This posts kicks off a series I’m calling “Horror Stories from Abroad”—stories of which I’m not proud, but since I happened to survive them all I figured they could at least provide some entertainment. Disclaimer for all these stories: do NOT emulate them (don’t know why you would). Disclaimer #2: I like to think of myself as an intelligent person and an experienced traveler, but no matter who we are we all make mistakes, so if you can manage not to judge me I would appreciate the benefit of the doubt. Without further ado, a near-death experience in Mysore, India.
Mysore is a magical place. It is a haven for truth-seekers and yogis, counter-culturalists and artists. There you can find anything the mystic in you desires: group meditations, manifestation workshops, philosophy talks, yoga shalas (Mysore is the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga), Sanskrit language courses, Vedic studies, massages, Ayurveda, cleanses, vegan food, Kirtans, gong baths…the list is nearly endless. In short, I was Alice and it was Wonderland. I lived in Mysore for a month in 2015 studying yoga with Saraswati Jois at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (for more on this institution, read my post here), and when I wasn’t practicing yoga I was quenching in any manner my thirst for Eastern spirituality.
Mysore is fairly safe compared to many places in India. It sees throngs of Western yogis seeking to practice under the venerated Sharath Jois each year, and still more hoping to escape Westernism for other reasons. However, it is still an Indian city, and there are customs and precautions by which any traveler need abide. These include avoiding going out at night—especially alone. There have been stories of yogis on their way to an early morning practice who were assaulted by men on motorbikes. There have been muggings. Women need wear modest clothing in order to avoid unwanted attention. Women should travel in groups, especially when venturing outside the city center. Women are not commonly seen in chai shops, so it’s best to partake only in the direct sight of the street traffic. All taxi and rickshaw drivers cannot be trusted similarly and extreme caution must be taken if you choose to hitchhike. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best not to walk alone.
While very aware of these unwritten rules now, it took me a while to catch on to them then. You could say I learned the hard way.
One day during my second week in Mysore, I was returning to my apartment after a particularly moving meditation. It was about noon. I had befriended the stray dog who lived outside my building—a ridiculously playful pup who I’d named Patchouli (and proceeded to adopt, only to be thwarted at the airport all the way in Bangalore…), and he bounded up to me as usual on this day. Patchouli must’ve only been about one, but he’d gotten in a fight with something bigger than him which left one ear with a patch missing. Hence, Patch.
I was in such a good mood, I rolled around with Patch for a while until a rickshaw driver with amber eyes like a tiger and dressed all in white approached me. His name was Hakim, and he was touting Ayurvedic massages for a ridiculously cheap price. “Free sample massage!” He also mentioned pure essential oils and incense, all handmade at his shop. I was feeling so light from my practice, meditation, and from this adorable pup that I decided to give Hakim the benefit of the doubt. He seemed kind enough, and he offered me a free ride in his rickshaw to get to his shop for said services. Not having anything planned for the rest of the day, I went.
Off we drove in his rickshaw, about half an hour out of the city through ramshackle adjoining towns. The further we sped from Mysore, the more anxious I became. “Hakim,” I said. “I’d like to turn back. I didn’t realize your shop was so far away.”
He waved his hand at me, assuring me over and over it was “just up here.”
Keep your cool, I told myself. Panic won’t get you anywhere…
After what felt like an eternity, we arrived at a concrete, two-story structure with no doors and shattered windows. When we stepped inside the noise from the street fell away. It was dark and cool. There was an old Indian woman squatting on the dirt floor, hunched over a pile of hand-rolled incense sticks. So, the tidbit about handmade incense was true. “My worker,” said Hakim, gesturing to her. The woman kept her head bowed over her work.
I shivered to think what “worker” implied. The place seemed more like a sweatshop than anything else. Still, it comforted me that there was a witness in the room. This was the state of my psyche.
Hakim showed me to a ratty couch. I sat gingerly on the edge, afraid of what that couch may have seen. There was graffiti on the walls in a handful of languages, some of which I couldn’t identify.
“No worries,” he said, noting my discomfort. “I have travelers all over the world come to my shop.” He passed me his cell phone—already opened to WhatsApp—for me to read over the conversations he’d had with past visitors.
This was the strangest part. All of the exchanges were with foreign women, and all of them involved bold advances from Hakim—“you are so beautiful,” “I love you,” kissing emojis, and such things—while the women, if they replied, would say things like “you are making me very uncomfortable,” and “please stop messaging me.” Why would he show me this? The only purpose it served was to increase my anxiety about a hundred-fold. I quickly passed the phone back, quite disgusted, and demanded he take me home. My palms were slick with sweat.
“You don’t want my massage?”
“I want to go back. You promised.”
“Come upstairs to my massage room. I won’t charge—all for free.”
I rose, ignoring his outstretched hand. I don’t know what I would have done if, you know…
There was no wifi in this part of town, and I had no cell service. Nobody spoke English, either, because we were so far outside of Mysore, and I hadn’t seen any other rickshaws on the streets outside. But it didn’t matter—I just had to get out of that shop before he got any more aggressive.
Hakim saw I was serious. He thrust his hands in front of him as if to pacify me—impossible at this point. “Okay, Mary,” he said (I had given him a false name, of course), “I am sorry you didn’t get to enjoy my services. But I will take you back if you wish, and you can come back tomorrow.”
And he did. On the way back he had the nerve to ask for my number. What didn’t he understand? I snatched his phone from him without a word and typed something which wouldn’t have passed for a phone number in any part of the world. I just wanted to play the part until we got back, avoiding any action that might cause him to turn back around.
I directed him to a building that was on the other side of the city as my actual apartment, just in case.
“I’ll message you. Tomorrow I will show you the oils.”
I gave him a hateful look as I stepped down from the rickshaw and walked away.
I still curse myself for my stupidity that day. I can’t say exactly what went through my head when I hopped into a stranger’s rickshaw to God-knows-where. If I had to guess, I’d say all my uplifting experiences in Mysore up to that point gave me the naïve perspective that only good could come from such a place. My confidence in its security had outgrown reality.
Patch was waiting for me when I got home. I’ve never been happier to see anyone in my life. The moment Hakim whisked me away could have been the last time I ever saw that excited tail and half-eaten ear. I could have disappeared in India without a word. Or I could have come back but with pieces missing—just like Patch.
By nothing but a twist of fate, these things did not happen. I came away unharmed but frightened into a more cynical and shrewd attitude towards travel. Better to keep your guard up and your confidence close at hand. When you travel alone, the only person whose trust you can be certain of is your own. And sometimes not even that.