Many people ask how exactly I got to India for the first time and “Why India?”. I have had a fascination with India since I learned about it in middle school and, when I was a 20 year old college student, I couldn't think of anywhere else I could survive on what I currently had in my savings account.
So, how exactly did I, an inexperienced college student orchestrate a move half-way across the world? ...
It’s the end of November 2014. I am a sophomore at App State, studying to be a business major and hating every minute of it. I’m not failing anything, but I’m just genuinely unhappy with my choice in major-even my choice to attend college-and overall dealing with some heavy emotional burdens which I will divulge in later posts.
I really didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, and I had no idea who “I” really was. How was I supposed to be dedicating four years and thousands of dollars to something I didn't even think I wanted?? Am I just supposed to do it because it was the next logical step? So then I can graduate and do a job I don't enjoy to make money to pay off a debt that I only got trying to get said unenjoyable job???
One day, I was walking through the Student Union when I came across a poster that said, “Where Would You Want To Work?” It was overtop a giant map of the world with pins poked into dozens of countries. My eyes narrowed in on one spotless country. I said to the girl hosting the poster, “Put a pin in India for me!” She looked at me. “Really India?” “Yes, thank you.” I walked away thinking how true it was. Yes India, how I have dreamed of going there for years.
That night I really looked at myself in the mirror. I saw a tired, sad face looking back and I asked it, “Are you happy? ...No. “Are you excited to go into the world of business?” ...No. “What do you want, what would make you excited?” “...India!” I said out loud, and I saw a smile brighten my eyes for the first time in a while...
And for this impulsive, ADHD-fueled young adult, that was convincing enough for me. I was going to move to India!
I went to the vast portal of all things (Google) and hunted for internships in New Delhi, India. I found one within a week. It took about three weeks to wrangle up a visa. I finished my last final exams and withdrew from University the next day. I sold my stuff out of my dorm to make extra money. I located a place to stay using one of the many Indian flatmate facebook groups. I bought a one-way ticket and January 1, 2015, I was on my way to India!
Eight hours in to a 16 hour flight, I think the reality began to trickle in. We hit turbulence over the Atlantic, and I shook with panic. The adorable Indian auntie sitting next to me took my hand and said, “Don’t worry, child. If we go down, nothing to do anyway.” Somehow, this did not bring the intended comfort. However, it did bring the realization that, yes, there is nothing to do and I’m on a plane to India by myself and I don’t know a soul there.
I survived the turbulent flight. We began the final descent to Delhi and excitement turned to shock as our plane sunk past the brown clouds of thick smog... Where am I???
I was then met with a chill in the breezeway-wait, it gets cold here? A jolt of panic rushed through me as I realized that my poorly-researched plan overlooked the fact that I may actually need a jacket... in India.
I waited in the endless visa line with hundreds of people. I looked up as I heard, “You, too, please come.” I saw a light-skinned Middle Eastern family in front of me at the desk, but I proceeded as commanded. “Give me your passport.” the officer demanded. I handed it over. “Why your surname is not same?” I looked confused. “What?” “This is your mom right?” he asked. “....Um, no?” “You are here alone?” he now looking as confused as I was. “...Um, yes?” He glared at me. “ Well Get back to the queue!” he demanded.
A hollow sinking feeling inside me as I realized that I was not this ful- fledged, badass adult that I had pumped myself up to believe. I was, indeed, still a short baby-faced girl that would most logically be traveling with her family rather than completely alone.
I made through security and stood in the chaos outside. Incessant honking, people yellow, people staring at me, so many men asking me if I needed an auto or a cab. I was bombarded and thrown into a state of shock as I realized I had no idea what my plan was.
I had no way to call anyone, and I could not use WiFi because, in India, to access free airport WiFi, you have to have an Indian cell number (or international plan, something I also overlooked in this hastily made decision)... I just had the address: “7 Sultanpur, New Delhi.” Never having looked at it until then, I doubted myself. “Wait... 7.. Sultanpur? What even is that? That can’t be the address.” I walked up to the taxi stand and showed him the address. “Oh yes, Madam. Here, take with that cab.” Two men grabbed my suitcases and ran towards a cab. I panicked and ran after them. Then I watched in horror as they threw my suitcases (literally everything I had in this world) precariously on top of a vehicle. The next thing I knew, we were whizzing down the busy streets of India doing that Delhi Traffic tango with no regard for rules or lanes. I had a death grip on the door and clung to the unlatchable seat belt to my chest.
I was so numb and dissociated during the wild ride through Delhi that I now knowI was experiencing full-blown culture-shock and genuine fear. I was literally screaming in my head, WHAT ARE YOU DOING. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE HERE over and over in my head.
I stared out the window as I tried to calm myself and what I saw on that drive to 7 Sultanpur will forever be ingrained in my brain: a toddler pooping on the side of the road, piles of dirt and trash EVERYWHERE, my first sighting of a ‘free range’ cow, and an, old auntie’s bangles tapping loudly against the window as she begged me for money.
Eventually, the cab halted in front of a building with a narrow dirt alleyway to the right. The driver said, “HERE.” He got out of the car and started getting my bags off the roof. The next thing I knew, he was gone and I was standing in the middle of nowhere with two big red suitcases and no communication ability (speech nor technology). Two men were staring holes through me as they ate chips by a little corner shop, I felt the urge to fall over and cry. “I’ll die here; I will,” I kept saying to myself.
But then, out of nowhere, I had a surge of it’s-now-or-never-girl-put-on-your-big-girl-panties-and-do-SOMETHING. Trust this is somehow the right place, just trust and go forth. I asked one of the chip men, “Excuse me, 7 Sultanpur?” He just pointed down the alley. “Brown door.” Welp, it’s now or never, Maggie and I dragged my suitcases down the rocky road to the door with a white 7 painted on it. I knocked and the door creaked open to reveal…. A car garage!
Fear yet again consumed me. Trust, I thought to myself. Trust. I pulled my suitcases through and saw a security guard in the corner. “Hello? Langlen International House?” He made no response, only a gesture to a registrar book. “I guess this is it?” I put my name down, and he quickly ascended a newly-revealed set of stairs. A moment later, another man appeared. “Welcome, welcome! We are so glad you found us okay. Come in. He will take your bags up.” I followed this man to an office and sat down. “Welcome. We are glad you have made it. Pleased to have you staying with us.
Now, as far as your stay, you will need to just pay the first rent up-front now, and we will show you to your room”. “So, Ma’am, for the month, it will just be $500 USD, and you can pay in INR or USD, whichever is easier for you.”
(Some important information: before I left, I got my bank to convert $500 USD to INR to make sure I would have enough cash to get settled and figure things out for a bit. So this is all the cash I had on me…..Now back to this snake man's office hot seat).
I told the man, “I haven’t even seen a room or the place yet. How do I know if I want to stay here for a month?” “It no matter, Ma’am. If you decide not to stay here we will refund your money.” My still-culture-shocked-but-forever-suspicious self was saying RECORD HIM this man screams SNAKE so I tapped voice record and said, “Sir, just so I am clear, you want me to pay $500 for the month in cash now, but if, say tomorrow, I do not want to stay here, you will refund my money?” He said, “Yes Madam, that is correct.” At this point I had been traveling for nearly 24 hours and my sore jetlagged body could barley process my own name let alone a rent negotiation and with no internet or phone to find any other place to go, I caved in and paid this man.... BIG mistake
As soon as I gave the money, the sham of this “organization” began to reveal itself. I was led to a small living-room space with two chairs and a table. The room to the right was shoved to the brim with two twin beds and a small wardrobe, so that one bed would need to be crawled over to access the second. Another two rooms were similar to the first. I assumed one of these lovely suites was mine. I was wrong. “Ma’am, as of this minute we do not have a room for you, but do not worry. One of our residents is moving out in two days time, and you can shift to a room then.” “Wait what you don’t have a room? Why did I pay you then??” “Please, Madam, we will find a mattress for you, and you can just stay here in this space until that time.” ….What? The living room with no privacy and no bed? The man made yet another dismissive comment and pure exhaustion overwhelmed me. I dropped into one of the chairs to process this ordeal.
I was sitting dosing in and out of sleep for about two hours. During that time, some of the current inhabitants emerged to tell me some of their horror stories of becoming essentially trapped in this situation like I had. As well as stories of theft and potential illicit activities that had been conducted. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the WiFi at this place, at that time, was broken so I still had no internet and no access to the outside world.
Eventually, a mattress was brought in and laid on the floor no pillow nor sheet, just a mattress. I was so worried about my personal safety as well as being robbed-even though there wasn’t much else to take since all my money was gone- but I still slept on top of my two suitcases. I woke up the next day to find still no WiFi and still no room. I was also terrified to go outside because A) it was big scary loud busy India; B) I had no way to secure my things; and C) I had no money (only a credit card, as I recently realized I forgot my debit card).
So for an entire day I floated in and out of panic and jet-lagged naps, starving and terrified. 3 A.M. on my second night, the WiFi kicked in! I frantically called anyone in my family and got a hold of my sister who said, “HOLY S**T, get out of there!” I said that I had been asking the man to give me my money back and that he kept refusing. Eventually we decided I should book a hotel, and come back later for the cash. I booked a cheap hotel online (which I discovered was a mere hundred feet away) and I left the next day.
When I arrived at the Hotel, I inhaled a plate of rice and then got online to contact my internship boss..I spent two days with a fellow intern looking at PGs (Which are Paying Guest accommodation where you pay to rent someone’s spare room or to share a bed in a room), but I wasn’t sure what I could afford and- to be completely honest with you all - at this time, the idea of sharing a room or a bed was a 100% not an option.
My boss offered his cousin’s apartment as temporary housing. However, It is important to mention here that this apartment was just being built. It was not finished and many things, like heat and some walls, were not set up. As it was the middle of winter I had to sleep in all my clothes every night because I had only one blanket and clothes fit mostly for summer weather not freezing 35-40 fahrenheit temps. Here is a confession: I didn't shower for more than a week when I stayed there. I believe I was in such shock about my situation that I wasn’t even functioning properly. I also couldn't stomach the thought of dumping a bucket of icy water on myself to bathe in the middle of Delhi Winter in an unheated dwelling. I did eventually bite the bullet, bravely pouring that bucket over my head until my body went into spasm and I nearly passed out. It was a horribly unsatisfying experience, but hey- at least I got kind of clean.
This temporary apartment was about 2 km (a mile) from where I worked. With no command of the local language and immense fear of being in a traffic accident in those ‘crazy’ auto-rickshaws, I chose to take a cab everyday. Looking back now I could easily have even walked this but I was still too afraid at the time to even think about walking. So I took a cab for a few days until I quickly realized this was an expensive fear driven habit that I had to quit ASAP. I was so nervous because not only did I already have no sense of direction, but there are seriously no street names- it’s just ‘blocks’ in neighborhood sections of housing! Its hard to really explain this to someone who hasn't been here, so if you are intrigued come visit! Ill show you how I learned that Greater Kailash 1 A block and Greater Kailash 2 A block are not only different but very far from each other, especially when you get dropped at the wrong one in the middle of the night and then your phone dies. But that’s a story for another time.
So after calculating the drastic difference between cabs and auto I decided to bite the bullet of my nerves and I got in my first auto ever! I got the man to agree to 100 rupees for the 2km ride to my office, which I thought was an okay price, given I had no bartering skills nor an understanding of the pricing. My current-day self is cringing that I paid this much when it was at best a 20 rupee fare, but you live and you learn. The auto driver told me he knew where to go. I believed him at first, before realizing he had absolutely no idea. This was the first but certainly not the last time this happened to me. I gripped the backseat as we whizzed around GK C-block to find my office. We spent 10 minutes driving in what was probably circles until I finally had to call my boss to get directions. I was so embarrassed when I learned that I was literally around the corner.
I was terrified of everything when I first visited India. I didn’t want to take autos anywhere or go to the store or really function. I was in shock at the drastic difference between the country I called home my whole life and this new place that I had to call home. Every day, I kept pushing myself. My comfort-zone had been demolished by culture shock, and there were no signs of new construction in sight. I had to get with the flow or get flowed over.
It took a couple months, but I finally felt like a “local”. Somehow I had successfully made a life for myself in a new country. I found a place to live, a PG in fact. A PG was not my first choic but with limited funds other options were not in my budget. I ended up in a bed sharing accommodation (which is exactly how it sounds) but I loved it! I made friends with two girls that I am to this day good friends with and I have so much love for them!
After getting settled I made many friends, had fun coworkers, joined a church, found my local grocery store, learned how to buy fruits and vegetables from my colony’s “guy” or “waalaa”, I learned how to barter and grasped the most mediocre Hindi to (at least) get by in shopping and transportation. I actually felt at home in this crazy country that I, at one point, was too afraid to venture out into. I was freaking proud of myself!
Looking back now I realize I threw my unknowning younger self into a firestorm of shock, chaos, and adversity. I was engulfed in the hot firy lava of having to tranform into a full-blown adult overnight. As painful as it was I still learned to swim. I was able to surface and ride with the currents of change instead of against them. I am more independent now than I ever Imagined someone in their mid-20’s to be. I cant thank my younger self enough for her poor planning, naive optimism, and overall guts that made this entire life changing experience possible.
*Also, an important update on the Snake Man who stole $500 from me:
During my apartment hunting, I ran into a man named Dhruv. Hoping to live with him and another person, I met with Druv at Starbucks. This 7 Sultanpur incident somehow came up. Dhruv turned out to be a lawyer (and superhero): he immediately stood up and said, “o, this is not how you will know my country! We will go there today itself!” And off we went! He marched into the Snake Man’s office and a lot of Hindi yelling insued. All I could make out was “illegal” and “license.” 30-ish minutes later, Dhruv walked up to me and said, “He will have your money here in an hour. Let’s go get some lunch.” I am not kidding. We went back and hour later, and he had my money! Dhruv: if you find yourself reading this, you did change how I know India, and I cannot ever thank you enough for your caring actions that righted the wrongs.
It was Dhruv and many of my Indian friends that helped me experienced what a communal society is. India feels like home because of the people and friends who made me feel accepted and cared for in one of the most vulnerable times of my life.
My name is Maggie, but my family and friends have been calling me Dr.Mags since I started putting bandaids on my teddy bear. Now as a 25 year old, I have just received my BSN license from North Carolina. Nursing fulfills the passion I have felt for medicine and providing care to others. I began working alongside children with disabilities in high school with Rainbow Express Ministries and realized the complicated journeys many of these children and their families have to navigate that is unlike that of other acute illness. When I moved to India in 2015, I saw this same complicated health care process and the added complication of resource and knowledge deficiency surrounding disability. I am now following my heart as it guides me back to India to live and work to facilitate and advocate for early intervention services for children with special healthcare needs.