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A Day in Agra

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I’m sitting in the thick shade eating my kilo of lychees and taking handfuls of self-made trail mix. It’s hot. I can feel my sweat trickling from the effort of eating, and stuff is falling around and on me. The first thing was a dead ant, its legs crinkled. Next was a leaf substance of some sort. The hostel manager comes over to talk to me about where we’re going next and how hot it is. Behind his head the culprit peeks down sideways from a hanging branch: a parakeet. Its green color is hard to pick out of the foliage, even with the scarlet beak. Most birds move in quick, jerky spurts, or bob about; not parakeets. They move more deliberately, steadily pulling the branches towards themselves as they make their way around, slowly. This one seems mostly unperturbed by our presence, and continues foraging, heedless of the litter he drops on his human neighbors.

It’s not only the parakeets. It seems like litter is everywhere–even surrounding the “Clean Agra Green Agra” signs. Before I bought my lychees I was riding down the narrow shop-lined streets, frequently braking for motor rickshaws (three-wheel taxis), motorcycles, honking cars, an the occasional ox cart or stray ox. The cows like the litter. I don’t know whose they are, but there are cows here and there, eating through the garbage or just standing with dulled eyes in the middle of the street, oblivious to the traffic rushing and stopping in jerks around them.

On a quieter street a ways back, closer to the Holiday Inn Agra, I had stopped to ask a man selling lychees off his cart, splashed with water to keep them fresh: “How much for ek kilo?”

“Ek kilo, 150 Rupees.”

Thirteen yellow flags fly up in my head, five of them registering on my face. 150 Rupees is roughly $3.75. I look at him and squint my eyes. I know this price is way too much just like he knows I’m not from around here.

“I’ll look around,” I say. I make to start off and he holds up a 100 Rupee note.

“Too late,” I mutter over my shoulder as I pedal off. It shouldn’t make me angry anymore, but I can’t get used to being taken advantage of. I want to trust people to be fair.

“Guest is God” is a Hindu saying suggesting guests are to be honored and treated with the utmost attention and respect. Sometimes we’re Guest, sometimes we’re Tourist. I haven’t heard the tourist saying, if there is one, but I could probably come up with a fairly accurate guess. Something like “Tourist is Target (for high-profit ventures).” Well, I’m just looking around anyway.

The shops seem to be themed in various areas. Here are the carpentry shops, making and selling furniture–mostly beds. Here are the hardware shops with plumbing and such. Here now are the small fried food shacks and snack shops selling a quick mixture of betel, tobacco, and spices by the packet. All the while I am winding and weaving down the road, taking forks at a whim, trying to go in a general south-east direction. Some movement along the building above me to my left grabs my attention; a monkey navigates a narrow ledge making use of pipes and wires above the crowded streets. They, similar to cows, have holy association here in India and can be found along the country roadways and in the city streets–particularly around temples or wherever food can be easily gotten.

In some areas we passed I saw signs saying, “Please don’t feed the monkeys.” I guess it gets to be a problem. I remember at The Cape of Good Hope in South Africa some years back the baboons had learned to spot a tourist with food. There the local staff warned everyone: “Don’t have ANY food showing, anywhere. Eat only in designated areas.” We thought little of it, until we saw our advisor turn his head from eating his sandwich and a baboon dropped from the roof above the table, snatched half of it, and was gone in less than three seconds. Later, a child walking behind his mother was slobbering on a popsickle. A baboon loped up to him, stripped the iced suger snack from his hands, and finished it a few yards away while the stunned family justed gasped and stared. “Tourist is Target” apparently is a well known maxim shared among more than just the local human population.

“Ahh, another lychee seller…” I pull over to find out what these small red fruit go for on this street. I stand there like a patient idiot for a few minutes right in front of his stand, as is my custom. Sometimes people are embarrassed because they don’t speak English, so they kind of ignore a foreigner. Others seem to grab at you when you least want their product. (”You want rickshaw?” “Um, I have my bike…”). This man seems just occupied in what he’s doing and biding his salesman time. When we finally make eye contact I ask, “How much?” He flaps a 50 Rupee note. “Hmmm, that’s better,” I think to myself. Still, I wait and watch other buyers. It’s my best trick; and it buys me time to think through negotiations and comparative prices of other fruits I’ve bought. Another man nods at a cluster of lychees.  “Teesh,” the salesman says. I rejoice inwardly that I know “teesh”. Teesh is Thirty in Hindi. (You pick up some things after a few months). Still I wait. A woman asks; “teesh” I hear again. In the meantime the assistant is measuring out a kilo for me and bagging it, to facilitate the buying process. He hands it to me. “Teesh?” I ask the salesman, somewhat rhetorically. He hesitates, then nods and averts his eyes. I hand him the money and leave, feeling a sense of triumph and curious emptiness. I got the price, but I just want to be human without battling for justice. I want to belong, not to win. Well, he got a fair price and I got some juicy lunch, so maybe that will help to fill me up.

What I need now is to find some quiet space to read and eat and sit, away from the business interactions and rush and stop of traffic, honking and revving. I head back to the hostel to find some thick shade in a place where I belong, if only temporarily, and hide my head from the heat of the day.  “Ahh, solitude.  Solitude and food,” I think to myself, “Great–What’s this?  Where did this dead ant come from?…”

4 Responses to “A Day in Agra”

  1. Rod Says:

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    How enjoyable to read about the interactions and of course, compare them to what I did in Cameroon and how I had to learn where friendly and honest sellers were located, sort of like a special fishing spot, then return again and again to them–human relationship as more important than sale and language were pretty a pretty important two-some. My famous line was, “Hey, I’m not a tourist, I live here” - but I guess that won’t work for all you FBR-ers because you are somewhere in a category that doesn’t really fit the paradigms from which a cultural logic works. Perhaps the logic runs the way of “Tourists are rich so it is justifiable to spread the wealth around.” When you know the language you have a little power and when you know and live with people in the neighboorhood you have some social capital but with your unique mission statement, FBR members are the ones who mostly carry the weight of spreading goodwill. So the guest is god (personalized) and the tourist is target (depersonalized)–hmmm, a very good observation. Somehow we all need to work at the conscious realization that in every encounter or endeavor each is an imageo dei and the symbols we use to frame a reference in our minds and subsequently some sort of action/response (like categorization in speech) say as much about how we view who god is as anything. It would seem the unique, scandalous and searing reality of God being powerless, homeless, poor, and without relational or social capital is a Xristos insight that doesn’t come naturally in any culture. Thanks to you the germ (wheat) of reflection. You took me from India to somewhere else and back again.

  2. Matt Says:

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    Funny you should mention the trash and the cows. I was just thinking about you guys when I heard a story on NPR driving home from clinic the other day. They were saying that the trash is a huge problem there. In particular the plastic bags. I guess a while ago there were some of these city cows that were dying and people were really upset. When they did an autopsy on the cows they found hundreds of plastic bags in their stomachs causing multi-system failures. People were upset and I guess it lead to them creating a law saying plastic bags have to be of a certain thickness. Not sure what that would do exactly, but I guess the law was never enforced according to the story. Some of the people in India were commenting on how sad our attention spans are and that most people went back to their old ways immediately after yelling at others. An interesting story. I’d be curious what people have to say about it there if you have time to ask them.

    I do miss eating lychees with you and watching Baboons steal things from tourists in SA!


  3. Dusty Says:

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    Reading your writings reminds me of all the good times we have had throughout the years. I miss those times but I am glad I get a little peek into the times you are having right now. I am envious of you my friend. But hopefully someday soon we will have more good times together again. And by soon I mean soon. That thought makes me smile!


  4. youtube vaporizers Says:

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    Such a thought-provoking read. I intend to come back to this site soon.

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