We soon made it to what looked like a good hotel, small and cheap, and adding to its two-star rating, our room had a balcony with a full view of the famous Pushkar Lake. We unpacked his bike and dumped our bags, and summonsed by our hunger we took to the streets.
With endless restaurants, hotels, clothing shops, and chai and chill houses, the narrow-winding laneways of Pushkar were unmistakably touristy. Maintaining the cultural balance, though, was the threatening racket of trumpets and drums from the Hindu wedding processions scuttling along.
‘This place is crazy,’ said Lior, ‘look at all the girls!’
He was right; for with as many westerners present as locals—and the western girls given, seemingly, little choice from the heat but to parade around less clothed than usual—this place was indeed crazy.
‘So what do you want to eat, mate?’
‘Other than her?’
‘Her mate! You?’
‘Give me something normal, like a steak sandwich and a hamburger, hot chips and sausages…’
‘This country is vegetarian.’
‘Well f#&k’n fuck you!’
‘Sorry, mate, it’s just… it’s all getting to me, and if I eat any more rice I’m gunna fair dinkum turn into a giant grain.’
‘What does it mean, this “fair dinkum” that Aussies say?’
‘Ahhhr… I guess it’s an expression of authenticity, meaning really or seriously, for the most part.’
‘Is that right?’
‘Well, if you want to eat something different, why don’t we go to an Israeli restaurant?’
Lior took the reins, and soon led us down some stairs and through a beaded doorway of what appeared to be an underground Israeli lair. The room was smoke-filled and dimly lit, and had a dramatically low ceiling. It was packed with people; equally with the sound of Hebrew and the high falsetto laughs I’d grown to know of the Israelis.
We sat on a couch in the far corner, at which time I noticed, hanging on the wall above us, a small flyer: Traditional Indian Singing Lessons. ‘Could be cool?’ I thought, but it was here the thought ended.
‘You want a cigarette?’
‘Yeah,’ I said, subscribing to the airlessness.
‘So tell me, my Aussie friend, do you have a girlfriend?’
‘No,’ he said. The matter, in standard bloke fashion, opened and closed from one neighbouring second to the next. ‘But tell me, my Aussie friend, what does—’
‘—אח שלום’ said another man, interjecting. He’d clearly mistaken me as Israeli, and I gazed at him vacuously until Lior intervened. They conversed in Hebrew for a few seconds—the only word comprehensible to my ears being Australian.
‘Oh sorry, my friend, you looks like an Israeli.’
‘That’s cool, mate.’
‘Hello, my name is Eval.’
He was tall, tanned, and wearing a red shirt and a blue sarong. And the dark-haired girl standing next to him, wearing a yellow crop top and jean shorts that propelled her into the category of crazy hot, was so gorgeous she couldn’t but induce light-headedness. I tried to look away, but as though bound by an invisible neck brace, my efforts fell at least 180° short. ‘I’m Ariella,’ she said, leaning down and giving me an unexpected kiss on the cheek. ‘Can we share your couch?’
Lior and I exchanged a knowing look. This was definitely one of those situations where you found another bloke’s girlfriend a lot hotter than you legally should, but who were we to deny them respite.
The waiter brought us a round of hot milks, and Lior took charge of ordering food.
‘What’s this?’ asked Eval, clasping his mug.
‘It’s the juice of the desert,’ said Lior, taking a fearless swig. The rest of us shared a look of concern, giving me passage to further check out Ariella.
‘So tell me, how do you like India?’ asked Eval, sitting forward.
‘It’s fine, mate.’ I said, stifling a sudden hyena-like yawn. I was too road-fatigued for much in the way of philosophical discussion—and, possibly vexed he should be worthy of Ariella.
Lior eyed me over his mug, and when I noticed the dejection in his countryman’s eyes, I cleared my throat. ‘It’s a pretty broad question, mate.’
‘Do I seem like I’m in a hurry?’ said Eval, sinking back into the couch.
I took an apprehensive sip of the milk. ‘So how do I like India? It’s a two-sided coin, I s’pose.’
‘A love/hate relationship, yes?’
‘Yes.’ I said, turning to Lior. ‘This milk-stuff is alright, mate.’
Lior gave a solitary nod, as though more interested in elaboration than milk.
I turned back to Eval. ‘Yes, a two-sided coin; on one side it’s a zoo, a barnyard, the toilet of toilets. For all its corruption, never-ending dirt, and the fact that many of the locals would sell you their mother, India is hell.’
Lior shuffled in his seat.
‘But, because while I’m here I don’t have to stomach the six o’clock news, a cell phone, or laugh at my boss’s shithouse jokes, on the other side it’s heaven.’
Eval sat back up. ‘So why did you come here?’
‘It’s complicated.’ My invisible neck brace assumed default position, giving me a clear view of Ariella. ‘To be honest,’ I said, forcing back, ‘I sometimes feel like a pretentious twat having come here at all; like I’m trying to prove something to myself… or impress girls… or something…’
‘Fuck the girls.’
‘Ha ha! Fuck the girls!’ said Lior. I eyed him over my mug, making him default back to hiding behind his own.
‘And tell me also…’ said Eval, his voice dropping to a more confidential tone, ‘what do you think of us Israelis?’
I clasped my mug harder. ‘Honestly?’
‘I think you can be a bunch of dicks.’
‘You asked me to be honest, mate.’
The three of them broke into fervent Hebrew—the only words comprehensible to my ears being Australian, and, fuckhead.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘I’ve found the few solo Israelis I’ve met, like my good man Lior here, to be totally cool, but in groups there just seems to be an inward vibe where youse stick together and come across as pretty cold.’
‘It’s true that we stick together,’ added Lior, ‘but when you come from a country with such division, it’s only natural.’
‘It’s like it takes a little time for us to warm to outsiders,’ said Ariella, now leaning forward, ‘but once you’re in, you’re like family.’
Eval turned to Lior. ‘Do you think it’s true that Israelis come across as rude?’ he asked in a tone that, ironically, sounded less than polite.
‘I guess so—but only because we don’t use please or thank you,’ he said, turning to me as though feeling the need to explain it to an outsider. ‘We don’t have these words in Hebrew; to us, politeness is expressed by the melody we speak in. So instead of asking in a dry voice “can I’ve a coke, please?” we’d ask in a more gentle voice “can I’ve a coke!” kind of kicking up the end of the sentence with a higher pitch. We don’t mean to be rude—we’re just framed by our Hebrew habits. Besides, please and thank you don’t mean shit! And the English-speaking world seems to use them like excuses, like it’s ok to go through life being an arsehole, as long as you say please and fucking thank you!’
‘But as for Israelis playing music too loud in hotels, and smoking a little weed here and there,’ said Ariella, ‘that’s because we want to blow off steam after military service.’
‘It’s mandatory for non-Arab citizens,’ said Eval, making me suddenly understand why every Israeli I’d seen was a picture of fitness and health. ‘Straight after high school: guys for three years, girls for two years. So right when everyone is set free, we’re thrown into military shackles. By the time that bullshit is over, we want to run like a dog with two dicks. Most Israelis come to India, others go to South America, and some to your Australia.’ (I’d previously learnt there could be as many as 50,000 Israeli tourists in India at any one time.) ‘So when did you finish your service?’ he asked, turning to Lior.
‘Six months ago.’
‘Exactly, and the first thing you wanted to do was leave that fucking place, right?’
‘Yes, but my good heart will kill me in the end anyway. If things at home get worse, and I get the call to fight, I’ll gladly do it. Fucking gladly!’
‘And what would happen if you didn’t go back?’ I asked.
The three of them went quiet.
‘Then when I return to Israel, as soon as I walk through customs—bang!—I’d be thrown into military prison.’
The waiter arrived with our food, and having eaten more rice of late than I wished to for the rest of my life, the sight of falafel, hummus, and chocolate balls, was a more than welcome one.
We sat around over a few more hot milks, until our guests stood up an hour or so later. ‘Shalom to you, brother,’ said Eval, handing me his email address, ‘if ever you come to Israel, you’re welcome in my house like family.’
‘See you again,’ said Ariella, furthering her spell by giving me another kiss on the cheek before they walked away.
‘Ah, man! I think I’m in love!’ said Lior.
‘Just give me a minute, mate.’
He sank back into the couch as we observed in respectful silence.
‘So anyway, mate, you were going to ask me something…’
‘Before they came along, you were going to ask me something…’
‘Ahhhr… you know what?’
‘I can’t remember it now.’
‘Don’t torture me with that!’
He brushed me off with his trademark dismissive wave.
We made our way back out onto the streets, which, as though by nocturnal command were alive with blokes and girls, and dogs and girls, and cows and girls—and, girls.
‘Man, I can’t get over all the girls!’
‘Mate, I’m in enough pain via my own eyes.’
‘Yeah, but look at her!’ he said, causing me to turn suddenly and meet eyes with another temptress dressed to hurt.
‘Fair dinkum, my neck can’t handle this.’
‘You want a cigarette?’
‘Yeah, give me two.’