Travel: When mash is the food of love, eat up

When Husain Husaini met his wife-to-be in India, she was suffering from a craving for mashed potato - and he from an incurable passion
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS amoebic dysentery that led to my first sight of Jessica, the woman who would become my wife. Early in 1991, I was lying on a seven rupee-a-night dorm bed in the Deepak rest house, a typically squalid backpacker's hostel in the Indian desert city of Jaisalmer. Fly-infested and freezing cold, the Deepak's saving feature was its location. Built in the walls of Jaisalmer's fort, it didn't take much imagination to be transported to the days when the town was fought over by Rajasthani princes.

Jessica was staying in the room next door, suffering terribly from an evil bug picked up on her travels. In India's backpacking hostels, it's almost expected to chat to everyone you meet so when I found Jess on the roof a few days later, I had no need of an excuse to go over and talk to her. She was sitting amongst the battlements in a turret of the fort. Behind her, the Thar desert rolled away to Pakistan beneath the bluest of skies. Our conversation was pretty standard for backpackers: the places we'd been; the hassles we'd met and, of course, the bowel problems we'd suffered.

Jess was beginning to recover and was very funny about the indignities of being infested by amoebas. She also moaned about the food, which she blamed for her predicament. She spoke with longing of her favourite meals at home, top of her bland wish-list being mashed potato. By this point I was completely won over by Jess and her acidic wit and her potato-craving gave me the perfect opportunity to spend more time with her. The day before I'd been to a cafe where I'd seen mash, not exactly an Indian speciality, on the menu. I offered to take her there.

We left the Deepak and entered the labyrinth of cobbled lanes that made up the fort, eventually crossing out through the portcullis gate and into the main street of the town. Jess was obviously still not that well and it was quite a trek through the crowds to the cafe. She pointed out several perfectly acceptable alternatives on the way, but I insisted that if she wanted mashed potato, we had to keep going.

When we got there, the cafe was dingier than I remembered, but Jess didn't notice as she dashed behind a curtain into what passed for a toilet. She was a bit shaky when she finally came out, but cheered up when the menu arrived and hungrily ordered her mash. The plate of rice-water goo that appeared shortly afterwards didn't seem to be what she had in mind and she complained bitterly.

Days slipped by in Jaisalmer but I was far too smitten to allow the mashed potato incident to put me off. She forgave me, but our relationship didn't seem to be progressing, at least not the way I wanted. I did, however, manage to persuade her to let me go with her to Udaipur, her next destination.

If romance is on your mind, this is the place to go. It's a hazy, hilly town built on the banks of the island-strewn Lake Pichola. On one of the islands is a palace built by a Maharana, now converted into a legendary hotel. Far too expensive for us, but we scraped together enough money for dinner. The posse of backpackers who came with us, however, were a bit of a hindrance for what I had in mind.

Somehow I managed to slip Jess away for a stroll along the lake front. The sun was setting, the stars coming out: an ideal moment to express my growing affection and perhaps even get a snog. But then some of the others discovered us and the moment was gone. This was getting ridiculous. I'd known Jess for almost two weeks in heart-breakingly beautiful settings and yet hadn't managed to communicate my desires.

The next day was make or break. Jess was planning to head further south and I couldn't keep traipsing about after her unless I knew what her feelings were. That afternoon, unable to contain myself, I clumsily burst out: "So, are we going to get something together?" For a second I thought I'd blown it as Jess spluttered and laughed, but she seemed to be happy about the prospect and in that moment my life changed for ever. By a quirk of fate, that night was the eve of the Hindu festival of Holi, celebrating the end of winter. And, as we sat canoodling on the roof of our hostel, thousands of fireworks exploded over the lake as if they were just for us.

Getting there: the cheapest flights to India are generally on airlines from the former Soviet Union. You can expect to pay around pounds 300 return to Delhi on an airline such as Armenian Airlines via Yerevan, booked through Classic Travels (0171-499 2222). Indian Airlines (00 91 11 331 0517) has daily flights from Delhi to Udaipur, or there is a train six days a week which takes around 20 hours to complete the same journey. Jaisalmer can be best reached by bus or train from Jodhpur, about 275km away