Two episodes along my travels…
One jolly morning, I left the A’bad flat with my roomie Dharmesh. My mission: go to the National Institute of Design and plaster the place with announcement cards for “The Ludiya Preview”, a showcase of original art by Kutchi women put on by an Indicorps fellow. I had only 100 Rs on me, so I stopped by our dhobi lady to collect the 200 Rs I loaned her five days ago. She promised to return it in two days, and true to form had some tall tale as to why she didn’t have my money today. I ask Dharm to borrow some. The guy has 600-700 Rs on him, but somehow convinces me that I can get through the day on my meager note and doesn’t part with a single anna. Whatever.
I hop in a rickshaw and say “NID”. Dharm bums a free ride off me til Vadej, and after he gets off, I call my cousin on my cell. Rickshaw dude asks me again where I want to go and I say “NID” again while on the phone. Kiran, my cuz, is an NID grad and so I ask for a name of a prof such that I can get past security at the front gate. The conversations drifts onward to her sister’s coming wedding and more such that I am comfortably distracted along the journey. A mistake, one of many that lead to a rough day.
Mr. Rickshaw takes me to LD College. I tell him for the third time “NID”. He apologizes and buzzes off, dropping me off at a strangely familiar gate while I’m still on the phone. I pay the man the full 50 Rs he wants, despite knowing that he’s taken me on a circuitous ride and still rounding the fare upwards. I ask the guard at the booth for the directions to the prof’s offices, yet the roster seems to lack his name. Suddenly I realize why the place looks so familiar: I’m at IIM. I go back out and Lalooji Rickshawsahib is still there.
“Brother, you made a mistake. This is IIM. I want to go to NID.”
I hop in. He putters along, taking me back to LD College.
“No. I want to go to NID. This is LD College.”
“Then what’s NID?”
“You don’t know what NID is and you’re still driving me around? Don’t pickup people if you don’t know how to get them where they need to go.”
“Then where is NID?”
So the guy asks the ice cream cart guy, who of course has no clue.
“Paladi. Go to Paladi,” I say with growing irritation.
“Why didn’t you just say Paladi in the first place?”
“I told you NID four times. If you don’t know where that is or what it is, you’re supposed to ask. NID is famous. How does a rickshaw driver NOT know where that is?” My chastisement doesn’t seem to do much.
At this point, I decide that I shouldn’t pay the guy for the trip to NID. He’s already taken 50 Rs for basically wasting my time and already overcharged me on that. Any self-respecting driver would admit to there mistake and do the right thing.
Finally at NID, I get out at walk up to the guard, only to have my ears assaulted by the protests of by now my favorite driver. He wants to get paid.
“I already paid you 50 Rs. If you want more money, you wait here until I’m done, take me back to the ashram, and then I’ll pay you.”
“I’m not your house-servant. Pay me now.”
Several more heated exchanges are made. The NID guards get involved, and tell the guy to bug-off after hearing the story, but he’s sticky and stubborn. On top of that, the NID profs that Kiran recommended to me are both busy, so I can’t get past the gate and ditch him. This guy keeps yelling and keeps getting hotter and louder. I too have lost my temper internally, but am outwardly composed. I decide its best to walk away. I do so. The guy hops in his rickshaw after me and cuts me off. As I keep walking, he grabs me rather forcefully. Now I lose it and start yelling full on at the guy. The only problem is that I am so mad that I’m not making sense, and even if I was, he couldn’t hear me over is own yelling. Things are on the brink of physical violence. I decide that I should pay him the 30 Rs that he wants rather than let things get really nasty. Then I go on a long walk to cool myself off. Only problem is that its at least 42 degrees C by this time, and I only keep getting hotter, physically and mentally. I only have 20 Rs left so I can’t buy water to rehydrate or I’ll have almost nothing to get back to the ashram with. There’s not an ATM around for quite a distance. On top of that, my cell service credit ran out on the call with Kiran.
Dehydrated, wet, and still angry, I find a shady nook to sit down. Finally, I’m able to dissolve some of the anger. I get up and hail a rickshaw.
“I want to go to Gandhi Ashram. I have only 20 Rs.”
The guys shakes his hand at me and drives off. Other interesting responses from different drivers included laughter and to add insult to injury, the warm and hopeful “Nobody will take you for 20 Rs. Hahahahaha”
Of course, if I was truly composed, I would have realized that I could have just hopped in without telling them how much I had and then have someone at the ashram make up the difference.
Finally somebody takes pity on me and says that I can get a shared rickshaw near the bus stand. I head off in that direction in the baking sun. About a kilometer later, nobody at the bus stand knows where the shared rickshaws leave from. So I ask the bus station attendant which bus goes to Gandhi Ashram.
I wait. And I wait. And I eye the chilled water for sale nearby, wishing I could soothe my parched throat with wild wet gulps. And I wait. And the ice cream guy tries to sell me something but I just stare, probably from dehydration and anger induced insanity. And I wait. Why doesn’t the train station have a clock? I wait. Shouldn’t there be a time-table posted somewhere? Wait. I try and connect on a deeper level to how cold the world becomes when you’ve got no money, but I’m still too angry and imbalanced to do that. So I wait. Does time go slower when you’re miserable? I wait. Finally I get up and ask the attendant if there are any other busses that go to the ashram.
“Yeah, that one…” he says as he points to a bus that has just departed.
This doesn’t help my anger. I get up and decide that today is the day that I self-incinerate. I walk off into the sun, deciding that I just don’t care anymore. Rickshaw drivers make there characteristic “chtttt” sound at me, trying to woo me into their vehicles, but I just stare ahead and walk off. After about the 10th driver, one driver starts following me, insistent upon turning me into a customer.
“Look, I’ve only got 20 Rs. Go away.”
“No problem. I’ll pick up other people.”
After I get in, he says, “People like you never have only 20 Rs.” As if I’m Daddy Warbucks. I’m too mad to explain.
We buzz off and pick up 6, yes 6 more people to share the ride with me back to the ashram. People get off and pay 2-3 Rs for their ride. Finally its my turn.
“What? This was a shared ride.”
“You agreed to twenty before hand.” I didn’t, I just told him that that is how much I had. I’m too worn for another fight, so I give him the rest of my money and head into the ashram, broke, wet, and mad.
I had failed in so many ways throughout the whole experience. The biggest failure was that I had lost my temper, all over less than a dollar. I’ve let hundreds slip away without batting an eye and yet I was burning myself up over a lousy buck. The other obvious failure was that I didn’t accomplish my mission, simple as it was, and now had to apologize to the ladies who were counting on me to complete this minor task with major implications.
I mentally prepared myself for handling any similar circumstances much better.
In my experience, it has seemed that so many situations have felt like tests. When I fail the test, I keep getting hit with harder version of the same test until I learn my lesson and “pass”, after which I’m never again plagued with that problem.
Today might have been the day I got my harder test.
Left my hotel without eating breakfast or lunch, somehow thinking that I would eat near Bangkok’s Grand Palace. Along the way, I was thinking about a point that probably Yaniv contributed to last week’s meditation discussion wherein Gurunath is quoted as saying that when good things happen, its a fruit ripening, and when bad things happen, its a opportunity to let go and grow; therefore its all good.
I thought about a recent string of good things happening: randomly getting to see Smita in Delhi, randomly seeing Jen in Bangkok, randomly meeting her friends the next day at the skytrain station. And then I thought about potential “bad” things… things that would give me an opportunity to let go. Thinking back on this journey so far, I thought about how much I’ve relied on money. Yet internally, I don’t feel like I have much attachment to money so was slightly disappointed in myself for some of the experiences on the trip, the above included. I decided that loosing my wallet would be one such opportunity to let go of the attachment to money. Still I shrugged off that thought, reasoning that the only way I would lose my wallet was if I was pickpocketed, and that was nearly impossible since I myself had trouble getting my wallet out of my own front pocket. Not that I wear tight jeans, its just so incredibly hot and humid here, making everything so sticky.
Anyways, off to the Grand Palace. Nothing seems so spectacular on a famished stomach. The Royal Residence had no place to buy water, so dehydration was a factor as well. To my chagrin, all the restaurants near the Palace were street vendors selling miscellaneous skewered vermin of the sea. So I lumbered along in a daze like a zombie, probably with glazed eyes through the whole afternoon. Lethargy would be an understatement.
Caught a riverboat back to Saipan Taksin to ride the skytrain to a place I’ve been wanting to try out near Chit Lom. Bought my ticket at Saipan and managed to fall asleep for about 5 minutes on the train ride to Chit Lom. As I leave the station, suddenly I realize that my wallet has been lifted off of me.
First thought: disbelief.
Second thought: wow. congratulations theif. truly impressive given that I had difficulty removing my wallet myself.
Third thought: report it to the train officials.
These guys have difficultly with English, and end up taking down most of the wrong information such that it nearly impossible for them to contact me if it turns up.
Fourth thought: U.S. Embassy. Luckily its fairly close by– 20 minute by foot. Along the way, I think of how energized I’ve become despite (no food and little liquid) by losing my wallet and having a misson that is greater than site-seeing. Somehow, I’m slightly thankful. I also reflect on how I seem to be handling this really well.
Turns out the U.S. Embassy is no help. They don’t even let me inside. I talk to some bureaucrat on a telephone passed through one of those dipped bank windows with bulletproof glass on top. He tells me that the embassy has a host of services, none of which are useful to me right now. I basically just need someone to convert a cashier’s check to Thai baht, but everything is closed on a Sunday night. I’ve got a total of 9 baht in my pocket, not even enough for a motorcycle taxi. Embassy dude tells me to report it to the police, and go to the Conrad hotel to exchange currency. Could he have been less useful? Yes, so I thank him and move on. He tells me to call him if I have any problems with the folks at the Conrad, as if he’s going to use his diplomatic influence or something. Hello, I’ve got no money to call you with, but whatever.
Thai police turn out the be rather useless. The guy “taking my report” was playing soccer on his laptop while interacting with me. Took down lots of useless information on paper, then finally paused his game, entered it into the computer and printed a page out. Page goes over to some other guy who is the “keeper of the daily reports” and all he does is commit the printed page back to paper by writing it out again in his report book, while watching the Thai equivalent of candid camera. One hour after entering the police station, all I had was a piece of paper with my report written in Thai. Still, I wasn’t upset… but I wasn’t amused either.
At the Conrad, they won’t take my travelers check because i don’t have a room there. I tell them to call my friend at the U.S. Embassy, but after they see that the number he gave me is a cell number, they want to charge me 25 baht per minute to use the phone. I tell them my wallet has been stolen, and I can only pay that after they’ve processed my TC. No dice. They ask if I have any U.S. dollar bills. I remind them that my wallet has been stolen. As they are begin to feel a bit guilty about how their stupid policy and small circular minds have kept me in a rather screwed state, I walk out.
A corner shop turns out to be friendly enough to let me use his phone to call the U.S. Embassy. I tell my helpful buddy that Conrad is useless, and that I still need to get some money, yet seem out of options.
“I still think you can find something.”
Yeah right, at 9pm on a Sunday night. I knew he was useless after my talk with him at the embassy, but I wanted him recognize and acknowledge that I was up shit creek. And I admit, I wanted him to feel bad for doing nothing to help. So in my cheeriest voice, I say,
“Thanks! I’ll keep fishing.” And then abruptly I hang up.
The shop guy tells me I should try some night market nearby. Along the way, I think of how screwed I would be if someone stole my passport or my plane ticket. I mentally prepare to get mugged. And then I mentally prepare to die. If tonight is my last night, then dammit I’ll go out in a good way. I cheer myself up and laugh a little at how the universe seems to have responded very quickly to my thought about not getting pickpocketed and losing attachment to money.
I manage to find the market after about an hour’s walk. They have a bank that reluctantly cashes my traveller’s check. More baht than I can use before my Hong Kong flight. Unfortunately, the market doesn’t seem to have much vegetarian fare, and I’m starving after my day-long fast. I buy some juice at one restaurant, then manage to get another restaurant to make vegetarian pad thai (which I thought should have been much easier than it was). Forty-five minutes later my food comes, but I don’t have a fork. I decide not to ask for one. Five minutes later, someone brings me one. Exhausted, I dig in but its not satisfy. I pay, and walk to about 2 km to the nearest skytrain station to come back to the hotel. Along the way, I purchase a 300 baht international calling card so that I can inform my banks to cancel my credit cards, atm cards, etc. End up on hold long enough to exhaust most of my credit without quite finishing my task. Bank of America is still fumbling around as my time runs out. I suppose credit card or ATM fraud would part me with more of my money. More importantly, I had planned thousands of dollars of purchases while in Hong Kong. Don’t have enough traveller’s check for that kind of heavy consumerism. No ATM card or credit card means buying power is limited. Don’t even have enough in traveller’s checks to buy the laptop I want, or buy my ticket back to the U.S., much less back to India.
Yes, I’m screwed. But I’m remarkably composed. Have I learned my lesson? I don’t know… I don’t think the test is over.
Maybe the U.S. Embassy in Hong Kong will do something for me when they realize that I’m stranded there.
There may be some hope here in Bangkok as well. When I got to Thailand, Roopal asked me to look up a friend of hers at the U.S. State Department. Guess I have more than one reason to call him now. I’m guessing that he’s a former lawyer, and now a high-powered something-else. Also, there is a Bank of America in Bangkok and I have my checkbook on me. Maybe I can get them to give me traveller’s checks in exchange for a personal check.
Either way, fear not my beloved peeps. If I pass this test, you will see me alive another day. If I fail this test, I know I’ll have to be back, in this life or the next, to learn my lesson. And I’ll see you then.
Universe: Bring It On.