I was drinking coffee and reading the newspaper at a café in Paris when I stumbled across a small photo of some tribal women in India. They were lined up to protest against their husbands drinking their hard earned money away. I was so intrigued by their embroidered dress that I bought a ticket, packed my bag, and flew to India the next day.
In Mumbai, I switched planes to Goa, where I hired a smiling driver, Sajro, to take me to these women. Sajro reluctantly drove through the night as I went on about a shared destiny with these women whose photo now lay in between the pages of my journal. Questions about his hippy passenger’s insanity came every 20 minutes:
“Does your husband know you are here?”
I am not married Sajro.
Well does your father know?
I have no father any longer.
“Well does your boyfriend know?”
We broke up a couple months ago.
“This place very dangerous and too hot miss Debra. Everyone get sick.”
I paid Sajro upon reaching my destination and stood waving good-bye when suddenly I felt uneasy, in a foreboding way. I walked inside a roadside café and began talking to a man who knew the social workers directly in contact with the Banjara women I was searching for. What an encounter with serendipity. The Universe was definitely telling me I was in the right place at the right time.
That was the last thing I remember. The next day I woke up in a small hotel at the other side of town. Two young Indian women sat like angels at the edge of my bed. I tried to stand but was hit with a wave of nausea and fell back on to the bed, into the clutches of a severe body-ache and unrelenting fever. One angel tried telling me something, while another tried to feed me and get me to take water.
Two weeks later there was still no improvement so my angels organized a ride to visit a doctor. An older Indian woman, wearing used latex gloves came out of her room to examine the pink rash invading my body and within minutes, declared a verdict: Dengue Fever.
I returned to my room and to my fever, sweating in a state of delirium. My angels brought me a TV and cable wire was hooked up. One night, Baywatch came on in Hindi. After having experienced my hair falling out due to typhoid in northern Morocco and the cold clench of malaria in Sumatra, I dreaded the idea of calling home to announce my imminent fate. Even by my standards and flare for drama, dying in a little hotel in the middle of India while watching David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson frolic up and down a beach, I’d be pushing the envelope a little far.
Finally one day, I woke up as if out of a bad dream with 8 kilos less. My angels, Sangeeta and Radha, had never left my side. They were the social workers working with the women I had come to photograph. Days later, we drove out to meet the women who stood around me in a circle until one of them named Monka stepped forward to say: We have been waiting for you.
Fleeting words of wisdom: Wear mosquito repellent, say yes to cable TV and angels at your bedside.