I Lost My Passport — And Found My Calm — In India
The noise, the chaotic traffic that felt like a death-sentence every time I attempted to cross the road, the perpetually-burning incense: for me, India was a slap-in-the-face that was overwhelming and invigorating.
Women in saris of every colour you could think of were bent over sweeping rubble, glittering red and gold and turquoise and purple in the sunshine optimistically pushing its way through the smog. Men carried everything from buckets of water to couches, with huge bands strapped around their foreheads to help carry the load, and entire families managed to squeeze onto one motorbike. Once, I counted seven people.
It was my first trip on my own; no family, no friends, just me, my passport and my backpack. I’d been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder the year before, so India was a surprising choice of places to venture on my own. Yet amongst this utter chaos that theoretically should have been sending me spiraling into a panic attack (I struggle going into my local supermarket on a busy day), the millions of people, the sounds of cars and bikes and markets and camels and oxen had me feeling paradoxically calm.
I was absolutely in love with this country.
I’d met my tour group that afternoon; we’d huddled awkwardly in the foyer, sharing stories of what we’d done that day, contents of our first aid kits and souvenirs we’d paid far too much for. Our guide, Shiva, went through the itinerary for the trip, and we then left the frenetic energy of Delhi that evening and headed into the desert to Bikaner via train.
On the overnight train, we squeezed into tiny bunks – three up each wall – and I stumbled across my first problem for the trip. My bed was barely big enough for me, let alone my large backpack. Shiva, noticing my frustration asked what was wrong, noticed that yes, indeed, my pack was taking up an impractical amount of space and why didn’t I just leave it under the bunks with the rest of the luggage?
“It will be safe,” he assured me, nodding wisely.
Well, if this man I’ve known for roughly 12 hours says it will be safe on this rickety, creaking train, it must be safe, I reasoned.
“Okay!” I beamed, and with a joyous heave I squished my pack – passport and all – under the bunks.
Shiva was probably unaware that my passport was in there or else he may have provided me with less awful advice.
We arrived at the hotel in Bikaner; vibrant purple bougainvillaea crept up the dusty red walls, reaching for the sun that was sparkling dramatically on the sapphire blue pool below.
There was minor chaos as Shiva was negotiating our rooms: our hotel had overbooked due to a wedding being held that night, so four of us were crammed into rooms instead of two. It was a significantly small price to pay – the wedding party had invited us as guests in return for the inconvenience.
“I just need your passports to check-in now,” he told us, so I raced upstairs to grab mine.
Except it wasn’t in my bag.
I searched again, telling myself to stay positive. By the third search though it was hard to feign optimism as the slow, sinking feeling of dread rose up from my stomach. The anxiety was ready to roll out in overdrive.
My roommate walked in. Immediately she asked what was wrong.
I sighed, fought back tears and explained that my passport was gone, and that it must have been stolen on the train. I looked at her for some sort of comfort, a ‘she’ll be right’ type pep talk that Aussies are so good at.
Unfortunately, she was from England.
“Did you not have it on you on the train?” she asked incredulously.
She must have seen my face though and sat down.
“Just tell Shiv, he’ll sort it out,” she said with the wisdom of someone who knew how to pack an appropriately sized bag when they travelled.
She accompanied me down the stairs into the little hotel reception, where Shiv was finalising the last of the rooms.
I tried to distract myself from the impending embarrassment I was about to find myself submerged in. There were gorgeous paintings of elephants in the foyer in a sort of mini gallery. I looked at a couple. They were exquisite, delicately hand painted on papyrus-style paper with tiny gems that had been glued on for extra sparkle. One in particular caught my eye with beautiful reds and greens. The elephant looked so happy, so proud. A lot of work had gone into creating it. Shiva saw me looking at it and grabbed it out of my hand.
“They will be much cheaper in the next city. Do not buy them from here,” he told me sternly.
Well gee – your last piece of advice was such a big help Shiv!
I took a deep breath, hot tears welling in my eyes, and told him about my passport, or lack thereof.
I braced for the telling off.
He smiled though and said not to worry about it, and that this happens all the time. I asked how many people had lost their passports on one of his trips.
“Well, uhh..umm – actually you’re the first,” he said sheepishly.
My face must have reflected my thoughts.
“But it will be okay!”
We went to the wedding that night. It was the final evening of the week-long celebration and the bride, adorned in jewellery and exhaustion, was to say goodbye to her family forever and embark with her new husband across the country. There was heartbreak clinging in the air as she clambered into the car that was to whisk her away, and as older women bawled their eyes out, weeping and sobbing, I suddenly felt like we were intruding on something that was really, really private.
We walked back into the hotel foyer. Shiva was sitting there, smoking cigarettes with the hotel owner, wisps of a foreign-smelling tobacco curling up into the air and into the strange northern hemisphere stars.
As we went back to our rooms, he tapped me and without saying a word handed me a rolled-up piece of paper, before walking back to his friend.
I took it up to my room and unfurled it.
It was my green and red elephant painting. It was strong, proud, beautiful, and the anxiety that had been gurgling away in the bubbling brook of my brain ebbed away and once again, amidst the chaos, exhaustion and emotion, I felt calm. I went to sleep, the painting nestled under my pillow.
Cover by J A N U P R A S A D