Donned in patchwork overalls and sandals on a frigid Saturday in February, my family and live-in boyfriend bid me goodbye as I boarded the plane to Kerala, India from O’hare airport – unsure of exactly how I’d ended up in that situation.
The first leg of my 40 hour journey was a 6 hour flight to Heathrow airport where I had a 3 hour stop-over before catching my Gulf Air flight to India. I killed the time by playing Magic the Gathering with a six year old boy who had an extra green (worm-filled, giant growth) deck for me to play (against his black and blue). He won two of the three games and gave me a distorted opinion of the general intelligence level of kindergarteners.
I’d already lost track of time when I boarded the plane to Abu Dabi, Saudi Arabia for my 10-hour stop over. I knew I was headed to parts unknown when the flight attendant (dressed in a hat, veil, and puffy pants exactly like Jeanie) brought me some of the spiciest chick pea curry I’ve ever had.
Upon arriving at Abu Dabi airport, two attendants with machine guns quickly escorted me (I was unveiled, dressed like a dirty hippy, and my toenails were painted whore-house red) to a taxi van to take me to a lay-over hotel for Americans. It was Ramadan and everyone in the airport was kneeling on mats facing towards Mecca and praying like crazy.
I ate and slept until it was time to leave in the van to go back to the airport. I didn’t understand why, but the armed guards didn’t escort me to my gate, and I had time to admire the incredible architecture of the airport before passing through security.
After about 40 hours of travel, I landed in India. I descended the stairs of the 20-seater plane, and my ruck-sack and case of bottled water was waiting for me on the ground. It was about 100 degrees, humid, and the heavy air was saturated with the smells of incense, tandori chicken, and dung.
I had my passport, travelers’ checks, and Indian money (I’d hit a currency exchange in Chicago before leaving) in my fanny-pack and followed the others into the two room airport. The customs attendant was unfriendly, and when I was officially ALONE IN INDIA, I experienced a sobering surge of reality.
The surge caused an immediate rush of rolling thunder in my bowels, so I headed to the single, uni-sex bathroom – lugging my water and ruck-sack crammed to overflowing with a tent, sleeping bag, yoga mat, towel, toilet paper (incredibly, I’d made a correct estimate of how much I’d need for five weeks), 20 cassettes of the favorite Dead and Phish shows I’d attended (1st generation copies from my taper friend), toiletries, and a minimal amount of clothes.
The stifling bathroom had a hole in the floor, a water spigot, and a tin cup – that’s all! I’d read Fodor’s travel book on India, so I knew all about the primitive “facilities”, but the logistics of actually make doodie while squatting over a hole should have been covered in a little more detail. I dug out my first roll of Northern and set about my business, being as frugal as possible with my treasured 2-ply papyrus.
I left the airport in a full sweat, on the verge of tipping over backwards from the weight of my ruck-sack, and promptly removed it minutes later when I was spotted by a cab driver in an old-timey British looking car. I gave him a slip of paper with the address of the yoga ashram, and he conversed on his walky-talky in a terse, yet somehow fluid, stream of an Indian dialect which I came to know as Malealum (spelling?).
He took off (they drive on the wrong side of the road there) and barreled down the dirt roads like there weren’t any traffic rules. I still wonder if an Indian ‘Rules of the Road’ book exists, and if so, what it could possible say regarding safe driving practices.
The smell of incense, BBQ chicken, and dung grew stronger and changed, like a location signature, as we passed through different villages (none of which had traffic signals, just crazy round-abouts with no yield signs). We made many abrupt stops for men riding elephants and herds of goats and women in saris in the middle of the road with baskets on their heads, and then we arrived.