It was early morning, Christmas day, before the sun came up. Walking in the deserted streets in an unknown city in India I quickly oriented myself. It’s fresh, people wear earmuffs and the buses careen through the streets. I’m alone but I don’t care. I have some hours to kill before I’m not and I welcome the opportunity to explore.
The curtain of darkness surrounding the night sluggishly lifts to reveal the wind-up theatre of the streets as it gains momentum for the coming day. Bus stand after bus stand – are now half empty – by noon will be a hive of activity, busses at a stand still. A flight of stairs leads me down to an underground walkway. Walls are marked with stains, small pools of water appear on the floor and rats scurry under scuffed, bare feet. A lady stands dressed in a sairee on the steps. She’s still there when I pass by 2 hours later. ‘What? Or who is she waiting for?’ I wonder. Beanies, flashing lights, chargers, shirts and speakers – touts, some children, shout to make a buck.
Above ground on the street, closer to the train station rickshaw drivers hiss, with forked tongues, ‘Yeesss, where are you going?’ I keep moving in the sea of people. A hare Krishna restaurant tucked from the street offers a sanctum for reprieve – a coffee buys a seat and time away from tracking eyes. I pick up my book and easily lose myself in the streets of another city in India. It’s not so hard to imagine a scene similar to the one that plays on outside further to the north.
“I’ll meet you at the entrance.” It’s a pretty vague meeting point. The theatre is in full swing as I retrace my steps, doubling back to my starting point. By now the characters’ faces are in full spotlight and audience numbers have multiplied. I’m just a face in the crowd. From the fly-over I look down. The entrance? I see a spot that might look obvious if I was looking for someone. And at street level it feels right. I look around, absorb my surroundings and lower myself to teeter on a broken wall. I look up and missed him as he appeared around the corner – he saw me first – so when I catch his eyes he’s already smiling.
He knows a place, he said. Finding the bus is the same story. It’s a game of Marco-polo, hotter-colder. Each iteration of questioning drawing you closer to the target. But the target moves, changes direction. You have to ask twice, move swiftly. Narrowing down the options we catch a bus presumably heading in the approximate direction. The theatre is unscripted and calls for improvisation.
My backpack is fuller than it was when I arrived in the mountains. For three days I’d packed it with the food I would have eaten had I not decided to fast. Those days the enjoyment of such foods was hypothetical – today a reality. Banana, passion fruit, sappota, a variety of chocolate, tahini and honey. Before we’d enjoyed simplicity – the subtle flavors of lightly spiced teas – and the quiet of a mind fuelled by an empty stomach.
Outside the city and far from ‘civilisation’ laid an oasis; or a mirage. It was difficult to discern if, after 4 days in the mountains and lost in thought, the lush green grass and gardens next to a towering pyramid were real. A golden Ghandi was seated in the middle of a pond, the Buddha was definitively more Indian than what I remembered him in Thailand and speakers filled the outside space with an ambient hypnosis. The grass was cool underfoot and a breeze cooled my skin. I reached my arms high above my head and stretched forward to join the rest of my body with my feet on the ground.
I started to reveal my loot. Placing each item, more excitedly than the last, on the grass in front of me. A small, uniformed old man approached. He held a wooden baton with a deformed left hand. I noticed three of his fingers were missing so he clasped it with his remaining thumb and pinky finger. He shook his free hand with an accompanied head wobble, “No outside food.” He insisted. The mirage started to show its cracks. A bulldozer was digging the ground one hundred meters to our left, a guy in plain clothes slipped a walkie-talkie in his pocket and the grass – at the edges – looked as though it had been freshly unrolled. When the guard wasn’t looking we not-so-discretely slipped chocolates, tasting sweeter in their concealed consumption, while we schemed for the perfect execution of our original plan.
A tall African guy and a small, blonde, white girl – with our backpacks we aren’t exactly discrete. So we circle to the backside of the pyramid to search for a concealed spot that might make our presence forgotten for long enough to cook and enjoy the Christmas feast we’ve been dreaming about for days. And there it was; up an embankment, under the shade of lined coconut trees – off the beaten path and radar of the Indian fuzz.
In a pot I mixed flour with eggs and milk and a little bit of coconut oil for good measure. Usually I put it in my hair but it’s turned out to be quite multipurpose. The flame from my tiny camp-stove was artfully shielded from breeze with a side-turned flip-flop and a folded piece of aluminum foil. Pancakes, on a campstove, under palm trees, next to a pyramid in India wasn’t exactly how I’d imagined Christmas just two months ago.
Spooning the first portion of mixture into the pan I prayed to Vishnu, or Ganesh, or Lakshmi, or Rama.. or whoever it was that would approve of Christmas pancakes to help make this mission a success. Keeping in mind that the first is always a dud I tried not to set my expectations too high and remained hopeful. The 5” pan started to warm up and so did my spirits – the second and third were looking good and from there we had full-scale production down. Tahini and honey; honey and banana; melted chocolate and banana! It was like a camping, food-fuelled science experiment and we were as happy as kids at.. um, Christmas.
After a while we regained real-world consciousness – or as real as you can get in India – and reveled in our full-bellied awesomeness. Looking up the afternoon sun broke the canopy of the palm trees and the west face of the pyramid was now more golden than grey-metallic – as it had been earlier.
As we left – our arsenal secretly stored, now, more in our stomachs than in our backpacks – we passed the old man in blue and smiled politely. A short distance past him we looked at each other and cracked up. With all its rules and not rules and contradictive duality we felt like we’d put a run on the board and flipped India a proverbial bird when it wasn’t looking.
At the gate we briefly considered the long walk back to the main road to start our next game of public transport Marco-polo before trying our luck on hitching a ride. I put my hand out, palm-side down, the way you would if you were signaling for a bus, to indicate the approaching car to stop. The pancakes must have pleased the gods because the old man seated behind the wheel – who looked somewhat like a mole – agreed to take us to the bus stand. We squeezed with our backpacks into the two vacant back seats next to an awkward looking twenty-something-year-old engineering masters student.
The dead-ringer for an Indian Steven Urkel had a lot to say in the ride, which took us – further than anticipated – most of the way back to the city. He was intelligent but his social skills would probably have had him identified as autistic in the West. He spoke of Indian philosophers and Western literature and had an insight into society gained only from isolation from it. He spoke of his passion for balance, a quest to know the mind and the divine. He proposed that all religions hypothesize the same goal and had a rare conception of equality that would have powerful outcomes if only the majority thought the same. He believed that you can learn something from everyone, that experience is the only way to gain knowledge and lowered his head shyly when we thought him wise. He also believed that ‘empty vessels make the most noise’ and that the best wisdom comes from those that don’t. I thought then of something Susan Cain said on introverts, “There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” With that in mind I remind myself to listen most to those who have the least to say.
As we neared the city my eyes became impossibly heavy, the afternoon sun hot on my face and things started to seem more unreal. We passed through a eucalypt forest and stopped in a semi-constructed, or semi-abandoned housing area; the city a stone throw to the horizon. As we neared, the normal city signs started appearing; guys playing cricket in the dusty river beds, goats ate the streets, varieties of afternoon snacks being sold from carts pushed by wiry old men and horns blared around tight, blind corners. The streets became narrower before they finally opened up on to a main road where we had somehow magically reappeared in the city. As we climbed from the car I grasped at my wandering consciousness while trying to simultaneously taken in my sudden surroundings. We thanked our hosts with palms touching at our chests and I made note to take a good look behind the thick black frames perched on the nose of the inquisitive soul we’d shared the last hour-and-a-half with.
They pulled away and I watched the car disappear into the chaos down the street. I quickly recounted the events of the day and shook my head – struggling to imagine back to the days’ start and piece it all together. It was certainly a Christmas never to forget and without a doubt only possible in India.