I MET PAUL MY FIRST MORNING in Rishikesh. It was also the morning I saw the almost naked men cross the Lakshman Jhula bridge over the Ganges. The men were bone-thin and wore ochre-coloured loincloths. Their hair hung in long dreadlocks, intermingling with their scruffy beards. Some carried staffs, others small instruments; almost all were smeared with white ash. The Sadhus, Hindu ascetics or practitioners of yoga, had renounced worldly life to achieve moksha, liberation. They came off the bridge, kicking up dust as they passed by the café where I was sitting, their clamorous banging of drums filling the air with riotous, joyful noise. Then they passed and there was just the quiet murmuring of the river and people chatting at the café tables. I stirred my tea and watched a line of ants march from the sugar bowl across the tabletop and into the straw weave of the café walls.
The other travellers in the café talked about the nearly naked sadhus, except the guy at the next table, Paul. He concentrated on a chess board. I had noticed him earlier because he wasn’t wearing the usual hippy fisherman’s pants and printed shirts or the leather jewellery most backpackers wore. He wasn’t even wearing sandals. He wore jeans, a white wife-beater tank top and a pair of motorcycle boots. He had the brightest red hair I’d ever seen, cut military short, and on his arms, and weaving under the tank top, elaborate multi-coloured tattoos—fish and birds and wild plants. He looked older than most of the other travellers, maybe in his late twenties.
I didn’t think we’d meet, but then a young woman with long brown hair and a strappy sundress flopped into a cane chair across from him and announced, “I dreamt the devil stole my soul.” She had a British accent and her pretty face looked troubled.
Paul looked up from his chessboard. “I told you to stop taking that Lariam shit.” I expected his voice to be a low growl, but he had a soft tone.
I cocked my ear to listen more carefully, still pretending to be interested in the river. I was also taking the malaria drug Lariam, and I too was having horrible nightmares. Most nights since arriving in India I’d woken in a sweaty state of dread. These weren’t my regular bad dreams of missing flights or not being able to find my car in a parking lot. These were dreams of a whole other psychedelic realm, full of grotesque impossibilities that woke me in a state of heart-stopping terror. I dreamed my brother became a giant Kafkaesque insect, that a witch masquerading as a neighbour had tried to steal my sister and then melted in my parents’ front hall like the Wicked Witch of the West.
“What about malaria?” the woman asked Paul.
“Have you seen any mosquitos?” He had a British accent too. The woman slumped in her chair. “Not exactly.”
“I think you’ll be all right then,” he said in a quiet, steady voice. I couldn’t help myself. I leaned across my table toward theirs. “Excuse me,” I said to the woman, “but are you saying Lariam gives you nightmares?”
She nodded. “Apparently.”
“Me too!” I felt relieved and excited at the same time. I had thought travelling on my own was causing such vivid black dreams. The woman, Nicole, and I began comparing our dreams. Our mutual problem, combined with the intimacy travelling seemed to give complete strangers, had us telling our Lariam-triggered visions as if we’d known each other weeks rather than moments. For both of us the drug seemed to expose unknown anxieties. Mine were entirely about my family. Nicole’s dreams centred on her body. She dreamed her limbs shrivelled and fell off or grew to huge proportions. Some nights she had no eyes or tongue. Paul leaned back, arms crossed against his chest, and listened to us with a faint smile.
I joined Paul and Nicole for breakfast and we introduced ourselves. I was from Canada and had spent the last two years since graduating from university teaching in Japan. They were cousins travelling in northern India before heading down to Goa for the winter. Nicole had worked in a restaurant in London until she quit to come to India. Paul was a welder on an oil tanker in the Pacific for months at a time, and then was off work for long stretches. Nicole was chatty
and languid and smoked cigarettes with her coffee. Paul was quieter, soft-spoken, utterly unlike his brash appearance. He chuckled at Nicole’s stories about a monkey that stole her toast, about working in a restaurant.
Paul had a motorcycle, an Indian-made Enfield, and he and Nicole planned to ride up the river to a place you could swim. They invited me to join them. I said I would jog up the road and meet them.
I ran along a single-track road, the river flashing between the trees. From time to time I passed a solitary sadhu. Half an hour later, I arrived at a rocky beach in time to see Paul dive into the water and then shake his head like a dog, droplets flying off his red hair. He swam in a pair of fitted black trunks with his sunglasses on. His body was impressive, chiselled, his chest, back and arms covered in tattoos. An elaborate dragon spread over his upper back, the head curving over his shoulder. This was in 1998—before everyone had a tattoo— but they suited Paul, balanced his bright hair.
“You aren’t worried about swimming here?” I asked. My father had sent me an email the night before claiming his friend Lynne’s friend’s daughter’s cousin, or some such relation, had swum in the Ganges, got sick from bacteria and dissolved. His email ended, “Please don’t swim in the Ganges.” It was part of a series of short, simply worded emails warning me about the dangers of India. Dear Leanne,
he wrote when I was in Dharamsala, up in the mountains, There isn’t much oxygen over 5000 metres. Please don’t climb higher. Love, Dad.
Paul shrugged, “Looks all right to me.”
He was probably right. This wasn’t the polluted Ganges of industrial India, but a mountain tributary, fresh from a glacier. Still, I was content to watch Paul and Nicole splash in the shallows, to observe the women across the river beat their laundry on the rocks.
I was curious about Paul’s work, about living on a tanker for long stretches. Did he get days off on the ship? What was there to do on those days?
Paul sat on a turquoise sarong beside me drying off in the winter sunlight. “Sea life is pretty boring. Mostly you work long shifts and then you’re off a long time. This is my third time in India.”
“So, you like it here?” I wasn’t sure I did yet. The crowds and beggars overwhelmed me. Rishikesh was heaven compared to Delhi, but the day before I’d gotten in a shared tuktuk and the woman across from me was holding a massive snake wrapped in a burlap sack.
Paul nodded. “Yeh, I love India. It’s cheap to travel and there’s interesting things to see.”
“Do you keep an apartment back in England?”
“Neh, mostly I travel when I’m off.”
“Oh, but what about your stuff?” I asked.
“Stuff?” Paul looked at me over the top of his mirrored sunglasses. “Yeah, like clothes and books and papers.”
Paul shook his head. “I don’t have much of that. I keep a few boxes at my da’s.”
I nodded, impressed. Paul reminded me of a short story by Paul Theroux about a travelling salesman who had only one small suitcase and agonized over which of his belongings were worth keeping. Yet Paul was the opposite of that character. I wanted to be like him: not held back by personal belongings. I was constantly obsessing over the contents of my backpack, worried about the bag I had left in storage in Delhi, the box I had mailed from Japan to Israel. Would my computer survive the journey? Was I stupid to have given away my raincoat to my friend Kiyomi? I even kept a running list of all the things I knew were back in my childhood room, down to the drawers of my desk, even though I hadn’t lived in that room for seven years.
In the afternoon I said good-bye to Paul and Nicole. I planned to visit an ashram I might stay at. Paul rolled his eyes. “Be sure to ‘feel the energy’ while you’re there,” he smirked. I nodded politely, but felt bewildered. Wasn’t I supposed to seek out spiritual experiences in India? What was Paul doing instead?
During the week while I took the occasional yoga class—first at a little hut with some Israeli women from my hotel where we did odd breathing exercises that involved a lot of panting, and then later on the roof of my hotel where I stretched through more familiar yoga poses—Paul hung out at the river and rode his motorcycle around the surrounding area. While I tried to breathe my way toward equanimity and be at ease in the world, Paul seemed already to be there without trying. He seemed at peace with his days, letting each unfold without any real plan. I was always scribbling in my journal, trying to focus my trip. I didn’t know where I was going next in India, or what I was even doing in India. Paul didn’t have a plan beyond driving south for the winter, but this didn’t concern him. I was deeply envious of his lack of anxiety about his trip. His spontaneity was a plan itself, a kind of clarity.
The afternoon before I planned to leave Rishikesh, Paul offered to take me on his motorcycle to a nearby town, Haridwar. I jumped at the chance even though he didn’t have a helmet for me. I’d never