In truth, I travelled fearfully, not being even remotely adventurous. Back last summer when I was asked by my lovely editor at Hot Key Books if I’d like to attend a book festival in India, I jumped at the chance. Come November, two weeks before departure, I was a migraine-ridden wreck, unable to sleep, catastrophising every possible thing that could go wrong and gazing at my open, unpacked suitcase as if it was a blue set of jaws threatening to swallow me whole.
My past avoidance of air travel meant that arriving at Terminal One in London felt like stepping into some ghastly version of the future with added shopping opportunities. So many people. So much money. So many destinations. So many elevators. And I was about to climb aboard a tin tube and be hurled thousands of miles away from Da Bonnie into an unknown land. Where untold bacteria lurked if all the tourist manuals and WHO warnings were to be believed. And due to a worldwide shortage of some vital vaccine ( Hep. A) I was under-prepared. There was a large hole in my First World armour. A friend counselled me to keep my lips firmly sealed in the shower. Another said brush your teeth in bottled water. Yet another mentioned the possibility that I might want to pack my own syringes and needles in case of dreadful accidents befalling me where, presumably, I’d rise off my theatre bed and demand that the surgeon used my pre-packed supplies.
On arrival, the smog in Delhi was everything promised by the various sources I’d read before leaving. It was toxic, but also ethereally beautiful in its own end-of-all-things kind of way. This is how the world ends, not with a bang but bronchitis. The traffic in Delhi, as promised, was sclerotic. There were wild pigs rooting in the gutters on broad leafy thoroughfares. There were people sleeping on the dirt barrier between the north and south travelling lanes of motorway traffic. Cooking their breakfast in the middle of speeding cars and smog and ever-present danger. Tiny children with liquid eyes tapped at the window of my taxi and mimed putting food into their mouths. Camels pulled carts and tuk-tuks honked their horns, swerved in front of us and belched fumes. Every lorry, no matter how decrepit, was hand-decorated with flowers and symbols and on the rear, the notice to ‘sound horn’ and ‘flash at night’.
Four of us bound for the book festival, plus a guide and a driver travelled in a people-carrier from Delhi to Jaipur. A long, interminable drive which should have taken about four hours but ended up taking nine. (To which, add my seven hour sleepless flight the previous night). We stopped in traffic, we stopped to worship at a temple, we stopped for lunch at a fast food roadside place where I drank two sips of possibly the nastiest drink that has ever crossed my lips bar none. And I have drunk rabarbero*, so I know whereof I speak. This particular Rajahstani horror was a lime soda, but it tasted of pure sulphur, like something excreted by Satan then chilled for future consumption. One of us got food poisoning that day, but remarkably, it wasn’t me. Perhaps swilling sulphur isn’t such a bad thing?
*Rhubarb aperitivo beloved of old Italian men in the bar down the road from my Nonna’s. Has a catastrophic effect on a younger person’s colon. Obviously designed for self-irrigation. Or perhaps it was just me?