Some of the most pristine white sand beaches in mainland India lie on the banks of the Ganges between Lakshman Jhula and Devprayag. So one sunny day, Jessica, Matt, Carol, Jasbir and I killed our lethargy and went on a long walk to a beach that was just off the road to the Neelkanth Mahadev temple. Jasbir was an expert at the picnic thing and arranged for two flasks of chai and a backpack full of snacks from one of his numerous contacts in Rishikesh.
We idled on the sand for hours on end, eating, smoking up, having weird conversations about UFOs (Carol apparently had seen them flying in the sky all the time when she was living in Costa Rica), watching the river rafters stumble about on the turquoise waters and wondering how mass tourism in Rishikesh had left such beautiful spots alone (FLASH NEWS: These spots have now been discovered with a vengeance.)
Matt had done a fair amount of traveling in his life. He was from New Zealand and wanted to pursue a career in liberal arts but couldn’t find a course that suited his needs. So he began roaming the world in 2002 working as a bartender in towns like Sihanoukville, Luzon and Chiang Mai to pay for travels to more intrepid parts of the world like Saharan Algeria, Congo, Central African Republic, Turkmenistan etc. Soon, he met an archaeologist doing a recce in a remote corner of Mali and followed him as an assistant for digs in Syria, Turkey and Iran.
That day on the beach, he was telling us about the time he got lost in a maze of alleys in an old souk in Aleppo on an archaeological recce. The finer details of the story are lost in the mists of memory but here’s a little gist of it. At one of the souk’s bewildering corners, he stopped at a spice vendor’s shop asking for directions. They got talking and the vendor appeared to be highly knowledgeable about the genealogy of spices. He invited Matt to live with him for a few days in his village which was about 60 kms north of Aleppo close to the Turkish border. Matt, ever adventurous and greedy for knowledge, thought this trip might provide him some historical scoops that might impress his colleagues and went with the man and lived with him for a week learning an awful lot about spice routes and origins.
When Matt decided it was time to leave and re-join his boss who was waiting for him in Damascus, the vendor became very upset. He wanted him to stay for a longer time because he had come to enjoy his company too much. He was perhaps the first person he had met who showed any interest in listening to his long monologues on the spice trade. Matt thought of a plan to sneak out of the house while the vendor was asleep at night to avoid any complications. He waved down the first vehicle he saw and decided he would get down wherever it stopped and make a move from there. It came to a halt across the border in Turkey in a remote Kurdish town where he was arrested by the Turkish police for traveling without a visa stamp on his passport. The police refused to believe his story and he was put in jail for 3 days accused of all things from robbery, espionage and insurgency. Luckily, he’d been to some of the Kurdish parts of Turkey just a few weeks before and had become acquainted with an influential mullah in the Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir who could vouch for him. After a few phone calls and some bureaucratic wrangling, he was thrown into a bus going towards Damascus.
Two weeks later, he chanced upon the spice trader while wandering in a market in Damascus. He thought the trader would be angry at him for leaving his house unannounced. But the trader seemed unusually happy to see him and took him to what he wagered was the best coffee house in Damascus. Matt waited for the trader to take a sip to make sure he wasn’t being drugged or poisoned. After a few more coffees and another long conversation about spices, the trader said, “You know, you were the best guest I ever had in my house because you were the only one to find a way out all by yourself.”
Matt was a good raconteur and had a natural gift to bring out the humour from little details. Carol, Jessica and I enjoyed the story very much while Jasbir waited for our applause to die down to pronounce his critique and said, “Good story, bad climax.” Matt shrugged, took another drag on his cigarette, plastered a grin on his face and said, “Thanks, mate.”
Jasbir never liked to be around Matt but he had his eyes set on Jessica. He was envious of the fact that Matt could connect with Jessica more naturally than he could. He would frequently joke about getting one of his goony friends to bump him off. In his head, the idea that Jessica wouldn’t be attracted to him didn’t exist. She didn’t have the time for him because Matt was hogging all of it. He would obsessively follow her routine, join all the activities she joined and stalk her wherever she went. But Jessica would never meet him alone so he had to tag along with Matt and the rest of us whenever we hung out if he wanted to get in a conversation.
One of the places we met often was Devraj Coffee Corner at one end of Lakshman Jhula. The coffee sucked and the food wasn’t particularly great but the café offered a view that none of the others did in Rishikesh. If you were lucky to find space in the outdoor sitting area, you had an uninterrupted view of Lakshman Jhula with its hectic humdrum of pilgrims, tourists, bikers, babas and the opportunistic monkeys pestering all of them. It was people-watching paradise.
Here Matt used to hold court and tell us more stories about his time in Africa and the Middle East. One moment he would be in Fez, the next in Timbuktu, a few minutes later on a hike in the Pamirs but the country he loved the most was Syria. He gushed not only about the archaeology and the history of the place but also its people who he felt were brave and courageous to retain their humour and humanity while being oppressed under the Assad regime. Syria was the place he hoped to go to when he was done exploring the world and settle down in peace because that’s where he felt the most alive.
And one day, he was gone. This made Jasbir very cheerful for a couple of days. He treated us to meals at places where he had exclusive access. He had already been dreaming up a world where he would be alone with Jessica on a honeymoon on a tropical island sipping rum out of a coconut. These fantasies were brutally dashed when Jessica left a couple of days later after saying goodbye to everyone else but him before she left.
When you’ve travelled for a while, you get used to people coming and going out of your lives and there are times when you forget that you’ve only known people for a week or two. Sometimes it’s comforting because it tells you that you can make friends in no time at all but it’s also scary because you feel you’re getting close to people without knowing anything about them.
It never struck me to ask Matt what he was doing in Rishikesh in the first place. He wasn’t particularly spiritual and appeared to enjoy intrepid travel more than the tame, soft-cushion backpacker world here. Jasbir felt he came to Rishikesh just to show off. Jessica thought he was lost and lonely in some way and needed to vegetate with human company to clear his head out. It didn’t make any sense because when Matt was around, he did a lot of the talking and if his wild stories were to be believed, he was never truly alone.
Matt’s accounts of Syria were the first time the country ever entered my consciousness. I resolved to go there as soon as I could. So in February 2011, after two years of traveling around India, when I finally got a passport, I chose to make Damascus my first international destination. I devoured books on the region, foremost among them Colin Thubron’s dense, intensely personal travelogue Mirror to Damascus, William Dalrymple’s examination of the remnants of Byzantium From the Holy Mountain (the only book of his that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anybody) and Edward Said’s critique of Western notions of the East, Orientalism. I drew up plans, went through the guidebooks, checked online for the cheapest tickets in and out, trawled the web for information on land border crossings, made a daily budget to stick to and so on. But instead of going abroad, I went to Varanasi for a project with the Ramakrishna Mission that came to me at the same time I was planning this journey which would allow me to spend a few months in the old city. At the time, it seemed an unmissable opportunity.
It might have been a life saver because, in March 2011, the Arab Spring bled into Syria and launched a cycle of escalating violence that continues to this day, decimating the country and its people.