I have been traveling to India for three decades now. With time and experience I’ve come to learn both the abilities and the limitations of my own endurance as a tough, go anywhere-try anything traveler. But there was a time when I had yet to fully understand any glaring signals that my body was sending me. I’m not prone to slowing down anything if I can avoid it, but I remember on one occasion, early on in my travels to India, when I had my limit taught to me in a very, very direct manner.
In those early days when I was traveling on a tight budget, I often ended up falling in with other like-minded travelers in order to split the costs and find some camaraderie. On one trip in particular, back in ’96, I was in the bustling city of Ahmedabad, and joined up with a young woman from Australia. We shared a room together in a budget hotel that boasted little more than the basic necessities. I remember distinctly that our window looked out over the breast-like domes of a nearby mosque, and that we could hear their seductive calls to prayer all throughout the day and night.
The evening before the two of us were to part ways, we of course went out to dinner. We shared a chicken dish that I now very much regret. At the time it seemed quite negligible and harmless, but how was I to know what was yet to come? Anyway, the next morning my companion got up at the crack of dawn to catch a train for Tibet and in her rush to get out the door she left behind a bag of fresh ripe mangoes. She clearly wasn’t about to be coming back for them, and I gratefully accepted them as a happy windfall coming my way; little did I know how much I would eventually be in need of them.
I had come to India with a very specific idea in mind; I was looking for a tribal gold pendant and I had it emblazoned in my brain and was determined to find just the right thing. I set out to scour the jewelry stores and began going from one merchant to another, walking up and down the market halls for hours as I searched and searched for that special golden tribal-esque pendant. Not too long into this search I began to experience horrible stomach cramps, and I soon realized that last night’s chicken dish was currently enacting a dastardly deed upon my system. I am not one to be easily cowed, and did my best to persevere despite the sweltering heat and my own growing nausea. As a compromise I purchased a bunch of bananas, hoping that they might quell the storm raging within.
With the bananas in my bag I continued on my way, even though my body was telling me to slow down. Finally I came across a pendant in a store that fit the bill and I was raring to pay and high-tail it back to my hotel room to get some R&R, but there was one problem: they didn’t take credit cards. Of course, with this being the 90 ‘ s that wasn’t entirely surprising, but that didn’t change the fact that I didn’t have enough cash on me to purchase the pendant out right then and there. The seller told me to go to the nearest bank to take out cash and even though I was feeling absolutely ill by that time, I wanted that damn pendant. I picked myself up and, with all the resolve I could muster, I trudged to the bank.
Now, this was all pre-internet, so the bank system that I had to go through in order to withdraw the needed funds was deeply entrenched with loads of bureaucratic regulations, restrictions. I had to submit my credit card and passport, fill out pages of documentation, in 6” thick old dusty ledgers. After filling out 30 minutes of forms, I was then forced to sit and wait while this was being processed. During this time I hadn’t begun to feel one iota better, and was instead feeling sicker and sicker, and all I could think was that I had to get my money, get the pendant, and get back to the hotel. I utilized the facilities three times while I was waiting, which wasn’t aided by the fact that all this financial business seemed a little over my head at the time and I could hardly think clearly for more than a moment at a time.
Finally they sent me down to the 2nd floor where they contacted my credit card’s bank to verify that everything was at it ought to be; meanwhile I was feeling worse and worse by the minute and only wanted it all to be over. Nearly another hour and a half later they gave me a big brass token the size of a silver dollar. They told me to take it down to the 1st floor where the regular bank was and there I would be able to exchange the token for my money.
At that point I really felt like I was beginning to lose it, and as I stepped into the bank my eyes rolled back into my head and I hit the floor with a thud. When I finally came to my head was throbbing—I had smacked it against the hard granite floor—and the first thing I saw was shards of lime green glass everywhere. I had been wearing glass bangles and in the fall they had shattered into a thousand pieces. All around me I heard people hurriedly buzzing about like flies “Madam! Oh madam! Are you alright, madam???”
From where I was on the floor I could look through the open door out onto the street, and in my daze I could make out a child squatting on the sidewalk, answering the call of nature as every person must, no matter your socioeconomic status. Watching him squatting I had the vague realization that we shared something in common, and the first thought to cross my mind “oh shit”, for that is just what I had done.
Despite that horrible realization, the first words out of my mouth were “where is my token?!” Fortunately one of the bank workers had found it amidst the hubbub and answered my question with a reassuring “I have it, madam! Here is your token!”
That taken care of, I had to backtrack to the humiliating fact that I had just shit my pants in public. There was essentially nothing I could do about it for the moment, and before we go any further I should mention one thing: I was wearing white. Of course, most of you know that I never wear white, but on this particular day life came together to create the perfect storm—the perfect shit storm, if you will—and I found myself in the awkward position of having to hide this all too obvious fact. Fortunately I had a large lime green messenger bag with me (I had to have some color, no matter what) and I did my best to cover my derriere with it, all the while people were flapping about me like a flock of seagulls to make sure I was alright.
At some point someone had wheeled a whirring rusty electric floor fan over to me. Another person gave me a glass of water which I promptly dumped all over my head. I had little to do but put my tail between my legs and accept the fact that I had indeed found myself in such a crappy situation. I had to gather the courage to get my money and get the hell out of there, but before I could manage that one of the bank staff ran over to tell me, “Madam! Manager wants to see you in his office!”
All I want is to get the hell out of there but instead I’m led to a tiny little office that was barely larger than a closet; thankfully it was air conditioned but that wasn’t enough to make me want to stay there any longer than I had too. The bank manager, an officious and stern looking man, gestured to the only chair in the room and told me “sit, madam, sit” which in his heavy accent sounded more like “shit, madam, shit!” and I had a horrible moment wondering if I’d heard him correctly or not and if I should just fess up and exclaim “I did! I did! I’m so embarrassed!”
He pointed to the chair again, which was freshly upholstered, and I gingerly eased myself down into an almost acrobatic position, resting on one thigh at the very edge like an Olympic gymnast on the balance beam. Suddenly someone handed me a cold bottle of Pepsi, and while the intention was most likely for me to drink it, I simply held it up to my throbbing head which hadn’t eased up since I’d come to on the hard granite bank floor.
“You have low bp, madam?” He asked in his thick accent.
“Do I have what?”
“Low BP! Low BP!” He repeated, and I realized he meant blood pressure and not what kind of gas my car used.
“My wife suffers from same.” He told me. “Now, very, very important,” he began to tick things off one at a time, “only take mango, banana, and rice.” Well, at least those abandoned mangoes in my room wouldn’t be going to waste, and the bananas I had purchased now seem to be forboding.
Finally my money was delivered to me, but at that point I couldn’t even muster the strength to return to purchase the pendant and instead hauled myself into a rickshaw. As it pedaled away from the bank I could still see the kids in the street, answering the call of nature, and in that moment there was very little to divide us, except, perhaps, the fact that they used the street and I involuntarily used my pants. When I got dropped off at my hotel I asked for some English newspapers to be sent up to me, knowing the rest of my day revolved around reading and bed rest. When they finally arrived I opened them up to my horoscope and right there it said for today: “LEO. White is lucky.”
To that I say bullshit!