STEPHEN EDWARD PAPER
A few years ago I was invited to coach a tennis player in northern India on the Indian satellite circuit—I had played tennis in southern India in my younger days and also traveled around the south when I wasn’t competing.
My player got injured right off the bat so I decided to journey around the north, visiting Ahmedabad, Delhi, a tiger reserve where I found fresh tiger spoor right outside my cabin after being woken up three times that night by something trying to get in; also a walled city or two. It was a time of great freedom. I’d reach a place, stay a few days, all the while consulting my map and guidebook and new acquaintances to see what was near and interesting, and then take off in that direction. After Agra and the Taj Mahal, I headed west to Rajastan—a newly made friend had given me a contact number of a poacher-smuggler who routinely snuck back and forth across the Pakistani border, cross point for gunrunners, dope smugglers, poachers, bandits and kidnappers—and I was adventurous or dumb enough to take it. I hired a car and driver. Normally, I would have taken a train, but I’d been warned too many times of lone travelers having a cup of drugged tea on a train and waking up a day or two later without their belongings: money, passport, their clothes, maybe even a kidney, and I was traveling alone. You could lose your things just taking a nap. When I was in the south I took a train from Bangalore to Madras, fell asleep and woke to the noise of four gray langurs going through my bag. When I got to Madras I was missing my shampoo and speculated that now there were some pretty good looking monkeys hanging out, and doing well with the lady monkeys—either that or they were pretty ill.
So I hired a car. The driver spoke about ten words of English and his friend spoke less. We drove off and they pointed out nothing to me as we made our way west. Well actually I think they pointed out a lot of points of interest. I just couldn’t understand them. There were a lot of changes in landscape as we traveled from Uttar Pradesh to Rajastan, but what stood out for me was the traffic. You have four lanes of traffic on a twelve-foot wide piece of pothole-marred road and that’s going in each direction. There were lorries piled high with loads so large it’s amazing they don’t tip over; buses packed with so many people, not to mention those riding on top and hanging on to the sides, it’s amazing they don’t tip over; there were scooters, cars, motorcycles, bicyclists, pedestrians, people with push carts, oxen pulling larger carts, rickshaws, motorized trishaws and the occasional elephant and all the while my driver trying to pass them in the face of the same four lanes coming at us—he was paid by the trip not by the hour. As he swerved in and out of traffic, he missed carts, buses, cars, lorries and people by inches. When he couldn’t pass right away, he pulled up bumper to bumper or bumper to tail. Other cars and trucks and buses were doing the same thing, and in both directions. It’s beyond me that I never saw an accident. After crossing the border into Rajastan, the oxen and elephants were gone and then we were following camels and trying to pull around them. Also, every few kilometers or so there would be a guy holding a large brown bear on a rope on the side of the road. When we’d draw near these guys would get their bears to jump up and down, obviously trying to draw our attention and get some baksheesh.
Our first stop was Jaipur, the Pink City, but I only stayed long enough to visit the Pink Palace as my driver found out if we rushed to the other side of the city, I could catch the last plane flying out to the west to Jodhpur. We made it by about ten minutes before take-off. Only in India would they hold a plane back for you—and it was the second time for me. From there, after some spicy Chicken Tikka Masala and enough tea (not drugged) to keep me awake for a few days, I boarded an overnight bus to Jaisalmer Fort, an almost nine hundred year old city nestling along ancient trade routes.
Another jaunt and I was only 60 K from the Pakistani border. The smuggler-poacher I was supposed to tag along with was nowhere to be found so I hired a guide, Selim, and a camel for each of us. Then we swayed up and down and back and forth on our camels as we trekked out into the Great Thar Desert.
I had been warned that night fell abruptly in the desert and I wondered what I would do to pass the time. I can look at the stars for a few hours but that was my limit. Maybe I’d think about my writing. I suppose a lot of writers like to talk about their work but I have sometimes been accused of getting carried away. After a twenty kilometer trek, we made camp below a large sand dune, cooked up some curry and drank tea. Selim and I cleaned the cooking pots and eating utensils with sand, and then I climbed up the highest nearby dune to watch the sun set over the desert. Night fell abruptly. Descending back down to our meager camp, I got into my sleeping bag. It was only about 5 pm. There was no way I was going to fall asleep that early.
I had secured an agent for Highgate, my first novel, just before I left for India, but I wasn’t certain it was finished and I proceeded to rewrite it twenty times—I hate it when that happens. So I started telling Selim the story. I find that telling a story out loud to someone is a good way to iron out problems. It’s a long book and I should have taken notes. About three hours later, Selim woke and asked, “Are you still talking?” I gave up editing for the night and tried to sleep. Many times that night I woke up to desert sounds. Once I woke up just in time to see six deer scamper away—they must have been investigating the forengi. The night sky was dark and clear and for much of the time I just stared at the stars until I dozed off again. We didn’t have tents and my sleeping bag was soon soaked on top from the moist desert air.
And then I heard the gunshots. Were they from gunrunners, dope smugglers, poachers or kidnappers?
It was pitch black out. I jumped out of my bag and scampered to the top of the nearest sand dune. Far off in the distance I could see headlights. It appeared the vehicle was trying to make its way up a dune, but kept falling back. This went on for a few minutes, then the lights disappeared over a rise. Could they possibly come upon us in such a vast, dark desert? They might have seen our tracks. I rushed back to the camp. Selim was still asleep. I guess the only thing that could wake him was my droning on and on. I jostled him awake and told him about the gunfire whereupon he showed me a pistol as if that would assuage my concerns—it looked old enough that he might have got it from one of the Bengal Lancers. Then he promptly fell back to sleep. I didn’t. I crept back up the dune to keep vigil.
The next morning, I saw deer tracks all around my sleeping bag and was happy they weren’t tiger tracks. Deciding to investigate, we boarded our camels and headed in the direction I’d seen the lights. In a few kilometers we found jeep tracks intersecting deer tracks and further along, deer tracks and blood: poachers. Whew! Good for us. Not so much for the deer.
Why do I tell this story? Because it combines most of what I love about this life: travel, adventure, exploration, tennis and writing. Add brothers, parents, friends, family and reading and it covers all.