It’s a mean little bug that’s laid me very low and stopped my back-packing adventures mid-flight.
I have no idea how I caught it – it could be due to the extremely hot weather, or something waterborn from the Ganges (hardly surprising), or perhaps some microbe living in the filthy backstreets, or maybe it was the result of six weeks hard travelling (I was the only woman of 60 backpacking that I knew of) – but one day I was fine and looking forward to moving onto Vietnam, and the next I was most certainly not.
I had had enough of Varanasi by the time I fell sick, and I was determined to catch the one hour flight back Delhi so I could at least hole up in the Anoop Hotel for a couple of days before my flight was due to leave for Hanoi.
I hardly slept that night, and got up early in order to arrive at Varanasi’s very plush ‘international’ airport at 7.30am (around an hour’s taxi drive away from Varanasi itself ), only to be told by an officious guard sitting languidly on a chair beside the door that the whole airport was shut until 9.00am.
I was aching to go to sleep (as only one can when feeling ill) so I lay down on the pavement outside, resting on my bags. I must have looked an odd sight because a soldier with a few more stripes on his shoulder lapels ordered the guard to let me in so I could at least lie on a comfortable bench.
I could have kissed him.
I immediately fell asleep on the bench, to be woken an hour and half later by the sweetest cleaner dressed in an immaculate sari, carrying a dustpan and brush which hardly looked used. I managed to haul myself to the check-in desk and then through security. I can’t remember much about the flight, but good old Spice Jet (best Indian budget airline by far) got me safely to Dehli.
Walking out of the air conditioned Indira Gandhi airport into 45 degrees when you’re not feeling too good is quite an experience. So was the rickety taxi that pulled up to take me into the city. The driver had the kind of bare-tooth smile that immediately put me on my guard. My anxiety increased when a second Indian hopped in beside him.
‘Hey!’ I said. ‘Who’s this?’
‘No problem, Madam,’ said my driver, smirking at me through the mirror. ‘He my friend.’
I didn’t have the strength to argue, but I suddenly felt extremely vulnerable as we tore through the streets of Delhi, windows wound down as a way of compensating for the lack of air conditioning.
Eventually, we drew into the Main Bazaar of Paharganj where the Anoop Hotel is situated, and within half an hour I was in bed with a high fever.
Fortunately my husband telephoned the next day and insisted I called a doctor.
This is how the remarkable Dr Pancholi entered my life, who, without wishing to appear melodramatic, certainly stopped me from becoming very ill indeed.
He scooped me up, and took me to his clinic where he placed me on intravenous drip, into which he injected a load of antibiotics. Four litres later, I began to feel a little better, but it didn’t last long.
The next day I was back on Dr Pancholi’s couch with yet more intravenous antibiotics flowing through my veins. But this time, I really did feel a lot better and spent the next hour or so talking about the positive aspects of arranged marriage.
Dr Pancholi found it very hard to understand the high divorce rate in western society.
‘My older brother met my wife-to-be first. Then my younger brother and my uncle met her with her family. Eventually, my entire family was involved with the decision that she would make a good wife for me. We are both from the Brahman class, so we were well matched.’
‘Has it worked for you?’ I asked him.
‘Yes,’ he said, without hesitation. ‘Yes it has. We have both our families to support us, and we will do the same for our own children.’
‘Did you meet her before your wedding day?’ I asked.
‘No. But that’s not expected in our culture.’
It didn’t sound as if this was the greatest love-match in the world, but he spoke with such dignity and respect about his marriage that it really touched me. Divorce was just not an option.
While I have heard awful stories about enforced marriages involving dreadful abuse, I can understand why arranged marriages can work. There is low expectation of love to begin with, but a real hope that it may grow and develop as the years pass. And, I couldn’t help but think how different things might be in our western culture if we involved our whole family in our choice of partner from the very beginning.
Maybe unimaginable for some, but a much better success rate for others.
I returned to the Anoop Hotel and began to look forward to my flight that evening to Vietnam. But, within a couple of hours I was feeling lousy again, and, strongly supported by Dr Pancholi, I knew there was only one place in the world I needed to be.
Home in the UK.
My husband (a second marriage for both of us that has fortunately grown and deepened during the eleven years we’ve been together) leapt into action and within twenty-four hours I was on a Virgin Atlantic flight (I love you Virgin Altantic), bumping and bouncing its way back to Britain. But I didn’t care, or even bother to watch the moving map. I just wanted to sleep and try to ignore the aroma of curry that was wafting around the cabin at each meal time.
We landed with a mighty thud on Heathrow’s runway, and after passing my passport through the face-scanner device (what a weird experience), I headed straight into my husband’s welcoming arms.
So I’m now home, slowly, slowly getting better. But it’s strange – and very frustrating – knowing that I should be on the other side of the world completing my IVHQ project in Vietnam.
Never mind. Vietnam is still going to be there when the time is right for me to go again.
In the meantime, our canal boat Molly May waits for us.
As compensation and recuperation (Mark is just recovering from two years of ill health) we have booked a very different kind of adventure: a meandering three-week canal trip through Stratford-upon-Avon to Stroud by way of Tewksbury and Gloucester, before heading back up the magnificent 36 flight of locks at Worcester’s Tardebigge and eventually returning to Kate Boat’s Stockton marina, where Molly May lives and is available for hire.
If this goes well, and our health continues to improve, we are planning a second get-away at the end of August. This time, catching the European Bike Express to the South of France, and taking several weeks to cycle back on Sunshine, our tandem.
So even if one plan goes belly-up, it doesn’t mean to say that other opportunities don’t present themselves. That’s the glory of life.
But, this illness has made me aware of how important my health is. Something I have always taken for granted.
Not any more.
60 is a big watershed for many of us, and I, for one, have been forced to realise that I am no longer invincible, nor indeed, possess the strength and resilience I had as a younger woman.
I guess it’s time to do things a little differently.