Two’s company: a chance encounter in Northern India’s fabulous pink city leaves a memorable
impression on Catherine Marshall.
There she sits behind a great big bowl of curry soup in an empty room in the Indian city of Jaipur: a little old lady barely taller than the table, her hair curled atop her head in a neat silver bun.
“Do come and join me!” she says, eyes sparkling.
I have climbed the stairs from the hotel’s regular dining room, closed off tonight for a function, and found myself in a room empty but for four widely spaced tables and one little old lady who now peers up expectantly at me, her hand pointing to the seat opposite her.
I take the seat as directed and order the soup. I’m tired; I had planned on eating a quick dinner and returning to my oddly ornate yet low-brow room for an early night. I had been driven here all the way from Delhi this afternoon, along streets so clogged with lorries and camel carts and bicycles and wayward cows I’d thought we would never reach our destination.
I had walked the streets inside the walls of the pink city of Jaipur, dodging garbage and the feral scents that arose from it; I had salivated over cauldrons of sweet, sticky gulab jamun and pots of chai and carts selling mounds of spices.
The woman walking ahead in a buttercup-yellow sari had mesmerised me: this was my first visit to India, and there was too much colour, too much clamour, too much despair to be adequately absorbed in one go. I had focused my camera on the woman swaying in the twilight ahead of me, willing my finger to close the shutter in time to capture this moment for eternity.
The foreignness of this place has wrung me dry. But a dinner spent contemplating in solitude my discomfit turns into an outward reflection instead: I’m sitting opposite a woman who is almost ninety years old and who is travelling all alone, since her husband is dead but India is alive, and India is a place she simply must see. Her name is Elizabeth and she is American; she’s been travelling for months, and will travel for many months more. She has been to Tunisia where her driver invited her to his home; she took him up on his offer and there she spent the night feasting on his wife and daughter’s cooking and sleeping in a kindly loaned bed. The taxi driver returned her safely to her hotel next morning.
“Here, I have photos,” Elizabeth says, taking her mobile phone from her handbag and flipping through the images of the man and his family and their kitchen table collapsing beneath a superfluity of beautiful food.
From Tunisia, Elizabeth has cruised the coast of East Africa – skirting Somalia to avoid pirates – and has spent ten days holed up in Cape Town with a bad chest. In Delhi, she has hired a driver – “I didn’t think I needed a guide as well” – and is now exploring India’s Golden Triangle. From here she will go on to Cambodia, the Philippines, Japan. She has been to Cambodia before, and on that visit broke her hip and was transported to hospital across rutted roads on the back of a tuk tuk. She spent three weeks in a Bangkok hospital recovering from the ordeal.
But Elizabeth will not allow such obstacles to dim her wanderlust, to thwart her in her search for new horizons. A year from now I will receive this woman’s annual email update, to which I have been added. I will read about the adventures she’s crammed into her 91st year, the journeys she’s made to parts of the world many people believe are beyond their reach, beyond their understanding, beyond anything they might fully be able to undertake. I will smile and remember my own overwhelming introduction to India, and my meeting with a little old lady who summoned me from behind her bowl of soup and reminded me that the world must be seen with new and forgiving eyes. TTW
Catherine Marshall travelled to Jaipur as a guest of World Expeditions. Photos © Catherine Marshall.