I forgot how much I hated Dharamshala Road until I was on it again. It twists and winds its nauseating way down the mountain while everyone on the bus happily chirps, and I feel like I’m going to vomit. This time was no different.
We left in the early evening. In my mind I waved goodbye to the land of crimson-robed monks, climbing mist, hide-and-seek corn fields, mystical waterfalls, rainbow umbrellas, and wild roses. I put on my headphones and stared out the window as the town fell away.
About ten minutes down the mountain, I felt sick. After another ten minutes, I began fiddling with my window to see if it would open and accommodate my head. It did.
Meanwhile, in the seat behind me, a French girl was saying to her seatmate, So I just look these stupid Indian men directly in the eye, you know? They think they can intimidate me, but no. I just stare back until they get so uncomfortable, they look away.
She laughed, a nasty little laugh that dripped with contempt.
I also like to hang my panties on the line to dry, she went on.
I hang my lacy bras and underwear right out in the open. It’s my way of sending them a message, she said in a charming, British-tinged accent.
It’s like I’m saying, ‘Yes, I might be a sexy Western woman, but I am free, but I would never take YOU to bed!’
I mentally applauded her. I knew there was a reason I loved the French.
As she continued to chatter away behind me, my head started pounding and my mouth watered. My stomach clenched up and I slowly leaned out the window.
Dust flew into my eyes and nose, and I closed my eyes against the burn. Something was climbing up my stomach, a tightness that needed to be released. Below me on the road, several cars had come to a stop. Their occupants had gotten out and were lounging against the passenger doors.
The bus was crawling slowly past them, hitting every rock in its path. I didn’t want to puke on someone’s head, but it was beginning to look inevitable. Just as the bile was rising in my throat, the bus picked up speed and we rounded a corner. I opened my mouth and let a stream of orange juice and partially digested momos fly. I wish I could say that when I pulled my head back in the window, I felt better, but I didn’t. That bus ride really sucked.
Delhi Train Station
I chose an obscure bit of wall to sit against as I waited for my train. I must have been crazy to think I would be left in peace.
In the space of five minutes, I had a pack of Indian children making dashes at me, stopping just short of my feet, and screaming Hello! before running off in a fit of giggles.
A legless beggar rolled up on a wooden cart and held out his hands for money. Before I could reply, a stern-looking Indian man dressed in white appeared and began shouting at him in Hindi.
Chaos ensued. The beggar shouted back and waved his fists, a group of Muslim men who had just finished their evening prayer stood up to stare, and everyone in the waiting station turned to see what was going on.
I froze and tried to melt into the wall.
The next thing I knew, I was being whisked off by the Indian man. He was the type of Indian who is helpful to a detriment. He scolded me for traveling alone, asked with a mixture of concern and confusion why I wasn’t married yet, and sat me down on a bench in the middle of the waiting station where I would be “more comfortable.” Hundreds of pairs of eyes were on me. I was not more comfortable.
The children kept running up and peering at me from around a tall pillar, and every time I would “discover” them, they would shriek in laughter and run off. Their parents stared in unbroken fascination for the hour that I sat there.
One little boy got bolder and bolder, coming up to me with his hands behind his back, digging his toe into the ground and smiling. He was flirting with me in the unabashed, adoring way only a small child can flirt with an adult. I fell in love with him, and gave he and his “attendant,” another young boy of eleven or twelve, each a twenty baht Thai note. They dissolved in giddy joy and laughter, and ran off to show the adults.
When I had to use the loo, an Indian woman in charge of taking money followed me in. She wore a blue sari and stood at the sink smoking an illicit cigarette. When I emerged, she shot off to me in rapid Hindi, speaking passionately and waving her hands in the air. I had no idea what she was saying, so I nodded my head and smiled until she seemed satisfied. Then she followed me out, never letting me out of her sight.
When it was time to catch my train, I had a retinue of friends see me off.
The Indian man grabbed my ticket from my hands and led the way. The little boy and his attendant followed, skipping and laughing. The secret smoker locked her cash box and joined in, and the family who had been staring at me came out to the platform to wave goodbye.
The Indian man and the young attendant managed to sneak onto the train with me, and sat in the opposite seat until a railway guard discovered them and told them to leave. They were loathe to part ways, but I gave them each an autographed passport photo, and they beamed, satisfied and finally able to say goodbye.
Hoping to catch a few winks of sleep, I pulled out my bed early. Just then, two Indians poked their heads around the corner and began speaking in excited, lilting English. They could hardly believe their luck at having an American traveler all to themselves.
Being a white novelty in a foreign land can be seriously exhausting.
I was the first person on the bus. We drove for a few minutes, then pulled into a dusty market, where vendors were hawking apples, bananas, peanuts, and jellabies. As the engine idled, and the driver disappeared into the melee, an old saddhu tottered up to the door of the bus.
He was barefoot, bare-chested, and smeared with ash. He was singing and swinging a copper incense holder that burned and perfumed the morning air. He stepped onto the bus, still singing, and took a blossom out of the basket on his arm. He bowed down to the empty driver’s seat and placed the flower there, singing and waving the incense.
Om, namaskar, Om, Om, Om, he sang. The bus was now protected.
He turned and placed an orange blossom in my hand. He dipped his finger into a jar of red powder and pressed it against my forehead. I was marked. Blessed.
Om, Om, Om, he went on, swinging the incense back and forth.
Om, Namaskar, Om!
I put a few rupees in his basket and he disappeared, bare-skinned and glistening, into the sweltering September morning.