THANK YOU TO THE MILITANT WHO STOLE MY CAR!
Truth be told, we human beings often don’t understand the true value of a particular moment in our lives until well after that moment has passed. Yet we often forget this undeniable fact in our quest to immediately categorize every interaction and event that occurs, so that we may quickly embrace the positive and discard the negative.
Lately, I’ve reached the conclusion that every single goal I’ve achieved, hurdle I’ve overcome, step of progress I’ve made and lesson I’ve learned, would not have been possible without the mishaps, pain, disappointments, struggles and ‘mistakes’ I’ve dealt with along the way. In other words, I would not be where I am today without those moments that I was once so quick to label as ‘negative’.
The following true story is an example, albeit an extreme one, of why we should openly accept every moment, both the seemingly positive and the seemingly negative. The truth is, there is ALWAYS hidden value in every moment of life. It just might take us some time to discover it.
Vikram Stole My Car…
In late 2002, I lived in Los Angeles for two months. I really didn’t know too many people there and ended up hanging out with my new friend Vikram most of the time. He was a nice, trustworthy guy, quite humorous and overly generous and always full of positive energy. So, when I decided to leave LA, I was more than happy to sell my car to him for a ‘friend’s price’ of $3000. Vikram paid me $500 up front and promised to send me the rest of the money after receiving his next paycheck.
I left Los Angeles and I never heard from Vikram again.
A Plan is Hatched…
Vikram was from the Indian town of Shillong, the capital of the remote northeastern state of Meghalaya. It was a place he spoke about often, usually when referring to his family or while reminiscing about his four best friends who had formed a popular jazz/reggae band.
So when fifteen days passed without any word from Vikram, and with my anger growing each day at the thought of losing $2500, I began to wonder what his family and friends would think about his actions. I envisioned myself being magically teleported to Shillong and having a little chat with Vikram’s mother.
‘Wouldn’t that be nice,’ I thought. ‘Actually, it would.’
Two weeks later, with the style of a secret agent and the mentality of a bounty hunter, I flew to Bangkok, where I spent one week preparing for my mission. Unlike most agents, whose preparations include intense weapons and martial arts training, I passed the time with visits to Buddhist temples, nightly foot massages, buckets of pad thai, the occasional Singha beer and wandering through local markets.
And then I flew to Dhaka, Bangladesh. The reason I chose Dhaka as my entry point was due to Shillong’s location. The town is a 24-hour train/bus journey from the closest Indian international airport but only a three-hour bus ride from a remote border crossing with Bangladesh. Besides, I had never been to Bangladesh, so the decision was easy.
The Consequences of a Warning Ignored…
I landed in Dhaka at 2:00am and quite frankly, my mission did not get off to a good start. As soon as I walked out of the airport, I was literally kidnapped. Sure, my guide book had warned that “if you arrive in Dhaka after sunset, remain in the airport until sunrise” but guide books are full of so many useless warnings that I simply ignored it.
Here’s what happened. I was approached by a crowd of fifteen taxi drivers, all yelling and tugging at me, wanting me to choose them to be my driver. Eventually, I chose a middle-aged man who knew a handful of English words. He grabbed my backpack and led me through the parking lot to his vehicle.
I jumped in the back seat, welcoming the quiet. Unfortunately, the quiet lasted for two brief seconds, when the doors opened and four more taxi drivers entered the car. And then they locked the doors. There I sat, wedged in between two burly, unsmiling Bangladeshi men, with a driver and two more suspicious looking individuals sitting in the front seat. At first I wasn’t too worried, until I realized that nobody seemed to care where I wanted to go.
Here’s a quick summary of the following two days:
- I was forced, under the threat of physical pain and having all of my belongings taken from me, to pay out a total of $130 USD to the five men in the taxi.
- I was taken to an unmarked building located in a hidden alleyway in the middle of a massive slum and locked inside of a small room with a paper-thin mattress, disgusting squat toilet and more cockroaches than I care to share a room with.
- The following morning I was picked up by two of the taxi drivers and taken by car to an unmarked ‘hotel’ where I was again locked inside a small concrete room.
- At 10:00am the following day, the man I had originally chosen to be my driver returned with a ‘friend’ and immediately demanded that I pay them each $100.
- By this time, I realized that these people had no idea what they were doing so I simply refused to pay and we ended up just staring at each other in silence for about thirty minutes.
- The two men brought me to a bank and demanded I take out $500 USD. I went inside, pretended to talk to the teller and then informed the men that I was unable to access my account.
- They brought me back to the ‘hotel’, told me to get my backpack and to return immediately to the lobby area.
- I grabbed my backpack, ran down a side hallway, out a back door and into the streets of Dhaka.
- I then went for some lunch.
Shillong, Here I Come!
After Dhaka, I moved eastward, spending a most bizarre two and a half weeks making my way towards the border. I encountered a street fight between the male passengers of my bus and the male passengers of another bus, a near-deadly riot in a cinema, not one plate of edible food, police brutality in broad daylight and endless pleas by Bangladeshis for visa-sponsorship to the USA. I also had to deal with elderly prostitutes following me around, swarms of mosquitoes and violent monkeys and nearly killing a small boy by accidentally running over him while riding a bike. To state the obvious, it was a challenge.
When I finally arrived at the remote border crossing, I was of course not at all surprised to discover a gunfight taking place between the Indian and Bangladeshi armies. What I did find surprising was the sudden display of hospitality, as a temporary two-minute cease-fire was declared, allowing me to cross the border without fear of receiving a bullet in my neck.
A few hours later, I arrived by local bus into Shillong. It was time to track down Vikram’s friends and family and kindly ask for their assistance in helping me retrieve my money. The next morning I began my search, a search that ended up taking all of thirty minutes. The first person I asked, a man selling CDs in the market, knew exactly where Vikram’s band member friends lived. Twenty minutes later I was knocking on the door to their house.
Time to Meet and Then Say Goodbye to the Family…
They were a most welcoming and friendly group of guys, immediately inviting me in and even asking me to join them on a short trip across town. Oddly enough, they were headed to the home of Vikram’s family to drop something off for his brother. And so, as luck would have it, I soon found myself sitting on a sofa speaking with Vikram’s mother.
Unfortunately though, I never got a chance to bring up Vikram’s $2500 debt. I did have a chance to take a peek in Vikram’s room, where I chose not to steal as much as I could stuff my pockets with, despite my strong desire to do so.
Ten minutes after our arrival, the local news station issued a warning. A two-day strike had been called by a local student union group. Although this might not seem alarming at first glance, an Indian ‘strike’ requires that all businesses close down and that nobody be allowed to go outside. If you are seen on the streets, chances are you would be shot by the groups of student union members marching around demanding better treatment by the government.
The band members quickly devised a plan and without hesitation invited me to join them yet again. I said goodbye to Vikram’s mother, telling her I would visit again once the strike was over. I was not about to give up on my money that quickly.
After a quick stop at the mayor’s house, where we drank beer and smoked Afghani hashish on the rooftop while the shirtless and highly intoxicated mayor rambled incoherently about the lack of cheese in Shillong, we left the town and drove out into the middle of nowhere.
The plan was to spend two days camping at a remote lake some 5 hours away from Shillong until the strike ended. And that’s exactly what we did, along with swimming, canoeing, playing pickup games of cricket with local Khasi tribal villagers and spending a lot of time sitting around the campfire, talking and playing music. And it was around the campfire that I learned some more about Vikram.
It turned out that my good old pal Vikram had spent time in a Calcutta prison for smuggling weapons into India. He also joined a powerful and violent militant group during his incarceration before managing to escape from prison altogether. He briefly visited friends and family after breaking free and then fled the country. He hadn’t been seen in over 3 years.
All I kept thinking was, ‘I had seen him, every day right there in LA. And the bastard owes me $2500.’
As I heard more tales of Vikram’s suspicious behavior and links to organizations known for bombings and indiscriminate killings, I was shocked that I had failed to notice anything out of the ordinary during our friendship. In fact, shouldn’t it have seemed odd to me that Vikram often wore black jeans, a black jacket and black military boots, in the middle of the Los Angeles summer? In fact, now that I thought about it, there was nothing else that Vikram resembled more than a convicted militant prison escapee. Damn. That doesn’t say much about my ability to choose friends wisely.
During the five-hour drive back to Shillong after the strike had ended, I was furious with myself for not having read the signs and for allowing myself to be tricked into trusting Vikram. ‘Just look where that friendship has led me,’ I kept repeating over and over.
Where Did My ‘Friendship’ With Vikram Lead Me?
I certainly would have been $2500 richer without him. I also wouldn’t have had to trek around the world, spend a week in Bangkok, bravely escape from my inexperienced kidnappers in Dhaka, explore the beautiful tea plantations and jungles of eastern Bangladesh, cross a remote border crossing during a gunfight, meet and become friends with a popular and wonderfully talented Indian band, smoke hashish with the mayor of an Indian state capital, spend two days camping at a breathtaking lake where local tribal people had never seen a foreigner before…and I wouldn’t have decided to spend an additional six months exploring India.
You see where I’m going with this…
What was the better deal? Having the $2500 in my bank account or embarking on an unforgettable, life-changing journey across the Indian-subcontinent?
To me, there is no decision to make. The answer is all too clear.
We cannot afford to view the disappointing moments of life as wholly negative. We should embrace them, sure, as difficult moments, but also as potentially positive life-altering experiences. Had Vikram not stolen my car, I would never have ended up in India at that point in my life. And if you’ve read my “Why Every Traveler Must Visit India” post, you’ll understand how important a role that first trip to India played in shaping who I am.
Opportunities present themselves to us all the time, but if we automatically discard our disappointing and regretful moments as useless impediments to our progress, we just might miss out on a great deal of what life has to offer us.
By the way, I never did bring up Vikram’s debt to his mother. Actually, I decided it wise for me to leave Shillong the morning after returning from the lake. I didn’t need a powerful militant organization after me. I could barely handle a group of five taxi drivers.
Earl is a permanent nomad addicted to the first-hand education gained through world travel. He writes about his adventures over at WanderingEarl.com where the focus is not so much on the places he visits, but on the human interactions and lessons he learns along the way. It is also his goal to demonstrate that a life of travel is not a far-fetched fantasy, but a very real lifestyle option instead. You can also find Earl on twitter: @wanderingearl