Dealing With Disordered Eating

When I turned five, I lost my appetite.

I don’t mean that I lost it after a particularly nauseating meal only to regain it when confronted with a slice of cake. I don’t mean that I carelessly misplaced it behind a bush somewhere, only to find it again five hours later during a fortuitous game of hide and seek. I mean that one day I went to bed after eating my dinner, and the next morning I woke up without any hint of my appetite. It had simply packed up and left in the night. It hadn’t left a note of explanation, or been prompted by anything that I can think of. It was just… gone.

My issue with the lack of appetite first started with my packed lunches; white bread sandwiches with butter and salami bulging hideously from their cling film wrappers. I would pull each sandwich out of my bag as if it were contaminated, examine it from all angles, and then stuff the indecently solid mass between my bellybutton and the waistband of my tartan kilt, or squeeze it past the wristband of my jumper, giving my forearm an offputtingly lumpy appearance. Then, over lunch, as if I were on a covert mission, I would pass by the large bin poised to catch chocolate wrappers and empty crisp packets from screaming children, and I would dump my sandwich into the black plastic abyss. The moment the sandwich disappeared, I would heave a sigh of relief and run off to play under the sprawling chestnut trees.

It escalated.

If I couldn’t reach the bins – which were often too close to the watchful gaze of our teachers – I would fling the offending sandwiches across the school wall*, or bury them at the foot of a tree.

Slowly, my refusal to eat spread to all meals.

At home, dinnertime became a stubborn standoff. My mother insisted I couldn’t leave the table until I was finished eating everything on my plate, and although I was desperate to get away from the kitchen table, this could take literal hours. It would get dark, the food would get cold, and I would still be sitting at the table kicking my toes against the chair legs, staring glumly at the wall as I chewed.

It escalated further.

Soon it wasn’t just sandwiches but entire lunches that were disappearing. Yogurts. Bananas. Chocolate bars. Cartons of juice. My mother, desperate for some control over my eating, told me I had better eat everything she gave me for lunch, and I, just as desperate, grew sloppy with my sandwich elimination schemes.

My teachers, in particular an eagle-eyed woman called Susan, started to suspect something.

One day, she kept me back and questioned me gently – although it felt like an interrogation at the time – as to whether I just didn’t like what I was getting for lunch. I burst into tears. She must have felt completely out of her depth. Carefully peeling the slices of salami off the buttered bread, she stacked them in a neat pile while suggesting that I ask my mother to make me something else for lunch. I nodded dumbly.

“You have to eat something. I’m afraid I can’t let you out to play until you’ve eaten the buttered bread. See? All the salami is gone.”

I’m sure this was said with kindness and concern, but to me it sounded threatening. I stared at the pale slabs of buttered bread, my eyes boring holes into the indented circles in the butter. I looked up at Susan with a sudden surge of hatred. Didn’t she know that it was too late? That the pungent smell of salami would have infiltrated the butter? That the salami might as well still be there? Just the smell of it turned my stomach. I pulled at the crust, rolling the tiny pieces between my fingers, stalling for time. Then I slowly lifted the bread to my lips and took a tiny, mouse-like bite.

Susan sat opposite me for the entire hour and watched as I tried to eat while choking on tears.

That evening I did as Susan had suggested. It went badly. I continued to get salami sandwiches for lunch. Susan continued to keep me in at lunchtime. One day she sat opposite me as I struggled through another miserable sandwich, scraped of all salami slices. She watched me as I chewed with what must have been an expression of pained disgust. Baffled, she asked, “Did you not talk to your mother about the salami sandwiches?” I nodded dumbly. Speechless, she leaned back and said nothing more for the hour that we sat there together.

She quickly became my greatest enemy. Not only did she keep me in during lunchtime and force me to eat my food, but one day, presumably looking for resolution, she did something unforgivable.

She called my mother.

I won’t go into the ramifications of that call except that from then on my eating became more problematic. No meal or food was manageable. I don’t remember ever feeling a single pang of hunger. I remember sitting chewing with my head resting in my hand, elbow on the table, during my fourth hour of dinner, thinking, “I could be happy if I just didn’t have to eat.”

It was as if my body had decided eating was a revolting, useless exercise that we should have nothing to do with, and my every sense rallied behind this effort. My tastebuds enjoyed nothing. The smell of food made me nauseous. The moment food appeared on a plate in front of me, I shut down. The act of eating was unbearable. No food tempted me. I would chew the same tiny bite of food for fifteen minutes or more. I would chew until I had practically ground it down to a molecular level, and even so, swallowing was a challenge. I would have to take a sip from my glass, creating a truly disgusting watery slop that I would only then be able to choke down.

My mother, panicked by this bizarre behaviour in her five year old, tackled it by trying to terrify me into normal eating habits. She did indeed terrify me, but instead of being scared straight, my behaviour turned more desperate. I turned into a feral squirrel of a child, hiding my food anywhere I thought might give me a few days of peace. As I was only five and my critical reasoning skills were yet to develop (some would argue they still haven’t come in), this led to disastrous decisions on my part.

I became obsessed with getting rid of any food put in front of me. I developed an unusual skill set; every time I walked into a room in which I had to eat, I scanned every corner of it, mentally cataloguing any potential hiding places. Ideally I would hide food in my napkin, excuse myself while hiding it in my hand, and flush it down the toilet. This clean and tidy method worked for a while until some small traitorous green bean emerged from its hiding place in the U-bend at an inopportune moment, ratting me out and bringing the full wrath of my mother down on my head.

From then on, it became a matter of survival. My mother escalated her efforts to force me into eating. I escalated my efforts to wiggle out it.

Mealtimes were battlezones. I would cry silently from beginning to end. In tortured whispers I would beg my father to eat food from my plate when my mothers’ back was turned, and he, distressed by my distress, would wolf down large portions of my dinners in an attempt to defuse the situation.

As a general rule, the adults in my life doubled down on their efforts to get me eating normally again. This consisted of constant supervision; I was no longer allowed to use the bathroom during meals. The intense scrutiny limited my options in terms of disposing of my food, and so now chips, steak, pastries, fish would be crammed into vases, under shelving units, behind washing machines. If I wasn’t sitting at a table I was worrying about the next time I would be sitting at a table. My fear and desperation was all-consuming. I never thought about what would happen when it was discovered, because that was in the future, and I couldn’t afford to worry about the future when I felt strangled with fear and anxiety in the present. I couldn’t eat, and if I couldn’t eat, then the food needed to disappear. It was as simple as that. I would worry about the rest of it at a later date.

Naturally, the “later date” always came sooner than I would have liked. That’s the thing about food; it rots. When it rots, it smells, and when it smells, people go looking for the root cause. It wasn’t a huge leap to consider me the prime suspect in The Mysterious Case of The Custard In The Cupboard, for example, or even The Scandal of The Sandwich in The Saucepan**. Each discovery brought more misery, both to my parents who were disappointed to find I hadn’t consumed whatever it was they had found, and to me personally when I had to deal with the moment of reckoning.

This continued for four years until I was nine years old.

At some point, for some reason, my appetite returned. It strolled back into my life without a hint of shame or compunction. It flung its coat on my caudate, hung its hat on my hippocampus, and cheerfully announced “I’m BACK! What did I miss?”

I remember even less about this than I remember going off food in the first place.

Happily, my appetite has been robust ever since. To this day I don’t know what provoked what was a long and arduous phase for me and everybody around me. It wasn’t triggered by any single event, it didn’t involve any thoughts about body image… it was just a strange switch in my brain suddenly flicked to ‘OFF’ without warning.

And then, eventually, with just as little fanfare flicked back to ‘ON’.

Years later, parents of friends still recount stories of my sitting with a single plate of food for hours on end, amused and confused by what they think of as childhood feeding foibles. I laugh at all the appropriate moments but inside I squirm uncomfortably, wondering if I ever hid food under their sofa or behind their curtain or between books on the bookshelf.

I make a concerted effort now to listen to my appetite; I satisfy cravings without hesitation. I bake and cook and lick the spoon.

I want my appetite to feel fully appreciated so that it never walks out on me again.

 

*The people who lived next door must have been absolutely baffled by the sudden spray of sandwiches dotting their front garden.

**Seven years later I was still finding mummified slivers of steak in old hiding places.

Red Head

 

I got ID’d yesterday.

I was buying 20 eggs and a bottle of spiced rum – a questionable grocery list at the best of times – when the young guy working the till stopped and looked at me expectantly. There were about five people waiting in line behind me, so as if looking for answers or permission I first glanced at them, and then back at him, and chewed the inside of my cheek nervously. Anytime I – for any reason – hold up the line at the checkout, I’m (I think not unreasonably) afraid that a riot will break out behind me and I will die, suddenly and ignominously, when somebody throws a bottle of Elderflower Cordial at my head.

After a pause that was probably only five seconds long but felt like the eternity of time compressed and squeezed into a matter of seconds, his mouth twisted at the corner and he said, “Sorry, but I’ll need to see your ID?”

As if it was obvious.

As if I pass for an 18 year old on any given Tuesday.

I can say with certainty that I don’t look 12 years younger than my age, so this came as a bit of a surprise. For a moment I wasn’t sure I even had any ID on me. I started to get preemptively annoyed about potentially being prevented from buying my bottle of rum.

The person behind me in the queue shifted his weight from one foot to the other and this tiny gesture (the first sign of the aforementioned riot; I’m sure of it) spurred me into action. I dug into my bag and pulled out my passport card, which I was only carrying by pure chance and have literally never used for any practical purpose.

I handed it over with a face that might have read ‘You have absolutely got to be kidding me‘ but might also have read ‘Please hurry up before someone lamps me with a turnip and I have to go to intensive care for the sake of two cartons of eggs and a bottle of rum.’

He took his time looking the card over. He tilted it to check the holographic shine, then scanned it for my date of birth. When he found it, his eyebrows shot up into his hairline and he looked at me and said, “OOooooooOOOOOOoooOOOOoooh!”

The man behind me shifted his weight again. I swear I could see his fingers twitching. He was probably having graphic, detailed fantasies of throttling the two of us.

My face started to burn and I turned an unnatural, almost-fluorescent hue that lit up the shop with a rosy glow. Unfortunately, not only do I flush red when I’m embarrassed, but I also find blushing to be absolutely mortifying, and so it becomes a cycle; I turn into a human traffic light stuck on red.

The guy still held my passport card, and was now grinning at me with one eyebrow raised. He slowly moved to hand it back to me, and although I itched to snatch it off him and sprint out the door, I forced myself to move at a normal pace. I took it back and busied myself burying it deep in my bag, hiding my face with my hair in an effort to get my skintone back to an earthly shade. He handed me my rum, still grinning, and I felt another wave of heat wash over me. I tapped my card on the machine and grabbed the receipt off him a moment sooner than might have been polite, and as I turned to walk away, he called after me:

“I hope you have a wonderful night!”

And then, when I didn’t reply straight away, he added (with a touch of innuendo):

“Have fun!*”

Without turning, I lifted the bottle of rum in acknowledgement of his comment and continued out the door.

It’s cold in the Dublin evenings now, but not to worry; my flushed face kept me warm for a few minutes longer.

 

*I suspect he either thought I was a tiny alcoholic with a penchant for spiced rum and omelettes OR he thought I was on my way to get properly hammered and egg someone’s house**. Neither is particularly flattering.

Clumsy Is as Clumsy Does

Hit the ground running

I am astonishingly clumsy.

I know people often say things like that. They laugh and say “Ooh, I’m such a klutz!” and it’s endearing in a kooky kind of way. Often what they mean is that they dropped their pen a couple of days ago, or they spilled coffee on the table when they put their mug down a little too vigorously.

I am not the endearing, kooky kind of clumsy. I am the full-on, disaster-waiting-to-happen, miracle-I-haven’t-broken-bones-yet, guaranteed-public-humiliation kind of clumsy.

Last month, I was in town chatting with a friend when I tripped. I didn’t trip on the pavement, or on a broken cobblestone. I didn’t even trip on the sneaky leg of an English spy in a bowler hat, hiding behind a newspaper, trying to keep me from accidentally stumbling onto the scene of an international investigation.

I tripped on my own foot.

The toe of my left boot managed to catch the heel of my right foot and I stumbled forward at an angle no human is capable of holding for very long. In an excruciatingly protracted series of movements, I tried valiantly to regain my footing. My friend, startled by my sudden lunge forward, put out her arms to catch me. I caught myself for a fraction of a second – and my friend sighed and pulled back, relieved – before barrelling forward for the second act. Finally, my feet admitted defeat and I hit the tarmac in a hard but almost graceful gliding motion.

Note I said almost.

Once I regained the breath that had been knocked out of me, I rolled over onto my back, laughing. A woman who had been passing by was standing over me with a hand pressed to her chest, her mouth a silent O of horror. My friend, eyes wide, was laughing with a hand over her mouth, which is generally accepted to be the polite way to show you’re concerned but also highly entertained.

The strange woman stepped forward, her handbag swinging from her elbow, and said, “Oh my God, are you alright?”

The last time a stranger asked that of me it was a different woman, with a different handbag, bending over me as I got sick in the gutter at 4am after having had several too many. I briefly considered the fact that strangers only ever use this particular phrase when they are appalled by what they are witnessing.

I thanked her and brushed myself off and reassured everybody that I was fine. I was! I was fine. Only my thigh and my elbow and my ego were grazed in the fall.

Fast forward to a couple of days ago as I sat at the LUAS stop.

As is my habit, I tucked one Adidas Superstar up underneath me on the bench as I waited, listening to music on my phone. As the LUAS pulled up, I took a stride towards it and immediately faceplanted in a perfect arc. This time there was no protracted slow-motion experience. This time I was sitting one moment, and face to the concrete the next.

The aglet of my shoelace had caught in one of the drainage holes of the bench.

Every passenger on the LUAS stared at me through the windows. A girl who had been waiting with me stepped forward before I even knew what had happened. She deftly unhooked me from the bench, leaving me feeling like a salmon who had just had a lucky interaction with a catch-and-release fisherman.

“There you go!” She said cheerfully as she popped the aglet out through the hole. “These things happen!”

“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t bother to explain that these things happen to me with alarming frequency.

I limped onto the LUAS and walked past the many silently staring passengers with my shoelace dragging behind me. No bruises this time. My immunity is building.

These things are bound to keep happening to me. I know it. I accept it.

I can only hope that eventually, I will stop feeling shame.

I will have been innoculated by experience.

“Irish People, Am I Right?”

-Irish People, Am I Right--

I daydreamed as I stood in line for the till, cradling my carton of milk and loaf of bread like precious cargo. The shop is usually pretty quiet mid-morning, with only freelancers and frazzled parents usually stopping in for essentials. The man in front of me was taking his time, and slowly my attention drifted back down to earth and settled on his lanky figure. His clothes were ill-fitting and dirty. His hair hadn’t been washed in any version of the recent past, and his cheeks were hollow. He was buying cigarettes and a six-pack of beer.

“I just lost a hundred on a horse,” he said to the young guy working the till. He sounded both apologetic and desperate, as if this grocery shop employee could hear his confession and grant him forgiveness as part of the transaction. “I lost a hundred on a horse,” he muttered again, his eyes wide and panicked. “That was me last hundred, you know?”

The guy on the till – a good-looking twenty year old with West Asian features – raised his eyebrows, pursed his lips and nodded in the universal expression for ‘Ooookay then!’

He rang up the beer in silence.

“I just need a drink to take the edge off, you know. Like, that was me last hundred.” The man gulped and his fingers fluttered nervously on the edge of the conveyer belt. “It was a good tip. It was a good tip I got about the horse, but it just… These things happen, you know.”

The words just poured out of him. He kept repeating himself. He was fixated on the horse and how it had run the race and what had happened to keep him from winning. The conditions weren’t favourable. The horse started wrong. The jockey didn’t make the right calls. All the time he was talking his fingers danced along the metal edge of the till and his eyes darted nervously across the back wall.

“That was me last hundred. I can’t believe it, you know?”

I watched him, and my heart hurt for him. I’ve been there. Maybe I haven’t been buying-a-six-pack-and-a-carton-of-smokes-at-11am-after-losing-my-last-hundred-on-a-horse kind of there, but I’ve definitely experienced that feeling of having Messed Up that hits like an avalanche and robs you of reason. I’ve felt that horrible, unrelenting anxiety close over me. I’ve had moments that made me want to vomit because in the panic of the moment I feared I’d dug myself a hole that felt like it might be a grave.

The man’s gaze flicked blindly over his cans and his packet of cigarettes. It bounced across the plants stacked next to the door, ricocheted off the bottles of Jack Daniels behind the till, and finally came to rest on the cashier, who stared at him with ill-concealed disdain.

“That’ll be €21.90,” the twenty-year old said cooly. His eyes met mine for a moment and the faintest flash of a smirk crossed his face.

There was a strained silence as the man nodded to himself and pulled change out of his pockets, counting out the exact amount. He handed it to the boy, and picked up his things. He stood for a moment, as if waiting for something more – help, maybe, or absolution – then nodded once last time and dragged himself out of the shop. The cashier and I watched him leave in silence, then I placed my items on the belt and gave the guy a small smile.

He started to scan my items and shook his head. “Not even 12pm,” he said to me in a half-amused, half-disgusted tone of voice.

“Irish people, huh?”

He caught me so off-guard that I simply stared at him. I tapped my card against the machine, picked up my stuff and walked out without saying a word.

Afterwards, I kicked myself for not having said anything, but I was so surprised at the number of assumptions he made in that moment that I was struck mute. Consider for a moment that to make that throwaway comment he had to have thought:

  • That all Irish people are alcoholic gamblers
  • That I am not Irish
  • That I agree that all Irish people are alcoholic gamblers
  • That I feel justified in judging strangers based on two-minute interactions

I mean… None of those things are true.

I’ve touched on the fact that I don’t look Irish before, but I think that’s the first time somebody has felt comfortable enough assigning me a background that they’ve dragged me into a conspiratorial bit of casual racism against Irish people. It would be more understandable if this had happened abroad, but we’re in Ireland! Not a huge leap to think I might be Irish despite not looking the part.

Anyway.

I haven’t seen the gambler since.

The cashier still smiles conspiratorially at me anytime I go to the shop.

How should I have handled this? Have you ever had anything like this happen? I’d like to somehow slip my Irishness into conversation next time I get caught at his till, but I now actively avoid him if I see him working. The whole thing just makes my skin crawl.

I hope the gambler is okay. I hope his panic passed. I hope he’s backed off from backing horses.

 

 

Joining in in Jaipur, India

imageedit_19_3710205491

After the maelstrom of Delhi, Scrubs and I were glad to escape to the relative serenity of Jaipur. The famously pink buildings seemed to glow a warm welcome in the sun as we dragged our battered and dusty bags through the streets of the city. We had finally arrived after a long train journey and, despite feeling a little rough around the edges, I was unspeakably relieved to be out of the capital. From the moment we set foot inside its walls, Jaipur felt utterly different. My shoulders lowered themselves from their protective position up around my ears and I relaxed for the first time in days. If Delhi had felt like a strangling, knotted tangle of a city, Jaipur felt like a long, fluttering length of ribbon. I had a long list of places I wanted to see – The Amer Fort, the Hawa Mahal, Jantar Mantar, Galtaji – and I kept the list clutched in my fist like a prayer.

The first couple of days flew by as we checked places off the list. The Taj Mahal – despite its fame – had left me cold, but I was moved by the intricate beauty, majesty, and ingenuity of the Amer Fort. It had spectacular views, carefully tended courtyards, a glittering hall of mirrors, and a stream of water designed to run through the palace to cool the rooms. Really it had everything you could want and more from a palace built in 1592. Jantar Mantar and the Hawa Mahal deserve posts all of their own, but I’ll have to write about those another day, because this piece is not about them; this is about Galtaji, or as it’s more commonly known to tourists, The Monkey Temple.

Now, I could call myself an animal lover, but that really doesn’t begin to cover it. If I said that, you might infer that I enjoy playing fetch with my dog and finding cat memes online. I mean, I do, don’t get me wrong… but my love of animals extends much further than Grumpy Cat, my black labrador Lia, and Lia’s deep and abiding passion for tennis balls. For lack of a better word, I am enthusiastic about animals. Not just cute animals, but all animals. Where others might recoil in disgust, I lean in with unabashed interest.

Maybe this lively preoccupation stems from the lack of exciting wildlife in Ireland; the glimpse of a red fox is about as exciting as it gets, and the damage they can do is more or less limited to tipping over wheelie bins in their search for food. In Ireland there are no bears, no wolves, and (allegedly thanks to St. Patrick), no snakes. Not only that, but unless you’re a masochist of the highest order, you’re unlikely to set foot in the sea. Even if you are a masochist and choose to embrace the feeling of icy water stripping you of every nerve ending you possess, you’re unlikely to catch a glimpse of anything too thrilling in the murky water.

A seal, maybe.

A confused seal wondering why there’s a human visiting their icy home.

Anyway, with this in mind, you can imagine how much I was enjoying Jaipur. There were camels and cows and elephants and donkeys and stray dogs on practically every street. Days exploring the city turned to evenings eating delicious dinners at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant, and then we would roll home, stuffed to the gills, ready for a good night of sleep at the Vinayak Guesthouse.

IMG_3855 (1)

Even before we had left for India, Galtaji was high on my list of places to go. I had read articles describing it as an abandoned temple teeming with monkeys, and the reviews on Tripadvisor definitely seemed to back this up. People had written sentences like, ‘It reminded me of a lost city found in a clearing of a long lost jungle’ and, ‘Please be aware that not many people know about this place,’ and honestly, to me this sounded magical. In my mind, the temple was a deserted ruin with monkeys on every available surface, and I intended to spend an entire afternoon observing and photographing them in quiet tranquility.

Just me and the monkeys.

Well, just me and Scrubs and the monkeys, but I had a feeling he wouldn’t be as enthralled by the idea of monkey-mayhem for hours on end. Still, I was undeterred. In preparation for our visit I had bought a large hand of bananas. I felt well prepared. Jane Goodall would have nothing on me!

The day we had planned to visit the temple finally arrived. We hopped into an auto rickshaw and asked the driver in garbled, phrasebook Hindi to take us to Galtaji. Since neither of us actually speak Hindi, this was not at all helpful and our driver only understood where we wanted to go after a combined effort to find it on his trusty paper map. A mercifully short (but bracingly death-defying) hurtle through the streets later, he stopped the rickshaw in the middle of a side road and gestured roughly to the left.

“Up there?” I asked, dreading the answer.

He nodded.

We looked at each other. Scrubs’s eyebrows lifted so much they almost disappeared. We paid the man and hopped out. Clutching at the straps of my backpack, I examined the path that cut a sharp zig-zag up the side of an extremely large hill. It looked suspiciously busy for a path that supposedly led to an abandoned temple.

“Are we sure this is it?” Scrubs asked sceptically. “It’s very… populated.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. We might as well go up and have a look,” I said, anxious to see what I had now come to think of as ‘my monkeys’.

Unsure but optimistic, we set off up the hill. We quickly overtook a group of women in traditional saris, laughing and chattering to each other. They smiled at us as we passed, and we nodded and smiled in reply. Our comparitively drab clothing made us stand out against their bright flowing fabrics, and as we caught up with more Indians walking the same way we began to feel self-conscious. Where were these people going?

The first surprise lay just around the bend.

Scarves of different shades and hues lined both sides of the path. I stared at them out of the corner of my eye, trying not to look fazed. There was something scattered on them – seeds, maybe? – and every so often people walking up the path would throw some more on the scarves as they walked by. Since I had only bananas in my backpack, we continued on, confused. I hadn’t thought to bring seeds.

Around the next bend, things only got more confusing.

On this stretch, a cow lay on one of the scarves. An extremely fancy blanket covered its rump, and its wet eyes gazed placidly at us with an air of resigned boredom. As we walked past, I noticed with some surprise that a fifth leg dangled uselessly from the cow’s back.

I say ‘some surprise’ but what I really mean is that I tugged on Scrubs’ sleeve and, practically bug-eyed with astonishment, hissed, “Look! Look! A fifth leg! Did you see that? That cow had a LEG coming out of its SPINE!”

We continued up the hill, and as we walked we met with more lavishly decorated, curiously configured cows. Cows with six legs, cows with seven legs, cows with two tails, or three ears. After a while it started to seem almost normal. It got to the point where it would have felt strange to see a four-legged, two-eared, one-tailed, regular cow. Not only that, but as we got closer to the top, we met more and more people all walking in the same direction.

We still hadn’t seen a single monkey.

I was starting to think we must be in the wrong place. Scrubs and I discussed theories about the sacred, slightly irregular cows as we traipsed along. We passed more scarves, more seeds, and more cows until, after what felt like a climb up the steep side of Kilimanjaro, we made it to the top of the hill. I was expecting to see the temple laid out before me, but instead there was just a small clearing with people milling about, taking a break. Then I looked over my shoulder and there, sitting in the shade of a tree, was a monkey.

IMG_3704m (1).jpg

In a move so smooth you would think I’d practiced it, I swung my bag off my back and pulled out both my camera and a banana with one hand. The gimlet-eyed monkey approached me with a swagger befitting a thirteen year old boy with something to prove, and waited with an air of indulgence as I peeled it. I offered him half the banana and he eyed it with scorn, flicking a knowing glance at my bag. Slowly, as if he was doing me a favour, he took the piece of banana from my outstretched hand and began pulling it apart with his long, slender fingers. I walked around and found a few more monkeys. They indulged me by posing for some photos, and I paid them in banana pieces. It was a fair trade. I had almost forgotten about the temple by the time Scrubs tapped my elbow to get my attention.

“Will we keep going?” He asked.

“Oh. I suppose so,” I said, somewhat reluctantly.

“There’ll be more monkeys,” Scrubs said. “It’s called Monkey Temple for a reason.”

I nodded and we rejoined the string of people heading for the next stretch of the path. There were definitely more people now. Indians of all ages surrounded us as we started down the other side of the hill. On this side there were no cows, but the sunken pathway was narrower and it was easier to lose your footing in the fine gravel.

About twenty minutes later a bottleneck up ahead hindered progress, and in our attempts to see why we had stopped we finally got our first glimpse of where we were going. Nestled in snugly, looking like it had been there for at least as long as the hills themselves, sat the temple complex of Galtaji.

The temple did not look lost. It did not look abandoned. Instead, it was absolutely heaving with activity. As we approached, the path narrowed until it was only wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Steps appeared, carved deep into the hillside to ease the steep descent.  Hands pressed briefly on our backs and shoulders as people steadied themselves. An elderly woman placed a gnarled hand on Scrubs’ shoulder without so much as a word and used Scrubs as a crutch the whole way down the steps. I was hemmed in on all sides by women in beautiful clothes and shining nose piercings. They smiled at us as we pressed together, giggling and talking to each other as they flicked curious glances at us, the only two tourists for miles; conspicuous t-shirt wearers in a sea of saris and robes.

As we reached the bottom of the steps, the cause of the bottleneck was clear; a narrow stile led into the temple, just big enough for one person to squeeze through. The eagerness of the crowd around us waiting to get in led to impatient shoving that was less pragmatic than it was perilous, and as I shimmied between the stone blocks and jumped down to the courtyard on the far side, I recalled the news stories about deadly stampedes during festivals in India. ‘I’m not surprised,‘ I thought. ‘That stile is a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare.’

Once Scrubs had safely joined me on the stone slabs of the courtyard floor, we looked around us in awe. It felt like we had walked straight into a copy of National Geographic. The courtyards were a riot of colour. Hundreds of people milled around, laughing and singing and dancing. A square, sunken pool (kund) was filled with women pouring the alarmingly green water over their topless bodies. A smiling woman missing most of her teeth stopped in front of us and said something we couldn’t understand before dipping her finger in a copper bowl filled with vermilion powder and pressing a tilaka onto each of our foreheads with surprising force. She disappeared into the throng as quickly as she had appeared, and we looked at each other and laughed. A lady pressed a flower into my hand as she swept past in an emerald green sari embroidered with gold thread. We stood there for many minutes, just absorbing the mood around us.

It had been claustrophobically crowded at times in Delhi, and while the multicoloured masses at the temple were not dissimilar in density, the atmosphere was entirely different. In Delhi I had felt intimidated, threatened and sometimes downright scared. People – mostly men – had stared, stony-faced, until it felt like their pupils were scorching my soul. Some had used their phones to video or photograph us as we made our way down the street. A crawling dread had crept over me every time we moved through the crowded city, and it had coloured my opinion of it; instead of my usual keen interest in exploring a new place, I had become emotionally shuttered and focused solely on making myself as invisible as possible.

While the pavilions at this elaborately carved temple complex were packed with people, at no point did I feel intimidated or vulnerable. Nobody stared. Some people threw curious glances our way, but nobody took our photograph. Nobody videoed us. Nobody there was interested in us at all. The many, many people who had made the pilgrimage to Galtaji that day hadn’t made it to stand gawking at two ignorant tourists. They were there to celebrate, and meet with friends and family. They were there to scatter seeds, and bathe in the kunds. Their interaction with us was limited to fleeting moments of warm welcome. The old lady wordlessly leaning on Scrubs as a fellow pilgrim. The tilakas. The flower. The smiles.

Out of respect, I didn’t take a single photo at Galtaji. The time spent at the festival felt too precious and otherworldly to capture with a camera. The colours, the people, and the feeling of standing in that deep nook surrounded by hills will live on only in our memories. As we left to return to our guesthouse, our legs aching, I pulled a couple of the forgotten bananas from my bag and silently handed one to Scrubs, hoping the potassium boost would prevent muscle cramps.

I may not have seen my monkeys, but that no longer mattered. We had seen something better; we had stumbled on an unforgettable experience.