Article by Alison Burton
My husband and I traveled together before we were married. We spent two amazing years back-packing around the world. We loved Asia and found India particularly fascinating. It’s a land of such contrasts. The exquisite beauty of the Taj Mahal, for example, and the poverty and squalor of the slums was hard to reconcile. People say you either love or hate India. We loved it, mostly. We travelled by train and found the order that emerged from apparent chaos nothing short of amazing. We had pre-booked several legs of our journey after spending a day in Bombay being shuffled from one railway station to another and one queue to another. We eventually organised a train pass and multiple bookings. To our astonishment, every single booking was done correctly and the trip went beautifully.
Late one afternoon, just after visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra we were walking back to our hotel. We came across a little old man pushing a cart a bit like a box on a wheelbarrow. He was selling ice-cream. We looked inside his cart to see an array of small clay pots filled with ice-cream of various flavours. I have no idea how they stayed frozen as refrigeration was a rare thing in India in the 80’s. My partner, Harry, made his selection and the man recommended a particular flavour for me. It looked a little grey and tasted quite spicy. He said I would get great pleasure from it. At the time I thought, that’s a bit of a strange thing to say about ice-cream but I was willing to give it a go. We paid our three rupees (about 30 cents) and enjoyed the cool treat as we continued walking.
Later that evening as Harry and I were walking to a local restaurant for dinner I had a beautiful sense of well-being. I felt so blessed to have such a wonderful partner. I was very much in love with him. I felt so lucky to be free to travel the world. India was amazing, the food was delicious, and all was well with the world. That wonderful feeling continued through the evening. I was sooooo happy. We returned to our hotel, which was a very cheap affair. Shabby rooms around a central courtyard. No glass in the windows, just louvered shutters, and our room was right beside the reception desk.
That evening, the owner of the hotel and four or five of his friends were sitting around the desk outside our window. They were chatting in Hindi and laughing well into the night. As I lay there listening to them in my state of bliss, I clearly remember thinking, “We’ve been in India for two months now and I wonder why I have never noticed before how exquisite the language is?” I savoured every syllable. It was like music to my ears. I felt bathed in harmony like I was listening to an angelic choir or symphony. As if that wasn’t wonderful enough I could also, for some unexplained reason, see every sound on that hotel room wall. The sounds covered the wall in a display of rhythmic swirls and designs. It was a symphony of glorious colour and movement. I had the best time.
I eventually fell asleep and in the morning I realized that I certainly had “great pleasure” from that ice-cream. I double checked with Harry to find out if he was watching the light show on the wall during the night. He assured me that he hadn’t seen a thing and that apparently the innocent looking little old man had been pushing more than his wheelbarrow. I had been drugged!
The thing that scared me the most about the experience was not how bad it was, but how good it I felt. I knew all the dangers of drugs. For goodness sake, I worked in drug rehab before we left Australia on our trip, but I seriously wonder what might have happened if we had run into that little man with his ice-cream cart the next day. Thank goodness he was nowhere to be found, so luckily that was the end of my drug taking career. If we had come across him, you never know, I might still be in India to this day, and life as I know it would have been very different.
By Alison Burton