“A woman’s life is nine parts mess to one part magic, you’ll learn that soon enough … and the parts that look like magic often turn out to be messiest of all.”
~ Cersei Lannister
(the last hours between January and February 2017)
The dark hours of morning are a strange way to meet a place.
Manisha, my pre-booked female taxi driver, arrives in an old Peugot with chipped flower stickers on the side. She insists on lifting my heavy suitcase even though she is about my size or smaller. Exhausted and trembling with gratitude for the ease of my journey, I slide into the passenger seat. We take off, a solitary woman’s voice singing wistfully through the radio.
As I marvel about the smoothness of the road, I cannot help but mentally salivate over the coming months. I see myself as I want to be: glowing, beautiful, worldly, empowered by my travels. I can already feel myself running in the mornings, taking control of my life, maybe losing a little weight. I will be a masterpiece. I will go home stronger. I will finally be everything that I’ve always wanted to be.
Palm trees pass me by in the headlights of the car. As far as I can tell, Goa looks a lot like the backroads of the Kenyan coast, with scrubby beach flora and brightly-colored, blocky buildings. I feel myself dipping in and out of sleep, waking fearfully every now and then to make sure that I am still safe and alone in the taxi with Manisha.
The sun begins rising as we wind through forested hills that, to me, seem like an area where wealthy doctors might choose to retire. Dawn is a grey haze dissipating up from the dense trees. With sudden joy, I realize that the ocean is not too far away.
“We’re almost there,” Manisha breaks the silence from behind the wheel, gently consulting the GPS on her touchscreen.
This couldn’t be more perfect. This will be an amazing place to run in the mornings. I can already taste the brilliance of the coming months.
The sun breaks through the haze as we make and unexpected turn onto a dirty, busy road. I sharply intake my breath, the magic of the forest left behind. No, I think silently. Go back – this can’t be right.
But it is the right place. The GPS tells the truth as we pull up next to a three story building, dingy and run-down, a ragged sign that reads “Dhavalikar Hospital” propped up next to the gate. The driveway, littered with dirty gravel, crunches as we roll to a stop. Manisha looks at me questioningly, and then insists that I stay in the car while she finds out if there is actually any living person inside.
What was I thinking? No, no, no, no, no. Please let this be a mistake. A bitter, foreboding bite clamps at my heart.
Manisha emerges, still alive. With her are two women in sweat pants. A bit clumsily, I detangle myself from the passenger seat and walk over, nerves jittering at full capacity.
We introduce ourselves. One of the women, Jeana, is a resident teacher who is overseeing the move-in process of new students. I say goodbye to Manisha, who gives one last doubtful look at the building as she drives off. And, just like that, I am truly alone, far away from home, and without a way to go back.
The inside of the building is dark and Spartan. Following Jeana, I drag my heavy suitcase up to the second floor. In the place of steps is a curving ramp, a vestige of the building’s old purpose as a maternity hospital. I can’t stop the images of bleeding, crying women being rushed upwards on gurneys from flashing through my head.
The greatest shock is yet to come. Jeana shows me to my room, and my heart crashes to the floor. I can handle the smallness of it. I think I can accept the unwavering laboratory lights. I’m not sure about the tortuous, slime-green color of the walls, but I’m dead certain about one thing: I will not make it here without a private bathroom. I feel panic set in as I ask her, voice shaking, where my bathroom is.
She shows me to the first floor. In a dirty corner is a bathroom, floor wet from the shower head opposite the toilet. In the spastic blur that has become my vision, I see several older men walking around. One steps out of his room with a towel wrapped around his pelvis, heading towards said public bathroom. A chord of deep discomfort rings through my entire being. I am not safe here.
I return to my room feeling a crushing weight on my shoulders. I keep my cool long enough to pay Jeana for the first month of my stay, watching her walk away with fourteen hundred of my dollars in her pocket. I lock the door, then lay back on my bed and cry heavy, fearful, angry tears.
I am tricked. I am trapped. All my glowing dreams and expectations have been dashed to the floor, a miscarriage in an abandoned maternity ward too far away from home.