I’m as cautious of our dinner in the desert as I was earlier of mounting a camel – it’s the first Indian curry I’ve braved since the E.coli episode. I try to block out the visions of burying my face a toilet bowl, and try even harder to enjoy the spicy dishes. The plain rice and chapatti bread are a blessing. After dinner, Lalu sneaks off and brings out Barn’s birthday cake, candles lit. We sing “Happy Birthday” enthusiastically, and present the haul of gifts – including a booby prize of a filthy, rancid-smelling, and torn 5-rupee note that has been circulating the group for several weeks. It’s so bad that even a chai-wallah on our train to Varanasi laughed and rejected it. Since then, we’ve insisted it stay between us; woe betide anyone owed a cheeky fiver. “No, please! Let me shout you this chai - no need to pay me back! Honestly!”
After a hugely successful surprise birthday party for Pete in the desert, we happily lie under the stars in the most comfortable, thick swags made of woollen blankets. These could, in fact, be the most comfortable beds we’ve slept in over the past six weeks. This is the life. We try not to fall asleep too quickly, but before we know it, we’re being woken by Lalu with cups of hot chai to watch the sun rise. I’m finally feeling much better this morning, and join the others for a breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and desert porridge before we trot off on our camels back to the camel drivers’ base, where a jeep picks us up. Vishnu was supposed to be meeting us out here, as it’s on the road out of town where we're heading, but we get a call from Adventure Travels to say that even after agreeing to the previous day, Vishnu is now refusing to drive out here, as it’s “not on his itinerary”. We roll our eyes, and blame miscommunication, yet again. He obviously doesn’t realise this would have shaved two hours off our travel time today, and would have meant he could knock off early. It doesn’t take the shine off the camel safari though, and we all agree it is the number one highlight of our Indian adventures.
En route back to Delhi, we stop for the night in Pushkar; it's late in the day when we get there, and we see a number of Indian weddings taking place down the streets we pass. Grooms arrive on white horses to colourful and brightly lit venues, some resembling Las Vegas wedding joints. Pushkar is one of the five sacred dahms (pilgrimage sites) for devout Hindus, but it’s also famed by hippie travellers (the dreadlocked and blatantly European ones who bow and say “Namaste” to passersby) for its availability of marijuana. We stay at Third Eye, a hotel with a 5/5 rating on Trip Advisor. The rating is deserved, as the rooms are clean and comfortable, the showers hot, and the food absolutely delicious. The owner’s wife, who's also the cook, is from the Middle East, and makes the most incredible-tasting falafel pita pockets, so good that we all order one for a takeaway lunch for the next day’s car ride. Not exactly Indian, but it's not McDonald's either.
In the morning, the early birds (Clare, Pete and Erin) opt for a sunrise walk, while Harriet and I take a more casual approach to the day, wandering the streets and visiting the sacred Pushkar Sarovar (lake) and its 52 ghats (a series of steps leading to the lake, where pilgrims can take sacred baths). Touts drag us to the ghats and perform rituals with flowers and other offerings to the lake, and demand we pay huge amounts of rupees in return for prayers for our family members. They try to guilt us into paying at least 100 rupees per family member, or US dollars if we have them. When Harriet is told by her man that I have generously paid 700 rupees, she laughs, knowing that I don’t have a single rupee on me; we were on the way to an ATM when we were mobbed by the pedlars.
We have another long day of driving ahead of us, so we press on to Delhi later in the morning, dropping Harriet and Erin back in Jaipur in the early afternoon to catch a plane to Mumbai the following day. We say our goodbyes, promising to have an Indian-themed get-together when we’re reunited in Auckland. Vishnu requests a photo with all of us in front of the Tourist-mobile, and then we’re on our way again. We pass through the newer part of Delhi on the way in, and it’s almost a shock to see high-rise buildings with fluorescent lights advertising Nokia, Digicom, Alcatel-Lucent, Sony, Philips and countless other international companies. For the past six weeks, we’ve really only seen broken down shacks in dusty and filthy streets awash with beggars and sewerage. We stay the night at the Smyle Inn, the hotel from where we set off for Rajasthan, dining at Everest Café in preparation for our next leg of the journey.
Vishnu picks us up the following day and drops us at the airport to catch our flight to Kathmandu. As we enter the airport, I breathe a sigh of relief upon sighting a café with an espresso machine. Halleluiah! It's been a very long time between real coffees. I spend an hour battling in Hinglish with a post office clerk trying to send a parcel of presents home, and make it through customs just in time to hear our flight being called. As I approach the gangway, I see a man looking stranger than me in my bright blue camel-print pants, orange cardigan and pink sneakers. It’s Tim Wild in a new suit paired with Asics Tiger sneakers. “Hoping to get upgraded?” Barn jokes.
It’s fantastic to see Tim again and hear about his time in Sri Lanka and about our friend Ash’s wedding that he’s just come from in Chennai (hence the suit). I depart India on a high, but after a month amid chaos, I can’t wait to get to the hopefully tranquil Himalayas. For a brief moment, I wonder if India was everything I hoped it would be, or much more I really hoped it wouldn’t. But the jury’s not out for long.
As we fly over the vast Himalayas below, attempting the impossible task of picking out Everest (Tim rolling his eyes every time I claim to see it), I remember the people of India, their faces, and their fascinating lives. I think about their many faiths, their collective passion, and their obvious love for their country and each other.
I recall the contradiction of filthy streets – despite the women’s incessant sweeping of dust from one spot to another – and the remarkably clean clothes of the children who sleep on the floor of the home in Nilakottai. I think about how hard some of the people work, while others laze about, watching life just happen. The vibrant colour of saris and of fresh produce being sold on the streets of Kodaikanal stand out above the endless the brown-on-brown buildings, shacks and slums; I think of the warm smiles of bright white teeth against dark skin. We were selflessly welcomed into people’s homes, and I remember being cooked for, cared for, and served bottomless pots of sweet tea. I think about being nursed back to health by Dr Jaggi and his medical staff in Agra. The smells of delicious new foods remain in my memory above the stench of the streets, and for all the touts, hawkers and rickshaw drivers who ripped us off, there were dozens more who couldn’t do enough to help us.
India receives the big tick, and I resolve to come back one day – and not just in transit on my way home from Nepal in three weeks’ time. With so much of the world still to see, and so little annual leave, it’s not a question of if, but simply of when.