Would you like to take Opium with me? The question is posed by an Indian guy, an Artist, probably in his early thirties with whom I and some friends are sitting in the back room of a nondescript little art shop in a dusty little town on the edge of the Thar Desert.
I really wasn’t expecting that question, and I don’t know whether its my surprise at it, or the added effect of a stiflingly hot afternoon in Rajasthan, but time slows down and freezes all together, in that moment, the briefest, my thoughts travel back in time.
It’s a sunny summer’s afternoon in deepest middle England, a saturday, decades before. I am sixteen years old and I am in a country pub, in the bar, boozing.
I am one of those youngsters that looks older than they are, this has the distinct advantage of allowing me access to pubs and bars without the embarrassment of requests for ID. I have been drinking cider, quite a lot of it & shooting some pool. I am playing with an Aussie girl, older than me, lets face it everyone in this pub is older than me, she is with another friend, likewise a girl, likewise Aussie. We talk & shoot pool and drink. They are, it turns out, doing the backpacking thing around Europe, and in those long gone halcyon days, when it comes to work it’s not particularly important where you come from, it’s just about the skills you have, so they are staying in the area and working, using the skills they brought with them from Oz. to fund the next leg of their travels.
Back in the day pubs closed in the afternoon and right on queue last orders are called at ten minutes to three. My pool partner moves over towards her friend sitting at a bench next to the pool table. They whisper to each other conspiratorialy, and then break out into giggles as they look towards me standing at the pool table. My cheeks quickly turn bright red, I want to disappear down the pool table pocket, as I would have liked my balls to do.
Then my pool partner saunters back over to the pool table. She leans in to me and asks what I am doing after the pub, without waiting for a response she adds we thought you might like to come back to ours for a little fun?
My ears wonder if I have misheard, sorry I say? She repeats. Fuck me I think to myself, that is what she said. Sure I say, I’d love to.
We buy a flagon of local rot gut cider as a take out and off we trundle down the road to a little cottage outside the village. As we walk along a dirt track I am thinking to myself, there is a God, there is a God, virgin me is on his way to heaven with two Aussie nurses, it does not get better than that.
Of course the girls idea of fun turns out to be a little different to my own. We arrive at the cottage and out comes the grass, a spliff is rolled in a practised kind of way, we smoke, we drink, we do more of the same, we get hammered. The rest is a blur.
At some unspecified time later I leave the cottage, I don’t actually remember leaving the place, when or how, my first recollection though I do remember, walking along the track, and finding the greatest difficulty in putting one foot in front of another, like my legs really didn’t belong to me, they were just limbs rather loosely attached to me, with a mind entirely of their own, Getting home took an age and the weight of being stoned and disappointingly virgo intacto, weighed heavy on the shoulders of a naive young man.
After that I can’t say that I went down the slippery path, in fact quite the opposite, my closest brush with substances consisted of a trip in the country to pick magic mushrooms with a bunch of my friends when I was still a youngster, I was really bad at spotting them and so gave up and concentrated on collecting the real thing, edible mushrooms, I came home with a bucket full of them, which all got cooked & eaten, and rather yummy they were. There was an incident or two, a brush with amyl nitrate, inadvertently sniffed, but that’s another story.
The fact was that I made a really bad druggie.
And so the years rolled by, the rave scene came & went (without me), cocaine became a fashion item for the urban friends, but it passed me by.
Through my thirties & my forties drugs and me didn’t mix, content as I was with alcohol & cigarettes, every once in a while a draw or two on a spliff. but nowt else. And in time I became a slightly holier than thou kind of creature, judgemental, sanctimonious even, drugs were bad and anyone involved with them was at best misguided, if not plain stupid. This stance softened a little with the press surrounding weed and its medicinal value (having developed rheumatoid arthritis the idea that marijuana, on medical grounds was actually good for me tipped the scales), wtf why not? It’s medicinal after all, & so these last couple of years I must admit I’ve been an advocate, for a spliff, from time to time.
Over time and in my mid-life crisis period I became aware of my judgmental side, so quick to decide on almost everything & everyone as being good or bad. This was a flawed way of thinking, that limited so much, in terms of drugs I softened my attitude, if people wanted to try them, and they didn’t hurt anyone else, and ideally themselves in the process then fair enough.
I also read a lot over the last few years, from Timothy Leary, Kerouac, Ram Dass, though still those friends that went off on weekends or vacations to do Ayuhuasca*, still wasn’t for me, but the curiosity grew, I wanted to change my thinking which really didn’t work so well for me, the possibility of altering one’s own consciousness, changing mindset became more and more appealing. But spending an evening throwing up into a bucket and having spirit animal guide? I have read about people taking psychotropic substances and being visited by spirit animals. wolves or tigers, eagles, these wild creatures, alter-ego guides through consciousness. And I know that if I were to take this stuff I am more likely to have waiting for me, after the vomit, my spirit creature, I am convinced he would be an old jack russell, white whiskered as he’s getting on a bit. He’s one of those annoying little dogs that humps anything in sight, usually peoples legs. Nope no ayahuasca for me.
It’s January of this year, I am on the beach in Goa, talking with my friend Jake an American of a similar age to myself who is likewise a long termer stayer in Goa. Now I like Jake, he’s a really nice bloke, remarkable when so many of his countrymen are complete arses who voted for Trump, but Jake as I said I like, a lot. What time is it he asks, his tone is slightly nervous, uncharacteristic of Jake, uncharacteristic of our shared location, here by the beach little is ever laboured, or rushed, or stressful. I glance at my watch & relay the hour.
She should be here soon he adds.
Who’s the she I ask him? Has Jake got himself a woman I wonder.
I’m having a treatment he says, matter of factly. Kambo* a hallucinatory substance which he explains in enough detail for me to understand. I roll this over in my head, at which point and on cue arrives an English woman, her name I forget, but let’s call her Betty, for arguments sake. So, given that we are on a beach in Goa & this lady is about to administer the skin secretions of a South American frog to my friend I am rather confused. Not because of what is going to happen to Jake, but by the lady who’s going to send him on his trip. She sits with us briefly, I am looking at a woman that looks like she is on her way to a WI meeting, or a ladies that lunch lunch. Slightly bouffoned hair, a large lady handbag, & if I remember a little string of pearls around her neck. This does not in any way whatsoever look like a practitioner of non prescription drugs. Where is the shifty looking drug dealer type person?
Jake and she wander off to the privacy of his shack, for him to get his tattoo and his frog juice. At some point afterwards he will retch and vomit. And maybe then? The thought is there in me, am I just a closed down old fart? Should I let it go and maybe even give it a try. Jake I trust, if he is game why not me?
The idea though is out of time, shortly afterwards I am travelling to Rajasthan, for a month. Me and the lady from the Women’s Institute don’t do business. But my resistance and intransigence towards narcotics is chipped away at just a little bit more.………………
So, coming back to opium in a back room in that dusty town in Rajasthan, I am sitting there with a few other people, encountered as one unfailingly seems to do in India when travelling. They all say yes to the opium, I shrug my shoulders, why not. I don’t want to be the party pooper.
The artist calls his man friday, an older gentleman who appears from behind a curtain, he holds in his hand a rather grubby tea cup and a pot of water. He sits down, the artist passes him polythene bag which seems to hold some sort of gooey dark red paste, a little is squeezed into the cup, water is added. The older gent then proceeds to insert a grubby finger crowned with a dirt encrusted fingernail into the cup and use the aforementioned dirty digit as a spoon to stir the mixture. After a few circuits of the cup the finger is removed and the cup passed in a clockwise direction around the group, each lifts it to their lips and takes a draught. As it passed to me I am not thinking about the opium, but instead about the possibility of dysentry, or some other gut wrenching amoebic infection and the possibility of days ahead shitting myself into oblivion on an Indian lavatory.
I take a draught, it tastes bitter and dry, we sit there, chatter, and in time Mr.Fingers is instructed to make another brew. We imbibe, caution now thrown to the winds.
As we sit and wait for some effect none is forthcoming, later we leave and my travelling companion and I wander through the town. We settle at the Bhang shop, a cafe which the signage proudly trumpets is government registered for the sale of Bhang, aka marijuana.
Here I buy a mango bhang-lassi ( a yoghurt-milk drink laced with marijuana), for good measure I also buy take away Cookies, likewise laced with marijuana, a snack I decide for another day……. Somehow or other later in the day whilst peckish I eat all the cookies.
By evening, and as is customary for many travellers in India I am sitting on the roof with my friend Miaca watching the sunset. We share one more spliff, the sun seems to be going down very slowly this evening, why is that? Eventually I stand up, rather feebly and out of my mouth come words, I think they were something like I’m sorry, but I feel really tired, I am going to lie down in my room. Though a relatively short distance to my room my legs dont seem to work, I know I am putting one foot in front of another but the connection between them and my brain seems rather problematic. I feel myself walking in slow motion, descending two flights of stairs takes an age, like I am treading on eggshells, with transplanted legs, that the surgeon didn’t connect very well.
Eventually I slump on my bed, relieved and feeling distinctly shit. As I lie there I can’t help but think that all those years ago in middle England and now here, by the desert in India, little has changed, me & drugs really don’t work, why did I ever think they might?
I drift off to sleep thinking of those moments when I’ve been really high, there have been a few. You know what, not one of them was down to narcotics. The highest highs have always been those I experienced high on life. Now there’s a fabulous way of getting absolutely and utterly smashed.
Kambo ( Monkey frog skin secretions )
Ayuhuasca ( Vine based hallucinogen )