Wondering & wandering
Our SAA flight touched down on Indian soil with balletic grace, dipping towards the tarmac in a sultry balancé that would have Margot Fonteyn in fits of envy. The air hostess smiled and I unclipped my seat belt, making my way to the front of the aircraft with the buoyant optimism telling of someone who has yet to go to India. This was the last time I’d feel safe in any form of transport, but my blissful ignorance ushered me through the door like a newborn baby out its mother. Adventure awaits me, I thought.
Five minutes outside Mumbai International were electric: the air crackled with voices and the smell of delicious food and life. I even met a friend-of-a-friend in airport (small world, huh?). But after five hours in the tiny domestic departures I was entertaining regret. Can I go back? I wondered, anxiously looking over at Chad. There was no WiFi to tell my family I’d arrived, the toilets were horrific and with only a floor to sleep on, Chad and I curled up like dishevelled commas in the corner of a cafe.
This dissatisfaction soon turned to irony, when we left the safety of land for an abomination straight out of hell: flight DD728 to Goa. During the 1.5 hours I both wept and prayed, the former from lack of sleep, the latter for our lives: the plane careened through the sky like an amphetamine-fuelled flying hamster, coming to an abrupt SSSHHHHHHH DOOOSSHHHH BOOOOOFFFFFFFF on the runway. Sweet Jesus, I said to Chad. Holy shit. Holy cow, more like. A pilot friend has since told me most pilots on low-cost Indian airlines are younger than I am. Personally, I like my pilots more silver fox than just-left-Gamma-Pi. Preferably no crashes. And no former Malaysian Airlines employees (too soon?).
We got our luggage and I ran for the loo to rid my body of three Gatorades, caffeine and water. I hustled four aunties and a child for the toilet, shut the door behind me and sank onto the seat with carefree abandon. SHIT! I sat down! I shot up to a shaky hover, looking like a Parkinson’s patient who forgot how to use the loo. And that’s when I noticed it: the filth. Grime covered every surface like a second skin. The floor was a light toffee where the bleach had worked but the rest of it had definitely seen its fair share of vomit and shit and piss. Yeeeeeeeeugh. No toilet paper, I noticed, looking strangely at the bucket of water next to me. Next time.
But minutes slipped away and we were handing over rupees and fumbling with passports and bumbling our bodies and backpacks into a taxi outside Goa’s Dabolim Airport, weary and overwhelmed. I’d read about India’s insane traffic. We even watched some funny YouTube clips on Delhi intersections. And yet, terms like road rage and fear don’t come close to describing the next hour’s events. Harrowing, yes. Death-defying, certainly. An unequivocal miracle that we survived? Hells-yes.
Within 25 minutes of dodging dogs and cows and tuk-tuks and drunken men and children and women carrying prehistoric-looking fruit, we came face to face with an eyeball. A human eyeball, cornea, pupil, the whole shebang. Except for the socket, which rose like a small cave two inches up from the eye. In an uncanny act of propulsion – a likely result of the gnarled motorbike wound around its owners twisted torso – said eyeball had come to rest on a rather prominent cheekbone. Disclaimer: I technically watched this from the back of a taxi. Read: gaped in horror as Chad and our cab driver vaulted out of the vehicle like Bruce Jenner before the Cheerio’s endorsement.
The man’s mouth, split open in shock, revealed tiny bubbles at its down-turned corners. His skin like dead bark, the body inside it shivering in unarticulated agony. Chad tried to assist the man, angered by the unhelpful spectators arced around the accident. They just need popcorn, I know he mumbled. Murmurs of discontent began to brew and our taxi driver looked worried. “Come!” he said to Chad, beckoning him towards the car. Chad didn’t move. The disapproving buzz became a slow rumble. Chad reached towards the man. The taxi driver lost his shit and grabbed Chad while the drone reached its crescendo in an onslaught of unfathomable slurs.
They hurried back to the car and Chad sprung into the front seat (I shared the back with a middle-aged German woman who promptly told us she would never let her daughter travel to South Africa – Uh, lady, you’re in India now!). The taxi screamed into the opposite traffic lane (which will from here on be referred to as “the other left”), swerving past truck and sedan and donkey cart until we resumed our usual pace of drive-like-you-sing-in-a-death-metal-band.
With hand gestures that would make Madiba’s funeral translator proud, we explained the name of our resort. We resembled a pair of deaf schizophrenics; all pointing and thumbs ups and eye rolling. Our taxi driver found Dreamcatcher Resort easily enough, a fact which concerned me when a black pot-belly pig galloped across our path, followed closely by two chickens and a hen.
The taxi reversed away, leaving two overwrought South Africans wobbling on the swollen ankles that had journeyed thousands of kilometres from home. The pig squealed. I looked up at Chad. He looked down at me. He knew the expression on my face. He’d seen it when we slept in a car for three days at Grahamstown Festival in 2007, and almost every time we went to Spur. And he’d see it many times throughout our month in India. A mangled pastiche of horror, abhorrence, and a large dose of let’s-get-the-fuck-out-of-here. Frazzled nerves. Jet lag. Growling bellies that ached for starchy reprieve. Maniacal traffic that weaved zigzags around our incomprehensibly-small cab. We were in India, alright. We had arrived.
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