A Luxury Coach To Ajanta And Ellora, India, 1982
I planned to spend an entire three months in India. And I mean PLANNED. It was that or waste a lot of effort on going to a faraway foreign country just to sit in hotel rooms with bad sheets, feeling panicked.
I have always made my way through the uncertainties and ambiguities of life by planning. Runs in the family. My youngest sister is known, affectionately, as Plannerina. Although she says kid #3 has finally put Plannerina to rest. But I digress.
I took guidebooks to India. Fodors and Let's Go. I thought about every step of the trip. And now I was in Bombay. With time on my hands. I had at least three or four days before film industry interviews would begin. The caves of Ellora and Ajanta were on my list. Or Ajanta and Ellora. Either way.
Somehow, and I do not remember how, I found a tour to Ajanta and Ellora. Via luxury coach. Let me say simply that words do not always mean the same thing in foreign countries. Even when they are ostensibly words of your language. The tour took us from Bombay out to the caves, one night on a bus, a hotel to shower in and have breakfast upon arrival, a day at the caves, and then another night back on the luxury coach to Bombay.
Oh take pity on a child. Even now I shake my head at my own optimism. Realizing at the same time that optimism can be a very good trait, especially for adventures. I got on the luxury coach, which, in this case, turned out to be luxurious enough even for a slightly spoiled young America. Sat down in my seat, a very nice seat, as it turned out, next to a middle-aged Indian man. And proceeded to have a violent allergic reaction to something I had eaten. Which caused me to itch all over, sneeze violently, and break out in hives. Hard to breathe. (This allergy was to become so serious later in life that the last time it happened I believe I almost died. But this was early days.) There was really nothing I could do about it that night but endure. So I did.
The attack passed. However. Right about the time when my throat opened up again, and I understood that I would probably live, I also understood that the man in the next seat wasn't squeezing my leg by accident. I twisted, I turned, I got annoyed, I tried to give signals that I was not appreciating the attention, I gave up. I moved to the back of the bus and sat down in the last row of seats against the back. Where I bumped around so violently that I could not sleep at all.
I arrived at the Ajanta Ambassador in a state of complete temper. As a 25-year old, on occasion I resembled a teenage girl. Not exactly the most gracious of species. The shower helped. Air conditioning helped. Breakfast really helped.
Off we set. The caves of Ajanta and Ellora were built by Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains between 200 B.C. and 700 A.D.. Carved into the side of a cliff alongside a river in the plains. Not even a grumpy baby Grande Dame could fail to put aside small annoyances, the wish for cold water, the discomforts of luxury coaches, in the face of this.
Like most of my trip to India, Ajanta was hot. Very hot. The sun was so bright I had to shade my eyes. Almost hard to see. But there were caves. And statues three times my height. All carved before my culture was much of a twinkle in some wild Saxon's eye.
We toured. I had remembered how hard it was to transition again and again from dark to light, from hot to cooler. But my notebook also tells me that a guide had us all wait outside one of the carved chambers. He went inside with other guides. They chanted. I remember now. Standing out in the white sun, a courtyard enclosed by decorated walls of statuary, men chanting in caves.
I'm embarrassed my notebook also shows I wrote about loud air conditioning on the same page. Everything I say is as truthful as I can make it. As best I can remember. I don't know if it matters.
Then we saw the sleeping Buddha. Carved in stone. I remember, at the time, I was not impressed. So what? A Buddha. I'd seen pictures. So what? He was long, and lying down. But now, looking at the Buddha's face, I think I missed something. I was very, very young. Pretty scared and trying to replace my fear with all kinds of inner commentary.
I made it back to Bombay uneventfully. If being 25, and alone, in India, in 1982, can be said to be uneventful. We humans have a remarkable capability to reset normal.
Have a wonderful weekend.