The Indian morning sky blooms pink. I drop a window, smelling cool morning air as the truck speeds down the highway. Dense city vapors shift to woodsmoke and dewy soil. In the front seat, Druv and Bikram peer out the windshield, examining the horizon.
“Should be perfect. The sky’s clear as water.” Druv relaxes back into the driver’s seat.
“Storm clouds–” I stop, chiding myself. Stop forecasting in a foreign country.
“Storm clouds?” Bikram spins to me. “No, my friend, not today.”
“Oh, oops.” I focus on the sky overhead, shrugging. “Who knows?”
My brother in law, Stefan, pulls himself between the two front seats.
“Who’s going to be waiting for us, Druv? We can’t be the only ones fishing again.”
“Quite frankly, nobody cares much.” Druv chortles, “the town remembers us for purchasing chai, cigarettes, and matches.”
“They care about the truck.”
Bikram draws from a pouch of tobacco, rolling into a long paper.
“They recognize the truck.” Druv pats the driving wheel, “But angling hasn’t hit India. It’s a religious thing.”
Bikram rolls his eyes sarcastically.
Hours later, turbulent water flows around our campsite. In the distance, three steel bridges connect the highway. Misty rain falls from noon onward, clouding the distant Himalayas. Troops of macaques, yellow with amber highlights, peruse our expedition. That evening, Druv boils water for ramen noodles. He points to a bank across the river.
“See out there.” I search and jump. Among the reeds and grasses, a man in drab clothing stands motionless. Facing our camp, he leans on a long staff like a statue.
“Oh. Hi, friend.” I nervously utter, careful to avoid looking twice.
“Not much going on for him tonight, huh?”
“Not much going on for anyone out here.”
The next morning, I shoot photos of macaques hanging in trees above the misty water. Four days ago, I shoveled snow outside my workplace in Toronto. Today I’m walking by glistening farm fields as sunlight reflects pink and yellow off the water.
At camp, Druv, Bikram, and Stefan cast for fish. Soon, a pair of locals arrive on a motorbike. They sit and watch for a few minutes, then depart. Next, a group of fifteen. They stare, pushing one another, speaking with guarded mouths.
“Too close to the dams.” Stefan begins packing.
Back in Delhi, I’m walking to Humayun’s tomb with my father, who’s also visiting for the month. We’ve left behind my sister, brother in law, and niece at the apartment a few blocks away. I stop to photograph two boys perched on a stone wall, jogging to catch up. Dad coughs, dodging throngs of peddlers, tuk-tuks, and taxis.
The boys chase with broad smiles, hands outstretched.
“They really hunt you down for cash here, huh?”
I attempt to distract my father from his beeline.
He drops his chin in chagrin.
“I deleted a photo of two women in Jaipur after they asked for money.”
Taking tickets from the gate master, we enter the garden-tomb. Underfoot, gleaming cream stonework paves the level roads. Carmine, reinforced walls rise thirty feet around us. We pass through a six-meter gate onto the flowered promenades surrounding the mausoleum.
I click a shot with my film camera.
“I don’t think street photography is illegal for tourists.”
“No, you’re right. But these two women demanded payment.”
“So why didn’t you pay them?”
“I was too shocked by their reaction. I just refused.”
“Aren’t you censoring yourself?”
I take out my smartphone to catch a girl modelling on a low stone wall.
“It depends on why you’re taking photos.”
Prime Minister Modi cancelled Holi to stop the spread of COVID. My family took a taxi to a villa with tall, white stone walls. Expats threw pigmented powder, drained an open bar, and hounded catering tables. My sister surreptitiously fed me ice-cream infused with marijuana, so I retreated from the heavy bass music to a garden beside the house. I dozed by the vegetables until the party ended.
I’m in Mumbai three days later. I’m travelling alone in the south while my family flies to the mountain town, Dharamshala. At a rooftop bar named Raasta, potted palm fronds rustle in the evening breeze. Afrobeat pulses in the background. Across from me, a girl from Assam sips a tall clear drink.
“Not a fan of Kant?”
She’d mentioned detesting the philosopher.
“I have a problem with philosophers who leave readers with more questions than they started with.”
Her drink clinks with ice cubes.
“He gives a general outline, no? Do unto others, and all that.”
Shaking her head, “He leaves too much to conjecture. People need concrete direction.”
A bartender arrives; it’s Kyle, one of her best friends. They complain about the current DJ who’s recycling playlists.
Her friend leaves and K turns to me, eyes set.
“Do you normally travel with a dating app?”
“Not always.” I sip a light beer.
“It’s a good way to meet people and see things.”
“Well, there’s not much in Bombay.” K’s eyes drop to her phone. The device pours light over curls framing her face.
“It makes a difference if you’re visiting.” I cross my arms, cold from the breeze.
“That’s true. It’s funny we matched. I haven’t dated since my last partner a few years ago.”
“Oh.” I take a bigger sip.
She laughs. “It’s just a few drinks.”
At 2PM, we join two Raasta coworkers and ride motorcycles to a nearby construction site. Street lights flood the curbside. I pop a beer, K mixes liquor with soda. Later, we drive to a 24-hour takeout spot serving curries wrapped in roti.
Kyle hands me a roll wrapped in foil, “This will light your ass on fire.”
The server disappears with my change on a moped.
A week later, in Goa, I hunch over a picnic bench with four other foreigners. Ivana’s dirty blond hair drips from her shower. Her botoxed cheeks are flush after the yoga class. Kyle’s tall forehead beads with sweat. Erin sits coolly beside Kyle, wearing sunglasses.
“How’d you find it? Not so bad, huh?” I’m speaking through spoonfuls of stewed lotus root and rice.
“Not bad,” Erin stretches back, revealing near double-jointedness.
“But our Mum started us on stretches as kids, so it’s a bit unfair, really.”
A French woman pipes in from another table. Her eyes are bloodshot, teeth crooked. “It’s good you’re just taking yoga. I did the detox…It doesn’t work.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Erin removes her glasses. Her hazel irises flash.
“How long is the detox program?” I pound half a banana.
“Well,” She sniffs, “Originally, it’s supposed to be two weeks, but this is my third.”
“They roped you in for another run?” Kyle scratches the chest hair under a tank top.
“They didn’t.” She shakes her head, grinning. “I can’t leave. My flight to France was cancelled. I’m waiting for the airline to contact me.”
My pitless stomach drops further. “Are all the airlines going down?”
“Doesn’t matter for me,” Erin tosses on the sunglasses.
“I’ve already quit work in Munich. Told them I’m out for the season.”
Checking his phone, Kyle reports: Doesn’t look good for most carriers, domestic airlines practically borrow their planes. Ticket sales go against their debt, but if no one’s flying–. He snaps a finger.
Poof. Erin chirps, sipping cucumber soup.
Grabbing another banana, I rush to my room and rebook my flight. The next morning, I skip yoga class to stroll along the beach, collecting seashells and stones. Four hours later, I board a flight. That evening I rejoined my sister, brother-in-law, and niece in Delhi.
Ten days pass. Police and military vehicles flood the neighborhood. A COVID-19 super-spreader, an outbreak down the block. Stefan watches from the patio, twitching a cigarette in one hand.
Should we go now? I watch my laptop screen. After a week of waiting and cancellations, the itinerary is set.
“They could block the whole street.” He tosses the butt. Time to head out.
The airport’s dim and silent. Sparrows twirl between flight gates. They land for crumbs on the paisley-patterned carpet floor. A woman with olive skin and long, dark hair plops her backpack three seats away.
I exercise a stark and friendly mannerism learned in India: Hello! I wave with one hand, giving symmetrical intonation per syllable, per wave.
She turns, smiling. “Hello.”
“Where are you going?”
“New York. And you?” She rearranges her belongings: dried seeds and coconut oil.
“Toronto. Heck of a time to travel.” I point my camera at some birds.
“You said it.” A small laugh.
“Been in India long?”
“It’s my eighth month. I planned a year.”
“Teacher training. I wish I could stay.”
“Not much choice, now.”
“I couldn’t believe it. I only decided to leave last week.”
“Sometimes you gotta trust your gut.” I snap a shot of children playing in the afternoon sunlight.
Behind them, through the windows, the airfield lies empty.
BIO: Lucas Findlay (@lbfindlay) is a new writer from Toronto, Canada. He writes essays, poetry, and fiction. He earned a master’s in English Literature at McMaster University.
Photo: Darshak Pandya from Pexels .
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