I don’t have a single journal entry about my three months in India. I didn’t write anything about my time there, except for a post about the dancer that didn’t dance, in a Bombay beer bar. The scene – a slice out of a furtive, alternative reality, swallowed up in Mumbai’s underworld – spoke to me, forming sentences in my head. But those brief moments of inspiration stood alone.
It wasn’t India that sucked all inspiration out of me; India has a habit of giving and taking in equal proportions. During my first few days in Mumbai, I was alive; I looked on the world with the open-eyed gaze of a traveller. I was experiencing a temporary – but intense – release of stress, having packed up my life in Shanghai. The last year had been the busiest period of my life to date: writing a book, teaching English to business people and studying Mandarin at a local college. Then came the great packing sessions – two of them. The first, just a few months before I left the country, was a move from the apartment where we had spent almost three years, into a much smaller space. When I left the smaller apartment – and Shanghai, for good – Iain was visiting family in South Africa. I packed up on my own, feeling completely overwhelmed, while working and tying up loose ends that appeared out of nowhere, as well as making last minute preparations for our trip. The visas and international bank accounts and immunisations were all forced to wait until the very last minute, when I ran around the city in the snow like a rare and ridiculous juggling act.
From the moment I walked out of the arrivals hall, India began to seep into my very being. I was immediately hit by that hot, tropical smell, infused with spices. The unruly trees and fleshy-leaved plants, the fragrant smoke from incense floating through the city, the frying cumin and the boiling cardamom: they all made my senses soar as I breathed in the warmth of a place that affects me like no other.
India cannot be blamed for my detachment and nonchalance later on, or the conflict between traveller and writer that characterised my time in the country. It was the book. The book was a mammoth task that I’d taken on a year and half earlier, but still not succeeded in completing. It was a task that had felt never-ending during my last overwhelmed year in Shanghai. It was not even a task that – like most people imagine a book to be – was truly my own. Certainly it was my own to deal with in its magnitude and density. But it wasn’t my own in spirit.
It was a commission: a hugely challenging, but appealing task, given to me by a publisher in Hong Kong. It was mine alone to fathom and struggle through as the months went on and on. I had come to India to finish the book. In the imagined comfort and peace of a series of inspiring surroundings, perfectly conducive to writing, I’d thought I’d find the energy to finish the book. Without my other obligations in Shanghai, it was sure to be far easier to focus on writing. In practical terms, that was accurate. But I soon realised that a positive frame of mind is far more important than your environment when wrenching words from your gut to a deadline. And eliminating everything but writing did not equip me with that state of mind; I was just too anxious about how much I still had to write. In India, I realised that the other work I’d been doing, teaching adults English, had provided an outlet for my frustration. I missed my students; they had given me inspiration in a different form.
As the weeks went on, I wrote with varying success – but the book dragged on. I had already exceeded the anticipated word count by a few thousand words, but it was as if the story refused to end. There was always more that needed to be said, always a section that I had underestimated or another I had forgotten about, and the writing process went on and on, with the end nowhere in sight. I was working on a section about the effects of censorship on art in China when the foreboding words of an artist I had interviewed – an artist who didn’t see how censorship and art could coexist – suddenly became more poignant. The artist was Ai Weiwei – notorious for creating art that borders on political activism – and when, one Sunday in April, he was taken away by a group of policemen, without any formal charges, artistic freedom in China became a hot topic overnight. Ai Weiwei was only one of hundreds of outspoken Chinese citizens who were informally arrested, and I was forced to change the corresponding section of the book, to consider how this crackdown on dissidence would affect the future of Chinese art. All this while India was all around me: in thought, as a mental construct or, sometimes, as a vivid place that I was passing through: on a train, in a street, then in hotel rooms in new places; and in the people, the most constant reminder of where I was. But my location could not be much more than a distraction; my focus was the book, and it had to be – if I was ever going to finish it.
Our last week in India was a whirlwind journey through several places we hadn’t yet visited in Uttar Pradesh. I had no time to spend on the book. To keep us on track during this, the final week of our three month visit, we bought a string of overnight train tickets, which gave us a few days in a few cities, and helped us avoid fully booked trains. Even being forced to travel during this week – to be nothing more than a traveller – didn’t mean that the work I should have been doing didn’t weigh on my mind.
We left India via Calcutta – by air, which was a first. The India leg of our trip had been tacked on as three stand-alone months; our overland journey home would begin in Bangkok, where our Air Asia flight from Calcutta would land. A few months in Southeast Asia before a trail through southern China, and then our journey from Shanghai to Cape Town would truly begin. For now, I was excited to be leaving India and going to Thailand; it was the first new country I was to visit in a little over three years.
After half an hour of sweaty haggling over the price of a taxi to the airport, shouting prices over the noise of an elevated highway, I was ready to rid myself of the Subcontinent. We paid 50 percent more than a local, the price generously offered by a lone man after his pals all demanded double. At the airport, we enquired about nearby hotels for transit passengers, where Iain and I planned to spend the night before catching a morning flight. There were no hotels, as such, but after writing our names, our father’s names, passport numbers, visa numbers, occupations, address, religion and marital status in an enormous ledger and then again onto a form, a man directed us to our respective ‘retiring rooms’: male and female, on opposite ends of a passage on the second floor of the airport.
The rooms were surprisingly well-appointed. There were laundered white sheets on the rows of single beds, air conditioning units installed at intervals along the walls, a bathroom at the end of the room and shelves for your luggage at the end of each bed, on which rested complimentary towels and soap. A Malaysian woman – the only person I shared the large dormitory with – sat watching a television near the door, which we kept locked. It was characterless, but better value than any budget accommodation I’d known in India.
Iain and I wrote, fuelled by coffee, in the airport’s small branch of Café Coffee Day, an Indian version of Starbucks. Later that night I packed the collection of embroidered fabric, leather sandals and ornaments we’d bought into a single carrier bag. We planned to send it back to South Africa at the airport’s post office to avoid exceeding Air Asia’s paltry luggage allowance.
The next morning, I left my three flowing salwar kameez sets in my backpack and happily dressed in jeans and what felt like a skimpy t-shirt. It was past ten o’clock when, after breakfast at Café Coffee Day, I walked over to the post office. It was still shut. Iain went into the airport manager’s office to ask when it would open. “After ten,” he was told by the man on duty, without a trace of humour. Half an hour later, the post office doors were still closed.
“Your attention, please,” said a voice on the intercom. “Flight number FD 37-83 to Bangkok is now boarding. Passengers are kindly requested to make their way to the boarding gate without delay.” Our flight was close to leaving. Iain waited with our bags while I went back into the office, where three men were now sitting behind desks, chatting. “Excuse me,” I began, trying to mask my concern, “Do you know what time the post office will be opening today?”
“Sit down, please” one said. I felt my lips pursing together, but I sat, trying to look patient. He called out to someone in the corner of the office, then turned back to me. “Maybe it will not open today,” he said, blandly.
“Are you sure?” I said, still holding onto naïve hopes.
“Maybe after ten thirty,” he said. “But maybe it will not open.”
I explained my situation: it was very important that I send this parcel before my flight left without me. “What is inside this parcel?” he wanted to know. It was full of treasures I had bought in his lovely country, I told him, treasures that I needed to send home before boarding a flight out of the country. If I didn’t, my luggage would weigh too much. He looked sympathetic, but repeated his previous answer: it was supposed to open at ten, but it might not open at all.
There was another boarding call. We decided to check in before putting any more faith in Indian bureaucracy – and losing our ticket out of there. A woman behind one of Air Asia’s counters saw us approaching and, with a broad smile and an outstretched arm, asked us to proceed to the baggage scanning area. We were allowed 15 kilograms of check-in luggage each, but I knew our backpacks weighed more. The unsent parcel added another five or so kilograms; I was anxious about being charged for excess luggage. “Let’s go to the counter with the smiling woman,” I suggested, but she was replaced by the time we approached, by a woman with her face set in a half scowl. Once she had seen us from under her eyelids, it was too late; we were already standing at the counter, passports and e-tickets in hand.
I waited, but she didn’t acknowledge us. “Hello,” I offered. “Can we check in please?” She raised her head, eyes awash with boredom, and looked down again. “Tickets,” she said, leaving us to put them onto the counter. “Put your luggage here,” she said with a flick of her head, indicating the scale. We lifted each of our large backpacks onto the machine, still wearing our daypacks. The post office parcel was on the floor next to my feet. A digital number appeared on the scale’s screen. The woman suddenly perked up. “36 kilograms,” she said smugly. “That is six kilograms overweight.”
I turned to Iain, then back to her, trying to look remorseful. “Oh,” I said in a shaky voice. “When we flew to Mumbai with Air India we had the same amount of luggage.”
“This isn’t Air India,” she replied, thrusting her head forward in rebuff. We stood in silence while she looked straight at us, but said nothing. Was she expecting a fight? Did she want us to get upset? We waited for her to speak – she was the airline’s employee, she needed to explain the protocol – but she remained silent. “So, what happens now?” I said eventually, unable to bear the tension. She had a calculator at the ready, on which she tapped out a few calculations and showed us a number: 2500. “You will have to pay 2500 rupees,” she announced, with no explanation about how she had reached the figure. 55 dollars seemed rather steep for six kilograms of luggage and she seemed to be enjoying her power to unnerve us too much.
“Is the flight full?” Iain asked with incredulity.
“I’m afraid we don’t have 2500 rupees,” I interrupted. She stared ahead. Again, I begged her to get it over with: “So… what happens now?” I would sooner have thrown some of my belongings away than paid this insolent woman a penny.
“Well…” she said with a smirk, “I’ll have to talk to my boss.” Still looking at us, she called out, from her seat, “Bo-oss!” A neatly dressed, unsmiling man appeared and looked at her by way of enquiry. She pointed at the scale’s screen. He gave a brief wave of his hand and turned away before I registered what had happened. It had been nothing but a show, a means through which the woman could exhibit some sense of the power she had, or wished she had.
I asked for luggage tags. “You don’t need them,” the woman spat. By now, I was angry. This woman was deliberately wasting our time.
“Well, I’d like to use luggage tags,” I said abruptly. She slapped two onto the counter. I wrote mine out quickly and attached it.
Iain was still writing an address on one when his bag started moving along the conveyor belt. “My bag!” he called. “Wait!” But she had already pressed the button to carry the bag away, ignoring his calls – and the tag that he was filling out on the counter, right under her nose.
The show had made us late and we were striding to immigration, muttering complaints, when a polite young Air Asia employee ran up to us with two more luggage tags for our daypacks. He was obviously embarrassed by his colleague’s behaviour. The way he treated us was in stark contrast to the belligerent woman and highlighted just how unacceptable her behaviour had been. She had scolded us – it was petty enough to be called that – for having a negligible amount of excess luggage. Iain strode back to the counter and asked the woman for her name. This wasn’t a post office or a government office – it was a privately owned airline, and an employee such as her deserved a formal complaint. He repeated it a few times until he had it correct and, satisfied, left the suddenly solemn woman.
It had been a typical Indian finale; how else could we have imagined leaving one of the most frustrating places on earth? The remaining scenes of our Indian exit were, thankfully, more comical than tense. An immigration official handed us a detailed exit card to complete. When we skipped one part, he told us to fill in the details we’d ignored: Places visited in India. It provided a single line. “All of them? Here?” I asked the official, grumpily.
“Yes, yes, yes,” he replied, pushing the card forward. Mumbai, Gokarna, Murudeshwar, Trivandrum, Neyyar Dam I began to write. Varkala, Jamnagar, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Allahabad, my pen trailing over the line and up the side of the form. “OK, OK, OK!” the official exclaimed, stamping our passports and nodding us out of the country.
We arrived at the next passport check, a few metres past immigration. “Passports!” a man barked. “This side!” barked another. Ushered into a chaotic area, we were met by a row of luggage scanning machines. Some were manned by uniformed airport staff, others were scattered with junk and left to assume a fate as shelves, the contents hovering somewhere before departure. I was taken aback by the disorder – and the lax staff that had allowed it. This was the point at which the security of every flight leaving Calcutta Netaji Subhas Chandra airport was determined. It more closely resembled the stage of a variety show.
Our black backpacks edged along the conveyor belt of a luggage scanning machine as men glanced at its contents on screens. “This side!” called a woman, from behind a military green curtain. I entered a darkened space, encircled by fabric, and was instructed to stand on a low stool while a woman in an airport security uniform frisked me. In India, as a woman, you are spared the humiliation – and immodesty – of public frisking in every airport and metro station, where these curtained booths are set up instead. Perhaps Indian women dislike the idea of men watching their bodies being touched, even if for such a practical purpose and for such a brief moment, but I found the anonymous hands and hidden faces all the more invasive.
We were herded through another inspection at the boarding gate. Men barked at us and treated us like something between cattle and school children until we reached the end of the circuit and were allowed to board the plane. Goodbye and good riddance, India! I thought.
Bangkok’s shiny new airport was a kaleidoscope of steel, glass and mirrors, the lights and colours of designer stores and ultra modern coffee shops bouncing off the surfaces of the seven storey structure. India couldn’t have felt further away. It was like diving into beautifully cool, clear water after emerging from a swamp. In our guesthouse, I savoured the small luxuries: air conditioning, tissue boxes, spotless bathrooms, purified ice, polished wooden floors, a room with an adjoining patio – things that would have cost me at least twice as much in India, without the efficiency of the smiling service professionals that I found in Bangkok. These little luxuries were especially welcome because, despite my brimming curiosity about the vibrant city I was in, I had to shut myself away – or chain myself to my desk, as I had taken to calling it – for just a few more days while I finished the last chapter of my book.
For the next four days, I woke at 5am, availing of the guesthouse’s twenty-four hour restaurant and its espresso machine before padding barefoot back upstairs to the table in our room, stripped of its television. I wrote furiously, fuelled by caffeine and a desperate desire to reach the end of a story I’d been trying to tell for 16 months. I shuffled between the desk in the room, the table on the patio and the restaurant, where I drank coffee and ate all my meals. In the evenings, once the afternoon’s caffeine had lost effect, I drank beer while I wrote. When my mind refused to form sentences fast enough, I allowed myself to work my way through the list of facts I needed to check online. Otherwise, I remained disconnected from the guesthouse’s wireless internet; the internet has to be the worst among a writer’s many distractions. When I grew tired or just too frustrated to look at my computer any longer, I walked to the convenience store at the end of the street.
Cut off from the country in which I had arrived, the 7-Eleven became, in my mind, a microcosm of modern Thailand. The goods on sale represented something entirely new: they were different from what you find in India – in fact, I’d never come across a convenience store in India. This mundane place, this slice of ordinary middle-class Thai life, told me how far east of India I had come; it was far closer to Shanghai’s army of twenty-four-hour convenience stores than anything Indian. It was frostily air conditioned with white fluorescent lights bright enough to hint at some other, futuristic, dimension. It is neither day or night time light, nor are you in contact with any of the outside world’s smells, sights or sounds; just the humming of the fridges, the electronic beeping of the cash register and the customers steadily coming in and out to obtain quick refreshment. Plastic cups of instant coffee, filled with boiling water from dispensers or pre-mixed with milk, ice and plenty of sugar; hamburgers, pork burgers and chicken burgers in sweetish, rubbery buns, heated to order and garnished at a self-service counter of sauces and salad; giant drinks from soda fountains, chocolate sandwiches or ham and cheese croissants: it was all there, neatly stacked inside the sterilised space.
The local 7-Elevens were in stark contrast to India’s ubiquitous kiosks: concrete boxes that are neither completely indoors or out. The window through which goods are sold is open to the elements, allowing the heat and light of the sun in during the day and the pelting rain to bounce through during the monsoon. The window of the kiosk in Mumbai’s Khar road – the first of these kiosks I knew, where I bought countless cold drinks in the stifling heat – was surrounded by stout glass jars stuffed with sugary treats: chunky, homemade biscuits, peanut brittle – chikki – and Indian milk sweets, sweet enough to make your gums tingle.
Where, in Bangkok or Shanghai, a few convenience stores might be positioned at the busiest exits of metro stations, in Indian cities these kiosks appear on train station platforms and in amongst the hubbub in front of stations, where commerce of every variety takes place between rickshaws, buses and motorbikes, the cows and the people weaving their way through the metal. In place of the Western-inspired fast food of Thailand’s 7-Elevens was a selection of chaat: samosa, pav bhaji and pakora. At night, the kiosks glow with the weak yellow light of a bare bulb or two; meeting places for men who stand outside, drinking tiny glasses of chai, thick with milk and sugar, chewing pan or smoking cigarettes.
I rolled these contrasts and comparisons over in my mind, unwittingly forming ideas about Thailand from this, a modern corner shop. I was starved of any other stimuli, and would remain that way – until I finished the book.
On the fourth day in my writer’s box, just after 3pm, the draft was finished. I trawled through various documents within a folder on my computer marked Chinese Contemporary Art and, one by one, attached each of the eight chapters to an email for my editor. Then I hit Send. A message telling me that my email had sent popped up onto the screen. I checked the sent folder and, indeed, the email had been sent. Iain was downstairs, so I typed him a message on Skype. Sent!! Let’s go and be travellers!
That evening I sat in the guesthouse’s leafy garden and, for the first time since the day I’d left China almost three months before, I wrote in my journal.
Relief seeps through my veins as I sit with a beer and just be – just be a traveller, that is, for the first time in this journey of almost three months. I submitted a ‘final draft’ to Derek today, which – now that I think about it – should have been called a ‘final first draft’, for that is all it is: a collection of some 100,000 words that narrates a thirty year period with snippets of information, artwork and gossip – as well as a few judgments of my own. But enough of that.
While lying on a smooth, cotton-covered mattress tonight, wearing a blouse and Thai fisherman pants of the same fabric, I felt blissfully relaxed as a Thai person gave me a massage. (I say ‘person’ because neither their gender nor their sex was pronounced.) It was my first taste of Thai massage and it was beautiful: a sequence of stretches and sweeping angles, or a dance with a silent partner – a partner whose presence was immaterial, but who manoeuvred my body and my spine into magnificent stretches that crunched with the release of months and months of tension. Tension that has now, at least temporarily, reached the beginnings of an end.
All evening, I found my eyes darting around excitedly as Iain and I wandered through the suburban Bangkok streets, everywhere glimpsing something new. Perfectly-formed segments of bright yellow fruit – jackfruit, I think – were on display, still in their prickly, knob-covered skin. In my reverie, I fancied that the fruit resembled the elongated heads of Buddhas, with the same small knobs – or snail-shell curls – covering the surface.
A lady stood behind a small table, selling crisp salads in vibrant colours: shiny red baby tomatoes, dark green cucumber, cabbage and, scattered amongst it, bright yellow kernels of corn. It was wrapped tightly in bubbles of clear cellophane, ready to eat. We walked through an open air food market filled with colourful dishes, their fragrances wafting through the air: lemongrass, barbequed meat, curried fish. There were noodles everywhere: thick, squishy rice noodles, long yellow noodles, rice vermicelli, wheat vermicelli, splashed with sauces, frying or soaked in chilli. I kept hearing words that sounded like Chinese; it must have been their contrast to Hindi that made them sound Chinese, and their tonal quality: higher and hummed compared to richer, resonant Hindi.
I passed the ultra modern premises of a business, its glass doors gleaming, and just beside it saw a shrine-adorned room. Whether it was someone’s living room or a shop, I couldn’t tell: Thai families or groups of friends often seem to while away the day together in their restaurant or shop, giving it a very homely feeling. In the evenings, groups of men sit at tables outside their homes in the quiet suburban streets with a few bottles of soda water, a bucket of ice and a bottle of whiskey, chatting into the warm night. I’ve already gotten the sense that people know how to enjoy themselves here. They smile a lot and, often, it’s infectious.
My observations about the Bangkok that came alive to me that night may seem unremarkable, but it was just how ordinary that first evening of exploration in Bangkok had been that satisfied me most. The foods and people and shops and streets of a country are often the things that reveal a lot about a place. And what was ordinary there that night was still different to what is commonplace in India or China, my immediate frames of reference at the time. Sadly, after extended periods in those countries, almost everything was no longer new.
As my time in the country went on, it wasn’t just the novel and unknown aspects of Thailand that I savoured; I took pleasure in the synergies Iain and I found between Indian, Chinese and Thai culture, religion and architecture. But most memorable in this transition from India to Thailand was my own transition, mirroring the journey: my traveller’s eyes were re-opened, I was once again able to soak up air that buzzed with energy. Thankfully, the desire to write again followed, though – after all the months of pressure to do so – it wasn’t quick to return.
On one of our first forays into the city, Iain and I visited a Hindu shrine in the centre of Bangkok. It was a shrine to Brahma, the god of creation, who is rarely enshrined in modern India but is considered auspicious among Thai Buddhists. The skyscrapers, designer stores and mammoth flyovers along which the city’s Sky Train runs did not overwhelm the shrine’s bubbling energy. Incense was lit, marigolds and coconuts were offered, people held their hands to a flame and smoothed the warmth over their heads, thus receiving the blessing of the gods. Thai Buddhism assimilated several aspects of Hinduism and Animism hundreds of years ago, but it seemed that it was Hinduism’s lively sense of ceremony that had captured the imaginations of these Buddhist devotees. The Subcontinent had reappeared to me in all its wonder. There it was again, India.
“The South is very laid back,” I heard myself tell two Brits a few days later in a Bangkok bar. “India’s plains are chaotic, but the mountainous regions are lovely,” I said to an American in our hotel.
“I’d probably avoid going back to Uttar Pradesh,” Iain told someone, “but I’d like to visit some of the North Eastern states.” It was then that I realised we were already planning our next trip – another trip to that vast and intoxicating place; utterly unique, and defiantly so. It is a country of contradiction and complexity, where enduring inconvenience yields a far deeper sense of understanding and personal growth than anywhere I’ve been. It is nearly always challenging, and often beguiling. It can be maddening. Like a potent drug that has too tight a grip, it is both the land of dreams and nightmares. It is the country of my love and my hate – perhaps in equal proportions. It is my India.
From the beginning of my time in Thailand, I wondered whether I’d ever develop such strong feelings for this – or another – country. What I did know was that I wanted to explore Thailand in as much depth as a few weeks would allow. During my first few days, Bangkok swept me off my feet; it was like having a honeymoon with a city I hardly knew. It seemed too good to be true: it had no bad habits to get used to, no tendencies to be contradictory and it never put me in a bad mood. It looked as if the honeymoon period could last forever, and most of the long-time travellers to the country I met claimed it did. But these rose-tinted views went against my own ideas about love and long lasting, two-way relationships. Is a fun-loving nature and a willingness to please enough to make you fall in love? Romance is wonderful, but what about stormy, passionate exchanges, and keeping someone on their toes? I knew that, in time, I’d wish to seek out and uncover Thailand’s imperfections because, surely, without imperfection unconditional love cannot exist.
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