"Stuart." I yelled, over the din of the train.
"What country you belong?" Shouted the tash.
I decided to answer with unusual honesty, "Scotland."
"What you think of Lennon?"
"Lenin the Russian or John Lennon from the Beatles?" I asked, a little taken aback by the unusual direction of the conversation.
"Yes..." Nodded the tash.
A smiling silence ensued.
With this I knew it would, linguistically, be a tough conversation. With only a few steps away from the tourist trail, English as an official language in India becomes a novel idea and, when posed with a question they don't understand, an Indian will simply offer a polite "yes," a head wiggle and a reassuring smile, as if to say "don't worry Gora, I know exactly what I'm saying yes to..."
As we waved goodbye to the polyglot tuk tuk drivers of Varanasi, we were doing so with only the vaguest idea of what lay ahead. Little did we realise that the tourist trail across central India is little more than a goat track across a misty, fern covered hillside (that last reference being a warning to those hillwalking in Scotland!).
Four hours after we left the Ganges' tuk tuk drivers, cars were stopping on the streets of Allahabad as two tourists meandered along seeking out the local sights. In the evening, diners were brought to a jaw-dropping halt as we walked into a local restaurant and the following morning at the train station, children gawped with a mixture of fear and inquisitiveness as I stood on the platform munching samosas for breakfast.
In a second class carriage somewhere in Uttar Pradesh, not only was I asked about my opinion on Lennon/Lenin but anything we did, from opening a book to me scratching my arse, led to a swarm of curious, smiling onlookers and camera phones being pointed in our direction. In the space of 3 hours, we had achieved celebrity status within the train carriage and, when the time finally came for us to disembark, it was with many a handshake and sincere looks of sadness from our new found fans.
We wandered out of the station, into the dusty urban hole of Satna, and sought out some bus station bound transport. We quickly organised a spluttering trip across town in a wheezing antique tuk tuk and were soon faced with dozens of screaming bus touts in a giant dust bowl. Sporting a fresh layer of sweat and dust, we booked ourselves onto a local bone rattler heading for the tourist sanctuary of Khajuraho, home to India's openly filthy, Kamasutra clad temples. However, our presence in the station soon caused a further stir as some people boarded our stationary bus simply to stare at the two Goras and, just before we departed, one enthralled obserever asked for my autograph across the palm of his hand.
We spent three or four days in Khajuraho enjoying the small town atmosphere, watching kids fishing in the lake, cycling through the surrounding countryside, taking sex tips from the one thousand year old temple carvings and avoiding the numerous touts plying everything from Kashmiri shawls to shawls from Kashmir.
Once refreshed, we started the long haul towards the coast which, due to Lana's extreme phobia, would be conducted entirely by bus. That doesn't sounds too bad, especially considering the genius of sleeper coaches with double beds, until you consider the state of Indian roads. Despite the presence of tarmac, the highways provide an authentic experience of what it would have been like to drive across the Somme in 1916. They also offer Indians a good chance to observe tourists at first hand and, when they've had a beer or two, try and get a little closer.
Whilst on a midnight snack and toilet stop, a random Indian pisshead boarded the bus and tried his hand at a conversation, a considerable challenge considering his lack of English and swollen alcohol tongue. After a few minutes of unsuccessful chat, Rab C Sanjeet decided to see if proximity was the problem and climbed the little ladder to our bed until his face was well within the intimacy zone. He then proceeded to touch my hair whilst murmuring "hairstyle" and then slobbered a wet kiss on Lana's hand. It took a loud "Fuck Off!" before he decided that perhaps he wasn't as welcome in our bed as he'd hoped.
We recovered from the trampoline bus bed experience the next night in Bhopal, a town which 25 years ago was accidentally gassed by an American factory leading to thousands of deaths, and which today feels as far from a tourist destination as perhaps central Baghdad. We checked bus times at the station, stopping people in their tracks. We walked along the street, perusing a woman's small jewellery stall and drew in a crowd of at least twenty onlookers. We went into a local bar offering possibly the cheapest draught beer in all of India and had our photos taken with at least ten other drinkers as well as one guy saying he would remember the day he met us forever. Celebrity status had well and truly returned.
However, the swirling dust and clammer of central Indian cities offered little appeal and, after Bhopal, it was another twenty hours worth of bus travel before we were finally reached Bollywood and the Arabian sea. Mumbai could wait, there were beaches waiting for us...
|From An Ache For The Distance|