Eighteen years ago, in late November, before digital cameras and Facebook preserved every dull moment, I was in India. What I remember most of the journey started with a chance meeting in the “pink city” of Jaipur where the gutters also ran golden, in places, with the pee of the men dribbling from a wall near the street.
I had been minding my own business at the end of the Jaipur railway platform, trying to get some distance from the India cacophony. She saw me there. Without hesitation she walked straight towards me. I can still see her now, her head wrapped in an Indian scarf, the sun shinning intensely through the mist, dust, whatever it is that clung to the bottom edge of this country’s sky. She had a distinctly point nose and, for a white person, golden brown skin. She was thin, little bust to speak of or hips protruding. Her hair was dark, a brown colour, and her eyes were green.
She didn’t smile, she just sat down next to me and took out a cigarette and lit it up, then offered me one, which I accepted. After a puff of hers, she spoke.
“The men ‘assle you ‘ere if you are alone”, she said.
“I know, I have been wearing this bandana on my head and some guy in New Dehli thought I was a woman and gave me a pinch on the bum.” I had a puff of my smoke, I didn’t really want a cigarette, and hadn’t had one for about a month, since just before I went to the Vipassana meditation centre near Auxerre, south of Paris. I had bought a pack of Gauloises Blondes in Paris and had a couple before ditching them on the bus on the way to the meditation centre. They were much nicer than the cheap Indian ones.
“I’m off to Pushkar”, I said.
“As I am”, she replied, “we could share a room there?” It was more of a statement than a question, she knew I would say yes, and didn’t care if I didn’t.
We didn’t have to speak much, I knew we would sit together on the train and when she wanted a rest, that I would look after her bags. Indian kids hung out of the barred windows. and large men in singlets dozed. We got a few interested stares from passengers being the only white people on the train.
“We’re are you from”, I asked her after I had watched her resting for a few hours.
“I ‘ave been living in Pondicherry “.
“Oh”, I said.
She didn’t ask where I was from, but offered me another cigarette. This time I said no.
“I like the light of the Indian sky,” I said.
She pursed her lips and nodded her head. I may pass her ‘is this guy a stupid tourist’ test, as long as I don’t talk too much. I did ask her name, but I have long since forgotten it. I remember it being a nice name that suited her and that maybe it started with ‘L’.
‘We ‘ave to get onto ze bus” she remarked suddenly. I hadn’t been paying attention and for some reason it had come as a surprise that we needed a bus since the train seemed to be taking us the right way. Going to Pushkar was a last minute decision, in Jaipur I had almost gone to some bird sanctuary with a cute Belgian couple who I had met while waiting for an elephant to take us up to the Red Fort, until their driver had cracked the shits because the couple had stayed at a hotel, which they had shown me after our elephant trip, where they had a four-posted bed and a flat tiger on the floor, rather than the hotel the driver had recommended. Apparently it had meant the driver had to stay in the car rather than getting a bed for the night so he was extra grumpy and wouldn’t allow them to take me in their car due to some ‘government regulations’ that he had obvioulsy just made up.
“Sorry”, the cute Belgian lady said with a shrug and a grimace, “he has been a bit like this”.
But she was able to convince the driver to at least take me as far as the train station.
This guy called Steve, from Melbourne, who was organised and had a Lonely Planet guide book and plans and stuff, who I had shared a room in Jaipur with, had said Pushkar was worth a visit.
“That sounds nice”, I said, “can I have a look at it in the Lonely Planet book?”
“Why didn’t you get your own book?”
“I dunno, I didn’t really expect to be going to India”, this was true, I was really just trying to get back to Australia and was only stuck in India as I couldn’t get a Thai Airways flight from London directly to Bangkok, and could only manage to get as far as Delhi, where they said I might be able to get a flight to Bangkok in a few days.
Steve, it turns out, never got stuck in countries waiting for planes because he was organised. Steve also hated people who ‘sponged’, including people who sponged Lonely Planet guides. Eventually Steve capitulated and let me look at his book, but the filthy look he had on his face as he handed it over to me meant I was only comfortable having a quick glance and giving it back, which meant I hadn’t read enough to realise that you had to get off at Ajmer station and bus it from there.
Funny that I can remember Steve’s name when I can’t remember the French woman’s. I looked Steve up when I got back to Melbourne, his mum told me that he had shot himself at their holiday home. India can do that to you.
Anyway, without the French woman, I’m not sure where I would have ended up – Pakistan?
At the bus station she told me to wait with our bags as she went to find the right bus . I caught sight of samosas and edged our gear close enough to them. They were only 5 rupees each and the contents were like vegetables on fire, each bite like having a row of moustached men in dhotis take turns at violently shaking me and then slapping me in the face.
The French woman returned and, spice punch drunk, I heard her voice, ‘we must ‘urry, the bus is about to depart’ I grabbed the bags and made my way with her through the maze of people and buses, there were signs but they were mostly in Indian script, but she knew which was the right one.
“By ze way”, she said, “you might want to be careful of ze food at ze train stations, it can make you sick”.
I just stared, my face crimson and my eyes looking ahead in horror as the chilli surged through my veins.
We go on the bus, they were all local passengers except for us. It was a long time ago, but I think there was also at least one chicken on board. We wound our way through some hills. Closer to our destination there were religious symbols and flags and things that showed that we were heading to a holy place for Hindus. When we hit the town, the usual hawkers awaited us, touting cheap hotels and crappy nick-nacs. There was a place for about 200 rupees which I thought was a bargain but the French woman shook her head, obviously taking pity on my lack of local knowledge, “we must go from ze centre, there we find some family ‘otel which is much cheaper”. I nodded and followed along obediently, there was no denying that she wore the trousers in this relationship. They were nice baggy, Indian style trousers with little mirrors and embroidery, but still trousers.
We wound our way through the town that reminded me a little of Mos Eisley Spaceport in Star Wars, until the French woman found a little girl down a side street who could put us up at their house for 50 rupees for a room with two beds and a shower. The little girl took us back to her home and all was going well until she asked for the French woman to show her passport. I panicked, no one had asked to see my passport yet and, since I had originally thought that I was going to go to India on the way over to Europe rather than the way back, my visa for India had expired a few months earlier and I didn’t have enough money to renew it in London. The scary looking immigration officer at Delhi airport, despite looking me up and down a few times and supposedly studying my passport in fine detail, hadn’t noticed this and I was hoping I might get away with it until I could get a seat to Bangkok, or at least get deported to Australia.
“Visa number please?” Asked the little girl with a typically Indian bureaucratic tone which I guess they must teach them at school. I had to think fast, I had a visa, the date was just wrong so as I opened up the passport to show my visa number and I just surreptitiously covered the expiry date with my thumb as she wrote down the visa number.
“That was close”, I said to the French woman as we settled into our room.
“Why?” She asked.
“My visa has expired”.
“You could get into trouble for this”. She said knowingly, “If you want to stay in India, you should to go to immigration”. She pulled out an Indian chillum, a clay pipe the sadhus and hippies use to smoke dope from, and put a bit of the Indian hashish in and started puffing deeply. She offered it to me.
“No thanks”, I said, “I’m hoping to go to a meditation centre in a few days and want to be clean.
She shrugged her shoulders, “the Indian sadhus all smoke”.
“I don’t mind other people smoking. I just feel better not to.”
I laid back onto my bed, we were only a few feet apart. I loved her confidence. The hashish seemed to have no affect on her and after finishing off the chillum she just stood up and announced that she was going to explore the town a little. I just wanted to rest, the journey wasn’t long but I think the samosa was starting to catch up with me. After an hour or so on the bed I felt strong enough to go into town, if you could call it that, for some chai at a little place under a tree overlooking Pushkar lake which was very holy indeed but at the time didn’t inspire much awe as it was only about a quarter full. I didn’t have the energy to do anything after the walk in so I just sat all afternoon ignoring hawkers, drinking more tea, and although not hungry, trying to force down a few spoons fulls of extremely hot dhal and a half a chapati, before settling on a mango lassi, and more chai, as the sun set. The day had been hot and a bit sticky, but as soon as the sun departed the temperature went down with it and I had to walked briskly back to the house to keep warm, dodging a few cows on the way, crossing my fingers that I’d find my way back in the dark.
My French friend was still not back when I returned, I couldn’t stand being up any longer and I had to crash. A few hours later she came back accompanied by an Israeli guy. I felt too weak to get up fully but I managed to prop myself on the bed and greet the guy. It wasn’t long before they were both getting stuck into more chillums, the Israeli offered me another try, but I again declined.
“You look ill”, said the French woman. I nodded. “We don’t disturb you too much?”
“No, it’s fine, I am happy to lie and listen”.
They talked about the usual Indian things, spirituality, places in India they had visited. I was a novice Indian traveller only having been in the country for a few days, so I didn’t have much to offer.
After an hour the Israeli blurted out with a big stoned grin : “John, do you want to go on a camel ride in the desert?”.
“Okay”, I said, just raising my head little from the pillow.
“I have a discount from a travel agent at the edge of town, they want us to meet at no later than 9 a.m.”
He chatted on a bit more about his adventures and then the French woman announced abrublty: “We should call it a night”.
“Oh, yes, sure”, said the Israeli, “we meet then at 9 a.m.?” he gave me the travel agent’s card, as I was obviously her assistant, and then he chatted for another twenty minutes or so, as stoners tend to do when they are trying to leave a room. I knew what it was like, it once took me 25 minutes to take one shoe off when I used to smoke at a backpackers in Byron Bay till 3 a.m.
“Good luck with the shoes”, I said to him as he went out the door.
“Thank you”, he said.
“Do you mind if I take a shower?” Asked the French woman. The shower was just a few feet from our beds, behind a small wall that jutted out just far enough to fit a petite body behind. I turned over to give her a bit of privacy and tried to sleep as I listened to the water tumbling onto the concrete floor.
When she had finished I turned her way again.
“Are you okay?” She asked.
“I think it is just something I ate”.
“This is India”, she said. I was now in the fetal position, trying to ignore my burning head. “Your head is sweating” she added, she opened a bottle of water and passed it over to me, I sat up and took a few sips before crashing again.
“I’ll be okay”, I said. She was siting on the edge of her bed, her knees by my face, she put her hand on my back and gently stroked it a few times, then went into the bathroom, returning with a damp piece of cloth that she placed gently on my forehead. “Thanks”, I said before passing out.
Some hours later, or so I guess, I woke. The fever had broken. My French friend was sound asleep, close enough to almost feel her breath on my face, I watched her for in the darkness then I reached out to hold her hand, stopping just short so my fingertips could feel the warmth of her skin. It wasn’t long until the predawn lit the room. I showered and dressed without waking her. It was only a bit past 6 a.m. My appetite had returned and I wanted some cornflakes, yoghurt and papaya, it was the onyl thing besides dhal and chapatis, and the occasional bit of fresh fruit and peanut brittle like stuff, that I had eaten in India. I opened and closed our room’s door as quietly as I could and then turned around and was startled by the little host girl before me.
“Would you like chapatis?” She asked.
I sighed relief, thinking she might be trying to spring a closer inspection of my expired visa. “No”, I said, “I think I might go into town and get something”.
“We make good chapatis with jam” she said nodding her head from side to side as the Indians do; looking disappointed that I wouldn’t eat her family’s flat bread.
“No I like chapatis, I just feel like cornflakes and yoghurt. I’ve been a bit sick”. Her frown deepened, “you don’t have any cornflakes I suppose?” I added.
“No”, she said with a look that showed a disdain for anything Kellogg related while her head nodded even more vigourously. Feeling awful for not taking the kid’s chapatis I nonetheless headed into town for my cornflakes and a few chais, again at my little cafe under the tree by the lake, past the cows.
I sat for a while but as the sun rose a bit further I thought I better go get the French woman up so we could go on the camels.
“What is the time?” she asked as I closed the door on my return.
“We should go,” she stretched and yawned.
“Thanks for last night, you were very kind”.
“oui, ca va.”
I was still on western time and felt we needed to hurry otherwise we would miss the 9 a.m. camel. The French woman took the time as more of a guide than a rule and dragged her feet behind me as we made our way through the narrow streets at the edge of the lake, smoking a cigarette, “no need to ‘urry” she said. She was right, by the time we found the place, and the Israeli guy, it was 9.25 and there was still no camels in site, a half asleep guide then led us through another maze of buildings and temples that led to three camels, with two seats, and each with a skinny Rajasthani rider. Mine had a black moustache and didn’t smile much, but as we headed into the desert he asked me where I was from and what work I did. When I told him I worked on a farm he was amazed that I would even have enough money to come to this country, and I felt bad for being rich just because I was born, a white man in Australia.
It wasn’t long before I got the point of how lucky we often are to be born were we are. We had stopped for lunch, a simple dhal and chapatti deal that came with the camels, the French woman and the Israeli guy had the chillums pumping like the Puffing Billy steam engine, I decide I wanted a break, so I climbed a small hill and sat under a tree meditating. Just as I had closed my eyes a skinny Rajasthani goat farmer, and his goats, and a little girl, came by.
In whatever language he spoke he started telling me a story and pointed down towards my companions. He was smiling but he obviously did not want me on the hill, I think he was warning me of the dangers of being on the hill, perhaps a tiger was about, or cobras or a dangerous gang of monkeys, whatever it was he didn’t stop until I got up and started walking down to my friends again, but not before the little girl took my almost empty plastic water bottle from my hand. She probably figured that I would be ditching it at some point and that she might as well take it off my hands now. From our camp I watched her and the man heading back into the desert. I didn’t see someone skinnier until many years later when my father was a few days off dying and weighed around 40 kilos.
I planned to leave the Israeli and the Frenchwoman to themselves in the afternoon. They were getting along like a house on fire, having the excessive dope smoking thing in common, and I did’t want to be the third wheel. But after we got off of our camels the Israeli announced that he had to meet up with some other Israelis, he kissed the French woman on the cheeks and said that they should meet up afterwards.
“Did you want to get a chai by the lake?” I asked her.
“You don’t want to see any of ze temples?” She asked.
“I do not either”.
We spent the afternoon at the same cafe under the same tree that overlooked the lake and swapped our life stories, which, perhaps because she was so stoned, were mostly my life stories. I told her how I had travelled to Europe hoping to catch up with a married Swiss woman called Corrine I had had a fling with in Australia, but that she never returned my postcards, and that I had then fallen in love with another woman named Agatha from Barcelona who I’d met in Dublin, but I didn’t have the money to go to Spain to see her, and then I had met an actress called Elina at the Vipassana meditation centre in France, who I was definitely not in love with, but who felt like a long lost friend to me. She laughed and rolled her eyes, “women!” and then she let me in on her life in Pondicherry.
The chai turned into dinner, and then desert and finally we headed back to the hotel, past the resting cows chewing the daily newspapers, and both showered, then chatted in bed until the early hours of the morning, looking into each other’s eyes in the dim light.
It was my last night in Pushkar, as I had to try and get to Jaipur in the morning as there was a Vipassana meditation course I wanted to get on, which was at a centre in the hills outside of the town, that started the next afternoon, and I wanted to make the most of it it.
“I am so glad that I have met you”, I said to her.
“Thank you”, she said, and she reached her hand over to mine pulling me gently towards her bed.
“I will have to leave early in the morning”, I said as I settled into her bed and held her, my heart pumping through my chest. “We will probably never see each other again”, I added. But it didn’t matter, we just held each other, glad of the warmth, neither of us wanting, it seemed, to do anything beyond that.
“Life is little moments like this; to be forgotten”, she said as we eventually drifted off to sleep.
I left without waking her, leaving a note with my address, thanking her again for being there for me, and then headed out to get some chapattis and jam off the little girl.
You travel the world to see all the monuments and famous places and paintings, but for me it is moments like these, chance meetings with real people, in places you never planned to be in, that I remember so fondly.
In the afternoon of the next day, after a bus, train and taxi ride, avoiding the samosa on the way, I arrived at the meditation centre, prepared for 10 days of serious meditation from 4 a.m. to to 9 p.m., in total silence and with the spiritual grandeur of India all around me.
“Do you have your passport?” The guy said when I went up to the enrolment desk.
“Well, yes, but”, I sighed, “my visa has kind of expired”, and, of course as I said it I realised that I could not do the course at that time and that I would have to go to immigration. I didn’t mind, it doesn’t pay to get too attached to plans, and I went back down the hill and made my way to Delhi, travelling through the night, to sort out the whole ‘visa thing’…
I am yet to hear from the French woman, but I hope she is happy.