Bhanged Up Abroad
A small frame stretched up and peered into my bed with inquisitive eyes as the Aravalli Range whipped past through the window behind him. He was a dabbawala – a lunchbox delivery man – and he couldn’t have come at a better time.
For several weeks now, I had been traipsing across the Indian state of Rajasthan with Paige, a fiery pixie of a woman from Byron Bay. Our trip to Udaipur, the ethereally beautiful city of lakes, had coincided with Diwali: an exuberant Hindu festival of light renowned for its 24-hour firework displays.
After several sleepless nights and days spent dodging firecracker-throwing children, Paige and I were feeling a little shell shocked, so booked a train 300km north-west to Ajmer. From there, our plan was to get a ride to the lakeside city of Pushkar in an attempt to relax our overworked adrenal glands.
In pursuit of this desire, before leaving Udaipur, we filled our drink bottles with some bhang chai from a local vendor: a surprisingly tasty combination of masala tea, milk and cannabis. Bhang, a ground paste made from marijuana leaves and stems, has been approved for sale by the Rajasthani government and is even said to have the blessing of Lord Shiva.
Not one to argue with politics or religion, we figured it would make our five-and-a-half-hour train journey even more pleasant than usual.
Snuggled into freshly washed sheets in top bunk beds opposite each other in a rickety sleeper carriage, Paige and I were very much at ease, and were just coming into the peak of our high when the dabbawala stopped by.
“Dinner?” he repeated. Behind her turquoise-rimmed glasses, Paige’s pupils had pooled as large as mine.
“Two vegetarian thali,” I slowly replied.
From the bunk beneath me came a voice. “Do you girls want Domino’s instead?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“If you would prefer western food, I can order you a pizza,” offered my bunkmate with a head wobble. “It will be no problem. Someone will deliver it to the train by 8pm.”
My mouth hung open as I struggled to process his futuristic suggestion.
“Oh wow! Um… Sure,” Paige chirped.
I knew it was the bhang talking; there was no way Paige came to India to eat Domino’s – even when it would essentially materialise onto our moving train.
“Nah, let’s stick with the veg thali,” I said. “Thank you, but we actually love Indian food.”
The rest of the trip to Ajmer passed in a lovely haze of warm dahl, gentle naps and partnered toilet visits, and when the phone alarm I’d set for 10:25pm went off, we rose from our beds and got off at the station we rightly figured to be ours.
I couldn’t help but giggle a bit as we moved across the platforms into the throngs of people huddled around the exit. Sure, I was functional, but I felt a lot like a giant slug with a head full of fairy floss wearing a backpack. Ajmer was by far the biggest Indian city we’d been in so far.
A young man approached us through the chaos. He was attractive and mean-looking, surrounded by a clad of other drivers who stared at him agog. It was clear he was the alpha of the crew. I briefly wondered whether he had been a bully at school.
“We actually do need a lift, yeah. To Pushkar,” I replied, glancing around to see if anyone less forceful was going to offer us a ride.
He insisted on charging us 600 rupees, the equivalent of $12, which we knew to be double what it should cost. None of the drivers around him dared undercut his price. Paige tried unsuccessfully to bargain, but my brain couldn’t be bothered to haggle, so I sighed and got in the rickshaw.
“Okay, we’ll pay you 600.”
“Why didn’t you barter?” Paige hissed. I shrugged and she rolled her eyes.
In our relatively vast experience with rickshaws and tuktuks across Asia, our driver was the wildest Paige and I had ever encountered. He sped the whole way, pushing his engine to its limits, flying over potholes and speed bumps and taking corners so aggressively that we wondered if we’d tip over.
Not usually one to panic, I double checked the progress of our ride on my phone’s maps application. Satisfied we were going in the right direction, I slipped my mobile back into my bag, and when the driver lit up a cigarette and the smoke blew back in our faces, Paige and I laughed giddily.
Half an hour into the journey, I estimated that we had 10 minutes to go. We were on a dusty highway: a wide empty street on the outskirts of a town. The unshouldered road was lined with what looked like hardware stores, and it was very, very dark. There were no streetlights and no other traffic.
Then our rickshaw slowed down and skidded to a halt without any warning. Like moths, eight men flocked to us. They clambered onto the front and sides of the vehicle and stared with hyena-like expressions.
We said nothing; I clutched my bag to my chest.
“There’s a tax for visitors,” said one, licking his lips.
The men got closer.
“You’re foreigners. Not locals. Foreigners must pay us a tax.”
After a drawn-out silence, Paige handed over a note. One of the men took it and presented her with two small pieces of paper. He did not give us change.
The tension did not ease, nor did the lecherousness. More men crept over to our rickshaw.
“Where are you from, girls?”
“We’ve paid the tax. Can you please take us to our hostel?” Paige asked the driver. I glanced at my phone. Nearly midnight.
The men continued to lean and leer. Our driver smirked ahead, refusing to look back and engage with us as the gaggle of men slyly peppered us with questions.
“It’s really late. We’d like to go,” I reiterated.
“What’s the rush?” the driver said lazily, kicking his feet onto the steering wheel.
By now, we had probably been pulled over for at least five minutes. In desperation, I looked around at where we were, looked for a woman or a concerned looking shop attendant to call out to for help. More people were slinking to the shadowed doorways of the buildings around us to see what was going on. They were all men too. We were surrounded.
All of a sudden, everyone drew back from the car jeering, except for one. Clad in a red turban, he swung himself around to sit in the front passenger seat and trailed his hand around the back of the chair so that his fingers skimmed dangerously close to my tightly clenched knees.
The rickshaw took off.
“I asked you where you’re from, girls,” said the newcomer with a slimy look. “It’s rude to not reply. What are your names?”
It was clear he was taking great pleasure in our discomfort.
“Paige,” said Paige, her voice wavering slightly and an idea forming in her head. “This is Rebecca.”
“Rebecca,” I echoed faintly. With quivering hands, I took my phone back out and, in my lap, started dialling the international calling code for Australia.
“Can you please take us to our accommodation? We’re staying at Zostel,” Paige lied, knowing full well we had a booking somewhere else.
“Sure. Zostel,” cackled the driver.
A kilometre or so ahead of us glittered a mass of lights – the town of Pushkar and our salvation. We began to putter down the main road towards it, picking up speed. Relief flooded my limbs. But it was short lived.
Less than a minute later, the driver took a sharp left down a coal-black alleyway. Our headlights shone on the brick wall rushing towards us; clouds of dust billowed in the air, causing us to squint. Paige and I were certain it was dead end.
I dialled my dad’s mobile number. It didn’t work. I dialled it again.
The mobile number you have called is currently unavailable.
At the end of the alley, instead of ricocheting off the wall, the rickshaw took a hairpin right turn and rumbled dangerously into a dark compound. The road was unsealed, uneven and twisted like a corkscrew. Though we could barely make out what was around us, I was sure it was industrial, not residential. We seemed to be inside a high barbed-wire fence surrounded on all sides with sheds and factories. Nothing was lit, and there wasn’t a human in sight.
“Stop the car! Stop the car now!” I commanded hysterically.
The man in the turban tossed back his head and laughed cruelly. Then he reached back and patted my thigh. I shrank into the corner of the seat.
As we teetered around a walled corner, I made mental calculations about what we would need to do to escape. Jump out and run on the next left bend, I thought. Leave our bags. But how would Paige go jumping out on the inside of a turn? Plus, the darkness was thick as wool, and we were now several minutes deep into an industrial maze that would be impossible to navigate quickly or even at all if we were being pursued.
Whatever the outcome was going to be, I was sure it would be grim. Each bone in my body shrieked with alarm, fuelled to the extreme by bhang-induced paranoia. As we drove past towering black warehouses, images of robbery at best, sexual violence and death at worst fluttered in my mind’s eye.
“Take us to Zostel! Take us to Zostel” we screeched. I looked at Paige. The look she gave me was excruciating.
I stuck one leg out of the car, ready to drag it on the ground, and dialled my parents’ home phone number.
It rang. Where they were, it would have been 5am.
“Gem?” answered my sleep-filled mother.
“We’re in a tuktuk halfway between Ajmer and Pushkar,” I said in as loud and clear a voice as I could manage. “The driver is supposed to take us to our hostel, but men have climbed into our car and we’re in an industrial area on the outskirts of a city. We don’t know where they’re taking us and they won’t let us out. Stay on the phone.”
The man in the turban looked back at us and said something to the driver. He looked back too, and swore. Then he slowed down and the passenger leapt out of the rickshaw.
“Take us to our accommodation!” I shouted. “Take us there now.”
“Gem? What’s happening?” came my mother’s frantic voice through the phone.
“Yes,” he barked.
A few more turns and another surge of adrenaline later, we were out of the industrial area and back on the dusty highway, once again headed towards the lights.
When our driver pulled up under a tree near Zostel, on wobbly legs, Paige and I stumbled inside.
“Our rickshaw driver…” I panted. My lips were quivering so much I could barely articulate my words. “That wasn’t normal… we think our driver was going to hurt us.”
The man behind the desk looked bemused. Paige shoved 600 rupees in my hand and gestured to the door. The driver had turned his vehicle around and was in the gloom on the edge of the driveway, poised ready to re-enter the road and trying to stay hidden from the line of vision of the hostel employee. I walked over to him clutching the money, ears thumping in rage and fright.
“I make you scared,” he sniggered.
I threw a 500-rupee note down on the back seat.
“Fuck you. That is not okay to do to people.”
“It’s 600,” he said, and narrowed his eyes.
I thought about how identifiable Paige and I were as tourists in this tiny town – a large blonde and a woman with a shaved head – and decided to toss the other hundred at him.
Back inside the hostel lobby, the night-shift employee seemed to think our concerns rested on the fact that we had been overcharged.
“300 rupees, not 600,” he explained.
“We’re not even staying here. We need to get to another hostel down the road. Can you help us please?”
“I’ll call a rickshaw.”
“No,” I said faintly. “Can we get a taxi?”
Seeming to finally cotton on to our mania, he phoned us a lift, guaranteeing us the driver was his friend and that we would be safe.
As we stepped through the door of our actual booked accommodation, there was a soft clunk, and all of the electricity in Pushkar went out.
“Hello?” we called.
A woman came forward to greet us clutching a phone light. Instantly, she realised how shaken we were. Genuinely alarmed, she listened to our recount and whispered words of comfort.
“It is extremely lucky you phoned someone. You are tourists; they wouldn’t have expected your mobile to be working here. They would have thought you were calling the police.”
She clicked her tongue at her male partner and relayed the conversation in Hindi. In response, he shook his head.
“Sorry for that,” he offered. “It is late, and you came from Ajmer.”
With an outstretched hand, he offered us the handle of a dog lead attached to a panting Labrador.
“Ask the dog any questions and he will help you. His name is Google.”
Paige and I laughed weakly and collapsed onto the floor.