Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Freewheelin in India - Day 7: Two planks of wood and one ‘Wonder of the World’

After some more weirdness courtesy of my stupid subconscious I rose to realise we still had a few more hours before reaching Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. “Motherfuckers” I exclaimed looking down at my half eaten arm. Some bastard mozzis had clearly had a three-course meal, wining and dining at my expense.

I stared out of the window at the rolling world, constant snapshots stored in my tired mind, for me to draw upon later in life. Probably when I’m most in need of a decent sleep, and instead imagine running through those great glowing fields in a frenzy, chased by every rabid school-teacher that told me I could be so great if I’d only gave half a shit, holding all the homework I never did, and the detention slips I always skipped.

We arrived in Agra, aggravated, unwashed and much later than planned. We were ferried to our hotel Shanti Lodge by a rickshaw man who seemed to think that if he hung around for us all day he might become a millionaire. The hotel was by far the best I’d stayed in since my arrival, and we chose a room on the top floor which had a view of the Taj Mahal from our window, and a decent roof terrace restaurant right outside our door.

We showered and had a brief lay down on our king-size bed before a much needed breakfast, excitement building as we looked upon the majestic white marble manor merely meters from our room. After rolling a J for our journey later to Fatepur Sikr and stuffing our ‘shrooms in a photo film case, we walked to the South Gate of the Taj Mahal and paid for our tickets. A guide was adamant we take him with us, and after much declining he offered his services for next to nothing, so we put him out of both our misery’s by saying yes.

We didn’t realise that there were bag searches on the gate, or that cigarettes and lighters were not allowed, so I stood there shitting myself as they pulled my battered Marlboro box with the spliff sticking out of the torn top, from my bag and tossing it face down on the table. Luckily a kid who was with our guide took the box and my lighter and ran them back to their nearby shop. I was still worried about the ‘shrooms, but there was no sign of them, and it was only when we were through the other side that Sarah explained how she’d just gone through the exact same stress, and that they were with her all along. We laughed at our stupid luck and entered the grand, green gardens.

Our guide told us the story of how and why the building was built, as a memorial of Shah Jahan’s late wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died during the birth of their fourteenth child in 1631, and took twenty-two years to complete. After the Taj was completed, his son Aurangzeb, ended up imprisoning him in Agra Fort, after he had planned to spend the wealth of his country building an exact replica of the Taj Mahal, but in black. Now I don’t know about you, but I’d have built the black one first. After his death in 1666 he was buried next to his wife, Mumtaz, in the underground of the building.

The only plan that Sarah and I had set in stone for our journey together was to ‘plank’ (lay in a suitable spot and pretend that you’re a plank of wood) in front of this famous landmark, so when we saw two stone benches next to each other with the building behind we took a minute to lay on the blistering blocks of brick to claim our place in history as (probably) the first ever people to plank in this location. Our guide clearly thought we were weird, but we found it hilarious. We admired the multitude of stones from around the world that were flawlessly set into the marble walls, before venturing inside.

We spent a while witnessing the remarkable marble carvings which, like the entire building when you look at it from any direction, were entirely symmetrical and all made with one single piece, no joinings at all. We came to the rear exit and sat on the bright, white floor with our guide to have a rest. The sun shone strongly on our glowing souls, heating our tired heads to near boiling point, and someone struck up a conversation with me about cricket. They love that shit out here, and he told me that England recently beat India, with a dose of sadness attached to his sentence. I explained that I don’t follow it, but hoped India would win next time. He didn’t believe me, to the point where I decided to remove my shades, revealing the honesty in my eyes as I repeated my good wishes. England aren’t my team, when the world wins, I will be happy.

We returned to the Shanti Lodge and again ate on our roof, deciding to have some of our mushroom chocolates for desert a few hours later, once dinner had digested. I sat surfing and chatting to some kid that ran the internet café whilst checking in with the real world, in its digital disguise, before heading back for our special snack. It was Sarah’s first time trying them, and she gagged as we chewed on the strange tasting treats. I told her to count herself lucky, as the fresh ones taste so much worse, kind of like having to walk through hell to reach heaven. We only took a small dose, just testing the water so she didn’t drown. I personally love looking at the bottom of that ocean, but didn’t want her fighting the frightening fun of the darkside on her first ride.

We smoked a joint in our room, then perched in our favoured position on the restaurant’s roof terrace, waiting willingly for the waves to arrive. A thirty-something waiter with glasses and worn out eyes, named Rowry, who was finishing work and closing up for the night started speaking to us. Out of nowhere he asked if we smoked hashish, which we denied, and said ‘only cigarettes’, offering him one from my now nearly destroyed packet. He declined, asking why our eyes were red, and we passed it off as tiredness, explaining that the constant travels were taking their toll. In hindsight, it’s not beyond belief that by then we could have been looking pretty spacefaced and goofy as we giggled in each other’s company at the constant jokes we were delivering to one another.

He invited us to see the rooftop, which we were unaware even existed. There was a complete 360 degree view of Agra, as far back as it went. We spoke for a while and he took my last cigarette now that he wasn’t in view of the hotel security cameras. He was a Muslim man and any talk of the history between England and India saw him get aggravated. I explained how I thought that there were both positive and negative moments, but he wasn’t having any of it, seemingly cutting of the conversation as he looked off into the distance. His wife was pregnant and nearly due, and he told us of his anxiousness. I told him that now was the time to really stand up, be a great father forever and look after his wife. He agreed, then requested a quiet word without Sarah’s audience, so I leant in, and he whispered “My wife…baby is near, but we still have the sex…is this good?” I had to get him to confirm what I heard, before offering that ‘as long as she is ok, you’re careful and it doesn’t hurt her, then it’s fine’, and how not to worry about harming the baby as it won’t disturb it. Bless him, I thought it was sweet how he chose to find solace in me, a stranger, with his secret worries. I could understand it though as perhaps he doesn’t have a close friend to call upon, or the necessary resources to enquire about these things within his community. He seemed hugely relieved, like a weight had been lifted, and showed us photos of her on his phone that she’d taken herself, doing the ‘Myspace pose’. He asked why we weren’t married, saying that we were both good, beautiful, lovely people, and I explained that while I agree that we make an amazing couple, we have years to enjoy such magical moments and shouldn’t do it all right away. He bid us farewell, leaving us to gaze at the thousands of stars on offer in the sky
 I realised that I hadn’t howled since I’d been here, the Moon absent from her usual spot every time my eyes have tried to pay her a visit. I have no idea where she has gone, perhaps the Sun has finally won, and now they are together in love. I decided to take Sarah on a date, so we could enjoy the four corners of the roof with each other. It was only about three by four metres wide, but each spot offered a different vantage point, and goings on in the lives of others. We noticed that our mild trip was underway as we pointed out the multitude of faces around us, each building looking like a different coloured angry Lego brick head with the windows, doors and shadows creating eyes, noses, mouths and frowning eyebrows. I always say seeing is believing, and when you both see the same thing, it is definitely there, be it only for that moment, or forever when seen with those newly open and now trained eyes.

We made our way back to our room to embrace faces, under the coolness of our shaky fan, as a speaker, from what I can only guess was the mosque or the Hindu’s temple, blared across the city and into our window, bang on 1.30am, for over half an hour.

We discussed what it is that can make a man evil, which I’ve currently been stewing on for the past month, and I came up with some delightfully dark ideas for The Bow-Tie Killer, my forthcoming poetry/music/theatre/ film masterpiece that I’m looking to start work on with my fellow Freewheeler, Guy Trinder, when I return to my favourite city.

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