Heading to India both Victor and I were completely paranoid about getting food poisoning which could ruin our entire vacation. We’ve heard horror stories of tourists spending an entire week holed up in a hotel room, more specifically – on the toilet. I spent hours googling how to prevent traveler’s diarrhea and how to treat it, and even bought expensive probiotics that we religiously took starting a few weeks before our travels. Once in India, we inspected every plate, fork, and spoon and cleaned it with napkins. We ate only cooked vegetables, didn’t order any drinks with ice, drank only bottled water, and were very careful not to ingest anything that wasn’t fresh or freshly cooked. We carried on like this for four full days. And it was this unparallel state of paranoia and obsession with cleanliness that made the events of the fifth day so damn funny.
It was Christmas Eve and we started our day in the stunning Jain temple in Ranakpur, wandering among its infinite number of intricately carved pillars, no two of which are the same. It’s a holy place for Jains and we spent the afternoon learning the particulars of the Jain religion with our guide and driver Sunil and exploring every corner of the temple.
From there, we headed out to Jodhpur, a three-hour drive down a dusty road. We had one stop planned, a bird and animal sanctuary at Guda Bishnoi Lake. Once there, I grabbed my camera bag and walked around the sightseeing platform taking dozens of pictures of animals and birds below, surrounding the lake. At some point, I absentmindedly placed my camera bag (with my wallet and passport inside it, no less!) on a bench and continued taking pictures of the lovely sunset over the sanctuary. Once the sun hid behind the mountain range, Victor, Sunil, and I got back into our car and started heading towards Jodhpur. On the way, Sunil was telling us about the Bishnoi villages that we were passing and the nature-loving people who inhabited these lands. According to his story, in the 18th century, over 300 Bishnoi men and women died, while trying to protect the trees around their village from being chopped down to build a palace for a king. Since then, the area where Bishnoi lived became protected sanctuary lands and the term “tree-hugger” was born.
“I was reading about something called an Opium Ceremony,” Victor said.
“Well, yes, they ingest opium for health reasons and as a gesture of welcoming guests into their house,” Sunil told us. “They can do it for tourists as well, but you have to schedule it in advance and pay for it.”
We had decided ahead of time not to do a tour of the villages due to lack of time and hearing this exchange made me glad we did. I definitely did not want to take drugs in rural India.
Yet, something about the mention of money made me reach for my camera bag… that wasn’t there. I hectically searched the back seat and questioned Victor where he last saw my bag, only to come to the terrifying conclusion that I left it behind at the bird sanctuary. Sunil immediately pulled off the road.
“Ok,” he said, “Don’t panic. I will head back to the sanctuary and find your bag. I’ll drop you off at this Bishnoi village, so you walk around and see how people live. I know a guy who lives here, he’ll show you around. No need for you to drive back and forth with me.”
We drove into the village, as the night was settling in. Our headlights were the only source of light, sweeping the dusty road and huts. Children and adults ran out of their houses to take a look at the late-night visitors. We stopped in front of a larger house and a man in a turban stepped out to greet Sunil. After a quick conversation in Hindi, Sunil waved to us, told us not to worry about the bag, and drove off into the night. We were left standing in almost complete dark, in a tiny village somewhere in India, surrounded by curious children and Sunil’s friend who might or might not speak English. I lost my passport, money, and credit cards, all I had was the camera hanging around my neck. Even though deep inside I was panicking, I instinctively picked up my camera and started shooting. Our host spread his hands wide.
“Welcome to my house!” he said and led us inside. He walked us around his house, introduced us to his various family members, took us into the backyard and show his animals and various tools, told us that his family grows wheat, and let me try de-husking a few cups of wheat using two large stones. Very quickly this felt just like another fascinating tour and not a random crash into a stranger’s house. After a bit, he led us back inside the house, seated us on colorful cushions on the floor, and started setting up a strange metal contraption in the middle of the room. I stared at it curiously, trying to figure out what this bizarre tool could possibly be used for.
“Julia,” Victor whispered, “I think this is the opium ceremony.”
“What?!” I hoarsely whispered back, “Are you sure?”
“I’m kidding!” Victor smirked.
Our host, hearing a few familiar words, picked up his head and cheerfully announced, “Opium Ceremony!”
Victor and I froze.
“But we didn’t schedule it! We didn’t pay for it! I don’t want to drink opium! Can we not do it?” I yelled-whispered. Even as I was panicking, I understood that there really was no way out of this. We didn’t have our trusty guide, Sunil, with us, who could navigate the intricacies of Indian traditions and customs and excuse us from participating. We were in a stranger’s house, alone, at night. A stranger, whose customs dictated to welcome even the most unexpected guests with an opium ceremony. A stranger who, I could now clearly see, was definitely brewing opium directly in front of us.
“Stop panicking!” Victor shushed me, “Act normal!” and encouragingly smiled at our host.
I stretched a terrified smile over my face, “You do it, then. I’ll say I am feeling sick, I can’t do it.”
“Unless they consider opium to be a miracle cure for all kinds of ailments, which they definitely do according to my guidebook,” Victor whispered through clenched teeth.
I have seen my fair share of D.A.R.E. “scare ‘em straight” and “don’t do drugs, kids” propaganda in the 90s. I knew it was a slippery slope. I just never realized you would be in your mid-thirties, never having tried any drugs before, then lose a passport in India and an hour later be ingesting opium in a stranger’s house. This wasn’t a slope. This was a cliff.
But the worst thing about this entire situation wasn’t even the opium. Somewhere, under the thick layer of panic, the reasonable side of me knew that it was a very diluted dose and we were unlikely to feel any serious effects. I could clearly see our host pouring plenty of water into his “opium ceremony” apparatus. He was diluting the opium with tap water. The same tap water we spend four days avoiding like the plague. But the full horror of what was about to happen didn’t completely settle in until our host extended his hand (the same hand with which he casually slapped a cow in his yard earlier in the evening), poured the tap water/opium concoction in his palm and stretched it out towards Victor.
“Opium Ceremony!” he again announced again proudly.
Victor got up and walked towards him, as if in slow motion. He bent down and sucked the opium directly out of the offered hand. After thanking our host, he turned back to me, displaying a far more relaxed smile.
“It’s fine, I don’t feel anything.” He nodded to me encouragingly, settling back on the pillows.
He did look completely fine for a man who just drank the dirtiest tap water in the world directly out of a hand of a farmer who spent an entire day performing manual work in rural India.
The host poured more opium mix into his hand and extended it towards me, flashing a toothless smile. This was it. There was no backing out, no going back, no more excuses. I took my camera off and handed it to Victor. I walked towards the host, bent down towards the outstretched palm, and drank.
Immediately my lips and tongue started tingling. I could feel the mixture swish around my mouth and pour down my throat, leaving slight numbness behind. I turned back towards Victor, feeling slightly unsteady on my feet. “Stop being a drama queen,” I told myself, “You are fine. You are fine.”
“You are fine!” Victor encouragingly whispered, echoing my thoughts. “Thank you! We are honored!” he bowed toward the host.
I sat on the pillows, trying to figure out if I am still able to swallow or if my throat is too frozen to move. The numbness was slowly fading from my mouth and throat.
“I am not high,” I told Victor happily. “Am I? How would I know?”
He, justifiably, rolled his eyes at me.
A few minutes later, headlights swept through the open door of the house. Sunil walked in, triumphantly holding my camera bag in front of him. I have a lot of people in my life who I love and cherish, but I don’t know if I have ever been this happy to see any of them.
As I checked my bag and found that nothing was missing, Victor told Sunil that we just finished an opium ceremony.
“Opium ceremony? Really?” Sunil seemed surprised. He turned away from the host and Victor, towards me and leaned close to my ear. For a second, I thought he was going to ask if I am OK or offer some words of encouragement.
“Make sure you give him a dollar!” Sunil whispered.
I nodded and opened my wallet.
As we drove down the bumpy road through the night, Bishnoi villages far behind us and the moon shining ahead, I clutched my camera bag and finally felt like maybe, everything was going to be ok.
“Christmas Eve!” Sunil announced, “I take you to a nice restaurant in Jodhpur, yes?”
We usually ate at small local joints and stayed in cheap hostels, acts which confused Sunil who continuously exclaimed that he has never seen Americans who didn’t want a bit of luxury, but this was Christmas eve and he decided it was our time to splurge.
We both nodded, even though neither of us even remembered what day it actually was. As Sunil opened the front door of a very fancy-looking building and ushered us inside, we found ourselves at a beginning of a very long hallway, completely decorated floor to ceiling with sparkling Christmas lights. I walked ahead, entranced by the twinkling colorful lights in the darkness, stretching my hands out, trying and failing to touch the sides of the tunnel. Suddenly, overcame by a random thought, I froze in place and twirled around.
“The lights! Is this actually happening?” I yelled at Victor, wildly gesturing my hands, “Or is this the opium?”
Victor stared at me, puzzled. Somewhere behind him, Sunil started laughing. In a minute, all three of us emerged from the hallway into an intricately decorated courtyard with firepits and Christmas trees, laughing our asses off and startling half a dozen of impeccably dressed waiters.
I am happy to report that neither of us had any stomach problems in the following few days. Apparently, there was enough water in the opium to dilute the high and enough opium in the water to kill all the bacteria. Obviously enough, people who perform opium ceremonies for tourists know a thing or two about not killing tourists with opium ceremonies. In my panicked state about my missing wallet and passport, I might have forgotten to consider that possibility. We also stopped freaking out about getting food poisoning as much and generally developed a more relaxed attitude to all our mishaps and misadventures. So much so, that I, of course, got food poisoning in the last few days of our trip to Varanasi. But more about that in the next post, “The Holy River of Ganges – Food Poisoning, Death, and Scams.”