I traveled to Jaipur—the pink capital of India’s desert state of Rajasthan—alone. It was my second time in the city, my third in the country, but my first time entirely on my own. I arrived too early to check into my hotel, so I dropped off my bags and decided to launch right into the city’s tourist hub.
I’d come to know India well on two previous lengthy trips, and I was now back conducting research. I had gained confidence in the country, partly because before I had always traveled with a man. I had learned how to navigate the streets, stride confidently, and demand the treatment I felt entitled to. This time though, I was on my own.
At the gates of my hotel I was approached by a young autorickshaw-wallah who asked a reasonable price, so I clambered into the back of his green and yellow vehicle.
He asked where I came from, looking up to meet my eye in the mirror as he spoke. I told him. “Oh, I have never met anyone from New Zealand before! Maybe you don’t travel much?”
I laughed. “No, New Zealanders travel a lot, but we have a very small population. There aren’t many of us.”
“I’m sorry,” he replied seriously, as though a small national population was cause for commiseration.
After a few moments of silence as we careened around a still-awakening Jaipur, he proudly announced: “Madam, I am an astro-healer.” I smirked to myself and wondered if I was going to get a new-age lecture. “Do you know you drink too much milk?”
We had an amusing conversation that jumped from topic to topic, with no apparent connecting thread. My driver was a man of many talents; he was not just an autorickshaw-wallah and astro-healer, but a painter of classical-style miniatures too, training under one of Rajasthan’s best gurus. He told me he was planning a trip to Thailand in the coming months to exhibit his work. He’d also had a string of foreign girlfriends, with whom he’d travelled all over India.
I didn’t believe a word of it, but he seemed harmless, charged a reasonable price, spoke very good English (apparently learned from his girlfriends), and was fun to chat with. So we arranged for him to drive me around for the rest of my week in Jaipur.
As I got out to leave his auto on that first day, he stuck out his hand for me to shake. “I’m Rishi,” he said. I took it, but thought that he wouldn’t have done that with an Indian girl.
The next morning I met Jack, a young Australian, over breakfast on my hotel’s rooftop that overlooked the crumbling ramparts of a minor fort. We were heading in the same direction, so I invited him to share my auto.
“Jack!” exclaimed Rishi. “I think my cousin took you yesterday. He said he had a passenger called Jack.”
I could only imagine the complex auto-driver networks, the grapevines along which they spread their stories and rates of pay. I’d always derived comfort from knowing that one couldn’t simply disappear without a trace in India: someone, everyone, would have seen you along the way.
“It’s a small world sometimes,” said Rishi.
“Many coincidences,” Jack and I politely agreed from the cramped back seat.
“Once, I picked up an American girl, and she was friends with my ex-wife’s sister!”
I spluttered out a laugh. Rishi looked all of twenty-two. He glared at me in the mirror.
“You look too young to have an ex-wife,” I explained.
“Really? I was married to Britney from Milwaukee. She was on holiday in Jaipur and I saw her walking on the street. Oh my god, it was love at first sight! Three days love, fourth day marriage.” He dragged his eyes back to the road.
I couldn’t control my incredulous laughter. Rishi fell silent.
“I think you’ve offended him,” Jack whispered. I shrugged. I thought that those who made up such wild stories deserved to be laughed at.
“Why are you laughing?” Rishi asked, after a while.
“Oh, I’m not laughing at you,” I explained, rather unconvincingly. “It’s just very romantic. Where’s Britney now?”
“We got divorced. I wanted to go to America but it was too difficult. She couldn’t keep coming here on holiday, so we got a divorce. But our wedding made it into the media.”
“Very romantic,” I giggled.
He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the trip, but by the time we met again later that day he had thawed. He picked me up and dropped me off for the next few days. I enjoyed talking with him. He told me about his two sisters, one older, one younger. The elder was training to be a police officer, the younger was still at school. Their father was dead so Rishi, the only son, supported the family. I knew he was telling the truth about this. I was impressed, because all too often in India daughters forgo any chance of education so that the son can be sent to the best school the family can afford.
One morning, when I had somewhere to be quite early, he took me into town by a different route. I didn’t notice at first because we were chatting. He pulled up to a small building in an alley and turned off the engine. My blood started pumping in my ears.
“Welcome to my house!” he said, jumping out and taking the keys.
I began to shake, warnings rushing at me: Where am I? What is he doing? Nobody knows where I am. How do I get out of this?
I couldn’t let him see how afraid I’d suddenly become. Don’t let attackers see your fear, it excites them, I remembered.
“But Rishi, I have a meeting in five minutes!” I pleaded in what I hoped were calm tones.
He grinned, clearly sensing my discomfort, and pointed to the end of the alley. “Just go down there and turn left, the café for your meeting is just there. You’ll see it. I brought you this way because the main road is blocked off today.” He took the keys out of the auto’s ignition and walked towards a small building with peeling paint. “Do you like my house?”
I laughed and swatted him on the arm, relieved. As I ran off down the alley I forgot to pay him. I reminded him that evening, handing over the rupee notes. “It’s OK, I knew where to find you,” he said. I was already a part of Jaipur’s network.
At the end of the week, once he dropped me off at my hotel for the last time, we promised to stay in touch. I didn’t really believe it, but we’d had some good laughs so I didn’t object when he grabbed my notebook and wrote his phone number and email address inside. He’d been entertaining, good company.
That evening, I reflected on the outrageous stories he’d told me: of his foreign girlfriends, his trip to Bangkok, of his marriage to Britney from Milwaukee. I admired his storytelling skills, even if what came out was nonsense.
I finished catching up on my emails and, on a whim, decided to look him up online. After all, he’d petulantly assured me that he’d been big news.
I didn’t expect to find what I did. The man in the Hindi news clip was bearded, but undeniably him. A beautiful young white woman—adorned in a red and gold bridal sari, glittering jewels and heavy makeup—bent to touch the feet of her new mother-in-law, a sign of utmost respect and subservience. The couple received gifts of money. He told the reporters of how he’d seen her from his auto and asked her to share a cup of tea with him. She turned him down three times, but eventually agreed. And here they were, married. Indian men are nothing if not persistent.
I was ashamed of my cynicism. I judged Rishi on appearances. He was a driver, so from a lower socio-economic background. I had thought he wasn’t capable of the things he’d told me he’d done. I vowed to be less hard-hearted in the future, to try to recognize the good in people, be more open about myself, and not to cut people off with quick judgment.
The next week I was working in Delhi, a city I knew well. One evening, I went to a talk at the upmarket Habitat Centre, in Lutyens’ manicured, straight-streeted New Delhi. I arrived early because I needed to use the ATM there. It was out of money. I stood outside, weighing my options. I really needed cash, but I didn’t know where else to get it in this part of the city. And I didn’t want to wander around alone at dusk. An attractive young man in a suit—who resembled Hindi film actor Akshay Kumar—also tried in vain to use the ATM.
“That’s annoying,” he muttered, catching my eye. I asked if he knew of another ATM nearby. He explained that there was one a few blocks away, but I mentioned that I didn’t have time because I was supposed to be at a talk in half an hour. He asked what it was about, and as I started to explain, he suggested I tell him over a coffee. I had half an hour to kill, and the coffee shop was right there. I had resolved to be more trusting of the people I met on my travels. So I agreed.
He bought me a nimbu pani, lime water. As I fed him a version of the story of what I was doing in India—studying women’s literature—he told me that he was also interested in books. Yes, he was reading the biography of an Indian entrepreneur who had made millions. It’s fascinating, the way that books can…
I stopped listening. He was really forcing it. I realized that he was boring, and that despite his sharp suit, good looks, and feigned American accent, we had nothing in common, not even for a polite chat over a non-alcoholic drink. I made a fuss of looking at my watch. I exclaimed I didn’t realize how much time had passed, that I really had to go and check the ATM one last time before going to the talk.
“Maybe I can take you to a bar afterwards?” he suggested.
I said a polite “no, thanks” and made a quick exit.
After the talk, Mr. Suit caught up with me.
“Are you sure you can’t come for one drink?” he asked.
“No, really, I…” I didn’t feel the need to give an excuse—this was enough. I had never liked Akshay Kumar anyway.
“Well, it was nice meeting you,” he replied with his infuriating attempt at an American accent, holding out his hand for me to shake. A handshake wouldn’t do any harm, I thought.
He took my hand, rather too firmly and for too long. “How about a hug?”
I didn’t attempt to hide the curl of my upper lip, and I pulled my hand away. “No, I don’t think so.” A taxi passed and I hailed it, got in, felt dirty.
My cynicism had failed me in Jaipur. But when I let down my guard in Delhi, I had precisely the encounter I’d been trying to avoid by keeping my walls up. Furthermore, I’d judged this man on appearances too. I’d assumed that because he looked smart, he’d behave like a gentleman and be “safe” to talk to.
The lessons I took from this trip to India have been enduring, but not well defined: I should keep my hackles up, but keep them soft. I should be skeptical without being cruel. Sometimes, saying yes is a risk worth taking, as long as I have a metaphorical or literal escape route. Trusting strangers when traveling alone is necessary, even—especially—as a woman in India. It is part of the fun.
Elen Turner is a Kathmandu-based writer and editor, with plans to divide her time between Nepal and India. She's into good literature, street art, white-water rafting and pretty Indian textiles. Her personal blog focuses on travel in South Asia: www.wildernessmetropolis.com