July 17, 2015

Between cities

Picture me :

I am crouching on the toilet of a very old, very noisy train (and by toilet I mean a hole in the floor). I have never had a worse case of food poisoning in my entire life. The kind that goes with cold sweat and the shakes. It feels like my body just decided to not retain food anymore. At all. Oh, did you mean to envision me as a romantic traveler having good looking adventures in the far east ? Yeah, that's not happening. Sorry. Where was I ? Ah yes, diarrhea. So I am crouching there, emptying myself from both ends, my left hand holding a plastic bag in which I infrequently throw up, my right hand holding as best it can to the door handle, so that the rumble of the carriage doesn't throw me off balance.
Moments like these make you question every single thing about the trip. Hell, it makes me question every single life choice I've ever made. But for now choices are stripped away from my life, because this train is taking me to Rajasthan.

India does not let you use it as a background. It has to be the main point of focus. If you're lucky and she's in a good mood, she'll let you cross the stage unharmed, but don't even try to steal the show. She's the eternal, the ever-changing. You're just a speck of dust passing by. Sometimes I just stand still in the middle of the street, and when the crowd swallows me I realize I don't exist. No one can see or hear me. India is a beast, and some beasts are not worth fighting. So what do you do ? You let it win.

First on the road is Pushkar, a tiny city bordering a holy lake. It is hot here. Really hot. Far hotter than necessary. I stay in a lovely house with brightly colored walls and turtles roaming free in the bedrooms. I have a morning ritual : I braid my hair and pin it around my head like a crown ; stick a bindi on my forehead ; draw the outline of my eyes with dark kajal ; wrap myself in a scarf to cover my arms. I walk out looking like a pirate, and I feel strong. I wander in the the pastel streets, get chased by a cow, and for the first time I feel comfortable engaging with people. Sometimes, I choose to tune out the loudness of India by listening to music, and I walk fast, deaf to the world, just watching. At sunset, we go up to the roof and marvel at the view, with a few beers, and with the turtle, who also seems to enjoy the cool spot.

I give up on seeing Jaipur, because I am busy trying not to die from heat exhaustion, and food poisoning (yet again). From Jaipur I take a bus to Bundi. I takes the whole day to get there, and I quickly make friends with the other passengers, who run out of the bus at each stop to get me food and never let me pay for anything. This day's epiphany is that chai popsicles are the best thing mankind ever invented. We get to Bundi at sunset and the sight takes my breath away. The city rises from the plain, a labyrinth of blue and yellow houses, with a gigantic fort in ruins towering over it.

I settle in a guesthouse just outside of the palace walls – the rooms used to be elephant stables. The house is set in a big courtyard with a giant tree, and in the evening monkeys swing from the branches and try to steal our food. Our host is the funniest man and never stops talking. Bundi is not very touristy at this time of year and we must be five or six foreigners in total, which makes it very easy to find each other. I visit the palace with two lovely british girls – we arm ourselves with long sticks to scare away the monkeys, and we feel like adventurers. One evening I go down to the lake and I sit there, watching the city walls turn to turquoise and gold, and I think it's been eleven months of this. Of living nowhere. Of being dazzled. Of being free. Here, India feels calmer, less agressive, but just as radiant. Bundi truly is a much needed breath of fresh air.

In the insane heat, days melt into each other. From Bundi I take the train to Chittaurgarh. Early in the morning, I get to the train station and I buy chai and samosas, that I eat sitting on my bag, surrounded by the amused looks of the other passengers. A lot of people sit next to me for a while and talk to me in hindi, and I answer with the few words I managed to learn. It makes them laugh to see me struggle, and I don't remember why I was afraid of India to begin with.

Riding the rails is my favorite thing. The trains are slow and cross the plains in a cloud of dust. I always travel in the cheapest class (I have paid as little as two dollars for a six hours journey), but I usually sit outside of the coach, next to the open door, and watch the landscape fly by. I breathe deeply, hold out my hand out of the carriage into the wind, and I feel like I'm flying. No one sees me here. I am just this lonely comet, speeding through wide open space, never to be caught.

Chittaurgarh is a violent but mesmerizing place. There is more poverty here than anywhere I've seen so far. Slums are everywhere alongside the main streets, and beggars form a crowd. I'm the only foregin face here, meaning that everybody is always staring at me. I stay only one night, and at sunset, I climb the hill and wander around the pink fortress, spanning several miles. I hitch a ride back on a motorbike and watch the town transform into something different – naked children running wild, samosas and papads replacing mangoes on the stalls, a brass band marching down the street, and darkness, thick warm darkness that seems to sweep the streets like a flood. I'll admit, it's a bit too much, and I run home that night and lock my door. Silence. You need it sometimes.

Little by little, I move westwards. From Chittaur I take the bus to Udaipur, the white citadel. My gueshouse has the absolute best view on the lake, and I have the prettiest and biggest room all to myself. Wooden floorboards and pools of light coming through the window. At night, from the balcony, the lights of the city reflect brightly in the water. The bats dance a strange ballet around us, and we can hear the songs coming from the temple, the strange voices carrying over water.

Then it's another bus to Jodhpur, the blue city. I buy a cheap film camera in a tiny shop, and about a hundred rolls of film. I walk around the Mehrangarh, but quickly give up taming the bustling streets. At that point, I have been on my own for a while, and I long to talk to someone I can actually understand. I try and keep my diary every night but it's hard. This world silences me. When the day is over the words elude me and I just stare into space, exhausted by the heat and the general craziness outside.

I sit on the roof at night, looking at the fort towering above, and that's when I think of him. It's been a while. If I turn my head, I can see him next to me, dark hair flowing on his shoulders, his faint smile gleaming through the night. He wraps me up in his arms, keeping me warm, and I can feel the wound he made opening up, dark blood seeping out and trickling down my side. I close my eyes briefly and the mirage goes away. And then I speak into the dark. You're not here, but I am. I am in all these places without you and I am running so fast now, and I am not afraid. I am exactly where I am, and it is perfect.

Sometimes I think : you're in India on your own. Just you. A lonely comet speeding through wide open space, in silence. And that thought is enough to keep going.

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