It was shaping up to be another blistering hot day at the Taj Mahal. I arrived as they opened and approached the east entrance. For me it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Most of the other visitors felt the same, and the excitement was tangible. We crowded toward the security checkpoint and split into lines for men and women. And then I overheard this:
“Sometimes I wish Shah Jahan had never built this place.” ~ Security guard at the Taj Mahal.
How about that for a dose of reality? The temperature had already pushed above 35ºC on an early June day in Agra, and it was only 10am. For the guards and indeed all the other workers at this World Heritage Site, it was the start of another long day at the office. The tourists were not visitors. The tourists were problems. And the tourists would not be here if the most elaborately constructed tourist trap in the world had never been built.
Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There cautions his writing students to look for stories beyond the tourist matrix. He says “if your best stories come from your cab driver or bar tender, you are not working hard enough.” At the same time (as my mother reminds me) tourist destinations exist because they are usually really interesting.
So while the best travel stories are found off the beaten track, some of the best travel experiences can only come from inside the tourist matrix. When I visited Istanbul, a Monday tour of Hagia Sophia was only possible because I went with a tour group – because the Hagia Sophia is otherwise closed on Mondays. So don’t let the “tourist trap” label turn you away from the experience of a lifetime. You are the best judge of what is interesting to you.
Like the disaffected worker at the Fatehabadi Darwaza gate, your job might hold days of tedium, especially if you face the public every day at a popular destination. Just keep in mind that today could be a lifetime event for that guest, an experience for which they have traveled many miles, and have dreamed about for years. Your office may not be a World Heritage Site, but you still owe each guest an amazing experience. Don’t hate your Taj Mahal!
(And if you enjoyed this short story, others will too – please share. Thank you!)