In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
It was early evening and the thick smoky air buzzed with the sound of chattering voices and the steamy hum of rickshaw engines as they crackled to and fro on various missions. We´d just arrived in Agra, a city many westerners fail to recognize by name, despite the fact that it houses one of the world´s most iconic and romanticised buildings. “Hotel Sha Jahan?” the taxi driver asked with a furrowed brow. “No sir… finished! Gone!”
“Gone!?!’’ I responded, half bent over the open window, the weight of my rucksack almost toppling me over.‘‘Gone where?!” Had we stumbled upon some post-apocalyptic alternate reality Agra? I envisaged an empty waste ground where our would-be hotel once stood, Lonely Planet pages fluttering despondently in the poisoned breeze. “But nooooo problem sir…. I take you Hotel Kamal, cheap cheap”. I’d only been in India for a few weeks, but had already grown tired and bored of the endless greed, lies and scams. This particular con was a personal favorite. Your rickshaw driver informs you that the hostel of choice has mysteriously disappeared. But lo and behold, fear not, he knows of another place that he can take you to right away, a joint almost certainly belonging to his brother/cousin/father-in-law/boss.
“No… Hotel Shah Jahan”, said Allan, climbing into the rickshaw as I cautiously followed suit. “But sir, Hotel Kamal very…” “SHAJAHAN PLEASE. Or we take another driver”. The man rolled his eyes sulkily, emitting a groan of resignation. “Ok Ok” and fifteen minutes later we were sitting in the reception of our reincarnated hotel, waiting to be gracefully received. Having filled out the usual forms, we followed a dumpy teenage boy up a steep and winding staircase; climbing floor after floor after floor. Eventually we came out onto the rooftop where he led us to our room, which seemed acceptable enough in its own uninspiring way. We were just about to give him the thumbs up when Allan made a grim discovery. The ceiling fan, (a colossal contraption resembling the front end of a rusty World War II spitfire) was broken. ‘‘Uh oh!’’ I said, gazing up. It was a desperately humid evening and the staircase ordeal had left us both sweating profusely. In just under six hours we’d be up and off to see what we had come for, the only reason we’d stopped in Agra. As such, I explained to dumpy that we needed a room with a working fan, a requirement he seemed genuinely surprised about. Scratching his chin, he motioned us across the floor where there was only one more available room. In no position to negotiate, we traipsed after him towards the last chance saloon.
The new room had its positives I suppose. It possessed four walls, a roof and an operational fan that clattered noisily when the boy flicked the switch. In fact, it worked itself into such a frenzy that one of our neighbors briefly popped his head through the door to see what all the commotion was about. The aforementioned plus points having been covered; all that’s left to say is that the place was an absolute shithole. Thick dirt clung stubbornly to the skirting boards and had even begun creeping up the walls. Said walls had presumably once been white, but were now a deep smudged black, a fetching shade of squashed mosquito. A lonely wooden table sat awkwardly in the corner, indented with spidery graffiti. Zac woz ere. Feeling genuine empathy for Zac, I regarded the room’s solitary window, virtually hidden behind a row of thick iron bars. “This is a place where people come to die”, whispered Allan.
Gingerly opening the toilet door I froze, held my breath, turned on my heels and exited, shutting it firmly behind me. Sensing that perhaps we weren’t overly enamored with our surroundings, dumpy gave us an apologetic smile and promised that the fan in the other room would be fixed the next day. Reluctantly accepting the situation we quickly settled in, deciding it would be best to go straight to sleep. Not even bothering to undress, I clambered onto my bed, doing my best to ignore the color of the sheets. Attempting to make myself comfortable, I recoiled in shock as my hand sunk into a small shard of glass. ‘‘What!?!’’. The resulting cut wasn’t that bad and produced just a trickle of blood, but I reacted as if I’d just been slashed with a samurai. ‘‘Glass in the ****ing bed!’’ Now I’d seen it all!
Realizing that complaining would be a pointless course of action, Allan helped me search for further injurious items. Luckily it turned out to be a lone offender and having also given his own crib the all clear, we turned out the lights. Unable to drift off, I lay there for some time listening to the rotating fan and wondering whether it might spin off and decapitate me while I slept.
When the alarm jolted us both from slumber barely four hours later I couldn’t get us out of our communal cesspit fast enough. Springing out of bed, I announced a boycott of the shower (it was in that evil toilet), threw on a T-shirt and gave Allan an encouraging shake before swirling some toothpaste around my mouth.
Outside the morning sun had already begun its long lazy ascent as we made our way through Agra’s dusty near-empty streets. It was so early even the few hawkers who’d opened their shops were too blurry-eyed to bother us. Peering up at the orange-blue of the breaking sky, I drank in the early morning silence as across the street a couple of monkeys hopped playfully across the branches of a large tree. Turning a corner into a wide street dotted with flower-laden trees, my heart skipped a beat as a flash of ethereal white marble came into view. For now the rest of the structure was shrouded by a mixture of the compound’s towering outer walls and thick mist rising from the banks of the Yamuna River. Thankfully my patience would only have to hold out a few minutes longer as we closed in on the gated entrance. Having arrived early enough to beat the queues, we bought our tickets, went through the turnstiles and eagerly made our way towards The Taj Mahal.