I swat a few flies away from my face as I plaster on a confident smile and proudly pose in front of the Taj Mahal in the blistering heat. The Taj is undeniably beautiful. Neither photographs nor elaborate descriptions can ever truly capture the luminescent glow of the white marble, replicate the thrill of walking amidst an everlasting romance, establish as distinctly the inevitability of death, or display the inescapable pulse of life.
My father puts his camera down and wrestles his way through the crowd with my grandmother and I close behind. Dizzy from the heat and nauseous from the stench of hundreds of sweating people, we attempt to take a quick break under the shade of a tree in the courtyard only to be plagued by over-enthusiastic, overpriced tour guides.
â–º QUARTER FINALIST 2012 TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
Though I have the coloring of the locals, the sweaty remains of make-up on my face and the seersucker shorts barely covering my tanned legs have practically branded us; we are subjected to the same treatment as the pale-skinned foreigners with clipped British accents. Clueless tourists like them, and me, are expected to purchase heaps of knick-knacks at prices far exceeding their worth. These expectations, naturally, reinforce the locals’ tendency to accost us and propose not-so-bargain deals on a variety of items.
Seasoned to such treatment, my father begins to haggle with a tour-guide. Initiated by speaking in Hindi, the national language of India, and making an offer far below what he expects to pay; the tour-guide, realizing our lack of naivety, reluctantly lowers his price as my father increases his, and eventually they compromise somewhere in the middle. This method of expenditure differs from the rigid pricing methods of America, but it has saved us hundreds of rupees in hotel stays, rickshaw rides, and souvenir purchases.
The tour guide begins to lead us through the courtyard towards the Taj as he relays its history first in Hindi and then in heavily accented English. Luckily, while I’m less than fluent in Hindi, I’ve become a pro at deciphering the latter, thanks to relatives. We arrive at the main building. Shoes aren’t allowed inside, so we slip ours off. The equally as ornate interior is distinguished only by its lack of beggars and persistent salesmen. We tourists at the peak of our Taj Mahal experience are alone in a colossal marble structure gazing down at two ancient tombs.
As we exit and enter the dusty road leading away from the Taj, we are yet again surrounded by hordes of people. Despite my father’s warning, I give the rest of my bottled water to a little girl clad in dirty rags whose eyes immediately shine with gratitude. Suddenly, ten children are peering up at us expectantly, grasping at our clothes. I’m all out of water bottles though, and as I explain that, the oldest turns against us. His once expectant eyes now reflect anger and betrayal as he walks towards more promising tourists, tossing some profane comments our way. The few youngsters that lingered after his departure eventually walk away, disappointed as well.
The boy’s brief expression haunts me on the train ride to my grandparent’s house. The forceful merchants reappear in my mind. They fight to live, fight against belittlement and uncaring dismissals. As I lay in my blue bunk in the train’s AC compartment, I realize how lucky I am. I can afford to heal my wounds slowly, but others have to clean them quickly and go back to work. For them, life is a battle not a fairytale. I want to be their knight in shining armor.
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