Sitting quietly, eyes affixed to the window, Daria reflected on the events that had brought her to that very moment. Preparations for this trip had been something of an adventure in itself, from applying for visas, making plans, buying essentials and packing bags.
She thought back on shopping for a backpack with Tom, at an REI in Lawndale. With something akin to horror, she'd examined the 80 liter bags, which seemed as though they could hold a person her size and a kitchen sink besides. It was much to her relief when Tom came up behind her, two considerably smaller bags in hand. "This is a 40, this is a 35. Want to try?" Both were olive green and black; he knew her well.
Eyeing them suspiciously, she nodded, taking the 40 first. She'd slipped the straps over her narrow shoulders, wiggling to adjust and examine fit. "It feels funny," she complained.
"Momendito." Tom ducked down behind her, grasping something from the floor, and unzipped the bag, placing them inside. The sudden weight pulled Daria off balance, causing her to wobble.
"What are you doing?" she asked, a note of annoyance apparent in her voice.
"Adding weights, so you have a real idea of how your bag will feel," answered Tom, undeterred by her ruffled feathers. He'd learned long ago to sidestep her sarcastic defenses to the unknown. She shifted the bag on her shoulders again. Still not right. Moving before her, Tom began to pull at straps and buckles Daria was not even aware of. "This is your shoulder strap tension," he said, holding out two straps on either side of her. "Pull back hard to tighten, and lift the buckle to loosen." She tried, unaccustomed fingers fumbling. "This is your chest strap," he said, buckling a piece of web nylon from one shoulder strap to the other. He then reached around her, pulling out two padded straps that buckled around her waist. She found herself resting a hand on his shoulder to catch her balance as he tugged on the various adjustments of her bag.
Tom glanced up at her through the bangs hanging over his eyes, a soft smile turning up the corners of his mouth before he went back to his task. It was the kind of smile that could mean anything and nothing, and the implications raced through Daria's analytical mind. Was it knowing, pleased, nostalgic, merely friendly, plainly meaningless? Did he know that every time his hands brushed against her, seemingly innocently enough, she fought not to jump out of her skin? Did he know that the feeling of his warmth so close by, his scent of spicy cologne and clean skin that was so uniquely his, took her back to a time when he was hers, and she could lean forward to kiss the pulse upon his neck anytime she wanted?
Why are you thinking about this? she'd scolded herself. Why do you care? Her thoughts feigned nonchalance, but her senses couldn't be persuaded to disaffection so easily.
"And these are your waist straps, they help take the weight of your bag off of your shoulders. These up here do that too." Finally with a smile he'd stepped back. "Try hefting your bag and tighten the waist straps around your hips. That's how you'll probably want to carry the weight."
With an uncertain glance at her more experienced friend, she tried it out. "I feel like a turtle in bondage," she'd grumbled, fumbling with the alien mechanisms strapped about her. Was it the unfamiliar equipment strapped about her that inspired a grumpy note in her tone, or the sudden cold that settled about her, as Tom stepped away? Daria felt disinclined to answer, even if it only meant admitting it to herself.
"You'll get the hang of it," Tom assured her. "You're a first time turtle here, after all."
After making the suggested adjustments, Daria found the weight in the bag did actually sit more comfortably on her body. "Hmm. I never would have guessed you to be an expert on reptile S and M."
"Let's just say I had a ball in the Galapagos Islands...So what do you think?"
Daria wiggled the bag on her shoulders again. It wasn't bad. Not bad at all. "I think this is going to work, Darwin."
Bag shopping had only been the tip of the iceberg. Next came hiking boots, clothes, toiletries. Visas, guidebooks, maps. First aid kits, cameras, spare glasses, malaria medicine. And Daria's least favorite: shots. Polio, Typhoid, Japanese Encephalitis, Yellow Fever, and after Helen overheard the pair's morbid joking about India being among the rabies capitals of the world, a three shot rabies cycle. By the time it was all over with, Daria felt like a human pincushion. "I might as well have sprung for a tattoo," she'd mumbled, as the seemingly umpteenth needle pierced her skin, delivering a small dosage of Yellow Fever.
"If your yellow book is ruined in a monsoon deluge, you'll wish you'd gotten one to remember all the inoculations," joked Tom, sitting nearby as Daria underwent the motions. He'd already been initiated into the pincushion club for South America, and remembered the unpleasantries all too well. He'd had a mild flu-like reaction to his first rabies shot, and hoped Daria wouldn't go through the same.
"Is this the voice of experience?"
He smiled sheepishly. "Maybe."
"Note to self: Ziploc baggies."
"Ziploc baggies, duct tape, and zipties are a backpacker's best friend."
"In case one needs to commit an abduction?"
"Or emergency surgery. Or both."
Daria raised an eyebrow, commending Tom mentally for working to take her mind off of the dull throbbing in her upper left arm. "Hmm. That wasn't on the front of the brochure."
"The good stuff never is."
Now, Daria sat mesmerized at the window, feeling the balmy night air of Mumbai press against her skin. It was a kind of warmth that promised to turn sweltering with the rising sun, but in the night hours could be considered perfection. Their taxi was a small yellow vehicle, smelling heavily of sandalwood incense, a golden statuette of Ganesh standing guard upon the dashboard, a withered offering of marigold at his feet from the previous day. A plethora of other Hindu deities joined it on the windshield, brightly colored stickers of Shiva, Lakshmi, Hanuman, and others. The seats were lumpy and decrepit, deficient of proper seatbelts, well used by hundreds of fares before them. Daria found she liked the atmosphere of the cab in the dark, this small capsule of theirs racing far too quickly through the dark streets on the left side of the road, ropey Banyan trees looming over them.
The avenue widened as they went on, and Daria could just barely make out a sea of lumps along the sidewalk. Squinting, she peered closer, noticing the tarp and cloth shelters constructed on the sidewalks. It reminded her oddly of the play shelters Quinn and her friends would construct of sheets and chairs at sleepovers (she herself had preferred cardboard boxes, with just room for one). As a bony arm emerged from one of the lumps, Daria realized it was a sea of people sleeping on the street, not quite ready to face the day at four in the morning. With raised eyebrows, she turned to look at Tom, who had just come to a similar realization at his own window.
He watched her interestedly, curious of what her first impressions of true poverty would be. Tom remembered his own, in Peru, driving on a bus outside of Lima. The hovels constructed of scrap metal and wood, rocks, plastic, and whatever else could be scrounged had stretched out across the desert, as far as the eye could see.
With a pained expression, Daria turned away from his intent eyes, back to take in more of this strange new world. Academically, of course she knew such things existed, but she began to understand just what Tom meant about experiencing it. It's one thing to know, it's entirely another to see. Daria realized through this new weight upon her heart, she was still only watching from behind a pane of glass. Perhaps now she could roll down her window and reach out and touch this new reality, but she still sat in her own secure environment, passing through quickly in a vehicle. Sooner or later she and Tom would be in it. Walking through it. Looking these people who lived a world so different from her own in the eye. The thought inspired a tingle in the pit of her stomach, utterly indistinguishable between excitement and apprehension.
They passed through the darkened streets, until finally the taxi came to a stop. "The Seashore hotel?" asked Tom of the driver, brow slightly furrowed as he peered out the windows, searching for a sign of their destination. Daria noticed Tom had out the India Lonelyplanet, open to a map of Mumbai's Colaba district. The driver waved down the street, indicating an indeterminable point ahead. "Down there. Close. You will find," he said with a smile.
"Can't you take us?" he asked.
"Very close, sir. You will find," insisted the driver with an enigmatic wiggle of head that meant neither yes or no, making no move to propel the car any further. With a smile he got out of the driver's seat, opening Daria's door, and the trunk. He handed the backpackers their bags, and waited patiently. As Tom strapped on his bag, he glanced around, obviously displeased with the situation.
"It is close?" he asked again, pointing down the street.
"Very close," assured the driver, black mustache lifting with a smile.
While Daria didn't exactly feel great about the current situation, at the same time, she didn't exactly know what else to do. Why wouldn't the driver take them all the way to their hotel? The exhaustion of being in transit for more than 24 hours began to weigh on her, along with a healthy sense of caution of the seemingly deserted city streets ahead of them. She watched Tom carefully, reading his body language, his feelings about a situation he had far more experience with. Though he did not appear pleased either, he too seemed to know not what else to do. After handing the driver a hundred rupee tip, Tom hefted his bag, watching the red taillights of the taxi disappear into the hazy night.
Glancing down at the map, and ahead, Tom shrugged. "Strange," he said, eyeing the shadows apprehensively.
"Is it safe?" asked Daria, thinking that they'd just been dropped off haphazardly in the street in Mumbai at four in the morning. One of the largest cities of the world, not exactly known for it's security in after-hours.
"Probably. See, we've barely been here an hour, and we're starting our adventures already." Tom watched Daria carefully. Their first hitch in the trip, of which he knew would only be one in a thousand over the course of their journey. How would she handle it? Had he made a mistake to bring her after all? Much to his relief, Daria lifted her chin, steeling herself to what lay ahead.
"Shall we walk?" she asked, answering her own question with the onwards motion of her feet.
With a smile, heart swelling with a bit of pride, Tom followed. Yes ma'm he answered inwardly, thinking he'd made a good choice after all. The pair trooped down the street, passing people now already up and about, building fires before their shelters for breakfast tea. They watched with curious dark eyes, women in bright but soiled saris smiling quietly at the obviously newly arrived foreigners. Finding the oceanfront, they walked on, past towering buildings with a colonial British flair. Daria couldn't help but notice all the plants in bloom, even in the winter, bougainvillea exploding in waves of pink and white over wrought iron fences, and delicate white Jacaranda drooping down from their branches. There was a tranquility to the city in the early morning hours Daria suspected would evaporate with the coming of the sun.
Finally they arrived at their hotel, a tall building squirreled away in a corner, amongst a stand of Banyan trees and other decaying architecture. The night watchman directed them up four floors, and by the time they reached their destination, Daria felt certain she could curl up on the floor and fall asleep right in front of the reception desk.
After signing in, settling into a new room, and showers to wash off hours and hours of travel grime, Daria and Tom stared across the room at each other from their diminutive but comfortable single beds. "We made it," he said quietly, eyes drooping closed with fatigue.
Daria smiled slightly, a sense of accomplishment and excitement mixing in with her exhaustion. "By the skin of our teeth."
No longer able to keep his eyes open, Tom settled further into his pillow. "Darlin', just you wait."
She would have continued their usual banner. Since when the hell do you call me darlin? But Daria noticed Tom's body relax, breathing deepening to a steady rise and fall of his chest, and knew he wouldn't have heard a word. "Good night to you too," she whispered, quickly following suit into the arms of Orpheus.
Taking a deep breath of the breeze whipping past his face, Tom found himself amidst a difficult decision, faced with two enticing views before him. Neither intentionally beckoned his attention, but both were equally captivating. One stretched out before him, the silvery waters of the harbor of Mumbai meeting the open ocean, and a chain of lush green islands which were their destination of the hour. Seagulls swooped down, picking at hopeful prizes afloat in the waves. Large vessels hovered in the distance, navy ships and commercial liners, obscured by the haze of distance and air pollution. Upon closer glance, the water of the harbor teemed with slick oil spills glittering rainbow colors in the hot sun, and other debris. Even after only a few days in India, Tom was quickly becoming accustomed to the sight of discarded waste everywhere.
The other sight which drew his attention stood a few feet away from him at the railing, also taking in the sight of the harbor. The sea breeze lifted her brown hair from her face, relieving some of the oppressive Indian midday heat, tugging out that mona lisa smile of which he'd had to privilege to see quite a lot as of late. Thus far Daria had taken the intense shock of the bustling metropolis in stride, fielding developing world idiosyncrasies like a champ. Dare he say it? The misery chic was enjoying herself, and better yet, she didn't seem to care to make a secret of it. She wore a thin gray t-shirt, pants of her favorite drab green color, and a pair of hiking boots that rivaled her usual footwear in properties of ass-kicking capabilities. India's culturally conservative dress code of covering shoulders and knees may have caused a problem of fashion for some tourists, but Daria had no complaints.
Together, they were learning the tricks of the street. How to sidestep cowpies in the middle of the crowded sidewalk, or the cows themselves, if need be. Crossing impossibly busy streets by just making a break for it with a crowd of locals, always looking both ways, no matter which direction traffic was supposed to come from. Every meal was an adventure in itself, deciphering the menu best they could with a vague idea of what would arrive at the table. Becoming vegetarians was not only easy in India, where 80 percent of the population refrained from consuming meat, but it seemed like a good idea for the time being, considering meat handling practices were iffy at best. The thali plate, a cheap set priced meal that came with several samples of curries, curd, rice and the flatbreads nan or chupati became their friend.
Daria thought back on their very first day wandering the streets of Mumbai. Approaching the Gateway of India, in nearly no time at all they were seized upon by men bearing puja bracelets. Nearly before they could blink, the bright red and yellow lengths of string were tied about their wrists, a hasty Hindu prayer for long life blessing them, a mark of red daubed upon their foreheads, and a subsequent demand for financial compensation. "What just happened?" exclaimed Daria out loud, ten rupees poorer, watching the men rush towards the next group of tourists on chappel clad feat. She glanced down at the crimson bracelet now adorning her slender wrist, and back up again.
Chuckling at the enterprising fellows, Tom answered, "Tourist entrapment." Before Daria could wipe off the mark of blessing, he raised his camera, capturing a snapshot of that priceless expression.
"And just think," said Tom, moving to stand closer to Daria at the railing. "We could be playing in a Bollywood movie right now."
Daria paid Tom a sliding glance, smirk in place. "I know I would enjoy being portrayed as a trashy westerner in an Indian pop musical," she deadpanned. "That is, if it weren't for this meddling island."
The night before, whilst walking along the waterfront, Tom and Daria had been invited to partake in the creation of a Bollywood flick. Several other westerners at the hotel were also invited to the same gig. Though it would have been a unique experience to say the least, it wasn't exactly the kind that appealed to either Daria or Tom. A better prize neared closer and closer, the lush green island of which both had set their sight upon. The Hindu caves of Elephanta Island promised their first taste of ancient statuary carving.
The boat siddled closer, pulling in for a rather rough landing at the dock. The pair disembarked, and were immediately were flooded by hawkers of all flavors, offering everything from spiced peanuts to mass produced bronze miniatures. A small child latched onto Daria as they made their way down the causeway. Tom watched how Daria fielded the small merchant, who hefted a basket of roasted corn on the cob seemingly as large as she was upon her head. "Corn, madam?"
"No thank you," said Daria, eyeing the little girl. Her eyes were large and dark, sparkling with laughter, even while her limbs were bone thin with possible malnourishment. She wore just the top portion of a salwar kameez, young enough for clothing proprieties to not quite apply yet. Though dusty, it was a pink so bright as to burn the retinas in the blazing Indian sun. Her little feet were bare, but easily tramped across dirt and gravel Daria knew would have caused her to flinch with pain.
Not ready to be swept aside so lightly, she persisted with a mischievous smile. "Come, madam. Its very good. My mother cooked."
"Hmm," said Daria, smiling down at the girl, an eyebrow raised.
"Five rupees each?" The little girl beamed, well aware of the difficulty of saying no to such a darling face.
"Maybe later," evaded Daria.
"I promise maybe."
The girl held out a hand to shake, balancing the basket effortlessly without a hand upon it. Daria shook the grubby little hand. "You cannot break a promise, Madam. Corn later."
Daria laughed at the girl's enterprising zeal. It reminded her of herself at a younger age, negotiating bribes and allowance raises with her mother. Only Daria had never been depended upon to bring home bread money for a large family. Behind that little dazzling smile, there was a cause much more important at stake. "Alright then. Find us later. We'll buy corn."
The girl nodded happily. "You buy corn only from me. You promised." She then scampered away on skinny legs to the next potential customers.
Tom smiled at the events just passed, watching her harangue a wealthier Indian couple. It was easy to pick the rich from the poor, as the well to do possessed waistlines of ample measurement. "I was waiting for her to whip out a contract. Future businesswoman, you think?"
He glanced over at Daria, to see her watching the little girl with a troubled expression. "How many of these children do you think will ever see a classroom?" she asked quietly, voice distant.
Tom sighed with the thought. "Not nearly enough," he answered honestly. "She might. She might not. She might sell corn to tourists for the rest of her life here."
Daria sighed heavily, obviously upset by the thought, though in her own inward way. She seemed reluctant to discuss the issue further, and they began to ascend the steps up to the caves in somewhat silence. The steps were lined with dozens of booths, offering all kinds of souvenirs, from soapstone carvings to bronzes to wooden statuettes. Monkeys also lined the paths. Macaques, pale tan, with pink faces and expressive little black eyes. They watched the tourists and vendors alike with an enterprising eye, waiting for an opportunity to snatch up a snack of fruit or biscuits at the first sign of inattention.
Finally at the top of the hill, they proceeded to explore the caves. Large statues, twice Daria's height or more, carved directly out of the rock loomed above them. The caves smelled of musty bat guano, and in the darker enclaves one could see the little creatures hanging like pods from the cool stone ceiling. Daria attempted photography, but found it impossible in the darkness, even with flash.
It was standing before a huge carved head of Shiva, eyes heavy lidded in the tranquility of meditation, that Daria experienced a chill run down her back. For the past week it was impossible to ignore that they were amidst a culture steeped in centuries of tradition, somehow running hand in hand with future innovations to create something distinctly Indian. But it was standing there, staring in the three faceted face of Shiva made to represent the creation, destruction, and preservation of the universe that it really hit Daria how very ancient this culture was. The island itself dated back to the 800s, and Hinduism's roots traced all the way back into the civilization that rose from the Indus valley. It was an interesting sensation, different and new, coming from a country whose present dominant civilization could at best be considered four hundred years old.
Daria felt a presence close behind her, and knew Tom stood nearby. An unexpected silence settled over the cave, as a group of Indian tourists exited to visit the next. "What's he saying?" Tom whispered in her ear, reluctant to raise his voice in the tranquil moment.
Daria pushed down the thrill of adrenaline that caused her heart to raise up into her throat, at the feel of Tom's warm breath against her ear. "He says he is The Destroyer of good photographs," she deadpanned, shattering the silence, killing the mood with a calculated defense. "How are you getting pictures?" she asked, holding up her digital camera. So what if she hadn't read the instruction manual? The automatic setting was just so handy...except for now.
Reaching around Daria, Tom pressed a few buttons on her Fuji Finepix. "Raise the ISO," he suggested. "Just remember to put it back when we go into the sunlight." He congratulated himself on such a cool delivery, even as the hand which slightly brushed hers felt as though it had been burned. It was going to be a long journey, he could already tell. Enjoyable, no doubt, but if he continued this extent of self control, perhaps a bit masochistic.
Intent on avoiding an incident in a holy Hindu cave, as he was known to act on romantic impulses with Daria in enclosed spaces, he wandered towards the entrance, waiting for her to finish exploring and join him to the next one.
At the top of the island, Tom and Daria sat perched upon large rocks, looking down at a former missile bunker, and out at the harbor, stretching out to the busy city of Mumbai. A trio of monkeys sat grooming each other a few yards away, but paid them no mind. "Hungry for lunch?" asked Tom, thinking of the nan they had packed away for the noontime repast in his daypack.
Daria eyed the monkeys, thinking the presentation of food of any sort could quickly kill the tranquility of the moment. "Maybe later," she said. "Besides. If you recall, we have a date with an enterprising little corn vendor."
"Ah yes. That is a contract I wouldn't dare break." Though Tom wouldn't chide her for it, Tom had noticed Daria had grown something of a soft spot for the little ones. He'd seen it fleetingly once in her attempt to help Tad Gupty find his parents at that fateful homecoming parade, but she certainly hadn't been comfortable with any maternal twinges she may have felt. Most likely, she still wasn't. He remembered an incident the previous day, when they had visited Victoria station to purchase train tickets out of Mumbai. As beggar children often do, a group had singled out the female westerner, undoubtedly having more luck up that alley in gathering baksheesh. Alms, though in the literal translation, forgiveness.
He'd walked ahead for a moment, only to be summoned back by an alarmed call of "Tom!" Turning back, he'd found Daria surrounded by a swarm of three pint sized children, filthy but sweet, one on each arm and the smallest riding on her foot. The expression on her face was priceless, not angry, but bewildered, unable to swat them away, but unable to move. Though if he'd taken a moment to snap a shot, she may have done something unpleasant with his prized camera.
He'd made his way towards her, waving the children away, who ducked away from him surprisingly, almost alarmingly, fast. Was the fear of men merely cultural, or did a frustrated man with a heavy hand beat them at the tarp shack they called home? It was impossible to know. Daria followed close behind into the station, and out the corner of his eye he noticed her waving goodbye to the children, who'd unbegrudgingly, even excitedly, returned the farewell.
Did this mean Daria was becoming soft? Losing her edge, or even just her tendency to be uncomfortable around children? Interestingly enough, Tom didn't read it as such. He'd been told time and time again by those who had visited, that no one walks away from India unchanged. There's simply too much contradiction, too many sights and experiences that awe and amaze, side by side with heart-wrenching poverty. After only a week, Tom was beginning to see why a place like India would make you question your beliefs, your principles, and the very foundation upon which you have built yourself as a person.
Perhaps Daria could usually play life as the crowned Queen of the disaffected, but just for once, Tom dared think she couldn't feign nonchalance any longer. And by far, this was only the beginning, for the both of them.
A/N: chappels are Indian sandals.
Salwar Kameez is a popular form of women's dress, which is a long shirt, loose pants, and usually accompanied by a matching scarf.