India has – once again – surpassed itself.
After a frustrating day (personal and very expensive internet has stopped working once again; store to fix internet is closed; internet at work was not working, etc), I went to the refreshing Cafe Coffee Day to get my favorite vegan shake. Stop reading now if you want to continue enjoying life without dreaming that things of a certain caliber of awful can in fact exist.
While enjoying the vegan shake I noticed there were some chunks – which I ate, figuring they were ice or coffee bean or something. I drank every last drop of that shake while reading on my kindle. It was delicious. I slurped up everything I could using the straw and sat back to relax. Except that I noticed a fairly large number of dark chunks still in the glass, stuck to the ice cubes. When I looked closely, I realized with dawning dread and a disgust so deep I cannot name it that they were pieces of cockroach. Truly. Wanting to cry and scream and rewind time and throw up I walked to the counter and explained to the staff, showing them my cup. At first they shook their heads, No, but then reached in a took out a cockroach leg stuck to an ice cube, and fear settled on their faces.
I was barely keeping it together, racking my brain for any possible solution that could even come close to making this right. Of course, I found nothing. I wanted to scream in the middle of the store (which had about 12 other customers) that there was a cockroach in my drink, and tell everyone to leave, but I was finding it hard to form thoughts other than I have just eaten pieces of cockroach.
Of course, the staff barely spoke english. I said “I want to speak to the manager.” “Madam, I am the manager”. ““This is completely unacceptable. How has this happened? How is this possible!?” “Madam, it must have gotten in with the ice” (which was crushed). I wanted them to freak out – to check everything – look in the ice, look in the coffee – to DO SOMETHING – but while I was standing at the counter they kept making drinks and served a lava brownie. Although it was completely inadequate, I demanded a refund (that’s what you do in America, right?), and told him I wanted a comment card, which he happily gave me. It was clear that my comment in his hands would be incinerated or quickly disposed, so I intended to send an email. When I told this to the manager, he took the card back and took me to my seat to sit down and talk.
I can’t describe how sick I felt. I could not stop thinking about everything I saw in the cup, and the feeling of eating the chunks that were in the shake. I was fighting to keep it together, but I don’t think this guy has any idea. He told me “If you send that email I will lose my job. We have had a lot of cockroaches, it has been a problem, but I have called pest control, and I am working on it. Please, tell me what I can do. Please do not send in the email.” After repeating how completely unacceptable this was, I told him that it was my right to send in the card (he agreed). He then talked about how the real problem is that the men behind the counter are so rushed, so something like this happened without their noticing. This cafe chain is the nicest in India – their Starbucks. It’s always air conditioned, and targeted at the young and hip. Would an errant cockroach make it in to a drink at Starbucks? Really hard for me to imagine. So I eventually extracted my refund (such a pitiful repayment) and the comment card, on which I wrote the managers name.
As I went home I was filled with all-consuming feelings of disgust and revulsion. I hate cockroaches – in my book they win first prize in the “least favorite creature” category – at least for creatures I have met. I struggled with irrational feelings that baby cockroaches were going to hatch in my stomach, or that I was going to sprout cockroach legs, or become a roach queen and thousands of roaches were going to flock to me … on and on. I fought to keep this in perspective, but found it impossible. Yes – some people in other cultures willingly eat cockroaches all the time. On american gameshows morons have surely had to eat cockroaches and also done so willingly, hoping to win a pot of money. Although this felt indescribably horrible, I tried to remember that I’m still incredibly fortunate, and always have enough to eat, and this country is full of people who will never experience a luxury like a vegan shake at cafe coffee day. I tried thinking about ahimsa and how a cockroach is just another form of life and all life is one. I tried thinking about how realistically I would probably be completely fine. I tried telling myself that there’s always a minute percentage of cockroach and rat feces in food we eat, and I’ve just gotten a larger dose in one shake. But nothing worked. I felt a complete sense of betrayal – I had ordered a beverage with the implicit trust that it would not contain a cockroach. I felt so tricked and covered in filth. I haven’t made up my mind about the comment card.
It wasn’t until this morning, after only being able to sleep for a few hours that I realized – this is why people sue over finding repulsive things in their food (in america). It’s because you want something to possibly make up for some sort of traumatizing experience and this feeling of disgust, betrayal and loss of control. I really get it now. Litigation hadn’t even entered into my imagination last night, and it doesn’t seem like the right course of action (I don’t live in India, didn’t keep the roach glass, would struggle with the concept of suing, don’t know if this is really a suable-offense etc) – but I really understand the appeal.
I’m feeling a bit better this morning. Of course, I’m still alive, and this latest experience in India is just another reminder of how many challenges can arise in the course of trying to do research I care about. And how many things are not in my job description. The fact that it was (of all things) a cockroach made it a lot worse for me, and particularly the fact that I have a persistent vision of the chunks in the glass and can remember eating them makes it hard to forget. But I will keep fighting to keep this in perspective, and hopefully it will work soon. I will fight to make the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” true in this instance. Just as this feels like a new low, surely there will be another even lower yet. I will try to be ready for it.
PS – upon relating this story to my parents, I learned that something similar happened to my dad in Italy, and my mom found a cockroach in her food in a restaurant in the US. These things help me keep it in perspective. Soon it will be just another story souvenir.