By Darcy Thomas
Excerpts from my journal from 2001 at 27 years old
A Country To Love But Also To Hate
Part of "Shit and Sugar All in One Breath"
My plane arrived safely in India on March 12, 2001. Everything was smooth for a few hours but only while sleeping. When I awoke, the troubles began. I had a flight to the east coast to meet up with a family connection, Jane, in Bhubaneswar. Jane was a nurse who worked at Sloan Kettering. Our family friend connected us after her husband died there. Mr. Shriya, a wealthy Indian man who lost his wife to Cancer, invited Jane as his guest in India. I joined her for the first part of my trip.
My flight to Bhubaneswar was cancelled because I did not confirm it. My plans were unraveling at the seams. There I was in Mumbai staying in a hotel that was largely out of my price range at $50 a night. I was hoping to spend more like $3 a night. I was unwilling to afford the place I was staying. Sitting outside the airport on my giant backpack, I wondered how to proceed. Emotions clenched my throat while tears dripped from my eyes. I hoped someone might feel sympathy for me and rescue me in my helplessness in this foreign land.
A seemingly compassionate auto rickshaw driver approached me from his vehicle and offered to help. I was naïve and assumed he was genuinely kind. I hopped into his auto rickshaw with my pack. We drove off in search of a more affordable hotel. Being new to India, I was not prepared for what came next.
First we visited a travel agency where I purchased a new ticket to Bhubaneswar. I was beginning to accept the price of my hotel and requested that the driver bring me back. A friend of Mr. Shriya’s planned to meet me to give me a tour of Mumbai. My driver had another plan. Unknown to me, he was looking for a commission. He continued to pressure me to find a new hotel and drove me around exploring options. I didn’t argue. None met my standards as a newbie in this foreign land. I needed to transition slowly. These rugged hotels were too much of a dive so early in the game.
I was now convinced that I needed to return to my hotel. The driver offered a guided tour of the city- anything for a rupee. He finally agreed to my endless requests and headed back to my hotel. If I had known, I would have jumped out and found a new ride.
He drove recklessly through strange neighborhoods. Burgundy streaks dripped down his white teeth. I feared it was blood. I was new to betel nut, a stimulant like chewing tobacco which stains your teeth vulgar shades of red. My heart raced and something gripped at my inner organs.
While winding through unknown back streets his rickshaw stalled. After a few attempts to restart it, he swung around and demanded all of my money. Our location was desolate with no establishments nor people nearby. I had all of my belongings. He could do whatever he wanted to me. Tears streamed down my face as I hoped for my savior again. I pulled out 200 rupees ($4) which was what the meter read. His face turned crimson matching the drool from his mouth. I imagined smoke blowing out of his ears as he fumed with anger. He demanded 1000 rupees ($20-25). The average annual income in India at that time was 1500 rupees. Facing the possibility of rape, robbery, or murder, I pulled out 700 rupees and shakily handed it to him. He snatched the money from me wanting to end the battle and waved down the next passing auto rickshaw. After a short verbal exchange between drivers, he shuffled me into the other vehicle. My new driver appeared confused. He whipped his rickshaw around the corner immediately entering the gate of my hotel. No wonder he was so confused! We were only a block away.
I was shaken, eyes wet with tears. The hotel attendants yelled at my new driver, but he was not the one who robbed me. That evil driver had planned his escape to avoid this trouble. After encouraging the hotel employees to leave this poor guy alone, I resettled into my hotel and waited for Mr. Shriya’s friend to give me a guided tour.
In that moment, all I felt was an intense urge to get the fuck out of this country and never come back. My mother’s words, “You will love India, but you will also hate it,” were only partially true. What was there to love? I would understand in time.