This is a true story and one of many from my travels in India over a decade ago. There is a loose food connection.
The word nightmare by definition is a stressful, anxious or other emotionally painful dream during sleep. Change the night for day and the dream for reality and the definition would have been apt for my first real test as a traveller in India.
I was in Agra, a city 4½ hours by bus south of Delhi and more famously known as the home of the wondrous Taj Mahal and the magnificent Red Fort.
I had spent the last two days there, sightseeing amongst the infinite number of tourists that there seemed to be. Agra, apart from the obvious, had little to offer other than dark, dank hotels, poison laced food (as was reported in the Lonely planet – more perception than fact) and a real knack for squeezing that ever dwindling rupee from one’s back pocket. Based on this, I was ready to head for brighter horizons.
“So, if I arrive at this place tomorrow morning I will catch the bus to Jaipur?”
“Oh yes sir!” was the agent’s reply.
“And how long does the bus take to reach Jaipur?”
“Only five hours sir” was the confident yet decidedly unconvincing reply.
The agent also doubled up as a gem retailer, and I was therefore unsure of where his area of expertise lay – in bus timetables or precious stones? The bus, I was told, departed from the other end of town on Fatehpur Sikri Road. Having only ever spent two days of my whole life in Agra I was in no position to argue the toss. So, with this in mind and an indecipherable ticket in hand I headed back to my hotel in order to pack for the next day’s exciting journey. To Rajahstan, to Jaipur, to the Indian desert…to a calamitous day!
The day had started well; I was up at seven, had taken a cold yet refreshing shower (not by choice), and put on my other set of clean clothes. They were clean in so much that the fume particles from Calcutta’s environmentally friendly oil and diesel works (also known as transport) had left their mark on my Woodland pants and the ‘genuine’ 60 rupee Calvin Hilfiger T-shirt I had bought there. The morning was cool and crisp as I consumed a hearty breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and coffee on the outside porch of the ‘hotel’ I was staying in. My aim was to be at the bus stop by 8.30am. So, at eight o’clock I decided to head out towards the main road to catch an auto-rickshaw. My approximation was that an auto would take about twenty minutes to reach the bus stop. Now, my experience of India to this point was of a continuous flux of auto-rickshaws with drivers desperately vying for your business. Bearing this in mind, then why, when I really needed one, when I would have paid double the reasonable rate for one were there absolutely none in sight – Sod’s Law? I was beginning to think that when, like a shining light from the abyss of darkness I saw one on the road’s horizon and it was coming my way. Five minutes later it was still heading my way, and as the silhouette became more focused a black mop of greased curly hair came into view, then a David Soul type patterned brown shirt, jeans that were more hole than denim and then…a bicycle – No! Not a bicycle rickshaw!
Immediately I knew that this would probably mean a forty-minute hike to the bus stop. By now it was ten past eight and I was beginning to feel decidedly uneasy about the whole situation. I was in a dilemma as to whether to take the cycle rickshaw or chance it that an auto would come by. Given the immense velocity at which the cyclist had reached me from the horizon, waiting for an auto was starting to look the favourite.
“Lubbly jubbly mista, where you go?”
“Ermm, yes, umm to Fatehpur Sikri Road”
“Ohh to catch bus! Ohh lubbly jubbly – I take you mista, 30 rupees”
“How long will it take?” I said, expecting the answer to depict his cycle as one that could travel supersonic.
“15 minutes, lubbly jubbly” was the reply. I was right.
“15 rupees if you put your foot on it”
“Lubbly jubbly, 20 rupees”.
The price was eventually settled at fifteen rupees with the condition that we made it before nine o’clock – a.m. that was. As you probably would be aware at this point I was none too confident of catching the bus to Jaipur. In response to this I had started to make alternative plans in my mind for such an eventuality when something hit me. I was immediately distracted from the panic laden thoughts as to whether we would make our destination in time, and hence the possibility of spending another night in Agra. What hit me was how on this Earth did the Indian cyclist, from the midst of nowhere, know the term ‘lubbly jubbly’? For those unaware, there was a BBC comedy series that ran for fifteen years or so based upon two cockney ‘independent traders’ i.e. no box, no receipt. Del Boy the main character would say “lovely jubbly” in a fit of exhilaration if a deal had been successful, or similarly if he was faced with a large English fry-up.
“What is your good country sir?”
“England” I hesitantly replied.
“Ohh, England lubbly jubbly – are you married dear sir?”
“Ohh no wife, big life, lubbly jubbly – you like cricket?”
“Yes, do you?”
“Ohh cricket lubbly jubbly, Tendulkar lubbly jubbly, Dravid lubbly jubbly…”
“Excuse me, why do you keep saying lovely jubbly?”
“Ohh England lubbly jubbly, Only Fool and Horse lubbly jubbly”
We arrived at 8.50am, lubbly jubbly.
I entered the travel agent’s small office. Inside was an old rickety wooden chair and matching desk, another dubious looking chair adorned in flaked red paint, a heavy grinding fan obviously from the colonial days, and a few randomly scattered papers. It was 8.50am and by the process of elimination and the ingenuity of maths I had calculated a ten-minute wait until the bus arrived. Maybe other travellers would turn up soon I thought.
“Can I help you dear sir?” said the agent from behind his desk. He was a slight man dressed in a faded blue striped cotton shirt and longhi. I showed him my ticket.
“Yes, I’m here to catch the nine o’clock bus to Jaipur – shall I wait here?”
“Ohh dear sir, I’m telling you that the bus leaves at 8-30 but I can get you on another for eleven”.
Now, in situations like this it is very easy to lose ones self-control, especially when you have followed to the letter of the law another person’s instructions and you have consequently been tricked or misinformed. However, in this situation the wrong man would have been accused and whatsmore I was quickly learning that chaos was the Indian way. Start to worry if things look as if they are going right because somewhere something is wrong. I showed the agent my ticket and with a sideways nod and expressionless smile he asked me to take a seat – the red flaky one – and he disappeared outside.
It was now five past nine and apparent that no bus was going to turn up. The sun was beginning to rise in the sky and the day was turning hot and sticky. A cockroach scurried from beneath my chair and diminished into a crevice of the cracked plaster wall. As I sat in daydream I was called in a frantic manner.
“Dear sir, dear sir please come with me!”
He had hailed an auto-rickshaw and advised me that a bus to Jaipur was leaving at ten thirty from another part of town. Hesitantly, I followed him wondering at the back of my mind: where am I going? How much extra am I going to be stung for? And will I ever leave Agra? I only had four months left on my visa! We arrived at yet another agent, but this time there were a number of people seemingly waiting for a bus. A positive sign I thought. A burly man, in stark contrast to the agent I was with, approached us and there followed some Hindi dialogue. The agent showed him my ticket and I was then directed to sit on a concrete ledge and wait for the ten thirty bus to Jaipur. OK, an hour to wait and finally I would head for Jaipur. I could handle that I thought. I asked the agent how much the driver of the auto wanted. Inside I was kicking myself because in my confusion I had forgotten rule number one – always barter and set the price before travelling. I was expecting to be squeezed dry, but surprisingly the agent side nodded, gave a warming smile and then left in the auto. Always be prepared to be surprised.
By now I was in some discomfort from the heat. With me I had my backpack and a smaller rucksack. I did not want to lose my place on the concrete ledge neither did I want to leave my possessions unattended. However, I was at the point of forfeiting one of the two so that I could go and purchase a cold glass bottle of Coke or Sprite. My throat was like a rasp. And then, suddenly, amidst a deluge of black diesel fumes a bus emerged. I looked at my watch and to my surprise it was only ten o’clock. The bus was early! I eagerly picked up my belongings and pushed my way to the luggage hold at the side of the bus. The eagerness was firstly in expectation of leaving Agra, and secondly to avoid the dreaded back seat. Unlike the school days I remember where it was ‘cool’ to be the first to the back seat on a school trip, India turns you full circle so much so that the back seat must be avoided at all costs. This time, unfortunately, there was not even to be a back seat.
“No sir, no sir, no Jaipur, sit down!” screamed the burly Indian as he ran from within the agents office.
The queue of vociferous Indians immediately muted and they all turned and watched me desolately and embarrassingly walk back to the concrete ledge before they all boarded the bus. So, the bus was not going to Jaipur, and was therefore certainly not early. As I reclaimed my place on the concrete ledge very disheartened I realised that I was alone. All those that had been waiting had gone. A dark cloud of panic once again enveloped me. Maybe there was no bus to Jaipur; maybe there was no Jaipur. How would I contact my family to let them know that I was to be stuck in Agra indefinitely? For months, years, forever. Help!
“Good morning I am Sajid what is your dear name sir?”
Sat next to me was a young Indian man, no more than 18 years of age. He had a dark complexion, a wave of thick black hair and was dressed in leather sandals, faded jeans and a loose cotton shirt.
“Hi, yes, umm I’m Nick”. There was a slight pause “Are you here to catch the bus?” I continued.
He gave a side nod and smiled. I was not yet expert enough to understand whether this meant ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It was an infuriating part of the Indian culture, but that was more down to my lack of education then a problem of India’s.
“Yes, my family and I are to travel to Jaipur on the bus that is next”.
Internally my panic transformed into relief and then adulation. It was as if I had been imprisoned and against all the odds had made parole for good behaviour. Eventually Agra was to be just a distant memory.
“Me too!” I replied. The beaming smile on my face must have been apparent to all.
“My family are buying Coca-Cola, would you like a Coca-Cola?”
The adulation was complete. Not only was Jaipur becoming a reality but that deep throated yearning for a cold Coke was to end. Sajid handed to me a cold bottle of Coke and as I took a ten-rupee note from my pocket he gave a side nod and a huge smile. This time I knew that he was indicating ‘no’.
I was introduced to Sajid’s family and was to learn that their dark complexions were native to the Southern regions of India and in particular Kerala. Sajid was the elder of three siblings, the other two being brother and sister. Sajid’s father had brought the family, including aunts and uncles, on a tour of Delhi, Agra, Rajahstan and Gujarat before finally heading back to Kerala. These were the first people I had ever met from the south of India and it amazed me as to how different they were in their looks, mannerisms and attitude to life. Having survived the intense chaos of Northern India’s Delhi and Calcutta, here I was witnessing the calming presence of a family that would have made even the most laid back of people look as if they were on the pulse. My travelling itinerary would now include Kerala.
The bus arrived. It was 11-30 and an hour late. I hadn’t noticed.
The interior of the bus was shabby. What would have once been a white imitation leather trim was now greyish in appearance. The front half of the bus was full, mainly of smartly presented Indian travellers. The men were in black or brown scuffed leather shoes or thongs, wearing matching pants and the now famous cotton shirts. The women on the other hand were adorned in an array of brightly coloured saris accompanied by eye catching gold and silver accessories. The jewellery that they wore was painted with a kaleidoscope of intricately cut gemstones. The ambience on the bus was jovial, made more so as the festival of light, Diwali, had reached a crescendo the previous night. Sajid led me to the rear of the bus. It was the second to last seat, the seat that I did not want to endure for a five-hour journey. Reluctantly I took my place by the window, not wanting to rescind the kindness that had already been shown to me. Fortunately the window could be opened and, therefore, I would be able to dry the sweat on my brow with the ensuing breeze once the journey was underway. At eleven forty five the bus departed and we were on our way to Jaipur!
Agra itself has in recent years had to re-invent itself, especially when all power was lost to Delhi. It has funnelled a proportion of the income from tourists into a smoggy industrial development. Covering an area of approximately 25 square kilometres it is much smaller in size than say Delhi or Calcutta. However, when I was told that it was only “five hours sir” to Jaipur I was beginning to wonder whether the two hours it took to get out of this harsh and tightly knit city was included or not. Even the softly spoken words of Sajid could not distract me from the frustration of still being in Agra. The acrid diesel fumes and sweltering heat was beginning to take its toll on my now fragile body. My only comfort was a bottle of tepid water and the fact that the bus was not full to the rafters. At least there were no goats or chickens on there, yet. I continued to converse with Sajid. He was curious to know in an excited way how many rupees equivalent I was earning in England before I left to travel. This was something I felt uncomfortable in sharing. Firstly, it was all relative. And secondly, it would have been far greater than any of these poor people could have earned in India. I did work it out in the quiet of my mind and estimated that after tax I would have earned 1.4million rupees in a year. Sajid told me that he earned 350 rupees per month. Even though I was prepared for an answer like that it still hit me hard. However, in the same instance it seemed wholly irrelevant. Why? Because although I was struggling with the current situation of the bus journey I had started to feel free inside. My travels through India and Nepal had somehow tossed aside the daily concerns of money and possessions and I was now aware that living each day to the full was paramount.
I could sense that we were now reaching the outskirts of Agra and ready to make some serious inroads into the highway to Jaipur. Again, the bus stopped, surely for the last time in Agra? Before this stop there were two empty seats on the opposite side of the aisle to Sajid and me, and the whole length of the back seat. Sajid’s family was located in the midst of the bus. A young couple hopped aboard, dressed in similar attire to the majority of the travellers on the bus. Obviously from a mid-caste, if such a phrase exists. Following the couple were a family that looked as if they were from the lower echelons of Indian society. The couple seated themselves, as expected, in the two empty seats and the family to the back. Sajid was still chatting away, but my attention had now focused on the family on the back seat.
There were four men, one of which looked to be a grandfather or older uncle, accompanied by two women in tatty looking saris and also two children. One of the children was approximately six years old, a boy. He wore a long white tunic and thongs but what really struck me though were the thick black charcoal highlights around his eyes. During Diwali prayers are said to the image Devi, the mother goddess. From the images that I had previously seen it was apparent that the boy had been celebrating Devi’s fanatic popularity as part of the previous night’s celebration. It is said that Devi adopts two forms; Durga her benevolent form and Kali, the one to be dreaded. I was overcome with uneasiness as to how sinister this probably innocent little boy looked. I could see why Indian people succumb to such fear and awe regarding these powerful images. In contrast the younger child, who I assumed to be the boys little sister, was a very cute looking little Indian girl.
I could feel that the bus was gathering speed and this meant one thing; we were eventually heading for Jaipur. At last the breeze began to fill the bus, the tepid water was beginning to taste sweet, and the industrial Indian architecture was being replaced with greenery and wooden shacks. India, again, was a wonderful place to travel in. I reclined my seat slightly, closed my eyes and started to dream of horizons new. I took in a deep breath of air. And then, like a bullet in the chest it hit me. My nostrils started to flare and contort. A pang of nausea overcame me. The rancid and putrid odours shook the depth of my being. The nightmares that I had previously had about the back seat and Indian buses had suddenly emerged as reality – somebody was throwing up. And it was Devi’s little follower!
I turned to Sajid and already he was covering his nose and mouth with a shabby looking handkerchief. I turned backwards to peer through the gap between the back of our seats. I could see the little boy retching into his father’s handkerchief. He had already been de-robed down to a pair of white underpants. My whole body began to convulse so I quickly faced forwards and then, with the risk of being hit by oncoming traffic, I stuck my head out of the window. A minute’s respite. Or so I thought. As I looked backward one of the women had her head out of the window and was regurgitating breakfast. I pulled my head back in and noticed that at the opposite end of the back seat the other woman was throwing up…and then the little girl was. It was almost orchestrated. I covered my face with the front neck rim of my T-shirt as my nose hunted for the scent of the deodorant that I was wearing. Although this by now was unpleasant in its own right it seemed as refreshing as fields of lavender in comparison. Through all this commotion the four men on the back seat remained calm, chatty and were still smiling, almost oblivious to what was happening. The extent of their worries was a mop here and a wipe there. In contrast, I thought that I was going to die. Once more I turned to Sajid. He had removed his handkerchief and was laid back in his seat, eyes closed, gently sleeping. I had no escape.
Ten minutes or so later, the vomiting stopped and those fetid odours began to dissipate. I convinced myself to relax. Slowly, I began to return to the contented soul that I had been. Twenty minutes later the retching once again started and this was promptly followed by the sweet smelling hedonics. This time it was just the little boy and the same sequence of events would happen until the bus stopped four and a half hours after leaving the agent’s office in Agra. Completely exhausted by the day so far I asked the driver as we alighted from the bus how far we had to go before reaching Jaipur. In broken English he replied. In broken English he broke my heart “We half way sir!”
I was in the middle of nowhere bar a few shacks and wandering cows, and of course people. There are people wherever you go in India. The short of it was I had to continue with the journey. The bus had stopped outside what would be India’s equivalent of a roadside café. It consisted of a large suspended tarpaulin under which were a series of flimsy looking wooden tables supporting metal trays of food, metal utensils and jugs of water. Behind each table stood two or three servers each dressed in the hygienic and customary uniform of vest, shorts and thongs. Sajid and his family had seated themselves at a long table with attached benches. I was invited to join them. Sajid’s father welcomed me with an open gesture, and even though not hungry I thought that out of courtesy I would join them. As a traveller in India you have to be very careful as to where and what you eat. As a consequence I had avoided any outside eateries in favour of classier looking restaurants. In Calcutta I had seen what a sick backpacker looked like and believe me it was not a pretty sight. Couple this with my already fragile stomach and disposition I was in no mood to be eating. Imagine then, to my horror, when put before me was a metal plate piled high with rice, dhal (lentil soup), watery curry, pickles and greasy roti bread. What made it worse was that the whole family had stopped talking, had turned towards me and was staring at me with expectant smiles. It felt as if the whole world had stopped. I had visions of a king waiting for the taster to give the approval that the food was worthy of consumption. In reality this was genuine Indian kindness and friendship. I had to brace myself and take a mouthful. If I were to die from parasitic ridden food then at least it would have been in respect to those that had shown me endearing kindness. I clenched the muscles in my stomach. With my right hand I scooped a ball of cold rice, dipped it into the dhal and curry and moved it towards my mouth. Their eyes were now even more transfixed. I could feel my throat congealing. I opened my mouth and with a push of the thumb the rice mixture left my fingertips and landed on my tongue. I chewed and then swallowed. With a nervous smile I waited for the food to be thrown back on to the table. Instead, my body craved for more. In fact, I even thought that it tasted good. I repeated the process and realised that this food was great. My energy levels started to increase and my stomach was saying thank you, thank you, thank you. I hadn’t even noticed that Sajid’s family’s eyes were no longer on me. They had side nodded in approval and continued on with their meal. Even the retching that was still emanating from the bus could not dissuade me from finishing my meal. Another one of those surprises. Afterwards I pulled a few rupees from my pocket and Sajid’s father looked at me and said “No! We are your friends!”
The bus eventually arrived in Jaipur at 7-30pm, eight hours after departing from Agra. The three and a half hours after the meal stop seemed to fly past. The poor little boy did not stop retching for the whole journey and in the end I was feeling sympathetic rather than thinking of my own needs. India does that to you. At one point during the journey I listened to my personal CD player, which eventually ended up being listened to by the sick boy’s father. As he listened he seemed mesmerised by the dance music and wore a smile that would have extended from Mumbai to Chennai. At the journey’s end I said farewell to Sajid and his family. I felt as if I had known them for many years and felt quite emotional as we went our separate ways. They will probably never know the comfort that they brought to me that day. Sajid’s final words were:
“Hopefully we see you in Kerala my friend”
“Lubbly jubbly” I replied.