The Boy Outside My Window....
Our Stok Kangri team arrived in Agra on a particularly stifling day. It had been a long journey from Delhi and everyone was tired. We had a chat in the hotel foyer and, as the heat was so oppressive, we decided to relax for a while in air conditioned comfort before venturing out to see the Taj Mahal in the cooler part of the day..
Initially, when shown to my room, I did that little excited exploration of its features that you might do yourself. I also, out of habit, wandered to the large window that faced onto the street outside. The hotel was very pleasant but the street scene was pretty chaotic. Half completed pavements, potholes, dogs roaming around and, on the opposite side of the road, sat a boy. My eyes were drawn to him because, at about 12 or 13, he was the age of my own children. Similar age and yet, from his shoeless feet, threadbare trousers and dirty misshapen vest, it was obvious he led a life far removed from my boys relatively privileged existence. He was sat on a pile of rubble and staring along the road. He looked one way and then, after a while, he looked the other. It was a typical image in India and I thought nothing more of it.
I showered, lay on my bed and checked out the satellite TV, sent some emails, face timed my family and drank a banana lassi. All was good in my world and, although I welcomed the relaxation after the previous 10 days of mountaineering, I was still active all the time. It came time for the group to assemble downstairs and I swung off the bed to pop my shoes on. I glanced outside again and realised the boy was still there. Same position, same blank expression and same habit of perusing the road. The team spent several hours at the Taj Mahal before returning to the hotel. We had stayed until around dusk and, after a wash and change, would soon be heading for a pre dinner beer. The boy was still there when I looked outside. Same place, same stance, all exactly the same.
A decadent Indian meal was followed by a few more beers, several games of cards and some quality banter. I returned to my room around 11.30pm. I now found myself heading to the window straight away and, although the boy was still there and still alone, something had changed. He was still sat on the same rubble pile but he had created a small fire from strips of cardboard. He was slowly tearing the strips and lighting them as small tapers. It was, despite the slight glow of the flames, a dismal scene.
When I climbed in bed I reflected on the small boy for a while but the energy output of the last few weeks meant that I didn't stay awake long. A tired body, information overloaded mind and crisp cotton sheets were the perfect combination for a solid 8 hours. As sun streamed through the window it was going to be another adventure filled day in Agra. I was, although not new to the sites I'd be viewing, excited to be sharing these stunning slices of history with the team that had, through the last weeks of time together, become good friends.
I wandered past the window although, with other things to consider, the boy from yesterday had slipped my mind. Slipped my mind until, that is, I saw the pile of ash that had been his small fire. I couldn't see him and was very relieved. He was surely back in his home with his family around him now? As I turned to dress my hope faded. From the corner of my eye I saw, under a small row of bushes, a small bundle of human being curled into a foetal position. From my breezy start to the day I felt like storm clouds had gathered.
After returning from Agra Fort the boy was back in his usual spot on the rubble pile. This time I didn't need to wait to see him from my window as I was consciously watching for him as our bus pulled into the hotel driveway. Lunch came and went and he was there. In the afternoon and evening - always there. This morning we left Agra early for the group's return to Delhi and, as I climbed aboard in the relative cool of morning, the bundle was back under his bushes. A single soul in a population of a billion and yet a story that can be told on thousands of rubble piles around the country.
As visitors to this country we can't change everything. I'm also aware that we have people living on our own streets just as there are in every other country on earth. Our expedition has brought thousands more dollars into what already stands as the third largest economy in the world and I know, with reluctance, that boys like this will currently never see any of that wealth. Do we stop travelling or do we hand cash to every child we see? There is no easy solution and individual travellers aren't going to be the difference. Hopefully India, a country I love with a passion, will start to address its social inequalities as its wealth grows. Is there a better future for the boy outside my window?
Posted by Paul