TRAVELS WITH NINA

is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

Chapter Eighteen

“Ooom namah shivay, Ooom namah shivay.” It’s the first thing I hear when I come to. I’m lying on my back and bloody pinkie’s leaning right over me doing some kind of Hindu voodoo prayer over my body.

“I’m not dead yet,” I croak as I push myself up on to my elbows.

“Jai, shiv Shankar!” she yells, raising her hands to the heavens. I glare at her. “Sorry, it’s just that I was praying to Lord Shiva to bring you back to us and, well, here you are!”

“I just passed out, that’s all,” I say, rubbing my throbbing head. “That breathing was intense.”

“Yeah when you first start out it really is, you should have just started off slowly.”

Jeez this chick’s really got some nerve, assuming I’m some spiritual neophyte or something.

“Well, in Buddhism we don’t really focus on these physical exercises. We focus on the mind. Anyway where’s Ram Baba?” I sit up and look around, just in time to see David power walking up the steps of the ghat with a small copper pot in his hands.

“Jai, shiv Shankar!” he says as he arrives in front of me and sets the pot down on the ground. “We prayed to Shiva and he brought you back to us,” he says raising his hands to his heart. “Here, I gathered some healing waters from the Ganges for you.” He points to the copper pot.

“Ahh, I’m not supposed to… drink that, am I?”

“No no, you couldn’t do that. It’s to pour over your head, as a blessing.”

Not this again.

“You really think that’ll be ok?” I can’t stop picturing the bloated dead dog from the other morning.

“You’ll be fine, seriously,” butts in pinkie. “I bathe in there every morning at sunrise. I dunk my head under and everything and look at me!” She breaks into a crooked, brown-toothed smile. It’s looking at her that’s making me worry more than ever. But then I really don’t want to disappoint David, just when everything’s going so well, so I grab the pot with one hand, block my nose with the other, purse my lips shut and pour the whole thing over my head.

“Jai, shiv Shankar!” they crow in unison.

***

It only takes twelve hours for the diarrhoea to set in. I should have listened to my damn intuition, I tell myself as I flush the loo for the fifth time in an hour. It’s 4am, my guts are churning and there are sharp, stabbing pains every time I need to go. It was bound to happen, I guess. This is India after all.

I flop back down on the bed and open my laptop. I’ve given up checking for Ryan emails, so I log on to Facebook and start e-spying on people. I write a happy birthday message on a friend from primary school’s wall who I haven’t seen for about 20 years and who frankly couldn’t care less about, I look through a friend of a friend of a friend’s A European Summer to Remember album and start hating on this girl’s life even though I haven’t the faintest idea who she is, and post a photo of the Ganges at sunrise, making sure I block all my work friends from seeing it, just in case. I’m just about to de-friend an old friend whose #humblebrags are starting to do my head in, when a message from Peace pops up on my screen.

How goes it ladybug?

I snap my computer shut. God, why is she being so pushy? Why is she even up at this crazy hour? Doesn’t she understand that these things take time? With all the drama going on yesterday and Pinkie hanging around the whole bloody time there just wasn’t a chance to bring it up again. It can wait until I’m 100 percent again tomorrow, but I know Peace won’t understand that so I’ll just have to avoid going back onto Facebook until then.

I put it out of my mind and nap on and off in between dates with the porcelain for the next eight excruciating hours. Every time I wake, I think about what David said to me earlier about how true spiritual growth can only be achieved when one has renunicated everything. It hurt when he said it, but the more I think about it, the more it starts to make sense. Thinking back over the past month, all my troubles have arisen either from money, possessions, or my relationship. Maybe that’s what happened between mum and David too. Maybe it all just became too much for him and he left it all behind and ran, just like I ran, to simplify things and to focus on The Truth. Except that he had a child, and he never came back. That’s what hurts the most, and what I can’t quite wrap my head around.

By early afternoon my runs seems to have, well, stopped running quite so fast. But I’m guessing that’s only because I don’t have a single grain of rice left in my stomach. Just the thought of the Indian food at the restaurant downstairs is giving me mouth sweats, so I just try to sip my rehydration salts without gagging while I watch my all-time favourite Crocodile Hunter episode, Freshwater Crocs.

All this fussin’ around is startin’ to drag in big ol’ Agro’s interest,
Steve Irwin’s saying as he points to an enormous old croc who’s getting pretty put out by some lawn mowing by his pond. He doesn’t like anyone near his territory, or anything out of the ordinary stirring things up.

Mmm, I always loved it when he’d talk like that.

We’re gonna have to keep a close eye on him to make sure he doesn’t charge us through the fence and injure us, or himself…

I don’t know if it was his accent, his beauty spot or his King Gee shorts, but I always had something for Steve. I’ve never told anyone at work of course, at work I have Johnny Depp as my screensaver just like the other 96 percent of the office, but in my heart Steve’s always been my pin-up. He’s manly, he’s ballsy, he’s a bit rough around the edges and I love that. I guess he’s always kind of reminded me of Ryan.

Halfway through the episode the hotel phone starts to ring. I let it go for one round, but when it starts up again I reluctantly pick up the receiver.

“Namaste?” I say.

“Namaste madam. We have someone down here at reception come to visit you. You can please come down?”

“Who is it?” It seems strange, no one knows where I’m staying except Peace.

“Just a moment madam.” A hand muffling the receiver, then sliding off again. “Madam, he says he is Ram Baba. You will come down?”

Immediately, my hands start trembling.

“Yes of course, just tell him I’ll be five minutes.”

What on earth is David doing here, I wonder as I drag myself out of bed and over to the mirror. My hair’s plastered over my sweaty face, my eyes are sunken and ringed with dark circles down to my cheekbones and my skin’s the colour of a stale Sao.

I throw my aching body into the shower, douse myself in some Sandalwood oil, scrape my hair up and slap some light concealer and a lick of mascara on, all the while wondering how he could have even known where I’m staying. I grab a pair of black leggings and a white tank top and head down to reception.

David’s sitting in lotus position on the front steps, and I’m relieved to see that today he’s decided to cover up with an apricot-coloured wrap. His dreadies are bundled up in a lemon yellow turban and he has a bright orange tikka (that’s what they call those chalk marks, I’ve discovered) between his scraggly eyebrows.

“Namaste, Ram Baba,” I say with prayer hands as I sit down next to him. He smells of smoke and sweat.

“Namaste, Magdalena.”

My god, he’s finally remembered my name. Well not my real name, but whatever. Jai!

“What are you doing here? How did you know where I was staying?”

“When you did not come to see Ram Baba this morning, intuition told him that you might have been unwell. He sees that he was correct.” He looks me up and down with a concerned gaze, and my heart surges. Could my plan actually be working? Could this man actually be starting to care about me?

“Yeah I’ve been up most of the night,” I say, attempting nonchalance. “I hate to say it but I think it might have been from that water yesterday.”

“No no,” he says, shaking his head. “You’re not understanding. The waters of the Ganges are incredibly purifying, especially here in Varanasi. In the waters, you can find salvation. They remove not only the physical dirt, but the symbolic dirt, too, wiping away the sins of the bather. So what this water is doing to you right now is purifying you internally. It is clearing the way for new energy to come in to your body. You must not be so close-minded to think that this is only a physical illness.”

Right at that moment my stomach seizes up into a cramp once again, and my sphincter muscles tighten in response.

“Oh God, excuse me for a sec,” I say as I dart to the reception loo. Jeez, if this really is my body purifying itself of a lifetime of sin, I’d better be ready for it to continue for a good couple of weeks at least. When I’m done I head back out to David.

“Sorry about that,” I say with an embarrassed giggle.

“It’s perfectly all right, it’s all part of the cleansing process. Now, the reason I came was to give you this.” He reaches into the folds of his wrap and draws out two packets of brown powder.

“This,” he says, holding out the more greeny-brown packet, “is fennel powder. And this,” he holds out the more brown-brown packet, “is ginger powder. You mix together half a teaspoon of each of the powders and chew it two or three times a day.”

“Oh that’s lovely, only the thing is, I really don’t think I could stomach that right now.” I can barely fathom the idea of a Big Mac, let alone a mix of dry brown herbs.

“But this is an ancient herbal Ayurvedic remedy that will relieve the symptoms of your purification and strengthen your digestive fire,” he says with a look of indignation.

“I’m not sure what Ayurvedic means, I’m sure it’s something amazing and age-old, but I think the only thing that can help me right now are drugs. Hard core drugs.” I know I’m ruining my spiritual illusion, but I’m way too tired and sore to put on any pretence today.

“No! You must not resort to drugs, they will wear your body down and they will muddy your consciousness. Ayurveda, however, is an Indian traditional medicine, the word itself translates to science of life. You must trust me, it will heal you.” He holds the packets out to me once again and, mainly because I can’t be bothered to fight him anymore but also because I know it will make him happy, I reach out and take them.

“Thank you so much, I really do appreciate it,” I say as I notice a slight look of aggravation on his face. Clearly, this man doesn’t like to be told no. Without saying anything, he stands and starts to walk away, but just as he reaches the doorway he turns back. “If you’re well tomorrow, Daisy has organized a kirtan circle at sunset where we have been meeting.”

Damn that pinkie. But at least he’s inviting me.

“I’ll be there. I just… love those circles!” I give him a Namaste and hurry back upstairs before he can ask me any more about yet another thing I haven’t the faintest clue about.

Back up in my room, I throw the packets of disgusting powder into the bin and then immediately take them back out again. I flop on to my bed and simply stare at them for a few minutes.

“These are a sign,” I say out loud to myself, a smile playing on my lips. And I truly believe they are. A sign that my plan is working, that David actually gives a shit about my wellbeing and that it might actually be possible to sustain some sort of relationship with him. “Tomorrow night, I’ll tell him,” I say out loud again.

Oh God, what do they say about talking to yourself? That it’s the first sign of madness? I decide to turn Animal Planet back on and focus on Steve Irwin’s glutes until I fall asleep.

I’m walking through the dark, dank back alleys of Varanasi. I’m searching for something but I can’t quite remember what it is. I push past withered, bent old men with soiled clothes and gap-toothed leers, past fresh cow dung pats stuck drying on the walls and skinny goats bleating for scraps. My sense of urgency increases and I start running through the inky darkness.

Suddenly, a hand shoots out of a doorway, takes me firmly by the wrist and drags me inside. It’s pitch black and I can’t see a single foot in front of me. My heart starts thudding wildly with fear; I open my mouth to scream but nothing comes out. I’m led down a long corridor until we reach another door that my turbaned captor opens. We emerge back outside and as my eyes start adjusting to a lighter shade of dark, I hear water lapping against stone. We must be down by the ghats.

Just then, my captor turns to face me. At first I can’t make out who it is, but as my eyes continue to adjust I realise it’s him. David puts his index finger to his lips and motions for me to follow him towards the water. As we get closer the wind picks up and I slow down.

“I’m scared,” I say, but my words are snatched away with the wind. We get to the edge of the stone and I look down, and realise with a start that we’re actually much higher than I thought and it’s a drop of a few hundred metres to the water below. I take a step back but David grabs my wrist again.

“I’m scared!” This time I shout it and he drops my wrist. I turn to thank him but he seems to have vanished.

“Hello?” I shout out into the darkness. “Hello?” Suddenly, I feel a push from behind and I’m falling, falling through the air to the depths below…

I wake with a gasp, my heart thudding and the hotel phone ringing insistently beside me. It takes a few deep breaths for me to calm down enough to pick up and croak out a Namaste.

“Namaste, madam. This is reception. Since we saw you not at all last night or this morning at breakfast, we were concerned about your health and wanted to check that you were ok. Are you, madam?”

“What… what time is it?” I’m still in a groggy sleep haze.

“It’s 10.13am, madam.”

“Shit! Sorry, but I had no idea I’d been out for that long – that’s like 16 hours or something! Anyway I’m fine, I think it’s passed now but thanks for your concern, that’s very sweet.”

I hang up the phone and collapse back on to the pillows. This crazy super bug has really taken it out of me, but at least it feels like the worst of it’s over. I spend the rest of the morning getting myself back in order. I take a long, soothing shower and wash my hair, shave my legs and even go so far as to exfoliate my entire body. I pop on a cleansing mud pack, practice a couple of David’s yoga stretches and a bit of that mad breathing that led to this whole revolting episode. I even manage to keep a few pieces of stale room-service bread down.

By early afternoon I’m feeling much less crappy and allow myself to start thinking about seeing David tonight. I ignore the foreboding lurch in the pit of my belly, telling myself it must be a remnant of that awful dream, and start to plan. Tonight’s the night, the great reveal. I have to be ready.