It’s a tomb guys

In the world, there are too many photos of tourists pinching the onion-shaped tip of the Taj Mahal. The saddest of all these, however, will be developed some time soon somewhere in Eastern Europe.

It is the product of a wife forcing her less than enthused husband to walk back and forth with hand in air on the monument’s marble plinth so to get the optical illusion just right. The man looked like he had just emerged from 40 years solitary confinement in a Siberian gulag. But thanks to his wife’s insistence, there he will be, delicately holding a white marble construction that took 22 years to build.

But he wasn’t alone. I wouldn’t call leaving my camera in its bag a silent protest. Once in the grounds of one of the most beautiful man-made structures in the world, I really didn’t see any use for it.

When it came into view, I got goosebumps. I took a couple of deep breaths. Then I looked around. It seemed that most had their line of sight firmly fixed on their 4 megapixel view finders. They struggled to find that point where it would seem that their friend was holding the bulbous dome in their hand. Or that point where it looked like they were holding their partner in their hand. Or than point that looked like they were lounging like a Maharaja fold-out fashion model.

I really did wonder if many of them remembered that it was a tomb.

The Taj has been called many things. A symbol of eternal love. The embodiment of all things pure. A tear drop on the face of eternity. I read all that in my guide-book. But it is also the final resting place of two people.

As the sun slowly rose over the eastern wall of the Taj, the colours changed. The structure became pale white where before it was almost grey. It’s reflection in the pool morphed from a deep orange.

At that point American chap wearing a baseball cap on turned his iPhone 4 on himself, looked around, and said: “Go Duke!”, into the lens – no doubt in reference to Duke University that lies in North Carolina, USA.

“Did you see what I did,” Mr Go Duke asked.

“What?” replied his girlfriend.

“I just said ‘Go Duke’.”

“Oh, you should send that to Simon.”

“Really?”

“Yea, he would love it.”

So Simon, somewhere a thousand miles away, possibly in North Carolina, got his own memory of the Taj, his own description of what the supposed greatest man-made expression of love is life. Go Duke.

Here they were, with cameras in hand. Big old lenses. Big old carry bags. Small cameras, phone cameras, all recording their visit to this place. Which made me think about photographs more than I usually do. Hopefully, I think, photographs should record something. A moment, a place, something significant, something that sometimes needs a mental kick.

I think a camera should act as the sort of photo your memory takes normally anyway.

So if that is true then the Taj Mahal tourist cohort are all totally insane. I hate to generalise but here it was hard not to.

Many flouted the clear sign leading into the main mausoleum, “Photographs prohibited.” Instead, they strapped on their mount flashes and went to work trying to create something artistic in light that was only just beginning to peer through the marble inlay work.

They will all now have their own memories of that place. But mine doesn’t require a camera.

In a quiet corner of the nearby Agra Fort, which has a view across the river to the Taj, I took out my Nikon. I thought I would take one, just for me. Nicely framed by the red stone parapet I was sitting in. I tried to turn on the camera. But I couldn’t.

I’d left the battery in the charger at the hotel.

“I am a warrior”

Regan Walters had only just sat down to dinner on the 22nd floor of Mumbai’s Taj Hotel when he felt the first blast.

Walters has protected movie stars, royalty and Bill Gates. Now, during the Cricket World Cup, he is protecting the Black Caps.

He had been involved in fire fights in his native South Africa and fought competitively in mixed martial arts.

He knows about danger. But Walters realised instantly, when the glass walls of the Taj’s Souk restaurant started shaking, that this was something different.

What he didn’t know, looking out the window toward’s Mumbai’s India Gate, watching the muzzle flashes of unseen automatic weapons, was that this was the beginning of a three-day terrorist siege on India’s commercial hub.

When it was over 164 people would be dead. Three hundred more would be injured. Walters had only been in India for two hours.

It was his first visit where he was to work at the eventually cancelled 2008 ICC Champion’s League.

Sitting in the restaurant with 150 other guests, Walters and six other members of the personal security company he belonged to, were faced with a choice.

“We had a decision,” Walters said from his hotel room in the Taj – the first time he had been there to work since the attack – to wait for the police or try to make a break for it.

“We decided let’s get out of here.”

Walters is responsible for keeping the New Zealand cricket team safe.

A partner for the security firm he works for, Nicholls, Steyn and Associates, has done the same for Nelson Mandela and was the All Blacks’ security liason during the 1995 World Cup.

Walters’ presence at Black Caps’ practice sessions and in the team’s hotel lobbies is difficult to ignore. Walters looks, somewhat appropriately, like an action hero – a Vin Diesel with a Durban drawl.

He reads magazines about the latest automatic pistols and recently bought a leather-bound copy of Sun Tsu’s Art of War to sit above the samurai swords in his home.

“I am a warrior,” Walters said.

He ticks off mental boxes – making sure the police do adequate bomb sweeps of the Black Caps’ buses and making sure those buses never stop en route. “They don’t stop for anyone.”

He accompanies the team everywhere. He calls them “his guys” and each night does a sweep of the hotel to make sure he knows where they all are.

Walters met the team in Dubai airport before flying to India for the start of the tournament.

He already knew captain Daniel Vettori from when he worked with IPL team the Delhi Daredevils.

After two days he was building up mental profiles of each team member to understand better where they might be at any one time.

It is a meticulous job – not one for a drinker or a partier. Walters is neither.

When Brendon McCullum recently visited his room, the wicketkeeper, astounded at its cleanliness, asked where all his stuff was.

“This is just a reflection of my mind,” Walters told him. “Uncluttered.”

Walters has been in the business since he was 22 when he was asked to protect a South African minister who had a death threat on his life.

“From a young age I have had a lot of responsibility.”

Many of the waiters at Souk restaurant who were on duty on November 26, 2008, still work there. One named Naresh remembered Walters from that night.

“Of course, I could never forget,” he said.

The South Africans rounded up the guests and workers and barricaded themselves in an adjoining conference room. They shut off the lights and jarred open the elevator doors. They armed themselves with knives from the kitchen and tried to keep calm. They waited for word.

“That was the longest two hours of my life,” Walters said.

They decided to move. In the darkness they lead the guests down the fire escape.

Down 20 floors before they had to move inside the hotel for the final descent – into where terrorists from a Pakistan based militant organisation were continuing to unleash rounds from their AK-47s and lob grenades into guest rooms.

Walters said it was strange to re-walk those steps. The coast was clear. They escaped through a side exit. He looked back at the hotel and saw the destruction that was taking place. Fires had erupted, smoke was pouring out of windows. He could still hear gunfire rattling from inside.

“I tell you it was such mixed feelings. We felt when we got out it was a breeze. While you are doing it, it is hell on earth but outside we all felt we should go back in.”

It is a feeling that he thinks about sometimes – how many more they could have saved.

“But we did the best we could with what we had and thank God we came out alive. We sent people back to their families.”

The spectre of those days still hang over India’s largest city. The only man to be captured alive was re-sentenced to death last month in Mumbai’s High Court after appealing his hanging.

There are still bullet holes lodged in the walls of popular tourist restaurant Cafe Leopold.

Yellow police barricades surround the India gate. At the Souk restaurant, Walters still saw the same wooden table he used to barricade the entrance.

“I tell you I have never been so close to death in my life.”


The dogs of Palolem

Even the dogs struggle to bark in Palolem.

Those dogs of Goa, they engage in more of a sputtered howl. These are most often directed at young Indian men that try to pimp off glowing helicopters which they fling into the night sky. It’s an excuse at least. Instead, the dogs sleep and wander and follow around the occasional middle-aged woman wearing a perfume that apparently shares the vague odour of things dogs find attractive.

Like most of the beaches in India’s western shore, the sand here is flooded with tourists. One I met was an Englishman who mixed cocktails in Greece. Here it was similar.

“But it’s much better to be on the others side of the bar.”

He made the most of it to say the least. For the last four weeks.

That kind of activity does not seem to get old quickly. Because among the plethora of nationalities, Indians included, that flock to the tepid water and tip-toe-hot sand, there is something shared. This is what people do to relax. They paddle and laze and read Dan Brown. They drink large bottles of lager and smoke cheap cigarettes. They play football and ignore the peeping whistle of the lifeguard telling them it is time to come out of the water.

At sunset they take photos of the sunset. They get in what they believe to be imaginative positions – perhaps a shot showing a breaking wave with a line of orange pink light piercing its wash. Then, after the sun slinks away behind the hilly outcrop on the beach’s northern end, they retire to a table on the sand where candles and fresh fish await. Where you can choose between prawns, tuna, snapper and lobster. Where you can overstate your finances, opt for the snapper and then realise you are 80 rupees short, walk away and not have to worry about it.

For two days I did all these things.

I met up with a Zimbabwean cricket writer who introduced me to Old Monk. Evil Old Monk. The local sweet rum that tastes like honey going down but drano coming up. The Zimbabwean assured me the hangovers had not been too terrible while he had entrusted his faith to Old Rum. He was wrong.

I managed to source out conceivably the only other New Zealander on the beach while I was watching our team take on Pakistan. It was a good game to drink to.

We ordered a final platter of chicken tikka before I excused myself and did not come back. I caught up with the New Zealander the next day who said he had not fared well either.

He left the bar with vomit down his shirt knocking at the door of a Swiss girl he had been “invovled” with the previous few nights.

“Help me,” he told her.

She did. From what he can remember.

I missed out on joining the buffalo of a Londoner watch his favourite team get demolished by Barcelona that night. I didn’t regret it. He had Arsenal written along his shoulders in Olde English text. I made it a point of mine never to fraternise with such people after midnight.

The next day I met other people who I make point of not fraternising with.

Seemingly there to engage in some sort of yoga-infused, baggy-panted enlightenment the two guys and one girl also decided to buy a bongo drum. They sat on the side of the road and beat it with the type of raw talent and rhythm usually reserved for three-year-olds with the mummy’s favourite stainless steel pot.

I saw them later, this time on the beach. They had progressed to the sort of thrombosis that would make the Urukai of Helm’s Deep proud.

Naturally it was the Old Monk bringing up my subtle despise. Along, of course, with the remnants of that chicken.

There was no 18b

There was no 18b. The porter lead me to where I was to spend the next seven hours overnight from Jalgaon to Mumbai. My trip on the night bus there had been a comfortable one. At the time I thought the bed space was a little large for one person, if a little rigid. Other than the faint paranoia that I was on the wrong bus to a place of the same name it was a fitful night’s sleep.

But this was different. The porter stopped at berth 14. I scanned around for any number higher than 14. There wasn’t. 14a. There it was. There he was. Splayed out his arm in the perfect nestling position. It was an awkward moment.

“A bit small isn’t it?” I offered. The middle age man with the penchant for hacking coughs punctuated by the faint glug of mucus didn’t understand.

The lights went out and I lay down. I don’t think I had been that close to a man I hadn’t ever met before. Soon the bus stopped for dinner. He illustrated the action one makes when they are to eat. He jumped over me and went for his food. What I thought was my phone in my pocket was actually a dairy milk chocolate bar I had inconceivably bought. Now it was melted and gooey. I opened it and squeezed out some of the brown remnants hoping this might stave me over for the next few hours.

Are you allowed to fart in a shared sleeper berth? It seems a bit rude but then again considering the plethora of smells that come wisping through the open window during the Indian night, burning fertilizer, human excrement, buffalo herds settling in, I didn’t think it was such a big deal.

So down we lay. The middle-aged Murati man and me. My satchel as a pillow and the faint lull of faulty bus suspension over under subsidised roading projects to rock me to sleep.

The light peered over the horizon somewhere in Maharashtra state. We were near Mumbai now. The man awoke startled. He grabbed his shoes and his blue and white striped bag and once again jumped over me.

He left with out even saying goodbye. I felt so used. I didn’t even know his name.

I slept like a baby.