October 28, 1991 - Bombay
I’ve spent the first few days being lost, looking for a building of some sort, but on the other hand it’s a great way to see the city…The hotel cost us 125 Rupees each, approximately $5, which is steep. I don’t plan to pay any more than that again.
In a box, tucked behind some clothes in my closet, I have been keeping letters I wrote to my mother while traveling in India. I was 21 years old, had just completed a degree in English Literature and was largely inspired to travel after a course on Commonwealth Literature to get a feel for the magical realism inspired by Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. My mother had saved them for me, categorized sequentially by the date they were received, with her handwritten notes scrawled on them - flight numbers, names of people I met along the way, any mention of obscure places I may have visited, and occasionally, a list of ingredients for a recipe. It’s as if she was piecing together clues to create a physical map, to chart out where I was wandering to next, evidence of my existence in places unknown.
Until last week, I had never reread the letters. My mother passed away 12 years ago, and in the process of organizing and putting things away when we sold our family home, I found them in a living room drawer along with the thin airmail only envelopes, carbon copy paper, and loose stamps - all antiquated modes of communication.
The letters are funny to read now, they highlight the embarrassing naivety of a 21-year old. With the exception of travel plans and sights visited, rereading them now I can see that their physical presence provided some reassurance to my mother, even if the content seemed trivial. I was reluctant to phone, the hassle, cost and inconvenience was restrictive, but more likely phone calls just made me homesick. Instead I regularly sent mail. I looked forward to reaching new destinations with a mission to visit the main post office, sifting through the box of letters to find my name filed under ‘F’ - Salwa Farah, Poste Restante, GPO, Varkala, India.
December 2, 1991 : Varkala
I am now in the southwestern coast of India, in a small fishing village called Varkala, south of Cochin and north of Trivandrum on the map. It’s beautiful here and very peaceful. I wake up early in the morning to the sound of birds and insects. I walk down to the beach and roll around with the waves, eat breakfast in the only place in town. I read for the rest of the day, swim in the evening and eat fish for supper. In 3 days I’ll start heading to Mysore.
The letters are a roadmap of places travelled, mostly by train, weaving a strange pattern across the country. I neglected to mention of how, staying in a rustic hut on a beach in Southern India, I’d hallucinated the walls were moving with maggots and that shortly after I’d stopped taking Chloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that most likely gave me those vivid dreams. And while I’d mentioned the enthralling sunsets, and watching fishermen expertly haul in their catch, I left out the time I had mistakenly thought I’d made a karmic connection with an old man who was also crouching by the seashore, apparently enjoying the profound scene of the sun setting over the horizon, only to discover he was merely relieving himself on the beach - much to his anger, and my embarrassment as I watched him scoot closer to the water to wash himself.
December 30, 1991 : Unclaimed return to sender letter from my mother
I thought I might take a shot at writing you this letter in the hopes that it will reach you before you leave Goa…you were not clear about your plans. You said you will be traveling to Rajasthan and I looked it up in the Atlas but could not find it. What is and where and why this area. Please enlighten me and about your decision to travel alone do you think it is wise to do that. Salwa I’ve got to ask because you were not clear in your letters about future plans… Please Salwa do fill all those gaps for us and above all stay healthy and safe.
I still feel guilty when I read the letter I never received. It remained unopened and had a hand-written note on the back from a traveler I had met earlier. The letter, which mostly expressed alarm and concern for my safety, pleads for me to make more phone calls, travel safely, and passes on advice from my father to ‘eat more bran’, and to ‘buy a steak’.
The only Atlas we had at home didn’t define the Indian states and I’m sure she cross-referenced in our (almost) complete collection of Encyclopedia Britannica, we stopped subscribing at some point and never made it to the last few letters of the alphabet, explaining why my mother couldn’t find Rajasthan, the northern state that borders Pakistan.
January 3, 1992 - Leaving Goa
I’ve become very lazy sitting by the beach and eating french fries. I’m glad to be on the move. I am now on my own once again sitting on a train heading to Bombay for the day. From there I’ll take another train to Ahmadabad and ultimately I will reach Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Then I’ll head to Jaisalmer, at the far west corner of the desert, and ride around on a camel for a few days.
After spending several months in the south of India, I was about to make a leap to Rajasthan. This would entail an epic train ride from Goa to Jodhpur covering about 1500km and a total of about 48 hours.
Traveling solo, I would often meet locals who would create a protective boundary around me by simply expressing curiosity on my impressions of their country, asking me if I was married, did I believe in God? They would often share snacks with me, or offering me paan - a mild stimulant that tasted mildly antiseptic, slightly sweet, and purportedly good for digestion. Paan is notorious for leaving mouths, teeth and walls stained red. Spitting from a moving train is a skill that I never mastered, instead, a spittle of red saliva would be smeared across my face, much to the amusement of other passengers.
In the pre-online reservations world, one of the most anxiety-inducing moments was buying a train ticket, finding the right track and train to get on board, and then jostling to secure a seat. There were long waits in queues to buy a ticket only to discover I was in the wrong queue. The mysterious workings behind the bureaucracy in India, and the train stations in particular, never ceased to amaze me. Acquiring a sleeping berth required filling out forms in triplicate, one, or two of which would make it to a pile of yellowing papers cluttering desktops and filing cabinets in the Chief Reservation Supervisor’s office. I wouldn’t know if my request was accepted until a few minutes before I boarded the train when a berth assignment would be listed on a piece of paper pinned on a notice board.
In spite of, or may be because of the chaos of the railway stations, I loved traveling by train and moving through rural areas, giving me voyeuristic opportunities to peek into the lives of the people living along the length of the rail line. I lived off of biscuits and chai served up in rustic clay cups that were then tossed from the moving train. The calls of the chaiwalas drifted in and out of my dreams each time the trains stopped at a station. Of course, there was also the acrobatics involved when using the open-floor toilets - balancing on my haunches, making sure my clothes didn’t touch the floor while I tried not to touch anything. The toilet was, and probably still is, a hole in the floor with metal place marks to position your feet while the train rocked along the tracks. Using the toilets while at the station was discouraged, for obvious reasons.
January 18, 1992 : Delhi
I am now in Delhi with L and her father. We will be leaving tomorrow morning for Jim Corbett National Park, 10 hours north of Delhi, for a week, and then we will fly to Assam for another week to visit Kaziranga National Park. That is all I know about my future travels.
After meeting my friend, we stayed in a dorm room while waiting for her father to arrive. The beds were arranged against a wall with an open window to a courtyard below. Sleeping fully clothed, I remember waking up to my friend’s screams as I saw the tail end of a rat scurry off her bed and hurl itself out the window.
Delhi didn’t leave any good impressions. The city was dark, filthy and crowded. The streets were chaotic with the Hindustan Ambassador taxis whizzing though the city spewing black smoke, noisy motor rickshaws honking their horns, and lepers on home-made boards expertly scooting through the dazzling maze of traffic, dodging scabby dogs, unmoving cows chewing plastic bags, and ruthless drivers.
Delhi was a stark contrast to Jim Corbett National Park, our first excursion. It was here that we encountered a tiger while riding on the back of an elephant. The elephant, following the mahout’s direction, flushed out the tiger from the long grasses. It happened in an instant, the tiger showing its displeasure by bearing it’s teeth at the elephant, the elephant, not pleased at the encounter, rearing backward, jostling us in our precariously balanced basket.
January 30, 1992 : Assam
We’ve made it to Assam! Now I’m in Kaziranga National Park with the rhinos and the wild elephants, its really wonderful here. It’s an incredible experience. I’m also learning quite a lot about the different species of birds from Dr. V who is an avid bird watcher. I can actually identify an ordinary leaf on a tree for a beautiful and exotic bird…We will be in Assam for another three days and then we will go to the Royal Chitwan Park on the southern border of Nepal.
Like buying a berth on an overnight train, the bureaucracy involved in getting a permit extension to travel in Assam was no less Kafkaesque. Knowing that he had a captive audience, the police superintendent droned on about the immensity of the universe and an unfortunate kidney stone incident where he nearly collapsed from pain at the High Commission parade - and his shoes so nicely polished, what a shame. Getting a visa extension turned out to be a full-day event.
It has been nearly 30 years since I was in Assam but there is no forgetting a close encounter with a baby elephant that had wandered away from the herd and was enjoying a vigorous dust bath in the middle of the roadway. Once it became aware of us watching, it disappeared in a cloud of dust, hustling to the protection of the herd. It was also surprising how close we got to the rhinoceros, their poor eye sight meant that we could stand downwind from them and watch them graze.
February 17, 1992 : Varanasi
Just in case you were wondering, no, I haven’t been eaten by a tiger. I am overlooking the sacred Ganges river at the moment, watching boats float by and a lot of pilgrims bathe their sins away in this less-than-clean water. Yes, I’m now in Varanasi. It is a nice city and there is so much action - the streets remind me of Jerusalem, narrow, slippery and rat infested! I love it. Yesterday I bought some perfume from a little store in one of the alleys. The man smothered me with hundreds of essences until I couldn’t distinguish one from the another.
Moving effortlessly though the streets, constantly lost, weaving past vendors selling marigold garlands and perfumes, dodging feces and trash on the slippery passageways, life, and death in Varanasi was enthralling. Each morning I would walk to the ghats and sit on the steps, order a chai and watch the devout Hindus plunge in the river and drink from the waters littered with marigolds, trash, unidentified floating carcasses of what I could only imagine to be cows. And each morning, I would rush to find my hostel, just in time to make it back to the WC, the urgency of the matter both alarming but not unexpected. By the third day I had figured out the direct causation when I saw the chaiwallah send a boy to retrieve the water. I watched the boy dip the kettle in the river and walk back to the vendor who would heat the water just enough to make the chai. I was inadvertently drinking from the Ganges.
The river is the gateway where the devout would send their loved ones on their final journey, the bodies are wrapped in white cloth and set on fire with great ceremony. I have never witnessed the color orange as intense as the one I saw at the burning ghats, standing a respectful distance away from the stench of burning wood, oil, flesh.
I carried my possessions in a small daypack, having gotten rid of much of the clothes I brought with me. Inevitably, what clothes I did have would be sent to the laundry and would typically come back fully starched, meticulously folded and with all the buttons broken. This mystery was solved when during one of my wanders I came across the women washing clothes by the river side - clothes were being vigorously scrubbed on the steps, and then with a quick and assertive thwack, they would be whipped on the rocks, the dirt effectively beaten out of them. I opted to wear salwar kameez, with a simple drawstring for the pants, no buttons necessary.
March 9, 1992 : Darjeeling
The last month of travel on my own has been incredible, and even though I miss everyone at home, I have a strong desire to travel for another few months, at least. I am so happy when I travel and meet so many interesting people. Every day is alive. It’s a crazy world.
This was the last letter my mother received from me though it wasn’t the last of my travels. I spent the next two months in Nepal until my passport expired and I returned to Canada.
Five months into my travels, I had abandoned any apprehensions, preconceptions and expectations. My perspective had shifted and I had stopped reflecting inward and started to enjoy experiences as they happened. Darjeeling, a place where many exiled Tibetan Buddhists live, draws western tourists looking for enlightenment. For me, the journey was shifting gears both physically and mentally - the next few months would lead me into the Himalayas and hiking through some of the most awe-inspiring villages and cultures. But that’s another story.
Rereading the letters to my mother reminds me that in spite of all her fears, she never once questioned my decision to travel and explore. She saved those letters for a reason, and I am grateful for that.