6 - More Rules Less Free

I was surprised to find myself the only backpacker on the tour to Agra. My companions were like Mom and Pops would be if they were ever to visit India. (As if. Mom wouldn't last ten minutes in Delhi; she'd freak out the first time she had to step over cow droppings or stare into a crippled girl's eyes.) My companions complained a lot. To them India was too dirty, too poor, too noisy, and too uncomfortable. They did agree that the food was good, except that one could never find a steak.

My companions did not bother me though, because visions of India demanded my attention. I saw farmlands obscured by a brown haze, crowded towns built with minimal help from machines, and ox carts causing traffic jams. I saw an ancient civilization struggling to survive an unrelenting transformation to modernity.

To enter the Taj Mahal cost fifteen American dollars, yet the total my tour-mates and I gave to the beggars outside was zero. I asked the cashier for small change so that I could pass it around on my way back out.

I previously hadn't known that the Taj Mahal was a Muslim design, nor that there were two red mosques symmetrically positioned as part of the site. I admired the aesthetic of the Koranic script that bordered marble walls adorned with stone flowers. This exquisite craftsmanship made the mausoleum worthy of its fame as the eighth wonder of the world, the symbol of India, the greatest monument ever constructed for love.

My grandmother died before I was born but Gramps always spoke of her as the love of his life. He was Muslim and she was Christian, so it must have taken courage for them to marry. I was sad that Gramps was dead, and I was sad that I didn't ask him more questions, but remembering his living spirit gave me confidence to run with my instincts, to explore Agra on my own, so I blew off my tour group.

It occurred to me that despite the countless photos I had seen of India's masterpiece in marble, I never saw one taken from the other side of the river, so I walked in the direction of a distant bridge. Around the first corner I saw camels; I hadn't expected to see camels.

A man ran after me. "Mister, mister..." He insisted, "Where you from?"

I conceded, "California."

"I love California," he said. "I show you Agra. No worry. No money. I take you to my brother's store, yes? Very nice."

Despite my desire to meet locals, I said, "No thanks. I like to walk by myself. OK?"

He said, "No problem. My brother's store is very cheap. Almost free!"

I darted into a nearby restaurant with a sign in English. I was hungry after all. The hustler peered through the window but he did not enter. Meanwhile I ordered a thali plate, an all-you-can-eat vegetarian meal. It was fabulous.

Away from the tourist area, I was unmolested by beggars and salesmen. My walk was filled with the sights and smells of ordinary people, cows and camels, plus the odd ancient fort. This was the first time I ever wandered the streets of a city unable to read the urban wallpaper of billboards and advertisements, which was strangely liberating. I wandered for hours, enchanted by an India I never imagined, that India where marketing majors invented creative ways to sell toothpaste.

I wanted to get my photo at sunset, so I flagged down a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled taxi decorated with cartoon drawings of Shiva. My picture turned out great, a surreal image of the Taj Mahal's reflection in water that flowed to the sea, a metaphor for life and love.

My tuk-tuk driver, Abu, drove me to where I could catch a bus back to Delhi. The bus was so cheap and the local people were so interesting that I made a rule for myself to never travel with a tour company again. I wanted the freedom to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, with Indian locals and not Western tourists. Then I changed my mind. Maybe some day I would go on another touristy tour after all. I wanted freedom, and the more rules the less free.