I’d broken my own cardinal rule: never get in the tuk tuk.
It’d been the most frustrating day in India so far, worse than when I cracked my head open. I’d arrived in Jaipur early in the morning, wandering through its pink streets and visiting the majestic Hawa Mahal. But for some unwanted reason, wherever I went, I became the centre of attention.
This had started the moment I’d left the hostel. A car had pulled over and the driver invited me to a party. “Some foreigners will make my party better. We have meat and alcohol!” he winked. Unwilling to play the role of jester, I thanked him, but said no.
I continued walking, but was followed by a man for 10 minutes straight. He matched my pace, pestering me for a tour. “I take you to see elephants!” he yelled. I politely declined, but he wouldn’t go away. Eventually I boarded a bus, which he unsuccessfully tried to block me from entering.
What the hell was going on? As I hopped off the bus, a man approached me, asking whether I’d have a chai with him. How lovely, I thought, a local interaction. We sat down and started chatting, drinking the hot tea.
We’d talked for almost 20 minutes, and I was starting to really like the guy, when the conversation had an awkward pause. Looking at the ground, the man asked, “will you lend me $1,000?” Shocked by his forwardness, I gave a curt no. He threw his chai onto the road, narrowly missing a speeding motorbike. “You pay for my tea then!” he screamed.
I paid and left, feeling a little shaken. After snacking on a samosa, another man asked me if I wanted to share some chai. I’ll give it another shot, I thought. But with tedious inevitability, the conversation ended with a request. “Please,” he said to me, “I want a new guitar.” I couldn’t believe that another person was hoping to take advantage of me. I walked away, ignoring the next man who approached me with his hand outstretched.
The sun was out in force by now so I hid in some shade. I then felt a tickling in the back of my head and turned to see a guy touching my hair. Aghast, I escaped down a crowded side street. In the middle of the road was a slick purple ball. A dog with heavy teats lay mournfully beside it, not moving for the speeding motorbikes. As I got closer I realised that the ball was actually a stillborn puppy.
Further along, an old lady was picking through a mountain of garbage. Black sewage flowed beside it. As I got my bearings, a truck nearly ran me over, filled with crying chickens that smelt so bad I almost vomited.
This was no place to linger, so I was dismayed to reach the end of the street and find a truly biblical traffic jam. A wall of vehicles was squeezed across the whole road, motorbikes even blocking the sidewalk.
I got stuck in the morass. Like a ship trapped in ice, I couldn’t move forwards or backwards. Two boys started laughing at me and taking photos. Mentally and physically exhausted, this was when I made my big mistake.
“Nice hair bro. Want a ride? It’s free,” said the passenger of a tuk tuk beside me. The sun was melting the road and it was a 7 km walk back to my hostel. Before I could answer, he grabbed my arm and pulled me in. Well, let’s see where this goes, I decided.
“What are you doing?” I asked him, as we waited for the traffic to move. “I’m on holiday from my diamond business in Mumbai,” he replied. I clocked his bare feet, dirty hair and old Nokia mobile. Sure, I thought to myself.
Then it was question time for me, the sort of items you always ask someone when first meeting them. Are you married? Why not, are you gay? Do you have sisters? Are they married? Where do they live? What’s your job? What’s your father’s job? How much money do you have? No, in your wallet?
The tuk tuk broke free from the traffic as he asked the final question, “are you here alone?” Yes I was, but his quick glance at the driver made me pause. “I’m here with a friend who’s sick at the hostel,” I lied. He thought about this before replying, “which hostel?”
Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, I wanted to get out of the tuk tuk, but we were now flying along the road. “I can’t remember where the hostel is,” I said, not even convincing myself. “Well, we can’t let you go until you tell us where you’re staying.” Shit, I thought.
Using a different tack, the driver spoke up, “I feel like you don’t trust us.” “Um, of course I do,” I stammered over the two-stroke engine. The driver’s eyes stared back from the rearview mirror. “You need to open your heart and mind brother. We just want to know where you’re staying so we can check that your friend is ok.”
Well, you can’t make someone trust you by ordering them to do it. This was a classic case of telling and not showing. “Look, I’m really busy tonight, but we could do something tomorrow?” I offered, with no intention of following through.
The guys started violently jabbering to each other in Hindi. We reached a big roundabout and the driver slammed on the brakes as a bus almost ended us. I used this opportunity to escape, jumping onto the road while hearing shouts behind me. But the tuk tuk was faster and cut me off. They both got, anger in their eyes.
“Have you never heard that guest is god in India?” the guy said. “You have to start trusting us. We’ll take you to your hostel.” But there’s no way I’m getting trapped in that tuk tuk again.
An idea forms in my mind. “Pick me up from here tomorrow, and then we can go party.” They look at each other, before agreeing. I shake their hands while they make me promise to meet here tomorrow. “You’d better be telling the truth. If you are lying, we will find you,” the guy says, refusing to let my hand go as he stares into my eyes.
Walking away with my heart pounding, I never see that roundabout again. As I turn off the main road, a guy comes over to me, “let’s have a chai brother?”
I continued straight past him.