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The Rocky Road to Rishakesh 2017

Out of my comfort zone

Laura Rifkin

India

I am about to board a bus arriving in Agra at sunrise. After a few hours of exploring the Taj Mahal, I'll take a night bus to Rishakesh. I've been warned about Agra, but crave the photo of myself there, levitating the dome by its tip. Daydreaming shifts to hyper-vigilance, as I realize that I am the only woman boarding the bus. All eyes are locked on me. We arrive 3 hours early. The streets are dangerous at night. I join three Korean men who speak no English. We find a cheap hotel and sleep back to back until the sun rises. When I wake, the men are gone. In the hallway, a woman tells me that there is a bus strike. How will I get to Rishakesh? I try to sort my travel plans, before exploring, but can't find an affordable solution, after hours of trying.
I walk to the Taj Mahal. A photographer takes my cliched Taj Mahal photo. I feel small as the dome towers over me. I go to the main structure. The space inside is small. It is silent, with the occasional muffled sob, and coin being tossed. The sun is setting, the colors of the stone changing with the sky. I walk toward the gates, while turning around to say goodbye, as I leave.
In front of a guesthouse, I ask if anyone is headed north. No results. A short, strong Indian man approaches. He is middle aged. He has greasy black hair, and jaundiced eyes. His yellow teeth are sharpened into points. He smells of smoke and cologne, and has a natural suaveness. He owns the guesthouse. He senses my concern. “I'm Micky. You must trust. Come with me." I follow him, passing hippies smoking chillums, to his office door. Micky’s office is filled with statues, deities, and trinkets. He phones an inexpensive driver who will take me to Delhi. I can take a train to Rishakesh from there. As I wait, he offers me every possible type of intoxicant, all to which I decline. I ask for his photo, but he refuses. Micky explains that he was the right hand man of a drug baron called Mr.Nice. He left the game many years ago, but he still remains anonymous, thus the alias.
The car arrives. We get to Delhi at 4:00am. My train leaves at 5:00, but I pay the driver extra, to wait. My experience on the night bus has taught me that much. When it is time to go, I give a wave, and the driver speeds away. It is still dark. I find a sea of people, seeking shelter on the train platform. An announcement says that my train will be an hour late. I am the only traveller. All eyes are locked on me for the full hour, until I board the train that will lead me to Rishakesh.


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