Updated: Oct 6, 2020
By Jim Withers
I know the loneliness of the long-distance solo traveller.
Ignored by the Belfast barmaid while surrounded by laughing young locals out on date night, finding myself in a depressing Wawa, Ont., motel while on a cross-Canada road trip, sipping wine in an outdoor café on a beautiful Venetian evening with only my Lonely Planet guide as a dinner companion – been here, done that.
I know what it’s like to feel disconnected from humanity in a place I’ve longed to see, wanting to give up on the whole enterprise and grab the first flight home.
But going it alone can have its rewards, magically conjuring up moments of serendipity and random interactions with people you’d otherwise probably never meet – people who leave a lasting impression no matter how fleeting the chance encounter.
Spice Cadet was one of those.
It was in the spring of 1989, about seven years before I’d ever hear of an all-girl pop group known as the Spice Girls.
Having flown halfway around the world to go trekking in Nepal with five other Quebecers, I figured I’d tack on a side trip to India instead of simply returning home with my compatriots. And why not? India was in the neighbourhood, and I didn’t know if I’d ever get back to that part of the planet.
But while it had its charms, India proved to be such an assault on my senses that, after a couple of weeks of crisscrossing the subcontinent, I took refuge from its noise, crowds, heat and dust, and spent a few days chilling on a beach in the former Portuguese enclave of Goa. I saw it as an escape from India.
Refreshed, it was time to head back up north to New Delhi – first by bus to Mumbai (or Bombay as it was called then) and then onto the Indian capital by rail.
Bleary-eyed from the overnight bus ride, I found myself just after 7 a.m. in the landmark Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a century-old Gothic train station that had, until three years earlier, been named after Queen Victoria. While sweating profusely in line for two hours to nail down a ticket for a sleeper on the New Delhi run, I chatted with a couple of Aussies and Brits next to me.
“She’s a real spice cadet, that one,” one of the Aussies said as he nodded toward a barefoot blonde in a sari standing in a parallel line. The “spice cadet” – or “space cadet” in Canadian English – was balancing a bundle on her head the way Indian women do. (On a stay in Mumbai earlier in my trip I’d seen sari-clad women doing road construction while carrying stone-filled, wok-like pans on their heads.)
What a flake, I thought.
After an interminable wait in the oppressive heat, I finally boarded the 4:15 p.m. train, and who should I find in my second-class sleeper compartment but Spice Cadet? Of all the people in the cavernous train station’s sea of humanity, what were the chances she’d reappear?
A strange woman in a strange land.
I’ve always been intrigued by, and wary of, misfits, and I couldn’t help wondering what this one’s story was.
There were only two other passengers in our compartment: a pleasant, slightly overweight, middle-aged Indian man in a blue shirt, and a grey-haired Pakistani man on a marathon ride home.
It wouldn’t stay that way.
On our first stop, in the suburbs of Mumbai, hordes stormed in, seizing whatever places they could find, squeezing us in our designated seats. It was a scene that would repeat itself at every stop along the 1,588-kilometre route. At every station, I would witness through our compartment’s open window scores of men grabbing onto the sides of departing trains. I assumed that there were also free-riders clinging to the exterior of our train, albeit not visible from my cramped vantage point.
Spice Cadet turned out to be a Dane by the name of Annemarie.
She had a top bunk, and climbed up there to avoid being squished by the growing crowd on our compartment’s two bench seats. I asked the man in the blue shirt, who held the ticket for the other berth, if he was interested in trading places and he agreed – foolishly, I thought.
For the next 29 hours, Spice Cadet and I told each other our life stories – she from her berth, and me from mine, while below us passengers with tickets bearing seat numbers battled it out with the invading throng at each new station. Those lucky enough to get into our compartment would lock the door behind them, but whenever we pulled into a station, new passengers rushed on and started banging on our door, hoping we’d let them in. I felt sorry for the late arrivals who ended up having to sit on the filthy floor in the crammed corridors. It got so that I minimized trips to the can for fear of losing my place. (I could hold out a lot longer in those days.)
It was so hot I had no appetite and I was barely able to touch the ceiling right above me for more than a few seconds.
I wondered what our fellow travellers – all men – thought as they sat shoulder to shoulder, saying nothing, while Annemarie and I yakked away above them.
Annemarie wasn’t the stereotypical statuesque Scandinavian. She was blonde all right, and attractive, but petite. I didn’t believe her when she told me she was 33 years old; she had the face of someone more my age (40). She’d been in India for six months, so maybe the overbearing Indian sun had taken a toll. Her sari didn’t hide her wonderfully tight midriff.
“Why do you wear shoes?” she asked me out of the blue.
“Oh, I don’t know; it’s just a habit I got into,” I said.
She kept going on about living in the jungle with an Indian family. A free spirit, Annemarie was into spirituality, with a side order of drugs. There was something masochistic about her story; she wallowed in her discomforts and privations. Of course, she thought Indian-style squat toilets were far superior to the sit-down western variety – despite the disgusting holes in the floor that served as toilets in the train’s “washroom” car.
“In Denmark, all they care about is money and status and comforts,” she said.
Trained as an architect, of all things, Annemarie told me she was unable to find work in her homeland, and had been on welfare since leaving school.
There was only a slight breeze coming through the open window, through which we bought chai (tea) whenever we pulled into a new station. It was sold by young men on bicycles. Through the bars of the window they’d hand us the tea in small, crudely crafted, disposable terra cotta cups.
I stripped to my shorts because of the heat, drifted off at some point, and awoke in the middle of the night, shivering.
We finally arrived in New Delhi after 9 p.m. the next night, still perched on our bunks, roasting. Even Annemarie, the hopeless Indophile, was losing her cool. For me, this represented the completion of a 2,400-kilometre, 53-hour bus-train odyssey from Goa.
Before we disembarked, an Indian woman, returning for a visit to her native land from her home in the U.S., told me that the 8,700-mile flight from Los Angeles was far less tiring than the Mumbai-New Delhi train ride.
We entered the Delhi station and there was the usual mad scramble with aggressive taxi drivers descending upon us.
I watched Annemarie again draw stares from people as she carried her belongings on her head. I remember thinking: If you really want to fit in, Annemarie, ditch the sari.
I didn’t know it then, because we’d made plans to have dinner the following night, but this would be the last I’d ever see of her.
The next evening, when I turned up at the Metropolis Restaurant and Tourist Home, where she was staying in the Paharganj district of Central Delhi, everything was exactly as she had described it. The Metropolis was, indeed, a funky ’60s kind of place. It was full of young people, and the sounds of Jim Morrison and the Doors filled the air. The service was friendly and the food delectable.
But Spice Cadet was a no-show.
More than three decades later, the details of my 29 hours with her are fading. With no photos, I have only an old man’s memory to go on.
What was the colour of her sari? The length of her hair? The sound of her voice? Did she have a heavy accent? Did either of us have any amorous intent?
I can’t be sure, but I recall looking forward to getting some rest and cleaning up in anticipation of our dinner date, and who knows what afterward. With Spice Cadet, anything seemed possible.
When I think of her, an aphorism attributed to Maya Angelou comes to mind: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Yes, she stood me up, so I assumed that she had less of an appreciation of our time together than I did. No matter. Spice Cadet still comes to mind every once in a while, like a handful of other unforgettable people I’ve encountered while travelling solo.
I can’t help wondering where life’s journey has taken her. Is she a retired architect back in Copenhagen, married and with grandchildren, or is she still into spirituality, barefoot and sari-clad in India?
She lives on in my memory.
As the Aussie would say, “She was a real spice cadet, that one.”