© Copyright 2021 by Desiree Kendrick
Photo from the author.
This is an account of me landing in a foreign land, where wildlife and ‘party crashers’ shocked my teenage inexperience. Come along for the ride.
On the tarmac, hot air rammed its way past the passengers and assaulted my face. Discordant voices, transcontinental and indecipherable ricocheted off the airport walls. I understood nothing except the gestures of airport security. The Customs check-in line was like herding cattle to slaughter. Our family had nothing of interest to declare; unless you counted the super-sized briefcase my younger brother was tasked with claiming as his hand-luggage. My father viewed himself as a photographer. He wasn’t on National Geographic’s payroll, but you would never know it from the rolls of film my brother Stephen hauled on his behalf.
At seventeen, I envisioned India ripe with mango trees and turbaned snake charmers. I assumed women wore red and gold sarees: their bangles making music in the street. Real primates would swing from the playground monkey-bars. Babar the Elephant and Curious George had schooled me.
Taxi drivers waved. “Come, come!” they beckoned. “I be your ride.”
I clung to my baggage and followed my parents through the swarms. My clothes were sticky. It was past midnight and yet the place was a buzz with men and women jostling. Babies wailed. My teenage innocence butted up against culture-shock. This was an evening of firsts. It was my first trip abroad. I was also meeting my Indian relatives for the first time.
“Uncle!” A woman in a floral-print dress embraced my father.
I exchanged glances with my two siblings. “This must be one of the cousins,” I whispered.
Nisha was old enough to be my mother but she was a first cousin. She shoved her way through the crowd and we made an Olympic effort to keep up. She had two cars waiting. Separated from my parents, trust was immediately initiated as I was grouped in the second vehicle with Stephen and Cousin Nisha. Our luggage was squeezed tight in the trunk. A muggy breeze wafted through the windows. Mopeds and cars zipped by, creating a cacophony of honking horns and squealing tires. The driver hugged every corner tightly and I wondered if I would’ve been safer sandwiched between our two hardsided Samsonite suitcases.
“They deliberately schedule the international flights to arrive in the middle of the night,” said Nisha. “During the day it’s too hot. Those jumbo jets have big wheels. It could be dangerous for those rubber tires to hit the scorching runway. Bad for tourism.”
We passed a large billboard advertising ‘Thums-Up’, a local soft drink.
“That’s our version of Coca-Cola,” said Nisha. “They wouldn’t give India the recipe so we kicked them out.”
An international incident over a soft drink was news to me.
On the street where my aunt lived, a combination of wet dirt, jasmine trees, and the stench of garbage tickled my nostrils. My armpits were damp. A roller coaster ride through Delhi was a perfect scenario for a deodorant commercial. My hair morphed into frizzy - hardly Cover-Girl fashion worthy.
Auntie Gilly was Bette Davis glamourous. Dressed in a linen smock, she bequeathed poppy-red lipstick imprints on my parents’ cheeks. Her bangles dangled, tinkling as she spoke. “I’m so happy you’re here!” she said. Her voice was husky from an hourly dosage of cigarettes. Before we left home, my father had shared outrageous stories about Auntie Gilly. In her youth, men courted her nonstop. A spry woman approaching her late sixties, her eyes popped when she spoke. Her laugh was accompanied by a shoulder roll or wrist flick. She commanded attention like a grand leading lady. I half expected a movie crew to appear from the rafters and yell, “that’s a wrap,” after every scene she performed.
My younger brother and sister shimmied onto the sofa beside me while my parents collapsed into rattan chairs. There was a golden glow from a low wattage light. Like my parents’ home, there were bookcases crammed with collectibles. The Royal Doulton figurines modelled beside brass candy dishes. A pair of tarnished candlesticks gathered dust on a doily-draped end table. An alabaster ornament of the Taj Mahal held down a stack of loose papers. After a decade of not seeing one another, the grown-ups had plenty to discuss.
I was preoccupied. Behind my mother’s chair, another group congregated. Their movements were jerky. One scurried forward, only to turn its head sharply and reverse. Another posed motionless, leaving me to wonder if it would suddenly pounce and land in my hair. I counted. One, two… Oh lordy, there were seven of them! Seven lizards scuttled about on the wall without a care. Their skin was a sickly-ivory, similar to the faded wall. No one would mistake their beady eyes for picture hooks. Tails were the full length of their bodies. I glanced behind me. Safety. So far, no scabby creature had ventured to my side of the room. My knuckles turned white.
Neither Cousin Nisha nor Auntie Gilly seemed bothered by the interlopers. The conversation was in English, and yet the surroundings felt foreign. A fan whirred in the corner. I moved closer to the sofa’s edge. My gangly arms hugged my knees. Seven – I could still see seven. They took turns creeping along the wall. I elbowed Stephen and tipped my head in the direction of the ghastly reptiles. He didn’t seem perturbed. Stephen was more interested in eavesdropping on the adult exchanges of conversation.
“Ah, here’s some tea,” said Auntie Gilly. “Mango juice for the children.”
A man dressed in a white tunic and baggy pants handed me a glass. He only spoke Hindi but smiled when he realized I had no idea what he was saying. “Expect to see servants,” my father had told us. Employees: who cooked, cleaned and did odd jobs in the local homes was commonplace. Hiring a servant didn’t mean you were rich. It simply meant you were financially a step above the poorer individual you employed.
I sipped my drink, keeping tabs on the party-crashers. Six! I spotted six! Number seven had disappeared. My back straightened and I whipped my head around. The wall behind me was clear. Thank heavens I was wearing close-toed shoes. I wondered what to call those lizard feet: claws perhaps or just plain ugly! Maybe the pesky creature was inspecting the floor for dead insects. A rogue lizard made my stomach churn.
Our first evening concluded when my parents announced they must head to the hotel with my brother. “You girls will stay with Auntie Gilly,” my father said. “She has a spare room you can share. We’ll return in the morning, after breakfast,” he added. “I want to take the children to see The Red Fort before the heat of the afternoon slows us down.”
Nisha escorted my parents and brother to their hotel. Auntie Gilly showed us to our room. She’d set a vase of plastic flowers on a table in anticipation of our stay. As soon as she left us my stealth investigative measures went into action. I snatched the edge of the blanket and exposed the bedlinens. My sister followed my lead and tentatively turned over the pillows. Where was lizard number seven? The room had no mosquito netting draping the mattress. I peeked under the bed. Clear. We retrieved our night clothes.
“Make sure you zip up your suitcase,” I said in my big sister voice.
Back home we didn’t have a cat or dog. There was a gold fish for a while but he checked out without incident. I wasn’t inclined to share my room with any creepy-crawly roommate. Exhaustion crept into my limbs. I switched off the light and lay still. Every time my sister kicked in my direction my body stiffened. When a strand of hair fell across my forehead, I swatted it away with more force than necessary. Eventually morning snuck into the room. A sonata of pots and pans clinking and voices overlapping pried me awake.
My sister and I stood in the bedroom doorway. I peered to my left. No lizards lounged in the living room. In the corner of the dining room one uninvited guest peered at me. His suction-cupped claws moonwalked into the kitchen: out of my sightline. Call the food inspector!
The house servant approached us. His words were rapid-fire chatter and we shook our heads to convey we didn’t understand. He left and returned with breakfast. The runny yellow oozing from the egg made me nauseous. I would survive on toast. When our parents arrived, relief replaced anxiety.
“The hotel breakfast was super,” bragged Stephen, strutting like a mini-John Travolta.
I elbowed him roughly. It irked me that I had my own “Stayin’ Alive” drama. We piled into a taxi and headed for the first excursion of the day. The Red Fort was a massive building. “Jewels encrusted in its original design were looted over the years,” my father told us. “Once upon a time marble inlaid flowers decorated the floors.” Flies flitted by, escorting us from room to room. I watched the ground as often as I gazed upward. No skinny-tailed mischief makers crossed my path, other than Stephen. Within the red sandstone walls stood the Moti Masjid, known as the Pearl Mosque. Being respectful, we removed our shoes when we entered. Upon leaving, I turned my shoe over. No critters had taken up residence. Good. Something nudged my ankle. I jerked and stared daggers.
“Sorry,” my sister said, fastening the strap of her sandal.
Every inch of my body was on high alert. I was beginning to understand why Mughal Emperors carried swords.
Late afternoon, we were deposited back on Gilly’s doorstep. This time she ushered us girls in, sat down in a chair opposite, and crossed her legs. She draped her arms on her knee looking as perfectly agile as her other houseguests who hung on the wall. “The last letter I sent Rita, she wrote back saying her job was in jeopardy.”
I frowned. My oldest sister was a teacher. There was talk of a strike but it never happened. I suspected Rita was enjoying her summer vacation sun tanning by a pool with an iced cold bottle of ‘the real thing: aka – Coca-Cola.’
Gilly stroked my hand. “Does she need money? I could get the Colonel to help. He does favours for me. He’s very helpful.”
The only Colonel I knew was the Kentucky Fried Chicken guy. In a country that had its share of corrupt officials, Gilly was obviously connected.
“I’ll get him to buy me a nice ring,” Gilly said. “You can give it to your sister. She can pawn it.”
This clandestine operation sounded fishy. Hit up the senior-citizen Colonel for funds and pass it off to Auntie Gilly’s favourite niece. If the Colonel was so industrious why hadn’t he fumigated the residence of all enemies – specifically the lizards! Auntie Gilly’s latest boyfriend failed my ‘what to expect in a boyfriend’ criteria. When I nabbed a guy he would protect me from spiders – and lizards.
We ate dinner listening to Auntie Gilly rave about The Colonel.
“He’s almost eighty,” she said. “A real catch. I’ve lost track of the number of times he’s asked to marry me. He can wait for my answer. My Colonel will do anything for me,” she insisted. “When is your sister getting married? She’s old enough. Young women need to invest in the future.”
Was she suggesting we hook our teeth into a well-connected wealthy suitor? I hadn’t started university yet. Marriage wasn’t in my sightline. Lizards on the other hand kept eyeballing me.
Night tiptoed into the house. The electricity flickered. My sister and I retreated to our bedroom. A flash of movement drew my eye to the ceiling.
My fingernails sank into my sister’s forearm. I rushed towards the dining room. “Hello? Hello?”
It was minutes before the servant appeared from the rear of the house.
I pointed at our bedroom ceiling. “We can’t sleep with that! You have to get rid of it!”
He smiled and left us. There was no way I was risking Mr. Lizard squirming down my nightgown neckline. Call the Colonel and the entire Indian army if necessary!The servant returned. He raised a cornhusk broom above his head. Eight inches of reptilian matter bolted and hit the ground. My sister shrieked and I echoed her sentiments. Our rescuer brushed the floor until the invader was trapped in a corner. We shrieked louder. He picked up the trespasser by the tail, opened a shuttered window, and flung the critter with the finesse of a seasoned discus thrower. He chuckled in Hindi before retreating to the kitchen.
My sister did a squirmy dance and I joined her shuddering. “Check the bed.”
Together we conducted a final sweep of the room. Safety confirmed. Lying still, I cursed my younger brother. He was sleeping on a cot in a four-star air conditioned hotel room. Stephen didn’t face runny eggs or the sounds of the street waking up every morning. He didn’t conduct covert operations to keep track of the lizards on the wall. He was a boy with VIP status.
After two months traveling across the vibrant landscape of India, I concluded I could handle the extra ten pounds I gained enjoying both the vegetarian and non-vegetarian hotel buffets. From a distance, I was delighted by the snake charmer. The cows who paraded in the streets were harmless. I loved the Indian dancing and the exploration of historical buildings.
Visiting my parent’s homeland gave me a greater understanding of the intricate mosaic of life that shaped their childhood and young adult lives. It was a treat to meet relatives: who were as entertaining as the vendor who tried to sell Stephen a fully-constructed turban that he could remove like a wig. What I never came to grips with was the existence of lizards dropping by unexpected. Auntie Gilly’s wall hangings were different from the sticky flypaper that my parents hung from the ceiling. Her houseguests snacked on the mosquitos, which supposedly is a good thing. Lizard number seven probably had a good laugh at my expense, sticking his tongue out at me. I’ve since learned that house lizards aren’t poisonous. So be it. In the comfort of my home, I do not miss lizards one teeny tiny bit! Go ahead – nail that sentiment to my wall.