When I was 18 – but thought I was about 36 – I popped ten, heavy novels into a backpack with a pair of pink Converse, a bikini and some sensibly-lengthed shorts, and boarded the plane to India.
At around 6am, I found myself stranded in Kochi, Kerala – Southern India, with Lizzie – my travel buddy. It was hot – and clouds of orange dust were being chucked into the air by speeding rickshaws and motorbikes holding entire families.
We were swept up by an Indian man who drove us to a grey block of bricks somewhere and gave us a key to our room. There were no windows, there was blood splattered up the wall, and the toilet was on a raised platform in the corner of the room (also splattered).
As it was breakfast time, we headed out in search of our first Indian meal. Somehow, we ended up in an air-conditioned sweet shop, with blacked-out windows, politely nibbling powdery balls of sugar and trying to hide our disappointment.
We were soon informed that an Indian festival would be taking place in Kochi – and that we should attend. But that we’d need to adapt our attire. We walked into a sari shop in our t-shirts and shorts and I came out in a maroon salwar kameez, with gold sequins sewn along the hem. I can’t remember what Lizzie chose.
The festival was quite incredible – face-painted elephants, men and women with intricate gold headpieces and wonderful bindis, little boys and girls made up – black eyeliner dripping from their big, bright eyes. But it was day one in India and I think we experienced our first bout of ‘culture shock’. We pretended we were completely fine and moved silently through the streets, with men staring at us like we’d never been stared at before.
We decided to move to another hotel (we’d only booked one night in the blood-stained, cockroach-infested prison cell) and realised, as we dumped our bags and bravely headed out for culture shock take two, that we were being followed by two men. They had eaten lunch in the same cafe, loitered outside waiting for us, followed us through the festival – and were now hovering outside our hotel.
We briefly discussed this and then just got on with our day. On leaving hotel number two, I decided that ten novels were actually quite heavy to carry – and so I left a neat pile on the bedside table and skipped off into the bright sunshine, five stone lighter.
To cut a long travelling trip short – we traced the South West coast of India right down to Kanyakumari, where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean meet, whizzed up the South East coast to Chennai and then travelled overland to Goa. I think we stopped at every train stop from Kerala right round to Chennai. Not to be recommended.
When we reached Goa, we dumped our bags in a tree house (50p a night) and hit the beach. At last – our bikinis could come out. Palolem, at that time, was fairly undeveloped. It was beautiful and peaceful. I had a guitar made by a man called Boomshanka, who tuned it like a sitar. We ate lovely vegetable curries with steaming hot naan bread. We drank chai and bang lassies.
And then I realised that a huge white cow (they line the beaches and casually roam the streets in India) was following me. Every time we descended the long, bamboo ladder from our treehouse, the cow would be waiting at the bottom, red eyes glaring. It was big and fat and looked like it was planning on attacking me. Lizzie told me to ignore it – said I was imagining its wrath. But every time we walked down the beach, it would lift its hefty arse up off the shaded patch of sand by our ladder, and slowly saunter after me.
One afternoon, we finished lunch and Lizzie wandered off to make a phone call. I spotted the white cow – with its long, winding horns – lying outside the cafe, on the sand. I considered using another exit then reminded myself that it was ‘all in my head’ and walked towards it, veering to the right hand side of its bulging white body. I had nearly passed it when it heaved itself up and turned to me. We were facing each other, me on the brink of fainting from fear – the cow seeming fairly nonchalant – then it suddenly charged at me. It pushed a long, winding horn into my left thigh and then looked like it might do it again – so I ran for my life. It was too fat to chase me.
Lizzie obviously didn’t believe me when I told her the story. No one does. But, to this day, the repercussions of that attack are disabling. Every so often, I get this sharp pain in my left thigh, and then get excruciating pins and needles. No doctor – mainstream or alternative – can identify the problem. It is like a curse.
Soon after the attack, we left Palolem and – via the Taj Mahal, Delhi, the Great Thar desert and Varanassi – made our way up into the Himilayas, to Manali. It was the end of the trip, and my birthday. A group of boys and girls from London, who we’d met earlier on in our trip, arranged a surprise party for me in their hotel. There was a yak cheese cake, balloons, banners and chillums galore.
The sun had gone down, and we were partying in the big room that all five boys were sharing, when Baba, the owner of the hotel, knocked on the door – asking us to help bring in his hay because the rain was coming. We all rushed downstairs to help but the chillum had affected my balance and I slipped on the stone floor – crushing my coccyx.
The long, bumpy bus ride to Delhi (can’t remember how long it took – probably about eight hours) was hellish. As was the flight home. As was sleeping in a tent, on a steep slope at Glastonbury Festival, which I went to the day after returning from my six-month travelling trip.
The reason I am sharing this story today is because I arrived at work this morning with my left thigh pulsating and my crushed coccyx (irreparably damaged) aching.
I can’t quite believe that these injuries, sustained seven years ago – still plague me. Perhaps it’s to remind me that whilst India is the most vibrant, colourful, sensually-stimulating country to visit – it’s also fraught with tourist traps. I was not cunning enough escape without injury, I was, in fact, rather too complacent for the majority of my travels – to my detriment.
But I still cannot WAIT to return to India at the end of the year. Bring on the head-butting cows and slippery tiled floors.