The Trip That Changed My Life
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
I came home pregnant. Of course, I didn’t know it until the laundry was done and the jet lag had lapsed. India had shaken my soul, now it had invaded my uterus.
India seeped into my pores. This uncontainable country’s smelly colors and infiltrating chaos shook my very essence. I felt like one of those plastic snow domes with scattered fake snowflakes and happy figurines flicked off their perches. After India, nothing lands in the same place; most people either love this, or hate this. India is not a place of ambiguity.
And I’d gone with teenagers.
My first time in India, I chaperoned nine American teenagers, handling their logistics in a country that defies logistics handling. To further complicate our lean-budgeted trip, I learned, just days before we left the comfortable land of Happy Meals, that our food kitty was short. I was expected to miraculously raise several hundred extra last-minute dollars. I shook my head, “This may be the first time in history starving children are taken to India.”
I figured God or Vishnu or Somebody would multiply loaves for us. After all, we were on a peace mission. Our nine teens were meeting nine Indian teenagers to create a musical reflecting their shared dreams for a world at peace in a hundred years from now. Daunting task: We Americans, righteous in our individuality, were unprepared for a culture that reveres conformity. In this country a third the size of the United States with nearly four times the population, people who go along, get along.
Just crossing India’s streets was a lesson in going with the flow, except to my foreign eyes, there was no discernable flow. Motor scooters weaved precariously, dodging the ruts made by buses that bulldogged ahead with people dangling off them like Christmas tree ornaments. Taxis invented their own lanes, careening onto sidewalks or into oncoming traffic, whichever best suited their reflex to bypass the occasional cow, donkey, monkey or elephant.
Children, barefoot and openhanded, threaded the amorphous traffic lanes, their lonely pleas drowned by belligerent horns. The air was a bitter mixture of exhaust, shit, sweat and spices. On the surface, India is a jumbled assault on the senses. Only on introspection does it calm and clarify.
Not even India, however, could stop our kids from doing what all American teens do – attempt to conform by rebelliously asserting their individuality – all in the context of figuring out their self-worth. They cross-dressed, the boys donning dresses for a skit, the girls wearing the boys’ overalls and T-shirts. They flirted. They hugged. (They hugged a lot.) They tested boundaries – theirs, each other’s and mine.
We traveled from Delhi to Jaipur to Agra to Hyderabad to Madras to Aurangabad to Bombay by bus, by train, by air, by elephant, nursing each other through “Delhi Belly” and culture shock from which even the adults weren’t immune. In my own adult act of teenage regression, I started smoking again. Not the demure menthol ultra-lights I had smoked fifteen years ago in high school, but the chunky, boyish Marlboros favored by the Indian men – and by one of our group’s chaperones, a man whose attention I couldn’t quite capture. His cigarette smoldered seductively in the ashtray, and I just picked it up and inhaled.
We spent most of our time in Hyderabad, sort of the Cleveland of India, where we interacted with the Indian teens and volunteered at an orphanage. I horrified the staff at our five-star hotel one day by inviting the underclass orphans to our swimming pool. I bought the children knock-off Donald Duck T-shirt and shorts sets to wear as bathing suits, negotiating hard for a bulk price from a sidewalk vendor. The kids squealed and splashed. I heard later that the staff drained the pool after we left.
One of the orphans, a silent, alert five-year-old girl with a quick laugh, fell asleep in my lap during the bus ride back to the orphanage. As I gathered her sleepy dead weight, her arms draped around my neck, my forearm supporting her butt, I expected her to instinctively wrap her strong legs around my hips.
Instead, the girl clung to my neck, her legs thrust out ramrod stiff and clenched tightly together from the waist down, even in her sleep protecting the most vulnerable part of herself against the memory of a previous violation.
At the end of the trip, I deposited the American teens at the Bombay Airport and found my way to a resort on an island off India’s coast. Travel weary and sleep confused that first night, I opened my door to insistent 2:30 AM knocking. The resort’s husky German manager, who just hours before had “island welcomed” me with a silly drum parade and lame punch in a frosty glass, now drunkenly forced his way into my room.
This same man earlier had inexplicably upgraded my room, bought me a drink at the bar, and invited me to an exclusive VIP dinner. Now he’d come for his payment, and for a foggy moment I believed I owed him, a nanosecond he quickly exploited before I was too overpowered to fight back effectively.
It took me longer to deal with the fact I’d been raped than impregnated. For months after I returned home, sitting on the stoop outside my Santa Monica apartment, I smoked Marlboros and dissected my encounter, mining every moment for the exact instant I had subconsciously chosen to allow my body to be stolen. While I don’t believe anyone “asks” to be violated, I do believe I draw experiences into my life specifically to provide myself with opportunities to change. I didn’t want to repeat this particular “opportunity;” I was determined to understand why I had made myself vulnerable.
I sat in the dark wrapped in my fluffy bathrobe, my baby long since gone, rewinding the summer. I took an extra long drag when I thought of the little girl who instinctively avoided wrapping her legs around me and wondered at what blink of an instant we little girls learn our bodies are commodities to be taken or traded.
Although I never consciously believed there is a quid pro quo between allowing a man to buy me dinner and sleeping with him, on a deeper level I didn’t believe a man would have any other motive. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to say “no,” I didn’t know how to say “yes.” I didn’t believe I was worthy of a man’s attention.
India had invaded my uterus. And it had shaken my soul. I had to travel halfway around the world to learn I would never again accept some man’s price tag on my body.
I snuffed out my cigarette.
“The Trip That Changed My Life” originally appeared in Female Nomad and Friends: Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World edited by Rita Golden Gelman with Maria Altobelli, published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., in June 2010.