Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hitting Rock Bottom in a Foreign Country

"Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life." J.K. Rowling

It took having my foot ran over by a taxi driver to finally purge myself of the anger and animosity I'd been building in India over the last two weeks before entering Nepal.

I hop off the bus, shivering in the early morning frost of the Himalayas. It is freezing, I can see my breath for the first time in over a year. I pull out my socks, my black nike running shoes, my grey Victoria's Secret sweater, plaid jacket, and an orange scarf and clothe myself, searching for warmth. A Nepali man that rode the bus from the border with us asks us where we are going and warns us about being overcharged by taxi drivers and hotel managers. We tell him we are going to Thamel but don't have a specific guest house or hostel to stay at yet. He smiles while sipping his steaming tea and negotiates with a taxi driver for us and gets us a great deal on a cab ride.
We pile into the taxi, a white Suzuki hatchback, and head in the direction of the rising sun. I can already feel the mellow, calming vibration of the mountains and of the people of Nepal. The atmosphere is soothing and relaxing, despite the built-up tension I am holding in my neck and shoulders from a week of being sick, two days with little sleep, and a mental list of accumulated grievances of traveling in a group setting. The roads are hilly, lined with red-brick buildings and flower potters filled with local flora. The city has the feeling of a quaint, hillside village despite its long, winding roads and multilevel edifices. The taxi driver drops us off at an intersection, indicating that this is the best spot to find a guest house. Since it is only 6:30am, none of the shops are open and all we can see are the closed garage doors to the businesses and the unlit signs advertising each shop. Matt brushes his teeth as we scout for an open breakfast place, hoping for somewhere inside as my toes are frozen and lost feeling ten minutes ago.
A smiling man with a classic Asian face, a wide nose, cheery cheeks and almond-shaped eyes, approaches us and asks us how we are doing. I notice that my first reaction is to shoo him away after spending so much time in India warding off scam artists but after looking at his beneficent face, I decide to engage him in conversation. He tells us he has a home stay available right up the road with hot water, a kitchen, and a backyard. It sounds too good to be true. We ask him about food, we want a local eatery with cheap but yummy breakfast. He sets off down the road and we follow, ending up an outside restaurant, a daba, that is filled with only locals. He says he'll return after breakfast and walks away. Impressed, we order whatever they are making and are given chai and aloo paratha and omelets. It is the perfect breakfast for a freezing morning, warming my hands and feet back to feeling.
After we eat, we head to the home stay and it is everything we were looking for in an apartment. Since we plan to stay months at a time, we are able to work out an amazing price and settle in after squaring away the paperwork details. I take a hot shower-the first hot shower I've had in six months! Six MONTHS! And I come out feeling like a whole new person, refreshed, lighter, warmer, like I have baby-new skin.
We rest for a few hours and decide to go find lunch and explore the town, eager to integrate into our new home. We find a noodle place around the corner and munch on veg chow-chow and veg chow mein. Sitting at lunch, I feel immensely different than I felt in India. The entire city has a different ambience: the people are easy-going, peaceful, smiling, the streets are clean with an absence of beggars and homeless, the houses and buildings have aesthetic touches of flowers and decorations, the traffic is calmer and quieter. The stark contrast to India is blatant and powerful: I literally feel the pressure releasing out of my body.
We leave the restaurant in search of the local farmers markets, one for veggies and one for selling goods and crafts. We'd heard of an ex-pat farmer's markets where we could buy in, get a booth and sell our stuff. We meander up and down the streets nearest our part of town; we are west of the tourist-hub of Thamel, in a Nepali suburban area lined with small family-owned businesses, schools, parks, and apartments.
When we can't find either market, we decide to head towards Thamel and search around the tourist area since we've yet to familiarize ourselves with the area. I walk in awe, in complete appreciation for the city and it's inhabitants. Shop owners are chill and laid back, not chasing us down the street to take a look in their establishment. The traffic is chaotic but in a calm, quiet way that makes you feel at ease and less afraid in which to walk. The shops are filled with cold-weather gear: knitted gloves, hats, scarves, beanies, ponchos, raincoats, long-johns, pants, socks, leg warmers. We pass what feels like a never ending series of North Face shops, I've never seen so much North Face in my life. Seventy-five percent of the foreigners milling about the streets are decked out in their North Face gear, ready to take on their trekking expeditions in Annapurna.
We turn corner after corner, getting lost in the sea of streets in Thamel, effectively losing ourselves in the masses of people strolling through the streets. The stores and restaurants become fancier and fancier, clearly catering to the wealthy tourists coming from all over the world to explore the mountain ranges for which Nepal is known. For a minute, I can actually trick myself into believing I'm back in the States, walking down a cobble-stone street lined with bakeries, delicatessens, book stores, and high-end coffee shops.
(There are holes in my memory about this next part from adrenaline and trauma but I will do my best to accurately recollect the events.)
A ways down the maze, we are walking on the left side of the road, Matt two steps ahead of me, and I feel something tapping me from behind. I turn to look behind me, shifting my body to face the opposite side of the road. The next thing I feel is excruciating weight on my right foot, looking down I see the front wheel of a white Suzuki taxi with three passengers inside directly on top of my foot. Matt is screaming at the taxi driver, his catlike reflexes able to respond to the situation quicker than me. I am yelling and banging on the hood of the car for the driver to back up as he has now stopped the car and is parked on top of me. Dozens of passersby have stopped and are watching the debacle as I continue to bang on the hood and pull on my leg attempting to wrench it free from the weight of the car. Now other people are yelling at the driver, making hand motions for him to back up, and finally getting the idea, reverses his car. Matt is still screaming "What the fuck is wrong with you?!" at the car, walking to the driver's side of the car.
"I'm fine, I'm fine, Matt don't yell at them, I'm fine, it's okay, just come here, it's okay," I say as I limp away from the scene towards the rug shop that has steps out front, wanting to sit down. I am so in love with the peaceful Nepali people, all I can think is "don't yell at them, they're so nice, they're so sweet and calm, don't yell at them, I love them," not realizing Matt was yelling because he saw the driver preparing to drive away without stopping to check on me. Matt rushes to my side, letting the taxi drive away, grabs my arm and asks me if I'm okay. Instantly, I am surrounded by five or six Nepali men who watched the whole thing, and I'm saying, "I'm okay, I'm okay, it's okay, everything is okay," in a bemused, detached way, adrenaline coursing through my veins. The carpet shop owner ushers me inside his shop, tenderly placing his hand on my shoulder to direct me to a chair along with two of his employees who fetch me a glass of water and have me take off my shoe. As I sit, my adrenaline wears off and I feel tremendous pain and start repeating, "it hurts, it hurts, it hurts," while choking on tears, touched by the shop owner's tenderness and fatherly demeanor. Treating me like his own daughter, he consoles me, smoothing my hair down just like my dad would have. I lose it and start sobbing uncontrollably as Matt removes my sock and shoe to reveal a crunched up foot, all black by my pinky and ring toe. My first thought is internal bleeding, it looks like a pool of blood has collected on the top of my foot and one toe has been squished under another toe. Another man enters the shop saying he got the car number of the taxi so that we can file a police report. He walks out again, and I am grateful so many people came to my rescue.
I'm in so much pain, I let the shop owner convince me I need to go to the hospital. I look at Matt and he agrees that it looks like I need an x-ray and the shop owner offers to pay for a rickshaw to the hospital and actually offers to pay the hospital bill, even though it wasn't his doing. I am again touched by his generosity and burst into another round of sobs, shaking my head to decline his offer, we have enough money. He hails a rickshaw for us and gets us a real Nepali price for the ride, telling the driver what happened and which hospital to take us to.

I bawl most of the way to the hospital, mostly from exhaustion from the last two days of travel and mostly from feeling like it was my fault, that I manifested this horrible situation from punching that kid in the face and then getting into an argument with one of our travel companions. Matt caresses my arm, kissing my forehead the whole way, being the most attentive I've ever seen him, making me more a mushy wreck of snot and tears. He offers to carry me out of the rickshaw to the emergency room but I insist I can walk, the pain is getting slightly better. I hobble up the driveway to the emergency room and am immediately given a bed, the nurse drawing the partition sheet closed as the doctor enters the room. He asks what happened and if the driver stopped or drove away. We tell him he drove away but we got his car number to file a police report. He nods in agreement, that will be the best plan of action so we don't have to pay for the medical bill.
The doctor does some exercises with my foot to check for broken bones. When he presses on my ring toe, I tense up and writhe in pain, fighting back another flood of tears. "Okay, let's take x-rays. Are you in pain? Let's get you some pain medicine," he says as a nurse comes over with a needle in her hand. She asks me to "sleep" and confused, I stare blankly at her for a minute. "Sleep," she repeats, pointing to the bed and Matt says, "she's asking you to lie down." Ohhhh, I get it now. I lay down and she gives me a shot in my butt and instructs me to remain laying until they're ready for the x-ray. I feel the immediate effects, my pain numbing considerably. It isn't as strong as I'd like it to be but oh well, at least it's something. I look at Matt and say, "they didn't even ask me if I had any allergies and didn't take my vitals first. How funny." He laughs and I cover myself with my shawl; it's freezing. I become emotional again, missing my parents, wishing my dad was here with me, holding my hand.
Two minutes later, they ask Matt to pay for the x-Ray and he disappears for a few minutes. When he returns, the nurse is pushing a wheel chair for me to get into. I glance at the chair, realizing it is a white plastic lawn chair attached to two bicycle tires: a wheel-chair. I smirk, amused at how literal they took the word.
They wheel me twenty feet to the x-Ray room and am seen within minutes. I am wheeled back to my bed and we wait for a few minutes for the pictures to develop. The doctor returns with the x-rays and pulls Matt over to the x-Ray viewing machine and confirms there are no broken bones, I just have soft tissue damage and a cut on my foot. Thank goodness I was wearing tennis shoes! The doctor comes over to tell me my results and prescribes pain medicine to take when I get home. In all, I was seen, examined and treated within 25 minutes, record speed considering I would have had to go through triage in an American emergency room.
We take the prescription to the pharmacy right outside the hospital and pick up the meds. We get receipts and then I ask Matt how are we supposed to file the police report, do we do it or does the hospital? So far, we've only spent 8 USD and normally I would just say it was a sign from the universe to get your shit together and let's move on and not file a police report, the universe will do the rest for us. But considering how low we are on money and considering that the driver didn't even stop to check on me, I want to file a report. "My mom would kill me if she found out we didn't file a police report, this is exactly the time to do the right thing by taking it up with the police and I never do the paperwork in these kinds of situations so we should do it this time," Matt says.
We walk back into the hospital and ask the doctor how we are supposed to file a police report. "You want to file a police report? Okay...I have to write up an official report which means I have to charge you for the hospital visit and pain medicine. Since the driver drove off, I only charged you for the x-Ray but if I write an official report, everything has to be paid for," he explains to us.
Matt and I look at each other, realizing what a favor they did for us. I ask the doctor, "Should we file? What would you do in this instance?"
"You should definitely take it up with the police since you have his information. That way he can pay you back for the medical charges." He seems adamant this is the right route to take. I agree, and we pay the remaining charges which equals half of our money we have left from crossing the border.
We thank the doctor and the nursing staff and leave with our official documentation. When we step out onto the street, I can barely remember how we got to the hospital  since I cried the whole way there and didn't pay attention like I usually do. We start off down one street and stop to ask someone for Thamel. We are going the wrong way so we turn around and head down the correct street. The streets are much less crowded than they were two hours ago. We walk slowly, my foot still in pain and not wanting to hurt it further after the doctor said to stay off of it for a few days.
We can't remember the name of the carpet shop we are heading towards and can't remember any landmarks. We turn down another street, hoping to see familiar signs. No luck.
We stop to ask someone for directions, "Excuse me, where is...where is..." I stutter, not knowing where it is we are trying to reach. "Where are we? Where is Thamel?"
The man looks from Matt to me, from me to Matt with an amused expression on his face. "You're in Thamel right now. Where are you trying to go?"
"We know we're in Thamel but we're looking for this shop...we can't remember the name of it... We just came from the hospital and we're lost..." I sigh and look around the streets. "Nevermind, we'll figure it out."
"Do you have a phone number or a business card of the place? I can call for you if you need," the man persists.
"No it's okay, thank you for your help, we'll just go this way." I say as I set off down a street I feel like is in the right direction.
Matt holds my hand and stands on the right side of me, closest to traffic. The street starts to become more familiar and Matt says he thinks we're getting close as he starts to point out places and say, "I remember that place. Oh, I remember this place too."
Finally we see Naveed Arts, the carpet store. We step inside and a man asks us what we are looking for, if he can help. He is young and I don't recognize his face but I see the older gentleman in the back of the store and point to him and say, "We're waiting for him, he helped us earlier and we need to get something from him."
The older man is helping a couple with carpet selection and he motions for us to wait for him, no obvious recognition of us yet. I have a weird feeling, like nothing looks the same and everything looks the same. He asks us what we need and we tell him about the hospital visit and we're here to retrieve the driver's car number for the police report and both men look at each other in surprise.
The older man approaches me and says, "I did not help you, I'm not sure what you are talking about, I've never seen you before." The look on my face must drop into bewilderment and defeat because Matt steps in and says, "We were just here two hours ago, you got us a rickshaw and offered to pay for the hospital bill, remember?"
The man smiles apologetically and says, "I'm sorry, you have the wrong place."
I am in a bad dream. It's that bad dream where you're lost in a place you don't know and you're trying to get back to the one place you do know and no one recognizes you and can't help you. I'm near tears upon hearing this and walk out of the store in a daze.
We step onto the street and look around. I guess we are not at the right store, it doesn't exactly look the same...but it looks the same...I don't know what to do. The younger man sees us staring at the Naveed Arts sign and says, "You know, you must have gone to the other shop. There's another shop just like this one on the other street. Hang on I will call for you."
He returns and says, "Yes, you went to the other shop. They are brothers, I will show you the way."
Matt responds, "No wonder! They look exactly alike. I thought I was losing my mind for a minute."
The man walks us to the other shop three blocks down and one street over and we enter and sit where I sat the first time right after the incident.
"How is your foot? What did they say?" The fatherly man asks once we settle in to his shop. We give him a rundown of the situation and tell him we got all the paperwork for the police report.
His face shifts, disappointing news on the horizon. "You know. I called that number the man gave me and it's wrong. He must have written down the wrong number and now we have no way to get ahold of the taxi driver."
"Oh no...really? We spent almost all our money paying for the hospital report. We only have a little bit of money left and we just arrived to Nepal today..." Matt starts to say.
As soon as I hear him say we've almost spent the last of our money, I can't help myself and burst into tears, closing my eyes from embarrassment. I didn't know how much money we spent at the hospital, I let him handle all the finances and I didn't know how much money we had left. Hearing that the number was wrong and there was no hope to at least settle the incident without the police, I feel completely dejected,  discouraged, and defeated. Now, sitting here in a stranger's shop, bawling my eyes out because we have no money in this new country and all I want to do is sleep. The man talks with Matt for a bit about job opportunities, even offering to give us money that we don't have to pay back. I feel worse at his offering, feeling helpless, like we need a handout from a stranger. He is so kind, telling us how he loves Americans, showing us pictures he has with the US ambassador and telling us how sorry he is this unfortunate situation happened.
"What do you want to do, honey?" Matt asks me after I open my eyes again and look at him.
"I just want to sleep." I mumble, with my face turned down.
"Sleep will make everything better, you will wake up feeling much better tomorrow." The man agrees. We shake hands, take his business card, and thank him profusely.
We walk down the street in search of our neighborhood as I openly cry, making passersby give me strange looks.
Matt asks me what day it is after I regain some composure and I can't remember. I literally can't remember. I can't remember where we came from the day before, I can't remember where we are staying, I can't remember how to get out of where we are. Fear and confusion must register on my face because his face becomes immediately concerned and asks me if I'm okay. I'm not okay, I'm disoriented and I am amnesia. I'm literally in Alice's Wonderland, in a real-life nightmare I can't just wake up from. I have to stick it out and hope for the best.
We finally weasel our way through the streets out of Thamel and into our neighborhood. We are famished and stop in at our favorite chow chow spot for something to eat. We sit down and the owner tells us they are closing. We stand up and leave. I take two steps out of the door into the darkened street and lose it. I cry so hard my legs give out from under me and I have to sit on the curb a few steps away from the shop. It is pitch black from the nightly power outage and under the veil of darkness, I let it all out, gasping for air between sobs. Green and yellow snot runs down my face, mixing in with my hot stream of tears, soaking my shirt. I am exhausted, absolutely exhausted. From traveling, from being angry, from crying, from being in pain, from missing my family, from worrying about money. I am so tired of constantly being in fear of running out of money. I just want to eat. All I want is to have food. Nothing else. I don't want clothes or shoes or material items. I just want to be able to feed myself. This epiphany ripples throughout my body but I am too exhausted to process it.
Matt starts to cry and I reach up to wipe his face, "No, no, you can't cry, why are you crying? We can't both be crying."
"I hate that this happened to you, I hate that you of all people got hurt. I hate seeing you sad and in pain."
"Let's go home," I say as I wipe my face and blow a snot rocket on the ground.
My body is heavy and all I can fill my brain with is thoughts of sleep. The neighborhood is pitch black and we get lost in the residential streets trying to find our apartment. By now my well of tears is completely dry and I feel slightly better but still starving and exhausted. We end up turning around and going the way we came because we can't find the house. We decide to stop in another little daba for veg momo's and fried rice before heading home the way we know.
As soon as my head hits the pillow I am asleep, dead asleep until 9am the next morning. I woke up feeling slightly groggy from the pain meds but feeling a new determination I haven't felt thus far on the trip.

In that moment I vowed to myself that I won't ever, ever, ever feel that way again and won't ever, ever, ever let myself get that low.

It takes being at your absolute worst to make you realize all the things that are truly important in life. My first night in Kathmandu was a cartharsis for my soul. I let go of worrying about how we were going to feed ourselves next, worrying about how to make money and make things work. I had been carrying stress with me since Kolkata (actually our entire India trip, I worried about money) instead of trusting that we had all the tools to make it work right in our heads and hearts. I talked the talk but it's hard to walk the walk.
I emptied out my glass, making room inside myself for better opportunities, for better emotions, and for better focus of direction and purpose. Six months ago I would have taken the driver driving away personally and been hurt and sad that he didn't care enough to check on me. But after six months of witnessing how it really is in the cities, in India, I just understand that that's the way it is. I am very very lucky I only got soft tissue damage and didn't need surgery for broken bones. I genuinely believe the Universe was giving me a warning, sending the message that I haven't been on my A-game, haven't been doing what I need to be doing to make myself a better person and create a sustainable future for myself.

My worst fear had been realized: I was completely broke, completely defeated, on the side of some random road in some random country bawling my eyes out, snot running down my face with strangers giving me weird looks.

But I am still alive.

The only way to go from here is up.

1 comment:

  1. I am so happy for you to have gone through so much and still bounce back. And i'm also glad that you had Matt with you for support all the way through. I had a great time reading this from start to finish. I relate to some of your fears no doubt that I am not travelling at the moment but am unemployed and seeking myself. Just trying to stay balanced.

    Wishing you all the best in every way possible from hear on. Keep writing. ;)