To say that you’ve seen the world before seeing India is like saying you know yourself before taking a good long look at your naked body in the mirror.
Author’s Note: As we begin to write about our last visit to India in greater depth, I’m reminded of my first trip there — also my first trip abroad that I took solo in 1997. Those were the days of traveler’s checks, thick stapled wads of Indian rupees, and exorbitantly priced, poor quality phone calls booked from telephone wallahs on the street. The ATM machines, internet cafes and easy-to-purchase mobile phone SIM cards of today’s India seemed only a pipe dream back then.
This is the first of a multi-part series chronicling the bizarre experiences and lessons – about India, travel and me – that first visit imparted. No other trip since has affected me in quite the same way.
Lesson 1: Never Let Them See You Sweat
1:00 AM: Delhi Airport. I willed my backpack to appear on the conveyor belt, an empty endless loop. It never did. A few money changers and rifle-toting guards still lingered, but I was the last passenger out of the airport that night.
I prepaid a small amount for a taxi (around fifty cents) and fully expected to find my driver on the other side of the exit waiting patiently for me in the peace of the early morning. That was what my American upbringing had taught me would happen.
Instead, I was besieged by no fewer than 200,000 of Delhi’s taxi wallahs.
“Hello my friend. You come with me. My taxi. Yes, my taxi. Yes, my friend. Hello my friend. Come with me, my friend.”
A cloud of humanity grew around me; all I could see in the darkness were the whites of eyes and teeth. I was demoralized, exhausted and more than a little bit frightened. This was not how my “trip of a lifetime” was supposed to begin.
Aside: This “trip of a lifetime” was a long time in the making. I had been working for a consulting company whose vacation policy afforded me a whopping 10 days of vacation a year (and that included sick days). Taking two months off to travel was anathema and was regarded as freakish. Out of frustration and arrogance, I suggested that I needed the time off or I would quit. My employers opted for the “time off” option and I took my trip to India and Australia.
My taxi reservation chit featured some numbers scrawled at the top. A license plate number perhaps, but they could just as well been last week’s lottery numbers. Paper in hand, I searched frantically to find my ride, lurching hither and fro in a parking lot full of taxi clones.
Needle-in-a-haystack hopelessness. The clock ticked.
To move forward and escape the mob, I randomly chose two young men and quickly hopped in the back seat of their Ambassador (the ubiquitous Indian taxi). In moments we were on what looked like a highway, a few weak lights from truck stop dhabas punctuating a dust-filled Delhi night.
I offered the driver the name and address of the guest house where I was headed: “La Jacaranda, Greater Kailash, GK1. M Block.”
“Oh, so sorry sir. You see, it is closed,” the driver offered with a head waggle.
“No, I spoke with them two days ago. They are open.”
“Sorry sir, they are full.”
“Hmmm. How do you know that?”
“La Jacaranda, you say. Yes, full. I know better place.”
“Take me there anyway.”
“But sir, I know better place.”
“I don’t want better place.”
We repeated this routine a half dozen more times, my irritation and fear growing with each exchange.
After one of our impasses, the driver stopped. He pulled off the road and into what looked like a jungle, engulfing us in almost complete darkness.
His sidekick turned around, with a hint of a smile: “You have money.”
I was frightened. It was dark and I had absolutely no idea where we were. In the middle of nowhere, I was with two men who clearly did not have my best interests in mind. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
I surreptitiously peeled away 100 rupees from my stash and handed it over the seat in hopes this would appease him so that we might continue.
Instead, the driver exited the car and lit a cigarette.
His sidekick got out and began urinating into the night. The Ambassador’s dim headlights caught him as he jumped and laughed, gyrating and arcing his prodigious stream of urine in every direction in front of the cab.
They were having fun at the expense of my sanity and a dwindling night of sleep I would never reclaim. I realize now that I must have looked like such fresh meat to them. I showed my fear on my sleeve. Fresh meat and fear: fuel to the fire of opportunists – be they taxi drivers or garden-variety shysters — around the world.
Another 100 rupees to start the car.
Two-and-a-half hours and a couple hundred rupees later, it was 3:30 AM and we pulled up to a private home, apparently La Jacaranda.
Awareness is productive, but fear yields absolutely no advantage. In fact, it tends to self-fulfill.
I rang the bell. The man of the house, half asleep, shot a dirty look at the taxi drivers and looked at me as if to say, “Where the hell have you been, my boy?”
I was thankful to be alive; I clung to what few possessions I had.
Then I collapsed.
Awareness is productive, but fear yields absolutely no advantage. In fact, it tends to self-fulfill. But fortunately, like most cheats in India, these guys never meant any physical harm or violence. They simply wanted to mess with my mind and separate me from a few of my rupees. And guess what? It worked.
Lesson 2: India, Land of Coincidence
After suffering a fitful jetlagged four-hour sleep, I took breakfast in the kitchen-cum-dining room of La Jacaranda. As I tucked into my breakfast of Indian pickle and paratha (stuffed flat bread), a man emerged from another guest room.
Oh my God, I know this guy. I cleared the sleep from my eyes. Perhaps I was seeing things.
“William?” I said.
William, as in the ex-husband of my next door neighbor in San Francisco. In no guide book does it say: “Go to Delhi to bump into your neighbor’s ex.” This trip was beginning to blow my mind.
“Oh, hi.” He was unfazed by our chance meeting.
The full impact of this astounding coincidence was lost on me at the time. My focus was squarely on the problem at hand: I did not have a spare pair of underwear. Nor did I have any idea if or when my backpack would resurface. And those were the days I could not conceive of wearing a pair of underwear more than one day. (I will not share with you how long some pairs last these days.)
I asked William for help and after breakfast he guided me to M-block market for underwear, a t-shirt and other provisions. Over lunch he entertained me with stories of his journey from Lucknow for a kidney operation of the sort that he could only get in Delhi.
I still couldn’t believe it. I was new to India, new to the world of travel, and new to the coincidence that visited both frequently.
William didn’t seem to find our encounter odd. He knew India well.
Lesson 3: Seeing Is Believing
Two days later, Air India called La Jacaranda guest house and left a message: “It’s ‘quite possible’ that Mr. Noll’s bag was recovered. If he would like it today, he must come to Delhi airport to retrieve it.”
“Quite possible?” What on Earth did that mean?
As my taxi wound it’s way to the airport, I realized how different and how much less frightening the fringes of Delhi appeared during the day. Just as dusty but oddly rural with pockets of industry for good economic measure.
Along the highway we were forced to stop for a few minutes to allow a vast herd of sheep to clear. The scene was surreal, exotic. I was simultaneously mesmerized by a cloud of moving wool and the shape of my Sikh cab driver’s beard.
After arriving at the airport I asked around for the lost baggage office in a fit of enunciated American English and charades. I was once one of those people who believed that speaking clearly and raising one’s voice helped bridge the language divide.
I was directed to the rear of the building. There were no signs, just a decrepit little staircase leading somewhere dark.
Retrieving luggage from lost baggage claim should not amount to a Herculean task. But as in all things Indian in 1997, it did. In the war of underemployment and itinerant souls, the Indian bureaucracy had won the battle by giving jobs to leagues more people than the tasks demanded.
“I received a call. My bag is here. I would like to claim it.”
From behind a randomly placed wooden desk, an attendant waggled his head in acknowledgment, grabbed my piece of paper, tore a notch into it and directed me to another man further back sitting behind yet another randomly-placed wooden desk.
Man #2 waggled his head, grabbed my piece of paper, tore another notch into it and gave me another piece of paper. It had a stamp.
Stamps are good. Official, I figured.
He pointed further back to another series of desks. The two men there took my original baggage claim check and the official looking piece of paper, fumbled with those and gave me yet another piece of paper that looked vaguely like currency dating from the British colonial empire.
With head nods, they pointed me further back into their lost luggage labyrinth.
Another man stood in front of a doorway. I explained to him my situation and showed him my papers.
“Sir, it is lunch time. You must return later.”
It was 11:00.
“No fu**ing way!” The few remaining shreds of my cultural sensitivity and patience evaporated. “What do I need to convince you to postpone your lunch a few minutes so I can get my bag?”
“It is simply our lunch break. You must come back later.”
Perhaps a few rupees could have flexed this man’s rigid plans for lunch. Instead, I found a chair in the shadows, pulled up and waited.
After about 20 minutes (during which no lunch was consumed), the man capitulated. He approached me, took my piece of paper, ripped it and gave me another piece of paper and directed me to the doorway behind him.
This was the final stop: the lost baggage window. The air was stale and thick. Expectations were high. I gave the little man tending the window my pitch, which by now I had memorized. He held out his hand, head-waggled, and snatched the last bits of evidence that someone owed me my backpack.
At first glance, the Delhi lost baggage office appeared to house a few hundred bags. A surprising amount, I thought. The man then turned around and headed to a black steel door twice his height.
He opened it and beckoned me just inside. With a hand motion, he asked me to stay put while he conducted his search.
“There’s more?” I craned my neck to get a look at the crypt.
What I saw astounded me: a veritable warehouse, over a football field long, and at least two or three stories high full of shelves filled with bags. In my wildest of travel hallucinations, I could never have imagined there was this much lost baggage on the planet, let alone in the Delhi airport. Dust and oil gathered on suitcases, multi-colored Chinese market bags, strapped boxes, backpacks, body bags.
The man vanished into the darkness. And I waited.
After no more than three minutes, he re-appeared. And there was my bag.
There’s an intricate system at work in India. It’s just that the casual visitor cannot see it through the dust and din.