After our extremely disappointing exit from the Khumbu, 10 days earlier than expected, there were several necessaries that needed to be taken care of. The first, was a visit to the hospital to get my lungs and digestive tract checked out. Tsering recommended that we go to Swacon International Hospital, which caters specifically to foreigners and has better facilities than the local hospitals. They immediately took me to the “emergency room,” a large, sea foam colored room with several beds separated by curtains. The doctor asked a number of questions about my symptoms, listened to my lungs with a stethoscope, and ushered in a nurse who efficiently took my vitals. They then escorted me to a different area of the ground floor for a sonogram as sometimes, stomach issues can be caused by parasites. Next, they drew blood and took a chest X-ray. I kept thinking, this seems like an awful lot of tests for some diarrhea and a dry cough but didn’t say anything as I figured the doctor knew what was needed.
After an hour and a half of tests and paperwork, the nurse told us that we would need to wait to reconcile the bill and could have our lunch in their cantina out back. Outside, we could only find a parking lot with a number of cars, motorcycles and a single table with umbrella, so we sat down in some lawn chairs and got out our books to wait. After another hour, Dean decided to go inside to get an update. Apparently the giggly girl behind the desk pulled our file out from the bottom of a stack that she hadn’t been working on and told him it would be another hour.
Here’s the thing about Dean – he’s the most soft spoken and patient guy in the world, until he isn’t. We then decided to go sit next to the front desk, our physical presence a reminder that they needed to get this completed. After another 30 minutes, the girl handed Dean the bill. A whopping $400USD! He insisted on seeing the itemized receipt before payment while the girl insisted that she couldn’t provide it until the bill had been paid. A real Catch-22.
We also wanted to see the results before paying, however they relayed that the tests wouldn’t be completed for 2 days. Knowing a load of bullshit when he sees it, Dean told them it was not acceptable. So they quickly told us another 2 hours while Dean shook his head. Nope – you’ll have them done in an hour. So while Dean argued back and forth with the women behind the desk on several incorrect charges, one of which being an ambulance ride that we didn’t take, I waited for the results.
The nurse finally called me back to the emergency room, handing me a folder with my blood test results but not providing any detail as to what they meant. She did mention that everything looked normal, I think after she realized that I was getting really frustrated.
Here’s the thing about me – I’m neither soft spoken, nor patient. So when the nurse handed me a bottle of cough syrup, some allergy pills, and two pills for “pain” as the remedy for my ailments, I lit her up. I pushed the medicine back in her hands and told her in no uncertain words that this wasn’t allergies and we just wasted our money. It’s a bit of a blur, but I can remember delivering a litany on the substandard care provided and taking advantage of rich foreigners as we exited the building.
On the ride home Dean and I talked about the experience, our only conclusion being that they couldn’t find anything wrong and therefore we’re going to assume a clean bill of health.
We spent the remaining week and a half in Kathmandu, checking out the sites, eating good food, planning the next leg of our trip, and getting healthy. While my stomach symptoms and cough remained for several weeks, I felt a little better everyday.
However the hospital visit in Nepal isn’t the scam I wanted to write about – our experience in Mumbai truly defines the experience of “getting conned”.
We arrived in Mumbai in the evening and experienced a thrilling cab ride to the Colaba neighborhood (located at the south end of the city’s peninsula and a concentrated hub of colonial architecture) through the bustle of the world’s 5th largest city. Having visited Delhi last year (the 3rd largest city), I was prepared for the crushing mass of humanity and roads packed with cars, all merging and honking with very little regard for traffic laws and delineated lanes. However Mumbai traffic appeared to be a little more civilized. We drove out of the airport on a large highway, our cab staying primarily in the left lane. The slums crowded on either side of the highway and we watched as the one and two story, haphazardly built buildings stretched for miles.
The smooth ride abruptly changed after crossing the Banda Worli Sea Link bridge, a new city landmark that circumvents the mainland’s existing bottleneck connection to the upper part of the peninsula. We were now on the inner city roads during rush hour. The streets were flooded with people as we drove along Marine Drive, which parallels the famous Chowpatty Beach, a favorite among locals and sprawling with handcarts selling every type of street food.
Our cab driver seemed to be playing a game at each stop light, accelerating as quickly as possible while dodging and honking at slower moving vehicles, until he encountered the cars impatiently waiting at the next light. It felt like I was in a bad race car movie and quickly developed a headache that lasted the remainder of the evening.
The next morning, we awoke and had breakfast on the rooftop of our hotel. The sun was peaking through the smog and marine layer, causing everything to have a pinkish orange glow. Dean strapped on his backpack and we headed for the ocean, wanting to see the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Gateway to India while the light remained golden and magical.
On our way, we saw a man walking a Boxer and I quickly crossed the street to make friends. Trigger is a sweet, 5 year old brindle who immediately snuggled up to my legs and I told his owner about our dog Bodhi, having the time of his life in Wyoming.
I was flying high after our encounter, sporting a smile as we walked. I thought this was the reason that a number of Indian people asked to take our picture while at the Gateway (a practice I find very strange but am willing to humor). Dean let me know it is because we are very clearly Western, something of a novelty in Indian culture.
We meandered the streets, enjoying the 18th century colonial architecture and watching the city come to life. Dean made a comment about a gentleman sitting crossed legged on his stool in front of a pan stall waxing his impressive mustache. Dean asked to take a picture and then ordered one of the fruit and spice filled pan leaves. The gentleman proceeded to grab a leaf, and open a number of metal jars, each filled with a different paste, spice or fruit. He spread the mixture with his fingers and once finished, handed the leaf package to Dean. For reasons that I can’t explain, the moment was magical.
I snapped a picture as Dean took a bite, the gentleman smiling behind his large, mustache and reaching his eyes. I had read about the hospitality and kindness of the Indian people and in this moment, I felt so connected.
We walked along the sidewalk, checking out the stalls filled with samosas, fried potatoes, and a number of other quickly made foods being eaten by the growing throngs of locals. We stopped to check our map and locate the train station as we still needed to book our travel from Udaipur to Jodhpur to Jaipur and across the country to Kolkata. A local heard us speaking English and hovered nearby. At first, I thought it was so that he could ask for a picture but upon striking up a conversation, he mentioned that he had lived in San Francisco and wanted to give us some friendly advise about the attractions in the city. When asking where we were going next, I answered honestly by telling him that we were headed to the train station to buy our tickets. He immediately stated that we would be charged “tourist prices” and if we’d like, we could meet up for lunch and go to “his friend” who would help us get a better deal. Having read the guidebooks about India, Dean was skeptical. However being an easy sell, I was willing to at least see if we could save some money by booking like a local.
After a trip to the train station to get a cost for our 33 hour overnight train from Jaipur to Kolkata (something that Dean has always wanted to do), we sent Rahim a WhatsApp message with a place to meet for lunch. He took us to a restaurant filled with locals and provided guidance on the different Indian dishes on the menu. When the food arrived, we invited him to join us and we spent an hour talking about his life as a software developer, traveling on contract to different places across the globe. I asked him a number of questions that only a developer would actually know – what language he codes in, what type of applications was he working on, what are some companies that I would recognize that he’d done contracts for. Enough to trip him up in a lie.
We then followed him to a street that was filled with small booths, one after another, with men sitting behind a counter with a computer in front. We sat down inside one shop and spoke with Javen, the proprietor. Rahim acted as the translator, providing us with bus times and options. We went back and forth on times and class of bus but finally had tickets and electronic confirmation for an AC sleeper bus from Udaipur to Jodhpur. We prepaid for our tickets from Jodhpur to Jaipur so that we would only need to WhatsApp Javen with the time so he could issue the tickets.
Rahim then took us through Crawford Market, a buy-anything street market where the locals came to haggle over everything from textiles, to spices, to household supplies. In the cab on the way back to Colaba, I invited Rahim for a drink. We went into an open bar and through a door to a dark room, sparsely filled with people. As we walked in, I thought to myself that this is where we would get robbed. But immediately felt bad as Rahim ordered 3 Kingfishers.We sat drinking our beers, talking about the need for the dark, back room as local Indians have to hide their drinking since it’s not culturally accepted. As we were finishing the first glass of our 650ml beers, Rahim was on and off his phone, physically agitated.
He had been on his phone for the majority of the cab ride as well, and he now told us that his brother had been in a motorcycle accident and was in the hospital, needing emergency surgery. I immediately expressed my sympathy and told him that if he needed to go, we’d be happy to pay for the beers. He quickly said that he was waiting for a friend to go to the hospital and call him with the details. We sat drinking our beers and it finally occurred to me what was going on when Rahim started talking about the cost of the surgery.
As you read this, I can only assume that you’ve already come to a conclusion as to the situation. However I can honestly say that throughout the entire day, I thought Rahim was genuine. He had spent over 4 hours with us, showing us around and building trust. Even providing his WhatsApp number, which is easily traceable.
Finally Rahim asked us for money – about $10USD. Dean nudged my knee under the table and gave me a knowing look which I interpreted to be an “I told you so.” I returned the look, which Dean interpreted to be “Give him money.” So as we got up to leave the bar, he handed him 500INR, about $8.50.
Expressing his thanks, Rahim walked a different direction, telling us to message him later. As we circled back to our hotel (suspiciously looking over our shoulder and going around the block to ensure we weren’t being followed), I was pissed. But more importantly, I was desperately disappointed. I truly believe in the good in people and Rahim had broken that, smashing the gift of my trust into a million pieces.
Dean then told me about the guidebooks, warning of similar situations and numerous other cons pulled on unsuspecting tourists. When I asked why he didn’t say anything and went along with it, he told me that he had, but I didn’t want to hear it. And he was right, I hadn’t.
Our next thought was around the validity of the bus tickets that we had just purchased. I immediately called the bus company in Udaipur, but the person on the other line didn’t speak English. I then emailed my contact at Jatan (the non-profit in Rajasthan that I had worked with in 2016), explaining the situation and asking for help. But wanting a more immediate answer, I went down to the front desk of our hotel to ask that they call the bus company. Instead, they dialed Javen and asked if the bus ticket was legit – and of course, he said it was.
When I went back upstairs, Dean was laying in bed feeling ill. Throughout the night, he was struck with a 100 degree fever, chills and stomach issues. I, on the other hand, felt fine. After discussing what we had eaten throughout the day, we concluded that Dean’s single bite of street pan, made by a man who minutes prior was waxing his mustache, must have been the culprit. He suffered through a miserable night and was still feeling poorly the next day, looking like he had the DTs, though his fever had decreased somewhat.
We ate breakfast on the rooftop, Dean barely stomaching a dry piece of toast. At 10am, we made our way back over to Crawford Market to confront Javen and ideally get our money back. I had spent the morning doing research and had found that the bus ticket booked for our trip to Jodhpur was a non-AC sleeper and only cost 815INR for the two of us, where we had paid 4800INR total. Confirming that we’d been had!
Meanwhile, Rahim had been sending me messages via WhatsApp, with the final message asking, “are you mad on me?” Are you kidding me you stupid little shit? You scam us and then have the nerve to continue to message me?! I wanted to send a scathing message with a series of choice words but Dean convinced me to turn off my notifications and ignore him. He’s a high road kind of person.
As we searched for the “travel agent’s” stall from the day prior, I immediately noticed that there was a different man sitting behind the computer. He appeared to be helping a customer, so we patiently waited. After about 5 minutes, we were invited to take a seat on the low plastic stools inside. We waited for another 5 minutes, when Javen came around the corner, the surprise in seeing us sitting in his office clearly reflected on his face. He took the captain’s chair in front of the computer and after several minutes, turned to acknowledge us.
Dean and I had talked about our strategy prior. I would be the calm, collected one and he would chime in with the muscle if needed. I immediately pulled my stool next to Javen and explained the situation. We would be getting a private car from our desert safari in Osian and therefore wouldn’t need to book a bus for the trip to Jaipur. Additionally, the 8:15am bus that he booked was a non-AC sleeper, not the AC sleeper that was originally promised. He made a show of opening an application on his computer however I showed him the timetable on my phone, having found a travel app that consolidated all of the options. It very clearly stated non-AC sleeper. He offered to rebook for an AC sleeper, but Dean interjected firmly that we wanted our money back. Javen then stated there would be a 10% cancellation fee. The tension increased as we both argued. At some point, I think he realized that we weren’t having it and he took out the key to his cash drawer and counted out our 4800INR.
We walked away from his booth feeling elated. We had won!
Dean went back to the hotel to lie down while I found some lunch and wrote in my journal. I wrote for over 2 hours, typing furiously about my feelings. I started out venting my frustration, wondering about the type of person that could commit 5 hours to lying. Wondering if everything Rahim said was by design, spinning a web of lies that would build our trust. I replayed the day in my head, trying to decide if any part of the interaction was genuine. I hated that he made me question the validity of our interactions and I hated that I had so clearly fallen for the lie.
After getting most of my frustrations out, I decided that I could forgive Rahim. But when I visualized the scene in my head, instead of forgiving him, I punched him in the face. Maybe it was too soon.
Instead, I decided that I wouldn’t let this experience change the way in which I view the world. I do believe in the goodness in humanity. Sure, there are some shitty people in the world. You meet them everyday. But if someone smiles at me, I’m going to smile back. If someone speaks to me, I’m going to reply. It costs me nothing to be kind. And hopefully, the next time someone has ill intent, I’ll be better prepared to see it.