High Way to Hell
There is a fine line between discomfort and danger in the context of travel. Discomfort is that sexy stretching of one’s personal parameters in pursuit of a broader lens on life. Danger is being reckless, indulgent and getting too stoned on a night train in India.
I can’t remember the exact moment my brain ascended from my face, leaving the rest of me to melt into the crunchy sheets of my bunk like dressing over lettuce. I was on a local train heading from Udaipur to Ajmer. It was some time around 6PM, but in the narrow, dim carriage, it could have been any hour.
Gemma was in the bunk adjacent to me, her eyes freshly glazed. We’d filled my metal water bottle with bhang chai, a cannabis milkshake legal in some of parts of Northern India. I wasn’t sure if we were on the train or we’d been hit by it.
“Can you come pee with me?” Glass eyes pleaded across our divide.
“Um, sure?” My sentence inflected. I wasn’t sure if I could.
Following a series of manoeuvres alighting me from my shelf at the speed of sludge, I led the way to where I’d seen a lavatory when we first boarded. There were two options: one labelled with red jail font that read ‘WESTERN TOILET, and one without a label. I was equal amounts shocked and humbled that the Western option was far more grotesque.
I began to imagine if the train ruptured and one of us got trapped in there. What would the other do? A prickle of paranoia travelled up my spine, but I couldn’t help explore the thought. The smell of human defecation would alone be enough kill me. What a way to go.
My contemplation was disconnected as Gem reappeared from the non-labelled cubical. I noticed her lack of footwear immediately.
“I know. Such regret.”
Those were the last words we exchanged for a while. By the time we were back on our shelves, speech was no longer an option. I stared into my phone and tried unpacking my thoughts onto its screen. The bhang was swirling in my system and I was swirling in my surrounds.
Somewhere between five minutes and two hours later the dinner man came chiming through our carriage. He nonchalantly passed us each a flimsy plastic container, divided and filled with an assortment of bright curries, rice and more chapatti than I could ever eat alone, even stoned. I carefully peeled back its fragile seal and attempted to dine without painting my sheets orange and yellow.
“Where do we put the containers?” I said in slow motion, once we were far fuller than we had intended.
“You still have the brown paper bag the sheets came in?” Gem replied.
“Um, yeah I think so. Here.”
She passed me her half empty container and I anxiously guided our leftovers into the paper bag.
“But where do I put the…?”
Glass eyes smiled a wry smile, shrugged and rolled over to go to sleep.
We arrived at Amjer at 10.27pm. The station was ablaze with characters moving along different channels of colour and sound. We ducked and wove between women and children, men on their phones, food carts and chai wallas, our backpacks connecting with strangers as we craned our necks to find the exit. Finally we burst out into the crisp night, met instantly by our next challenge: the rickshaw operators.
They swarmed toward us like bees out of a hive, but it was clear who was their queen. An attractive, clean cut and assertive young man pushed to the front of the pack.
“How much to Pushkar?” Gem asked, brandishing her phone with Google maps loaded.
“600 rupees,” the leader declared.
“Nah, 400.” Negotiating was my forte.
“600. This is the price.”
“No way!” I shot back.
No other driver had come forward to challenge his offer. It made me question if I was the one being unfair.
Gem jumped back in. “Okay 600, whatever,”
“As if you wouldn’t haggle?” I jeered as we followed our driver to his steel chariot.
“Too high,” she exhaled.
Our rickshaw took off with gusto. It was the middle of Diwali, a Hindu festival celebrating light over darkness. Firecrackers had been exploding into the streets of Northern India for three days straight, so the air was too polluted to see the stars. The smog made me uncomfortable, but I hadn’t registered any danger.
The driver lit a cigarette and the inertia whipped the smoke back into our faces. I looked at Gem, her eyes still glossy, and we grinned smugly at each other.
“Must be about ten k’s away,” she said.
Almost immediately after the words left her mouth our rickshaw started to slow down; I was happy the estimate had been overshot. Out the side I could see the road was broad, dusty and unshouldered. Lining it were derelict buildings, hardware stores and abandoned local restaurants. Strange place for a hostel.
Suddenly, six Indian men surrounded our vehicle.
“Tourist tax. You pay us Pushkar tourist tax,” one shrieked, aggressively. Our driver held his gaze straight ahead.
“Huh?” fell out my mouth.
“20 rupees per person. Because you are foreigner!”
I hadn’t read about this tax before and there certainly wasn’t anything official about their roadside operation, but it wasn’t an amount I was willing to negotiate over. After the necessary moment it took my brain to land back down in my head, I handed over a note. Gem shifted in her seat.
“For both.” I said, motioning back and forth between Gem and I.
After a few tense minutes a different man came over to deliver my change and a square yellow slip. My panic settled. If this were about to become unpleasant, they wouldn’t bother with change. Would they?
I expected we would be on our way after I’d paid their demand, but our all male company lingered, stretching themselves further into our rickshaw. It dawned on me how outnumbered we were.
“Let’s go now?” I snapped.
The driver continued looking ahead, sniggering, smoking and pissing me off.
“What’s the rush, girls?” taunted the man who had asked us to pay the town tariff.
For a second I had forgotten I was still stoned. I soothed my inner dialogue, telling myself it was dark and unfamiliar but that everything was kosher. It felt better to resolve that I was just being paranoid.
This resolution was obliterated when I looked across to Gem. Fear had commandeered her usually passive face, making it taught and wide. She clutched her belongings tightly. Suddenly I could feel my skin. It felt like someone was trying to iron the shirt on my chest.
Abruptly, the men reared back with laughter and the motor of our rickshaw roared into gear. I noticed we had a new passenger.
“Where you girls staying?” said the tourist tax administrator, now riding shotgun as we pulled onto the bleak motorway.
“Zostel backpackers,” I lied.
“I know it. What is your name?”
“Um, Paige.” An accidental truth.
He smiled a callous smile. “And your friend name?”
Without warning we took a sharp left turn off the motorway and down an unlit side road. The ground beneath us became rocky and uneven. Alarms in my brain began to siren louder.
“Take us to Zostel. Now please.” I implored, one word at a time dropping from my mouth as we sprang over dirt and debris.
“I know your hostel. Which country you come from?”
I hated his questions and I hated as our situation deteriorated with the light. We were careening towards the dead end of an industrial area, the sooty glow of the motorway now well behind us. All around were high fences made from rusty chicken wire. A scene of my flesh being shredded on its barbs as we ran for our lives flickered through my mind. Could I even run this stoned?
The driver stayed focused ahead, but our new first mate was unremitting in his curiosity. I batted away more questions about the intentions of our stay in India.
Another sharp turn. The ground became even looser and I could no longer make out our backdrop. More obscure thoughts about mortality detonated in my mind. I prayed that whatever were to happen next just be over quickly. For both of us.
My entire world was vibrating as the rickshaw bounded up and down at a speed it was definitely not designed for. I tried to think of an exit strategy but our options were sparse. Gem had something in her hand. Her grip around it was tight, as if it were a life raft. A luminescent +61 darted across its screen.
She held the phone up to her ear and her words cut like harpoons through the dust and smoke oscillating between us.
“We’re in a tuk-tuk halfway between Ajmer and Pushkar. The driver is supposed to take us to our hostel, but men climbed into our car and now we’re in an industrial area on the outskirts of the city. We don’t know where they’re taking us and they won’t stop or let us out. Please stay on the phone to me.”
The men started conversing quickly in their local tongue.
“Where are you taking us? What are you saying?” I yelled above the clamour.
“We speak in our local language!” the passenger hissed back at me and our rickshaw began to slow down.
Before my mind could make its usual hurdle to the next morbid conclusion, he dove from the side of the cabin and scampered off into the darkness. Several harsh swerves later and we pulled out of the backstreets and into a new alley where I could see the letters Z O S T E L illuminated vertically in red. I caught my breath but couldn’t catch my heart as it leapt around in my chest.
Before we had even come to a complete stop, Gem and I grabbed our bags and sprung from the rickshaw onto pavement outside Zostel.
“What the fuck?” Gem panted. “You fucking asshole!” I handed her 600 rupees and she threw it at his feet. He laughed a cruel laugh.
I looked up to the radiating red letters of our “fake” hostel and thought back to the ‘Western toilet’ on the train. I wish I had just gotten stuck in there.
Cover by Ryan Tang