Three months after our wedding we booked an impromptu honeymoon to India. Our funds were limited, so with two backpacks filled to the brim with shorts and t-shirts, flip-flops and a second-hand Lonely Planet, we arrived at Delhi Airport in the midst of September. The monsoon season was waning and the temperatures were still hovering above the mid-twenties.
We landed in the early evening at the capital airport. The arrival hall was overcrowded as we tried to push past businessmen, backpackers and a third category I simply couldn’t put a label to. After much hustling we made our way to the exit. The first thing that hit me was the earthy heat followed by the smell. A sweet smell mixed with sweat and dirt. Then came the crowd. A wall of flesh descending upon us, we navigated through endless bodies of people and cattle. I let Carl lead the way until he came upon a rickshaw. I’m not sure who was more happy about our chance meeting, the driver or us. In any case, he whisked us away for a fare of ten Rupees, most likely overpriced, but our gratitude knew no bounds.
When we arrived at the hotel it was dark. The street bustled with people, mixing locals with travellers. Every single rambling house had been converted to a guesthouse with the exception of a few small restaurants that lined the street. The rickshaw driver pulled over and brought us to the reception where he talked to the manager. I saw money exchanging hands before he left us to our fate. The man at the reception asked for our passports and took our most significant details. We paid three days up front for a room with air-conditioning and a communal shower and toilet. Our quarter was small, little larger than the double bed that was parked in one corner, leaving less than four square metres of surface for our belongings. But it was clean, with the exception of a few cockroaches that crawled our walls.
Hunger was permeating my stomach, stirring up a rumbling, churning noise. It was already past midnight and most restaurants were long since closed. But we found a little stall that served scrambled eggs on white bread. I had three before my hunger pangs were satisfied.
I don’t think anything prepared me for life as a backpacker. We were both inexperienced, far removed from the hippy and drug-infested traveller communities that had taken over the Indian peninsula. I smelled the sweet odour of marijuana at every block and corner, despite the lingering promise of police clampdowns. But as the weeks went by, we were slowly assimilated into the subculture of backpackers and runaway Westerners that had made India their refuge. Cliques of people came together around various interests and backgrounds. The French kept mostly to themselves, and so did the Germans. The Brits were all over the place, the loudest and most conspicuous of them all. They mixed with the Scandinavians, the Dutch, the Australians and Israelis. And so did we.
Carl smoked his first joint three weeks into our travels. We had reached Varanasi, the most holy of cities in India. The place where the wheels of reincarnation stopped in their tracks and Atman, the soul, was allowed to escape and join the supreme universal spirit of Brahman. Our journey had gone through Agra and the majestic mausoleum of the Taj Mahal. We had relived the last days of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as he spent his final years condemned to watch his lifework from a single room in the Red Fort.
We had just arrived at the Yogi Lodge, a travellers’ haven in the hotel district of Varanasi. It was simple, almost spartan, but cheap yet clean. It was incredibly warm and the humidity had been rising in the wake of a rainfall. We dropped off our luggage and followed the breeze, which was sweeping down a staircase to us. At the top a large roof terrace opened to a view overlooking the crowded streets in the west and the deserted shores in the east. Three men and a woman, all dressed in washed-out t-shirts and knee-length shorts, were sitting around a table playing cards. They looked at us for a brief moment before returning to their game. We sat down at a table to their right, ordering two mango lassis. I brought out a second-hand paperback I’d picked up at a book stall whilst in Delhi. Carl was taking pictures, first of me, but when I waved him away, placing my hand demonstratively in front of my face, he turned to the vast urban scenery unfolding beneath him.
I must have forgotten about time because the sun was setting and Carl had joined the group of travellers next to us. If the game had ended recently, I missed it, but the cards were gone from the table and tobacco, rolling papers and what looked like weed had taken its place. The first joint passed around the table, as if it were a holy communion shared amongst the congregation. I saw my husband taking it, puffing a few times before passing it on to the girl next to him. She laughed at him, exposing him as a newcomer to the illicit world of drugs. I could see him blushing, before he took another spliff. I called for him, but he didn’t answer me, being deeply engrossed in some conversation, which seemed funny only to the ones initiated. Eventually I left, but he didn’t seem to notice.
I woke up sometime after 2 AM. I could hear people shouting in German: “Scheiße, Scheiße, Scheiße! Du bist so ein Idiot!”
A door slammed before tranquillity once more returned, with the exception of a humming fan that rotated in a loopy circle. I turned to my right, but I already knew instinctively that Carl was not there. I looked for his bag but it was gone. Carl had never made it back to the hotel room.
At first I thought it was a simple case of a fun evening being prolonged into the wee hours of the morning. So I went upstairs, only to find the roof terrace deserted. I returned to the hotel room to check if he had come back while I was away. But the room was in an equal state of abandonment as the terrace had been. I walked downstairs to the reception. The night manager was sleeping on a futon but woke up with a start as I neared him.
“Can I help you with anything?” he asked in a distinct Indian accent.
“I hope so,” I replied in a voice that might have come across as rather smug. “My husband, tall, brownish hair, Swedish, was on the roof terrace but he never came back to our room.”
“Have you tried to call him?”
“Yes,” I lied, in the hope of exposing any transgression on my husband’s part without prior notification.
“And he’s not picking up?”
“That’s right,” I lied again.
“Well, I did see some people leave the terrace about an hour ago. They were the only ones left.”
“Do you know where they left to?”
“I don’t think they left the building.” He was quite stringent with his information.
“Can you give me their names, room numbers perhaps?”
“Sorry, ma’am, I can’t do that. If you’d like to leave a message for your partner I’d be happy to take one.”
“No, it’s fine. Leave it.” Expecting the worst, I set out to track any voices emitting from behind closed doors. Like a thief in the night I treaded the corridors, listening in on every sound and conversation. Most rooms were quiet with the exception of a faint whooshing sound from the ceiling fans. Two couples were making love, one louder than the other. I placed my ear against the doors, but when this wasn’t enough, looked for cracks to gain visual leeway. But the sounds were unfamiliar and I pressed on without any luck. I completely lost track of time and, after searching through the whole building like a mad woman, I realised it was past 3 AM. Exhausted, yet wary and alert, I returned to our room expecting it to be empty. To my relief it was not. On crumpled sheets I could trace the outline of my husband’s body. Pearls of sweat glistened in the sliver of light emitting from the door opening. I could hear a faint moan from his lips.
“Yes honey, I’m here.” I rushed to him, placing my hand on his forehead. It was hot and moist.
“Babe, you gotta help me. I think I’m dying.” He sounded drugged.
My mind was making loops, going back some ten years to my biology classes. I recalled something about THC, the active substance of marijuana and hashish, breaking down fat cells in our body and brain, creating hallucinations, and that coca cola or, if all else failed, sugar water or bread, would combat the worst peaks until the toxin dispersed.
“Honey, I’m going to be right back. You just stay put,” I assured him. As I ran down the stairs to the man at the reception, I heard Carl calling for me. There was a loud thump followed by silence. For a moment I hesitated, about to turn around, but decided against it and ran as fast as my legs could bear.
The night manager was already on his feet, as he had most likely heard my frantic steps.
“I need your help,” I begged, placing my hands on my knees while panting from my sprint.
“What’s this about?” the little man barked, showing enough anger in his voice to make me choose my next words more carefully.
“My husband has got something accidently stuck in his throat. I need something to drink, Coke preferably.” His narrow eyes watched me and I could feel the scepticism before knowing his reply.
“Does this have anything to do with drugs? You are aware of our no drugs policy, I hope.”
“Yes, of course. No, sir I can guarantee you we don’t take drugs. I really need just some Coke. Two or three would be fine.”
He took out three bottles from the minibar behind the reception.
“Could you make that four?” I asked sheepishly. He placed another one on the counter. I handed over forty Rupees, not bothering to wait for the change.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Anxious and restless, I coddled my husband as his wretched and tormented body sought comfort in mine. When the first rays of sunlight penetrated the wooden shutters, he was finally at peace. I fell asleep moments later.
I tried to piece together the information I got from Carl. The details were sketchy at most, but enough to get a rudimentary understanding of the sequence of events. More people had joined the roof terrace after I’d left. There were twenty, thirty people perhaps; some were dancing to Goa trance and trip-hop as a local DJ spun on the turntables. Carl ended up talking to a couple from Glasgow — Jordy and Julie. He described them as friendly but a tad odd. Living in caravans and working in a local factory, their sole mission was to save up enough money to travel for four months of the year. They referred to themselves as travellers, the heirs to the hippy culture that had sprung up in the 60s.
As the weed kept coming so did the conversation, and although Carl’s memory was failing to a large extent, he recalled challenging their beliefs that India was the mother of civilization. Sometime during their talks he was offered a piece of cake as a substitute for an absent dinner. Grateful for their generosity, he readily accepted. An hour later he started feeling strange and Jordy offered to take him to the communal bathroom for a shower.
“Justine, I can’t remember much,” Carl admitted. “But I must have been there for over an hour. Someone was banging on the door and eventually went in. I must have left the door open. He brought me to my room where I collapsed. Thank God I remembered our room number.”
I watched him. “Everything you had with you, your wallet, camera, passport. Where is it?”
He looked at me in a moment of confusion, before hurling himself out of bed searching through his clothes from the previous night. Besides a heap of flip-flops, his clothes and luckily his passport, everything was gone. I went through my own stuff, and luckily it was untouched as my backpack was resting next to my side of the bed.
So once again I went downstairs. The man who had been in the reception the previous night greeted me suspiciously. He was wearing the same beige short-sleeve shirt, brown trousers and a pair of brown leather sandals with soles that threatened to disintegrate with every step.
“How is your husband doing?”
“My husband is…is just fine.”
“Well there is an issue, sort of,” I added. “My husband had his wallet and camera stolen last night. From two of your guests.”
“OK, Miss. Let’s sit down.” He called for someone in the room behind the reception. Moments later a woman came out with a pot of chai, which she offered me. I readily accepted the generosity and took a few careful sips. The tea was burning my pallet, but it felt strangely good after a sleepless night and a residual headache.
“Miss, I know you are a very good and honest woman, so you need to tell me what has happened. It’s my lodge and I take great pride in that we are friendly, clean and, above all, honest.”
“I really don’t want to get involved with any police.”
“That’s something we all wish to avoid, Miss. Now please tell me what happened so we can find a solution to your problem.”
“My husband was on the rooftop last night. There seems to have been a party there. A DJ playing, people were gathering.”
“Yes, that’s DJ Mike. He’s very popular here and we let him play as long as he keeps the noise down.”
“Carl met a couple. They were from Gloucester or Glasgow, I don’t recall exactly. The guy was called Jordy.” I thought for a moment. “Yes, that’s right – Jordy and Julie. They talked, and I believe they offered him something to eat, and when I came back after talking to you the first time, I found him in bed. He was very ill and sweating profusely.”
“What you are describing is a very old trick. They probably gave him space cake with hashish, or LSD. It makes you hallucinate. Especially if you are not used to it. And in the meantime they take you somewhere quiet and rob you.” For a brief moment I saw anger in his face, but it soon dissipated only to be replaced by a melancholic dismay.
“Can you give me a description of the two? I will talk to Mike. He might know something.”
“Sure, I will ask Carl to come down.”
“And a word of advice, Miss. Don’t take anything that is offered to you. Travel together and always keep track of your belongings.”
“Thanks, I will.”
We left Yogi Lodge shortly afterwards and continued our travels southeast through Kolkata to Puri. Varanasi had left me sick enough to seek medical attention at a local hospital where I was diagnosed with giardia, a disease I never came to fully understand other than its symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting that left me incapacitated for days. When we returned to the capital airport to leave, I was ten kilos lighter than when I started. Round scars, similar to that of cigarette burns, covered my body. They’ve since become a constant reminder of how much I hate mosquitos.
I left India with ambiguous feelings of regret and relief. As the plane left the tarmac and the Delhi skyline came into view, a series of recollections from the past month’s travels flashed before me. Impressions, smells and conversations fused, becoming synonymous with the India I’d come to know. I followed the commerce that took place beneath me until it blended with the static buildings before finally fading from view. We touched down nine hours later. It was November 9, a Thursday. I still have the denotation in my calendar.
Thinking back on our travels through the vast Indian subcontinent, I can’t help but feel a sense of ambivalence. There were no arguments, no disputes, yet it all felt bland and placid. Despite a myriad of experiences and impressions, it had become nothing more than a cerebral photo album that could be conjured up when my mind decided to travel down Memory Lane. Perhaps it was the first sign of relationship delinquency. If so, I choose to ignore it, and if Carl felt the same, he chose a similar path.