There’s a moment inside the Taj Mahal, inside the inner chamber and the crush of the crowd is around you and the voices are rolling off the marble walls and you’re feeling your way with your bare feet, careful not trip over the threshold from room to room and you think, “There is a very small woman buried here and she could have never of know what her death would become.”
I felt moved at the smallness of her life in comparison to this great monument. None of her is here. Did she laugh easily? Did she rub the hem of her dress nervously when someone entered the room? Did she love fresh fruit or prefer thick rich curries instead? Did she adore her husband and children? Fight with the other wives? Feel tired on most days? Wish for something else? Even in this attempt to remember her, to honor her memory, she is still lost, forever, a ghost, a faceless woman who was loved by a man and then died.
If the Taj Mahal can not preserve a person’s memory then nothing can.
It was our second attempt at the monument, which makes it sound like an ascent up Everest, and in some ways it was grueling. It’s hot in Agra. The crowds are unrelenting. We lingered that first day, eating breakfast, checking email and arrived at the Taj’s south gate by noon. By one, our child was in tears. We hadn’t even made it inside.
From all over town you can see it, the symmetrical tomb, so much larger than you’d suspect from photos, and that evening we went to a rooftop bar and watched the sun go down into the pollution haze — a thick cloud of grey hanging on the horizon that day — and disappear without fanfare. “Wow, that was disappointing,” my husband said. I shrugged. The area around the Taj Mahal is gross — a dirty, dusty, polluted traveler’s slum. The rickshaw drivers abuse you as you walk past, hurling insults when you won’t take their fare. Young men follow you for blocks, trying to sell you a tour guide, a necklace, a map, or at least to bring you to their shop. The fact that the sunset over the Taj is little more than the sun dropping behind a wall of pollution is not disappointing, it’s just typical. It’s India: so beautiful, intriguing, mysterious, wonderful and at the same time a massive pain-in-the-ass and never quite living up to it’s own potential. You get used to it and embrace what makes it amazing. Or you leave, complain about India for the next decade and wonder what others are going on about.
The next day, after finally seeing the inside of the Taj and snapping the requisite tourist photos, (“Look I’m holding the Taj in my hand!”), we headed back to our hotel for our final night in Agra before heading back to New Delhi and a day later, flying out of India. I collapsed on the bed and felt a strange flutter in my stomach. I ignored it, chatting with my husband until the urge became unmistakable. I stood up and began walking over to the bathroom saying something like, “anyway, I think we should consider it because….”
“it’s a better option,” I finished, wiping my mouth and plopping down on the bed next to my husband.
“Did you just throw up?” he asked.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“I’d don’t know actually, it just sort of happened. I feel fine though. I’m not sick.”
I’m somewhat superstitious about getting sick — a leftover from my New Agey childhood and upbringing — where positive thoughts could make you feel better and negative ones could draw illness towards you. I dropped the philosophy but this deep-seated desire to never admit pending illness still lingers. It drives my husband mad.
“Seriously, that’s not normal, Christine. You’re sick. We should get some medicine.”
“NoooooOoOOOooOo…” I fell back onto the bed pulling the comforter over my head.
“Oh god, not again!” I ran back into the bathroom. After I was finished, I brought the shower bucket into the bed with me, where I dry heaved into it for the rest of the night.
This was my introduction to Delhi Belly. I’ve been sick before, but never so violently ill. The next morning I was tender, a bit weak and certainly dehydrated, but I felt, well, okay. We made the drive to New Delhi with no further vomiting, and I felt for sure I had passed the worst of it.
This is where I should be laughing at myself in hindsight.
The thing about Delhi Belly is that it’s not just your regular infection. You don’t just get “sick” in India, but you become a host. It lives with you, for days or weeks, flaring up and then dying back down, responding to antibiotics and then not, seemingly disappearing completely until one day you’re puking at the base of the Acropolis in Greece, two countries away from your time in India. It’s like India itself: resilient, strong and crafty. But I didn’t know that then. Then, I was in New Delhi on my way to Dubai. I hadn’t had the now infamous Athens-incident and in my mind, I was well on my way to making a full recovery.
As soon as we reached cruising altitude, I knew I was completely screwed. My stomach was cramping painfully every 30 seconds and I felt the familiar wave of nausea creeping up. I was trapped in a window seat. Lunch service began. I begged off on food but the smell of my husband’s chicken biryami made me gag in disgust. Like the night after a bad tequila bender, my body had associated the smell of what I had ingested (in this case Indian food) with being ill and now I couldn’t stand the smell of it. Of course, I was also surrounded by a few hundred people tucking into the Indian dish of their choice.
“Oh god… I have to get up…”
I might have blacked out a bit at this point. I remember sweating. Climbing over the seat. Covering my face from the smell of row after row of Indian food parcels being cracked open: pickled vegetables, curd, curries, seasoned rices. I pushed my way into the bathroom and stripped my pants off, shitting and vomiting at the same time.
Like I said, it was sort of a blur. Sometime later, I found myself heavily panting in a bathroom no bigger than the smallest closet that looked like something very disgusting had exploded in it.
You see, the thing with vomiting into a sink is that as much as you think it’s going to wash down, it really, really isn’t. I used all of the paper towels to transfer my sick to the toilet. I washed my face. I used the complimentary Jet Airways Eau de Parfume as a safe guard against future smells. Then I waited.
Just as I was fairly convinced I was in the clear to head back to my seat, it came, the raucous vomiting I was learning to anticipate, this time into the toilet, a gamble considering my uneasy bowels but I was already out of paper towels.
At this point I thought, “Oh no, what if someone hears me?”
Because obviously, that’s the most important thing right now, as if I’m some 16 year old girl with an eating disorder, not that I’m going to have to spend the next four hours writhing in pain on this flight. So, in order to cover it up, I flush. Vomit, flush, vomit.
Naturally, at this point, my glasses fall off my sweat covered face, sliding down towards the black hole of the airline toilet, no doubt directly into the belly of the plane, where I’d never see them again.
It’s all slow-motion and I’m just watching my glasses go away, too weak to even reach for them, bracing myself against the cramped bathroom walls.
Pppppfffffump. The toilet hole seals itself and the air sucking drone of the flush is cut off. My glasses sit neatly inside the bowl.
Back in my seat, my husband looks at me warily. “Are you okay?”
“No, not at all.”
And just like that, my time in India was over, capped with both the best and worst experiences of my trip, seeing the Taj Mahal and getting Delhi Belly after almost three months of avoiding it. Seems entirely too fitting.