Down and out in India

Jodhpur was driving me crazy -- until I met Julia.

Published June 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Amazing how hard an octogenarian can swing a stick. The 6-foot lathi
bounced off my arm with a sickening reverberation, still thrumming in
the old man's hands as he reared back to strike me again.
"Cello Pakistan!" I shouted as I jumped away from him, the only insult I
knew in Hindi. It means "Go to Pakistan!" -- a serious insult in India.
The old man glared and spit mushy Hindi out of his toothless mouth as he
brandished his stick. He planted his bare feet squarely in the
dust of the road to balance himself, his long gray hair fanning out
from his balding pate and his scummy dhoti stretched tight
across his thighs.

I had impatiently waved away his proffered hand seeking baksheesh, or
alms. My heartstrings had been so stretched by two months in India it
took more than an old fellow to pull them. He wasn't even missing a
significant limb or either of his eyes, both of which continued to bore
into me.

I circled to my left and headed down another
road, looking over my shoulder every few feet until his vituperative
mouth was a tiny rictus against the background of the intersection.
Luckily, the street down which I had made my escape was the one I wanted
to follow, or so it appeared from the map in my guidebook. Road
shoulders in India often double as bathrooms, and so I treaded carefully
in the sand, breathing in a miasma of exhaust as I dodged the thousands
upon thousands of piles of human feces.

Westerners have the riding pants to thank for the familiarity of
Jodhpur's eponymous name, but the big draw for tourists is the
Mehrangarh Fort, a massive edifice of red stone jutting out of the
desert. However, Jodhpur was just a delay for me, and all I wanted was
sleep. The sun's wan rays from the west indicated late afternoon, and I
had been up most of the night, traveling second class on the top bunk of
a three-tier stack. When you are trying to sleep, there is little more
miserable than freezing vinyl, vociferous snoring and an old
train's rattling. I caught only snatches of sleep.
Completely enervated as the night wore on, I watched a roach on my wrist
crawl inside my sweatshirt. I just closed my eyes and let it be.
Asia had demoralized me.

I had first arrived in Japan to get
resoundingly dissed by the woman I had followed there, and the pall of
that rejection had hung onto me through four other countries and now the
Indian subcontinent. I felt no wonder at the exotic sights or mystery
at the holy places. There is so much to Asia, so much to India, but for
me it might as well have been Oakland: There was no there there.

while the lovelorn make terrible travelers, they do make excellent
tourists. I had no creativity, so I dutifully followed my guidebook.
It had last stationed me in the desert town of Jaisalmer, where the sun
breaking off blond stone creates a sublime airiness (not that I could
have told you that then). I was desperate for structure, sad and
relieved that it was finally time to go back to Delhi.

Purchasing my ticket in Jodhpur, I learned that the next train to Delhi
wouldn't leave until early in the morning. I struck out to the south along
a main road
that began at the train station. A sidewalk is a mercurial thing in
India and intermittently I found myself in the road, traffic whizzing a
few inches from me. Overcrowded buses weaved through with
rickshaws hugging their sides for clearance like remoras on a shark's
body. No lights regulated this vehicular chaos and I debated trying to
cross. I stepped forward, then back, feeling caught in indecision. A
gap in traffic appeared and I made a move three feet into the road.
Suddenly a speeding rickshaw cut over and came at me. I jigged in
place, back and forth like a rabbit in headlights, before I stepped back
toward the curb and ankle-deep into a black pothole.

"Oh, shit!" I groaned. Actually, shit and motor oil. I flicked a green
chunk of cow dung off the tip of my shoe and swore at this country. I
could feel the viscous mixture soaking through my sock. I decided to
backtrack. Step-squish-step-squish. I could see the train station at
the end of the road once again when a man sidled up next to me. He
looked to be in his 20s. He possessed that jarring look of
geekiness so many Indian men have with their polyester clothes and bushy
mustaches. He offered his hand to shake. No huckster excels like an
Indian huckster at playing on the Westerner's sense of social propriety.
The handshake offered entree you didn't want to give, but it felt so
rude to snub someone. I sighed and pumped his hand once.

"How are you, my friend?" he asked.

"Fine." I clipped the word off like a hangnail.

"I would very much like to talk to you."

"Listen, I don't really have time right now."

"But I would like to take you to meet my family. It would be very

Coincidentally, I was sure, his family owned a shop where I might like
to buy a few things.

I shook my head. "No, I'm sorry, but I need to hurry."

He gazed at me with limpid eyes, so innocent. "What is wrong? Don't
you like Indians?" he asked in a hurt tone.

I stifled involuntary guilt and shook my head. "Sorry. See you later."

I quickened my pace and left him behind. I stopped at a roadside cafe,
sipped a soft drink and perused my guide for a hotel. I promised
myself I would be in bed by 8, so I'd be sure to make my
train at 6 a.m. One entry caught my eye, a hotel where Mark Twain had
supposedly stayed. It was on the pricey side at about 300 rupees (at
the time that was roughly $9), but I decided I deserved a more luxurious
room after all the dorms, train billets and converted closets I had
shacked in over the preceding weeks. Plus, I was still shaking off a
fever that had waylaid me a week earlier.

The route I followed led me back to the same intersection where I had
planted my foot in the scum-filled pothole. I was kicking a rock to
knock off some of the crud encrusted on my shoe when the old beggar hit

Now I found myself in a minefield of poops, trudging in the impending
twilight. God, let the hotel come soon. Around a curve a field of
stubbly grass opened up across the road from me. A low wall sporting
shaggy chunks of white paint hemmed in the yard. A dusty road curved up
to a wide, single-story building fronted by a colonnaded breezeway.
Could that be the hotel?

I approached and indeed, yes, this was the hotel. The old woman sitting
out front shouted something and a middle-aged man shuffled up to me and
introduced himself as Sanjay. I followed him to an office crowded with
a scarred desk, an ancient telephone and a curling poster of Ganesh,
the young god with the head of an elephant. The set-up struck me as
pretty dilapidated, but I didn't care as long as the bed was warm.
Sanjay informed me I would reside in the very room where Mark Twain
stayed, a great honor, his tone suggested, though it appeared to me no
one else was staying at the hotel to compete for the distinction.

The room turned out to be huge,
cavernous even, but that was about all that could be said for it. The
bed sat squarely in the center of the room covered by a ratty blanket
like a cloth melanoma. Listing double doors stood open at one end to
reveal a brown stained tub and a stark toilet with no seat. The floor
was frigid gray stone and the ceiling dangled scabrous pieces of white
paint above my bed.

What the hell, I thought. The fatigue had settled so deeply in my bones
that the soiled counterpane almost looked inviting. I slapped a sheaf of
sticky rupees in Sanjay's hand and locked the door behind him. I
dropped my pack on the floor and shrugged off my sweatshirt. There was
no heat, so I kept my pants on and crawled into the bed. I stared up at
the ceiling 10 feet above and let the weariness and depression sink
into tolerable positions in my body and mind. I sighed as sleep began to
overtake me, hating India, hating Asia and feeling guilty for it.

Always the same in India, roaches everywhere. Almost lost in sleep, a
primal sense still felt his little feet on me and I flipped the
bedspread once to send him airborne. I pushed deeper into my pillow,
feeling a bit disquieted in my sleep.

But sometimes, even lost in a welter of confusion, one little thing can
bring reality into order. Just one thing. In this case, a foot. I
felt again the gentle pressure of that roach's foot on my upper chest,
and realized:

Roaches don't have feet.

I launched from that bed in one massive spasm, landing
three feet away. I flipped the light switch. A beefy rat crouched on
the floor at the foot of the bed, emitting a pissed-off squeal. In a
gray flash it disappeared.

"OK. OK. All right, now. How do you like that? OK." I chanted
to myself in a breathless voice as I shoved clothes into my bag.

Two minutes later I ordered Sanjay from the breezeway to his office and
demanded my money back.

Sanjay bobbed his hands at me in a placating gesture. "Please, sir,
you must understand. This is India."

"India, my ass, Sanjay," I replied, feeling strangely liberated. It
was all too much, and now I just didn't care what anyone thought. "I
want my money back."

Sanjay stood firm on keeping half, and I relented. I had gotten
roughly two hours of sleep. Besides, I had the creepy sense I was in a
horror movie: one of those where the city seems deserted for no apparent
reason until all the bugs begin to pour out from every nook and cranny.
In my febrile imagination I saw rats in the shadowy corners and poking
out from underneath Sanjay's desk.

I retraced my route toward the train station, still giddy with
disgust. Maybe I could understand a rat crawling on my chest one time,
but why had it returned after I flung it off? What was the rat so
determined to get? The possible answers sounded hideous: my eyes? My
nose? My lips? I cackled to myself again while I checked my guidebook.
Apparently another hotel with a dorm was located just a stone's throw
from the train station. The thought of sleeping with other people
around me now sounded heavenly. I made my way there and paid for a bed
sight unseen.

I dropped my pack at the far end of a long room filled with 30
beds. Only two other people were in the room: an Indian man on the
opposite end by the door, and a pale-skinned girl sitting cross-legged
on a bed across from me. We introduced ourselves. Her name was Julia.

"You're not going to believe what happened to me," I announced to her
and launched into a detailed description of my day, ending, of course,
with the rat.

Julia was Finnish and she reacted to my story with typical Nordic
reserve: her mouth as straight as a ruler and a quick bob of her

"Pretty awful," I added, feeling lame.

Julia nodded. "Just awful."

She smiled at me. An energy
vibrated in her voice and she had shifted closer to me.
The room's lights were turned off. They were harsh fluorescents and
instead Julia had lit a candle. It drew a sheen off her skin as
white as flour, as if the candle burned on her beauty.

As we talked I
realized just how radiant she was. Her lips were full and flushed. The
tousled and errant locks that rested on her shoulders contrasted with
the rest of her hair parted severely down the middle. As we talked from
the ends of our beds, we both leaned forward to lessen the distance
between us. I realized I felt, for the first time since I had left
Japan, pure, unadulterated desire for this woman, to physically touch
her, to see how she acted when I did, to read her like Braille.

I can remember almost nothing we talked about. The conversation was not
momentous. It would have been forced to try to establish a rapport on
that level, yet even the prosaic things we must have discussed channeled
an energy between us. I doubt we conversed for more than an hour, yet
as she handed me her travel clock to borrow for the night I felt an ache
at the thought of not seeing her again. After I had set the clock and
pulled up the sheets there was a long pause, and then she spoke the only
words I clearly remember:

"I wish you weren't going."

I paused at the bald statement. A silence hung like a curtain between
us. "Me too," I replied.

We went to sleep. When I awoke, the longing to stay with her had lasted
through the night. I wrote a quick note and placed her clock on top of
it: "Thanks, Julia. It was great meeting you. If you're in New Delhi,
I'm staying at the Ringo Guest House."

I never saw her again. I knew I wouldn't. As the train pulled out from
Jodhpur, dawn breaking like silver snakes on the tracks, Julia already
felt very far away.

But then again, so did Japan.

By Erik Braun

Before returning to San Francisco, Erik Braun traveled for a year throughout Asia. In addition to his work as a freelance writer, he studies Sanskrit and Buddhism.

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