Thursday, March 10, 2011
The Rise and Fall of Melanie Ehler
Katie is asleep and I am only half-awake when I realize the train has come to a stop.
"This is Jodhpur?" I ask a man who was carrying his bags down the aisle. After the man nods in assent, I excitedly repeat, "This is Jodhpur! This is Jodhpur!" The train has arrived an hour earlier than planned. My umbrella, alarm clock, journal, and several items of clothing are scattered about my bunk. All the other passengers with Jodhpur as their destination have already disembarked. Katie, whose bag is already packed, deftly exits the train upon waking. I clutch stuff in both hands and follow her.
I jump quickly from the train, but in the short distance between train and platform, something goes horribly wrong. With a bone-crunching thud, my ankle folds beneath me as I touch down on the platform, causing me to land in a position that only Gumby could comfortably assume. I scream from the pain. To add insult to injury, I have fallen into a moist brown patch that has the texture and smell of sh-t. I begin to cry.
About five or six men gather tightly around me and try pulling me to my feet. It is too painful for me to stand. "Get away from her!" Katie yells. She has not seen me fall. All she sees is that I am sprawled on the ground crying, surrounded by a half dozen strange men who are tugging at me.
"It's okay," I tell her. "They're trying to help."
One man, who wears a large white turban and has a tear-shaped crimson tikka dotting his forehead, takes my injured foot in both his hands and rotates it in a circular motion.
"No-no-no. Stop," I plead. "Please stop." Then in two swift, forceful movements that cause a loud, splintering crack to my foot, he resets the bone. (It is also possible the turbaned man had not reset the bone. Perhaps my foot had only been sprained and he broke it. He didn't exactly show me any medical credentials.) As the bone cracks, I scream, once again, from the pain. There is nothing that compares with this pain, no metaphor that would allow you to understand its intensity.
One of the men who had been helping me brings me a little plastic stool on which to sit. Enough has been done for me. They quickly leave the scene.
The remaining crowd turns predatory. Touts push their rickshaw services on me at double the going rate. A lump on my foot the size of a golf ball appears. Beggars and smudge-faced children run up to me with their hands outstretched. "Go away!" I cry miserably.
Leaning on Katie, I climb up one steep flight of steps and down another. Every other step, I concentrate on not vomiting. The fact that I can walk at all is nothing short of amazing. But here’s a little life truth that only people in bad situations figure out: You are able to do whatever you have to do. I walk up and down those steps with a broken foot because that is my only option. That is the only way out of the train station. Katie helps me into the restroom while the restroom attendants yell at us that we need to pay for the privilege of using it.
The toilet is a hole in an unwashed cement floor. I use the toilet and then change into my only other pair of pants. The lump on my leg is now the size of a baseball. Twilight-hued bruises of purple, blue, and brown begin to bloom across it.
We slowly walk into the main area of the train station and I take a seat. All the area taxi drivers smile as they offer us grossly inflated prices. They see my condition and recognize that helplessness doesn't leave much room for negotiation -- but what they fail to recognize is my strength of stubbornness and Katie's resourcefulness. Katie procures a bag of ice for my foot and calls for a fixed rate taxi from our hotel in Jaisalmer. The hotel taxi may be slightly expensive for India, but it’s still under half the rate the local drivers are trying to push upon us.
The road from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer is roughly paved. I feel every jolt and bump of it inside the car. My right foot, which now has an ostrich-egg-sized lump extending from it, is propped on Katie's lap. I apologize again and again for making her ride uncomfortable. She insists that it’s no big deal, but I half-believe that I am only making up the extent of my injury. The pain's not really that bad, mostly just in my head, I convince myself –- a self-deception that helps me. I focus on the scenery, which is unlike anything I've ever seen. As we drive closer to Jaisalmer, the landscape transforms from a lush emerald green to a bare golden-beige. Once I even see a solitary camel wandering through the sandy plains, either wild or lost from its pack.
We stop at a roadside restaurant in the dry, dusty countryside bordering the Thar Desert. I want to press on directly to the hotel because of my pain, but the driver is insistent that his hungry stomach is a more urgent matter that needs attending.
The people at the restaurant show a very open curiosity towards Katie and me. They stare at us, but without any malice. They talk to us, but without an agenda hedged in self-interest. Their kind presence is a balm to the heart. This is what real Indian people are like, not the greedy, clutching people who shadow us at the tourist locales.
As one of the few English speakers in the area, the restaurant owner proudly stands next to us and makes conversation. He informs us that he is soon going to visit America.
"Oh, how nice. Which city?" I ask.
"Switzerland," he replies.
"That's nice," I tell him.
After we finish our meal, I limp back into the car. It will be a total of over four hours until we reach Jaisalmer.