The Unintentional Teacher

Vivian McInerny
3 min readAug 8

A chance encounter in India leaves a lifelong impression

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She drifted from one cluster of travelers to the next, like a dandelion seed on the wind.

We stood in front of the post office, or maybe it was a visa office, some public space in New Delhi, India where backpackers often gathered. The details blur. What remains in razor-sharp focus is how my eighteen-year-old self felt when I saw her; brutally smug.

She was probably in her early thirties, an age I dismissed as too old to be wandering aimlessly around Asia like a lost flower child. She wore a long wrap skirt, a style found all over street markets in India in 1975. And also at every suburban mall. Stacks of silver bracelets clanked on her wrists. Around her neck hung several strings of glass beads. Her skin appeared sallow. Her hair wild and in need of a wash.

Young men far outnumbered women on the road and she did not go unnoticed. I watched her approach a cluster of men standing around talking. Then another. And another. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I saw how each man shook his head no.

Was she asking for directions? For money? The week before, a young German couple stopped my boyfriend and me with a sob story about needing a ticket home for a family emergency. We were pulling out cash when a passerby warned us they were lying heroin addicts. The aging hippie chick had a similar gaunt and unkempt appearance. As she neared our huddle, I whispered to the others that she probably needed a fix.

“No,” said one guy. “That’s Mary.”

“You know her?”

“I’ve run into her a couple times on the road,” he said. “But I heard about her before I met her.”

I expected to hear a tale of a legendary lover, an earth goddess, one of those Stevie Nicks types who enchanted everyone around campfires with her siren voice. But no. According to this guy, Mary and her husband drove overland from England to India with their two young children. Bandits stopped them on the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan.

“They shot her husband, raped and beat her, and left her for dead,” he said.

A bus driver found her wandering on the side of the road the next day, hysterical. The police found her husband’s body…

Vivian McInerny

Career journalist, essayist, fiction writer, and life-long spirit-quester.