Locked up Abroad: Shakedown at the Taj Mahal

   “What’s in your bag?”

            Three words and a contraction no one wants to hear. At the least, you’ve got a stranger asking about your stuff, at the worst you’ve been caught trafficking kilos of blow across the border.

            When I was studying in Shanghai in 2010, I made a few friends. Among these few friends were two Italian girls, Olimpia and Elena. I was still a bambino and Oli and Ele were my de facto sorella maggiore. When we parted ways at the end of the school year, Oli and Ele bought three identical tiny, green stuffed animals; one for each of them and one for me. They christened her Lü-xin-lei, a veritably audacious corruption of the Chinese language. Lü means green, xin means heart, and lei might have any number of Chinese meanings, but in this case lei meant “her” in Italian. “Green heart her.” It was decided, one drunken evening over a makeshift bowl of Carbonnara, that our respective Lü-xin-leis would travel the world. Like the Travelocity “roaming gnome” who pops up inconspicuously across the globe, whenever one of us found ourselves in an exciting new place, we would give our Lü-xin-lei a photo-op. I always felt a little awkward revealing my fuzzy green companion at some of the most trafficked sites in the world, but I persevered, for friendship if nothing else. My iteration of Lü-xin-lei has turned up at such places as the Petronas Towers, Tsukiji fish market, the Empire State building, Machu Picchu, and most recently, The Taj Mahal.

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            The latter is where Lü-xin-lei found out the hard way a lesson that one of her forefathers prudently preached: “It ain’t easy being green.”

            “What’s in your bag?” A large Indian military office approached us. He tapped his large rifle on top of my sister’s bag. Thoughts of Indian prison ran through my head. I imagined unfettered cobras and faulty plumbing.

            “Umm… Take a look.”

            She opened her bag and he obliged. After weeding through tourist maps and stale cookies, he found the illicit object. He pursed his lips, adjusted his light brown beret, and tightened his gaze. Holding the suspicious fluffy green dingus at a distance, running his hand across the stem, and squeezing, he checked for traces of feloniousness. He flicked its blossom head. He probably thought we were mentally unstable.

            Confused, he ordered:

            “Follow me.”

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           Seconds earlier I had snapped a shot of Lü-xin-lei at the Taj in prime position. A few people eyed me dubiously, but most just wanted me to get out of the way. Taking photos at the Taj Mahal is a confrontational affair. No one had time for a dawdling white boy with a ridiculous stuffed animal. No one apparently, save for security.

            “It’s nothing. Just a toy.”

            “Not allowed in Taj.”

            “I understand. Security is important.”

            We followed him, and two other officers who had joined. I lingered close behind, waiting for him to hand back the stuffed animal, to preserve his own self-respect more than anything. After all, he was operating with one hand on a deadly weapon and one hand on an inanimate furry Venus flytrap. He didn’t relinquish the furry Venus flytrap. Luckily, this moment has been recorded for posterity. See left hand.

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            It’s like one of those touching war photos when an innocent child hands a menacing solider a small flower, only exponentially more farcical. He stopped for a moment to confer with his cadres. They nodded, placed Lü-xin-lei on the ground, took twenty paces back, and unleashed a semi-automatic barrage in her direction. Nah, but seriously, they nodded, the other two departed, and the initial sleuth led us to the gate.

            “Lock up.”

            “What?”

            “Take outside. Lock up. Come back in.”

            “Oh. Put it in a locker. Alright.”

            He eagerly handed the stuffed animal back to me and nodded, affirming. I walked to the lockers and handed our malfeasance to the attendant. He laughed, measuredly, making sure the guards didn’t hear him. It was a laugh that contained within it the locker attendant’s personal commentary on his country’s military. He locked Lü-xin-lei away and handed me a token.

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             We proceeded with our tour of the Taj Mahal. It truly is one of those rare sites on Earth that can be done justice neither by words nor pictures. The Taj does not exist until you have seen it with your own eyes. Afterwards, we went back to retrieve the captive. The attendant turned the key and produced the slightly shaken stuffed animal. He naturally asked me for a tip, as though keeping watch over this particular object was exceptionally taxing. I politely declined his suggestion.

            Cynicism aside, I’m with the military officer on this one. The Taj is probably the most heavily guarded place in the entire sub-continent. I can only imagine how the same situation might have played out with an American officer. Lü-xin-lei may well be languishing in some Cuban prison base right now, being praised by fellow captives for her steadfast unwillingness to cooperate. Crazy though, that I can’t exercise my right to take awkward pictures of furry green objects at historic sites without the army getting involved. Crazy, that we live in a world where a stuffed animal can be misperceived as a threat to national security. Alas, maybe it’s the security that is a threat to stuffed animals.

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