this alone – think River Ganges.

On arrival in Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal – the greatest building inspired by love – all my body can do is puke and heave and groan. I have lost control of my stomach and my bowels. Hooray!

It turns out that my expanding stomach in Delhi – which was one part concrete and two parts alien invasion – was in fact my first bout of food poisoning in India. I was told to expect it, most tourists who come get at least one visitation of ‘Delhi belly’ – but I didn’t expect it quite so soon – just four days into my time in India. Thank God it didn’t come on the train journey from Delhi to Agra, I’m very grateful for that mercy!

In Agra, everything I drink for the first two days comes back up. Water stays down on the third day, so I eat again - two pieces of white toast with honey. Big mistake, up it comes again, not quite so fast this time, thankfully – and I suppose it’s good to be throwing up something solid again, rather than wretching warm bile.

So on the fourth day in Agra, it’s back to water. Then bananas and toast for three days after that. And litres and litres of water with rehydration salts which tastes not nearly as refreshing as plain water – but I know it makes sense for my body to recover.

I feel like a baby in this state.

Perhaps that’s what I am in India, a baby – it's certainly true that I feel like a complete beginner here.

The Taj Mahal over the rooftops...

In between bodily purges, I climb two flight of stairs in my guest house in Taj Ganj to the rooftop cafe. The reason? For the magical view of the Taj Mahal across the rooftops of Agra, of course, the star attraction of India. I am one of three million people who will visit the Taj Mahal this year - it's good to be here!

While I’m recovering, I am so grateful for this view across the rooftops of Agra, past the washing lines and the stocky macaques that patrol the high walls. The macaques have large red balls and bumholes that they seem very keen to show me each time they walk past. Yes, you’re very manly, Mr Monkey!

I can hear children playing, a baby crying, the toots and revs of auto-rickshaws on the maze of alleys below. But all of these sounds fade into the background when I see it. The Taj Mahal. It is more beautiful than I had ever imagined.

The perfect curve of the famous central dome, smooth as a china cup but also textured by the mottled colour shades of the marble.

The symmetry of the arched recesses carved into the walls. They are now pink in the evening sun, five o’ clock shadows inside.

There are the four minarets – they guard each corner of the Taj Mahal like strong white knights.

Then there is the detail on the front of the Taj Mahal – it looks like fine lace edging from my rooftop view beyond the South Gate entrance.

And the line of green treetops in front of the Taj Mahal – they are perfectly still like a reverent crowd that holds its breath, paying homage to the world’s most beautiful building.

And I can see the upside of my liquified guts – I stay a week in Agra to recover, instead of the planned three days. And I get to spend time with the Taj Mahal – I see it from every angle offered by the city around it. I watch it change colour from sunrise to sunset, orange to white to pink.

Then I see the silhouette of the Taj Mahal at night time...

...a black imprint on a haze of burgundy sky. They don’t light up the Taj Mahal at night time and actually I think that makes it all the more magical to see the building disappear into the darkness at sunset then come back with the first morning light.

Sunset view of the Taj...

By day three of sickness, I decide I feel well enough to take an auto-rickshaw to the other side of Yamuna River. I can’t wait any longer to see the Taj Mahal from Mehtab Bagh, a 16th century Mughal park from where you can view the back of the Taj Mahal. I go at sunset. The drive across town is a series of twists and horns and queues between cars and camels and cows, dust and heat.

The auto-rickshaw driver almost skims these mannequins in saris - I want to look like them!

Inside Mehtab Bagh park...

...the temperature becomes pleasantly cool, the air freshens with the smell of cool evening sky and the feel of grass underfoot is a welcome change to stone and dust and concrete.

There is space around me, that’s a feeling I haven’t had for a while and I realise how precious it is.

The horns are reduced to a distant murmur. The Muslim calls to prayer drift across the river from different pockets of the city. A wide-winged hawk flies overhead, swoops towards the sandy bank of the Yamuna, swerves at the last moment, misses its catch, climbs again.

By the river, there is a man in white robes sitting with his black and white goat.

The Taj is like a big wedding cake from Mehtab Bagh. Its icing is almost edible.

The thought of food brings a wave of queasiness to my body. I sit still, focus on breathing!

As I hold in waves of puke, my stomach is swelling and dropping like a concrete mixer. There are two guards next to me in head-to-toe beige, red marks on their foreheads, guns across their shoulders – please don’t let me puke on them. I move away to be sick out of sight!

I come across this very happy park guard – he makes me smile when I see his wide grin. It’s clear he loves looking after the park that looks across to this iconic building - he has BOUNCE in his step!

There are fires and smoke over the Taj Mahal side of the Yamuna river, lights coming on now as the sun disappears from view. The Taj Mahal is burnt orange at the close of the day. And still the hawk searches for a catch in the twilight river.

The sun this evening turns red and has three stripes of black across the bottom half as it fades into night. I say goodbye to the Taj Mahal for another day.

View of Taj Mahal inside Taj Nature Walk at sunset

Next morning at sunrise...

There is the sound of a brush sweeping a stone floor. A shadow of a man on a rooftop wall, creeping slowly. The Taj Mahal is just a silhouette now, against a dark purple sky. There’s a faint smell of burning but mainly the air smells fresh at this time of day, just before sunrise on the rooftops of Agra. There’s a half moon overhead, a handful of stars in the hazy sky. A dog barks, no other dogs answer him.

A lone cyclist weaves down narrow streets, I hear the squeak of his wheels. The sound of a microphone switching on, crackling like an old radio. And now the sunrise call to prayer for Muslims, the chanting that comes five times a day to remind the devout to worship. A bright light shines beneath the South gate into the Taj. Three prayer calls now at different points of the city – a cock crows in competition. There are lights on the corners of rooftops like fallen stars. Where will the sun rise, I wonder?

More traffic now – the first of hundreds of thousands of horns for the day. I love sitting up here with the sounds of the break of day - watching as the Taj Mahal comes out of her
purple shadow, reveals her details.

Later that day...

Hundreds of voices in the distance. It sounds like a tribal battle cry. The streets fill with banging and chanting.

I get out of my sick bed, go across the hallway to the balcony that overlooks my street in Taj Ganj. Across the street, there are other people on balconies, heads all turned towards the source of the chanting. It’s coming closer now, winding its way through the dusty streets like a dragon. The heat of the early afternoon sun is like flames on my face.

And then I see them. Hundreds of men, chanting that primal sound. They carry a simple wooden frame over their heads. Inside the frame, there is a woman’s face, she is perhaps 65, her eyes are closed. Her face is small and lined, dried up somehow like fruit. She is the colour of milk chocolate. The rest of her body is completely covered with bright yellow marigolds, the ceremonial flower of the Hindu temples. Men throw more yellow marigolds over her body, she receives the flowers on her body in her open casket. She flows away on this river of men. I wonder where she will come to rest.

The dead woman reminds me about time. How it ticks. I decide there and then that I must get inside the Taj Mahal at sunrise tomorrow morning, whether I’m sick or not.

It’s time to get up close and personal with the Taj Mahal.

See what she makes me feel – hopefully not sick!

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