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“Baghkda eshum rhem! Baghkda eshum rhem!”
The man driving the cramped Jeep was yelling out the window, ringing his left hand towards oncoming vehicles. I can’t exactly remember what he said since I don’t speak Hindi, or whatever dialect he was screaming in, but it stands out in my head as “Baghdad eshum rhem.” At that moment I could only imagine that if I were to ask for a translation from his two countrymen in the back seats, it would be, “If we die, we die.”
We were teetering on the edge of a deep drop into the Indian jungle. Not exactly teetering, I should say, the man in the front seat was driving, but every time I leaned my head out of my window, to see if the tires were still on the narrow path up the mountain, all I saw was a few hundred foot fall.
I was heroically nauseated and acting the way you do when you don’t want anyone to know that you are, staring steely-eyed at the soon-to-be sunset, white knuckling the disintegrating upholstery of my seat like someone was about to push the ejection button in the Jeep’s middle console. There was no ejection button, or middle console for that matter, but there were holes in the floor pans. I was painfully aware of these holes considering I had about $2,000 worth of camera and editing equipment in the bag strapped to my chest, and couldn't keep the thought of everything I owned slipping out and plummeting down the side of the precipice.
I was a walking cliche, probably still am, but back then I was less aware. I had a worn-in red bandana wrapped around my head to keep my shoulder length hair out of my eyes, a holy henley that was turning ever more yellow with my lack of bathing, and the kind of cargo pants you can only wear if you’re traveling like the one-bag bum I was. I wasn't interesting, but I was interested, living my own one-man show like the wannabe pioneer I was.
Nagaland was an area of India that had in recent past been inhabited by headhunters; the bonafide, decapitate their foes kind of headhunters. I did and still do have a fascination with the macabre, the idea of a land exempt from the all-to-familiar comfort and ease of my American existence sounded too good to pass up. That's the goal, right? To reject your upbringing and forge a new path far more eclectic and dangerous than your progenitors? To prove that you’re actually the swashbuckling pathfinder you spend so much time telling yourself you are? This hubris must be the seed for adventure, at least for the 18-year-old kid I was.
We were traveling to Kohima, the state capital. After a few weeks in Delhi, I thought a “little car ride,” as the driver had called it, was just going to be another monotonous aspect of getting to something more noteworthy. I wanted to get to the good part, the main course, the danger. Whether it was to be believed or not, I had heard there was the possibility of capturing a photo of a wild tiger. This was my main goal, to bring something back that would prove once and for all that I had been there and done that, the coup de grâce of yet another stereotypical dream for anyone photographing wildlife in India.
My final lure into Nagaland was the chance to eat dog. The promise of dog meat is no longer an incentive for me, but at that moment, I might have even tried human if the cultural climate had allowed. On the side of that mountain, I would have done just about anything to get off, maybe even open my door.
What made this ride all-the-more frightening was the fact that other off-road vehicles were coming down the path towards us. There was the constant high pitch shrill of horns as corners were cut to make way for passersby. I was on the right side of the car which turned out to be the wrong side for me. I had inadvertently signed up to watch my possible fate for three hours, staring straight down out of this four-wheel-drive coffin into an ever more likely demise. This was when I started to reassess my reasons for being there, holding my seat, holding back a stomach full of curried everything, thinking about tigers and dog meat and headhunters. Life had been easier.
Only a day before I was sweating through a three-inch mattress onto the tile floor of an Old Delhi hotel. This trend of tiled everything was decidedly foreign to someone like me who had grown up with carpet. It was a pragmatic choice in a place as hot as Delhi, as well as a constant reinforcement that I was indeed nowhere close to home. I remember being thankful for the smell of cleaning supplies when we walked in to see the distinctive, welcoming head waddle of the man behind the counter. I remember wondering if this was as bad as it was going to get, or if I was going to get the chance to see the "real" India. The hotel wasn’t the Taj Mahal by a long shot, but it wasn’t barely holding on to the edge of a cliff either; I was missing it.
“Baghda eshum rhem!”
The driver was yelling again as I looked back at the two seemingly disinterested passengers with me, both of them gazing out the window like this was their thousandth time up the mountain, which it probably was. Despite our proximity to death, the man behind the wheel never slowed down. Every time he turned to smile at me, I begged him with my eyes to watch what he was doing. “If we die, we die,” he’d seem to say, shrugging a toothy grin my way perhaps as some type of condolence.
I could feel myself about to rip another chunk out of my seat as I thought: This might as well be it. Very rarely do you get the chance at a genuinely glamorous death. If I’m going to fall off a cliff, it might as well be now. This is the acceptance stage that comes after nausea, headaches, and sleep deprivation. I could see myself becoming meat for wild tigers, headhunters making off with my still bandana’d head. I was giving up on my exotic gastrointestinal desire to consume dog, imagining a small wooden cross jammed into the side of the muddy cliff to show where the white man had gotten what he deserved. I was thinking about how incredibly weak and arrogant and cliche I was. Everything together amounted to one big, humbling surrender. I was fragile and learning that was worth more than a thousand photos of tigers. Then we turned a corner onto a plateau littered with small concrete shops, all of them waiting there as if to welcome us back to safety.
When we stopped half a mile later for gas, I bought an expired Indian snickers bar and took a bite of familiarity; the final nail in the coffin for the authentic Indian adventure I had thought I wanted. I sat on Mother Earth’s shoulders that night half wishing I was home and still profoundly grateful to be somewhere I knew I would never see again. There were no headhunters or tigers, but I did eat dog.
I threw up by moonlight as quietly as I could, the way you do when you don’t want anyone to know that you are. The whole time thinking of the inevitable ride back down.
If we die, we die.