A journey into Rajasthan turns into a downward spiral of misadventure — the India experience.
A leap into the dark sometimes results in a dark journey.
The tourist trail, a well pummeled track laden with touts, cloying shop keepers and ersatz German Bakeries in Rajasthan, India bore me. Travellers and tourists do not mix well. Tourists have money to spend, trinkets to buy and beer to swill. I have none of these. And it is the odious holiday season, two weeks and more of banal celebrations and escalating hotel prices. A disaster for a traveller with an anorexic wallet.
A jaunty troop around the rim of Gujarat State, a toe-dipping dalliance into the Arabian Sea, promises a delightful respite from the madding hordes.
The southbound journey begins delightfully aboard a local bus with sufficient legroom, a rarity for an Indian bus, and a window seat on the shady side. The morning bursts with possibilities of mighty fine adventuring.
In Barmer, a nondescript anthill manically consumed in the business of daily commerce, I am assaulted by a troupe of filthy little girls mewling for school pens, Rupees and chocolates. Their hepatitis laced claws scratch at my arms like rabid kittens.
‘Begone!’ I cry. ‘Begone with ye, ye little curs!’ To little effect. These elfin terrors redouble their efforts. I reach into my pocket for an emergency banana [Editor’s Note: Little girls! A banana! Where the hell is this going?] … I reach into my pocket for a … an orange and toss it down the street hoping it will purchase a momentary diversion and enable my escape. The diversion fails. Vicious sprites have little interest in colorful fruit.
There is now no alternative but to charge through my tormentors. It will mean flattening a little girl, maybe two. Pink ribbons and pretty dresses will be creased into the pavement. I summon my meanest warrior cry and charge. A plump little girl, too slow on her chubby Lilliputian feet for this ugly business, is duly knocked down.
I flee toward the nearest hotel hotly pursued by yelping puppies of hell. Into the hotel! Into the hotel I must go! These diminutive hobgoblins will not cross the hotel’s threshold. It is a magic door.
You hear stories. Stories of horrors visited upon travellers that send dark chills rippling up your spine.
Now hunted by marauding mini-gangsterettes with a score to settle leaving town on the next available bus is a prudent measure.
Overnight bus rides require the utmost cooperation of your body systems. Beware the digestive tract, it is a pernicious traitor patiently waiting to spring its evil trap.
The initial bubbling in my lower tummy is dismissed as a settling in gesture. This will be a long haul to Gandhidam, a fourteen hour ordeal of cramped legs and a numb butt. That I am prepared for. Ever the diligent traveller I carry a wide-necked pee bottle within easy reach for discrete and immediate relief. Rest stops are few and far between. There are no onboard facilities.
Nothing can prepare you for the most dastardly of betrayals — a deed exceedingly most foul — that can be visited upon a bus-trapped wretch. The bubbling in my belly grows more insistent. I attempt to meditate the pressing need away. Mind over matter. Soon I am praying as fervently as a bible thumping television evangelist busted indilecto at a petting zoo orgy for it all to just go away. To no avail.
I hobble like a butt-locked ballerina with arthritic knees to the front of the bus and beg the driver to pull over. My urgent request is denied. Indian buses do not stop. Especially for something as mundane as a human need.
You hear stories from travellers. Awful stories that your Mom neglected to tell you. Stories like having to shit into a plastic bag while being tossed from side to side on a speeding bus on a bumpy road. Don’t expect a helping hand in this endeavor.
I grimly survey my fellow passengers. The innocents are mostly asleep. A few are staring vacantly ahead into infinity, their minds agape at intimations of the nightmares that await in old age. The empty years. The aisle is dark and might afford a modicum of privacy.
I hurriedly root in my backpack for a plastic bag and pull out a poor specimen. It is the kind found in supermarkets for fruit and vegetables and never intended in the wildest dreams of its makers for my impending performance. The bag is flimsy and shirks from its suicidal destiny. I apologize to the bag as I fold its opening into a collar.
In my mind I rehearse what needs doing. The crisis unfolding in my belly ensures that this will not be a well packaged UPS delivery but a [Editor’s Note: No! Way, way too much information! Cut!] … like an enraged shotgun toting Satan blasting away at an amorous angel intent on violating his demon daughter’s virtue.
Squatting in the aisle of an erratically swerving bus while using both hands to delicately align a flimsy produce bag to your undercarriage is kind of like trying to inflate a party balloon while doing a head stand on a roller coaster. It cannot be done.
It is amazing how quickly people can snap out of a deep slumber.
The bus arrived in Gandhidam earlier than scheduled allowing me to easily make my onward connection to the fabled holy city of Dworka, locally renowned for having an imprint of Krishna’s footprint.
My tarnished arrival coincides with the combined sucker punch of a major Hindu festival and a crush of unholy merry makers from Mumbai intent on terrestrial excesses. Sadhu’s, fakirs and elaborately painted holy men vie to bless me in return for a handsome fistful of Rupees. I am in no mood to be blessed nor having my Rupees blissfully depart from my pocket.
Every hotel and guestroom is booked. There is no room at any inn for this wayward vagabond. I am tired and cranky. A cow with a lousy attitude and wholly unwarranted sense of entitlement blocks my way. I slap its fat ass and utter threats of tasty barbeques and roast dinners.
It is generally not known that cows can kick sideways. Its hoof catches my backpack knocking me into the gutter. It is also generally not known that cows can guffaw with sadistic delight.
A tuk tuk driver speeds his three-wheeled tin death trap to my rescue. ‘I know hotel!’ he screams at me. He is a big man and fills the bulk of his cab. He grabs me by the collar and heaves me into his little conveyor of mangled promises and deceit.
We charge at hotel lobbies in our little circus car crammed with an unlikely duo of clowns. Desk clerks are rudely harassed. My savior is determined to conjure a room for me and a pretty commission for himself.
After being spurned from the fourth hotel my savior tears at his hair and twists around to glare at me. His eyes are milky and blood shot. I am entreated to a madman. I motion to escape but am wedged into my seat by my backpack that is intent on copulating.
With nary a grunt nor a howl the tuk tuk squeals forth. The madman has an idea. We speed — as fast as a tuk tuk can speed whose velocity is equivalent to a Twinkie engorged Minnesota housewife running for a bus — out of town and into the desert. This manic development worries me. Has this madman reasoned that if a hotel commission cannot be secured then perhaps robbery and murder would be the logical alternative?
We wheel onto the driveway of a mostly ruined building scattering pebbles and little lizards helter skelter into the desiccated desert wind.
We are met by another mad man. He is a smaller and more venal looking lunatic than my corpulent driver. They yell and gesture violently at each other and occasionally turn to stare at me. I glean from their lunatic babble that there are no rooms available. But an accommodation seems to have been reached. This is apparently where I will
bed for the night.
The gabbing lunatics escort me into a littered courtyard and point to a parcel of cracked concrete sheltered by a rusted sheet of tin metal. The lunatics smile triumphantly and with a clear sane voice request an emperor’s honorarium for their services.
I balk. The lunatics close rank. They demand US dollars. Euros would also suffice. I adamantly refuse. A fair price for a night on a slab of concrete is at most 50 Rupees. They want seven hundred. ‘That is what a luxury room costs!’ I protest with a high pitch squeal like a little girl on a tricycle plunging into a ravine … to her death. [Editor’s Note: No.]
I hoist my backpack into place and start to walk away. The lunatics are taken aback and excitedly confer as to what to do. I am resolved to sleeping in the desert far away from these maniacs.
Less their prey slip away completely they hurriedly settle on my price and accept a dirty and torn fifty Rupee note looking as if they were handed a liberally slurped lollipop that had fallen onto the ground.
There is not much to do on a slab of concrete in the early afternoon other than keep an eye on the lunatics who are intently staring at me with wild eyes from across the dust-blown courtyard. The minutes creep by like a geriatric double amputee painfully persisting through the final legs [Editor’s Note: Not funny. Insensitive.] of a marathon.
I fear the coming night alone in this asylum and worry about being robbed. And for my tender innocence. Eternities later as the sun slants acutely intimating at dark nightmares a few hours hence a new horror traipse merrily into my bleary sight. A gaggle of dirty little girls. They stop dead in their happy tracks and clap their shiny beady eyes on me. I bare my teeth and snarl. They heed this malevolent warning and continue on their criminal way.
Near sunset, just before the big tangerine of our ever spinning cosmos dips into the great punch bowl that is the Arabian Sea, the lunatics rouse themselves from their lunatic slumber and begin hauling hundreds of sleeping mats from a storage shed and angrily smack them down all over the courtyard in a random arrangement bereft of any discernible order save for in the mind of madmen. At irregular intervals they pause their labors to glare at me.
Later, several hundred pilgrims will arrive and silently claim a mattress for the night. There will be no festive celebrations, no exotic displays of religious fervor, only a silent retirement. These are tired pilgrims flopping into slumber.
In the moonlight I can make out dimly lit foetal curled lumps huddled beneath blankets. It looks like a field of hurriedly buried bodies. Perhaps what a Wal-Mart cemetery might look like with discount prices for the dead.
The pilgrims rise at the very unholy hour of four and, like they had arrived, silently file out into the unspeakable early morning. I join them — they have gods to seek; I have troubles to flee.
Wayward Wayfaring is a column on Vagabond Journey by the inimitable, accidental adventurer Michael Britton as he crashes and burns his way around planet earth. Read the Wayward Wayfaring archives here.