Jul/Aug 2004 Travel

Mario's Last Night: McLeod Ganj, India

by Nicholas Mistretta

The following is excerpted from the travel memoir Vagabond Zoo

It was Mario's last night in McLeod. He was moving on to Thailand. It was like losing a spoke in a wheel each time another friend boarded the bus, and I began to wonder when the wheel would just cave in from the pressure. In a group that many nights had swelled to 20 or more people, it was now difficult to maintain the momentum. People were leaving too quickly, good people, proper friendlies.

We went to McLlos early and worked ourselves into a frenzy. Drinks flowing, joints smoking, Indians dancing. Bill and Mario jumped up and performed an impromptu routine to "Walk this Way" that inspired Crazy Rafik to get up and get down. He was the Tasmanian Muslim, spinning and gyrating out of control.

"Someone could get hurt," I heard myself say. Bill was mimicking Michael Jackson perfectly while Mario did some kind of mad Run-D.M.C. thing. Rafik lost control and ran between the two with pulsating energies out of whack. Everyone up and clapping. It lasted only a few minutes, but it was the kind of moment that gets trapped in your head. The joint was packed, hot, roaring. Bill staggered over, completely worn, Mario, too, run dry. Rafik was just getting warmed up.

"Nick," Ellie called over, "did I tell you my monk bought me a chicken?"

"Uh... what? No." She went on to say that the monk she tutored took her for lunch. They bought a live chicken, then brought it somewhere where it was killed, stripped of its feathers and cooked. "That's a rip off. My monk never bought me a chicken. But he does piss on my toilet seat."

"He pisses on your toilet seat?"

"Yah. One day after our lesson he used my bathroom, and later I realized that rather than lift the seat up, he just pissed all over it. And now he goes after every lesson. Three days a week I forget to lift the damn thing and three days a week he pisses all over it. Even on the floor. Maybe it's a medical condition, a faulty valve. Maybe my monk is broken."

"It was good chicken."

"That's fantastic. There's right and there's wrong, Ellie, and you know this. My monk owes me a chicken. Or at the very least an apology. I mean, that's why the seat has hinges..."

An older woman sat across from me with floating arms and face in trance, starry eyes and glossy concentration. She was in the grips of something good. I stared at her for an inordinate amount of time. I just couldn't help myself. She never noticed me, never acknowledged any of us. She thought she was the only one in the joint. Dan leaned over the table and talked excitedly with one hand in the air, Ellie had a few split ends in her mouth listening. Mario was laughing with Liz, Irish John's sister, who had just finished a two-week meditation course. Mark and Emma were rolling cigarettes while Jamie methodically swayed his head with eyes closed and big smile. I was discussing religion with Circus Girl.

"What's the name of that one dude in the Bible that got eaten by a whale?" I asked.

"You mean Moby Dick?"

We left McLlos and wandered back to the Sunrise Café. A pack of wild dogs ran by, and the six-fingered tea maker screamed over a swirling wind, then set up four more fresh ones on the wooden ledge. The road was wet, mud puddles glimmering like magical pools of chocolate memories from some faraway children's tale. Bill jumped on a guitar, and everyone began to sing. Then Mario raised a glass and spoke about friendship and addressed each of us individually in a way only Mario could. He was our Godfather. We sang and danced like idiots in a mad land, outlasting the night and welcoming the morning.

We were an odd gang, dreamers all of us, some quiet, a few performers of the world. Our common bond was being drawn together in that little town at a specific point in time. We shared something electric in those wild hills of Northern India, never to be outdone or recreated, impossible to forget.


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