Picture this: The day started with me sitting behind the hotel reception desk, next to an embarrassed man. He was embarrassed because I was crying. You see, the remainder of the team had left the night before, and my flight was not until midnight the next day…so I was left alone in Delhi for an entire day. That, in itself, wasn’t the reason for my tears. It’s a long story, and you’ll have to forgive me for the details (this is the don’t-read-further warning in case you missed it), but to tell it properly, I need to get a bit personal.
I woke that morning to a girl’s worst nightmare. Great! Alone in a strange city, with my period. For some unusual reason my cycle was a week early and so I wasn’t prepared. I could have kicked myself. Stupid! Stupid! And, I hadn’t noticed before, but in this particular hotel, all, ALL the staff were male…and only a few spoke English. Set back: number one.
I checked my wallet to see how many Rupees were left, making a mental note of the expenses I had left to pay. I needed to pay the hotel, plus I got an email message from the team before they left saying there was a bit of a mix up with the driver who would be taking me to the airport, and I needed extra cash to pay him too. So, I didn’t have enough money. Set back: number two.
So, I needed money, and pads. And here’s the glitch. The day before I tried to get money out, just so I had a little extra for spending money, but my card didn’t work. I thought I would get by with what I had (with some borrowed cash), but with the extra expenses, I needed more. Set back: number three.
Did I mention that I tried to get a SIM card for my phone to use while in India? But wait for it…it didn’t work.
I took a deep breath, and tried calling my bank from my hotel room. That didn’t work, so I called reception. “You come down here,” was the reply.
I sat at the reception desk, with an awkward man beside me, listening to the jolly automatic prompts (while the call charges ticked over). It was a little ironic: making a call which cost me money, to get money to pay for it. Once I (eventually) got through to a speaking person, a woman’s voice asked me where I was.
“I’m in Delhi,” I said. “In India,” I added unnecessarily.
She responded, “Oh, that is where I am too!?”
DELHI! We were both in Delhi! More irony. Then, she began to ask me a series of security questions, like recent transactions. That is when I lost it. That is when I cried. Because I was down at reception, my computer, with access to my Internet banking details, remained in my room. I desperately rattled off random amounts I could think of, my voice breaking.
Of course I needed to be transferred to another person. Yes, of course. Many dollars of call charges later, the conclusion was that my card was okay, but the teller I used wasn’t compatible, so I needed to try and find another one and if that didn’t work to ring back. Ring back. Ring back. Great. Set back: number four, are we up to? All before 8am in the morning.
I don’t remember speaking to the man beside me at the desk as I left. Once in my room, I flung myself face down on the bed, and sobbed. I felt trapped. Scared. Oh, to have the team back right then. I missed Carly’s smile, Eden’s laugh, Joy’s giggle, Misho’s kind eyes, Sam’s quiet strength and Annila’s confidence more than ever right then.
After the inital panic subsided, I engaged my brain, on purpose. I say on purpose, because I used effort to switch off the panic to choose calm and reason. I remembered there being a teller at the nearby metro station. I stood up, took a deep breath, put my polka dot sunglasses on to hide my red eyes, and put my chin in the air. Confidence. Even if it was fake. Confidence! If I could say it instead of writing it, I would say it with a fierce, teeth-clenched voice.
I walked down to nearby metro station. It took me about 5 minutes, I guess. I was paranoid so this is an exaggeration, but it felt like every person was looking at me as I walked, as if guessing, knowing I was a pretender. Knowing that, behind the glasses, I was still crying. At the teller, I said a quick prayer and tried my card. Nothing. Set back: number five.
Stay calm. Stay calm, Kelly. Just walk around until you find another teller, yes. I spotted one on the other side of the station. I tried again, and I can’t tell you how sweet it was to hear the sound of the ATM counting. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Win: one.
All day was stretching out in front of me, but at least I had money to throw at it. Yes, at least I have money to throw at it. Delhi is a big place, and I really had NO IDEA where I was, or where I should be. So.
I need to stop the story here for a moment, and give you a bit of history about me. When I was in my late teens, I travelled often on the train. It wasn’t unusual for my parents to get a call from me, asking if they could pick me up because I ended up on an express train that took me far away from home. True story. Plus, I missed my train stop, many, many times, as a result of being engrossed in a book. Early on in parenting, my husband bought me a GPS for the car on Mother’s Day (before they were standard in most cars) and the kids were excited so “Mummy won’t get lost anymore”. There have been many other absentminded moments that will remain a secret. I guess, I’m a bit of a dreamer, and a little vague at times.
I thought of my husband then, and I remembered our first visit together in Melbourne. I loved how he took my upper arm, and guided me around the city, literally: on trams; off trams; across roads; down streets. I didn’t worry about a thing; I didn’t need to think. He knows me, who I am, and let me adore Melbourne, to take in everything around me — the sounds, the people, the colour, the smell of coffee, the lines of the skyline — it didn’t matter where I was in time and space; I had someone I trusted holding my arm, guiding me with confidence. It was one of the best days. Oh, I wished for this man to be with me right then, yes I did.
But I was alone. In Delhi. Very alone. So Kelly, you’re at metro station right now, five minutes from the hotel. Mental check. Got it. Again, I racked my brain for snippets of where I had been with the team. Central Market. Yes, I’m sure I could find my way from the World Vision office near Central Market.
My backpack felt like my security, and I liked the feel of it on my back.
There was about 20, or even 30 rickshaws waiting outside the metro station, and as I walked closer, they swarmed around me, trying to get my attention. I picked one, and walked directly with my fake confidence in tow.
“Central Market?” I was surprised at how confident my voice sounded.
“Yes, yes. Sit.”
“How much?” I said.
“No. How much?” I was determined to get a fixed price before I climbed into the three wheeler contraption. I wasn’t going to be ripped off.
He held up four fingers and said something. It sounded like he was saying four hundred to me, and so I said, “No,” I started to walk away, and a swarm of voices started calling out amounts to me.
“Thirty,” the man countered.
Oh, I thought, as the realisation hit me. Fourty, not four hundred. I don’t think anyone noticed my bluff. I said, “Yes,” and climbed into the vehicle, holding my backpack to my chest. The way it happened, the upfront price check and slight haggling, was good for my confidence. Win: two.
Delhi wakes its smokey eyes at 11am, so the roads were a little quieter in the earlier hours of the morning. It was the first time that day that I had a moment to let my mind rest. I realised then, I hadn’t eaten breakfast. My mind turned to study the man peddling in front of me. He looked worn; his face lined. Thin legs moved quickly and the white-turned-grey head scarf wobbled from side to side. I wondered what his life was like and where he lived.
He stopped, and indicated we had arrived. I looked around. It wasn’t familiar, but I thought that perhaps I was down the end of the street. I paid my peddler fourty Rupees, instead of the agreed thirty, and swung the backpack up on my back. Do you know, in Delhi, public toilets are rare (do they even exist?) and I didn’t see one public street bin.
There is more. I said it was a long story. I walked a way, searching for a chemist or a grocery store of sorts. But nothing was open. And nothing was familiar either. So I just walked. And walked. India is a fragrant heady place, and I made it in my mind, to take the place in while I wandered, determined to stay calm.
In my mind, I tried to visualise my walking path, so to keep a bearing of where I was. I spotted a poky little shop front open. The lady behind the counter didn’t speak English, but there was diet coke. Win: three.
After walking for about half an hour, I knew I was lost. Lost in Delhi. I didn’t feel unsafe, as there were many people walking around by themselves. I didn’t feel unsafe as such, but did feel very alone in this busy place, and somewhat stranded; trapped even.
I had a few options then. I could find another rickshaw, make my way back to the hotel, and start again. Or I could try and ask someone the location of the World Vision office. English isn’t spoken as much in India as I thought it would so communication can be difficult. I kept walking, trying to decide what to do. My feet were aching in my black lace ballet flats but I didn’t want to stop, in case it appeared an invitation for passing ricshaws and tuk tuks. So I walked while I thought, and prayed.
I don’t know why I picked this man to talk to. He walked a few metres in front of me, and there was a kindness to his gait (if a walk can be kind). I lengthened my steps so I came up beside him, and I said, “Excuse me.”
He wore neat rectangle glasses.
“I’m trying to get to Central Market.”
We stopped at a street corner.
“There are two parts to central market. Which one?” His English was perfect.
Realisation dawned on me as to why the original drop off point looked unfamiliar.
“Well, I’m actually looking for the World Vision office and I’m not sure which part it is in,” I said.
“I work at ICRW which is the International Centre for Research on Women. I know of World Vision; ICRW is a charity too. My office is a couple of hundred of metres down this street. You can come with me and we can find out exactly where the office is.”
As we walked, I said, “I’m Kelly,” by way of introduction.
“My name is Vengatesh. Ven-gat-esh.” He pronounced the name carefully, and I tried it on my tongue.
It was the first proper conversation I had that day. We talked about what I was doing in India, and I heard more about the work Vengatesh was involved in. How incredible that I came across this man: a kind man fighting for the rights of women in India.
While the receptionist phoned World Vision, I was interested to find out more about ICRW in India. Their approach is to gather solid evidence, research and insight into issues pertaining to women in India, and then use this to present to the government and other organisations in order to facilitate change. Fascinating and inspiring, and very much in line with the work that interested me in India.
After a time, I took hold of Vengatesh’s business card, thanked him, and proceeded to follow his instructions to locate the World Vision office. I knew I could find my way around from there.
The alley ways begin to look much the same after a while: street sellers frying cubes of potatoes; some selling smoked corn on hot stones and others pushing mounds of pineapples on wagon wheel carts. Magnolia flowers hung over doorways along with now-dried up leaves: remnants from Diwali celebration. The streets are dusty; the sky is smoggy; power lines interrupt the dense air wildly. The bright clothes, that hang in front of buildings and on roof tops, seem brighter still on the brown and grey backdrop. Cars, bikes, people, animals: they are all one on the road, like raindrops forming one stream.
This day in Delhi, I felt like I had lived in India my entire life. India is like that: it shocks you, bombards your senses, and very quickly gets under your skin, and you can’t help but feel like you belong, or that you want to. There’s something powerful, empowering even, about being amongst chaos, utter chaos, that somehow works. There’s an odd community about it; even though each does their own thing, you can’t help but feel, through all your senses, that everyone is all part of something together. Yes, there’s is a lot to love about India.
There’s not much left to tell of the story. I found a 7-eleven type store on my travels, purchased what I needed, and a short walk later I found the World Vision office, and dropped in to say a final farewell. I was very glad to see the World Vision office sign. Win: Four.
Then I shopped. I enjoyed myself. I bought six different colour scarves. Yes, six; I needed to bring back some of India’s colour with me. I also found Levi jeans for my husband, and other little trinkets as I meandered my way through the shops and markets of narrow stalls. Win: Five.
A rickshaw found me back at the Moochland metro station, just a short walk from hotel. It was a young man who peddled this time. Once back in the hotel, I dropped the backpack from my body like a sigh of relief. My backpack had became an extension of myself while in India; a comfort even…but its job was just about done. Then I slept for the afternoon, had a shower, paid all the bills and made my way to the airport for home. Win: Six.
The day began in a horrible way. And yet, I was very glad for the day I got lost in Delhi. The day ended with a sense of achievement, and I felt confident and alive. It was a fitting way to end my time in India, and I’ll tell you why. Throughout my travels, I saw many things — wonderful things, terrible things — and yet, the people: they constantly inspired me, because they too were inspired. Inspiration, empowerment is like that: it keeps on giving. It struck me how, these people I met, despite their challenges — more than I have ever known — they overcome through empowerment (thanks World Vision for your wonderful work and what you have taught me). Yes, there is always hope, even if the day is grim.
Later, I took Vengatesh’s card from my backpack, to find his email address. I’ve learned to live life as it comes, to grasp opportunities as they happen, and when you’re prompted in your heart, to just do it if you can and not give air to the reasons not to. You never know, and you don’t always have to.
This is a cliche…but I’ll always have that day alone in Delhi, and the lessons I learned that day.
Did anyone make it to the end of my story? Is anyone still reading?