TRAVELS WITH NINA

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

Chapter Twenty

I don’t have a clue where I’m going, I just know I need to get out of here. I’m back at the hotel, trying to cram the ridiculous mountain of clothes I’ve somehow accumulated over the past five days into my suitcase as I cry like a baby.

Everything’s fucked up. Every. Single. Thing.

Turns out David’s a heartless prick just like mum said he was and now I’m left exactly where I started, fatherless and with no one to love me. My marriage is falling apart because my husband refuses to understand me, I’m still no closer to figuring out what the hell I’m going to do about my job, or even what I want to do with my life, and I feel like enlightenment is still as fucking far away as the moon.

I shove my last pair of harem pants into the front pocket of my suitcase, splash some water on my face, then scuttle down to reception where the airport mini-bus I’d asked the hotel to book me on is waiting for me. As I lug my suitcase up the steps, I hesitate for a moment. Peace is going to be back tomorrow, she’ll be expecting me to be here waiting for her. But I’ll just have to text her, because right now I need to get the hell out of this city. With renewed purpose, I swing my bag up the final step and stumble into the first vacant seat I can find.

P, EVERYTHING FUCKED UP WITH MY DAD. YOU WERE RIGHT, I SHOULD HAVE TOLD THE TRUTH FROM THE START. WE BOTH SHOUD HAVE. I HAD TO LEAVE, I NEED SOME TIME ALONE. I’M SORRY…

I send the message then turn my phone off. I can’t deal with any of her I told you so’s right now. I just need to get away.

I pop a Valium and settle back in my seat. After a couple of minutes my eyes start to flutter closed and I let a wave of fatigue wash over me. I’m drifting out and away, further and further from the heavy stone of anger and regret that’s firmly lodged in the pit of my stomach.

“Mind if I join ya?” A thick Aussie drawl drags me back to shore. I open one eye to find a tall, weedy man with thinning, greasy shoulder-length brown hair, khaki shorts and a faded navy blue Bonds wife beater singlet standing in front of me. A goofy grin spreads across his craggy face and the scar across his right cheek makes it pucker in a particularly annoying way.

“Guess I’ll take that as a yes!” He laughs, plonking himself down next to me and banging my knee with his.

“Sorry love, bloody daddy long legs I am! Name’s Matt.” He thrusts his enormous, knobbly-knuckled camel hand in my face. I stare at it. “Cat gotcha tongue?” He pulls his hand back into his lap and lets out a deep sigh. “I really love this time of night. Everything’s so peaceful and quiet, not too scorchin’ yet. Magic, really.” He gazes out the window and wraps his hands around the back of his head, revealing a forest of musty armpit hair. He’s not going anywhere.

“Margaux, with an X,” I say, opening the other eye. You know what they say, if you can’t beat ‘em…

“Well that’s a fancy schmancy name now isn’t it? That French or somethin’?”

“I don’t know, it’s just the way mum spelt it.”

“So what brings a pretty lady like you to crazy Varanasi?” He looks me up and down and nods his head a little. Yuk.

“Just a holiday,” I reply curtly. There’s a minute of awkward silence and I start to think he just might slither away.

“Yeah well for me, India’s all about findin’ a place to work on me chai energy.”

“You mean your chi energy?”

“Yeah, that’s the one! I have this muay tai course comin’ up in Thailand, but it ain’t for another month and I had all this time off from workin’ in the mines in WA so I thought, hey while I’m on this spiritual kinda journey thing I might as well head to India.” He props his legs up on the armrest opposite us. “I’ve wanted to come here ever since I read that books Shantaram. You ever read it? It’s me favourite. Even went to Leopold’s Bar where the book’s set in Mumbai on me way to Varanasi on a sorta pilgrimage!” Another snort of laughter as he sinks further into his seat.

“Anyway, I’ve smoked enough chillum in two weeks here to send meself off to heaven in a puff a smoke, so I reckon it’s about time to head off to one of them ashrams in Rishikesh. You heard of the place?”

“No, I haven’t.”

Another snort of laughter and he’s spinning around to face me. I should have known better than to get started with this dufus.

“Love, you’ve gotta whole lot to learn about India! You ain’t read Shantaram, you ain’t hearda Rishikesh, jeez!” He’s shaking his head and everything. What a tool bag. Is it really too much to ask to meet one normal, decent person in this godforsaken country? “Well, Rishikesh is where the Beatles went to find their spirituality. It’s pretty famous and it’s full of, like, holy men and ashrams and shit, so I reckon it’s gotta be pretty good for the ol’ chai energy.”

“Chi energy.”

“Yeah that’s the one love. So. Where you headed?”

“I haven’t actually figured that out yet,” I say, my heavy eyes sifting over a passing goat herd. It’s true, I haven’t. I was planning to just get to the airport and then get on the first flight to… well, anywhere but Varanasi.

“Ahh, livin’ life on the lam, are ya? That’s me favourite way to travel, actually. Well if it’s spirituality or anythink you’re lookin’ for, I reckon Rishi might be a good place for ya.”

“Mmm,” is all I can muster. It does sound pretty good, if the Beatles were there it must be fabulous, but could I really stomach this dude all the way there?

“How long does it take to get there?” I ask as casually as I can.

“It’s not too bad. Quick flight to Delhi, another to Dehradun, then only about an hour or so in a cab to the ‘shram. I’ve already booked that too so you could just hitch a ride with me.”

Maybe I’m too buggered to figure anything else out. Maybe I get the feeling that this dude won’t take no for an answer. Or maybe I really do believe this place might be the answer to all my ‘chai’ problems. For whatever reason, I find myself nodding my head in agreement before a wave of sleep washes me away.

***

I once read an Alain de Boton lecture at uni, while I was studying communications, that said if you want to convince someone of something, you can’t put them in a really ugly building. You need architecture to work with you to the point.

Well, this ashram is going to have a friggin’ tough time convincing me to even get out of bed in the morning. I did manage to wrangle myself a private room (it’s $9 instead of $6 a night, hardly breaking the bank), but it’s completely bare with concrete floors and cracked walls the colour of stale pee, with just one tiny window that’s not much bigger than my head looking out onto the wall of the house opposite. It’s got one of those hideous fluorescent lights too, you know the ones – they’d make even Kate Moss look like she had jaundice. And the bathroom doesn’t even have a frigging shower, just a tap with a bucket underneath it and one of those squeegee things to clean the floor.

I do my best to brighten up the depressing space, throwing a bejeweled pashmina here, tossing a coin necklace there, lighting a little incense and splashing some lavender oil on the sheets, before a bell starts ringing telling me it’s time for our afternoon yoga class. Yep, a bloody bell, just like in primary school.

The yoga hall itself isn’t exactly what I’d describe as an inspiring space either, but it’s not entirely miserable thanks to lots of big windows and a few Buddha statues and marigold garlands.

I grab a purple mat from the colourful stack at the back of the room and find a spot between the scattered bodies lying on their backs. I throw down my mat, lie down and watch a skink wriggle its way up the cracked wall for a few minutes until a voice comes wafting down from the front of the room.

“Thank you all for coming. This afternoon, we will continue to concentrate on the words ‘so’ and ‘hum’ for our yoga practisss. With each in-breath you must think ‘so’, breathing in the energy of the universe. And with each out-breath you must think ‘hum’, breathing out the energy of your ego.” Right. Of course.

I prop myself up on my elbows and open my eyes to slits to get a sneak peek of this wack job. There he is, sitting up on the raised platform at the front of the room, a very skinny, very short Indian man in white kurta and trousers, a saffron scarf thrown around his neck and wavy black hair slicked back into a low, curly ponytail.

I lay back down and pretty soon the class has started. The kooky little Indian’s being easy on us – he keeps tying himself up into these crazy pretzel shapes but then laughs and gives us the easy version along with lots of slow breathing. But I’m finding it impossible to concentrate. Every move’s accompanied by a thought, and usually a pretty torturous one at that.

I push back into a downward dog and wonder why I was ever stupid enough to come to India in the first place.

I tuck myself up into child’s pose and all I see is the look on David’s face when he found out who I really was.

I fold down into a forward bend and start thinking about how much I’m starting to miss my husband.

But after about fifteen minutes, as the poses become more difficult and I have to concentrate harder on them, I find the thoughts melting away as I drop completely into my body. By the end of it I’m covered in sweat and as red as the sole of a Louboutin, but I feel on top of the world.

Then dinner happens, and the buzz quickly fizzles out.

First of all, we have to use the same plate for our entire stay – it’s a hideous metal thing with different sections for different foods, like the ones they have in prison, and we have to wash them ourselves after each and every meal. Second of all, the food is revolting. Tonight we’re eating some lentil stew thing that they spooned melted butter on top of, with some kind of snotty vegetable and a glass of tepid water. Spew. Third of all, we have to sit on the floor lining the walls and use these stupid little footstool things as individual tables while we slurp up our mush. And fourth of all we have to eat in complete silence, although that’s actually probably a good thing, because what comes after dinner is even worse.

“So this American I spoke to after yoga this arvo told me that after dinner everyone usually sits ‘round and chews the fat with a cuppa. Sounds pretty good aye?” whispers Matt to me as we wash our prison plates in an enormous grimy sink. I’ve never been a fan of the sit-round-and-chat-with-strangers scenario, and the absence of alcohol to lubricate the conversation makes me like the idea even less. I manage a smile and a “mmhmm,” then attempt to scuttle back to my room as quickly as possible. Only problem is that my room is right next to where the tea urn is, and before I know it I’ve had a prison mug thrust in my hand by an overzealous 24-year-old American journalism student with a mono-brow who wants to bond.

I have no choice.

I’m trapped.

I take a seat on the wooden bench next to this not-at-all fabulous girl with my tea. In fact, no one here seems to be fabulous in any way – there’s no-one rocking boho chic and I saw far too many pinkie types over dinner for my liking. I thought only creative types with addictions and strung-out musos and actors came to these sorts of places. Where are they all? Or have I got ashrams confused with rehab?

“So what brought you here?” Her beady piglet eyes stare right into mine and I wonder how soon I can pretend to need the loo. Or to have an epileptic fit. Or to do anything to get me away from this incredibly big dag.

“I just came here on a whim this morning. With him.” I point to Matt, a gesture that I hope will act as a sort of conversational baton pass. It doesn’t work; she doesn’t even look at him. I can’t blame her really.

“Wow, that’s awesome. Sounds like the energies of the place drew you here, huh?”

“Something like that,” I mumble, just to make life easy for myself. I’m not planning on baring my soul to some clapped out hippie who’s probably never even heard of Louis Vuitton.

It continues like this for a while, her asking inane questions and me giving monosyllabic answers, before she starts blathering on about how she just finished a yoga teacher-training course.

“You know, it was really challenging, both for my body and my mind. But there was one moment, about halfway through the course, when the most incredible thing happened.”

She folds her legs up under herself and tucks her hair behind her ears, all excited.

“I was lying there in shavasana, wondering if I was strong enough to finish the course, when suddenly I had a vision. It was a white tiger coming towards me, and he said, ‘continue on the path of purity.’”

She actually puts on a deep voice at this point, like that’s the way she thinks tigers sound when they talk.

“I mean talk about signs, right? I was so blown away, and I managed to push through the course, remembering that tiger every step of the way.”

She gazes off into the distance in I guess what she thinks is a pure-looking way while she waits for my reaction.

“That was amazing,” comes a voice that isn’t mine. We both look up to see a short European-looking chick with a brown bob and those hideous poo-catcher pants everyone’s wearing around here.

“Sorry, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop,” she says in a thick Italian accent as she plonks herself down next to me. “You see, I did my yoga teacher training a couple of years back in the mountains in Japan and I know how challenging it can be. You’re so lucky you had a spirit animal come and help guide you through. I’m right into spirit animals now. I was travelling in the Amazon and found this amazing shaman who introduced me to them.” She looks from the American to me, from me to the American and back again. Clearly she’s very impressed with herself.

“Yeah, I was feeling the Amazon thing a couple of years ago,” says the American. “I was going to go to this incredible Ayahuasca lodge but something came up and I didn’t end up going.” She flicks her hair in a way that says trumped you bitch to the Italian. Jeez, I had no idea these spiritual types were so competitive. “You know what Ayahuasca is, right? It’s this amazing hallucinogenic drug that you can use to get rid of all, like, your inner demons.”

“Of course I know,” counters the Italian. “I did it when I was there. You should definitely have done it, it changed my life. I mean, for the first day I was just vomiting and shitting everywhere, but once my body was purified I dealt with my demons. I mean I really dealt with my demons. I was guided out of the darkness.” She does the back and forth look again, even more expectant this time. “At one point there was this huge spider scratching at the inside of my belly, trying to get out of me. I can’t tell you what it symbolized but… it was heavy.” She gazes down at her hands and takes a deep breath, putting on a real show.

“You’ve really gotta be ready for Ayahuasca,’ says a balding, overweight, totally camp American from where he’s sitting over in the corner. He walks over with his tea and sits beside the Italian.

“I did it in Big Sur a few years ago, I thought I was ready for it because I’d read all the books and watched all the docos and had all the crystals and mandalas and smudges. But I’ll tell you what, nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of that experience. I’m lucky I didn’t lose my mind entirely.” He’s rubbing his chubby little hands together, clearly pleased that he’s now one-upped the Italian, who’s looking pretty pissed off by this point.

“I was really dark for me, not the heavenly realms I’d hoped for. I remember entering a tunnel of fire and heading down to a hell realm. I didn’t know where I was going or why, but then I suddenly glimpsed the bottom of the tunnel. I remember leaping back in shock.”

He actually leaps out of his seat a little. Oh the drama of it all.

“I could see myself, but as a little boy. This little boy was huddled, captive,” – my god, now he’s performing a hideous pantomime of being huddled on the floor – “in a ball of fire before the three thrones of the devil and his sidekicks. And as soon as I reached the little boy he began wailing, ‘Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!’” He wipes a tear from his eye as the show draws to a close. “Later, I realized that must have been a part of me that I lost, long ago.” He sits back up on the bench again, stretching his arms above his head.

That’s it. I’ve had just about all I can take of these spiritual Olympics. I ran away from Aspire partially because I couldn’t stand the constant one-upmanship there; the whose-bags-more-expensive, who’s-had-more-work-done competitions used to do my head in. But I think this actually might be worse. I mutter something about needing to get a pen to write all this amazing stuff down and scuttle off to my room.

Bolting my door shut, I flop down on to my rock hard single bed and stare at the dust-encrusted ceiling fan whirring above me. I thought this would be a place of solace, where I could really give myself space to contemplate what’s going on with me and where I want to go with my life. But with all these self-interested kooks around trying to out-spiritualise each other, I can see that’s going to be pretty bloody impossible. I pop a valium then stare at the ceiling, seething and hating until that delicious marshmallow feeling starts throbbing through my body and sleep closes in around me.

I’m in a cavernous, warehouse-style shop. It’s darkly lit, so dark that I can barely see the merchandise. There’s no one else in the store, I can’t even seem to find a sales person. As I wander through the gloom, I spot a beautiful display cabinet filled with crystal glasses. They’re just like the ones mum has, I think; the ones she never let me touch when I was a little. But I can touch them now.

I pull the little cabinet’s door and it swings open easily. I reach my hand out to one of the glasses and gingerly pick it up. Under the light of a single bare bulb I turn it over in my hands, admiring the hand-crafted, paper thin crystal with it’s art-deco style engravings.

I want this glass. I need this glass.

But as I turn around to see if I can spot a salesperson, it slips through my fingers and crashes to the floor. I stare down at the smashed pieces, so very many of them, my hands shaking slightly and my heart thudding. Guiltily, I start quickly picking up some of the larger pieces, cutting my fingers as I do so but continuing to shove them into my handbag anyway. I can hide what I’ve done. I can fix this.

“Excuse me?” A voice comes from the dark void, and I stand up and quickly start walking out of the store, the broken crystal crunching beneath my feet.

“Excuse me?” The voice again, a little closer now.

I break into a run, my heart beating wildly.

I can fix this.