India: The Roadtrip and the Army and the Shotgun Wedding

Now, I wrote a 1000 word article that I  thought I’d published on my last few days in Varanasi, but it is nowhere to be found, so whatever, let me summarise: I spent 3 days living for free in the basement of a temple waiting for the arrival of a mysterious man called Ricky who I was told was looking for people to split petrol costs to Rishikesh. I went slightly insane languishing in my basement with naught but a family of mice for company, but no matter. After I’d passed a week in Varanasi, Ricky arrived: a small Punjabi dude who has lived in Melbourne for 8 years, with a tattoo that says ‘such is life’ and a finely tuned moustache. And lo, you are up to speed.

So Ricky, Poppy, Michael (new friends) and I finally left Varanasi at 6am, sleep deprived and deathly hungover once again because I am a mucky drifter halfwit wasteman without an ounce of self-control.  We hit the road in Ricky’s little white Ford covered in dints, and washed away on the tide of traffic. I’m glad we had Ricky to drive, I wouldn’t get in a vehicle with anybody but an Indian on the roads here. Ricky drives fast and smooth, swerving in and out of oncoming traffic with ease, ducking around trucks and rickshaws and cows. I sat in the front fiddling with the speaker, window down, sun baking my left arm, and I felt happy and excited for Rishikesh.

It was to be a seventeen hour trip, and Ricky assured us he could make it in one day. We left the city behind and Ricky’s wild driving had us three English kids on the edge of our seats. He took risks that any western driver would wince at, squeezing between speeding the Indian lorries all decorated in their colourful finery, slung with flowers and bright paint, leaking streams of grain all over the boiling highway. I was on edge for half an hour but soon relaxed, realising that for all his swerving and horn honking and daredevil overtaking, he is an astounding judge of space and speed.

We made our first stop at a dusty roadside shack whose only clientele prior to our arrival was a host of buzzing flies. We ordered paratha and chai for breakfast, and the paratha was so spicy it made my nose run and my forehead sweat. Nobody wants spice for a hangover breakfast god dammit, nobody. There was a huge trough of water beside the little café that Ricky assured me was a bath, and told me I should go and bathe in. I examined the water and found it green and filmed with a fine layer of life, and politely declined. We hopped back into the Ford and drove on. My stomach didn’t thank me for the spice. You know in books when the author hints at something that will become important later on? Yes. This is one of those moments. My stomach was aching. Ah yes, trouble was brewing. In my bowels.

But anyway, we drove on, and I must say that as I write this I’ve got a little bit drunk and I’d like to ask you to forgive me if this story is rubbish and poorly worded, but we will see what happens. I never know how to progress road trip stories between key events. It feels jarring to lurch from one hijink to the next, but then it feels klunky to keep saying ‘we drove on’ and describe monotonous stretches of road. I don’t know. What would you prefer? Of course, I can’t actually hear your response, and so I shall decide for you: I shall fast forward to the next interesting part of the journey.

A fucking river!  A lovely blue river. We stopped beside it with green fields on all sides. A big ass crane was nearby. Goodness, my writing declines when I’m tipsy doesn’t it. A big ass crane. Scott Fitzgerald must be spinning in his grave. ANYWAY Ricky asked us if we wanted to swim and we all said no but he stopped regardless, which is kind of a good thing because some of the best experiences of my life have blossomed from people forcing me to do things I don’t want to do.

We stripped down to our skivvies and hopped into the blue. It was fast flowing but shallow, chest high, and I enjoyed the sensation of being tossed around by the current. A few local guys stood on the bank watching our frolicking. Ricky told us that people way out in the villages, hundreds of miles from cities, have probably never seen a white person before, and are curious. Fair play, really. I’d be curious if a car full of rich foreigners arrived in Leeds, shed their clothes and plunged into the Aire.

The four of us spent a lovely twenty minutes floating around like jellyfish, until Michael shrieked and said something bit him. He calmed down and said that, actually, he might have imagined it. We chuckled nervously and continued our buoyant relaxing, until a minute later I felt a tiny mouth take a sharp nibble on my upper thigh; it felt like an electric shock. I announced that I’d been bitten by something too, and within 5 seconds we were all stood on the bank, dripping and shivering and wondering what the hell was in the water. We dried our clothes in ten minutes on the searing hot car bonnet, and, shock, we drove on.

FAST FUCKIN FORWARD CUZ IM WASTED

WE WENT TO A FUCKING WEDDING! Actually no wait that’s later on, sorry

DINNER! Yeah man so we drove a long time and it was great, and Ricky has this odd habit of watching films while he drives, which was a little unnerving but hey – when in India. We watched a film called 7 Years in Tibet which features Brad Pitt but I fell asleep because it was shit and Brad Pitt’s Austrian accent was offensively bad and I just couldn’t get past his ‘VEE NEED TO CLIMB ZEE MOUNTAIN JA!’ spiel so I took an angry protest nap. I woke up and we were in a city that I can’t remember the name of and we were peckish even though my stomach was still yelling at me to fuck off.

We passed by an army barracks and Ricky said hey, let’s eat here, and I said no, I don’t want to, but we stopped anyway. We parked up and swarmed into the complex under the stares of two hundred massive Sikh soldiers, and Ricky led us boldly through the throng into a very pleasant canteen. I had mentally promised myself to not eat more Indian food until the tempest in my stomach had calmed, but for reasons unknown I found myself ordering a big ol’ spicy curry.

The turban-clad soldiers weren’t particularly chatty, but they weren’t unfriendly. In fact, it was quite pleasant to be treated with quiet disregard. I suppose there were more important things to do, like jogging around and shooting at things and having sizeable arms. We forgot to lock the car while we were eating, but Ricky waved away our concern. “Who’s gunna steal anything?” he said, in his strange Punjabi/Australian drawl. “We’re in the middle of a fucking army barracks.” After eating, we drove on.

NEXT UP: THE WEDDING THAT I MENTIONED BEFORE AT THE WRONG TIME!

At 9pm, we passed through a small village, and a giddy Ricky pointed out that we there was a wedding taking place. You can spot the weddings easily enough: any venue with bright lights and curtains and flowers outside is likely a marriage-in-progress. Ricky asked if we wanted to stop and join the wedding. I said no, I felt bad, but Ricky said the wedding couple would love it and we stopped anyway. We pulled up at the side of the road and grabbed our rucksacks to change into our finest clothing.

I then discovered that I had lost my beloved black Levi’s somewhere, and was trouserless. However, Ricky came to my aid, offering me an ironed shirt and a pair of chinos that he for some reason had in his backpack. Ricky is about 5 foot 3, and his clothes were like a full body corset and with my dodgy stomach I was terrified that the straining against my bowels my cause internal bleeding, but I felt suave nonetheless. When you’ve worn nothing but one pair of shorts, three t shirts and two pairs of socks for a couple of months, I suppose wearing anything that doesn’t smell like a potent blend of old booze and booty sweat makes you feel like James fuckin’ Bond.

We were still mid-dress when the villagers noticed us and began to gather around the car, asking where we were from and watching with quiet interest. We were introduced to the groom’s father and his brothers and cousins, and given a royal escort into the wedding venue. The event hadn’t yet begun; the bride and groom were yet to arrive. The bride’s father met us at the entrance and shook our hands, and with a wide smile invited us to eat the food, drink the drinks, and mill about to our hearts’ content. Lovely.

I can’t really be bothered to describe the venue because I’m a hair’s breadth from STEAMING but if you absolutely must know, here: it was a big large area with lots of bright curtains and chairs, and in the middle there was this mad chariot thing, and there was a lot of speakers and a stage and dancefloor, and there were a bunch of chefs serving various interesting foodstuffs, and a dude dishing out free Fanta which I rinsed, and lots of people had guns and kept letting off random celebratory potshots into the night sky scaring my out of my wits, and everybody, everybody was staring.

It was fine at first, because duh, wedding crashers, but it didn’t let up. Two dozen kids and teenagers followed us everywhere – polite as hell, of course, but being stared at in inquisitive silence tends to make you uncomfortable after an hour or so. I had this one teenager that kept asking me to dance, and even convinced the DJ to play Justin Beiber especially for us, but I declined; if merely sitting down was cause for wild attention, being a lone white dude on the empty dancefloor at a rural Indian wedding would surely be cause for the world’s first mass spontaneous combustion.

We left the venue to go and march with the groom as he approached. He was in this giant gleaming chariot a few hundred metres up the street, surrounded by family and friends who were dancing to crazy drums. It’s a part of the ceremony – they party all the way around the town, and slowly meander to the wedding venue. Everybody looked to be having fun apart from the groom, who was sat po-faced atop his throne, surrounded by children. And fair play, really: imagine spending three hours perched atop gilded chair, stoic, while your best pals and family all dance and scream with laughter beneath you.

People kept tugging on my shirt asking me to dance, but I stood firm. I posed for hundreds of photographs with various slick-haired youths. Michael dove into the middle of the fracas and had a boogie, Poppy and I hung back and laughed, and Ricky was elsewhere chatting to the congregation. The bride’s father invited us back to his place for a chai, and we sat on mini plastic chairs on the roadside, sipping sugary tea, surrounded still by a throng of fascinated kids. I felt pressured to look interesting and do kooky white person things – I didn’t want to let my audience down. But I wasn’t sure what everybody was expecting me to do. Should I sing? Dance? Get my bum out? So I just sat and talked to the bride’s dad. I asked his name, and in response he told me about a temple that he liked, and I realised there may have been a few translation issues. After a while, Ricky suggested we leave and, jaded from all the attention, we thanks the bride’s father, piled into the little white Ford, and shot off into the night.

At around midnight we all agreed it would be a good idea for Ricky to stop driving and for us all to hunker down in a roadside guest house for the night. Ricky agreed that he was very very tired and it would be a good idea to stop driving, but drove on anyway. Michael slept most of the night. Poppy and I played silly games to try and keep Ricky’s head from lolling and our car from hurtling off the motorway. I nodded off at 4am and woke up after 30 minutes because everybody was screaming. The car in front had just ran over a dog, which had flow over their roof and Ricky had had to swerve to avoid. Poppy and Ricky were quiet for some time after. I asked them if they were sure the dog was dead. “Yes,” said Ricky, quietly, “it was definitely dead.” I sighed. You see a lot of death in India.

At 7am, after 1033 kilometres and three emergency stops, when Ricky had been driving without sleep for 25 hours and my stomach had been doing Chewbacca impressions for 20 hours, we arrived. We entered Rishikesh abreast with the sun, and together we chased the shadows out of the valley. We all checked in together in a spacious, cool apartment for the night, and with a smile on my face I collapsed into the endless white fields of merciful and gracious bed.

After absolutely shitting my lungs out, of course.

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