31 October 1984, Bandipur
The housekeeper shouted “Breakfast!” through the key hole. Tania threw a pillow case over to my bed and reminded me we were going elephant riding that morning.
The elephant moved off quietly, plodding through the bushes. Spotted deer (chittal) looked up and unperturbed went back to grazing. My camera lens cap fell over the side. I’ll never see that again, I thought. I was not getting off the elephant in case there were some tigers lurking close by. On the handler’s command, the elephant stopped, snuffled around for the black plastic, picked it up and handed it back to me.
“Slime, no charge,” said the handler with a cheeky grin.
Kingfishers flitted past and red monkeys (bonnet macaque) laughed in the distance. Porcupine quills lay scattered on the forest floor. I was not too disappointed that we hadn’t seen a tiger; that might have been scary. The bull elephant charging us the day before when we were on a safari jeep trip had been enough excitement for me.
After we were let off our throne, the Indian elephant’s trunk searched my pockets for food. Finding none, she eased her bulky body from kneeling position and clambered after her handler. My travelling companions, Tania and an English couple, Peter and Sue, were as enchanted as I was.
“Wow! Riding an elephant has to be the best thing on this trip so far.”
But back at the hotel, something was not right. Huddled in a corner, Sikh men murmured in hushed tones.
Instinctively, we stood at the entrance.
“I’ll find out what’s happened,” said Peter, brushing his wife’s arm, as he pushed through our small group.
“What do you reckon?” whispered Tania.
“Isn’t white a colour of mourning?” said Sue.
“You reckon someone’s died? Who?” I asked. I rubbed the goose bumps on my arms and shivered.
“Someone important,” said Tania.
The receptionist bobbed his head in answer to Peter’s questions then brought his hands together, as if in prayer, to end the conversation. Peter turned and gestured to us to follow him outside.
“You wouldn’t believe what’s happened.”
“Tell us,” urged Tania.
“What, you mean their Prime Minister?” I looked at all their faces in shock.
“Yep – she’s been assassinated.”
He told us the Tamil Nadu border was closed and buses were being turned back.
“Does that mean we’re stuck here?” I asked – though perhaps a tiger sanctuary would be safer than a city in anarchy.
As we were to find out later, Indira Gandhi had been shot by two of her Sikh security guards as she left her private residence. It had happened in the morning but had taken all day for the news to reach us. Sikhs were being hauled out of trains and burned alive. Looting and vandalism were widespread. Shops would be closed for the next two days and people in mourning for the next 12.
I picked up my backpack from the luggage carousal and waved goodbye to the American. Once I had gone through customs I plopped my backpack behind a nun’s canvas bag and said hello, at the Airport Hotel reservation desk. The nuns were booking overnight accommodation too. I asked if I could tag along with them. They paid for their hotel voucher and stood aside for me to do the same. The salesperson suggested we go in his cousin’s taxi.
“Only five minute,” he said.
It seemed like a good idea. It was late and I was tired. The nuns and I squeezed into the back seat and the unmarked car crawled away from the airport. Two minutes later, he stopped outside a large guesthouse.
“You two get out, she stay.” The driver pointed at me.
“Aren’t I staying here, too?” I asked.
“No, we take you somewhere else.”
I looked at the nuns with my mouth open. My mother always said my emotions were displayed openly for everyone to see. My face must have telegraphed ‘fear’.
His co-driver grinned and nodded his head.
The nuns beckoned me out of the car. Anger kicked in. I swung my legs out of the car and stood beside the nuns.
“I want to stay at the same place as these ladies!” I said.
“Guesthouse full,” the driver said.
The nuns pulled their bag out of the boot. I grabbed my backpack, wrestling it away from the co-driver.
“Then we’ll go back to the airport and change hotels,” said the older nun.
The driver waved his hands. “Other hotel full.”
All my instincts told me they were lying. The nuns and I exchanged looks – from the steely set of their lips I could tell they would stand by me. It seems to be an unwritten code that travellers stick together in rough times – like a support network. Even strangers had helped me when I was in danger…
6 October 1984 Jaipur
Lorraine, Dave and I were booking bus tickets when we saw hundreds of people lining the streets for a festival. There were women and children wearing bright orange and red saris; men carrying temples, dancing and beating drums; and Indian music blasting out of speakers from shops. Two large elephants adorned with flowers and body paint ambled through the throng of men.
To get a better view we squeezed our way onto the road. A crowd of men, young and old, began jeering at us, touching our bodies. They formed a tight circle around us, their breath close and stale. We heard a young girl screaming and moved towards her until she was wrapped in our circle; better with us than alone. We pushed towards the side – moving like a tide in unison. An old man grabbed my hand and told us to follow him. I knew we could trust him. I held on, Lorraine clung to my other arm and held on to Dave, who had lifted the girl onto his shoulders. The old man led us into a dark shop and told us we would be safe there. “Not good on street with men,” he said. I saw our mistake: the women in their coloured saris were on the pavements, while the white-clothed men crowded the streets.
“That was so scary,” said Lorraine. Her hand shook as she lifted her cigarette to her mouth.
The young girl’s mother rushed in and enveloped her daughter in her arms. She nodded thanks then walked out. The old man told us it was the Festival of Ram. During the day people fasted and prayed for the Mother Goddess. In the evenings they danced and feasted. Had we been in real danger? I’ll never know.
The taxi driver and his partner stood over us.
“Well, we’re going to find out,” I said. I hitched my backpack across my shoulders and headed back towards the airport. The nuns rolled their bag behind them.
“No problem,” shouted the driver. “We ask you stay?”
Those slimy tricksters, I thought. I bet there was room at the inn after all. We checked in and discovered the hotel nearly empty. It was another of those times that could have gone drastically wrong if I hadn’t listened to my instincts.
16 November 1984, Calcutta – Nepal
The plane soared over snowcapped mountains as it came in to land in Kathmandu. I changed some money, gathered some maps and made for the door. A small Nepalese man touting his hotel encouraged me to go with him. I agreed but was disturbed when he came back in an unmarked taxi with another person in the car. Here we go again, I thought. I had no nuns to back me this time, just my intuition. Should I go in the car? I wrote down the registration number of the car as a just-in-case. The men laughed when they saw what I was doing.
“When I was in India I couldn’t trust anyone,” I said.
“Aah, but now you’re in Nepal. We have plenty of women…” More laughter followed.
Nepal was a different place altogether.
To find out more about studying travel writing on Massey’s Albany campus, visit albany139326.blogspot.com.
Pages: 1 2