[Beach Resort, India]
Waking up at the Copacabana
I had laughed when I was told that India would be cold.
“You’ll need to pack warm clothes, lots of jumpers.”
I really should have listened, I thought, as I stood there in lavender coloured tights that were two sizes too small, yet somehow baggy around the knees. There wasn’t much in the way of department store shopping in Varanasi, I had found. I looked across at Kayla, who was wearing an oversized orange skivvy that stated “I wish you were beer” across the front. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who had under-estimated the clothing situation. At least hers would double as a souvenir for her dad back home. The purple tights were going straight in the bin, and soon. Finally, after three weeks of city hopping and overnight train rides we were heading south to Kerala and hopefully, to some warmth.
“Ready, gal?” I asked the moment the taxi pulled away, leaving us, packs in hand outside the domestic terminal.
She patted down the side of her hips and thighs, flustered, and then turned her face up to me, all its colour drained. Without a word she dropped her pack and took off down the foot path waving her arms. Moments before turning out into the streets of New Delhi never to be seen again, the driver slowed to a halt, giving her a chance to swing open the back passenger door and emerge, passport in hand, a terrified look still on her face.
“Oh my god.” I said, as she returned to my side.
“I don’t want to.”
“We NEVER would’ve got it back, there is like, a million taxis out there”.
“I know, let’s not talk about it.”
I nodded. “Everything’s fine, could’ve been worse, let’s just go check in.”
“Seriously gal, nice work though” I laughed, “good catch.”
We presented our passports, Kayla doing so with an air of both relief and gratitude to some higher power, and went inside. I waited while she took in the information on the visitors board, my ticket was somewhere in my pack, hers was in hand, fresh out of its neatly stowed plastic slip.
Comparing our flight number to the information on the board, she moaned.
“Oh lame, for how long?” “Two hours.”
“Ugh, what are we going to do, there’s only one snack stand in here, we can’t even check in.”
“I know, but it’s worse than that, look” she said turning the page of our itinerary and pointing to our connecting flight.
“Were going to miss it?” I asked, confused.
“Maybe. They might hold the plane I’ll go to the service desk. If they can’t change it, what do you think we should do?”
“Um, I don’t really know, you choose.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yea it will be like planning another trip, you love that. Surprise me. I’ll stay and watch our packs.”
“Okay then!” she said, perking up at the prospect of planning an alternate itinerary.
I sat and waited on the hard plastic bench as an array of striped business shirts and brightly colored saris walked past me and on to the check in counter. It wasn’t hard to identify the pale, freckled face as it made its way back towards me with a defeated expression.
“There’s nothing they can do, its different airlines so they won’t hold the plane, we can’t even claim insurance, well, we can but we won’t get anything after the charges.”
“That sucks, thanks for trying though. Did you manage to suss something out?”
“Yea, I’ve had to change our flights, we’re going straight to Goa.”
“That’s cool! It’ll be really nice, we can sunbathe!”
“I know, but it seems like such a waste… I really wanted to see the south.” I was quietly relieved. After spending no more than two nights in one place for the last few weeks, this would be great. My mind drifted towards the possibilities. I could unpack, read my book… maybe even wash the clothes that had been bundled up at the bottom of my pack for the past three weeks.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be really nice” I reassured her.
“Yea, I guess. Hey are you alright?” “Me? Yeah I’m fine, why?”
“You look kind of awful.”
“Okay, Miss ‘I wish you were beer’. Burnt orange isn’t exactly your colour either.”
“Ok, bitchy. I just mean you look tired.”
She wasn’t wrong. I did actually feel very tired, strangely so. There was a foggy feeling behind my eyes and the muscles in my arms and shoulders felt achy and weak. I had put it down to lack of sleep. I hadn’t been able to do anything more than close my eyes and cover my ears on our last 13-hour train journey. Overnight there had been a child screaming horrifically as it ran up and down the aisles, and on the bunk beside me an elderly man had been emitting some strange noises. His son had repeatedly walked over and covered the old man’s face lightly with a sheet. I was very disconcerted by what that might’ve signified and couldn’t get a wink of sleep in case he died right next to me.
“I’ll be okay, thanks. I’ll just get some sleep on the plane” I said smiling, but it was a very long time, in fact, before I got any rest at all.
Getting on board was an issue in and of itself. We were stopped at security by a thorough, yet fairly unprofessional guard.
“No electrical devices?” he questioned while unstuffing our packs, item by item.
“I, uh don’t think so, Rochelle?” Kayla said.
“No, my phone’s in the container” I replied, nodding my head to the grey plastic bin. “I don’t think I have anything else.”
The guard rummaged a while longer until triumphantly, he pulled out a cylindrical black object, about the size of an electric toothbrush.
“What’s this?” he asked, a small smirk appearing at the corner of his mouth.
Kayla and I looked at each other blushing. We both had a fair idea what he thought it was.
“That’s a Steripen” Kayla said in an awkward rush. “For water bottles.”
He wasn’t buying it so I jumped in, trying to explain. “It sterilises the water.” I made a swirling motion with my finger.
Nodding his head left and right, the guard waved us over to the side. The battery operated Steripen earned us a suspiciously touchy pat down. Kayla was fuming about it, she was still on edge over the tiger safari boob graze in Ranthambore and the creepy camel driver in Pushkar. I wasn’t too pleased with the situation myself but attempted to make light of it.
“Told you not to pack a vibrator.” I whispered loudly as we walked away.
That earned me a chuckle and an elbow to the ribs as we headed to board the plane.
It was a tradition of ours to silently wish for the third seat in our row to be free. The extra room meant more comfort and I had devised a system where I could use the airline blankets as a sort of hammock for my legs if there was room to get my knees up. That all depended on the empty seat. The plane had almost finished boarding and things were looking hopeful until a strange man with an overly cheerful expression looked at our row number and grinned. He seated himself next to us, positioning his long white robes appropriately. He looked just like Jesus, beard and all.
While in the air, I had closed my eyes and listened to the polite chatter Kayla had sparked up between herself and our neighbor. He owned and operated an ashram which we were welcome to visit at any time. He was also a fruitarian, apparently. He had turned down the on flight snacks in favour of some weird packeted prunes that he was kind enough to offer around. He was sure that they had died of completely natural causes whereas the complementary peanuts had not. I politely refused, due to a queasiness in my stomach which took hold as the plane began to descend. Instead I subtly reached for a sick bag and tried to concentrate on the conversation happening beside me.
“So, where were you from, before you came to India?” Kayla asked, always interested in new and potential travel destinations.
“Nowhere” he replied I a wistful tone. “I don’t belong to any place.”
I might’ve laughed had I not been holding a paper bag over my face.
By the time we touched down I knew I was, in fact, very unwell. Kayla had noticed some time into the descent and turned her attention away from the fruitarian and towards me. Packed carefully into her carry on was an array of pills and potions. Ibuprofen, loperamide, antihistamines. You needed it, she had it. She offered me something to soothe my stomach which gratefully I took although it didn’t stay down for long.
The cabin of the plane was silent as it taxied on the tarmac, and just as it came to a halt I vomited loudly into the bag. I was conscious enough of the loud splash to be embarrassed. Especially as it happened not once but three times while everyone waited to disembark. One particularly concerned Indian woman patted me kindly on the shoulder and suggested I gargle salt water when I got to my destination.
Getting to any destination seemed like a near impossible task at that moment. I felt I was going to have to be stretchered off the plane, but there was a small window of recovery time between vomiting on the plane and vomiting in the airport toilets that allowed me the strength to get out, into the bus and through security without any medical assistance. I lay down across a row of chairs while Kayla took charge of arranging the taxi. It would be an hour of winding country roads to get to Goa, a terrifying prospect for me at that moment.
“I’ve found a driver, he’s outside. It was a lot more expensive but I got you AC.”
I had never been more grateful for air-conditioning in my life. “Thank you” I said, smiling weakly.
She took both our packs and led us outside, me trailing slowly behind.
“My friend is sick, sorry” she told the driver. We were both quietly nervous about the implications of me throwing up on the upholstery. If it happened at home, on a ride back from town, you were looking at a $100 bill for the cleaning at least. Luckily in my delirious state I had taken the initiative to grab a few more sick bags on my way out of the plane. I definitely needed them.
We had encountered two types of men during the course of our trip. The slightly creepy, and the incredibly sweet. The creepiest had been Snake, named for the way his eyes dilated when he saw us walk into his restaurant. It was our first hour in India and we were a dangerous combination of disoriented, star eyed and hungry. We must’ve have ‘clueless’ stamped across our foreheads and were far too trusting when he guaranteed to get us to the official tourist booking office that evening (it would be closed every other day that week, apparently). It wasn’t until the next day that we realised we had been tricked. We went to collect our train tickets, part of a weeklong package deal that was supposedly our only option (and had cost every rupee we had) when we saw Snake duck under the desk. It took me a few minutes to realise that we weren’t in the official tourist office at all, and he had just made a fair few rupees in commission. John, on the other hand, who ran a home stay in Puskar and had served me what I believe might have been the vomit inducing Lassi, was very sweet and genuinely helpful. So was the driver. He was very concerned by the state of the girl spewing her guts out in the back of his taxi, and pulled over at the nearest gas station bringing back a bottle of water and some supplies. I burst into tears, both due to the hideous way I felt and the kindness of his gesture.
Between sobs I whispered “Kayla, I don’t think I can do this”.
That was that. She explained to the driver that she didn’t think I could make it to Goa tonight and please could he drop us to a hotel anywhere nearby. He responded happily that his cousin owned guest houses not too far away and “yes, yes!” he was sure there would be rooms available. With that piece of mind I was able to doze off in the back of the taxi to god knows where.
I woke up in a shabby room to the sound of crows. I assumed that I might’ve died sometime in the night and that they were now circling my dead body. Sunlight however, came streaming in through a yellowed mesh curtain and I realised, slowly, that I must have survived. The harsh sound of the crows combined with the bright light and palm leaves outside made for a disorienting combination. My eyes said tropical paradise but my ears told me, haunted woods. I rose slowly, feeling that I had entered into some surreal dream like place. Kayla was nowhere to be seen but there on the small bedside table was a young, green coconut which I sipped at gratefully. Trust her to be thinking of my electrolytes. She had left a note saying she was down at the beach and to come down when if I felt well enough, so although still queasy, I rinsed out my bucket, put on a one piece and kaftan and stepped outside.
The room was a little stand-alone shack, secured with a large, old fashioned padlock. There were several more houses like it, painted in various pastel colors and encircled around a moderate sized pool. Ours was pale pink. The whole place reminded me of Dirty Dancing’s Kellerman's Resort and I felt it might be named something tacky like ‘The Copacabana’. I padded barefoot past the pool and ended up almost instantly on a long, sandy beach. There were a few loungers scattered along it, and almost no westerners in sight. It turned out the place was popular for domestic tourists and not really anybody else. I brought an ice-block and ended up giving half of it to a thirsty dog that had come to sit next to me on the sand. I named her Bindi because of the red mark painted on her forehead. I wondered if it was a ceremonial thing but later learned that it actually meant she had been vaccinated against rabies. She slept on the front door step of our little shack for the next two nights, and followed me and Kayla up and down the beach when we walked. I felt like she was protecting us, but Kayla suggested practically that she might just be wanting more food.
It was on the fourth day, that I felt well enough to make the trip down to Goa. Together Kayla and I arranged a taxi, no AC, and packed our bags. We were still met with curious gazes from the local tourists as we made our way to the checkout desk, jandals and sunnies on, beach towels hanging over our shoulders. Kayla, who had been itching to get down to Goa to do some of Lonely Planet’s well reviewed cooking and yoga classes, was buzzing with excitement. I felt sad. The faded shack and started to feel strangely like another home, and Bindi, another friend. The whole experience had be like an aside from life, from existing it all, and driving away, I felt like I was being woken up and out of some oriental dream land.
The further away we drove, the more I perked up. It was as if a kind of spiritual connection followed me for some miles down the road, but faded along the way. By the time we arrived in Goa, I was just as excited as Kayla. I was surprised by the amount of westerners and was eager to eat, drink and wander casually up and down the market road, wearing floppy pants and singlets like they all seemed to.
It wasn’t till I arrived home, that I even thought about those prior few days. I couldn’t remember the name of the town. It was as though the four days spent at the little pink shack had been a book mark, a complete pause in the trajectory of my life. Strangely, I then realised, that of all the places we had planned to visit it was the one we stumbled upon by mistake that had been the most significant.
© Rochelle Gosling