Day 76: Sawai Madhopur
No alarm goes off this morning. There is no train to catch today. Even our backpacks, with their contents strewn about the concrete floor, seem relieved to air their dirty laundry for longer than twenty-four hours.
Marnie and I wake up at a rate that could suggest we are on vacation (ha) and meet on the covered rooftop patio of the hotel for breakfast in the frigid, misty morning of Sawai Madhopur. Fog obscures every physical attribute of the town. We drink chai at the sole table of the restaurant while a group of Bengali guys tell us about the safaris they’ve booked over the next few days. That is, after all, why people flock to this tiny town; it is the gateway to Ranthambore National Park, which is one of the best places in India to spot a tiger in his natural habitat. These guys have done their research and booked multiple safaris ahead of time. We’ll be lucky if we can organize one for the government price at this point, they say. But without the usual pressure of having to catch one train or another, we’re too preoccupied soaking in the luxury of languidly eating our eggs to care.
A singeing shower later I venture the sun-soaked streets solo. The mist has lifted to reveal a scant town, dotted with convenience shacks and out-of-place hotels for the transient population of tiger-spotting hopefuls. Pigs loll around in trash piles, some so skinny their hipbones jut out and ribs ripple their skin. Warthogs trudge through the dirt. Warthogs: the punk pig; the mohawked menace of the swine family. Cows and dogs and one or two monkeys roam freely. Decorated camels lob by. I like this place. A couple kids in dirt-stained clothes run after me, pleading for money, one of whose face is swollen to twice the size. He points to it with one hand, the other outstretched. I shake my head.
Back at the hotel, Marnie is ready to see the town. The sun is hot and we stroll through the streets, blessedly undisturbed (by Indian standards). We have no where to be but here today, nothing to do but anything we want. We find a restaurant with a nice lawn and a bunch of tables in the sun. We ask for beer. Our server looks around.
“Okay, but you cannot be outside to drink it,” he says in a hushed voice.
We follow him out of the sun and inside the building to a chilly, dark room at the back lit with a strange blue light. I wonder if we’re about to be interrogated. Then I spot a set of doors leading to a back patio.
“Can we sit out here instead?”
Our server nods and opens the doors to reveal a backyard a foot deep in trash. Warthogs root around the plastic piles. It’s more welcoming than the interrogation room, at least.
“Wait,” he says. He leads us upstairs and opens the door to a private rooftop, a couple lawn chairs strewn about. The empty beer bottles and cigarette butts give away it’s status among the staff: lunch room.
“Perfect!” we say in unison.
We melt into a couple chairs, squinting in the hot afternoon sun. Our server brings a couple bottled beers to us and they sweat in our hands.
Heat. Quiet. Relaxation. A newspaper dances by our feet. The pile of empty waterbottles sparkle in the sunshine. Lines of bleached underwear flap gaily in the breeze. Our faces slowly take on the colour of watermelon.
This, we think, is IT.
I go downstairs to order a papad, and when I return, am reminded that India does not export solitude. A couple curious pairs of eyes peer over the edge of the next rooftop. A man and a woman in a headscarf stare at the strange sight: a couple white girls drinking beer in tank tops on the neighbouring roof. We smile and wave. They do the same.
When we blink, four more sets of eyes have joined. Tossing our scarves around our shoulders, we greet each new family member as they appear–how many are there?–while they snap pictures of us on their phones. I walk to the edge of our rooftop and point my phone up to them.
“We would like to have you over for chai,” the son calls down.
“As soon as we finish here,” we say. “Dhanyavaad!”
When our bottles hold no brew and our cheeks hold all the colour of a freshly spanked bottom, we pay our bill and move outside. A tall, skinny lad talking on his phone stands on the sidewalk. He motions to us and gestures: follow me.
We trail him around the buildings to a back street and to the door of a small home. The peeping family greet us from the balcony above. Removing our shoes, we follow the skinny guy up the stairs and onto a big patio where we meet everybody: the father, the mother, the son, his first and second wife, the sister and her son and daughter. They pull up chairs for us; the first wife brings out a round of chai. The usual conversation of geographical origins and itineraries commences. We ask about their family and play with the kids, who bring out all their most impressive toys to show us. The first wife produces another tray with little dishes of carrot mashed with cashews and milk. Marnie’s face reveals that her stomach is not ready for another mystery meal, and I politely shovel enough back for the two of us. The kids bring out their kites in honour of the festival and we all pathetically fail in our attempts get it airborne. The seven-year-old son resolves this by whipping it in circles around his head like a frail lasso in a tornado. After a few family photos, we thank them for hosting us so kindly, and are on our way.
Walking down the road, we ask passersby which way the market is. They point to a bridge. One kilometre, that way. I look across the street. Two rows of motorcycles sit chained in front of a strange building.
“Marn, I have an idea.”
We cross the road to where a group of men sit around.
“Who owns these bikes? We’d like to rent one.”
They look at each other and laugh. I’m not sure if they understand me or not.
“You want to drive?” One of them guffaws. “Can you ride a motorbike?”
I feel almost fully confident that riding a motorbike through Vietnam qualifies me to answer yes.
He hands over a set of keys.
“Ok, you drive, and I come with.”
“No,” I reply. “I drive, and she rides with me.”
“No,” he says. “It can fit three. What is problem with me coming too?”
“Because just the two of us want to go together. How much to rent?”
“No money. I come with you.”
His friends stand around watching. I realize this is his personal bike. Giving him a big smile, I slap the keys in his hand. Not the kind of ride we’re looking for.
“Let’s go ask inside.” We walk up the stairs of this dank, post-apocalyptic, mall-like building. A man with groomed hair and thick seventies-style moustache waves to us. He wears a camo button-up and khaki vest. Both his ears sparkle with diamond studs. Marnie and I are strangely captivated by his badass guise. He looks like the cool uncle who illegally deals rare handmade guns and test rides motorcycles for a living. Maybe he owns a pet tiger. Whoever he is, we like him, and he doesn’t speak a lick of English.
He brings us downstairs and we walk through the “mall” past a few shops, some abandoned, some not. A group of male shop owners suddenly surround us.
“We want to rent one of the motorcycles out front,” we say.
They stand around us, laughing.
“No.” One guy shakes his head.
Our hackles bristle in a rare streak of feminism.
That doesn’t answer the question. After some banter, it comes to light that those are all their personal bikes. There is no rental shop here.
“Renting bikes here is not possible,” Nikki the No-Man says.
We turn around and go back outside.
“Ok, let’s ask in the shops upstairs.” In India, anything is possible.
“Okay! Okay okay.” Nikki stops us and holds a set of keys out towards me.
“You can take my bike.”
Marnie and I look at each other.
“You can drive, right?” he asks.
I nod. He walks us out to his Honda Hero and I plant myself in the seat as Marnie cackles beside me.
“Really, you know how to drive?” Nikki’s friend looks concerned.
“Oh yeah,” I say, doubt shadowing my confidence. A rental is one thing, a personal bike is another.
“Okay, you don’t go for long. And we ride with you.”
I look around. Six men sit two deep on three motorbikes behind us. Ah, the old bike convoy. Looks like Marnie and I just joined an Indian bike gang. In India, anything is possible. Sab kuch milega.
Marnie hops on behind me and reaches around my waist. I rev the engine, we screech out of the parking lot and motor through the roundabout, our three bike escort taking up the rear. Marnie giggles behind me and I chuckle up front. The rest of the gang whiz by, taking photos. The guys laugh at us, we laugh at the guys.
“Pull over up ahead! We’re going to stop for a chai! You want chai?” Nikki screams from the back of his friend’s bike.
“Okay!” Marnie and I scream back.
Our convoy pulls over and we park ourselves at a wooden table in the middle of a large patch of grass. The boys order a round.
“You’re actually a good driver!” they say.
Rather, they are surprised that a female can take a bike from point A to B without crashing, more than they are impressed with my actual skill level.
But they’re a funny group of guys. Each of them own a shop in that oddball mall and have been friends since childhood. Nikki even serenades us with some love song in English and Hindi, with Marnie as is his focal point while his cheeks match the colour of our burnt ones. He offers to sort a safari for us at a very good price for tomorrow through his friend who makes bookings. When the chai has been drained, Nikki attempts to teach Marnie how to ride the motorbike, but his impatience proves him to be the worst teacher in the world.
“I’ll just drive,” he says, after about a minute.
They take us back to the mall, and we promise to look at their shops, just quickly. The power has gone out inside, so they follow behind in a huge group with little flashlights, trying to sell us ugly sweaters and cheap jewellery. We manage to extract ourselves from the engrossing clutches of the excitable troop after a few group photos, but before they can auction off a tacky neon knit.
Finally, we head to the bridge, market bound. Over its edge and down below, a group of children scamper through the narrow alleys of a slum. Spotting us above, they scream and wave, then disappear beneath the bridge. A moment later they appear at the top of a staircase midway on the overpass, and bombard us with outstretched hands, grabbing our clothes with wild eyes and snotty faces. They beg for money and food, their eagerness becoming almost feral, feeding off the excitement of the next kid. Their screams pierce the air as they hound us down the street. Somehow we pry ourselves from the clawing hands and cross the road, out of reach. With shame rounding our shoulders, we douse our hands in sanitizer. Them was some grimy kids, man.
One kilometre, our ass. We wander the streets on the other side of the bridge until finally spotting a busy alley-maze filled with vendors. Sidling through garbage piles, we buy dust masks and continue down a road that leads, it turns out, to the slum from where the children had come. It’s getting dark. Men stare as we walk by. Now we’re under the bridge. We see the stairs, and we see the kids. We make a run for it, but the children are light on their feet. They grab our clothes as we reach the staircase, their fingernails digging into our skin. Our reaction is probably what helps guide these poverty-stricken people into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, I really don’t know what to do. Giving them money is discouraged, as it teaches them to beg. Again, it’s an overwhelming, helpless sort of emotion that joins us in this situation. And we crack the hand sanitizer a second time.
It’s a long walk to our hotel. Sand gets into our shoes and works its way through our socks. We search for a suitable dinner spot, but all seem to be either too pricey, closed, or falsely advertised and non-existent. A promising building catches our attention, and we enter through the side garden where a huge colourful tent is set up. Music blares and in a moment a group of Indian men have ambushed us; they all introduce themselves at once. Inside the tent, a lavish event is taking place. The men inform us it is the ring ceremony, which is the precursor to a wedding. Some women sit at the opposite end of the tent. The men invite us to relax, and we perch on a couple seats at the side.
“No, no no,” they say, waving us over.
They grab two chairs and place them across from the multitude of people in the tent. We hesitantly follow and sit next to a dude laden with a big, fancy camera. People crowd around us, asking a million questions. A massive TV camera points in our direction, its beam of light finding us as the camera starts rolling and we sit awash in it’s searchlight, talking to the enclosing crowd. They invite us to stay for dinner, for drinks. We decline, and after protests and a few forceful arm grabs, we escape to the quiet street and end up back at our hotel, still unfed.
We try to buy a bottle of wine at the shop next door, but the price is far out of our price range. Back inside, the man at reception stops us, asking questions.
“Oh no, you are my friend, you come with me. I will get you real Indian price.”
We follow him back to the shop, and he banters with the man at the counter before passing us a bottle in exchange for the discounted “Indian price”.
We eat dinner on the rooftop, and mix our vinegary merlot with Sprite–poor mans sangria! I watch the fragments of my head splatter the walls from the heat of my spicy curry. When the pieces cool off and come back together, the guys we met at breakfast show us photos of the tigers they saw on their safari today.
And then we go to our room and sleep.