Monday, 5 April 2010

A holiday in the desert

It’s been quite a while since my last confession from India. I’d love to tell you that’s because I’ve been too busy writing my first novel, knocking-back gin and tonics on a tiger-skin rug and shouting at the maidservant, but the real problem is that I’ve become too settled into the Indian way of life – a bit like dirt in an old hippie’s heel. How can I write about the barefoot spiritual exiles of India when I am one of them?

It’s a worrying fact that my skin smells like chicken tikka, I wipe my bum with my left hand, wobble my head in answer to any question, have a shit haircut and can drink five chais in a row without blinking. I’ve been spiritually channelled, had my chakras rubbed down with paraffin oil on a dirty kitchen table, attended a candlelit-chanting workshop and was the most enthusiastic person there – ‘Om shanthi! Let me have a go on that tambourine, John!’ No joke. Last week I wore a turban ‘to keep my head cool’, and I call them fucking hippies?

It suddenly dawned on me: was I really so much better than those mad-eyed leathery freaks in faded psychedelic kaftans who have stayed here so long they re-christen themselves ‘Krishna’ and insist on wearing white robes and mala beads to Tescos when they go home?

So at the beginning of this month I decided that it was time to leave the Hari Rams and cheesecloth behind me and feel like a normal tourist again. Claudia was visiting from England so we flicked through her crisp new Lonely Planet for inspiration and booked a last-minute flight to Rajasthan. The guidebook called it The Land of Kings, a mystical desert-scape of maharajahs palaces, fortresses and, of course, shopping. It seemed far, far away from pious bongo-bangers of the South – and also I’d been after a camel leather bag for ages.

Flying into Jaipur was like landing on a different planet. The sky was bluer, the light harsher and the desert wind cracked our lips the minute we stepped off the plane. Everything was just a slightly amplified version of what I was used to.

Lipsticked ladies shimmied through the arrivals gate in sequinned neon saris and diamante heels, pushing over-loaded trolleys with arms like forklift truck drivers. In baggage claim I saw a guy in chai-stained white pyjamas retrieve a wicker basket of tiny yellow bananas from the revolving carousel. You can actually check-in bananas? He looked right back at me as if to say: “yeah bananas and so fucking what?”

Everything about our first couple of days in Jaipur was amazing as far as we were concerned. Delirious from all the desert sun, bangle-shopping and sickly saffron lassies, we were stupid to the point of putting ourselves in mortal danger on a daily basis. We ate every dubious lukewarm samosa from the street we could get our grubby hands on, piled four on the back of a rickety cycle rickshaws the wrong way down busy dual carriageways at night with no lights on; Claudia got too friendly with a paraplegic beggar selling wooden puppets and got her tits groped. “But I told him we were lesbians!” she said. I wonder why didn’t he get the message? I gave my email address to the pimple-faced hotel manager and two hours later found a string of romantic Facebook messages ‘to beuotiful Sarah. I am Nazeem hotel manager. I want to give you kiss ok, call me ok luv n hugs Naz xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx’.

We learned to expect the unexpected. Like on our third day when we decided to hire a ‘luxury’ car for the whole ten-day trip 1000km across Rajasthan – and the driver turned up three hours late and extremely pissed. “Erm I don’t mean to be rude,” I said to the travel agent, “but your driver stinks of whiskey, could it be that he is he drunk?” The driver stood swaying cross-eyed on the pavement next to the car, looking like he wanted to regurgitate something. “No not drunk. Just tired.” said the travel agent. Then an exchange took place in Hindi, which probably went something like:

Travel agent: “Put your tongue back in your mouth you stupid goat, you need to start acting like you’ve driven a car before and that I didn’t just peel you off the floor of a bar and bribe you with 100 rupees to drive these fussy foreign slutbags around for the next 10 days”.
Amir: “But shhir I’m sho sho drwunk, drwunker than a shkunk. My head ish shpinning, I feeling like yakking up my lunch and when I look at you I sshee three fat angry men inshtead of one. How can I drive when I can’t even shtand up? ”
Travel agent: “Drivers just need to sit there, smile and press the floor pedal thingy, butt plug. Keep quiet and I’ll tell them you just had one beer”.

“He only had one beer – for the festival. Don’t mind OK? Amir is very good man,” said the travel agent, slapping him on the back. “I’m sure Amir is a very nice man,” I said, patience thinning, “but he smells like he’s been on an intravenous Jack Daniels drip for the past 48 hours.” The travel agent scratched his arse and executed a chain of complex mathematical calculations in his head: “Better you open window, oxygen is good for smell”.

So we opened the windows, prayed, held on tight and everything was fine – until it got dark and Amir turned the headlights off to ‘save fuel’. I’m not sure how it happened but one minute the road was empty and the next minute we heard horns smack into the passenger window and saw a dazed-looking cow through the back windscreen, wobbling around in the middle of the motorway in the path of an oncoming goods lorry. The horn sounded and there was a sickening thud. He was probably fine right?

To be continued…

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