A curious crowd had gathered: a dozen individuals intrigued not by the tree-hugging tribe we had come to meet – but by me.
My fellow passengers on the Marajahas’ Express, India's most luxurious cross-country train, seemed rather more perplexed by the incessant note-taking and all the strange questions I was asking.
Together, we had ventured deep into the Rajasthani desert to meet the Bishnoi, a community who live by 29 sacred principles and are known to indulge in opium. For most, it was a chance to pose for a photo sipping (heavily diluted) opium that would be uploaded to Facebook within minutes.
I, however, took a slightly different approach. For me, it was far more than bragging rights and a fun photo op. With a 2,000 word feature to write (read the full piece in the current issue of Wanderlust), the pressure was on.
I had high hopes that my short time with the Bishnoi would form a substantial part of the piece – hopes that turned out to be well-founded. My encounter with turbaned Tulsa, the tribal chief, later became the all-important opener. But that didn’t come easily.
Everybody sat around in a wide semi-circle as Tulsa demonstrated the age-old process of preparing the opium. Beside him sat an English-speaking guide, who explained the controversial custom. Then, one-by-one, we were invited to come forward, kneel and take a sip from the palm of the guide’s hand. I hung back despite the several invitations to come forth – a deliberate decision to ensure a few quiet moments with Tulsa. I had a million and one questions.
I wanted a real conversation with him, not a few seconds in full earshot of countless others. Off-putting to say the least. The other passengers wandered off but several milled around, intrigued by my private audience with the chief and my line of questioning. “Why on earth is he asking about the man’s childhood," I imagined them thinking.
On trips such as these, when I am joining paying holidaymakers as opposed to other hosted journalists, I tend to avoid telling people what I do for a living. I don’t lie about it nor do I advertise the fact I’m a travel writer – for several reasons I have gleaned over the years. More on that in a future post…
It soon becomes apparent, however. How many ‘holidaymakers’ do you know who’d ask what kind of wood is used for the cabin’s panelling, whether it’s possible to meet the train driver and tour the kitchen?
The inevitable questions, asked by almost everybody, quickly follow. It’s always the same two queries: "So, you’re a travel writer… What are your favourite places?" and "Who pays for your trips then?"
Back with the Bishnoi, Tulsa and I talked at length. We sat cross-legged on a frayed mat and spoke of the caste system and life in the desert. We discussed his youth, his first time experiencing opium and the role it continues to play in the tribe. I walked away having gained a new friend and a mountain of material as my fellow train passengers inched forwards with their own questions. Not for Tulsa, but for me.
Oh, in case you’re wondering… My favourite places? That’s an almost impossible question to answer – but Venice, Rio, Kenya, Japan, Ibiza and Antarctica rank highly. And who pays for my trips? Newspapers and magazines rarely, if ever, cover the cost of a writer’s assignments. They pay for the piece of work produced as a result but the trip itself is funded by a tourist board, tour operator, airline or hotel keen to promote their destination or itinerary. So, now you know.
Nick travelled to India with Railbookers. Read Nick's full article in the April 2015 issue of Wanderlust, on sale now.
Like this? Read more of Nick's thoughts on 'The best job in the world'
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