You aren’t angry. You aren’t even that tired. You’re not having a bad time. The ups and downs of travel are so common now, a few irritations are merely that: irritations. When it’s good, it’s really, really good. When it’s bad, it’s not really that bad. You’re actually having the time of your life. The travel bug is awake in you, once again. It bites you more persistently than the mosquitoes. It itches so good. You don’t want it to stop. Love to embrace randomness.
* * *
The sleeper bus to Pushkar leaves on time. You hoist your legs into the air, swing them into the tiny compartment, and fumble with the bags, being sure to leave the window for Maeva, who likes to surreptitiously smoke out the window. The bed is some kind of black, shaggy, soft thing—full of bacteria. You tuck your shirt into your pants and wrap a scarf around you head and face. You have a fear of getting head lice—with good reason. Nothing is ever washed in India.
You sleep well enough, disturbed every thirty minutes or so by the bumping and tipping of the bus, the feeling that it might skid into a ditch at any moment and pitch you through the window. At times, when you feel you are for sure going over, you grope through the darkness, find Maeva’s arm, and squeeze—and some kind of opera escapes your throat; you’ve taken to singing when things get uncomfortable. But the bus doesn’t tip over.
It stops after two hours, and you, foggy with sleep, nearly fall out of your compartment in order to avoid stepping on a man and his boy, who’ve made a bed of newspaper in the aisle. You hold your flip flops in your hand and go to the driver.
“Toilet?” you ask.
“No toilet,” he says. “Train.”
Damn. Too sleepy, you turn and go back to your bed.
Another hour passes and the bus engine cuts once again. This time, many men get up from their seats and shove past each other for a piss break. You stumble off the bus, more tired that ever. There is no rest stop. No shops. No vendors. Nothing. You are in the middle of nowhere. On the side of a country road, and you see the men pissing. One, two, three, a gap, and then a man on a tractor, also pissing. You walk to the gap, tug down your trousers, and piss among them. Zero fucks are given.
Back to the bus now, except you stall. You realize what is going on. A long line of cars, all of them stopped. About 100 meters ahead, you see big orange flames licking at the sky. A vehicle is on fire.
The others go for a look. You just don’t care. All you want is sleep. Maeve doesn’t even awaken when you flop and crash your way back into your awkward, elevated sleep cubby.
You arrive in Pushkar at around 5 o’clock in the morning. As you step off the bus, a man starts hustling you. You silently raise a finger to your lips in a shushing motion and ignore him, but he takes offense. “Great! Such rude tourists! I hope the other tourists aren’t as rude as you!”
You and Maeva walk away and park your butts on a well. Rubbing the sleep from your eyes, you feast on a kilo of bananas. You just want a moment to get your bearings; you just want a moment of peace. Impossible in India. The man follows, and Maeva yells at him, rather strongly. He yells back angrily and leaves. But after some minutes, the allure of potential business in too strong, so he approaches again with a softer demeanor and hands you his card.
You decide to stay in his guest house. Business as usual.
* * *
The power is out when you awaken, and you can feel the hot and sticky seeping into your clothing again. In India, you are always damp. Damp armpits. Damp bra line. Damp underwear from the water closets. Tables and chairs, too, are frequently damp, because young boys make rounds with filthy rags and wipe them with water. The fruit, constantly splashed. The streets, wet from shit and urine and mud. Damp. And buggy.
Mosquitoes are in your room and you cannot understand why. Stealthy little fuckers. Like little blood sucking ninjas. Impossible to see, impossible to feel. They bite you and dash off, too quick for lethal, clapping hands. You hate them. There are screens on the windows and the doors are shut, but they always find a way in. They must be reproducing in that damp bathroom.
What can you do?
Pushkar is very nice, and it’s a far cry from Bikaner. The air is clean, and the streets are small and charming—but they are not without scams. You and Maeva head to the holy lake, to the ghats, and are conned by a couple nice-seeming Brahmin men intent on giving you a blessing. Your hands are filled with red-pink flower petals and sugary treats, which you are meant to throw into the water. Please remove your shoes and come. So you do, keenly aware that something is up, even though they say, “Free! Free!”
It is a very nice blessing he gives you. “You mother and father, their names!” So you give them. “Your brothers and sisters, names!” So you give them. And so on.
“How much you like to give? 200? 300? 500?”
“Excuse me?” you say.
He repeats himself.
“None,” you reply. Five hundred rupees? This guy is out to lunch. That’s pretty much your daily budget.
He looks shocked, as though perhaps you didn’t understand him.
“How much you like to give?”
“Zero,” you enunciate, still feeling the paint dry on your forehead.
“Donation!” he says.
“You said free,” you respond.
“As you like,” he says, but then yo-yo’s on the offensive. “The donation is compulsory, madame.”
“That, by definition, sir, is not a donation,” you insist. “I will not give you anything. This is not my religion. I didn’t ask for this. You dragged me down here. You tricked me.” You get up to leave. The man accosts you. Another man joins in. You repeat yourself.
“Empty hands, empty heart!” he cries back.
“And you get what you give,” you say, rejoining Maeva, who was already rubbing her bindi off her forehead, hissing at her assailant.
Love that girl. She’s tighter with money than you are. And more paranoid. Match made in heaven.
You pass your time in exquisite simplicity: strolling, observing, tasting. Smelling perfumes. Speaking to locals. Meeting tourists. And laughing every time a street spontaneously explodes in festivities. One moment, it is the same old chaos, the next, it’s chaos squared. Hordes of skinny young men dance their hearts out to misplaced techno music, flower petals and confetti shoot into the air. Speakers, horns, cowbells. Dance, dance, dance! Camel-drawn carriages. People in costume. Paints and dusts—pinks, blues, oranges. Like a watercolor factory meltdown.
* * *
Federico, a tall, dreamy Italian man, finds you and Maeva at a banana cart. She knows him from all the way back in Udaipur. Now here he is again, with a buddy from Norway named Simon, a guy who sometimes sits silently, but who at other times speaks frequently, always with an edge of suspense. Like a person cautiously omitting facts, but revealing all the rest with intonation and cadence.
What can you say about good people? Only good things. You find yourselves in marvelous, well-rounded company. Everyone is smart, articulate, independent, and relaxed. No hippies. No rosy-cheeked, chubby little children. Just a group of down-to-earth, well-traveled folks that get along like fish in water.
Federico introduces you to his other friend, English Simon, who’s a self-identified Sophist and a marvelous photographer, albeit quite the cynic. But always good for a laugh. A day later, you and Maeva introduce them to your favorite man thus far, Clint, whom you’d met back in Ba’s guest house days earlier. The Indian travel circuit is simple, and you frequently bump into old faces.
Now you are six, and the entertainment never stops. One minute you’re lunching, the next you’re climbing a mountain and throwing banana peels at monkeys. You’re playing flick board to pass the evening, looking at precious stones in the afternoon, or watching how a man makes (and plays) the didgeridoo. Then you’re blowing yourself dizzy all the time.
You rent motorcycles and spend the day in the countryside, photographing locals and trying not to die—to be run off the road by a raging truck, to slam in a pothole, to lose traction in the sand, or to stall while fording a stream. India equals world’s worst conditions to ride a motorcycle with no insurance and no helmet.
Maeva learns this the hard way when, with Clint on the back of the bike, she slams into a hole after losing traction and goes down. No one is seriously injured, though Maeva’s foot is cut and bleeding. As luck happens, she has crashed directly next to the home of a machinist, who helps them roll the bike into his yard and bends back pieces of metal damaged from the crash, free of charge. Another man doctors Maeva’s wound, first pouring local water all over it, and then smearing motor grease on it.
Everyone holds their breath, wondering if it is such a good idea. Then man seems to know what he is doing.
Some time later, some locals invite you to their Moslem village for a dinner. Mutton and some sugary meal. You eat among 40 people, mostly children, who stare at you as children stare into an aquarium. “Which country! You’re name! Picture, picture.”
You are hot, thirsty, sunburned, filthy. No energy for the games. No energy for them. Federico entertains the crowd with magic tricks before you are suddenly rushed out the door—rather urgently, for some unknown reason. You leave, not first without flicking several children off the back of your bike. The road back to Pushkar is long and dusty. You have had nothing but a few bananas all day long, and your patience is thin.
You manage not to kill yourself all day—a feat requiring far more energy than anticipated. After a much-prolonged dinner, you leave early to go to your guest house and crash for the night.
Enough fun, right?
Not at all. The next day, somewhat spontaneously find yourself at a five-star luxury resort hotel, making good (free) use of their swimming pool. You stay until the sun goes down, and then hitchhike back to town in the dark. India is just so random.
* * *
Your marvelous group whittles down to five. Clint is the first to go, quite reluctantly—but a previous commitment to a tour package has has his hands tied. English Simon accompanies your group to Bundi, a dusty little lake town in bum-fuck-middle-of-nowhere Rajathan. He hems and haws about India in general, perhaps because he’s already been there for three and a half years, feeling very uninspired. He buys himself multiple public bus tickets to accommodate his 30kg of gear, and the rest of your wait patiently, squished together, folded over and under yourselves in any manner comfortable. Your bag is just a little too thick to fit all the way under your bus seat. It always is.
In Bundi, you cram yourselves and all your shit into one tiny rickshaw, Indian style, which struggles to ascend the hills. The driver tries to charge your group double, and like seasoned travelers that take no shit, you all tell him to fuck off.
“Fuck off,” is an unfortunately new part of your vocabulary. You are neither an angry nor a bitter person, and you are seldom ever rude. It goes against your nature to treat people disrespectfully. But you know the price of water, of peanuts, of bananas, of dates; you know what kind of value you can get from a 40 rps thali vs an 80 rps thali. Forget about 100+. So every time some Indian chump tries to impose the “skin tax,” you just smile and tell him to “fuck off.”
“Do you have water for ten rupees?” you ask.
“Yes, water. Twenty rupees!” comes the reply.
“I asked if you have water for ten rupees. Not twenty,” you reply.
The response is a fake laugh, a sort of “silly-tourist” remark about how water is and always has been twenty.
“Then you will not sell me or my four thirsty friends any water. Your loss.”
And that’s it. It takes about four inquiries, but you always find water for ten, and the vendor not only gets to unload no fewer than twenty bottles, but additionally all the chai, all the cigarettes, and all the other bits and pieces a mob of jobless vagabonds ever desires. He becomes your corner shop—the neighborhood friend who doesn’t price gouge you on the basics, so you end up buying more. Over the days, you find your community: a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where all the locals eat, which charges less than half for the same meals. Your corner sweet shop. Your regular banana cart. It swiftly feels like you’ve been living there for ages. But you’ve only just arrived.
In Bundi, the guest houses are in strange competition with each other, both over and under-charging, but you, Maeva, and Federico spring for a triple with private rooftop access. At times, the three of you squish into the double bed and watch Mad Men, at others, thick clouds of smoke hug the ceiling and bits of ash fly over the mattresses, dislodged from burning cigarettes by the ceiling fan. Someone blows the didgeridoo, and the rest of you talk about language, life, philosophy, touching, stars, sex, anything.
English Simon departs for Goa, and the group is reduced to four. It is not a great loss, and the group dynamic improves. Four easy-going people can more swiftly agree to keep walking all the way out of town and hitchhike to a local waterfall, some 40km away. So you do, but manage to catch the local bus instead. It’s a total bone-rattler, and you laugh and shriek every time the back of the bus bounces you into the air. 20 pairs of eyes stare back of your merry little group, creep back and beg for pictures of blue eyes and white skin.
The waterfall is not unlike other waterfalls you’ve seen, save for the gorgeous pool of water below it, perfectly warm for swimming. You peel off your clothes and jump into the lake, hoping those asshole monkeys on shore don’t make away with your camera. Federico swims under the waterfall and resurfaces behind it—sits on a wall, and implores the rest of you to join him.
You learn that you have a terrible phobia of being submerged under water. The others follow under the fall, but you tread water for another 15 minutes and try to build up the courage to do the same. Fear is a funny thing. Utterly paralyzing. And for no good reason. There is no reason in the world that your friends can swim under the fall and you cannot.
Your success is dimmed only by your frenetic gasping for air and the helping hands. Federico and Maeva pull you over to the ledge on which they sit and laugh and offer their congratulations. You sulk like a soaked kitten but inwardly feel very, very proud. You heart still races, and the roaring of the falls—the back-splashing water—the stone, the trees, the lakes—the elements—overwhelm your senses. It feels so, so incredibly good to be alive in that moment.
* * *
It’s time to leave. You have a mere matter of days before you’re due in Goa and you must begin to long journey south.
You want to leave that night, after returning from the waterfall, but Maeva implores you to stay and to rethink your itinerary. Her little feline eyes are too persuasive. Really, it is just that the two of you are ass-bonded; and that you hate being alone. She claps her hands and jumps on the bed excitedly, hearing your decision to stay another night.
“So English Simon left me some pills before he left for Goa,” Federico says.
Why not? You pop a pill, hoping it might put you into a marvelous deep sleep. So do the others.
Quite the opposite. You all get insomnia, and even though you have managed about two hours of sleep, the others remain awake until seven o’clock in the morning. You know this cannot end well—but then you remind yourself that India is just about the laziest place on earth: days start at ten in the morning, people move with luxurious slowness or sit in the eternity of afternoon sunlight, drinking chai and observing the streets with the persistence of water eroding rock. Their eyes carve into you.
So your final day in Bundi begins late. Your guest house manager politely reminds you at one o’clock that check-out was at ten. Oh well. What can you do?
Your group decides to hike up to a little temple on top of a mountain. An overly-friendly neighborhood goat follows you, and you name her Esmerelda.
It’s another one of those moments when you catch yourself thinking about how utterly random India is. One moment your lying on a rooftop, watching shooting stars cut across the sky and blowing smoke into the air, and then at daybreak you see a troop of twenty monkeys charge down the walls of the monumental fort, cascading like water. Monkey, monkey, monkey, drop, drop, drop. Down, down, down they go. You watch them, suck on dates, and fling the pits over the edge of a wall and hear the tink, tink, tink of their wherever-landings. Random. And then the sudden, jarring brrrr, brrrrr, brrrrrrr! of jackhammers in the morning. Some planning committee has decided to rip out the street in front of your guest house and no one is notified. Jesus. The traffic in front of your guest house—the rickshaws, the motorcycles, the pedestrians, is laughable. Everyone tries to cross over mounds of dirt displaced by the digging of women in beautiful saris, of children in tattered grey shirts, of young boys dark, brown, and wiry from country life.
Random. All of it so random. Like your goat.
The villagers see your party walking along the road, goat in your company, and demand, “Where get goat?”
“She follows us!” comes the reply.
Head bobble. Move on.
Esmerelda gives not a single fuck.
Finally, after 4 hours, two young boys catch Esmerelda by her ears and haul her away. You say your adieus and go to fetch your gear from the guest house.
That afternoon you are overcome with pleasure at the sight of your motley crew—a mish mash of backpacks, didgeridoos, cameras, water bottles, dust, raccoon sun tans, filthy flop-flop feet, and kilo bags of bananas. Something feels Romantic about it all—with a capital R. Idealized reality. This is you, in a moment, a little slice of time. You are sticky, filthy. There are little jagged lines of brownish-black printed on your shins and calves—the evidence of a sweaty leg crossing in a cracked, plastic chair at a roadside chai shop. Temporary tattoos of mountain ranges; like an old-timey map. Evidence of miles traveled. Of the journey.