India – the perils of delegation


It was my and Cat’s turn.  We wrote a list (‘feed twenty-five tonight’), grabbed the red handles of the giant green canvas shopping bags and stepped off the truck.  The calls of ‘good luck!’ from our fellow travelers disappeared into the traffic.

Two white teenaged girls, one busy, grubby outdoor market in Jaipur, India.  What could possibly go wrong?  The oppressive monsoonal clouds and vague grumbles of thunder answered our question.

Cat and I were the two youngest members of an overland adventure travel group, who had started in London about three months earlier and was making its way to Kathmandu.  There were two dozen of us on The Truck and every night a different pair of us cooked for the rest, meaning each pair’s turn came around every 10 days or so.  Cat and I, being just teenagers, not having even really left home yet, had no idea how to cook for one, let alone group such as this.  We’d had many disastrous meals along the way, the highlight of which was the burnt rice pudding dessert just outside Damascus.  We’d decided that tonight, since we were in India, we’d do a curry.

By chance, where we had disembarked the truck was by a vegetable stand.  The owner, wearing a once-white shirt and a grin, looked at us.  We looked at him, then looked at the stall.  We pointed, he looked blank; we touched, he became animated; we held up fingers and showed cash, he started packing. Rupees were exchanged, and we crossed a few things off our list.

Evidently while our transaction was occurring someone who spoke English had been summoned.

“Please, I can help you.” It was a statement, not a question.

Cat and I had been on the road for long enough to know that saying “no” to such an invitation would not have any effect.  With an exchange of glances it was agreed, we would use help.

“Please, what you looking for?”

“Chicken,” we said, choosing the hardest thing on the list.

“No problem,” the world-standard answer came.  “How much chicken you want?”

This is where our hard-won experience hadn’t helped us.  Throughout the journey, when it was our turn to cook, we had always chosen vegetarian.  Rice with everything, veggies, and spices.  However, tonight the group had asked, insisted actually, that we cook something with meat.

We had no idea how much chicken was needed to feed 25 people.  So we said, innocently: “to feed twenty five”.

The Market Man understood: here were two girls who had been given a job they were wholly unsuited to.  They had rupees and were clueless.  How could any self-respecting entrepreneur resist?

“Please,” he said, “I help you, show me everything you are needing”

We offered our list, and immediately several small boys were summoned.  Inquiries were made to us, handwriting deciphered; the amount of rupees available was ascertained.  Cat and I were now entirely within their trap.

“Please, how much time you have? One hour OK?”

We agreed. And with that our list and shopping bags were whisked away.  By this point a reasonably large crowd had gathered and were watching with interest.

“Ok, now come for tea.” Another statement.

We relented.  We knew where this was going – someone’s cousin’s carpet shop or the like.  We were not wrong.

We were steered along the main road then into a side street.  In hindsight we should have felt at least a little wary, but, we were road-hardened, world-weary. Plus there were two of us: we knew we’d survived worse.

Our destination was not a carpet shop but a jewelry store.  It was the size of the inside of a car, with a narrow bench counter fixed to one wall and a low table with two chairs in the center of the room.  The walls were lined with cabinets , the shelves just a few inches wide, the glass doors latched with inadequate hooks.  A few earrings were hooked into the velvet lining the insides. It was extremely dark.

Market Man left us to the owner of the shop.  He wanted to know everything; where we came from, why we were here, where we were going, and what we thought of India and Jaipur.  Eventually we got to the business at hand. He brought out all kinds of silver/pewter jewelry – earrings for Cat, necklaces and bracelets for me.  No prices were discussed.  Tea was served.

Cat and I were, of course, not at all interested in buying jewelry. As far as we were concerned, we’d offloaded our shopping responsibilities, gotten a free cup of tea and a sit down, and soon we’d be making our excuses and leaving.

But our hosts had seen our kind of traveler before.  Not your usual European or American tourist, flashing money and complaining about the noise and the smell.  Our kind of traveler was one that wanted an ‘experience’, a story to tell their friends, something to show for it.  Show us an experience, and we’d be willing to buy something for the trouble.

Despite our road-weariness, our self confidence and our safe knowledge that two white girls would be missed if anything befell us, our lack of sense was plainly irresponsible.  No-one knew where we were, this was 1998 so had no internet, no mobile phones, and we didn’t have the phone number of the accommodation where our group was staying. At this precise time we had no idea where we were in the city, and we had a big pile of money in our pockets.  Our group didn’t know where we were either.  It took me about ten years before I got the courage to tell my mother what happened next.

With our disinterest in his range of jewelry obvious, the owner informed us he and his brother would take us to another jewelry shop where the selection was better.  Again, glances were exchanged, and an agreement was reached.  We would go to the next jewelry shop.

What we weren’t expecting were the motorbikes.

I had never ridden on a motorbike before, as passenger or pillion and I’m pretty sure Cat hadn’t either.  But no matter: we were thinking YOLO before it was even a thing.

We each got on a bike behind a brother.  There were no helmets of course, and we were just wearing cotton trousers and T-shirts. We were about to experience Indian traffic up close and personal.

The sky rumbled.

We inched along the back alley until we came to the T-junction with the main road. From our low vantage point it seemed that everything on the road was bigger than us. Trucks thundered past, buses honked and spewed diesel smoke, bicycles rushed in every direction and taxis zoomed in and out.

My driver took a run at the traffic into an imaginary gap and I reflexively recoiled.  This had the disastrous effect of putting the bike off balance and we nearly both ended up in the street.

“Please, don’t do again.”

Cat was already ahead on the other bike.  With an arm outstretched we merged into the traffic. It was terrifying, and exhilarating.

When we finally arrived at the next jewelry shop and the usual round of introductions, questions and viewings, Cat bought some earrings.  Then we asked to go back to the market.

Another hair-raising ride later we were deposited at the market, which was now strangely almost deserted.  Our helpers were waiting for us, bags bulging.  We made a cursory inspection, mainly to check they weren’t just filled with bricks, checked the receipt, which of course had been extremely inflated, paid up and grabbed a rickshaw back to the accommodation.

We had just made it through the gates when the heavens opened.  The rain was intense so we set up the cooking tables under an outdoor shelter near the fish pond in the grounds.  A couple of our guys had stayed behind to help us cook and they opened our bags as the rain sheeted off the roof and splashed our feet.

“What the **** is this?” shouted Allan over the rain. “Is this supposed to be chicken?”

In fairness, it was chicken, but the best that could be said about it was that it was rotten chicken.  Utterly.  Not only that, it had soaked all it’s rotteny goodness through the canvas bags, making them rancid as well.

The boys were not happy.

The rest of the group were also not happy, having been caught in the monsoon, soaked to their waists in the flooding streets and then coming back to find that dinner was going to be a bit thin on the ground that evening.

Cat and my reputation for being the worst cooks in the group was safe.  We didn’t care. We’d had an adventure. Not that we told anyone exactly what happened that afternoon.

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True story – fine details added where memory failed. More stories to come.

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