Lessons from Agra

By: Mitchell Petit-Frere

Agra is rough around the edges.

While Delhi’s a charmer, Agra is more of a “get in your face” kind of city. The reason being — in my opinion — is because the poverty is more pronounced. There are prolonged stretches of land dominated by dirt and dust, filled with shack homes and people huddled around fires during the cold hours. Don’t get me wrong, there are signs of moderate wealth, but a majority of the land is dominated by obvious poverty; some moderate and some extreme.

There’s also a more aggressive initiative within the locals to coerce tourists for money — whether it be via begging or a makeshift business plans. You can’t really blame them, though. If I lived in the same city as the Taj Mahal, I’d milk it for all its worth, too.

Speaking of the Taj, we visited it two days ago (Jan. 5). Our tour guide — who was nothing short of incredible — warned us of the locals who would try and sell us various Taj-related trinkets as we made our way toward the monument. He told us that the best way to avoid someone nagging us was to cold shoulder any seller who made a pitch. And we all did just that.

However, as we made our way back to the van after our time at the Taj concluded, this one guy started walking beside a few members of the group trying to sell what looked like small posters of the famous tomb. After being ignored, the guy sped up, strided right past our entire group and stationed himself by the door of our van. I thought he was going to pitch each of us as we made our way into the van. But that wasn’t the case.

Instead, he let all of us into the van without a word before saying something — in what I assume was Hindi — to our tour guide. Our guide then explained that the guy had pictures he wanted to sell us. But they weren’t generic pictures of the Taj, they were pictures of us at the Taj!

The guy stealthily took pictures of all of us — both group and individual shots — and then more than likely followed us around the complex to make sure he could make a sales pitch before we departed. Incredible, right?

We wound up buying the pictures (they were only 100 rupees), so his plan wound up working.

Nevertheless, for every clever scheme, there are three or four heart-wrenching ones. As we were standing in a semi-circle waiting for our van after a trip to the Agra Fort, a boy of seven or eight, with ragged clothes and skin highlighted with dust marks came up to each one of us with his right and cupped, as his left fingers pointed to his mouth. He wanted money to buy food.

For more than a couple of reasons, we’ve been instructed not to give to beggars. But following that direction is so much easier said than done — especially when the beggars linger next to you until you finally leave the scene.

Forgive the cliche, but the whole process of cold-shouldering beggars pulls on your heartstrings. In your mind, you want to help, but in reality, are you really helping if you don’t know where the money is going once the beggar leaves? Plus, it’s impossible to calculate the consequences the beneficiary will have to face if fellow locals get jealous of what he/she receives. There’s so many different layers to society — in India and all over the world — that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing; especially if your time in the area is temporary, as you won’t be around to either clean up your mess or build upon your progress.

So, you’re left with a small sense of defeat, but also an inherent sense of appreciation for your own “blessings.” I know you can’t quantify appreciation, but sometimes it’s better to get in tune with your personal situation before you can lend a helping hand to another’s.

Like I said before, Agra is rough around the edges. But it taught me a lesson. And, after all, no meaningful lesson is learned without any bumps in between.

*Pictures will be added once/if the WiFi improves.*

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