It takes a full 24 hours and tremendous evasive effort to shake Ba. You’ve been reduced to faking showers and sleep in order to avoid your guest house manager.
Clint, your friendly South African, returns from his camel tour, and you are literally ecstatic to see him. You politely, though urgently, ask him to cock block Ba for you—which he doesn’t understand. And so, naturally, he is very confused by your greeting: a friendly hug and the gentle whisper of “cock” into his ear. Like a man blindsided, he blinks, smiles awkwardly, and says, “Um… okay.”
But of course, later, your situation becomes clear, and you apologize for the misunderstanding, which he doesn’t take personally. He, the Spaniard, and Maeva work diligently so that you are not left alone with your admirer. Ba follows you like a puppy, and you shift position, cross the room, take new chairs, and wedge yourself between your friends as often as possible. His doleful eyes never quit, but you can feel his agitation—he’s losing his maharani, and he doesn’t understand why.
Apparently the Spaniard is approached more than once by Ba for further information about your love of women. The Spaniard must enlighten him. Maeva even suggests pretending to be a lesbian couple the next time guest-house-manager-over-attachment-syndrome happens, but the idea makes you uncomfortable, perhaps because thus far in the company of such a lovely French girl, you’ve managed to keep it in your pants. Why flirt with temptation?
“I want to get the fuck out of here,” you tell her. “Forget the camel desert tour. Forget volunteering on Ba’s farm. I don’t ever want to see him again. Please, let’s just get out of here.”
You announce your intended departure that night. Ba is openly disappointed.
* * *
The next morning, Ba and the boys greet you in the foyer, seeing your bags strapped to your backs. There are no buses or trains for another 10 hours. When you learn this, you realize you must pass another full day of awkwardness.
Ba insists that Maeva join him in the kitchen to help him prepare breakfast. She falls into his trap. He takes the opportunity to accost her, corner her, demand why she’s making his maharani leave. It’s her fault, clearly. He is angry.
There is nothing to do but wait. You find an excuse to get out of the house for a few hours, but it isn’t much. The day is long and relentlessly hot, and you wait on the terrace. New names, new faces. New get-to-know-yous. Ba lingers, but you refuse to acknowledge him.
At some point, Maeva grabs a guitar. She strums it timidly at first, embarrassed. One, two… ready. Shakira. You can’t help yourself. Neither can the men. Oh Shakira. She sings, and you think about hips that don’t lie. The warm desert air, the evening breeze. The strum-strum-strumming, na-na-nahing of the music. A smile spreads on your face. You draw your knees to your chest.
The only happy moment of the day. If only Ba wasn’t leering at you.
“Maria! You were happy when you got here,” Ba says to you later. It is dark. The power has gone out. Over in the corner, Maeva reads your blog draft. You pace diligently, in order to avoid the mosquitoes. Ba sits alone at a table in the darkness, head and eyes following your like a cat’s. “But today, you seem like you are not happy. Why?” The why is too aggressive.
“I cannot always be happy, Ba,” you say dryly, and continue to pace.
“Happiness is all there is. Happiness is god. Why not just be happy?”
Because you hate him!
“When I am happy, Ba, I am grateful. And when I am not, I am patient.” Very patient.
Maeva closes the computer. You decide to leave three hours early. Just to get out. You leave practically without saying goodbye. You offer Ba a cold handshake and an emotionless thank you (because you got the room, the food, the chai, the water—everything–for free; the perks of prostitution), and then turn your back on him forever.
You bitch about him all the way to dinner. Maeva indulges you. You thank her earnestly for being there with you. At dinner, you manage to laugh while discussing your travel partnership, which has adopted similarities to a relationship. All eyes and heads in the cafe are turned on your table, but you don’t care.
Maeva insists that she wants to travel alone–
“Are you breaking up with me?” you cry.
–but not yet. Eventually.
“Well you wouldn’t be the first!” you say in mock bitterness.
“Don’t misunderstand,” she explains. She loves traveling with you. A lot. And in fact, she doesn’t want the relationship to end, even though she knows it must.
You stroke each other’s egos and fake more relationship problems and laugh. You are hyper. Ecstatic to have freed yourself from your awkward situation. Maeve, too, had suffered her own set of awkward problems with the Spaniard, and could relate. Men are just so desperate sometimes. It has become the theme of the trip: one you embrace like armor, in order to assure your young companion that you would not join their pathetic ranks.
After dinner, you hitchhike to the train station. Impulsively climb into the back of an SUV already stuffed with seven men. You wonder if, by climbing in to the boot, you have just signed your own death warrant. Music blasts. The interior is lit in neon green. All eyes are on you, even the driver’s, and you scream, “Look at the goddamn road!” because the vehicle veers toward cattle, potholes, pedestrians, and rickshaw drivers.
“Picture!” says one of the men. He wants you to trade seats with his buddy for the photo op. Maneuvering is tight, but you decide to indulge him. Through the chaos of seat swapping, you feel a man’s hand grope at your inner thigh. Not once, but twice. A deliberate grope. You collapse into your new seat, arrange your hair and clothes, and then look directly at the perp. You slap your hand on his inner thigh, near his groin, and give it a tremendous, painful squeeze. “Don’t fucking grab my leg again,” you hiss. His eyes pop and he looks guilty.
The men leave you at a train station, and you must take new fewer than five additional photos so that they may later brag to their friends that they had sex with a fair Western woman.
The commuter train is cheap and crowded. Your car is situated directly behind the engine. You do not realize your error at all. You do not realize why every Indian in the car has opted to sleep on the luggage racks ad not on the benches. You are blissfully unaware. So are your new friends: a roguish and charismatic Lebanese man and a shockingly beautiful Catalan woman. You begin to introduce yourselves, swap stories, and then learn…
The train’s horn blares like nothing you’ve ever heard. It drowns out everything. Your ear drums take the offense, and the four of you sigh with discontented smirks because for whatever goddamn reason, the conductor feels the need to honk that horn incessantly for six hours. Never a break. The train halts at various stations, and Indians pack into the car like wild dogs, nipping and snarling for seats. You cram against the wall in order to make space for four more butts. Over your head, stretched out on the luggage racks, two Indian’s sleep like they have a private car.
Honk! Honk! Honk!
Always on the horn. Maeva is enraged. Her eyes are wide and sharp and bitter. She screams in strong French, claps her hands over her ears, and tries to find her happy place. It’s long gone.
At 4:30 in the morning, you reach Bikaner, a dusty desert town that reeks. You immediately hate the place, but keep your feelings to yourself. Your party of four wanders for over one hour to locate your guest house, which is truly a mere ten minutes away. The city is alive, even in the dark, and you can’t understand why.
After securing your room, you venture out to find breakfast, even though you have been told that nothing open for another two hours. You learn this the hard way. Ordering takes forever. The curd is bad. The toast, not toasted. The aloo parantha, overpriced. The service, appalling. The Lebanese man sleeps at the table. Maeva sleeps in your lap. You try not to stare openly at the lovely Catalan across from you, whose eyes wander everywhere, patiently disinterested.
* * *
Free ganja lassi.
And then the feeling of utter helplessness. Your head spins as you climb higher and higher. Too high. Words don’t make sense. Or do they? You feel like there is fifteen-second time-delay in your comprehension. How do Maeva and these two new French guys you’ve met speak in two languages, and you haven’t even mastery over your own?
The guest house owner, Goudi, wants you to remain awake for his daughter’s fourth birthday celebration. The extended family will be there, and so will cake.
But you cannot think of it. You want to die. You want to curl up in your bed in the dark and go to sleep forever. Put an end to the spins, to the frenetic thoughts, to the fake “insights” of being too high. Your fingers and toes are numb. Mosquitoes ravage you, but you feel nothing. Maeva seems functional, but declares that she is not. You beg her to disappear with you. To just go to sleep at 8 o’clock, since neither of you have had much rest from your overnight on the noisy train.
She agrees, and relief washes over your like nothing you’ve ever felt in your life. The feeling that you are not alone.
“Maeva…” you moan, having collapsed fully-clothed into your bed. The room is pitch black. “Thank you so much for being here with me.”
She says something to the same effect and spends the next ten minutes fidgeting with the ceiling fan speed. She mutters a few things, but none of it makes sense.
“I cannot imagine how bad I would feel right now if I were alone,” you add.
You’ve never considered anything more seriously in your life.
Why the fuck did you drink that shit?
* * *
The next day you wake up hung over. You learn that the French boys weren’t so well themselves. One of them vomited in bed he was so high. It comforts you to know that everyone had a horrible time.
Later in the day, you begin to notice the guest house owner’s affinities for Maeva. Goudi had eyes like Manou. Eyes like Ba. And he was a bit dodgy. Everything involved a lie to his wife, a doughy woman with eyes like a schizophrenic. You learn that they are separated, but they must wait one more year before they can divorce. That Indian law forbids parents to divorce before their child is five years old. That one must prove his spouse is crazy in order to be granted the divorce. You have no doubt that Goudi’s wife is… well… not quite there. She wouldn’t leave you alone. She had a way of just walking into your room, just to smile and stare at you. Her English was so poor, and you could never quite tell what she wanted. Just the company, you suppose, but her intrusions, along with those from her daughter and her husband, became too much.
Goudi puts you and Maeva on the back of his bike and takes you across town to his friend’s shop, where you switch to his friend’s rickshaw and go to a filthy hole in the wall for some thali. Something finally feels wrong in your stomach. You are still wrecked from the ganja lassi. You don’t feel comfortable. Then again, you never did.
A monsoon hits. Hard. Rain and hail pelt you mercilessly. You cower in the rickshaw, soaking wet, and think about how utterly random everything is in India. The rickshaw pulls up to a textile shop and everyone seeks shelter.
That’s when things get weird. That feeling of malaise grows in your gut—or maybe it was simply the loose stool. Goudi puts the moves on Maeva, and his friend puts the moves on you.
“He really likes lesbians,” Goudi tells you later.
You are sick of it.
Sick of the ridiculous Indian men who think they have a snowflake’s chance in hell. Who love to tell you about their ex-Western-girlfriends, to appear worldly and interesting. You politely accept chai, paan, and cigarettes. You spit indoors, behind the staircase, and whisper your concerns to Maeva, who’s just been offered a free sari from Goudi, just so long as his wife doesn’t find out.
“I don’t like all this lying,” you say. You want to get away from the men. You want to stop answering their questions. You do not want to know them at all.
The rain stops, and you make it back to town. The feeling is very weird. Bikaner is not your favorite place. There is some kind of tension in the air. Even the locals have warned you “Not to walk down that street because people have different views.”
“What do you mean? Is it dangerous?”
No, not exactly.
They cannot say, but they are adamant that you do not walk there. So you don’t. You can’t wait to leave.
* * *
Rat Temple Day.
You wake up early—miraculously–and leave to walk to the bus, skipping breakfast. The directions to the bus are always obscure, and Indians can’t seem to point in a straight line. There’s always a curve in their arm, and flap-wave of their hand, and a head bobble. The point couple be any direction.
You finally find the bus stop, after taking twenty pictures of camel-drawn carts, and cram you body into the vehicle. The most crowded bus ever. A man serpentines between bodies, shoves and squirms over railings, under elbows, all with a stack of rupees in his fist. You ass is on top of some child’s head. The French are not amused. You are patient.
But when you arrive at your destination, the beggars come on strong. Maeva chases a little girl down the road, you seize a man’s mobile phone directly from his hand and reprimand him for photographing you like a zoo animal.
The peddlers are aggressive and your back itches like crazy. Feels like you rolled around in fiber glass. It drives you mad. Heat rash? Allergies? No telling…
You go to the Rat Temple and are dismayed to learn that you must leave your shoes outside—putting them inside your backpack isn’t permitted. Your attempt to do so is construed as offensive. So you shuffle barefoot through the filth. The dirt, the tobacco pan expectorant, the rat urine and faeces, the pigeon shit, the melted sweets, and more. You can think of only one thing: how barbaric it all is. “This is how people get parasites,” you mutter, gritting your teeth at your itching back. The rats are disgusting. Black, mangy, with disfigurements, boils, missing body parts, and more. They feast on all the sweets offered by thousands of pious Indians. The wiggle at you feet, pile on top of one another in corners, hang out of holes in the wall. You are pushed and shoved by locals desperate to ring bells, say prayers, and make offerings. You just want out.
The itching becomes unbearable. Your hunger is so great, you are ready to rip the heads off of little children. You eat a fried something-or-other, which curbs your insanity, and then your party returns to the bus. This time, you may sit, and you nod off with you head wedged into the hard seat in front of you. The dimensions are too small. You give up, throw yourself onto the backpack in Maeva’s lap, and sleep. For a moment. Then it’s off the bus again. More ambling. More kicking through dust.
Little shriveled women crouch at the trenches lining the sides of the road. Trenches filled with shit, literally. Grey water and sewage. Human and cow manure. Reeking cess pools of bacteria. They dip their hands into it, hands holding pans. They are literally panning for gold in shit water.
Goudi still pursues Maeva when you return. He offers to let her live with him, to work for him, to teach English. He wants her to travel with him. He wants to elope. To leave his wife. Oh Indian men.