I had put off my trip to India twice.
The first time, I blamed it on my job at NYU. The second time, I blamed it on a dying relative who did not exist. On both occasions I lied. When my boss asked me to go, I was out of excuses. As a freelancer for an online Hindu magazine who had written dozens of profiles of prestigious yogis, Swamis, and the nuances of Indian culture, it was my professional duty. Still, I was terrified.
My family bet I wouldn't make it. Though I feared they might be right, I was itching to prove them wrong. The problem was, I've never been an intrepid traveler. As an overworked mother of two entering my fifth decade, I have nothing in common with the light-hearted waif that Julia Roberts played in the movie, Eat, Pray, Love. "Adventure" for me means staying up past ten-thirty, having someone else cook me dinner, and scouring the internet for outdoor gear that I will never use -- sleek kayaks, duck whistles, Canadian Toe Warmers in "Waterproof Commander fabric" canoes with sexy names like the "Mad River Explorer" and "Deluxe Angler."
Not to mention that I dread flying. My three-week odyssey threatened to leave my husband at home solo with two kids and two energetic German Shepherds that need to be walked twice a day or else they will eat our furniture. But my clan was so convinced that I'd never last on the Indian continent that they had a betting pool I'd survive forty-eight hours.
"And that's including the Lufthansa flight," my mother said.
I prepared for the worst.
First, I begged my doctor for every conceivable shot that he was legally allowed to administer (including a seven-part rabies shot that took over four weeks to finish with a needle as big as a harpoon). Then I bought five cans of "Deep Woods Off" with enough "deet" to annihilate several thousand mosquitoes. Finally, I paid a fortune to register my itinerary with the United States Embassy in Chennai.
"It's India, for God's sakes," my twenty-five year-old doctor told me, "not Sarajevo. I'm only giving you seven Valium. Use them wisely."
Despite my attempts to ward off destiny, I boarded Lufthansa. The plane flew over places that I had only heard about on CNN -- Afghanistan, Kandahar -- patches of vast, uninhabited desert. After two ten-hour flights with a five-hour layover in Frankfurt in which I was so exhausted I was sure I was hallucinating, I arrived in the Tamil Nadu region of India.
Contrary to predictions, I made it past the forty-eight hour mark without breaking into my Valium stash. I survived fire ants in my bed, a rash that defied all ointments, and getting assaulted by a female elephant who took my money and sniffed it up her snout. Things were looking good until the temple in Chidambaram and the Vedic Fire ceremony.
Our group of forty-seven Americans in search of Hinduism's roots was squeezed into an underground room the size of a New York City closet. There were no lights. It was a million degrees. The Dikshitars (Hindu priests) were burning incense. The walls were orange. We were sweating. Flames were everywhere. The "Homa" or "Fire Ceremony" had been going on for three hours in Sanskrit.
I needed a bathroom. As far as I could tell, there were no restrooms within the Dravidian structure, no nearby bushes. How was I going to "rough it?" I tried to think about what Indiana Jones would do but he wasn't a woman.
Our tour guide saw me fidgeting. He had applied months in advance so that our group could enter Shiva's inner sanctum.
"Sit still," Jim hissed. "It's just bat excrement. It's not toxic."
He was referring to the sticky stuff on the floor but that was the least of my problems. "I'm sorry," I said, "I need a restroom."
The Head Priest poured milk over Shiva's head. His assistant stoked the fire.
"Now?" Jim's voice was rising. "You need a bathroom now? You can't wait?"
"Now," I said. I thought I would implode. I wanted to be rugged but I had underestimated the persistence of my bladder. Hating myself, I stood up.
As soon as I broke formation, both priests froze. Shiva was half-bathed. There was an awful silence. Chanting stopped. I could hear bats flapping above us and rats scuttling in the tunnel but I didn't wait for permission, I ran.
I tore past beggars living on the temple floor and bands of pilgrims dressed in black. "Where's the loo?" No one understood English. "Please -- a Ladies Room?"
Finally, I made it outside the temple walls. There were Western tourists wearing tank tops and jeans and a man at the gate taking pictures. I was sure he could help me. "Have you seen a restroom?"
He laughed, pointing to a tin structure in the sand.
"Those are the facilities?" I was hoping for an outhouse or at least, a door.
"In India," he said with a German accent, "there is no plumbing, only floors." I should have known better.
I went for the shed and pushed the goats out of my way. They were feeding on a pile of garbage and rotten coconut husks but I staked my ground, grateful for the smooth surface. I prayed that there weren't any rusty nails in unlikely places. No one in my family would believe my story. At that moment, squatting, I had overcome everything that India had to throw at me. I had survived bad karma and become a female action hero, "Temple Girl."
When I returned to Kennedy Airport three weeks later, I almost kissed the United States customs officer.
"Welcome back," he said waving me through. He didn't ask what was in my suitcase.
"Take it," I said, handing him my vial.
He stared at it, awkwardly. "What the hell is this?"
"Valium. I don't need it anymore."
Triumphant, I pushed through the exit and saw my family. My Dad was paying out cash, in twenties, to my two daughters.
"Did you see any elephants, Mom?" my little one asked, giving me a hug.
"Elephants and goats."
It was time to treat myself to camouflage pants.