Calum McSwiggan

Posts Tagged ‘India’

Delhi Belly

In Eat on June 17, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Indian Chaat

‘Food is our common ground, a universal experience.’

– James Beard 

India had opened my eyes to a whole new world, a beautiful yet frightening world, a world that both exhausted and dazzled me, a world that I was glad to finally be leaving behind. I was so used to having my guard up, that when I landed in Thailand in the early hours of the morning, I was ready and prepared for conflict.

Away from the relentless Indian heat, everything seemed so inviting. A cool breeze swept through the eucalyptus scented air, offerings were scattered everywhere I looked, and everybody smiled and bowed as I walked by and took in my new surroundings. I stepped out onto the street and looked around for a taxi, remembering my nightmarish first night in India, and decided to not take any chances.

I approached the most professional driver I could find, dressed in a suit, a tie, and a smile, he opened the door for me and helped me climb inside. The windows were tinted and the cool air conditioning made me relax into the luxurious leather seats, it was only when I asked him to take me the long journey west that I worried about the price. I asked hesitantly, half expecting to be thrown out onto the side of the motorway and stripped of my cash, but he quoted me a price that would barely buy me a cocktail back home.

I felt safe and secure and like I could finally let my guard down. This place seemed like a safe haven where absolutely nothing could go wrong. I watched the twinkling lights disappearing as we drove out and away from the city, and comfortable in this new world, I began to dream about my destination.

I was on my way to work with some of the world’s most dangerous animals while living in harmony alongside Buddhist monks. I racked my mind for the words I would say when I arrived, but I only drew blanks. I didn’t really know what to expect, and like a nervous teenager going on the first date, I practised what I’d say to them over and over in my mind. First impressions were important, but what do you say when an abbey of monks offers to feed and house you for the next five weeks?

My mind drifted and I began to think about the horrors I’d seen in India. A lorry driver pulled from his vehicle and stripped of his belongings, a tortured elephant with its spirit crushed, and starving children sleeping in the streets. I couldn’t shake those images out of my head, and just as I thought I’d escaped India for good, I felt a stabbing sensation in the bottom of my gut.

I sat upright and shuffled uncomfortably, taking a sip of water and trying to breathe through the pain, but my stomach only clenched tighter and searing pains shot through my whole body. India was not through with my yet, you can take the boy out of Delhi, but there’s only one way to take the Delhi out of the boy, and boy is it not pretty.

Sweat began to pour down my forehead, and the flowers that hung on the mirror were beginning to nauseate me. It was as if there was a banghra party in my stomach, and everybody had  explosive diarrhoea. I tapped the driver on the shoulder, and as calmly and collectedly as I could, I asked if we could kindly pull over. Ten minutes, he said with a smile, but I shook my head, let the frantic tones grow in my voice, and told him it was an emergency. Nearest Western bathroom is ten minutes, he repeated, but I was insistent and mistakenly told him that any bathroom was fine. 

Less than twenty four hours prior, I had stopped on the way to the airport for one last taste of Delhi chaat. I coiled my way through the lively streets, hopping over running and laughing children as I browsed the contents of various pans and griddles. Meat sizzled in the heat of open flames, and like wild magic dust, puffs of spice filled the air, catching my attention and pulling me this way and that. I set my eyes on a rich chicken curry, but just as I was about to ask for a cup, a chicken squawked noisily as it was slammed down and decapitated out of sight. I shook my head politely and turned to another stall and began indulging in vegetarian delights.

I took a small bowl of dahl and washed it down with mango lassi, sampling vegetable pakoras and fried paneer until I couldn’t eat another bite. I knew that the food was unhygienic and prepared in the filth ridden streets, but it tasted so good that I just didn’t care. I finished it all off with a small bottle of Thumbs Up, a drink known for being sickeningly sweet and renowned for turning Westerners insides to mush, and now, at the side of the Thai motorway, I was paying the price for my decadence.

I hung onto the latchless door as it repeatedly swung open while I squatted over a six inch hole and violently threw up into the filthy broken sink. The stagnant Indian heat was returning, and as my whole body became immersed in sweat, I realised there was no toilet paper. I looked around for an alternative, and flicked on the tap in hope of a fresh clean stream of water to drain away my vomit, but not one single drop came forward.

I thought about that emergency toilet roll I’d fortuitously never had to use in India, it was still sat inside my backpack in the trunk of the taxi. I peeled my t-shirt off to try to cope with the intense heat, and sheepishly called for the driver to bring over my bag. I waited for a few minutes before there was a timid knock at the door and the dignified suited man stood shielding his eyes and presenting me my backpack.

Leaving the bathroom in the cleanest way I could manage, I got back into the taxi and we continued on our journey. I had to ask my driver to stop thirteen more times before we arrived at my destination almost three hours later than we should have done. He dropped me outside my hotel along The River Kwai, and when I offered him a generous tip, he shook his head and instructed me to get well soon.

By the time I lay down on my bed, the morning sun was beginning to rise, and it was already time to leave. I sucked in the cool air conditioned air, and used the bathroom twice more before accepting that it was time to meet the monks. I jumped into the back of a truck and rolled up into the temple grounds almost thirty minutes late. All of that practising what to say went straight out of the window, and I was sure to have left an unforgettable impression, as I leapt out of the vehicle with panicked gusto and asked for the nearest bathroom.


In Eat on June 9, 2013 at 9:17 am

Slums in India

‘You’ve seen this all before, life left on the shore, but we’re smiling all the same, you sail away again.’

– Ellie Goulding

Just as I was told there were no seats for tourists left on the train, I was cornered by three angry looking Indian men and told to hand over my bag. Determined to not get robbed a second time, I ducked out of their way, sprinted out of the train station, and went off in search of a safer way to my next destination.

I only had two days left in India, and I wanted to head to the Taj Mahal before catching my flight out of there. It seemed excessive to hail down a private driver to take me four hours across the country, but by western standards it was cheap, and I was running out of options.

We were driving for less than an hour when the traffic began to slow and eventually grinded to a complete halt. I craned my neck to see what was happening and saw flames licking the sky in the distance, an uproar of screaming and yelling filling the air, and black smoke that came down on us so thickly that I couldn’t see any further than three cars ahead.

We were only stationary for a few moments before I saw them, appearing from the slums at the side of the road, darting through the cars and disappearing into the thick black smoke, leaping from roof to roof in search of their victims. They wore bandanas over their faces, and moved with such quickness that they could easily distract lorry drivers while their comrades hopped in the back and raided them of their valuables. I called them the highwaymen. They were as mystifying as they were frightening, and it was only with their demonic presence that the highway truly came to life.

Children appeared and began weaving in-between the cars, selling bottles of murky water or falling to their knees in a plea for food; cattle broke free from one of the lorries and began wandering between the cars, hungrily pressing their faces up against windows and clumsily breaking off wing mirrors; a camel began calling out in desperation before choking on the fumes and collapsing in the heat of the ever thickening smoke; and packs of wild monkeys piled out of the slums like termites, and began raiding anything in sight in search of scraps of food.

It was chaos, we were no longer cars stuck in traffic, but a hectic village market, rife with crime and alive with trade. Music blared and fights broke out, a lorry driver waved his arms furiously as he was pulled from his vehicle and stripped of his treasures, and everyone was acting like this was normal.

Keep your doors locked and don’t make eye contact with anyone, my driver told me sternly, locking down the doors and turning off the engine. I was suddenly very aware that I was a perceived rich white boy in poverty stricken India, and things were probably about to get very, very real.

The cloud of smog thickened until I couldn’t see anything but the inside of the car. The chaos ensued, I could still hear the ruckus raging outside and the occasional footsteps as somebody leapt onto the roof of our vehicle before disappearing back into the mist. My heart was racing in my chest, and just as I leapt back in fear as a bloodied silk wrapped hand slammed against my window, the driver turned back on the engine and we slowly began to move.

We weaved amongst the vacated cars, winding and spiralling out of the slow moving traffic, swerving past two cars ablaze and a mourning family, until we were eventually out of the fog. We drove full speed, hurtling down the highway, away from the scene of the accident, and onwards to our destination.

I caught sight of a tuk-tuk speeding alongside of us, much smaller than the car I was in, and yet loaded with at least thirty people exposed to the luciferous heat. I slumped down in my seat, I felt ashamed to be cruising along in this air-conditioned vehicle while they were exposed to all the elements, and just as I closed my eyes to try to strike out their disgusted glances, we ran into something full speed.

My seat belt sliced through my neck as I was tossed forward out of my seat and slammed back down again. There was a loud thud and then the harrowing sound of screaming as the front and back wheels of the car rolled over something, sending us spinning across the highway. Just as the driver regained control of the vehicle, I turned around to see a writhing mass of limbs lying in the road, desperately trying to crawl to safety, leaving a trail of blood and entrails behind it.

Pull over! I yelled to my driver but he just shook his head. It was just a dog sir, don’t worry, he told me calmly, one of his eyes fixated on a gang of masked men at the side of the road. I was furious, swearing myself blue as I pleaded with him to stop the car, but he wouldn’t. I was sick of this country abusing its animals, but as the bloodied dog and its cries faded into the distance, I knew he hadn’t pulled over out of fear.

The car jolted again and began making some strange noises before the air conditioning cut out. We met our karma as the car became an inferno and eventually came to a rolling stop a few miles down the road.

I looked into the slums for signs of life as my driver hesitantly climbed out and began to assess the damage. He told me to stay inside, but I didn’t. I climbed out to see the bonnet dashed with spatters of red, one of the headlights completely smashed, and the bumper soaked with blood. I turned back to the slums and waited for the highwaymen to appear, to rob me of everything but the shirt on my back, but they didn’t. It was a small child that first appeared from the darkness.

He gasped and yelled something behind him, and then scores of people poured out of the slums, speaking loudly and quickly as they began to examine the vehicle’s damage before setting straight to work on repairs. It amazed me that, these people who lived so simply, in literal heaps of garbage, in houses built from scrap metal and cardboard, had the ability to fix something as complex as a car.

They procured fruits and drinks and even a deck chair for me to sit in while they set about rectifying the problems, children came running to see the white man who’d come to visit, and they took endless photographs with me, on a mish mash of cameras seemingly stolen from different eras.

These weren’t the same ruthless highwaymen I’d seen loot and pillage our convoy, these were generous kind hearted people who wanted to do nothing but help, and I felt I had to do something in return. I offered to help the women as they fetched buckets of water from the other side of the slums, and began teaching the children to draw with some pencils and a sketchpad I had in my bag. They looked at the pencils like they had never seen such an instrument in their lives, and as we drew together, they laughed wildly and clung to me as if I were their brother.

I was stranded at the side of the road for over four hours, and I’d never been made to feel so welcome in my whole life. Just like my first night in India, I had taken a broad brush and assumed all of the people living within the slums were dark-hearted criminals, but now I’d had my eyes opened to their kindness, even their admiration for the colour of my skin couldn’t outweigh my admiration for the colour in their hearts.

We left with just enough time to catch the sunset at the Taj Mahal, but I knew I was never going to find the true India there, because I’d already found it. Right here with the locals, stricken with poverty but always smiling, was where the real India lay.

The Elephant Emperor

In Eat on May 27, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Indian Elephant

‘Every king knows it to be true, that every kingdom must one day come to an end.’

– Ben Howard

The sadness in the eyes of the elephant penetrated me deeply as I walked into the stable and gently stroked her painted trunk. Raising it into the air, she placed it onto my shoulder, and shuffled her enormous feet as if she were trying to tell me something. I had waited for this moment for as long as I could remember, but as I handed over my rupees and climbed onto the elephant’s back, I only felt resentful.

I once lay awake in the Tuscan countryside, promising myself that I’d do something to help animals as I listened to the howls of distress resonating from the bottom of the garden. My host family slept in the next room, indifferent to the suffering they were causing and the cries of the tormented animals. I’d seen the hell that lay beyond that wall at the bottom of the garden; they’d taken me back there, through the gates of Animal Auschwitz, and into the torturous rusted barbed wire cages where they kept scores of afflicted animals that they claimed to love.

I’d shortly after penned ride an elephant in India onto my bucket list for 2013, thinking there would be no better way to show my affection for animals than getting up close and personal with these majestic creatures, but the ride that awaited me was everything but what I’d expected. I wasn’t helping anything or anyone; I was just contributing to the problem.

The elephant walked sluggishly as I towered above her in the cushioned saddle, I wanted to reach down and comfort her, but she was out of reach, and I couldn’t have felt further away. Her spirit had been broken so badly that I could only begin to imagine what might have been done to her to make her so dead behind the eyes. I don’t know why I didn’t call a stop the whole thing immediately, this was not something designed for an animal lover, this was something designed for a rich white man from the western world who wanted to feel like an emperor, superior to his fellow man, as he paraded through the streets.

It wasn’t even as if my money was going towards helping the community rebuild itself. To my right were palatial buildings, lined with priceless art and surrounded with lavish blooming gardens, and yet to my left were children living alone in the slums, without food, family, or water, digging through garbage in search of their salvation. The divide between the rich and the poor was so great that it turned my stomach, and here I was, playing elephant emperor, as the peasants fell to my feet and begged me for food.

It was as if somebody had removed the rosy filter from my fantasies and I was suddenly seeing the real world. The reality of spending a small fortune on an extravagance as ridiculous as an elephant ride, while children starved mere meters away, hit me harder than a careless tuk-tuk driver. I wanted the ride to be over, I wanted the elephant to be free, I wanted the poverty that surrounded me to cease, and yet still I did nothing.

Some of the children stopped searching the piles of garbage for a moment to stare at the white man, throwing me deserving looks of disgust as I passed through the streets. Everyone looked at me as if they wanted to con, rob, or kill me, and I couldn’t blame any of them. Everything about the whole spectacle was as offensive as a slap to the face, it was unforgivable, and it was only the young innocence of a boy named Anil that could see through my pompous charade.

He came running from the slums to the side of the elephant, waving his arms wildly, and desperately trying to catch my attention. He started bombarding me with questions, asking me my name, where I came from, what I was doing here, and where I was heading next. He reminded me so much of one of the students I taught in Switzerland that I had to double take to clarify that it wasn’t him. He was no more than ten years old and yet his English was exceptional, I had no idea where a kid like him had gotten such an impressive education, but I knew immediately that I wanted to befriend him.

Do you want to ride with me? I finally asked after watching him run bare foot alongside the elephant for a good five minutes, but I was quickly interrupted. Street rats don’t ride, the compassionless driver bitterly snapped as he began thrashing the elephant for trying to feed from a nearby tree. I wish I had reprimanded him, climbed down from the back of the elephant, demanded my money back, and used it on something worthwhile like a meal for young Anil. But I didn’t. I let everything continue to happen and watched him violently shoo Anil away as he lashed the elephant mercilessly.

The lack of compassion for his fellow man astonished me, and I could only imagine how uncaring he must be towards this amazing towering beast behind closed doors. Garbed in his expensive finery and golden jewellery, he was everything that was wrong with India, and all the while I did nothing but support his barbarous trade.

I loved that elephant so much, and yet I used and abused her like every other tourist who passed through the area. Before I left I thanked her for the ride but my words fell flat. I couldn’t believe I had been so naïve in actually crossing the oceans to come here to participate in something so outrageously cruel. Everywhere I looked I saw and learned more and more about the malevolence of the elephant trade, and with everything I learned I only grew more and more angry with myself.

There was absolutely no silver lining to my story, I was just grateful that I’d had my eyes opened so that I could share my story in hope of helping one day bring the kingdom of the elephant emperor crumbling to its knees.

The Indian Sunrise

In Eat on May 20, 2013 at 10:57 am

Delhi Sunrise

‘Throw those curtains wide, one day like this, a year would see me right.’

– Elbow 

Just as I thought I would never see my suitcase or any of my possessions ever again, a voice boomed from behind me and a young suited man appeared with a large stick and thrashed it violently, rescuing me and my belongings from the clutches of the mad man.

Please sir, I will stay with you, keep you safe, he said reassuringly, handing me my suitcase and leading me in another direction. His name was Vibhor, he worked behind the reception in the hotel and, worried for my safety, he had followed me out. We were both twenty two and shared a birthday, he was very good looking, and had I not been so disorientated and shaken up, I probably would have felt a spark as he put his arm around me and guided me through the streets of squalor.

We walked for what seemed like forever until he finally presented me my salvation. Nestled in the front of a garish yellow building and blocked by a ten foot spiked fence, an ATM light blinked weakly beneath a neon lit sign that read 24/7 free cash withdrawals. Vibhor approached the tightly locked gate and shook it violently, yelling to a none existent security guard to let us in immediately. He tried this for a good few minutes before nonchalantly concluding that we should climb.

Without second thought he lifted himself up onto the filthy railings, tarnishing his clean tailored suit, and offered me he his hand to help me up. I left my suitcase on the ground behind us and we began to climb over the barbed fence. We must have looked like the most unusual pairing, me in my now ripped t-shirt, my pale white skin shining beneath the moonlight, and him with his dark skin and expensive suit, leaping from the fence and brandishing his stick aggressively, preparing to defend me from unseen guard dogs whose howls drew nearer and nearer.

I punched in my details into the ATM over and over but each time my card was declined. I looked at Vibhor despondently but he told me not to worry. You are with Vibhor now, and Vibhor will not let anything bad happen to you.

We hopped back over the fence and he began leading me back through the poverty stricken streets of Delhi. A small girl dressed in rags fell to her knees in front of us and held out her dirt covered hands to beg. I wish I had something to give, I said to Vibhor, who immediately withdrew his wallet and handed me fifty rupees. I thanked him before placing the money into the palms of the small girl who was too weak to even raise her head in acknowledgement.

Is very sad, Vibhor said, but thousands like her in Delhi alone, you cannot feed them all, then he laughed and added, first sir must learn to feed himself. I laughed nervously, I wasn’t in the mood for jokes but appreciated the firm grip he placed on my shoulder as he pulled me in close and lead me back up towards the hotel.

We were greeted by the smiling manager who spoke quickly with Vibhor before turning to me and handing me a glass of minted cranberry juice and a key card. Best room in hotel, she said, free of charge.

Both dazzled and amazed I thanked her over and over again before Vibhor picked up my suitcase and lead me to my room. Sleep well sir, he said, opening the door to the penthouse suite, I will see you in the morning. I told him to wait, and as I reached into my pocket to pull out my wallet, I saw the single American Dollar that the thieves had left me with, and handed it to him. He looked confused but understood the gesture and nodded with an appreciative smile before closing the door behind me.

The room was enormous but I was too tired to care or even take notice. I collapsed on the king size bed and lay with my eyes wide open, thinking about the warnings of those Israeli boys who couldn’t have been more right, before slowly blinking into a dream. I don’t know how much time passed but what seemed like only moments later I was awoken by the sound of chanting in the distance. I sat upright and felt the strong scent of orange blossom filling my nostrils as I opened my eyes to the spectacular morning sunrise.

Without having to leave my bed, I had panoramic views over the beautiful tropical city, magnificent birds soared and caught in the rising sunlight, and the sound of the prayers of thousands pulled the sun from the darkness so it could warmly kiss my cheeks. I rose from the bed sheets and took a piece of mango from my freshly prepared fruit basket and stared down into India with awe.

Two pillars framed the glowing sun as it lit up the city, vibrant colours swayed in the gentle early morning wind as the markets set up in the streets, and as I stood there, I simply couldn’t believe that this was the same cruel city that robbed me of my money and dignity. For the first time since I arrived, I was glad to be in India, and even the cruel actions of those who lived in the darkness could not outweigh the generosity of those who’d tried to help me.

I climbed back onto my bed, sat cross legged, and even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, I silently prayed with the masses. I expressed my thanks for the hospitality of the Indian people, my thanks for the help I received in making it through the night, and finally my thanks for the glorious Indian sunrise.

This is the final part of a three part series, you can read the first part here, and the second part here. 

The Indian Twilight

In Eat on May 12, 2013 at 5:41 am

Foggy Delhi Streets

‘Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low, only hate the road when you’re missing home.’

– Passenger 

I jumped up and down and tried to attract the attention of one of the tuk-tuk drivers speeding down the blaring highway, but it was hopeless. Everyone was far too busy focussing on the chaos of the motorway to notice the skinny white boy cowering at the side of the road.

I gazed into the fire that blazed on the horizon and was very nearly ready to give up and try to figure my way back home. I’d been in India for less than two hours and I was already ready to leave, that was until, as often happens in India, a cow appeared out of the darkness and began playfully licking my fingers.

I didn’t try to shoo it away, I appreciated the company, and began stroking its injured side. Cows are considered sacred in India, and I’m almost certain it was this act of compassion that urged a rickshaw driver to pull over and offer me a lift.

I’m very sorry sir, he said, I have room for you but you will have to leave behind your cows. I looked around to see that another cow had crept up and was chewing on the handle of my suitcase. I nodded and climbed inside, bidding farewell to my bovine companions before balancing my suitcase on my lap and taking the long and terrifying journey into Delhi. It turned out that the men that had robbed me had driven in the opposite direction.

I was no longer inside the security of my air conditioned taxi, I was exposed to all of the elements, and was white as a sheet by the time we pulled up outside my hotel. I pulled out my five hundred emergency rupees from my sock to pay the driver and rushed into the reception to tell them what had happened. I frantically pushed past the gracefully bowing doorman and collapsed on the front desk, panting and trying to tell them everything all at once.

Do you have the name of the taxi company, sir? they asked. License number? Name of the driver? Anything? I shook my head, in the madness of it all, I hadn’t thought about taking down any of it. They looked at me like I was the dumbest tourist to ever walk through their doors before offering their sincerest apologies and offering to check me into my room and deal with it tomorrow.

I was still shaking as I handed over my credit card and punched in my pin number as they prepared some chai tea to calm my nerves. I took small sips and just as I thought everything was going to be okay, they told me that my card had been declined. They tried six more times before apologising and turning me away, telling me to try the local ATM, and to come back tomorrow.

I protested and bargained with them but they assured me that there was nothing they could do. They wheeled my suitcase back out into the street and left me alone in the maddening darkness. With no money and nowhere to sleep, I began carefully navigating myself past the naked children lying in the street and the packs of wild dogs that bared their fangs when I approached to walk by. I had no idea where I was going, but no matter which direction I went, I was met with another crippling vision of heartbreaking poverty.

Frail hands reached out to me in the darkness, wanting for nothing more than a mouthful of rice or a splash of clean water, but I had nothing to offer them. All I could do was lift my luxury filled Calvin Klein suitcase over their bodies and continue on my way. I desperately wanted to help them but I was so scared that I could only see them as a threat.

I kept my guard up as I walked, and only when I began to feel secure that I wouldn’t be attacked, a bearded dishevelled man hobbled to his feet and began yelling and waving his arms. Grabbing hold of my suitcase, he raised one of his bloodied fists, and threatened me with a menagerie of foreign screams. His ribs jutted out of his bare chest, he was starving and clearly prepared to do anything for food, and I wasn’t about to stand in his way. I let go of my suitcase and slowly backed away.

Every one of my worldly possessions was packed inside that bag, and as I watched the starving man’s fingers prying at the zipper, it was as if I was watching all of my memories disappear. Letters, souvenirs, even my dildo, everything was tucked away inside. I had thought the moment I got off that deadly highway that my nightmare was over, but now suffering the terror of the harsh low lit Indian Twilight, it was obvious to me that it was only just beginning…

This is the second part of a three part series, you can read the first part here, and the final part here. 

The Indian Highway

In Eat on May 5, 2013 at 9:51 am

Elephant in India

‘But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all? And if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?’

– Bastille

Be careful white boy, the handsome Israeli boys told me as we boarded the train to Madrid. I had just told them I was heading to Delhi, and after giving me a quick look up and down they concluded that I wouldn’t last five minutes. I desperately wanted them to look past the colour of my skin, I wanted to convince them that I was as savvy as they come, and so I began bombarding them with stories to try and prove my experienced traveller status.

I told them about the time I’d accidentally taken a train to Moscow, how I’d gotten into a fight in Budapest, how I was left stranded after my flight to New York was cancelled, and how I’d had my drink spiked in Munich. The worst had already happened, I explained, but they just laughed even harder.

I hope you’re right, white boy, one of the boys said patting me on the shoulder, but it’s a whole different world over there, man. I swallowed hard but assured them that I would be fine. It seemed everyone was giving me the same advice, my boss, my parents, my friends, even the boy who gave me the lovebiteeveryone was imploring me to stay safe. I thought about those words as the plane soared over the Arabian Sea and prepared to land. I was confident I’d be fine, I could take care of myself, I mean, how bad could it be?

 I wandered into the airport terminal in the dead of the night and began scouting for the international arrivals gate, and as I walked past the dozens of people queueing to enter on Indian passports, I quickly found myself to be the only lone foreigner.  I was puzzled as to why everyone was staring at my pale white flesh, I didn’t understand where all my fellow ex pats and tourists were, there was just me, and suddenly I felt terribly alone.

The glass doors to the exit slid open and I stepped out into the warm smoke filled night, coughing and spluttering and drawing the attention of the masses. Like letting fresh blood drop into a shark tank, they turned on me within seconds, trying to sell me things, their prying fingers pulling at my pockets, reaching for my backpack, and pulling me this way and that.

They were suffocating me, and had my saviour not appeared on the horizon, I probably would have fallen into blind panic. He stood atop his radio taxi in the distance, hand extended generously, waving and calling me over. With a beaming smile he shooed away the masses and placed my suitcase into the trunk of his car. Climbing inside, I found myself sat with the driver and two other men, it wasn’t until we began to drive that I knew something was terribly wrong.

They all spoke in Hindi loudly and quickly, pointing at me and laughing, and when I asked them why the meter was switched off, they claimed that it was broken. How much then? I asked, handing over the address of my hotel. One thousand rupees, the driver answered quickly and without thought. No, I laughed, thinking I was very clever having looked up the price beforehand, I won’t pay any more than five hundred. The car slowed slightly as he turned around and glared at me, his gentle features now pointed, and told me that he wasn’t in the mood for bartering, and that I could pay his price or get out.

How about seven hundred, then? I said, not wanting to have to go back to the suffocating mob of the airport. It was 4am, I didn’t mind being ripped off, I just wanted to get to my hotel quickly and safely. He begrudgingly agreed and we turned off onto the hectic Indian Highway. Tuk-tuks, rickshaws, and trucks loaded with farm animals swerved in and out of the path of the taxi, honking their horns incessantly, and bumping into us from all sides. I marvelled at the wondrous paintwork and incredible writing displayed on all the vehicles and I flinched as a pack of wild dogs chased a famished child into the path of a moving school bus loaded with cattle. I was so caught up in the insanity that I barely noticed the driver holding out his hand and demanding over and over that I pay him.

I handed over the 700 rupees without thought and turned my attention to an elephant that was stealing from a lantern lit roadside fruit stand. Seven thousand, we agree seven thousand, the driver said, interrupting my wonder and forcing me to turn back to face him.  Seven thousand, he repeated now raising his voice. I laughed and truthfully told him that I didn’t even have that much, but he only got louder and more aggressive. Seven thousand! he yelled, jerking the car abruptly, scraping the side of a van loaded with chickens and sending them berserk, flapping their wings in wild panic as some of their eggs escaped into the low lit neon madness.

The man sat to my right reached for my wallet just as I snatched it out of the driver’s reach and retreated to my corner of the taxi. Seven thousand or you get out, the man said calmly, reaching over, popping open the lock, and gesturing outside the fast moving vehicle. Blaring Hindi music and the sound of screeching horns filled the air as he forced open my door onto the moving highway and demanded I hand over my money.

I only have three thousand, I lied in a state of absolute terror, just managing to close my door as an  entire family whizzed by on a single moped. He demanded that I show him my wallet, and when I refused, he knew I was holding back. The driver swerved into the path of a lorry loaded with camels and sleeping women and pulled over into the unlit darkness at the side of the motorway.

Out, he said with a new found calmness, and everyone but me climbed out of the vehicle. I sat perfectly still, clutching my backpack for dear life, and watching their every moment, clueless of what was going to happen next. Seven thousand, the driver yelled again, a last warning before he carefully lifted my suitcase out of the trunk and hurled it into the ditch beside the road. I climbed out of the vehicle to try to stop him, but as soon as I did, they were on top of me.

They demanded my wallet, stripping it of my Indian Rupees, Thai Baht, British Pounds, and Euros, and leaving me with just one American dollar before getting back into their car and driving away. I didn’t even attempt to join them; I knew they weren’t taking me any further. They disappeared into the screaming hell of the Indian Highway, and left me alone in the darkness. I stood in the path of screeching moving traffic, and closed my eyes, praying for a happy ending that I knew might not ever come…

This is the first part of a three part series, you can read the next part here, and the final part here.