Hot pain and tension mounted in your neck. You twisted and flopped over yourself, then your ass landed firmly against the dirty blanket meant to serve as a yoga mat. The others in the room were having an equally hard time. The yogi, a scrawny little man who barely spoke English, smiled devilishly at the group’s frustration and inability to tie their bodies into knots. You swatted at a mosquito.
Okay, so maybe you just pulled a muscle in your neck. No big deal. Better than the time when you were strangled by Spaso. It would heal. But the pain was increasing, and you felt your energy waning. You started to crash, and then it was all you could do not to fall onto your back, spread eagle, defeated. You were so damn tired.
Too much heat? Too little water? Too much sun?
Too much yoga.
Or maybe too many feelings…
India has a way of bringing one’s feelings to the surface. One minute, you’re grinning ear to ear, teeth red with beetle nut, laughing and snorting, high like a child strung out on cotton candy. The next, you’re taken aback by a near-collision with a motorcycle, and you shudder from the high-pitched horns of passing traffic, the clouds of exhaust blasting out the backs of two and three-wheeled vehicles carrying people by fours and fives.
How on earth can you fit five people on a motorcycle?
Easy. Toddler on the front, man driving, child behind him, then a woman sitting side-saddle, holding her infant.
You might be standing next to a lake, observing a floating, majestic white palace in its center, listening to the sounds of young boys with smooth brown skin and dazzling white eyes and smiles leaping from dilapidated walls—cannon balls and belly flops. The lake ripples in a soft breeze and the coconut man “hi-hellos!” you, but you ignore him. The streets are narrow and filthy, but not without charm, and in every doorway sits a shriveled old man with his knees hiked up to his ears. He flashes you some friendly jagged teeth, sweeps a hand over a few goods spread out upon a blanket, and bobble-shakes his head. You feel happy and warm. But then you’re sliding in cow shit, puddles of muddy water, and red spit stains, kicking through plastic bags, soggy newspapers, and decomposing vegetable matter. The “excuse me! which countries?” hit you like darts, and your blood sugar crashes and your tolerance wanes. You find a restaurant with over-priced, under-portioned food in an act of desperation and eat alone, gazing longingly over at a table crammed with white-skinned tourists and wonder if they have room for one more. But of course, there’s always something about them that turns you off. So you focus on your meal instead.
The loneliness of travel, for you, is profound. You know yourself well enough at this point. To travel alone is no longer tortuous. But the longing for meaningful contact—not just the brief and superficial—is ever-present. While solo travel opens you to many experiences you might not otherwise have, you still prefer solid company.
Face it. You’re lazy. And were it not for the energy and enthusiasm of others, you likely would have spent far too much of your travels in self-imposed isolation. But it takes a certain kind of energy. A certain kind of enthusiasm. And a certain kind of person. Someone not dissimilar to yourself, but with enough difference to coax you away from your anti-social tendencies.
The Danish girl and the Kiwi boy were not it. The girl, too chatty and happy—too bubbly—too excited by the mundane. And the boy, too meek, too quiet, too unenthusiastic. The pair of them, after scoring some hash off a rickshaw driver, invited you to smoke with them. One puff, and then you excused yourself. Suddenly needed to shit. And then… organizing your photos suddenly felt more important, and it was only then that you began to withdraw from their company. You could find no connection with them. You wondered if they bothered to connect with each other.
The next morning, you were thrilled to find a message in your inbox, stating that Maeva, that pint-sized 19-year-old French girl you met in Mumbai, was merely a day behind you, set to arrive that afternoon. You swelled with excitement, hammered out a response and some rather unclear directions to your guest house (“Next to the lake, 100 meters south of the pedestrian bridge.”) and prayed she would get your message in time. The Kiwi boy planned to leave that evening, and you were keen on finding Maeva in order to replace him.
Fine. Okay. Cutting costs is always nice. But it wasn’t about that. You already knew Maeva. More importantly, you liked Maeva. A lot. Your handful of days with her in Mumbai were light, easy, and effortless. Something about her resonated with you—her assertiveness and her independence. Her ability to have a two-way conversation.
That day you walked all the way to the train station, wondering how far it really was, and whether you’d been ripped off by your rickshaw driver. You walked through the markets, construction sites, tightly packed groups of men sipping chai and spitting beetle nut. You weaves through cars and bikes and pedestrians, around potholes and piles of dirt and rocks. You walked through the slums and the children, by the tens, came running from their cave-like homes, shrieking and leaping and crying, “Hi! Hello!” They ran along side you with tires and sticks and shiny objects. “What is your name? Hello!” They offered their hands. And their mothers smiled sweetly from afar. Nobody begged. Nobody tried to sell you a thing.
It wasn’t until later in the evening when you received a knock on your bedroom door. A hotel worker explained that a French girl was waiting for you on the rooftop. She’d asked for “Maria. The American.” But this had produced no sign of recognition. “The really tall woman,” is what did the trick. You hustled up the stairs, saw her sitting cross-legged on her chair, in big goofy glasses, patient and easy. But tired. You exploded with words, smiles, and frenetic gesticulations and relayed everything that had transpired in the past two days.
Way too excited. You wondered if, maybe, you were inappropriately so. Why should a 29-year-old woman be disproportionally thrilled to rejoin with someone 10 years her junior?
“Because the more people I meet, the less I am impressed,” you explained. It was a game of sheer numbers. You like most people, but you would seldom go out of your way to meet again with the majority of them.
The two of you fell back into your easy tourist partnership. You passed several days in Udaipur doing little more than losing yourself in streets, sipping chai, meeting locals, and tripping over yourselves in laughter as you chewed and spit beetle pan. It was incredible. You stewed in the spices and colors of Indian ambiance, stretched yourself out over a bed on a rooftop overlooking Udaipur’s lake, with its scintillating lights, and belly-breathed warm autumn air. You watched two geckos chase each other along a wall.
So much activity. So much to observe. So much to share. And the result was overwhelming emotion.
When you pulled that muscle in your neck, it served a bit as a catalyst for your feelings. You trembled with vulnerability, and the threat of tears became great. After the yoga class finished, you wanted to make your escape. Flee to your hotel room and throw yourself (watch that neck of yours!) onto the bed and retreat into sleep. But the yogi caught you at the exit.
“Pain in neck?” he asked.
“Yes,” you said, stretching it stiffly.
He strode up before you, then promptly judo chopped you in the neck.
“Better!” he exclaimed.
You’d gasped from the shock. That motherfucker just… just… just… judo chopped you. Austin Powers style!
And because one chop wasn’t sufficient, the yogi squared himself against you and began striking you over and over again, with both hands. Fap, fap, fap, slap, slap, slap, whack!
Your eyes filled with tears. Not from the pain of it, but from the shock.
This is not how you heal a neck!
When he was done, he gave you a smile. “No more neck pain.”
You left, cried against the side of his building for a moment, and then pulled your shit together. Maeva finally followed you, asked if you were okay.
“I just have a lot of feelings.”
Yes, lots of them. You wished she didn’t see you cry. But then again, it didn’t matter. You had nothing to hide. Nothing to be ashamed of. Feelings are just feelings. They come and they go.
But later than day, when an Ayurvedic medicine man poked you in the sternum after a series of equally painful pressure points and declared, “You carry your pain… here!” you clenched your jaw and resisted the urge to cry again… for about five seconds… until he said, “Tell me, what has happened to you?” and you wept.
“So much,” you said. “I can’t get into that now.”
“Sit, sit,” he said.
And so you did.
The man explained that you had a bad back, that one of your legs was longer than the other, that you urinated too frequently, that your left lung was weak, and that your sexual organs were a hot mess.
“You have problems with fungus,” he said.
Used to. Not anymore.
“Your uterus is sitting incorrectly,” and he made an inclination with his two hands.
“You have boyfriend?”
Maeva watched your eyes, and you hesitated. Then, “No.”
“When was your last boyfriend?” he asked.
“I’ve never had a boyfriend.”
“Never,” you repeated.
“I’m a lesbian.”
His eyes widened in astonishment. Then he looked up, as though searching for some kind of divine advice for you. A tsk, and then, “Oh… this is not good.”
“It’s okay. I’m fine with it,” you said.
“Something has happened to you,” he continued. “Between the ages of nine and twelve. Tell me. What has happened to you?”
Where to begin? How about middle school? The worst time of any kid’s life. The teasing. The nickname “HeShe.”
“This is why you don’t like man,” he concluded.
This time, you were dubious.
“Two thousand rupees for one hour, and I can fix all your physical problems. But not your sexual problems,” he announced.
Later, you would learn from two different sources that this Ayurvedic medicine man had been charged with rape and/or molestation on three separate occasions. (That wasn’t, however, your concern. It was really just his price.)
One of those sources was a tiny blonde Indian hotel owner named Manou. He could neither read nor write, but he did fairly well for himself and had an excellent reputation as an honest man, very friendly and helpful. But Manou became overly helpful. Possessively helpful. He was in love, so Maeva thinks.
“No!” you said. What lunacy! A five-foot-nothing snaggle-toothed blonde Indian, in love with you? Why not with the travel-sized French tart?
But it was true. Manou tracked you to every corner. Demanded, “Where are you going?” for every piss break. Needed to feed you, water you, chai you—for free—every chance he got. And when you bumped your head on the ceiling while descending a flight of stairs, he body slammed Maeva out of the way and leaped on your head. Okay, he didn’t quite leap on you. He did something akin to what the yogi had done for your neck pain—he slapped at your head, then dug his fingers into your throbbing scalp like a sorcerer exorcising demons.
“Holy shit, what is wrong with that guy?” you demanded. Manou had finally parted ways with you outside your hotel, after an awkward, flirty fist bump against your shoulder.
“I have no idea,” she replied. “He was acting so weird this evening. That thing with your name? He was trying to learn to write your name for like half and hour, and he insisted that your name was written another way. He wouldn’t let anyone help him. He had to write it himself.”
You locked yourselves in your room. So much activity. So much bodily injury. So much analysis. So much exploration. You sank into the bed and conversed with Maeva about god-knows-what for god-knows-how-long, and all those feelings of yours began rising to the surface.
It couldn’t be helped. So much of it, due to Maeva.
When she spoke in either English or French, her voice was soft, deliberate, clear. She was the type of person who is humble and introspective. Eager to learn, but patient for her lessons. She listened to you with appreciation and interest. You felt very much that she cared to connect, and those butterflies of validation in your belly make you feel silly and juvenile. Silly for laying it all on such a young person; juvenile for being in the presence of such an old soul. Where and how did she gain access to that wisdom of hers? You spoke for hours, without pause. Without distraction. One topic, one story, one joke leading seamlessly into the next. And your soul opened to her. You spoke of your pain, your insecurities, your desires and fears. You told it all to nineteen years.
That’s the beauty of connection: soul searching. Sure, you might end up enrolling yourself into some silent meditation retreat–“When you do not speak, you have much time to learn about yourself,” say the Indians—but better than that, you can use another person as a mirror. She holds it up before your eyes and asks you to gaze at yourself with, “You don’t have to answer if its too personal.” But it’s never too personal for you. No. You relish the opportunity to call out to the ghosts of the past and ask, “Do you still haunt me?”
Apparently, they do.