Tracking the Exchange Rate of my Trust
Content warning: themes of sexual assault
In the winter of New Delhi, the birds of prey drew imaginary circles below the smog; they wouldn’t be seeing blue for a long time. The buildings that surrounded my hotel were hungover, power lines strewn over their stocky bodies like streamers at the end of a party. The horizon was heavy and vast, the streets siphoned activity from block to block with the incessant howling of horns and growling engines.
I never got truly acquainted with India’s capital, but the hotel bathroom and I were inseparable. They don’t call it Delhi Belly for nothing. But much like toilet paper, the rupees in my money-belt were dwindling; it was time to step outside and find an ATM.
I must admit I was nervous: watching India’s Daughter wasn’t the smartest move for getting pumped up to travel this part of the world. I had only just left the building when I encountered the familiar feeling of being followed. From my peripherals, I spotted the rickshaw driver. He was barely crawling as he gestured to me with big waving hands.
Imagining cartoon dollar signs in place of his eyes, I changed my pace from dehydrated-and-fatigued to hurry-up-before-you-shit-your-pants. But the longer I ignored him, the more he persisted. This carried on for some time, until I realised that I had no idea where I was going.
It was in that moment the feeling seized my gut.
“Get in the rickshaw,” it told me.
My gut and I were on good speaking terms and it has proved me right before, so I did. I stepped in, shouting the word “ATM” like a tourist. When I confirmed that he had put the meter on, I settled into writing my own eulogy in the back seat. A minute later, he pulled up by an ATM around the corner, waiting patiently as I refuelled my wallet and faith in humanity.
The hotel in sight, I was touched by the fact he hadn’t ripped me off, so prepared some extra notes as a tip. But when he pulled up by my hotel, he shook his head in refusal.
“No money,” he insisted.
Me, the classic foreigner, assumed that he didn’t understand and continued to do the awkward “take my money” dance. It was useless. I ended up saying “denyavada” too many times (the word for thank-you in the wrong dialect) and left. I can’t remember what he looks like now, but he taught me that not all strange men are advantageous.
Two winters later I was in Athens, sinking Mythos with a fellow traveller on our hostel’s balcony. Every so often, we stopped to peer over the railing at the acropolis glowing from its VIP box. His name was Jan. It had been a week since we first met, having already made our way through Thessaloniki’s old town maze and the monasteries that roost on the cliffs of Meteora. He was lanky, with traveller’s stubble to compensate for his thin blonde hair. His eyes were blue; they drooped like a retriever’s. He wore his Norwegian nationality on a collar; when hostel-goers were drawn in by his charm they would check it to see where he was from. I liked him straight away.
We were playing ‘Never Have I Ever’ when he came to a shy stop in the banter.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’m not sure if I should ask this one.”
“Do it anyway.”
“Never have I ever kissed an Australian.”
Needless to say, he ticked that one off his bucket list.
We started to gain confidence and lose clothes. I was part-way through drafting the encounter in my head for my friends back at home when we discovered that neither of us had a condom. We stopped there, settling for spooning each-other from either side of the line I had drawn.
The next day, I peeled myself from my nocturnal friend to explore the city. I bounced from cat-infested temples to the romping grounds of ancient philosophers with that post-hook-up buzz that has the power to turn a day into a montage. Jan and I had agreed to meet again in the evening at Lycabettus Hill. We watched the city disappear into the gold-tipped shadows. Many ouzos later, we bookended the day back in his dorm, making out “discreetly” under the covers. Again, no condom, but I was content without sex. Besides, my gut and I knew Jan would never —
We were wrong. My gut fumbled through the vital seconds to sound the alarm, calling to the rest of me through the drunken fog. In response, I did what I had been trained to do my whole life: nothing. Nothing and use a shit-tonne of bleach for the lies I was to recite to myself.
It took months to understand why I had to sleep facing the wall so I could cry that night. Jan taught me that nice guys can still put blindfolds on.
Earlier that year, I was on a tour-bus arriving at Erg Chebbi. It was day five of the trip, which meant we were scheduled to camp under the Moroccan sky. And what a sky it was; the moon was giving the sun a run for its money as it abandoned the stars to spill white light over the desert. Our tour group had dug itself into a crest of a dune, singing with a token guitar through red wine. We pushed the sand around with our bare feet like liquid. Eventually, the others decided to go to sleep, but I was on full charge from whatever power outlet was coming from this eerie paradise. I needed to be in the Sahara a while longer, so I walked down to join the resting camels.
“¿Eres la chica kangaroo?” A tour guide whose voice I recognised came up to me, his face shadowed by the large indigo turban sitting on his head.
“Sí, soy la Australiana,” I laughed.
He introduced himself properly as Hassan before rolling a cigarette.
We exchanged all our English tokens for Spanish ones, breaking our words into small pieces so we could digest each other’s stories. He told me of his family, his mother’s passing, years of being a lonely nomad with a flock of sheep. It was the tourist’s desire to take camel-riding selfies that saved his life, which boomed in sync with the industry.
“Over there is Bob Marley, he’s the big boss,” Hassan said in Spanish. The alpha camel batted his lashes at us, like he knew the ring through his nose was a status symbol. Hassan put his cigarette out in the sand.
“You want to ride him?” My gut stood up, alert: this was the precursor for a 60 Minutes headline about the Australian girl that disappeared into the desert. Yet although the thought erred me on the side of caution, I didn’t feel in danger.
“Por qué no?” I replied. Why not?
I hopped onto Marley´s surprisingly comfortable back, as Hassan pulled a tattered rope that rocked the mammal to life.
The three of us walked through the sandy quiet for the most part, only to be broken by Hassan saying, “Man, you Australians have the best music,” before proceeding to play Angus and Julia’s ´Mango Tree´ from his cheap phone speakers. I was pinching myself.
I don´t know what Hassan was looking for, most of the dunes looked the same to me, but he found a spot with dry grass to park Marley.
“Race you to the top!” he said, already gunning it. Up there we shared cigarettes and badly-translated riddles that would have left J. R. R. Tolkien cringing.
“Try on my turban,” he insisted, wrapping it around my head. He laughed at my naivety as I unfurled it. It was almost sunrise.
“I think it’s time I go back to camp.”
“Sí.” Hassan agreed, and that was exactly where he took me. He taught me that men are capable of asking for nothing in return for friendship.
Three men walked into the life that I manage. One helped me, one hurt me and one inspired me. For a long time, I framed my memories of them with “Lucky idiot”, “Don’t do what I did”, or the insidious whisper of “I should have known”. On the good nights, I’d rewind and hit play on my memories of their strange kindness. On bad ones, I traced hand-written apologies onto my skin. Yet, in the end, it was I that taught myself that it’s not up to me to know who to trust. None of us should be held to that.
Cover by Nischal Masand
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