You’ve been freezing your tits off. You admit, you didn’t exactly anticipate the cold while lazing about in Goa. Even a handful of days ago in Mumbai, when Gustaf’s roommate exclaimed, “Oh! Cold! It was just snowing in Delhi,” you didn’t quite make the connection: that you would soon be playing the cold survival game again.
5 degrees Celcius on a train doesn’t sound as bad as -7, snow-camping in Italy in 2009. In both cases, you were under-prepared. In Italy, you had a pair of blue jeans over a pair of hiking shorts, two pairs of Smartwool medium hiking socks, non-weatherproof hiking boots, several T-shits, a blue cap, pashmina, and a coat you found on the side of the highway. Alexis, roughly the same.
And the two of you braved the weather in your little blue tent, sharing a thin foam pad, stacking your feet on top of your backpacks so that the condensation wouldn’t soak your socks by morning, and sharing your paper-thin sleeping bag and her much better zero-degree bag like two quilts: one under you, the other over. Each of you were wearing so many layers that it made maneuvering difficult, so she was responsible for making sure your shirts were tucked in the back, and you did the same for her as you forked each other in matrimonial travel partnership. Under the sleeping bags, faces wrapped in pashminas, you had tried to warm your necks with hot breath. In the morning, a thin sheet of ice had always formed on the tops of your heads.
It’s no surprise you caught pneumonia. Ugh. Thankfully, the illness befell you after you had already safely arrived back in Ireland, but you remember the feeling of a knife in your chest every time you tried to take a breath—then the panic and the plea for the hospital. You were delirious on the way, blood pressure so low you couldn’t even lift your head.
So naturally, having learned a valuable lesson, you thought you would surely be better prepared for the cold the next time you traveled in the winter. Wrong. The next winter by yourself, you were still woefully under-equipped, but at least had the common sense not to be camping in it in the rain and snow. The next travel winter with Katie, you were slightly better off, but there’s just no getting around the fact that cold-weather gear is cumbersome and expensive. In the end, you’d rather freeze than carry all that shit.
So what about winter in India? Well, it’s marginally warmer, for sure, but you have seen no improvement in your preparedness. In fact, piles of paper-thin hot-sticky-weather clothing are downright useless in 5 degrees.
True, you’re not camping. But traveling by rail in a steel box; residing in guest houses with no heat, no warm water, and cold tile floors, not to mention the mere suggestion of a blanket they provide; and sleeping in train stations have sent you down Memory Lane of Cold.
Luckily enough, cold doesn’t depress you. Makes you feel alive. Makes you want to move. You would trade cold for heat any day. But heat doesn’t come with the threat of illness and/or hospitalization. If you get wet when it’s warm, no big deal. If it’s cold, you’re in deep shit.
But before you get into that, you’d like to visit a wondrous little town called Orccha, where the locals were fabulously, naïvely friendly—not so accustomed to tourists. It might very well be your favorite place in India thus far. You rolled into town via a 25-minute rickshaw ride at 11pm. The driver drove bundled in a heavy coat, a head scarf, and gloves, and he exhaled long steamy streams of cigarette smoke along the way. Just past the last open restaurant in town, at which a group of Indians gathered around a fire to keep warm, your guest house was a solid deal, complete with strong wifi, but not exactly providing much in the way of blankets. You and Maeva wore most of the clothing you had and shivered the night away.
“I really need to buy some shoes,” Maeva said, feet camel-toeing a pair of your wool socks.
You’d recently lost your flip flops on a train and felt that the timing couldn’t have been better and thank god you had a spare pair of lightweight, breathable shoes. They were not warm, but it was certainly an improvement.
“And I need new underwear,” you added. God, yes you did. You needed new everything. You needed warmer layers, a coat, some boots, a new backpack. Everything. This is what travel has done to your clothing…
Who’s bright idea was it to plan to go to Nepal in February?
The cold weather was just preparation for what lie ahead.
By your next destination, Khajuraho, which was slightly warmer, you were still struggling. Not just with the cold, but suddenly with the people. Your guest house owner was an egocentric misogynist, though not intolerable—you’d simply gotten off on the wrong foot because his hound-dog rickshaw drivers had over-zealously agreed to your bargaining price, and you later found that the selling points, like hot water, did not in fact come with the room.
The rickshaw driver and his friend, furthermore, made good sport of following you and Maeva around the city, popping up in your face every time you rounded a corner, scheming for a double date.
“I have motorbike. I can take you to the waterfalls. Very beautiful. No tourists there.”
Just horny men.
They bought you a shitty noodle dinner and forced you to take a romantic walk to the lake, where they then attempted to split you and Maeva apart in order to spit better game, and said things like, “Good feeling, good energy in a man. There’s good feeling and good energy in womens. And then man and womens meet and share warm energy together,” blah blah blah! One of them said something about womens-womens energy and man-man energy not being as good, or as possible as man-womens energy.
You beg to differ.
“I don’t want to go with them on their motorbike,” Maeva said to you privately in French. Because, reasonably, it showed potential for isolation and rape. Not that you were particularly worried about a pair of skinny Indians. But when you didn’t give them a decisive answer, they suggested everything from alcohol to a belated birthday celebration for Maeva, for whom they could arrange a cake—“Which will probably be stuffed with drugs,” you added.
If it wasn’t them, it was some other pair of horny guys, and then at last a very cheeky 13-year-old boy who boasted about his “big banana,” and how he’d already had sex with a Western woman and she was very impressed with his size and skill.
You suspect the hordes of horny men might have something to do with all that porn all over the sides of Khajuraho’s temples.
The horny men were not nearly as annoying as the predatory salesmen. If you thought tourist hotspots in Rajasthan were full of aggressive salesmen, then you probably thought that Goa was a good representation of India. Khajuraho, to date, has the most oppressive, annoying, aggressive, and entitled salesmen you’ve ever encountered. So put off were the two of you by the atmosphere that you hightailed it out of town a day later.
But not first without buying a giant wool blanket for the hard-bargained price of 500 rupees. Then, as you were waiting for the bus to depart, you saw it: a big, beautiful (eerrrr, no, take that back), hideous, white, marshmallowy, down jacket.
“One piece, 100 rupees,” said the street vendor. He had seized upon a truckload of second-hand clothes from all corners of the world, and didn’t seem to know his right hand from his left. You couldn’t believe that a down jacket—even one as ugly as this—could possibly be the same price as a Champion hoodie.
You snagged it, along with a you-sized black zippy, and scuttled away before the man could realize his error.
Later that evening, after an arduous and patient day of buses and hawkers, you stood on a railway platform in Satna, like the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man. Jesus god, that coat was ugly, but oh-so-deliciously-warm.
It was also on this day that the number of Indian’s mistaking you for a man increased about 10,000 fold. You have been accustomed to receiving one “sir” per month in this country—not five per day. You were not expecting that little woman in the ladies room to round the corner with wide, shocked eyes, and then turn on a heel and flee when she thought a man was emerging from the ladies toilet. A half-dozen pairs of curious, deep brown eyes drilled into you as you exited, trying to discern your gender.
Your next destination, Allahabad, the holiest of Hindu destinations, was covered in flea-ridden dogs, vulture-like bicycle rickshaw drivers, and no one who could understand English or read a map. At 3 o’clock in the morning, you and Maeva had had enough of wandering in search of an affordable guest house. You walked past three sleeping guards and directly into front door of one of them, sat for a while in their semi-warm lobby, and considered camping out on their couches since no one was manning the desk—but your conscious was to heavy and you dragged Maeva back to the train station. There you unrolled your mats and your new blanket, chained your bags to a railing, and lie down among a couple hundred other sleeping Indians. By morning, Maeva’s greedy ass had shoved you off your mat, having crept nearer and nearer your warm downy belly, desperate for a spoon.
You finally did land a decent guest house in the morning, and after a quick breakfast, you went to Sangam—the confluence of the two holiest rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna—where hordes of Hindus were boarding poorly-rowed boats and eagerly ditching their clothes in 5 degree weather to bathe at two rivers’ joint. You tried to avoid getting scammed, getting bindi-ed, getting too wet while dumping some special holy milky water into the river; you had already spent hours dodging hundreds of beggars, pilgrims, handicaps, and photo-bombers, not to mention fighting with a crooked rickshaw driver and a man with unclear intentions.
Then it began to rain. It thundered and lightninged. Then started dumping buckets. Maeva’s camel-toe-flip-flopping and your barely-there sneakers were just the beginning of the end. Your only-remaining dry clothes (read: dry, not clean) were soaked. Your future of in India, much less Nepal, in terms of enduring the winter, remains an amusing mystery.