The flash of cameras disorients me as hordes of women scramble to get a good shot. They’re screaming and laughing hysterically, and one would be forgiven for assuming the Indian version of One Direction has just arrived, but alas, it’s just me, pulling my bikini bottoms from the depths of my buttocks as I emerge from the highest waterslide at Water Kingdom – India’s premiere water park.
I had arrived in Bombay the night before, thrilled to be in a “cosmopolitan” city where women could roam freely in tight fitting clothes and wine was readily available.
Things had started out well. After a three hour delay, I arrived at 11pm on Christmas Eve at my absolutely beautiful, and disgustingly expensive, hotel on Marine Parade (I decided to treat myself for Christmas, spending 15 times the amount I had per night so far *innocent “oopsy” face*).
I was determined to keep with Mummy’s tradition of having a drink on Christmas Eve, so after showering to rid myself of the final traces of the Rajasthan dirt and desert that had clung to me for the last three weeks, I headed down to the hotel bar for a disgustingly expensive glass of wine (well, three…).
I started out in a jolly mood – it was Christmas! There was a beautiful Christmas tree in the hotel lobby! I was having a glass of wine at the exact hour that my family in NZ would be waking up to see what Santa had brought them this year, which technically meant sharing Christmas morning with them…
Then I heard it: “Everyboooody hurts, soooometimes, yes, everybody hurururururururts, sometimes… Sometimes everybody hurts…”
As tears sprang to my eyes, the aging bartender launched himself towards my table, “You ok, Madame? Everything ok?”
“Um, your list of Christmas songs really sux *sniff sniff*. Can you change the music please, PLEASE?!”
“Yes, Madame, oh yes, Madame, sorry, sorry.”
I had to smile as what is arguably the worst song to play to a bar full of solo Westerners on Christmas Eve was abruptly interrupted by “Pretty woman, walking down the street, pretty woman, the kind I’d like to meet…” I gave Old Bar Mate the thumbs up and ordered another glass of surprisingly delicious Indian wine.
After Skyping with my already drunk family and friends later that morning, I hurriedly packed for an afternoon at the waterpark with my friend for his birthday. Waterpark: bikini, check.
In hindsight, I can see how hugely moronic it was for me to assume that I could flutter around a family theme park wearing little more than a Victoria’s Secret model (let me have that one, please…), but I really had imagined it to be just like Waiwera or Wet’N'Wild.
Upon arrival I whispered urgently to my companion that I didn’t think my attire was appropriate, but he assured me that when I got inside I would see lots of people wearing swimwear. And he was right. They were wearing swimwear. Indian swimwear. Long tights coupled with a long sleeved t-shirt and a flappy hat. I stuck out like an overweight gothic youth at a Shania Twain concert.
With a towel wrapped firmly around my body, I proceeded to the first ride. As I waited in line, everyone seemed to be holding their breath, unsure of what I would do once I got to the front of the queue. Even I wasn’t sure. I’m all for women’s rights, I abhor female oppression and attempt to ooze confidence however uncomfortable I may feel, but as I snatched up a rubber ring and neared the mouth of the slide, I just could not bring myself to let go and so rode down the entire thing wrapped in a soggy towel.
I felt mildly better after hiring a minging, smelly t-shirt, but even that didn’t stop a creepy 15-year-old from grabbing at my arse in the wave pool. “If you touch me one more time I will smash your head against the side of this pool, ok?” Head wobble.
The wave pool: quite an experience in a country of people who can hardly swim. Rather than whooping and wooing to the Bollywood music blaring over the loud speakers as water gushed from above, lights flashed and the pool swirled with aggressive, choppy waves, I found myself desperately avoiding anyone who looked at me with that “I’m-kind-of-having-fun-but-could-drown-at-any-moment” smile, dodging flailing limbs and grasping hands.
I dropped more cash during one week in Bombay than the five previous weeks combined (*innocent “oopsy” face*) but after four months of frugal travel, it was worth it. We drank wine overlooking the glistening harbour, spotted drunk Bollywood celebrities in upmarket downtrodden bars, ate cheese and crackers for BREAKFAST, and lounged around the rooftop pool where no one blinked an eye at my itsy bitsy bikini – especially as there was a rather overweight woman whose folds of flesh seemed to have swallowed hers: Could. Not. Look. Away.
The following few weeks were spent in a state of constant relaxation.
Agonda, Goa: the most chilled of the Goan beaches, I was joined by the lovely Claire who I met in Udaipur for five days of sun, surf, stalker cows and sunset movies…
Hampi: kind of like stepping onto the set of The Flintstones with huge bolders everywhere, temples galore, and more rice paddies than you can shake a tub of Chicken Tonight at.
Kannur: home of Theyyam, which has been on my bucket list since reading William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives. Theyyam is a ritualistic form of worship in Northern Kerala where dancers, usually from the lower class, perform as a particular deity for between 12 and 24 hours. The one I saw spent hours being chased around by hundreds of children, every now and then grimacing as he enveloped one in his makeshift noose, but not once breaking into a smile as they scrambled, screamed and tripped under his feet. I tried to crack him by flashing a bit of cleavage and fixing him with come-to-bed eyes but dude was unshakeable!
Kochin: the sleepy “capital” of Kerala, where you could spend hours watching men labour away at the Chinese fishing nets before catching the latest Kathakali performance – U.N.R.E.A.L.
Munnar: tea plantation relaxation coupled with an exhilarating night safari chasing elephants and buffaloes.
Alleppey: house boat. Four days. Backwaters. Totes raw, real, India (tailored for tourists of course).
Varkala: beach, beach, swim, cafe, beach, fresh juice, beach, swim, disco, fresh juice, beach.
After a quick stop over in Thiruvananthapuram (say WTF?!), I was Sri Lanka bound. It wasn’t until we were well amongst the clouds that I unwittingly let out a sigh of relief.
India is astonishing. India is raw. India is exciting and colourful and deep and chaotic. India chokes your senses and bleeds you dry. And you think it’s enjoyable, you think it’s the truth, you think it releases the “real” you, until that plane takes off and you actually have the space and the time to think otherwise, and you realise it was just one big crushing mound of people vying for your money in a country where the average monthly salary is less than $90 a month, and that the “real” you was actually just the “normal” you fighting for survival, avoiding molestation and pretending not to see that woman and her baby begging for just 20 cents on the side of the road.
Sri Lanka feels like a holiday from India so I best make the most of my three weeks here before my return flight to Varanasi, the most confronting city of all…