The Enlightening Power of an Apricot
Words/Photos by Kim Feldmann
I step inside the bus at the scheduled departure time but the driver is busy fiddling with the engine. Bags, baskets, suitcases, and rucksacks are thrown atop. People come in a hurried pace, sinking their bottoms on any given seat, rendering my ticket and early arrival useless. Men run behind the bus station and find a spot on the rubble for one last wee. It’s a cosmopolitan crowd, and considering the street lights have just switched off, a very energetic one.
I feel slightly out of place just as any foreigner would, but a deep breath keeps me at ease. If the bus doesn’t start, I won’t go; if there aren’t enough seats, I shall stand. I observe. I reconsider. I acknowledge. I merge. I change. That is what I’m here for; that is why I go places. I hike over bags and children and claim a seat of my on.
On my lap sits a 30L, waterproof backpack with everything I need – and own. At present, it is set to bus-journey mode: a 1L bottle of mineral water fits firmly into the lateral net pocket; sleeping bag, 13” laptop, hard-drive, towel, notebooks, and enough clothes for three months strategically entangle in the main compartment. Four packages of wet-wipes cushion my camera from above. A bag of dried apricots bought at the local market earlier this morning blocks the string-tied opening. Everything is an unlace, unhook or unclip away and I’m sure I’ve left nothing behind.
When the engine chokes and roars into a start, I reach into the packet and, blowing some microscopical foreign bodies off the hand-picked, home-packaged apricots, munch on the dusty fruit for breakfast.
I’m in Ladakh, a region in India’s Jammu & Kashmir state that borders Pakistan and Tibet, and the bus is headed north-west to the village of Tur-Tuk, from where you can supposedly see the K2. Despite it being a historical trade hub, infrastructure is not something the region can pride itself on: The ups and downs on narrow gravel with gorges to one side and crumbling rock walls to the other require both instinct, skills, and, preferably, four-wheel traction. I doubt this old TATA bus from colonial India is 4WD, and the driver looks underage. Accidents are rarely fatal, but not unheard of. There is the odd group of foreigners on their rented Royal Enfields driving as if they were on the autobahn. There are thousand-meter-high drops delineating most of the road we drive on. Somehow, the latter feels less hazardous than the first. I chew a handful of dried apricots and watch the precipice below.
All the turning and bumping and waggling begins to stir something inside me. Not figuratively – it is not an emotion that stirs, but a substance of some sort. At first there is no alarm; after all, having sat on a bus for the past four hours, it is a matter of course my body responds. But then come the belly grunts. After an intermittent sequence of duller noises – always followed by a tremble – the stomach orchestra stops.
I let a doubtful sigh, for in a situation like this, on a crowded bus at 3000 meters of altitude and miles away from any toilet or bush, I need more than a mere pause to truly grasp relief.
Images of emergency escapes flicker lively in my mind’s eye. I try to con my thoughts away from the daymare by reminiscing on how I got here. Like the shaky frames of the world’s proto-films, I relive my day from the start: the waking up, the chai at the kiosk around the corner from the guest house, walking to the market and purchasing the apricots, heading to the bus station. Mind-tricking myself diminishes both the cramps and the premonition of their potential consequence. But then I feel hungry.
All around us is rock and dust. The way from Leh until our first stop in Nubra Valley winds constantly, and when it doesn’t, the long straight road shows no end in sight, squeezing the horizon out of me. It’s a high-altitude desert and as far as I’m currently concerned, not very different from any concrete-laden metropolis. One is the raw material, the other its anthropomorphized product. We’ve just learned to overvalue the beauty of that which is yet to be build because we continue to perceive ourselves unintegrated in nature, struggling to appreciate that which we have created.
We drive past another group of people standing by the roadside: workers, their bodies fully covered, a t-shirt-cum-mask and sunglasses blocking their eyes, a determined posture sheltering their fatigue.
They hammer the ground and move rocks around, stopping for a brief stare at the bus, returning to dirt and shovel as soon as we pass.
With the thick, high-altitude air, they probably don’t sweat as much as if they hacked stones at sea level, but they sure gasp more often. I stare back at them with a shiek around my neck and no idea what goes through their minds.
The stomach cramps return at full steam; frantic agitations protuberate my t-shirt. Looking around at my neighbours’ expressionless faces, I can feel my own lineaments contorting with the ache. But apart from the noise, the involuntary movements of the abdomen, and the needle puncturing my insides every now and then, nothing is actually happening.
An eruption doesn’t feel imminent.
As I sink into my seat in pseudo-relaxation, the bus halts to a stop. A congregation of houses shields both sides of the dusty road. The pubertal voice resounding from the driver’s mouth announces a 20-minute stop.
Twenty minutes standing seem to have settled my organism somewhat: I’m glad, but aware; hopeful, but sceptical. In order to reconnect with the present-tense – from where I have been diving and resurfacing constantly through daydream – I spin my neck and scan around, my eyes sentient for the first time since we left Leh six hours ago. I stop at the seat to my left, where a woman – blond, short hair, lean posture, narrow blue eyes, at least forty years old – looks strangely at ease. On her lap, a set of 50mm lens attached to a Canon 5D (which probably costs more than the bus) moves gently with the motion of the ride. Her left hand rests on the gadget, but it’s her right hand gripping the bare metal rail of the seat ahead what truly impedes both bodies from hitting the ground.
She senses my stare and opens a smile with her head still facing forward, as if saying I know you’re looking.
“I’m from France but this is probably my twentieth time in India,” Julie tells me, her eyes unable to hide the fervour the word ‘India’ incites within her. “I’m a photographer and my work is pretty much all about this country – India is my muse,” she elucidates the mystery behind the expensive gear and overconfidence. As we continue to chatter about the different shades of the country she has sensed and captured, my mind sneakingly wonders if she has ever been in the situation I was in just a while ago. A hankering for commiseration and advice teases me to throw the topic out there – something like “So, what’s the deal with these long bus journeys and stomachache?” My anticipation of embarrassment holds me back.
She segues with her storytelling and I instinctively reach for the apricots, throwing them into my mouth as I would with popcorn, watching her act out her stories as I would with a film.
Then a twinge in my stomach steals the scene.
The bus slows down; I can hear the driver speak to someone through the window. A loud creak opens the door, a softer creak lifts the figure of an elderly woman inside, and with her upward motion, the pain in my gut escalates. I can’t pinpoint its nucleus but I sense that what was once the ideation of an eruption is about to become real. Eyes closed, I think of the buses back home and the times I was stuck in traffic for hours, on roads fenced with restaurants and cafes, always a bush around, plenty of toilets to choose from. My eyelids part – I’m still here.
The mid-afternoon light breaks through the dusty windows, and in a debile response I squint to see a bunch of rooftops outside. I turn to Julie – who by now has stopped talking and watches me attentively as if about to unwrap a present.
There is a split second of stillness.
Then I spring from my seat – bag in hand, apricots now on the floor –, exclaim “just leave without me” twice and stampede to the door. I don’t know if Julie understood what I said but I’m sure she understood what I meant. I run around the front of the bus and disappear into the village.
On a dark alley shaded by the straw roofs of stone houses, I halt at the sight of a child – probably old enough to give directions – hanging off a second-floor windowsill. “Toilet?!” I beg him, likewise begging that globalization has touched this part of the world. I also hope “toilet” doesn’t translate into “school” or “church” in his language, for I once met a Taiwanese guy named Tai who, while travelling somewhere in southern India, was advised to change his name to anything other than Tai, since ‘Tai’ meant “penis” in the local dialect.
Much like Tai’s fate had a lot to do with the person who suggested the name change, my own fate here is literally in the hands of a nipper. Unaware of his responsibility, the boy points to a light at the end of the alleyway, towards a clearance where a roofless building of four naked brick walls and a wooden door stands, pot-of-gold-like.
I run in – it’s a toilet. I sigh and lock the door.
The lock is far too modern for such rustic construction but I don’t think about it; there is a chasm on the dirt ground and that is where I direct my focus. Time stops. I barely perceive the mechanics; my entire organism floods with a mix of emotions like never before. Fear becomes joy which turns into dread until metamorphosing into relief. I am the quintessence of humanity – a vortex of contradictions. This is the epicentre of the most beautiful hurricane I have ever witnessed.
Its raving winds blow all my preconceived notions of “problem” a million miles away.
Here, crouching half-naked between an aperture on the earth and the cloudless Ladakhi sky, I question my entire existence and conclude that real necessities are few and, more often than not, unsophisticated. Diverting as thoughts are, mine manufacture a hatred towards apricots, dried fruit in general. But as justifiable as the hatred may be, it can’t seem to gain momentum – I’m enveloped in love and gratitude and acceptance and the most surprising ilk of peace. No ashram or week-long meditation course provides such insight. I wonder if I have reached enlightenment.
A knock on the door interrupts my rumination.
“Man, we gotta go!”
It’s a polite voice; a voice taken there almost against its will, with a duty to fulfil, not meaning to intrude. I recognize the voice: other than Julie and the old man at the market from whom I purchased the (possibly poisonous) apricots, this is the only other voice I heard today.
“Just a second!” I shout back, knowing it will be more than a second.
Silence…then a much harder knock, a single arresting punch, shakes the door. Either someone else is there or I just offended the first knocker with my lie.
“You go – now!” threatens the puncher. It is an impatient, perhaps even upset punch. It makes me realize I never stopped to consider that this may be someone else’s private toilet.
“Can you please give me a few more minutes?”
“No! No foreigners here!”
“C’mon, one minute please?!”
No sound comes from the other side of the wall. Then the first knocker breaks the silence:
“Everyone on the bus is waiting for you.”
“That’s fine, you can leave without me – I’ll find my way to TurTuk later.”
“Are you crazy?! There is no one else going to TurTuk from here. This is the last bus today.”
“I’ll get a taxi or hitch a ride.”
“Man, there are no taxis here and no one goes to TurTuk – it is the end of the road.”
“It’s 18km away! It’ll be dark soon!”
“Then I’ll just sleep here and either walk or catch the bus tomorrow,” I say, trying to wrap up the case.
Just then the puncher jumps into the conversation: “I say no foreigners here!”
Acknowledging I won’t win the argument, I decide to buy time by feeding them random questions, all the while hoping that, despite his anger and resentment, the puncher won’t kick the door open.
“Why no foreigners? I just need a place to sleep for tonight and tomorrow morning I’m gone.”
His sigh seeps through the tiny gap between the door and its frame.
It is a language I don’t understand. I reconsider the kicking-the-door-open thing.
* * *
For someone who was so much at peace only ten minutes ago, musing about life, appreciative of this unexpected experience, I start to sweat quite a bit. Not because of heat or effort – we are at 300m of altitude in non-tropical India and there was no effort whatsoever in undergoing my business – but sheer fear.
A fear that relates more to embarrassment than pain, yet I classify as fear due to its alarming properties, something embarrassment lacks.
Regardless of what it is, this fear-cum-embarrassment has little to do with what people may think of me and more to do with my behaviour towards people. It’s a cultural shame, the everlasting fine-line between a local and a foreigner: Why didn’t the bus depart at the scheduled time and people didn’t seat on designated seats? Why couldn’t I spend the night at this village before Tur-Tuk? Why was my organism so sensitive to dried apricots?
On the way back to the bus, I think of Julie and wonder if she, with all her knowledge and wisdom gathered over years of traversing India, would have had a tip for me.
I think of all the guidebooks and travel forums I never read and wonder whether they would’ve prepared me for any of this.
I promise myself that once there is electricity and Wi-Fi I’ll write about extra-ordinary, non-marketable, potential features of a long bus trip in northern India, emphasizing the cost-benefit of purchasing hand-picked, home-packaged, unlabelled dried fruit.
I reckon this is as important to address as “Where to Stay in Delhi” or “10 things to do in Rajahstan.” If anything, I should warn people to bring more wet tissues than they would deem needed.