A Moveable Freak
Updated: Jul 10, 2022
By Jim Withers
I know the loneliness of long-distance solo travel.
I’ve been there.
Like that time I was invisible to my Belfast barmaid while surrounded by boisterous young locals, feeling like a marooned extraterrestrial and simultaneously wishing to be more conspicuous and less. Or that enchanting Venetian evening when I nursed a glass of wine in an outdoor café with only my Lonely Planet guide as a dinner companion. Or that starry night when, on a cross-Canada drive, I scanned the sky outside a Wawa, Ont., motel and wondered if, ultimately, we are all alone – as sentient beings, and in our little one-and-done lives.
I’m well-acquainted with that tipping point, when you finally find yourself in a place you’ve longed to see, only to feel suddenly estranged from humanity and overcome by a desire to grab the next flight home. Even in this global-village age, when your distant closest friends are only a click away, solo travel can take a toll.
But going it alone can have its rewards. Whipping up random interactions with people you’d otherwise never meet, and leaving lasting impressions no matter how fleeting the chance encounter, it’s a whole other trip than when you’re travelling with a partner.
Such was the case for me in the spring of 1989.
Having flown halfway around the world with five other Québécois to go trekking in the Himalayas of Nepal, I tacked on a side trip to India instead of returning home with my countrymen. India was in the neighbourhood, so why not see it while I had the opportunity?
India proved to be such an assault on my senses, though, that after a couple of weeks of crisscrossing what seemed like the land of 50 shades of khaki, I took refuge from its crowds and clamour, heat and dust, bicycle-rickshaw hustlers, snake charmers and the pathetic spectacle of bony cattle chewing newspapers. For a few days I chilled on a beach in Goa, a former Portuguese enclave. It was my passage fromIndia, albeit a temporary one.
Then, revitalized by my ocean sojourn, I headed north by bus to Mumbai (a.k.a. Bombay), where I planned to catch the train to New Delhi.
Groggy like a punch-drunk prizefighter from my sleepless overnight bus ride, I found myself at 7 a.m. in Mumbai’s landmark Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, sweating rivulets as I stood in line for two hours to buy my train ticket. Half-listening to a couple of Aussie backpackers behind me, I heard one of them say, “She’s a real spice cadet, that one.”
It took only a glance at the endless line of lifeless souls to my right for me to know, with certainty, who had caught the Aussie’s attention. The “spice cadet” – or “space cadet” in Canadian English – was a barefoot, sari-wearing blonde. She looked nonchalant, bored even, as she balanced a bundle on her head – not an uncommon sight in India, except, that is, when you’re a spice cadet. Indeed, earlier in the trip I’d witnessed sari-clad women doing road construction while carrying stone-filled, wok-like pans on their heads.
I briefly wondered what Spice Cadet’s story was, but then refocused on buying my ticket.
Apparently, I was too whipped to note in my diary how I endured the next eight or nine hours in that teeming, steaming, cavernous Gothic station before I finally boarded the 4:15 p.m. train. Finding my designated second-class sleeper compartment, I plunked down on a bench seat between two middle-aged men. One was tall, thin, dark-skinned and grey-haired, the other shorter with a light blue shirt covering a slight paunch. We exchanged nods. I assumed we were the compartment’s only occupants, but then I spotted a pair of smallish blacked feet above me.
Perched on a bunk above us was none other than Spice Cadet.
What were the chances? At that moment I must have channelled Humphry Bogart in Casablanca: Of all the second-class sleeper compartments in all of India, and she ends up in mine. (Unlike the Bogey and Ingrid Bergman characters in that classic film, though, I had no backstory with this strange woman.)
The train pulled out of the station and slowly picked up speed. On our first stop, in the suburbs, hordes of people stormed aboard, seizing whatever places they could find. It was a scene that would repeat itself at every stop along the 1,588-kilometre route. At each station, I would witness through the window scores of men grabbing onto the sides of departing trains. I assumed there were also free-riders clinging to the exterior of our train, albeit out of sight from my vantage point. Those of us on the bench seats were getting squeezed by the new arrivals. I asked the man in the light blue shirt, who’d by now moved up to the berth facing the one occupied by Spice Cadet, if he’d like to trade places. It’s so unlike me to make such a request – one almost certain to be turned down – but to my astonishment, he agreed.
My diary, which so often languishes in superfluous detail when describing personal events of no lasting interest, is maddeningly spare when it comes to chronicling the 29 hours I would spend in Spice Cadet’s presence, telling each other our life stories as we rolled across the parched subcontinent, through the night and through the day. And while I can only rely on memory to relive our conversation, I recall verbatim the first words to come from her mouth:
“Why do you wear shoes?”
“I dunno,” I replied. “Just habit, I guess.”
She told me her name was Annemarie and she was from Denmark.
I wondered what our fellow travellers – all men – thought as they sat shoulder to shoulder below us like mannequins, saying nothing. Were they listening to our conversation? Clearly, they were far more experienced than I was at coping with such conditions. At each new station they did their best to hold their ground against the invading mob. Those able to squeeze into our compartment would slam the door behind them but then, when we pulled into the next station, new passengers would flood on and start banging on the door, hoping to join us. I felt sorry for the multitude left sprawling on the corridor’s filthy floor. It got so crammed out there that, for fear of losing my place, I minimized trips to the car with the hole in the floor that passed for a washroom. (I could hold out longer then.) It was so hot in the rolling sauna that was our compartment that I had no appetite and was barely able to touch its low ceiling for more than a few seconds.
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; she had the face of someone more my age (40). She’d been in India for six months, so maybe the overbearing sun had aged her. I admit I liked the fact that her sari didn’t hide her tight midriff.
She kept going on about living in the jungle with an Indian family. A free spirit, Annemarie was into spirituality, with a side interest in illicit drugs. There was something masochistic about her; she wallowed in her privations. Naturally, she thought Indian-style squat toilets were superior to the sit-down western variety.
“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 and had been on welfare since leaving school.
There was only a slight breeze coming through the open window. Refreshment was limited to chai, sold for a few rupees by young men on bicycles on station platforms. They would hand it to us through the bars of the window in small, disposable, crudely crafted 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. When the sun came up, we resumed our conversation.
We finally arrived in New Delhi after 9 p.m., still on our bunks, roasting. Even Annemarie, the hopeless Indophile, seemed to be losing her cool.
For me, it was the completion of a 2,400-kilometre, 53-hour bus-train odyssey.
In the New Delhi station, there was the usual mad scramble with aggressive cabbies descending upon us. With her belongings again on her head, I watched Annemarie draw stares. Ironically, I thought, her efforts to go native make her stand out. I didn’t know it then, because we’d made dinner plans, but this would be the last I’d see of her.
The next evening, when I turned up at the Metropolis Restaurant and Tourist Home, where she was staying, everything was as she had described it. The Metropolis was, indeed, a funky ’60s kind of place, full of young people. The sounds of Jim Morrison and the Doors’ “Come on, baby, light my fire …” filled the air. Service was friendly and the food delectable.
But Spice Cadet was a no-show.
What was the colour of her sari? The length of her hair? The sound of her voice? Did she have an accent? Did she show any interest in me? Those details have long evaporated.
The world was much less visually documented in 1989, and with no photos of her – let alone videos – I have only an old man’s recollections to go on. These would include my lying in my Spartan New Delhi YMCA room, with its gecko-adorned walls, as I anticipated our dinner date – and who knew what afterward. With Spice Cadet, anything seemed possible.
She stood me up, so I can only assume our time together meant less to her than to me. No matter. We had cameo roles in each other’s life – minuscule ones, at that – and it wouldn’t have happened had we not been two solo travellers randomly thrown together.
Annemarie rarely resurfaces in my mind now, but when she does it’s like a surprise visit by a long-lost friend. I still think about where life’s journey might have taken her. Is she a retired architect in Copenhagen, married and with grandchildren? Or is she as I remember her – frozen in time – still into spirituality, barefoot and sari-clad in India?
Once a spice cadet, always a spice cadet.