Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Nightmare in Karnataka

The first two times I went to India I traveled alone. I love traveling alone. I think you can better get to know a place when you're not with somebody who's a reminder of home, and it also puts you in a better position to meet and converse with locals. My third time in India, however, in 1999, I traveled with Harold, an old friend and former neighbor. It was in 1991, I believe, that he moved to Minneapolis for a teaching job, and since then we've arranged to hook up overseas on several occasions. He was happy to put himself in my itinerary-planning hands. I chose a route mostly through the state of Karnataka.

Shortly before this trip I had gone through a hellish six-month battle with insomnia. My doctor, a very thorough and cautious guy, sent me to all sorts of specialists to try to pin down the problem. After all physical causes had been ruled out he said, "I'd like you to see a psychiatrist." I was skeptical, but my doctor wasn't ready to prescribe medication, so I went to the psychiatrist.

The shrink, it turned out, much to my horror, was a classic Freudian with an inscrutable manner. His office had an analyst's couch. I explained my problem, and he proceeded to get my medical and family history. When I told him my father had died young he perked up. "How old was he?" the shrink asked.

"I think he was about forty-two," I said.

He didn't actually say, "Aha!," but I know he was thinking it. "Your father died at forty-two, and you're forty-two. Do you think that could have something to do with your insomnia?" he asked. He seemed thrilled by the prospect of a classic Freudian solution.

"Absolutely not," I said. "I don't remember him, I don't ever think about death, and I'm not particularly scared of it."

To make a long story short, I rebuffed his attempts to draw me into analysis and continued seeing him for prescriptions and followups only. For some reason he was reluctant to try Ambien, so he gave me a series of prescriptions for drugs that were originally developed for other conditions, mostly antidepressants. One of them, Elavil, an old-school antidepressant that had been superseded for its original purpose by newer drugs, seemed to help. I was using Elavil as a sleep aid when I went to India with Harold.

Harold and I flew into Mumbai, then caught a domestic flight to Bangalore the following day. We were going to take the train to Mysore, which would be the beginning of a road trip that would conclude in Hyderabad (in the state of Andhra Pradesh).

At the Bangalore railway station we experienced a classic example of Indian bureaucracy. When we tried to buy train tickets to Mysore, about a half hour before it was set to depart, we were told that the train was all sold out. There was, however, a special tourist quota. A certain number of seats were set aside for foreigners. We had to go to the tourist quota office to see if we could get tickets. Otherwise we'd have to wait at least three hours for the next train.

Well, the office we needed to go to wasn't in the station. Of course not. It was in a shed about a quarter of a mile away, by the side of the tracks. We rushed over and entered an office full of female workers at desks and a single man up front at a bigger desk. Nobody said anything. Nobody said, "Can I help you." I figured the man was the manager, so I went up to him and said, "Excuse me, we're here about the tourist quota for the Mysore train."

"I'm sorry," he said. "We can't do anything now. We are all at lunch."

I couldn't believe it. The entire office had stopped working at the same time, and this guy wasn't going to help us make our train. I explained that this relatively simple favor would save us the trouble of waiting hours for another train, and reason eventually prevailed. We rushed back to the station with our permit and just barely made the train.

Mysore, which I had also visited on my first trip to India, is a charming city. We spent a couple of days there and arranged for a car and driver at a travel agency.

That was one advantage to traveling with a friend. We could share the cost of a car and not have to deal with getting around the state by public transportation, which can be slow and uncomfortable. Our itinerary would have taken us about twice as long by public transportation. Shared by two people, the cost of a car and driver is quite reasonable. I believe we had the driver with us for eight days and covered a lot of territory. If I remember correctly the whole thing, with a generous tip, cost us under $400.

Karnataka is a fascinating part of India, with many architectural and archaeological wonders. Because the various sites are spread all over the state, however, it doesn't get much foreign tourism outside of Mysore and Bangalore.

In many of those off-the-beaten-path towns the best hotel is relatively humble. I can't remember the town this happened in, but our room had a lock that wasn't working, so the manager gave us a padlock and chain. I think Harold was still experiencing culture shock, something I had gotten over years before, and neither of us were thrilled with the lock situation.

We always shared rooms with twin beds. Invariably, the beds were right next to each other. In each hotel room Harold and I would move the beds as far apart as possible.

I took an Elavil and went to sleep.

At some point in the middle of the night I heard startled yells from Harold. "Huh?! Wha?!"

And then I realized that I had woken up screaming. I'd had a screaming nightmare.

"What happened?" Harold asked.

"I had a nightmare. I'll bet it had something to do with the drug."

"That wasn't just a scream, you know," Harold said. "It was a blood-curdling, other-worldly shriek."

I knew what he meant. I could feel the tightness in my throat. It's probably not easy to scream in your sleep, so the scream starts in the gut and works its way up, trying to force its way out, resulting in a harrowing banshee cry.

I promised poor Harold that I wouldn't take any more Elavil on the trip and hoped I wouldn't have another nightmare that night.

It was crude, primitive dream. My dreams are usually vivid and complex. This one was simple, but utterly frightening. I was an adult, wandering through the apartment of my childhood. Everything was in shadow. I couldn't see much. Nobody else was there. It was very quiet. I wandered from room to room, the air thick with foreboding. Then I entered the kitchen. All of a sudden an Indian with a turban lunged at me from behind the refrigerator, a meat cleaver in his hand. That's when I woke up screaming.

When I got home to the states I did some research and learned that screaming nightmares are a rare but reported side effect of Elavil.


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