“You got a plan, Juan?”
“I’ve got a plan. Don’t you worry, buddy,” he replied in his strange yet distinctive Portuguese accent.
“Alright. I trust you, dude.”
But did I? Did this guy really have any idea just how bad I was feeling?
I did need to get the hell out of Agra though. Now. And if there was anyone who could push me and ensure that this would happen; Juan was definitely the man.
“You think there’s gonna be some more tuk-tuk guys down there around the Taj?” I asked just needing some confirmation.
“Yes, my friend. That’s what I’m thinking.”
He’d just brushed off two dudes offering us a ride right outside our guesthouse. “Two hundred rupees?! Apiece?! It’s not even that far, man. And you can bet I’m not paying two hundred rupees for that. They’re crazy!”
“Yeah. That’s true.”
We both had our packs, though, and I was already sweating profusely after only having walked a meager fifty yards. But it was a hot night in July and maybe I was just being a hypochondriac. Maybe I was just tired and worn out from walking all around this town in the summer heat the past few days. But something (call it instinct) had preserved me from eating anything more than toast and 7Up for dinner tonight.
Juan and I skirted the side of the dirt road in single file fashion as the swarm of tuk-tuks, cars, bicycles, and oxen occupied the middle. And every goddam one of them seemed to have a horn blaring. Even the cows with little bells tied so daintily around their humongous necks. They were beginning to drive me crazy.
But onward we trudged through this town’s bustling, little center. At least the night was starry and clear, though, and it least it wasn’t raining.
We’d spent the day exploring again. All day. Getting up early and just walking wherever. Juan had had this pretense about needing to buy shampoo and that there was some specific kind he was looking for that couldn’t be found anywhere in the vicinity. Eventually, some locals told us about a ‘big mall’ miles from the city center and it quickly became there that we were determined to walk. And why not? Isn’t traveling for pleasure supposed to be about seeing new things and meeting new people? And, for traveler’s like us, seeing the real people and the real neighborhoods was something to be enjoyed. It was part of the adventure. And so, on each of the past few mornings, we’d simply walk in a relatively single direction as far from our guesthouse as we possibly could and then maybe try to catch a ride back…if only the price was right to Juan’s liking.
On this particular afternoon, however, after walking around all day and indeed locating the ‘big mall’ where Juan did find his particular brand of shampoo; we caught a rickshaw back towards town but were dismayed after the guy dropped us off only to find that ‘town’ was basically in the opposite direction of where he’d left us. Fucker. But hey; win some lose some. And so we walked a bit more until Juan cut a deal with yet another rickshaw guy. My Portuguese friend didn’t like the price originally offered and countered with the idea of having him pedal the bike while the true owner of the vehicle and I rode in back. And it worked. The deal was struck and Juan pedaled happily up front while this seasoned Indian guy just relaxed in back and enjoyed the scenery.
Then, once back in town, Juan and this German kid who’d we’d been traveling with really wanted to get a Coca-Cola from some stand on the street…and drink it right there on the street in the midst of all the horns honking and the blaring sunlight and heat. But I just couldn’t do it. Plus, the other two didn’t seem to crave the alcohol so much as I did so… I simply told them that I’d be just across the way in a restaurant having a beer because I needed the shade. And this was cool with them. They’d either meet me over there or see me back at the guesthouse in a little bit.
And so this restaurant that I entered; it was probably one of the few air-conditioned restaurants (or any establishment, for that matter) in Agra…if not the only one. And, as I swung the door open, the cool air hit me and felt wonderful against my face and really my entire being. But, only an instant later, it almost felt too cold. But hey; beggars can’t be choosers, right? And so I sat down at a table and ordered a large bottle of beer which, I’d already gathered, was to be kept under the table due to the conservative alcohol laws in this area. The glass itself, I was allowed to have on the table but the restaurant, in some premeditated measure, had already wrapped it with a napkin in order to hide the contents therein.
And I should have known it then. I should have known something! Because, anytime I’m hot and thirsty and a beer doesn’t satisfy this feeling; something is certainly wrong. But it didn’t. The beer didn’t do anything for me! And, after only a few sips, I asked the table of European tourists across the room if they’d like to have it which they readily accepted.
After that, I was just about to leave when the urge hit me. Call it sudden onset or whatever but…there was absolutely no way that I was going to make it the short walk back to our guesthouse without first having to take a shit. And this shouldn’t have been so surprising. On my first night out of Bombay, I’d woken up on the train with a similar urge. And there, making my way to the end of the car through the dim lights and all the sweaty bodies bunked on their berths, I opened the door to a bathroom space; the floor of which was completely covered in shit. And there, trying my hardest to support my body by hanging onto the ledge of the sink without letting any skin from my ass actually touch the toilet seat itself; I discharged my first case of diarrhea. And unfortunately, it hadn’t stopped since then. So that amounted to three days worth. Three days worth of the shits. But never had the urge ever hit me like this. Like I wasn’t going to be able to hold it for very much longer!
And so, after being directed towards the bathroom in back and past the naked little kid washing dishes on the floor; I found the door and latched it shut behind me. And, of course, the ‘bathroom’ was nothing more than a faucet next to a hole in the floor. But hey, if this is what everyone else around here shits in, then why shouldn’t I be able to do just the same thing. And I had. I had plenty of times already shit in holes throughout my course of only under a week in this country. But I could already tell that this one was going to be messy and would try the very strength of my legs while I squatted. Luckily, as a foresight, I’d brought along a roll of toilet paper with me and carried it always in my bag. Otherwise…otherwise there were, as in any Indian bathroom I’d seen thus far (aside from our guesthouse), two plastic pitchers full of water that I could only assume were for somehow cleaning your ass out. And, as much as I always wanted and even strived to do as the locals do; I was not, in any way shape or form, quite ready to participate in that.
So I unloaded. A lot of it was just fluid but, either way, I was just thankful to have whatever it was out of me. A couple people knocked on the door during this time but there was no way I could stand up to even let them in for a second…because there was always more coming. More on the way. Entire minutes would go by but I still felt my bowels churning around in there and then…just more.
When I finally felt that this bout was over, I made of project of wiping my ass as clean as it could be and tried to make doubly sure that (while still not quite used to shitting in such position as this) I hadn’t accidentally shit all over my jeans as they’d been piled up around my ankles. And, as it would appear, I hadn’t. Then I did a quick ‘walk of shame’ back through the dining area and opened the door back onto the street.
The hot air outside relieved me just as much as the air-conditioned environment had earlier…probably even more so. And, since I no longer saw my friends anywhere around the stand across the street, I decided to head back to the guesthouse where the German kid, who wouldn’t be leaving with Juan and me, still occupied a room.
“Hello, my friend. Where are you going?”
“Hello. Which country?”
And I knew that they were only trying to be friendly and trying to make a buck…but I was in no mood to speak to, nod at, or even acknowledge anyone.
After a few blocks (if you can call them that) of slogging through the heat again, I found our guesthouse, crossed through the threshold, and climbed the stairs of the open air atrium. Then, after turning a quick corner along the narrow, tiled balcony, I came to the very room I’d inhabited last night…the very room the German kid had taken over or, that is to say (for the time being), assumed the price of. And I knocked.
It took a while but Juan finally answered.
As the tiny room had no windows, it was completely dark in there but for the bit of sunlight sneaking in behind me.
“Hey, buddy. Come on in,” he beckoned me with a wave of his hand before turning right around and crashing back down on the bed again.
Then I closed the door behind me, pulled the latch, and laid supine on the cool, tile floor using one of my pillow cases full of clothes for a pillow.
“Where’s our friend?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” and I could easily imagine exactly how Juan’s shrug looked in the darkness, “He said he had to run an errand or something. Probably to use the internet or something.”
“That’s funny. I just can’t picture that kid out there on his own, ya know?”
“I am telling you, man. I worry about that guy. He’s a nice guy, you know. But I think in many ways, he is too nice and people will take advantage of him. When I found him in Turkey, he was trying to buy something and had just about every penny he owned out there on the table for the bargaining. He is crazy, this one. Sometimes, I really think that.”
“Yeah,” I agreed mindlessly just enjoying the breeze from the overhead fan and the cool tile beneath me.
“So, I figure…” I could tell Juan was about to change subjects, “We can nap right here for another two hours, maybe. And then, maybe, grab something to eat. Maybe leave our bags here and come back for them. What do you think?”
“That’s sounds pretty good to me, man. Sounds like a plan.”
“Yes. Good. I think it is a pretty good one.”
We stopped talking after that and in practically no time, I could hear Juan snoring up there on the bed. This was perfect. Darkness. Silence. Coolness. It was what I needed and I felt more and more relieved with every passing second. But relieved from what exactly? I couldn’t quite pinpoint it. I didn’t feel feverish and I wasn’t nauseous. I was just…well…hot. And physically exhausted without actually being that tired. Still…I must have dozed off for a little while because I came to hearing someone trying to rattle around with the latch outside.
It was the German kid. I had no doubt. So I stood up and opened the door. It was probably about time for us to start getting a move on anyway.
And so they ate (as I mentioned before) while I nibbled on some dry toast with the belief that this diet would somehow cure me of my diarrhea. And then, sticking to Juan’s plan, we went back for our bags and bid the German kid adieu.
“Alright,” I pat him on the shoulder, “It was good meetin’ ya, man.”
The kid, after having been in India just over a week, had already had enough and was going to stay on in Agra just long enough for his parents to wire him some money for a plane ticket back home. He’d been sick though. He’d been puking a couple nights ago when I met them on the train.
And so, just like that, their plans changed. Juan had been wanting to take the kid to The Golden Temple in Amritsar but then, due to the sickness, the kid told him he wasn’t going to make it. Then I think Juan even asked me if I wanted to go there a couple times…and it’s not that I didn’t. But Amritsar was a bit out of my way and, since I only had a month in this country, I was pretty focused on sticking to the rough sort of schedule I’d made. My plan was to head to Varanasi and chill out there for a couple of days or so before catching a bus up to Nepal.
But it was sometime yesterday morning when Juan began to work a little off-the-topic subject matter into preexisting conversations over breakfast and on our morning walk. Subject matter like; “You know, my friend. You are going to love Varanasi. I haven’t been there since the 80’s but it is very beautiful. Very peaceful. Not like this shit. It’s a hippie town and they burn the bodies along the river at all hours of the day and night. You’re very lucky that you are going there, man. I think you will enjoy.”
Then, later on that afternoon as we passed by a slightly smaller train station close to Agra Fort, he says, “I think maybe let’s go into this ticket office just to have a look. What do you think? You still have to buy a ticket anyway, yes?”
“I do. And it wouldn’t hurt to check the times. I mean…this is the station our guesthouse guy told me to go to so… But I was just gonna buy the ticket day-of.”
“No, no, no,” and Juan clicked his tongue at me, “You don’t want to do that, my friend. Never want to do that.”
“Alright. You’re probably right.”
“Yes. I know I am. Come,” and he waved me towards the ticketing office, “Let’s see how much to go to Varanasi.”
And, of course, it wasn’t even five minutes later as we were both looking up at the timetable boards when Juan nudged me with his elbow and stated with a certain air of decisiveness, “You know…I think I will just come to Varanasi with you. Come. Let’s buy the tickets and we will leave tomorrow.”
So…that’s basically how I came to be trudging through the mud and shit covered streets of Agra on this clear and moonlit night. That’s how I came to be following this Portuguese guy whom I’d known for four days tops back to the little train station near Agra Fort with a physical sickness still somewhere inside me that I couldn’t quite describe. I mean…it was summer and we had been hiking along with our packs for perhaps half a mile now but should my shirt really be soaked through with sweat? Should my legs really feel like they were about to collapse underneath me?
“Tuk-tuk, sir? Where are you going?”
“Where we are going,” Juan replied once we’d reached the short, descending street that would quickly spit us out around the entrance of the Taj, “Is none of your business, my friend.”
In this one, fell swoop; Juan brushed off several more tuk-tuk drivers without even inquiring about their price. In the sweaty, halfway delirious state in which I now found myself, I would certainly have been worried but for one thought. And I knew, without having to ask, that it was the same thing Juan was thinking. The idea was; once we reached the bottom of this street, there would be a plethora of transportation for us to choose from including more tuk-tuks, rickshaws, horse and buggies, and even camel buggies as we’d seen in days past. There’d be so many drivers down there pulling us by the arms…tugging us this way and that… There’d be so many down there all competing for our business that we’d be able to simply take the lowest bidder. We’d practically be able to name our price! Juan’s ploy was brilliant! At least this was my angle on things until we came to the end of the street.
But…how could it be? How could the biggest tourist attraction in a country tied with only China for the most populous on Earth… How could it be that this street leading right up to the entrance of the Taj freaking Mahal was not only dark but for the light of the moon…but also completely void of life! Seriously! Juan and I were the only two souls in sight and our surroundings were so quiet that our footsteps seemed to echo.
Both of us were puzzled to say the least and, without quite knowing what to do next, I used this as an opportunity to bend all the way over, rest my hands on knees, and catch my breath. Jesus, there wasn’t even the slightest breeze.
I didn’t say anything but we were kind of at a metaphorical fork in the road and there was a decision that must be made. At least in my mind there was. But, knowing Juan, heading back up the hill and conceding a ride from one of the drivers that he’d so disdainfully refused mere minutes ago…that wasn’t even a option for him. And even if it were; the very gambit we tried to employ would instantly backfire right in our faces. Back up the hill; the drivers would recognize that we’d been defeated…that we were desperate even…and then they’d be able to name their price. And that shit wasn’t happening. Not for Juan anyway. And since we’d somehow become travel partners and were supposed to stick together…I guess that shit wasn’t happening for me either. We were sort of a team now and I guess I did feel like this guy kind of had my back. Or…that is…he’d have my back if I ever needed anything. But, then again, if indeed we were truly watching out for each other; why was I hunched over here on the roadside and feeling like I was going to keel over in the darkness at any minute with our destination still more than a mile away.
Standing up straight again, I could see Juan looking at me in the half-light.
“You okay, buddy? Your pack is very heavy, I think.”
Paying a couple hundred more rupees meant nothing to me but whether or not Juan realized this didn’t really matter. He wouldn’t let me pay the extra fair just out of general principle so I didn’t even ask. The mere mention of it would have upset him.
“Okay. You ready? You going to make it? I think maybe we will find somebody on the way. We just need to walk a little bit.”
“Yeah,” I agreed breathing much too heavily for the length of the break I’d just taken, “You’re right. We do need to keep walking.”
And we did. Our train left in less than an hour.
This road to Agra Fort and the station; we’d walked its stretch a few times now over the past couple days. And just now, out here in the humid darkness, I knew there wouldn’t be much to look at as there was nothing but thick jungle foliage off to either side. This was fine with me though. The lack of scenery would allow me to concentrate solely on putting one foot in front of the other and simply…progressing. Simply moving forward. We’d make it. I just needed to suck it up for a little while longer.
We walked side by side passing under the occasional, yellow streetlamp for what must have been about 15 or 20 minutes. And we’d hardly said a word to each other before Juan asked me if I needed to take another break.
“I’m okay, man. I’m actually motivated to get on that train so I can just crash, ya know? That sounds so good right now.”
“Yes. And that is really the best part of this. We will sleep. Then we will wake up but still be very restful. And then we will be in Varanasi. And you will see. You will love it. This, I promise you.”
“Cool, man. What do you think about taking a break up here where the road meets the highway? You know. Like right before the fort.”
“I think this is a good idea. Five minutes,” he shrugged, “Maybe ten. We can take our packs off and drink some water?”
Just another 5 minutes, I told myself as the smell of a nearby irrigation ditch hit us both really hard. Sewage. Raw sewage. We’d stopped along the sidewalk to check it out in the daylight…yesterday? Or was that just today. Fuck. I couldn’t even remember. But I did remember Juan, as the three of us stood awestruck and gazing at the sludgy runoff as if it were the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls…I remembered him saying something to the affect of, “My friends, you know what? I think… I think if you were to fall in this, you would die.” And he was right. Or at least anyone who fell in it certainly wouldn’t live as long because of that accident.
In the moonlight, as we neared the highway that formed a circle around Agra Fort and branched off leading to only God knows where, Juan and I sat down on the sidewalk at the very end of the road we’d been walking and practically threw our packs on the ground.
“Hello, sir. How are you? Which country?”
There were also a couple of local guys hanging out here just standing around and smoking cigarettes. They didn’t have tuk-tuks or anything and, from all I could tell, they were just out enjoying the night.
I wanted to be polite but, fatigued as I was, I found that I couldn’t even answer them just yet.
Juan, on the other hand… He just started laughing uproariously and nudged me with his elbow, “You hear that?” he asked, “Which country. Which country. Well, let’s see,” and he looked right at me now, “Which country you want to be from today?”
“Um…” and I had to laugh too, “Makhmood.”
And this answer of mine caused him to laugh even harder.
Basically, over the past couple days; Juan, the German kid, and I had been bombarded with this question seemingly every five minutes. And after a while…Juan just started making shit up. Last night, as the three of us were wandering the streets, some guy asked him ‘which country’ and Juan simply shrugged his shoulders just before pointing straight up at the moon. And of course (and if this isn’t a quintessential Indian response, I don’t know what is); the asker replied with, “Ah. I think I understand. You are from God.” After that, though, Juan actually started verbalizing that he was indeed from the moon. Then at some point, and I’m not even sure quite how, the word ‘moon’ evolved into a made up country we three would begin to claim as our homeland; ‘Makhmoon’…further and finally evolving to ‘Makhmood’.
“Makhmood,” Juan answered the Indian gentlemen at the end of the road, “We are from Makhmood.”
“Oh?” and the two guys really looked confused, “We have not heard of this one.” So, naturally, they decided to switch subjects, “And where are you going?”
And probably the only reason Juan didn’t answer with, ‘That’s none of your business,’ is because neither of these guys were trying to offer us a ride anywhere. So I answered.
“Oh,” and they both shook their heads understandingly but did correct me just the same, “Benares.”
And I wasn’t sure if this ‘correction’ of theirs was based on my pronunciation of the of the name of that city or whether it was due to an Imperial name that had been changed back rather recently because, after landing in Mumbai, I was surprised to find that everyone local still referred to their hometown as Bombay just as everyone local I’d encountered thus far still referred to Kolkata as Calcutta. Not that it really mattered and not that I was in any shape to start picking the brains of people who didn’t speak English very well for information. So I just let Juan do the talking. Small talking. And, as it turned out, both him and these guys could talk soccer; the sport that was a language in itself (Americans excluded).
Juan lit a cigarette and so did I. And I knew that the end of this smoke would also mark the end of our break. So I smoked and caught my breath and took a couple more swigs of water. And I listened as Juan’s conversation with the two guys switched from soccer back to Varanasi and what a beautiful city it was indeed. And then, just as if a timer had gone off and lit a fire under each of our asses; we stood up almost mechanically, strapped our packs back on, and bid the gentlemen good evening.
The next jaunt, I already knew, would be full of blaring car horns and exhaust fumes as we’d skirt Agra Fort around to its backside where the train station awaited us just across the street. And this part of the walk, unfortunately, would bring us ever so slightly uphill. But ‘ever so slightly’ to me may as well have meant a mountain.
So Juan and I crossed the highway in order to take the sidewalk closest to the fort itself. And the highway was still busy and we did have to dodge a few trucks but, compared to the cluster fuck it had been during the day, this crossing felt like mere child’s play.
And then, just about the second our feet hit the sidewalk across the street, I saw Juan reach out and hail a…cab? I was too tired to even turn and look. I also figured that he’d just wind up haggling with the guy over a price but to no avail. We were going to end up walking it out anyway so, unless the guy was willing to take us up there for a couple cigarettes, I hardly knew why Juan was even bothering.
But something did stop. A vehicle of sorts and, for just a second, I only minded it in my peripheral. And then Juan did begin to haggle…but his tone was different. He wasn’t so much attempting to strike a bargain with the guy as he was just making him a straight offer. So I turned to look.
And this thing. This vehicle that my buddy had hailed. It was a wooden flatbed almost identical to that of a flatbed pickup truck. Except, of course, for the fact that this was India and that I should have expected that, instead of a truck, this flatbed was hitched to a bicycle and obviously the guy riding it.
“Twenty rupee, my friend. What do you think? Twenty rupee. You see…my friend here; he is quite sick and we must need to get him on the train. And we are very poor. Twenty rupee, okay? It would be a big favor for us. What do you say?”
And the bicycle guy just nodded.
And really…the station wasn’t too much farther now. It’s just that it was fucking uphill and almost as if Juan knew that that would have done me in…maybe before we even made it there. And maybe the cycle guy knew that too and truly was just playing the good Samaritan. Because…and I didn’t really have to calculate it; but 20 rupees in these times amounted to less than 50 cents American. But I guess the guy figured, ‘fuck it’. It was just 20 more rupees than he would have had anyway. And so we got on.
Juan and I hopped up onto that flatbed and the guy began to pedal again. And, by the end of it, I knew without so much as a doubt that our driver was wondering whether or not the 20 rupees had been worth it. For this guy, upon reaching the top of the hill, was sweating more than myself even and standing up to pedal as if the extra burden had required him to do so. Or…I could have been imagining things. There was the strong possibility that, without us even resting on this flatbed of his, the ride would have been almost as strenuous for him. But again…it didn’t really matter. I guess nothing really matters in India. It’s simply point A to point B. And not just for us; but everyone. You simply strike a deal and then live up to that deal and then…whether it was worth it or not is all in the past. It’s nothing to sweat over because the past has already been sweated. And this guy was no scam artist or shrewd deal-driver. He was just a nice, quiet guy and I believed that he would have done it for nothing. And I wanted to give him more for his effort but…I could barely lift myself back off the flatbed of my own accord under the weight of my pack by then. And we thanked him very much, he just pedaled onward.
“Okay,” Juan turned his head around because I was just following him now, “I think that our train is already at the platform.”
And it was. And from out of the darkness that was the highway, we’d quickly come to find ourselves under the bright, overhead lights of the station with tons of people moving this way and that and carrying all sorts of luggage. Boxes. Garbage bags full of what looked to be clothes. Burlap sacks that had apparently once been used for grain. The list could go on and on.
And the people. Brightly colored saris. Monks. Men who were yelling things at targets undefined. And old ladies limping or even crawling through the terminal.
“This one is us,” Juan said, “I think.”
But I didn’t know anything anymore. I certainly didn’t know what would’ve have happened to me or where I would’ve wound up on this night if I didn’t have my newly found, Portuguese friend to follow. Because…there was the train. And there were the cars. And there were the letters and numbers on them signifying which one was which. And none of these made any sense to me. There were lights and there were sounds. And there were people and smells and echoes and some P.A. blaring overhead with a ladies voice that may or may not have been speaking in English.
“This way, my friend. I think maybe just three cars more. You see this one?”
And I slowly shook my head ‘no’ but he didn’t see me.
“This one. This one,” he was waving me in.
Taking off my pack then, I held it in front of me and stepped up into the dark portal.
The car was stifling and there weren’t any lights on. And was it that late? Really? I remembered, on our way up to Agra from Bombay, they’d switched the lights off at some point so people could sleep. But now, as it were, the only points of illumination were the windows as the fluorescent irradiation barely trickled in from the platform outside.
Following Juan further through the car, he stopped at about its halfway point and tried to hold one of the tickets up close to his face. “Yes. This is one of us,” he said to himself. Then…“Excuse me. Excuse me, sir!” Some sweaty guy had already passed out on this berth that obviously wasn’t his. Eventually, after many ‘excuse me’s’ and much poking him on the shoulder, Juan did manage to wake the man. “Excuse me, sir. But this is our seat. You see? There. There is our ticket number. And this, I don’t understand. I don’t understand why you are here. So please…please move out of our seat. Come on. Let’s go now, please. Sir…”
But the guy, after finally sitting up, just motioned to us with his hands like he didn’t like to be hurried. “Sir,” Juan continued, “Yes. I see you. Now hurry up, please. We would like to sit down now. This is not your seat. Now, sir. Now. Let’s go. Yes. I know you understand me just fine.”
And only after about another minute of this coaxing did the guy finally move. Off into the darkness, he shuffled…probably with the intention of occupying some other empty berth that didn’t belong to him. And I couldn’t help but wonder if he even had a ticket.
What a fucking ordeal. If there’s one thing India had taught me (even just within the past few days), it was that; passivity will get you nowhere. One billion people simply means pushing and shoving others out of the way…and being assertive. And thankfully, on this night, I had a Portuguese guy to do this for me.
We sat down on the vinyl pad then that was the berth after squeezing our packs underneath it.
“You alright, man?” Juan asked me, “I think you do not look so good.”
“I’ll be alright,” I answered sluggishly, “I just… I think I’ll feel better once we start moving, ya know? It’s just really hot in here.”
“Yeah, man. I think you’re fucking right about that. I think maybe this whole train is full.”
And I knew that Juan was referring the entire length of the train…and obviously he had no way of knowing whether or not this was true. But in our car at least; every wall of berths being filled to capacity could be verified by sight. And unfortunately; smell. There must have been 64 bodies in this car alone and, in this heat, everybody had long since turned ripe…myself included, I’m sure. But I just…needed a breeze!
In the blackness, I could see the glimmer of eyeballs and the shine of wet hair and sweaty skin. Then I caught something about knee-high inching across the floor on my left. At first, I thought it was an injured dog that had come on board looking for food. But then, as this dark and mysterious shape continued to move its way down the center aisle, I discovered it to be a little kid crawling; a boy about 7 or 8 years of age. There was something fucked up about his eyes too. As in…they weren’t quite glimmering like everybody else’s. And if the kid wasn’t completely blind, I would have been surprised.
In front of him, under his hands on the floor, the kid gripped a damp rag which he was pushing along to wipe the aisle as he went. He was also calling out something in Hindi after every couple of swipes. Something to let everyone know he was there less he be trampled. And something to advertise that he, indeed, was working for a living.
Upon reaching our berth, the kid stopped directly in front of Juan and sat up on his knees. Then he put out his hand and made the weird call again.
“Alright,” Juan looked him right in those cloudy eyes that, especially in darkness like this, couldn’t possibly see him back, “I give you one rupee. And here. Here is one from my friend. Now you can beat it. Okay, my friend? You have a nice night now.”
And something about Juan’s response (bad as this may sound and bad as I was feeling just then) actually caused me to have to resist the urge to laugh. I knew exactly what it was too. Over the past couple days, Juan had been adding these ‘my friend’s’ to just about every sentence. But it was only then, in the darkness of the train, that I realized he hadn’t done this at all when I’d first met him. I would have picked up on it because those are the strangest, little details about somebody that I’m surest to remember. In fact, I can just about pinpoint when he began to use these ‘my friend’s’ as a way of slightly mocking whatever local was accosting him with the very same term. And it just stuck! A couple days later, he was impulsively addressing everyone this way…even me and the German kid! And it was pretty funny. India had become Juan quickly without his even being aware of it.
The blind kid didn’t think it was too funny, though, and he also didn’t think Juan’s two rupees were a sufficient price to pay for smearing dirt from one end of the car to the other.
“Yah-yah-yah,” and the kid, who was still on his knees, stayed right there with his hand out and relayed this new message to Juan in a tone that was bothered, bothersome, and argumentative.
“Aye-carahh!” Juan hissed back at him.
And I knew that this rebuke of his was delivered in Italian because I knew that Juan reserved this particular tongue for telling people off in such a way. I had no idea what these words meant however. And, thankfully, neither did anybody else.
I was also thankful that the kid, cognizant then of the fact that he’d just been berated, did decide to crawl on of his own accord before any more of a scene could develop. And down the blackened aisle he went feeling his way about.
“You see?!” Juan was talking to me again, “This is why I do not like to give. Because it is never enough! I am telling you, my friend. If you give them an inch…”
“I’ll be right back, man. I really have to pee. I really wanted to wait for the train to start moving first to blow some of the fumes out of the bathroom but…I’ll just hold my breath. Maybe it won’t be too bad.”
But I was wrong. Because, after standing back up and shambling sideways towards the end of the car again, the severity of pungent ammonia that hit me upon cracking the bathroom door caused me to gag involuntarily. I had to turn my head away and cough a little before remembering what I was going to do in the first place; hold my breath. And so, inhaling as much air as I could just after pulling my shirt collar up over my nose to act as a filter, I did brave the horrors that were a stagnant shitter on this overcrowded passenger train in the middle of India…in July!
And just how long had this train been traveling already!? Sure, this bathroom was practically as dark as the rest of the car but there was a window and that window was open and, through it, just barely enough light seeped in from the rest of the terminal to let me see what I was doing…to allow me to see just what was going on in here. And there was fucking shit everywhere! On the floor! On the walls! And of course, anywhere on or around the shitter itself were what appeared to be entire bowel movements worth of masala dosa. Oh, Jesus. And the most unfortunate part to this whole scenario, perhaps, was that; due to whatever this ongoing sickness was that was already plaguing me…I quickly discovered that 10 seconds was about the maximum length of time that I could hold my breath.
Just the same, I closed and locked the door behind me. Then, unbuttoning my jeans and waiting to pee, I took in the shallowest possible breaths imaginable in attempts at keeping the acrid air from invading my lungs. Contagious; was the word that my mind couldn’t seem to rid itself of just then. I just couldn’t decide whether or not this description pertained to me more or this bathroom in this car on this train in this God forsaken country. I certainly felt contagious though…like I just wanted to find somewhere to curl up and shiver awhile.
Oh, come on! What the hell was the matter with me?! How long was I going to have to stand here before being able to pee? And why? I’d had to go so badly only moments ago out there on the berth. Mere moments ago; I felt like my bladder was about to explode and now…well, the very urge to urinate had all but left me entirely.
So what was the point of waiting then? This disgusting, excuse for a bathroom would always be here. But, the urge to pee, as it had already proved itself; would not. So that was it. I buckled up again and turned back around. And, as I passed out of the bathroom and right by the portal through which we’d initially entered the car, I definitely entertained the idea of just hanging out the doorway and taking in the…stagnant air of the train station? No. I needed to sit down. And luckily, upon my return, the train did begin to roll and cued Juan to stand up and start looking for his own berth…which some dude was also sleeping in.
“My friend. My friiieeennnd,” and his voice lowered and I could picture his eyes bugging out as he tapped this latest stowaway on the shoulder.
His berth was on the third tier across the aisle. The same position I’d been assigned on our way up to Agra…when I was much healthier only a few days before. Tired…but much healthier. Tired; I could deal with. But this. I didn’t even know what this was. But, just twisting and turning. Now that I’d had a chance to lie down. Curling and moving. And my stomach muscles felt tight. They felt like I’d been doing an ab workout all day and were hard to even the touch!
And this next little detail is something as just pure fate would have it: One berth per car. One! And if there were indeed sixty people in this single car then God or Allah or…actually (especially) Vishnu or Shiva. But I…I was the lucky one and my own berth did happen to be the one blessed with a window without bars. The single window that one could actually stick their head out of if need be. It must have been a fire escape or something. Some sort of law. And, of course, I took full advantage of my situation by hanging my head just far enough out the window to catch some fresh air without having my neck snapped off by the many structures and poles now passing by.
Agra gained ground behind us after we made a few more stops along the way. And, through the window with my head hanging out, I really couldn’t help but analyze these villages…towns? Everything was rubble though. Even most of the structures and shelters that used to be…most of it was rubble now. Nobody ever kept anything up here, it seemed. It seemed that the British had come, built a bunch of shit, and then just left. Or, to be more accurate, were kicked out. But nothing since then had ever been constructed.
And it was somewhere around here…somewhere still relatively close to Agra. At one point, I felt like we’d finally hit our last stop at any of these more remote outposts. And when the train kept moving and didn’t stop again…and I was still lying down but still twisting and turning. It was then that I finally dunked my head out the window in full realization that the mail poles were insignificant inches from decapitating me. And it was then that my gut finally did clench and expel just tons of shit that I’d taken in throughout the day. There were definitely some snacks in there from some wannabe pita place that we’d picked up on the street. And then there was the water. A bunch of water. So much so that it came up and caused me to sound like a drowning victim gargling ocean and air while struggling to resuscitate. I’m also pretty sure that there was the dry toast I’d eaten for dinner; and it was that that got stuck back up in my nose and lodged into my nasal cavity. And I fucking hate it when that happens since attempting to breathe either in or out of the nose after that point only proves painful and even more disgusting. And more gag worthy. Masala. Masala. And then there was some curry mixed in there and then…then. Then out came the mother fucking granola and cream. It was unmistakable and it came directly from that banana flavored lassi I’d ordered just this very morning at our hotel upon waking. They claimed it was their specialty. And, boy, was it ever.
That’s it. That’s what acted as sort of a plug. A plug that had locked everything down in there without even allowing it to breakdown and digest. And so…after worrying about what these other Indian travelers would really think of me after having just about drowned out the window in an ocean of my own bile; I quickly concluded that, since this was India after all…this very bodily function of mine was about to be grossly ignored. Which it was. For, in India, this type of shit must happen all the time. People puking out the window of a train…especially a foreigner; it must be pretty basic to them. At least they acted like it.
And I felt better. I truly did feel so much better after having purged that…whatever it was. Virus! It was a virus. Or maybe bacteria. Either or; I was still easily able to picture it multiplying within me. And if so much as a single one was left; it would spread throughout my system thereby causing me to have to do this all over again. But I could worry about that tomorrow. We could make it one of our missions to seek out antibiotics…and that would be fun.
But, after feeling much relieved, I laid supine on my berth just enjoying the firm sort of mattress supplied. And I passed out for a minute or two. Or twenty minutes. Who’s to say? But I did definitely dream for a second.
And then a different urge hit me so hard; it caused me to wake up from this blissful whatever it was. Trance, I guess. And it was the urge to shit all over the place.
“Juan,” I found myself whispering up on my tiptoes, “Hey.”
The dude was out but it only took a little bit of nudging to get him awake.
“What’s up buddy? You okay?”
“Yeah. I mean I puked up a bucket but I feel a lot better now. But hey. Do you have any extra toilet paper? I mean, I think I used up all that I brought already and I just forgot to pick up more.”
“Yeah buddy. It’s in my pack. I just have to find it.”
And, just like that, Juan climbed down from his berth and, after searching through his pack’s many pockets, he located the roll and handed it to me. Then he patted me on the back and, in a sleepy tone added, “Tomorrow will be much better, my friend. You will see. Try to get some rest, okay?”
“I will. Thanks, man.”