A Trip AbroadIt's been awhile. I have a bunch of stories lined up but it's been a crazy 12 months. One that I've been meaning to write is a follow-up to The General. This would revolve around his trip to Tokyo where we met with senior cabinet and government officials and also had breakfast with Japan's Minister of Defense. This was the Minister's priceless quote that my story may someday revolve around: "In Japan, the people believe that water, air and defense should be free." The meeting ended on a friendly but rather pointless note and nothing further has happened since then.
That is in my former life. I still keep in touch with The General but I am enjoying my current challenge. I just returned from an amazing trip to India so I'll jump forward. My rather sudden visit came about as a result of a confluence of events not relevant here. My colleague, Eishin, and I went to Mumbai (Bombay) for a conference with further meetings scheduled at another location in a remote part of India. Visas, shots, antibiotics and malaria pills in hand, we modern boys ventured into a land neither had yet visited.
Mumbai is unlike any city I have ever visited. It is equal parts modern metropolis, living history, and stunning poverty. I guess it's the jarring discontinuity that is intriguing, not to mention deeply thought provoking. The next time my mother tells me to eat my broccoli because the children in India don't have any, I'll certainly do it. Eishin and I spend our few days in the city trying out different modes of transportation. We start out by going to a conference via chauffeured luxury vehicle ($60), move to a bright blue taxi named Cool Cat ($6) and finally work up the courage to hop on a 3 wheeled scooter ($1). All in all, the dollar scooter absolutely gives the most ride for the money. In the luxury car, we are mobbed by children that come up to us and beg when we pause (frequently) in traffic. In the Cool Cat, less so. And in the scooter, though we are far more accessible, we are ignored all together. Capitalism in action.
However, we can't feel too one with the people. We stay in a heavily fortified, modern hotel; moving from street to hotel is like going from Haiti to Paris in 100 yards. Again, the discontinuity. While it may be an overly optimistic hope, I wonder if perhaps this is how societies lurch unevenly into a modern age.
Our next meetings are far from Mumbai. We are to fly into a remote city, stay the night and then drive out to the factory in the morning. The company is gracious enough to give us a car and driver for our time with them. At the airport, the driver picks us up and since it is still early in the afternoon, takes us around to see a few sights. After a short while, our car stops and Gandhi hops in. Well, perhaps a close cousin in appearance. He explains that he is our guide. We are taken to a small temple where, to my considerable surprise, the walls are covered with pictures of naked men (not that there's anything wrong with that). When we move to another room, a man bids that we sit next to him. Feeling trapped, we comply. He takes out a similar stack of photos including ones of his (unclothed) leader sitting next to the (clothed) Dalai Lama. Explaining aspects of his belief, he says, "Hindus worship the cow but we worship peacocks. He then goes into enough detail to make a zoologist blush on the mating habits of peacocks and how their purity in this activity makes them worthy of respect. I've since checked Wikipedia and I'm doubtful of the basis for his claims but it's a bit late to advise him of this.
Taking out a small ornate feather duster made from peacock feathers he waves it at us and says, "Many elegant western women visit. When our holy leader sees them, he covers himself." At this point, I am dead certain that he is referring to the need for a certain amount of modesty and decorum, such as could be had from behind the cover of a handful of feathers. I am mistaken. He continues, "These women often may cause holy leader's body to respond now, this very, very normal. So peacock feathers, very helpful." At this point, staying well clear of the duster, I politely excuse myself and determine not to visit Indian temples with my girls.
Eishin and I were warned. The day we are to transit from Varanasi to our final destination is a holiday, Color Festival. Our contact at the company repeatedly advised us that this particular festival might be a bit too enthusiastic for tourists and asked us to stay indoors until the car arrived to pick us up in the afternoon. But, we are in India! We feel that it is a tourist's duty to venture out. Both of us are well travelled enough to be able to handle most anything that comes our way. Stepping out of the hotel, the doorman stops us and, before we realize his intentions, paints Eishin's face with bright colored chalk, with a good measure sprinkled in his hair and clothing. I reluctantly submit to the same treatment, thinking perhaps we would now be camouflaged from further attention. At the hotel gate is a 3 wheeled motorized taxi. The driver is under the hood but when he notices us he quickly stuffs some important enginy looking parts in a bag and closes the hood, assuring us that it is "Working better, now". We don't see any other options so, after negotiating a price of $2, we climb in and ask him to drive around the town.
The driver coaxes the reluctant engine to life and we sputter down the road. 200 yards later a group of celebrants run up to the taxi. Enthusiastically and joyfully, they spray us with bright colored water. In fairness, we had been warned that this was the custom. Determined still to proceed, we urge the driver on. Up ahead we hear loud music and see a group of people in the middle of the road, dancing and singing. The driver honks. Big mistake. The following minutes are a confusion. From every direction, we are descended upon. The car is being rocked, arms are reaching, we are grabbed, pushed, pulled and absolutely drenched in florescent colored water. Everyone is yelling. Suddenly, the driver is violently yanked from the vehicle and disappears from view. Then, to my added shock, an arm reaches in from the opposite side and grabs the keys. A disheveled, multi-hued reveler, eyes wide and bloodshot, shoves his face an inch away from me and screams, "In India you DANCE!!!!" Eishin and I are yelling and punching back as we mentally review the status of our wills. There is NO WAY OUT. Either we run for it and risk being pummeled or stay and have the tiny vehicle torn apart. Then, suddenly and appearing from nowhere, the driver is back in his seat, the keys are back in the ignition and we are moving as fast as the little car can go. I have reviewed this moment out loud with Eishin and a hundred times in my head. Neither of us knows how we escaped. We are back at the hotel 10 minutes after departure.
Later that day, after thorough showers which fail to completely remove the color from our bodies, the driver picks us up. The drive to the factory takes 3 1/2 hours. We zip through city, towns and country at the maximum speed possible at that precise moment in time. Technically, cars drive on the left but we use whatever open area there is, swerving left and right to avoid cars, trucks, cows, goats, tractors, bikes and people. Often we will go full speed towards trucks, diverting left or right at a fraction of a moment before impact. There seems to be a telepathic connection between drivers so that each knows the intentions of the other. However, based on the number of devastatingly totaled vehicles on the side and in the middle of the road, it seems that this link can be easily broken. Taking note of this, Eishin and I do not dare distract the driver from his task. Either due to the driver's spectacular skill, or a force field extending out one millimeter from the surface of the car, we never so much as brush another vehicle.
Note to self: Do not check in bags in India. Our trip back from Varanasi to Mumbai is not without incident. The local airport is chaos - tiny and frenzied with staff, passengers, vendors and soldiers (with machine guns and no regard for where they are pointed) all competing for space. Ominously, the power keeps shutting down. Fighting our way to the counter, the agent/luggage handler/one man band looks at our tickets, takes my bag, shoves some vaguely official looking boarding passes at us and impatiently waves us away. Boarding the plane, I sit and pull out the document. Mumbai, our final destination, is not listed and there is no receipt for my bag. Our connection time in Delhi to catch the flight to Mumbai is short and we are desperate to make an important meeting the following day. There is no way I would be able to retrieve my bag, check-in again and then make it to my connecting flight. When we land in Delhi, we have only 20 minutes before the Mumbai flight departs and we are at a gate where they have to bus everyone to the terminal. I grab a flight attendant and ask her what I should do. "Find anyone with radio and tell them." This, as it turns out, is excellent advice.
On the tarmac I find a guy and tell him the situation. He already looks harried and his radio is spitting out a constant stream of orders such that it's a wonder anyone can get a word in edgewise. I don't know why I merit his attention but he springs into action. He radios in, calls a motorized cart over and we hop on board. We whiz over to the next plane, Eishin, obviously more travel savvy than I, hops off with his luggage in hand ("Save yourself!") and then the guy drives me to the baggage loading area. "GO! Find your bag!" he yells. I start scanning a thousand bags. "What color is it?" he asks. "Black!" I yell. Pointing to the nearest gold bag he screams above the din, "This one?" NO - Black! I yell back. Pointing to a bright red bag, he yells, "this one??" I point to a black bag and yell, "Like this one only different!" Note to self: black is a popular color. Yet, miraculously I find it. I grab the bag, toss it into the cart and he drives like a madman out to the plane. Amazing. 15 minutes from touchdown to boarding. I'm certain I couldn't have done it faster if I had walked from the plane, through the terminal and directly onto the connecting flight. It occurs to me that if I had approached a secure luggage area in the US, the airport would have shut down and I would have been on the nightly news as poster child for bad airport behavior. I love India.
Back in Mumbai we spend one more day in meetings. That night we take a taxi to our hangout. In 8 days, we already have a place where we are recognized. The manager (we call him Captain) sees us, takes us to our usual table and brings us a steady stream of local curries, each better than the last. Our flights are after midnight so we take our time to enjoy the atmosphere and review a trip that both of us agree was rather unique. Maybe we'll return but the first impressions will likely be the ones that hold in our memory.