Its amazing how one thing in life leads to another, and that another thing leads to third, fourth, fifth and life becomes a chain of events before you even realize it. But when you take a moment and look back, you realize that, that first thing actually led your life in a completely new direction, and you wouldn’t be what you are or where you are if not for that first step.
When I look back now, I wonder that what if I hadn’t travelled to the UK 10 years ago, what if I had said no to that first long-term onsite opportunity of my career.
I still remember when my Project Manager asked me if I was willing to travel to the UK on a long-term assignment, and my answer was “I am willing to travel to any part of the world where phone calls from India are so costly, that my parents cant afford to call me more than once a week”.
The thing was I was constantly being bugged around for getting married by my parents. It wasn’t their fault as they were under constant pressure from the society to get their daughter married off. And though we all knew that I was to marry my longtime boyfriend, I was not in a particular hurry to do so. I wanted to take it easy, enjoy my life, let him enjoy his life, let both of us settle down and then think about marriage.
Unfortunately, my thoughts were not so ‘confirming’ to the place I came from and so I was being asked the same question at least once every day ‘So…. When are you getting married?’ And I was willing to go to any place where people wouldn’t be able to trouble me often with that question, and my parents would call me only once a week and will have enough to talk about apart from that one question.
Little did I know that that one journey is going to change my entire life, the way I live my life, what I do for livelihood, my perspective towards everything and ultimately rest of my life.
I still remember the day, 14 January 2006. I had been busy for over a week, wrapping up my rented place in Mumbai, shopping, packing and coming to the term with the fact that I was going to be away from my family, boyfriend, and friends for at least a year. It was the first time I was going to board a plane and I was collecting as much information from experienced people as possible. And yet I made a very preliminary mistake, I didn’t choose a seat when I collected my boarding pass. (This was the time when airlines hadn’t started online boarding process). After collecting the boarding ticket, I found out that the seat was already allocated and it was the least preferred seat (naturally). The middle seat in the middle row. The highlight of my journey was supposed to be looking at the clouds from up there, and it was ruined.
The feeling of walking to the security gates was horrible. For the first time in my life, I felt alone…. alone and vulnerable. I had stayed away from my family for my education and for the job for more than 7 years, but I had never felt so lonely. They were always a phone call away, and I had my brother in the same city during college days and had got used to making new friends in a new place. I had moved to Mumbai from Pune and yet never felt vulnerable, ever. The feeling was unnerving.
I was going to a new country, where I knew no one but one cousin sister (whom I had met 4-5 times during my lifetime). That’s it, I knew only one person in that country. One of my colleague from Mumbai office was travelling with me (on the same flight), but he had already started disowning me from the moment we met at the airport. He hardly spoke to me at the airport or during the flight. He and his wife continued speaking in their regional language, despite me requesting them to at least speak in Hindi or English (which was known to all 3 of us). Before landing in Dubai for changing the flight, I had realized that they were not going to be of any help.
To make matter worse, when we landed in Dubai, I found out that my feet were swollen so badly, that I couldn’t get them into my new shoes. We had to walk long distance between gates at the Dubai airport and I had big luggage (carrying possibly everything I might need during next one year). We were to land at London Gatwick airport at 6.30 pm (in mid January when the daylight ends at around 4 pm), then take a cab to Worthing (about one hours drive from Gatwick), meet a colleague from the same company as us who was working there for previous 6 months, collect our respective house keys, travel to each of our places and settle down.
Looking at the indifference of my colleague and his wife, I was getting even more worried about myself. I couldn’t depend on them much and reaching a remote village in a new country, after it is dark, on my own, sounded terrifying to me. (Even though I had done many overnight travels alone, to and back from home since my college days). I repented not accepting the offer from my cousin to opt for a flight to London Heathrow airport and stay at her place that night, before going to Worthing.
Life was every way trying to tell me, that nothing was going to happen smoothly. First the swollen feet, indifferent colleague and the prospects of being in a new place where you don’t know anyone making me dependant on that indifferent colleague. I had heard stories of people changing after they travel abroad, but didn’t know that process starts right at the Mumbai airport!!
By the time I landed at Gatwick airport, I had made my mind. Before even collecting my bag, I headed for a public phone nearby and called my cousin “I want to come to your place today rather than going to Worthing”, was my first sentence when I heard “Hello” on the other side. Apparently, Gatwick airport was far too away for her to start driving then. So she suggested me to take a train ‘Gatwick express’ which would take me to the heart of London in an hour. And by the time I reach there, she could finish her work and come to pick me up. “Don’t worry, people here are quite friendly. You can approach anyone for directions and they will happily help you”, she told me after giving me clear instructions on what to do.
I had to catch a train or lift (I didn’t know what to call it, as it was like a single compartment of a train, running on tracks but it was only for taking a person from the airport to train station. It was really a pleasant experience asking for directions whenever I was stuck. Whenever I got confused I looked around for directions, many of those times people would willingly approach me to offer their help even before me asking them. “My cousin was right” I was thinking to myself.
The ride to London Victoria was smooth, until…… I got off the train. I got off the train and followed the crowd assuming that everybody was headed to exit. Everybody was indeed headed to exit, but the exit which was convenient for catching a cab. Not knowing that a train station can have numerous exits, I got out and waited at the nearby bus stop. After waiting for 15-20 minutes, I realised that something was wrong. I wanted to call my cousin to tell her where I was waiting for her (These were the days when there weren’t international sim cards available to buy before boarding a flight and be connected as soon as you land abroad).
As there were no public phones around, I went back to the platform to find one and call her. She was waiting for me for more than 30 minutes and didn’t know how to find me or contact me. I explained to her where I was and went back to the same spot, hoping to be found. Another 10-15 minutes went by and I started feeling nervous. I had hardly slept previous night due to anxiety and had made some futile attempts to sleep during flight journey. I was exhausted. It was already past 8 pm there, which was 1.30 am in India (as there was 5 ½ hour difference between India & UK in winter) and all I wanted was a cosy bed.
The temperature was dropping every minute and it was completely dark. I was carrying a 20Kg cargo suitcase, a 10 Kg Cabin bag, a laptop bag with the heaviest laptop the IT guy from my office could find for me and a purse. I made two trips down the staircase to the platform with all that luggage to call my cousin and came back to the same spot after explaining it in more detail during each phone call.
During my third travel to the platform, one person felt sympathy for me. He enquired after me and offered to help carry the luggage. When he found out that I was doing rounds to the platform to make phone calls, he took out his mobile phone and offered it as long as I was not making an international call. He not only offered his phone but also offered to explain to my cousin where exactly I was standing. He gave her all the directions before leaving me with my 30 Kg bags, heaviest possible laptop and a purse.
God bless that angel, my cousin finally found me. I was standing at the least possible exit I could have taken. After seeing her, a realization struck me that I should have probably waited at the platform and told her the platform no. I felt really stupid. At the most, she would have been required to buy a platform ticket to get to the platform. (It was only later that I found out that you can’t enter a platform without a ticket for travelling somewhere, there are barriers at every entry point, and those don’t let you in till you punch your travel card or insert the ticket. Nor do they have anything called a ‘platform ticket’. Probably they never have a situation where one is required to go all the way to the train to drop or pick up someone travelling. Later I tried to explain the idea of platform ticket to one of my English colleagues and he couldn’t understand the need.)
She took me home, fed me dal, rice, sabji, chapati; put me in a cosy bed with warm quilt and most importantly the feeling of being alone and vulnerable reduced considerably after entering her house.
My torment had ended…. for that week.
She drove me to my place next afternoon, bought all the possible groceries to survive for at least a month till I find out nearby stores, and made sure that I was comfortable in the new house before taking off. It was an apartment on top floor of a 9 storey building.
Ever since entering the village (as I referred it until I became aware that it was a town as per UK terminology and wondered that if this is a town, what a village would be like), I had hardly seen a human being. The building was so quiet that it was hard to imagine that anybody lived in those 4 flats per floor x 9 floors = 36 apartments. I had read about pin drop silence many times in books, but I was experiencing it for the first time in my life. I opened the window hoping to hear at least some traffic noise, but surprisingly even the cars made hardly any sound in this country. Opening the window only gave me cold chills & I had to close it in few minutes.
I was given a huge 2 bedroom sea facing apartment. Being the only girl from my company at that location, I had it all to myself. The house was furnished with sofa set, TV, Fridge, washing machine, electric hob with oven, microwave, all the utensils, cutlery, dishes, bowls, 7-8 different types of glasses and possibly everything I could need in first week, right from tea bags, coffee, sugar to soap, kitchen towel, toilet paper, washing detergent and what not.
I had laughed when I watched movie ‘Pushpak’ in my childhood, now I felt the same way. Wish I had recorded some noise of Mumbai and brought it here with me. The silence was just too much for me to bear. So much that I picked up a habit of talking to myself in coming days.
The following weekend I traveled to London to be fed well again, as my cooking abilities were limited to rice, omelet and few easiest regional dishes. After being all alone, it was bliss to be able to speak after a week of silence, and that too in my mother tongue! I was constantly chattering till last minute and off course…. eating.
My cousin looked up for travel options on internet (none of the Indian travel options were available on internet at that time), and gave me directions to catch a train and then change to a bus. On the way back the feeling of loneliness crept in. To make it even worse, one of my close friend got married that weekend, and the groom and all my friends had called me previous night, to make me feel terrible about missing it. They succeeded. I felt miserable, being in that country all alone, craving for human interaction, craving to talk, craving to laugh.
And something happened. I started having pain in my stomach. It went on increasing as I neared my town and by the time I got off the bus, I could barely walk. After consulting with the same cousin (she is a doctor), I bought paracetamol tablets in a cash and carry store (which was luckily open, as the stores closed down around 5 pm on working day in that town, and at 4 pm on Sunday). As I was in a hurry to take medicine, I asked for some water to the girls at counter, and they replied that I could buy a bottle (I was in UK, and a glass of water was not something common to offer to anyone). I took the medicine, reached my place and tried to take some rest. But the pain didn’t go away, it only worsened.
Finally I decided to use the contact given to us in case of emergency by the office. He was an Indian, working in UK for many years for the same company as mine. He called up emergency no.112 (which I didn’t know about) and called for a paramedic. By the time paramedic person showed up, it was already past 9 pm of Sunday night. He came and said that he couldn’t check me. They had some rule that for a male paramedic to check a female patient by touching her body, he should have a female paramedic accompanying him. What the ****!!! Why had he come in first place then, knowing that he could hardly help me.
He offered me 2 options, one that he request a female paramedic and I wait till she comes which may or may not happen in next 7-8 hours or he could take me to nearby hospital in his car where a nurse or Dr. can check me. I saw better prospects of being checked sooner in the second option, so I went to the hospital in his car.
That day I realized how much we take things for granted. For me getting a medical treatment was easier than walking to school or for that matter saying ‘Dr.’ My father was a Dr. and my elder brother is a Dr. too. I had rarely visited Dr. even when staying away from home, I used to call my father, take a medicine name and buy those medicines from medical shop.
Though I had visited specialists on several occasions, still the experience of seeking medical help was easy enough back home. Not only me, but in general I felt that we are lucky that we have many doctors available, and we are free to walk into any of their clinic and be seen in less than 1-2 hours, or sometimes just go to a medical store and buy medicines at the counter, without even a prescription.
Though I had heard that buying medicine without prescription is restricted to very few medicines in this country, I hadn’t imagined that it would take hours for me to get checked by a dr. in a developed country. I waited in the reception for almost 4 hours, in pain before they took me in and asked me the preliminary questions.
During those long 4 painful waiting hours, I kept begging the lady at reception to give me at least a pain killer to help me with the pain, and she refused sweetly.
As an Indian citizen, painkiller was my birthright, or so I had felt till that moment. But it was not the case here. They wouldn’t give you any medicine till they have found out whats wrong with you. And they wouldn’t find out what wrong with me for hours.
I felt relieved while lying down on the examination table. First a lady came to me and started asking questions. After taking down my details & symptoms she looked up and asked me ‘Is there a possibility that you are pregnant?’ Recovering from my shock, I said ‘No, I am not’. She persisted “Are you sure?” I would have replied “Not unless I am mother Mary”, if I was at my wittiest best, but not after suffering from the pain for almost 5-6 hours. “Yes, I am sure” was all I could manage. She walked away.
I was left wondering how many more minutes they would take before they give me something to make the pain stop. In came another lady, asked me for the symptoms and some medical history questions. At the end she asked “Is there a possibility that you are pregnant?”, “No, I am not” “Are you sure?” “Yes, I am 100% sure”. Sigh!!! Can’t they read my marital status? I am unmarried!!!
And then came a lady who introduced herself as a Dr. So who the **** were the previous ladies? Never mind. It’s over now, I told myself. This lady is a Dr., she prescribes medicines and she will give me something to make my pain go away or at least find out whats wrong with me.
After doing few checks, came the question “Are you pregnant?” I was on the edge of my patience by then. “No I am not” “Are you sure?” “Yes, I am one hundred percent sure” only if I could scream it, instead of saying it through gritted teeth and clinched fist. The doctor looked again at the form in her hand (probably at my age) and gave me this ‘you are 100% sure at the age of 24, so pathetic! Look’ and left. I wish I could vanish at that moment or melt away or something.
They took some samples, brought the results after a while and declared that there was nothing wrong with me. I was still waiting for that one miracle medicine which will make my pain go away. So finally they decided to prescribe me painkiller along with some medicine. By the time they were done it was past 2 am. They asked me to go home as they couldn’t keep me overnight!
While I was waiting at the hospital, my emergency contact (the project manager) had called the indifferent colleague of mine. He and his wife came to hospital for an hour and left when it was getting too late. But before leaving he had asked me to stay at his place instead of being alone at mine. I called him to inform him about my discharge from hospital and he again asked me to come to his place. So I booked a cab and gave the address he had sent me in text message.
The cab left me at the mentioned address and drove away. I knocked on the door but there was no response. I knocked and pounded on the door few times, rang the door bell several times without any response. Panicked, I called him up and he said he was waiting outside his house for me.
Bloody hell, I was at some wrong address, at 2.30 am, in probably 0 or minus something temperature, with pain in my stomach and this guy was telling me only one thing over the phone ‘I don’t know where you are, but I am waiting outside my door for you’. I imagined myself sleeping on the cold street and being found dead the next morning.
Now that it wasn’t my colleague’s address, I wasn’t even sure what street I was at (I didn’t know back then that every street in UK has the name written at each end of it. Back in India, I used to read the name plates of the nearby stores to find out what street I was at. But this place was endless rows of houses with no sign of a single shop nearby).
Standing on a completely deserted street, I didn’t know whom to ask for help. Unnerved, I dialed the same cab company, who had sent me the previous cab. I told the lady that I had taken one of their cabs sometime ago and told her the address I had given to their driver. She told me that no such street exists in that town.
I was almost in tears, I told her that probably I was lost and she had to help me somehow. (I wasn’t aware that they maintained the records of pickup and drop points of all the taxis booked through them, as I knew only the black and yellow taxis in India. The radio taxis hadn’t made their debut in India at that time). She told me that she probably knew where I was and she was sending a cab to pick me up.
For the second time, I knew the real meaning of ‘being rescued’ when I saw the cab approaching me on that deserted road. I gave the cab driver my address and called up my colleague to tell him that I was going home, as I had no energy left to search for his untraceable address.
To my surprise, the manager from client’s location (to whom I was reporting) was much more kind and helpful than my wildest imagination. She not only granted me leave till I was fully recovered (it was only my second week in their office) but also visited me with some fruits and food from Indian takeaway next afternoon (thinking that I wouldn’t be in a situation to cook).
That first week in UK taught me many things in life – to be tough; not to depend on anyone; to ask for help without hesitation; stranger can be way more kind & helpful than the people you know & trust; cultural differences; its ok to be asked ‘If you are pregnant’ irrespective of the marital status in some countries, first world countries are not perfect, even they have their own problems such as waiting in a hospital for hours before being seen by a Doctor and many more. But the most important lesson was to think quickly in crisis and make decisions based on own judgment and situation.
For two weeks after this incident, I had my bags packed, pondering over whether to continue there or return to India on health reasons. But I decided to stay back. A fear in me made me stay back, that if I return to India now, I will probably never leave it again for rest of my life. I sustained. I made many friends, traveled London until I knew some of the streets like back of my hand, planned a trip to Scotland and got about 13 unknown people to join me, people who became my friends for life & ultimately got married as soon as I returned to India (dreaming about the days when nobody will ask me ever again ‘So…. When are you getting married?’). It is a story for another day that how the next question was waiting for me with mischief in the eyes from the day I get married 😉
Till that trip I used to think that everything should be perfect, life should go as planned to be happy. This trip opened me to the possibility of ‘mmmm… maybe ….. not necessarily’. 😉