The first day of the rest of my life
All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.
~ Isak Dinesen
I sit on the cusp of my story. My story is not, like Isak Dinesen’s, of Africa but it does contain heartbreak and sorrow and promises of new beginnings. There are no happy endings like we were all promised in childhood. Nothing ends happily ever after. There are only ever happy beginnings. And sometimes we have to jump between the two in an attempt to minimise the cataclysmic fallout the ending may have.
My cusp sits somewhere between what my child terms as mum and dad splitting apart and an awfully big adventure. My child and I are going backpacking around India.
Now, everyone has an opinion about this. It’s too dangerous, he’ll get lost or stolen; he’ll get dehydrated or get malaria; he’s too young etc., etc., etc. But say I’m going to leave him behind and the opinions change to I am abandoning him.
As his mother – not the one who yells and says f*ck a lot but the one who loves her child so much it hurts right down to her toes – I decided to take him along for the journey. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened. I was chatting to him at bedtime about all the stuff going on in the house at the time and the options that were open to us … and the India adventure thing just popped out. I regretted it instantly and immediately told him what a bad idea it was because of the disease and the poverty and the filth and the sewerage. It was already too late though … I had him on ‘adventure’ and he wasn’t letting me back out.
The planning process ensued and having so much time to organise meant OCD overload with purchasing and decanting and labelling and packing and printing and unpacking and folding and rolling and changing the itinerary so often, I think it has included almost every part of India at various stages of its lifecycle.
I now have such an awesome first aid arsenal it is more like a pharmacy and it takes up half my backpack with just enough space left for two changes of clothing each. I have been frenetic but I’m not sure the output has quite matched the input as I seem to still not have everything done and I leave today! I believe I would be at the same stage had I given myself a week to get ready for this journey.
During this process I have waited daily for a break in the cold war but it has never come. My seventeen-year cycle has run its course and I look to India now for the beginning of my next new cycle. I feel excitement, fear, happiness, gratefulness, anger, privilege, frustration, pain, joy, sorrow and betrayal … as well as emotions that haven’t yet been named.
There was a grim temptation when packing the pharmacy to calculate if there was enough clout there to obliterate the pain of a broken heart. But I didn’t think I could handle a failed suicide on top of a failed marriage.
Darkness makes way for incense, marigolds and kindred souls. I will eat bravery; I will drink inner peace and I will find strength again to travel towards a new me.
So, farewell until we meet again. I’ll be a totally new person, but you’ll recognise me by the smile on my face.
India – the first few days
I was standing on one foot as there wasn’t anywhere to put the other one. There was a wave of people crushing me from behind like a brick wall coming down on my back and Nic was clinging to my leg starting to look quite desperate as the surge began to gather us up. I felt a trickle of sweat gather speed down my back and my money belt felt like it was going to stangle me. There was shouting and jostling and people pushing Rupee notes towards the ticket window where a remarkably unhurried gentleman was sitting in front of an ancient machine that was choking out the tickets. It felt like we were fleeing a war zone and there were a limited number of tickets to get out of the country. What we were really doing was buying tickets to get on the toy train that does a 5-minute curcuit of Cubbon Park, past rubbish heaps and mucky canals.
This is India and I love it. It melts and flows and you have no choice but to get caught up in the pace of it. The hooters go 24/7, the cars narrowly miss each other and drivers swear and shout at each other. Yet, it seems so unhurried.
Nic is taking India in his stride. His initiation involved being chased around the airport on arrival by a woman intent on taking his photograph. She lost and in the madness of being mobbed by strangers wanting to meet, greet and shake hands, I fell into the same trap I always do. I was totally aware, I knew where I was going and the cab I needed to get and I was even standing in the right place to get it … but I got conned by a cab driver anyway. Being driven in the dark along unknown roads, I cursed myself for being so naive – I should know better … there was also a moment when I convinced myself there was something more sinister at play and that we were going to be sold to the highest bidder. It was fine though … of course. I know the drill. Hadcore traveller that Nic is, he fell asleep in the swerving hooting madness and an hour later woke up in the centre of the city where we were lost and couldn’t find the guest house. We were dropped on the road, directed to where the driver thought we should be going and I had to summon up all my courage to find Ashley Inn.
Once there, we settled in with take-out rice, dhal and naan in front of the cricket and fell asleep content and peaceful.
A guy at the cricket last night proposed to Katrina with a black marker pen and an A3 sheet of paper. I wonder if he got the TV coverage and I wonder if she said yes. I doubt she knew how many people’s view he blocked trying to get his message to her. The game was delayed by an hour and there was a risk of a riot with news spreading fast that it might be cancelled – perhaps some of you heard, there were some homemade bombs that exploded outside. I mention it only because it was a minor detail compared to the crush of people and guards with sticks we had to fight off to get in. I gathered up my precious cargo and pushed and yelled and squeezed trough a mass of sweaty, smelly bodies crushing one onto the next like a wave. But we got in and the crowds and the cheering and the atmosphere that comes only with 60000 cricket-crazed fans gave me goosebumps and made me want to cry a little. The stand was full by the time we got there but the guy we met in the queue to redeem our e-tickets the day before was there (what are the chances?) and he gave us his seat right near the front. Our team lost but my little cricket fan, dressed in a knee-length Challengers shirt and a Proteas cap, was dancing on the chair, hooting his horn, cheering and clapping and was fully drawn into the hype, lapping up the attention of adoring locals. He was so worked up, he ran the 2kms ‘home’ after the game shouting, ‘Follow me, mum, I know the way!’ Amazingly he did – those are not genes he gets from his mother! Clearly we looked part of the Bangalore vibe because I got asked directions by an Indian couple walking home.
We slept till after 8. Breakfasts have been masala dosa or Idily with coconut chutney – WAY better than continental.
Nic keeps giving me the latest count of how many times his cheeks have been pinched – I think he’s way off as no on lets him by without trying to touch him or take his picture. It’s puzzling at times where to place those boundaries but we are learning together.
Nic keeps asking where all the cows are.
Off to the ashram today. I’m intrigued. All Nic is concerned about is whether they have a TV so he can watch the rest of the IPL games.
My little travel companion may be small but he is huge in wisdom and he is looking out for me as much as I for him. All this talk of him getting lost has made him believe that if we are lost together, it is time to call in the cavalry.
It feels like we have been here forever. Moving on will be hard as he is convinced we are staying with friends of my parents and he was puzzled when I had to pay to stay there – he has been playing cricket and chatting incessantly to the women who run the guest house.
He’s playing ball with a local while I type. His laughter is filling this tiny internet cafe and I am smitten. It’s his turn on the computer now – he wants to check out the IPL website to see who’s likely to make it to the semis.
Not sure when the next update will be. Just know that we are doing great and the world here is spinning way slower than it is back home.
Permanently drenched in sweat … and loving it
I was meant to go stealth at least until Goa … but Nic had to come and check the IPL scores since there is no TV on the ashram – I got a disapproving shake of the head when I asked. Facebook is also ‘unavailable’. No TV but plenty of cricket. Nic just walks around with his cricket bat and everyone wants to play from small children to grown men. This morning waiting for breakfast we started a game and before long had an audience, a wicket keeper and a couple of fielders – perhaps Nic’s first moments in the spotlight as a cricket champion.
The ashram is not as I expected – not a green oasis of lawns and people meditating under bohdi trees – but it is perfect all the same. Nothing to do apart from while away the time between meals which are served en mass in the dining hall and taken seated in rows on floor mats. Washing up is in the Montessori way, each person washing their own plate in long wash basins. Nic loves eating with his hands but is still on rice and rotis, supplemented by dried mango, almonds, ice-cream and fennel seeds. He did have his first spicy rice this morning which was impressive – perhaps he was just too hungry to complain. He is constantly busy and there was no need to stress about not having many toys for him as he makes do with what’s available – right now he is thrilled to have a broom and a squeegy and has swept two floors of our residence (he calls it our villa), cleaned our bathroom and our little balcony. At the moment he is playing a cricket tornament in the computer room, playing both teams and whispering the conversations between the players. People think that because he won’t wear a shirt that he just doesn’t own one 🙂
No chance of a meditation or yoga session but I’m fine with that. It’s just a privilege being here. And I have the perfect travel companion – can’t believe I even considered leaving him behind at one stage!
Time for lunch.
Shell-shocked at the beach
Ganesha stares at me from the dashboard. I keep focusing on “Meru, Rely on us”, the taxi company’s logo, lest my eyes search for the time. The airconditioning has just been turned on but it makes no difference. My feet begin to sweat as we hit another traffic jam. I battle to breathe. As the god of removing obstacles it is no wonder Ganesha adorns almost every dashboard in India … but with one main road closed due to construction and the other half blocked with a broken-down cement truck, he was totally incapacitated. Each time I asked the taxi driver, “How long???”, his eyes would drift to the clock, do a quick calculation and give me the exact number of minutes till 11am; the time we had to be at the airport for our flight to Goa. He had done it earlier when I called him from the ashram – he was half an hour late to collect me. He was on his way and would be half an hour he said. I said I had to be at the airport by 11am so he said, ok maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Indians have a habit of telling you what they think you want to hear even if not exactly the truth – kind if not altogether unhelpful. I am learning lessons in patience I would sometimes rather not learn under certain circumstances. “Meru, Rely on us!” But only just!
It was sad saying farewell to our community of new friends at the ashram. Our time there became like Nic’s Indian cricket tour with everyone wanting a turn to play with him.He became like a minor celebrity and people called out his name wherever we went. His shyness has melted away and he looks so proud when he goes back for seconds of roti and rice at mealtimes with his huge stainless steel plate like a little Oliver.
I look over at my child with all his energy and enthusiasm and I wonder sometimes if I am dreaming. He takes everything in his stride and is the perfect travel companion. People seem amazed I am taking him on this journey with me but it just feels so natural. Sure, it would have been peaceful without him but it’s thrilling with him and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be laughing so much. He is both teaching and learning daily.
We had a good send-off from the ashram. The temple elephant sauntered past our makeshift cricket pitch next to the dining hall where we were passing time waiting for breakfast. It is the moment the fruit stall owner longs for and I tossed him a five Rupee coin and grabbed a banana just ahead of the stampede of people buying up every last piece of fruit to feed to the elephant … who didn’t even stop between shovelling bunches of bananas to give any blessings. Nic was so startled that he grabbed his cricket bat and leapt onto the the top shelf of the shoe locker where he watched in quiet appreciation.
He refused the elephant ride at Bannerghatta National Park where the safari was a rushed route around some tired and depressed looking animals in a bus full of local tourists who leapt away from the windows at the site of anything with claws despite the heavy mesh cage that encased the vehicle … that and the fact that all the animals were followed closely by their keepers, apart from the mangy lions and the tigers who were taking turns outside their cages.
Goa reminds me of Thailand. Furniture markets line the roads – cheap plastic or ornate carved with nothing in between – there are rows of ’emporiums’ where unsuspecting tourists are dragged by commission-seeking rickshaw drivers, liquor stores and restaurants compete for space with the ever-expanding guest villas, the beaches are lined with palmfrond bars and restaurants serving ‘continental’ and everywhere you look there are foreigners zooting around on scooters. I feel like I’m under attack after the ashram.
“Speed thrill’s, but kill’s” shouts out from several lampposts and made me want to shout at the driver to pull over so I could Tippex out the inappropriate apostrophes. “Driving rash causes crash” was marginally better but, along with the numerous other please to heed the rules of the road, it makes absolutely no difference to the Indian driving style. The hooting and swerving again sent Nic into a deep slumber en route to Casa Geraldina, tucked down a little alley, 5 minutes from the beach and our home for the next week. There is a pool in a guesthouse nearby where we are likely to spend a lot of our time to escape the hawkers on the beach. We’ll get into it, we just need to explore a little. For now, we have ordered takeouts from the restaurant up the road and we need to get home before dark where we can get ready to share the second IPL semi-final with the caretaker’s son.
Slowly does it …
The air is so sticky here, it clings to you like honey and pulling clothes off feels like peeling a banana. We have spent hours under the cool trickle of well water in the shower which falls cold on my head and drips steaming from my fingertips. I have never before wished so hard for airconditioning in a place with fans and only intermittent electrical supply. I wish the rains were closer.
Nightimes bring curried sweat, whining fans, barking dogs, roosters crowing the dawn until they give up when it eventually arrives, and someone trying to extract phlegm on every out breath. But the mornings bring cool air and a silence that is broken only by the hooting of the baker’s horn at 6:30am, when I wrap the sheet around me and run across the clay garden to climb onto the stone bench near the wall. There I wait. Eventually the little bicycle with the large plastic-covered tub on the back squeaks past and the baker stops to take my Rs10. “Rs5, 2 pieces”. The first morning Nic was still asleep when I ran out so I wrapped the rolls in a dishcloth and climbed back into bed with him. He opened his eyes, smiled at me and reached over to touch my arm. I told him about the baker and his rolls. He chuckled. “For real?” he asked. For real! Each morning Nic and I slather butter and Marmite on our large fresh Portuguese rolls and wash them down with Sprite and Soda. Life is simple and slow. You can’t hurry anything here. You can only be still and enjoy the life that drifts past.
We’re staying at a home owned by friends of my parents, Casa Geraldina, tucked away down an alley in Calangute about 5 minutes from the beach. We have only been to the beach once and since Nic was gathered up by the man wanting a photograph with him, he has not wanted to return. Secretly, I am quite pleased. We have spent a day with the villa manager’s family and swimming and playing with other children has helped sustained Nic a while longer. He also got a massive thrill riding on the front of a scooter – I had to remain calm despite my eyes finding every sign about speed and accident-prone zones.
Hot and touristy, there is no great appeal here but staying in a home means space to play, build tents out of bedsheets and laze around reading, drawing, writing and Nic’s favourite: listening to stories read by Mike on his iPod, which induces fits of giggles and occasional singing. Nic has adapted well and is even handling the heat way better than I am.
Besides Citibank deciding to cancel accounts held by non-UK residents and my first knowledge of this being when I tried to draw money to bolster my final Rs10 supply, things are easy, relaxed, fun and stress-free. I’m feeling local. I feel less conspicuous here than I do in Cape Town and I feel comfortable and calm (call to bank excluded!) Nic keeps asking me if I want to live here. Do I? Maybe. We have a long journey ahead of us still and so many more things to do and see.
I’ll keep you posted – Varanasi on Friday and I wish it were sooner. Freedom can get lost in the planning process and the journey can become a little suffocated. I have an urge to immediately leave anywhere I arrive so perhaps this is also just another lesson in patience.
Just know we are healthy and full of joy … loving the experience and sucking the juice out of it.
Nic is chatting to a group of girls – best I go and rescue them from his charms 😉
Goa has grown on me …
“My husband’s on his way,” I say. “He’s big.” I demonstrate by flexing one of my own puny biceps, unsure it has the right effect. I posture a little and throw in that we do rock climbing and karate together. I choose not to demonstrate, I might give the game away. They move on, slightly resentful.
I hate the fact that my personal safety is dependent on the presence of a man – fantasy or real – but Goa, like everywhere else in the world, comes with its share of creeps. It’s a man’s world.
Goa comes with so much more though and I’m glad I chose to stay and give it a fair chance. You really do need to stay in a place long enough to allow it to seep beneath your skin … and Goa has done just that. I’ll still be ready to leave on Friday but I am beginning to understand why some people never do.
Here the over-population of Indian deities compete with the Holy Trinity. You can have cream teas and bratwurst. and not only are all the languages of the world spoken here but all the languages and dialects of India converge here. It’s a cultural melting pot.
Look beyond the rows of handicraft emporiums and forex bureaus and the same poverty of the rest of India still lurks: the AIDS orphans and polio stricken, the people living under plastic sheeting and palm leaves. Look behind the fringe of palms at dawn and you still see the traditional fisher folk who still own the kilometers of the best beaches some people have ever seen … but only until the tourists arrive. Before the hawkers and the beggars arrive. While the night-shift staff still float, sleeping in their hammocks strung up in beach shack restaurants … restaurants that are gradually being dismantled ahead of the monsoon. The plants are dusty, the earth is parched. It’s hot! The rains must now come.
My body clock has adjusted to the bread wallah’s hooter and we have settled into a routine. For now. It begins with collecting the previous night’s spider webs in my hair en route to the little concrete bench where I wait for breakfast, followed by the beach where we play in the waves while the fishermen count their day’s wealth and a tan dog watches Nic’s every move as though he is a personal guard. At 9am we return to rehydrate and rest. Life’s tough. Then shopping for provisions, pretend shopping for airconditioning and internet cafe for more airconditioning. Home to the villa for play time, lunch time and rest time (I said life was tough). Then we head to a neighbouring resort (considered posh by locals) to swim until 7pm … when it is time to return for dinner or just eat out. I said it was a man’s world and, apart from the usual evidence here, it is only highlighted by the the fact that even in the resort pool men (and even little boys) are allowed no more than a speedo (Nic’s chafe vest had to be discarded) but women and girls get in fully clothed. Even I go in with baggies on (and a t-shirt too in the sea) and most of you know that modesty is not always my strongest trait.
The exception to our routine was when we hired a taxi for a day out sightseeing. And it was my best day out in India. Ever.
It wasn’t what I expected and I pulled away at first before being pushed up along the large folds of soft, lose, suede-like skin covered in pubescent-male-like stubble which got thicker and coarser towards the top of its head. I sat bareback astride its neck, Nic in front. Its ears gently fanned my legs. The dormant animal rights activist was screaming from somewhere deep inside but I shushed her. I had never before been so intimate with an elephant and I was having too much fun. She wasn’t getting out today. Stern shouting came from the keeper and I felt Nic’s body stiffen. The elephant raised its trunk above and over its head and breathed out, spraying us in cool river water. And then the laughter came. Again and again we were showered. But there comes a point when you can take no more of something, even when that something happens to be the most thrilling something ever. It’s often the case. I slid down to the ground, pickled in adrenalin, and looked up at a caramel-coloured eye. It gazed back. Sad. The enjoyment was clearly all mine. I had sacrificed my animal compassion for the sake of a thrill. “Speed kills but thrills.” I remembered the sign. Yes, thrills do sometimes just trump all else.
Because the next stop is Varanasi, I will end by reminding you about the Varanasi mouse that tried to nest in my hair one night last time I was there. Most of you know the story. Well, last night when I felt something scratching in my hair I sat up and looked for a little furry mouse. What I found was nightmarishly worse: a roach the size of a mouse! I moved rooms.
Goa isn’t the India of my dreams but it’s wonderful none-the-less. Like everything it just takes a little getting used to when your expectations are so way off.
Until next time …
P.S. For those of you who asked about the ashram, it is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ashram south of Bangalore. Some ashrams have a philosophy of freedom – they encourage you to walk around half naked and have lots of sex. Guruji’s is nothing like this. I was pleased … but more for Nic’s sake 🙂
In the arms of Mother Ganga
Nic was totally dumbstruck. He scuttled along beside me … more because he was tethered to me rather than any real need to keep up. “Good security,” the tout kept saying. I smirked. “Where you from?” another tout asked for the third time, to which I snapped back that I had already told him. Keep your distance, keep your cool, you’re almost there … my mantra kept playing in my head. Nic’s eyes doubled in size as I steered him between bikes, rickshaws, people, moving food stalls … and the dreaded touts. I stopped to get him an ice-cream … to buy time – I didn’t even argue over the inflated price. Nic’s bag was sagging on his back and heavy enough to cause him to walk with a forward tilt. His black bear was tucked into the strap across his chest. Sweat snaked a trail from his temples to his chin and beads of sweat began to form on his nose. His cheeks were rose pink. But he didn’t complain. He was learning to trust me.
A dead puppy lay bleeding a foot away from a food stall, a couple of cows scavenged on scraps nearby, crows filled the air with neck-prickling squawks. And then I saw her. Mother Ganga. Welcoming us with watery arms wearing jewels of midday light. We had successfully run the Varanasi gauntlet and the touts had fallen aside one by one. I had remembered, after 9 years, the way to the river … even through the madness … and just had to turn right and walk a few hundred meters to Sita Guest House.
Stepping onto the ghats is like finding a black hole in space and being transported a million miles away. She opens out in front of you and everything else melts away. You don’t look back, you just slow right down and keep on walking.
The river is low at the moment, waiting for the monsoon rains to replenish her and cleanse her. The locals say you can put anything in her and she will be clean. She is the holy river. I’m not convinced. Once settled into Sita Guest House where the massive ghekos still reside and evidence of the mouse lay around in the form of droppings, Nic ran in from the balcony and asked me if he could go swimming in the Ganges now with all those other children. “No,” I said with a little more force than I intended. When he begged, I did what all mothers do in this situation. “Ask your father,” I said. But when I heard the “Yay” on his end of the phone, I had no more ammo. I had to give in … trying desperately to push aside thoughts of sewerage, dead bodies and general muck. Millions of people swim here, I kept telling myself. It can’t be that bad. I could hardly watch as he waded in through the litter and ooze of the long dry season, clutching his blow-up beach ball and looking so enthusiastic. He was oblivious … or maybe he just didn’t care – he had after all found it hilarious watching the fishermen in Goa washing their bums after their morning constitution on the shoreline, dangerously close to where we were swimming. “Don’t put your face in the water,” I shouted after him. Swimming in the Ganges this far from its source has to come with at least one condition. I don’t care how holy it is.
He lived to watch the cricket tournament on the steps – a daily event. And he lived to watch the string of candles strung along the river like fairy lights floating gently with the current, each one overflowing with hope. We have been on a sunset boat trip and a sunrise boat trip, neither seeing the sun set, nor rise, but trusting that it did anyway. We have seen the washing wallahs beat the crap out of the hotel bed linen on the river’s concrete banks. We have seen bodies burn on the burning ghats and the remaining pieces set afloat on the water, narrowly escaping the scavenging dogs. We have sent our own wishes piggybacking off a candle and a few marigolds down the river. We have seen more prayer rituals than most people see in a lifetime. Yoga happens on mass along the banks. And everyone swims.
You can’t help but be happy in a place where so many millions of people invest so much in hope.
Travelling with a small child here means you can’t be complacent though. Even the locals tell me to watch him every moment. It doesn’t help to just hope he will be safe. I have him tied to me permanently – dips in the river excluded – and imagine beating certain people to a pulp when they show more than appropriate interest in my child. Yes, holiness does escape me at times. Maternal instincts are on red alert. He got dragged down the alleyways yesterday and out of town to the holy Buddhist temples in Sarnath.
He is tired and overwhelmed and is watching cricket now while I type. We have a room with a TV and airconditioning here and the computers are right outside our room. Sita Guest House is exactly the same as it was 9 years ago and the owner even recognised me and gave me a good price on a room with a balcony. Granted the balcony’s view is obstructed by a lamp post strung with several illegally connected electrical cables … but did I mention the TV and aircon? The TV’s reception is kinda fuzzy. I am beginning to see the real reason for the discount. But the wonderful thing about travelling with a child is that he doesn’t see the flaws. He fell in love with the room instantly – a room where the only thing that brightens the shades of brown and peeling paint is the magnificent polycotton bed linen adorned with bright pink cherry blossom, swans, snow-capped mountains and a periwinkle-blue sky. He also thinks it’s just grand that you can pee, shower, and wash your hands in the basin under a trickle of water that you can’t shut off … all at the same time. He helps to settle me. Just what I need when my instinct is always to run immediately on reaching a place.
“Power cuts” the owner says with a shrug and a shake of his head – not a regular head shake but the sideways one that tends to mean anything and nothing at the same time. But the way the airconditioning unit shudders and jolts before it dies makes me suspect it has more to do with one of the enormous gheckos meeting its fate. I send a virtual candle down the river hoping for its safe passage to better karma in its next life. A brown-headed kingfisher sits on my balcony, an unusual site but one I saw at the ashram too. I can’t help but wonder if it is the same one. I always feel like I am being followed by creatures when I come to India, like I am being visited by old friends … some who have clearly done something bad in a previous life.
Varanasi assaults you on arrival but embraces you immediately afterwards. It is disgusting and holy and beautiful and scary. It steals you away in little pieces and staying here too long would risk total surrender. If my heart belongs to my children in Capricorn then Varanasi has my soul.
We leave tomorrow evening and that is a good thing … any longer and I might never go. I have always believed I am rooted in the air and perhaps I am. I move easily without fuss or any real sense of upheaval. But I hate to stay too long in one place. I have discovered it is because I am terrified of getting attached and sentimental. I don’t want the sad farewells. I don’t want to risk exposure to my soft core.
It is 9am here and time to tether Nic to me and drag him around the old town. I want chai and poori. I want to dodge cows and their shit. I want to be harassed by shop owners. I want to feel the sweat run in rivers between my breasts and settle around my naval where it will drench the Dollar bills tucked discreetly in my money belt. I want to see bright-coloured silks, smell carcasses strung up across hole-in-the-wall butcheries and hear the shouts of wallahs selling their wares as the bells on the ghats ring out for prayers. This isn’t life as I know it. This is sensory overload. And I love it. Hout Bay couldn’t be further away.
Looking down on the world from Darjeeling
“I know this bridge, but I don’t know where from,” Nic said, suddenly perky in the 45 degree midday heat. We were heading east over the mother river by autorickshaw on our way to the train station, the curtain drawn across the opening next to Nic in an unsuccessful attempt to block out some of the heat and dust. The driver had clearly misunderstood me. I told him we were in no hurry at all. I had allowed four hours to get to the station and find the right platform and have a relaxed meal. Ganesha deserved a bit of time off. But the driver was negotiating the traffic like we were in a getaway car and it’s the first time I felt really afraid in such a small, and usually slow, vehicle … one of the things about travelling with a child, though, is that you have to be strong and brave even when you’re a bundle of nerves and would rather curl up in a ball and wail. Nic was intrigued by the bridge so I pulled back the curtain to reveal the heat-shrouded banks of the ghats, far away now in a haze of pale pinks, yellows and blues … ever-changing as the sun shifted unhurriedly over the concrete. I could just make out a few tiny paper fighting kites fluttering above the buildings. It was like looking at a dream after waking up. Just out of reach. I closed my eyes to make it last. It felt like my chest might cave in on my heart.
I didn’t say goodbye when I left; we turned west out of Sita Guest House, away from the river, back through the black hole and into the labyrinth of smells, noise and dirt. The holy river of hope just faded away and it felt like it never existed.
By the time we got to Mugal Sarai station, 21km outside of the city, I was an overheated nerve ending. The station is huge and crowded and the waiting area was filled with eyes. And the smell of urine. We retreated. People stared at me with my heavy backpack, carrying both mine and Nic’s daypacks, a bottle of water and a pack of biscuits. I felt like a multi-limbed Indian god. We waited in a restaurant, consuming very little in the hopes that we wouldn’t have to use the public toilets – Nic is still terrified to admit he needs the toilet unless we are really close to our hotel – but three hours is a long time to wait in the heat without drinking and there came a time when I had to hover over a toilet afloat with a day’s worth of turds. Nic at least could keep his distance – it didn’t really matter if his aim was off in the circumstances.
I am proud to claim I have travelled rough in India before, taking unreserved and 2nd-class sleeper trains. But that doesn’t mean I would choose to do it again … the sweaty vinyl bunks, the stares, the mealtimes and social visits when several people make themselves comfy on the bunk you just wanted to fall asleep on, and the notification of a station stop being the wafting stench of urine and faeces as the air changed direction on slowing down. No, not this time. I booked 2AC – two-tier airconditioned. It’s still an open carriage but there are only four bunks, instead of six, there is a curtain you can draw to close off the passageway, you get freshly starched sheets and a pillow and there’s a draft of cool air piped into the carriage. There’s even a western toilet – granted, the seat had footprints on it but there is always a jug of water handy and this time I was carrying lots of disinfecting lotions and wipes.
As we slipped through the darkness, we crossed half the country and again passed into a whole new world. On arrival in Siliguri, I changed my mind about the train to Kurseong and asked the rickshaw driver to drop us at the jeep stand … we were heading up to Darjeeling straight away. Yes, I also thought the Jeep option was the posh route into the mountains … until we were squeezed into the back of a Mahindra between two paan-chewing blokes who had no sense of personal space and who spoke to us intermittently between clenched teeth and spitting. I was tired, I was hot and I didn’t understand a word so I ignored them. Nic had climbed onto my lap and fallen asleep anyway so I just closed my eyes, hung on tight and zoned out to the sweat and the blending of DNA.
We climbed the narrow, pot-holed mountain pass road to just over two thousands meters above sea level where the cool air gradually replaced the fug clinging to the bodies inside the vehicle. I had the usual anxiety about leaving the old and moving onto a new place but I knew it would settle in a day or two. And a few days in a quiet hill station seemed like the perfect antidote.
Arrival in Darjeeling was an assault! Buses, jeeps, crowds, smog, concrete high-rise hotels and market stalls … a reminder that despite the changes in climate, culture, the appearance of people and the language, we were still in India. The roads are narrow … the jeeps, trucks and buses are not. So, in a constant attempt to change the proportions, drivers just honk their horns … and they keep honking their horns until someone either gives in or runs out of time and reverses. I paced up a down the road a few times, trying to take it all in and block it all out all at once … and trying to find my bearings and some element of strength to find a place to stay … or stay at all. I considered climbing back in the jeep and fleeing. But instead, laden down with kilograms of luggage, we found a steep pathway and climbed. Nic just clutched his bear and followed – leaning into his stride with his heavy daypack on his back. He had had his sleep and was, once again, loving the adventure.
As we ascended, away from the bus/jeep stand, Darjeeling changed. The noise faded slightly, the sky became more visible and the feeling of being on top of the world became more apparent … I could hardly breathe from the combination of altitude and fifteen kilograms. We found a green hotel and, being Nic’s favourite colour, took it as a sign and checked in … well, there was also the small issue of being drenched from the afternoon thunder shower. With its wood-panelled interior and diamond-pane windows in the cosy lounge areas, the Dekeling Hotel is the type of place I can imagine elderly colonials sipping black tea, and I felt an instant desire to settle in for a month or two. It’s not exactly budget but our windowless room is the cheapest we could go without compromising on warm bedding and a warm shower … it’s a trickle but it works and you can’t have a shower while taking a dump here. The staff tolerate Nic’s need to wrestle in the mornings and towels, toilet paper and breakfast are included in the price.
We have been to the zoo, the tea plantation and passed the rock where Tenzig Norgay trained for Everest. And speaking of Everest, there are so many steps in this precipitous village that a morning out feels like a mountain trek. It has been impossible to get Nic off the Himalayan ponies and we have used them to get to all the sites around the village. “Faster, faster!” he demands. He bounces up and down in the saddle, giggling so much he could cry. He has conquored so many fears and leapt his hurdles with ease. We have been to the gompa on Observatory Hill, descended through the clouds to the magnificent and sacred Bhutia Busty Gompa, been blessed by monks demanding Rupees, hung prayer flags at the stupa and been harassed my monkeys. And I have found myself some treasures. Nic has made friends with a hundred people. The man at the shawl shop buys him chips and chocolate each time we pass – I probably paid too much for that pashmina – and he continues to get photographed and have his cheeks pinched by thousands of adoring locals. He is like a little god here. He is loving the hero worship and has developed an attitude bigger than West Bengal’s highest mountain peak, Kanchenjunga. I doubt he will ever be contained again … and who can blame him. We have walked beyond the noise and the crowds and found a place where we can watch the clouds writhe and twist around the hills below while watching local tourists, used to 40-degree heat, wander by wrapped up in shawls, blankets and woollen headgear. It’s not that cold. We sit at Chowrasta and sip Darjeeling chai brought by tea wallahs, looking beyond the hills in the hopes that Kanchenjunga will reveal herself. But she has been shy, only peeping out for moments before wrapping herself tightly in her white blanket once more. It doesn’t matter. It’s gorgeous, cool, relaxed. It’s a charmed life here. We’re staying an extra day, skipping Kurseong and Mirik completely and moving on to Kalimpong in a couple of days.
If Nic has just got over his hurdles, I seem to have just reached mine. It may be the caffeine I am consuming in Darjeeling’s chai or the quantities of sugar I am ladling on my morning porridge … but I just can’t sleep. The days are dreamy but, as the mist seeps in to mask the setting sun and the thunder resonates off the surrounding peaks adding the base to the bells from the monastery, I become distracted and skittish. At first I thought I was just overtired so I got some rest; I thought I was hungry so I ate. Nothing changed, I just felt melancholy. It is the pressure as we passed the halfway point of the journey; the pressure to pack more life into this time away. I keep changing the itinerary … sticking to one in India goes against the grain anyway … in an attempt to make the most of the final couple of weeks. I have moments of anxiety about leaving and going back to normality … I get a shiver down my spine just typing the word. Normality: what is that? The thing I love most about travelling in India is perhaps the joy of just ‘being’, and in that ‘being’, being able to be whoever I feel like being at the time. Nic narrows the boundaries of identity somewhat but there is a sense of total relaxation about self. I don’t have to own any labels. No branding. When you have no branding, you don’t have to fit any molds. Nothing to live up or down to; no expectations and no disappointments. It’s easier. So, to answer the question: why don’t I put down roots? When you put down roots you are identified by the very place the roots are sunk into the ground … rather than by the places the branches are reaching towards.
It is midday. The clouds have darkened and the sky is grumbling; not yet angry. The air smells sweet and damp.
If you can’t see them, are they still there?
“We won’t rest until we are fre from West Bengal!” “Ghorkaland” is painted on every doorway, car, shop and available piece of concrete wall. The political unrest is the reason I have always avoided this area. The Ghorka Movement clings to liberation here and the tea bushes cling to the vertical mountain slopes. I cling to Nic as he hangs out the window and waves at the army trucks. Houses are propper precarioulsy on the roadside ridge, the mountain beneath them streaked with garbage and sewerage. “Filling of water tanks strictly prohibited” marks a point where fresh water leaps off the mountain and where a truck is pulling away sloshing water from two over-filled water tanks. “Presbyterian Free Church” – free or free of Presbyterians, I wonder. A lone man single-handedly deconstructs a concrete road barrier with a mallet … it’s hard to tell whether out of employment or frustration. On a 53km stretch of hairpin and s-bends, I can’t help but mourn the loss. “No race, no ralley, enjoy the beauty of the valley” – a great sentiment but hard to comply … our driver answers his phone again as I stare, unblinking, at the oncoming jeep travelling towards us on the wrong side of the road, “Oh my Ganesha” in bold across the windscreen. A brave dog drops one in the middle of the road. We somehow miss both. Oh my Ganesha, indeed. “Rat Killer – to kill rats, not pets” shares a hook with some dried meat at a roadside stall midway between Darjeeling and Kalimpong. We have stoppped where water is being piped off the mountain and where every jeep on this route lines up to use it as a carwash. Nic negotiates the squat toilet. He has no choice … his constitution has finally failed him.
Our 3-hour journey to Kalimpong dropped us 1000m in altitude but the air is still cool and the mountain views are still masked by mist that wraps itself like smoke around the chimneys and drifts aimlessly between the floors of unfinished buildings. The rains have come early or the Lonely Planet lies. Mountain walks are marred by the risk of leeches.
But we have found Holumba Haven, tucked in the mist on an orchid farm, away from town. And a haven it is … not just for us but for hens, guinea pigs, rabbits, guinea fowl, squirrels, honey bees, a rooster and several dogs. The Xhosa people believe that your ancestors come to you in the form of dogs and if this is so, we are being visited again in the form of another tan stray that turned up the day we arrived and stays within inches of us at all times. We are also being followed by snorers and plagued by thin walls.
The town is small, the sites are few, but we are walking the streets and feeling the vibe. Nic is staying on the right side of the law by shaking hands with every army officer he sees and waving at soldiers as they drive by in their big trucks. He has told me in detail how they force people to climb in the back of those trucks and then lock them in cages! “But, Mum,” he says, “I’m just so cute that they would never do that to me. Hey, Mum?” I feel I may have been slack on controlling his TV viewing lately.
Kalimpong is again a whole new experience like everything in India so far. We spent an hour on the balcony of the large Buddhist Monastery at the top of the hill overlooking the town on one side and a huge army barracks on the other. The irony. We spent a morning being driven to all the sites … all two of them … One was closed, the other wasn’t exactly a site but it had Himalayan ponies for Nic to ride – he’s totally hooked. The clouds are like thick smoke that hangs on the view and obscures the only reason for being here. We leave town tomorrow. Patience has not helped us here.
But Nic has loved the down time and has spent hours playing cricket at Holumba and more hours watching T20 and Tom and Jerry. He has run out of fingers on which to count the friends he has made in India … and we have had even more sad farewells since we have been in Kalimpong. Perhaps his journeys with me will encourage him to put down the roots I have never been able to sink into any ground anywhere. But out of everywhere I have been, I am most in my zone here in India. I get asked regularly whether I live here – it might just be because people can’t get their heads around a woman travelling through India on her own with a 4-year-old or maybe I do just look comfortable. Like I belong. I’ve already dropped out of normal life back home so this is not too much of a stretch for me.
But I could do with a washing machine and a big Greek salad about now – Melissa, please note! I am counting the remaining days by the number of buckets of laundry I will still have to do. I’m down to one hand. Since we arrived in the mountains it has felt like I have been washing everything in salt water – nothing will dry. Tomorrow we drop to sea level. Life has slowed even more since I last spoke to you and so I have had time to change plans a hundred times a day … but, for now, it looks like Siliguri tomorrow and on to Mirik – either for a night if we get a booking for Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary (for which we will have to return to Siliguri) or for four nights if we don’t. I like the fact that things are wide open for our final week.
I may well only speak to you again from Bahrain … it looks like we will make it out of the hills and out of Ghorkaland …
It’s a jungle out there …
I could feel eyes boring into me. There was nowhere to hide. I looked down at my lap where I was holding onto Nic’s head, keeping him out of sight, out of harm’s way and trying to ignore the attention. But, as it began to get dark and we were still stuck at the station, the lights inside illuminated me, drawing even more attention from the gathering crowds outside. I felt like I was in Amsterdam on the wrong side of the glass. And as more people gathered, the shouting began. They began banging on the side of the carriage. They were screaming at me to get off the train. But even if I had wanted to comply, my body would not … could not … move. The adrenalin was prickling the back of my neck, working it’s way up behind my ears and turning my heart cold. There was a vacuum where my stomach had been. The crowd had become a mob.
I searched the carriage with my eyes. I needed someone’s help. A poster was stuck to the carriage opposite. It showed a man behind bars with the caption, “Harassing woman passenger is punishable offense.” Reassuring if not entirely helpful in the circumstances. My eyes found another pair. Wrapping my terror in an annoyed attitude, I asked, “What the hell was going on out there?” He sliced his finger across his throat. Before I could take it personally he explained … best he could: “One woman dead. Head off.” A woman had slipped getting onto the train at our first stop outside of Siliguri. Decapitated. “Person under the train” rang in my ears from the London Underground. The difference was that on the London Underground, people stay in their seats looking annoyed and bury themselves deeper in the Evening Standard. Not so here. People leapt from the train, cameras and camcorders at the ready. Even a cow ran with the crowd. But it was after they had filled their heads with gore – once filming conditions were marred by darkness – that they began drifting back up the platform … that they began gathering to stare, became restless, decided they needed to focus their anger on something. That something turned out to be me. A riot started. I was told not to move. There was not enough English in the carriage to know what exactly was going on but there were enough people on my side of the window to keep the riot on the outside and to lock the doors.
“It’s ok my noonoo,” I cooed, “just some angry people, that’s all. Try and get some rest.” I was trying not to rub the hair right off Nic’s head as I stroked it to keep him calm … to keep myself calm. And I tried to breathe. And tried not to look out the window. I was in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Siliguri and Madahirat, en route to Jaldaphara Wildlife Sanctuary for an elephant safari. It was dark and I was scared. I had to be brave when all my body wanted to do was cling to the window bars and hurl.
The police did eventually arrive – 10 minutes sooner might have been better timing – with their sticks and their mustaches. And the mob just melted away as though it had never been there to begin with. Two policemen shone their big torches into the carriages while others, I presume, removed head and body from the tracks. And we were on our way again, deeper into the jungle, surrounded by people who couldn’t communicate with me but who were clearly intent on my personal safety.
The day had started climbing into a share jeep in Kalimpong at 9am, remarking to Nic that we might have to change jeeps due to the stench. Turns out my bag was smeared with crap which had made its way onto my hand and half way up my arm. It smelt human. Thankful for my hefty supply of wetwipes, antibacterial soap and liters of water, it was a minor hiccup in the day’s journey. On arrival in Siliguri, caked with dust-dried sweat, we were told all hotels were full, it was impossible to get a train ticket anywhere south and there was a strike due to start the next morning … a 12-hour strike that was likely to get violent. We had to get out of town and the only advice we could heed was to go to Jaldaphara (near the village of Madahirat) where we would be safe until the strike was over. With no bank facilities in Madahirat, I had to draw cash but every bank I got to closed or ran out of money as I got to the front of the queue … seems everyone was stocking up. By the time I eventually found one open, the sweat-sodden dye from my red t-shirt was draining into my white shorts, turning them the same colour as Nic’s cheeks … he looked faint. We now had only 15 minutes to get our train. I threw a bundle of notes at a rickshaw driver and told him to pedal fast.
It didn’t take long to wish he hadn’t followed my instruction.
I arrived in Madahirat carrying my backpack on my back, my sleeping child in my arms and two daypacks in my one hand … a multi-limbed Indian god. Still wide-eyed and shaking, we were thankfully met at the station by Mithan Das, proprietor of Hotel Relax, a hole-in-the-wall style hotel with roll-up garage door frontage. Pinched between the main thoroughfare to Assam and the railway line, the bug infestation, lack of windowpanes (hence the bug infestation), a toilet filled with someone else’s crap, the basin that drained onto my feet and the general filth of the place left me stunned and sleepless under the mosquito net that resembled a slice of emmenthaler cheese.
I began to plan my exit strategy … but not for long. On instructing Mithan the following morning to book our elephant safari asap and asking him what time the trains would be running the following afternoon, I was shocked into further silence. The strike had not only spread into the mountain regions, it had closed all forms of transportation east of Siliguri and no one was sure whether it would be over in three days or five. I was stuck. Stuck in a village where Mithan was clearly the only person who could speak any English and seemingly the only person who had seen a white woman before. Going out was like that Amsterdam window feeling again … we were like a freak show that attracted people to gather in groups and just stare. I could have got angry but instead we bought up all the cheese and crackers and Cornflakes we could find, stocked up on soda water and chips and stayed in our room playing cards and watching Tom and Jerry once the TV was fixed. I used the rest of my wetwipes and surgical spirits to disinfect the bathroom and I got used to the bugs … even the crickets that found their way into my sleeping bag liner.
“Drivers charging little extra … maybe double … their windows will get smashed maybe,” said Mithan when I queried why it was so much to go on a jaunt to the zoo. I declined, but not because of the cost. It was clear the level of mob violence in the area was increasing and it looked as though we would be stuck. The news that was filtering through in broken English was that the trains were running but they were just late. I was desperate enough to go to the station and just wait it out. But thanks to Rossy, my well-connected friend, the British High Commission was onto it. I was visited by the police commissioner and advised that trains were being stopped by mobs and cars and buses were being stoned. We were going to need to be smuggled out. Mithan knew someone. We just had to wait for his call. A couple more sleepless nights and we were set to leave at dawn the following morning. But then it became too dangerous and we had to wait again. Just as I had resigned myself to missing our train to Kolkata and our plane to Bahrain, Mithan knocked on my door. “You ready in an hour. My friend has car and you leave at 2.” The travel ban had been lifted for three hours to allow people to get out to get food. We had to be quick. It was a 124km drive on bad roads and we couldn’t risk getting stuck anywhere in traffic. I cried. And then I packed really fast. And then I dug in my bag for my emergency supply of Neals Yard frankincense moisturiser … it’s amazing how these little luxuries can rescue one’s soul …
I put Nic’s cap on his head and covered my own with a scarf. That was so we weren’t immediately conspicuous. I had a plan to say Nic needed medical attention … if we were stopped by a mob, Nic was primed to writhe around holding his stomach. It was a tense 3-hour journey. The driver drove like Schumacher … only his suspension wasn’t quite so good. Out of the highly volatile area, we could stop for a welcome (extra sugar please!) chai … but that only made my mood worse as every person within gawking distance turned up for a cuppa to stare at the foreigners. I should have taken commission.
The lumbering hour-long elephant safari through the jungle was worth it I suppose. Had we been anywhere else in the area, the trouble might have been worse. And although Hotel Relax seemed like hell to begin with, it turned out we would not have been helped quite the same had we been anywhere else …we would have got on that 6am train and we might never have made it out of the jungle. I am so grateful to everyone who helped us both physically and spiritually.
We are still in Siliguri after a night in a hovel with the biggest cockroach I have ever seen … which as far as I know is still trapped under the plastic jug next to the squat toilet, unless someone has freed it … since all hotels are still full. Nepal is shut down, the mountain regions are still suffering under the strike and no one knows when the end will come. We have eaten well, making up for the diet of crackers and Cornflakes for the last four days and nights.
We leave on an overnight train to Kolkata tonight. One night there in a beautiful place Mike has booked to help us recuperate … and then Bahrain for further relaxation.
I am looking forward to leaving India now. I am ready. I will be back again, I know. But this time, the end is most welcome.
One Knot in a Hand-tied Carpet
There is a lose thread that still connects me to our first night in Bangalore when, lying restless below the airconditioning unit, my eyes snapped open and I said, “What the f*ck are you doing here?” I was addressing myself of course. But myself didn’t have an answer, only a whimper and a mantra to help her sleep.
I wrote before about sitting on the cusp of my story but now, trapped between the end of one story and the beginning of the next, there is joy in the remembering and heartache in the letting go. I cried a tear in the rickshaw on the way to New Jaipalguri railway station to catch the Darjeeling Mail, an overnight train to Kolkata. India has claimed another small piece of me and, sitting in that rickshaw, I felt it hurt a little. But I have taken a little piece of her too. I somehow doubt she hurts as much but I’m sure she has cried even more than I can imagine. I may be hardcore but she is just that much more hardcore than I am.
“Step aside and wait,” I was told after waiting several minutes with a queue growing audibly restless behind me. After fleeing strikes and mob violence and certain nothing else could go wrong, we were stopped at the check in counter at Kolkata airport and told we were not allowed to board. No explanation … only worried looks and a lot of flicking through the pages of our passports while cross-referencing the computer screen and the scans of our Bahrain visas. With only forty minutes to go to departure, my head spun with scenarios that involved being stranded in Kolkata or having to fly directly back to Cape Town without the head-clearing transitional space that Bahrain was sited to provide. The problem was resolved with no time to relax before boarding the bus to take us all of ten meters to the waiting Emirates airbus. We made it out of India. Just.
Our night in Kolkata was in a gorgeous boutique hotel, the Bodhi Tree, that Mike had organised to help us recuperate. His plan was to get us into a hot bath … I suppose he felt the grime of Madahirat even where he was in Cape Town. And I suppose he also tasted the bile that rose in my throat when I felt my child’s life was in danger. And perhaps he smelt the stench of adrenalin-tainted sweat as we fled the area that caused so much stress. But in India the realities are not always in line with the ideal. The thing is no matter what you spend on a night in an Indian hotel, the plumbing is always the same: the toilet always stinks and the water runs slow and cool. The closest thing to a bath was the bucket which saw our final load of hand washing. But the room was an oasis of eye candy, from the handmade Indian puppets and masks and the original Rajasthani artwork to the silk bedthrows and brocade-covered furniture. Buddha resided over the private dining area and the halls smelt deliciously of ripe fruit and incense. “Is there any chance I can get alu poori and chai for my final breakfast before leaving for the airport?” With breakfast included, I had to ask. With one click of his fingers, his staff stood immediately to attention. I trusted my request would be fulfilled. And it was … moments before our final ride in a Kolkata yellow cab past the South City Mall and the Science City where we had spent the previous day, our final in India.
“Dad was wrong,” Nic said when I asked him how it felt to finally be leaving India, “you didn’t lose me.” He was genuinely amazed and I realised just how much of a burden he had been carrying around all this time.
Arrival in Bahrain was as calm as leaving Kolkata was chaotic. Tobes in slow motion floated across the airport floor and women in burkas made Nic step back in fright. There were so few people in the airport it felt like we were somewhere we weren’t meant to be. It was unnerving. The carousel wasn’t even working anymore when we got through immigration and all the luggage had been taken off by eager porters. Glenn fetched us in a real Jeep and drove us in airconditioned comfort to our home for the next ten days. “Your bag stinks,” he stated on off-loading it. I declined his offer to help, knowing just where it had been in the last five weeks and I flung all 16.5kg over my shoulder, handing him my daypack, which smelt marginally better.
My sister, Melissa, ever perceptive to my need for therapy, welcomed me with a range of Crabtree and Evelyn bodycare products (she felt the grime too), supplements to my depleted wardrobe (I had been discarding things along the way) and several kettles of boiling water to top up my bubble bath which wasn’t quite optimal temperature. Not only that but I was presented with phyllo-wrapped salmon for dinner. And Kamala did my laundry.
I have done nothing but rest for two days, feeling slightly restless and as though I am late for something all the time. I emptied all my bags and washed the stench and grime from them. It felt like the first normal thing I had done in 48 hours; my definition of normal taking an interesting turn … like the twist in my tales.
I finished the Secret Life of Bees in Goa. And, as always, I found the last chapter so difficult to read, skipping backwards over the final pages in an attempt to prolong the inevitable end. But, with every story, the end always comes and I close the book with a forlorn sigh and a feeling that I will never find another quite the same. And I never do. Sometimes I have to wait a while until my head is clear of the one before I can begin the next. And the next is usually just as rewarding no matter how different. Like everything, it just takes some getting used to. But, regardless, one story has to end for another to begin. I began The White Tiger in Varanasi. I have three books next to the soft king-sized bed where I am propped up against the headboard with two extra soft pillows. There are no geckos, no mice, no peeling paint or ammonia smells wafting from the bathroom. And there are absolutely no roaches. I finished the White Tiger but I can’t yet wade into the next story. I am not quite ready to move on.
Yes, India has taken a piece of me but I am not walking away empty handed. She has showered me in her perfumes and filled me with her hope. She has fed me bravery and sprinkled it with kindness. She has dipped me in the cesspool of self-knowledge until I have choked and gagged and she has pulled me out and resuscitated me with reality. She has been generous and cruel, fiery and calm, spiritual and unforgiving. I love her and I hate her. She is like me. I breathed her in and she spat me out. We can’t get too close without taking a break from each other. But we will always see each other again and we will always love and hope and cry together. No two stories are ever the same. But neither are any two readers.
The Bahrain itinerary begins in earnest tomorrow. Not my itinerary this time. I don’t have to plot and plan. I just have to wake up, stretch, shower and dress. The rest is sorted.
A Magic Carpet Ride
I tear open the freshly-baked croissant and shove two triangles of white Toblerone inside. I eat it as it begins to ooze out the sides. This is my breakfast. I’m trying to find the two kilograms I lost in India and Mills is helping with her sublimely creative cooking; restoring me, body and soul. The Toblerone croissants were all ‘me’ though … who else could come up with something like that?
And so began a week of indulgence. That’s what Bahrain is all about it seems … the part we’ve been exposed to anyway. I wasn’t ready to go back home after Kolkata and it became clear why when, on arrival to total comfort and relaxation, I collapsed for two days, as did Nic. And just over a week later we are exhausted again, but for entirely different reasons to the things that exhausted us in India. We are exhausted because we are on a Milly itinerary – less adventure and way more holiday. There’s the food, someone else doing my washing and making my bed and someone driving us everywhere we want to go … it’s just totally indulgent.We got kissed by the Middle Eastern sun at the Ritz-Carlton Beach Club where the sea is warm and the people more so. When the wind blows you don’t feel it because it is the same temperature as the sun that sits suspended in its own heat-induced haze and the sound, combined with the hum of the palms and the fountains, serenaded me to sleep on a chaise longue padded with towels brought by employees of the wealthiest man in Bahrain. The Ritz-Carlton makes it easy to settle in and is the trap that keeps people here. Why would you leave? Nic already looks the part in his Hugo Boss-style swim shorts and his new designer sunglasses from Dubai International. He chews gum. He postures. He thinks he’s cool. And, boy, is he just. He’s content. I’m relaxed. We’re happy. The sea is flat, the sand is white, palm trees frame the scene and the water is just cool enough to make the salty sting worthwhile. As if this indulgence isn’t enough we get confirmation of a luxury yacht trip out to an island – Melissa is writing about it for Gulf Life magazine. After salivating over the pictures online, Nic declared that the “really huge one” would be just fine for him and he began planning his trips and his guest list. In Kalimpong he asked me if he had to be a monk when he grows up. I said no, he can be whatever he chooses. “But, Mum, I want to be a monk when I grow up.” “Ok, fine.” “Actually, Mum, I want to teach the monks.” “???” “Like the Dalai Lama, Mum.” But children can be fickle. A week in Bahrain and his conversations have taken a turn. He asks Melissa, “How much money have you got in your pile in the bank?” Melissa tries best she can to explain her financial position. He continues quizzing her while she navigates his questions without divulging too much information. Eventually she turns it around, “Why are you so interested in how much money I have?” “Because,” he says, “I want to have a thousand, million hundred in my pile of money when I’m older.” Ah, yes, the yacht he covets is the reason he no longer wants to be a monk. The wind stole the dream away but Nic was as unfazed as I was devastated. He said he didn’t mind because he was going to buy one anyway.
Unfortunately I found out after a marathon shopping spree, which ended only when my card was rejected, that our budget doesn’t stretch terribly far here. My exchange rate guesstimate has clearly been way off. The Bahrain Dinar is very strong; petrol really is cheaper than water … and pretty much everything else too. “I’m not that crazy about that one, Mum,” is what I get when I suggest clothing purchases to Nic. He chooses his clothes because he knows exactly what he wants … right down to the man-about-town straw hat. He’s looking island cool … apart from the Tom and Jerry T-shirt he couldn’t live without. But, after being dragged up and down escalators and into every shop with attractive window dressing for two hours in his swimming shorts with the promise of an outing to Wahooo water park on the shopping centre roof, I ran out of excuses not to take him immediately once Visa could no longer deliver the goods. “I don’t want to hear another word about it,” Nic said waving me away as he ran off to the toddler pool. The sight of the water slides and the noise of the water gushing from a giant-sized metal pail filled him with terror. He stayed well away from me in case I took him down one of the giant tubes that spit people out along with gallons of white water … but only at first. He is, after all, a far more confident child now and half an hour later he was running up the flights of stairs to whizz down the supertubes on his own. The Master Blaster nearly took my hair off … so I went again. But my screams drowned out the sounds of everything else and I discovered once again that I’m a totally different kind of thrill-seeker – speed just isn’t my thing. After 3 hours at Wahooo, Nic was amped for anything and the 1.2 meter height limit was all that kept him off the ‘thrill-seeker’ rides by the end of the day. He slept well.
As he did when I left him with Glenn on Tuesday night. It was the first time in five weeks that we were apart and we all survived … even Glenn who was terrified at the prospect. Dinner was at Bushido, a Japanese restaurant surrounded by a shallow moat lined with pale grey pebbles. We sat outside in the warm dry air and, guarded by models of samurai warriors, watched as the dust and the clouds made way for the stars and the moon and the palm trees were lit up in technicolour. The wind which had been howling all day had dropped just enough … not enough to go on the luxury yacht … but enough. It was a perfect finale to a day that was spent at the museum and fort where Nic relived the battles of generations fighting for the trading wealth of this small island – he was bored until Mills filled his head with soldiers and gun fights, and his audio guide completed the picture for him. We saw the excavation sites that once housed the first human skeleton Nic has ever seen and he lapped it all up. The wind rivalled Cape Town’s black southeaster though – my skirt filled with it like a spinnaker sail and we conjured up images of pirates and conquerors. As I clung to it in order to prevent my bare legs from tainting the minds of onlookers, a woman clutched her abaya close to her as though she wasn’t fully clothed beneath. It doesn’t feel like a conservative country when so much time is spent in a bikini but this was a reminder that those indulgences are well sheltered from the local lifestyle which comes with burkinis … not a typo but a lycra burka-style swimsuit – it’s the upmarket alternative to going in fully clothed.
Needing to leave Nic again for a night out, Nic vetoed the option of using Kamala, the housekeeper as a babysitter when Glenn had to work late. I suggested her son, Kamara, who has driven us around a few times, and Nic, like the Tom & Jerry pose on his new T-shirt, gave him the thumbs-up. Like everywhere we have been, he has craved the company of men, a sure sign that he is more than ready to be with his dad now. Mills and I went to La Fontaine with the promise of a deep meditation session. Seated on the floor amongst tea light candles on timber planks that still smelt of the tree, a heavy night breeze pressed in through gothic-style doors. We were given a talk on fear. But then the lights were dimmed and the microphone was handed to another woman who began speaking gently in Arabic. Thinking I was still waiting for the English translation, I got up, went to the loo and collected another bottle of water, which I guzzled while glancing around at the peaceful gathering. The woman stopped talking, the lights were turned up and everyone got up to leave. I had totally missed the meditation. Thankfully the talk on fear which dealt primarily with attachment, and resonated with my dependency issues, plunged me back into the cesspool of self-knowledge that I had waded through so often in India and provided me with more benefit that the deep meditation I was initially after.
“Where is all that singing coming from?” Nic got quite frantic the first time he heard it, running around looking out all the shutters that surrounded the rooftop pool back at La Fontaine. We had just had lunch and Mills booked a massage so that Nic and I could lounge at the pool while we waited for her. We had ridden a camel in the morning and in true Bahrain style, it seemed perfectly normal to now end the day on loungers at a spa pool overlooking the city of Manama where towers of glass are strapped together by bridges and boast their own wind turbines in a paradox of eco-friendly and flashy. Perfectly normal since I imagine the camels might very well be getting the same treatment. Mills laughed when I asked if we could go on a camel safari – Bahrain just isn’t like that – but instead she arranged a trip to a camel farm where a Sheikh has built palatial shelters and brought in 400 camels because he thinks Bahrain needs camels – Bahrain is like that. It isn’t a tourist place and the entrance states very clearly that we shouldn’t enter but Mills had arranged a camel ride so we drove in anyway. It felt slightly unsafe at first, wandering around amongst these extraordinary creatures that bob their heads haughtily above you while looking down at you with hooded eyes. Occasionally one dives at you as though the puppeteer has lost control of the head string … but it is only to nuzzle on a sleeve or a beaded necklace and not remotely aggressive. The ride was short. Comfortable though and it gave me a taste of the trip I will one day do across the dunes of Oman, Bedouin-style. But that is for another day. Sitting poolside at La Fontaine, soaking up the dessert heat, the call to prayers begins. Like opera, it is magical and spiritual and wonderful in my lack of understanding what it means. It begins on one side, then becomes stereo and momentarily hits Dolby 5.1 surround sound before fading out as suddenly as it began. Mint sorbet completes the scene. And the end of the day is again marked by utter exhaustion and satisfaction.
We got our boat ride in the end – not the luxury one but the one to Al Dar Island. It may have been quick but it was exhilarating. Just this simple journey gave Nic such total pleasure that it made up for missing out on the luxurious trip – it made no difference to him; it was still a boat and he just couldn’t believe how fast it was going. It was choppy and it almost made me throw up, proving again how Nic’s thrillometre is set way different to mine. Al Dar is a patch of beach just off the main island of Bahrain, where you can hire a Bedouin-style bed and sip cocktails between dips in the flat salty sea. You can sunbath on a floating jetty and hire pedal boats for a jaunt around the island. You can swim until 11pm and dance till dawn at the full moon parties. It’s just another indulgent way to spend a day out in Bahrain. The wind was up so we couldn’t partake in all it had to offer but just a taster was good enough for me.
Bahrain is a quiet oasis of date palms and muted shades. It is a hub of consumerism but not outwardly bling like Dubai. It has a beautiful old town besides its beaches and islands and fabulous restaurants. It has been good to us. It is a wonderful island-style city and my time with my sister has been relaxed and rejuvenating. We have been indulged in all the best that Bahrain has to offer and I now feel restored and ready to go home to whatever awaits. Nic not so much. Apart from desperately wanting to be with his dad, my intrepid little travel companion has slotted right in here. Travelling looks good on him. My experience has expanded me though and I doubt I will slot easily back into my life. These seven weeks that have been just a blip for everyone else, have felt more like seven years for the growth I have experienced and, for Nic, this journey has been epic. I will have to take Nic somewhere else to accumulate his wealth though. My wealth is depleted and my tolerance for unadulterated indulgence is almost maxed out. I washed everything I bought in the bath – not because I had to but because I wanted to. I’m odd … but then no one who embarks on a journey like this in the first place can be anything but. Bahrain is mystical and magical and full of the finest things money can buy. But although I have found lifestyle here, I have found no soul. Definitely no regrets though – soul or no soul, this was essential down time with my sis.
Since people got over my taking Nic on this journey … although some haven’t quite … questions have turned to whether such a small child could possibly benefit or even remember anything from such a journey. All I can say is, “Absolutely!” His focus is so uncluttered that he remembers so much stuff that I think the more appropriate concern is whether I will in fact remember anything. I know the memories will begin to blur and then fade like I expect my eyesight to do one day … but I have one and a half thousand photos to jog my memory when the synapses fail to fire.
I’ve learnt not to try and predict what awaits so I can’t say if I will ever be back here even though I suspect I won’t … actually, I can’t say anything anymore. I am not at a crossroads; I am at a spaghetti junction that looks something like the slides at Wahooo water park. I could go on the Master Blaster or through the Black Hole but I suspect I may just sit in the toddler pool for a while and play in the gentle fountains. I’ll be ready for the thrill-seeker rides again one day but for now I am ready to go home. I feel like I have been breathing in for so long and that I can now finally breathe out. But, besides anything else, Nic has work to do so he can get us that luxury yacht and I’d rather it was this side of geriatric.