these are ancient posts. only edits are to correct my potty-mouthed tendencies
Around 10 days ago, I threw comfort to the wind and left for Mumbai. Those last few days, I surprisingly found myself unprepared for departure. I was aware of how wonderful my friends were before leaving, but now I’m keenly, acutely aware of it. All the time. I miss you all more than I can describe.
I’ve never been to Mumbai, never imagined Mumbai, never conceptualized all that Mumbai is/could be/may be. On paper, I knew some facts – 16 million people, a city built by “reclaiming land from the sea”, Bollywood, bhangra, clubs. Beaches.
16 million people – an unimaginable number, as though one person for every grain of sand on the beach. Then, in the larger context, 16 million is nothing… 16,000,000 out of over 1,000,000,000 in India. A glass of water against the oceans. 1+ billion people. Unfathomable.
Flights are flights, and I’ll leave out most of the details of the prodigiously long flight from Atlanta to Mumbai via Amsterdam. Suffice to say, the flights were packed [though my concept of packed people moving has since changed]. I had brief conversations with a fellow from Cameroon, which was interesting; and even more interesting, I found myself sitting next to a fellow who works for the same company as Meg’s dad. Small world.
The flight arrived on time, miraculously. The terminal at the international airport in Mumbai smelled ancient, like my old high school – lingering odors of mold, flopsweat, dust, saltwater. It felt creaky, rickety. I rushed myself through the airport to baggage claim, attempting to reassure myself that collecting my baggage and making it through customs would be a cinch.
But, before I get ahead of myself, let me describe Indian baggage claim. The carousel snakes around a large, rectangular room, curving and swirling about senselessly, as though to maximize inefficiency. Indians coming home from abroad tend to return with copious excess baggage, often beyond the designated limit of 2 pieces per person – for example, the family of four that was standing to my right had 8 checked bags, probably each in excess of the weight limit, and 8 carry-on pieces. Never mind the fact that one family member is probably 4 and another is still in swaddling clothes. Seriously, no big deal.
I digress. The horn sounds, and the baggage starts coming through the very small entry point. Not single file, not piece by piece, but instead bags stacked haphazardly atop bags – a house of cards, a pyramid shaped flea market of oddly colored, oddly named suitcases, boxes, duffle bags, strollers, televisions, rice cookers, air quality monitors – you name, veeee have it. Every fifth piece gets caught in the entry door. Ever other piece has some strap that gets caught in the conveyor belt, resulting in literally dozens of large pieces of luggage crashing to the floor. This being India… the luggage just sits there, as though eventually – at some point – it will gain sentience, realize its mistake, and hop back onto the belt. Or, more likely, someone else will come by and take care of it. Small children sit on the fallen luggage, play amongst it, and then try to move it. Occasionally, they succeed. More often, they become trapped by it, and start screaming. Loudly.
My bags were two of the last ones off the plane, but they arrived intact, a blessing. Blessing be cursed; customs was a nightmare. After reclaiming bags in India, one is presented with two options – the “Green Channel” and the “Red Channel” for customs. The green channel facilitates rapid movement for residents and non-residents who have nothing of consequence they are importing; the red channel is for folks who need to make some sort of declaration. I hustled over to the queue for the green channel, but was instantly spotted. A large customs official – dressed from head to toe in spotless, pressed, pristine white – heralded me with great fanfare to the red channel, where not one, not two, but three magical customs officials awaited me. At this point, my pulse quickened to a breakneck pace, my pores began springing sweat like a geyser, and my brain turned into a smoldering lump of coal.
My bags contain around 10,000 USD worth of equipment, three-quarters of which belongs to Harvard and the remainder of which belongs to Emory. Every piece is essential to the study. And so the conversation begins…
Hello, bya, bags ma kya ha?(Hello, brother – what’s in the bags?)
Well, in this one, camping gear. I’m going to Ladakh in August. Clothing, personal medicine – normal travel stuff.
And in this one?
More camping gear, some electronics.
Electronics? Quickly, bring them here (points to X-ray machine, bags go on x-ray machine. Man makes rapid clicking sound with mouth, Indian for, nonononono.)
What is all of this?
Long, drawn out explanation. Volunteer in slums, air quality monitoring, student, equipment all goes back to US.
… … … … … … How much USD do you have?
Duties for this equipment are $400
(oh, of course they are, since I only have 350. Foofaa, to be honest, I don’t really have 350. I bought coffee and a sandwich at the airport. What if he takes all my money? Then what? Bribery! Must… bribe…customs fellow. What if he’s honest? Jackass, slap yourself later, he’s not honest. Figure out a way to bribe him. 100 bucks is like 4600 rupees. One month’s pay. Foofaaing piece of poo assholes. Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa.)
I don’t have 400, and all of the equipment is coming back with me – it is NOT staying in India.
Give me 50 USD.
Wha…Excuse me? (I mean, yeah, I had contemplated 100, but the reality is so much more severe and… poop.)
He now calls two guys with big guns, who usher me to a back room. They speak to each other in Tamil or Maruthi, which I cannot understand; we go over to a wall with a one-way viewing mirror. Extending from the wall is around 2 feet of table, like a bar; they make me exchange the money literally under the table. I find this final flourish both inexorably cruel and hideously, ridiculously amusing. Finally, after between two and three hours, I’m outside of the airport, passport and equipment in hand. It’s a bit after 1 am.
Harpreet & Niladri (Batman & Robin, The Justice League, Fantastic Two, Turner & Hooch, JD & Turk) come to my rescue. I get a prepaid cab, we stop at a restaurant, and we head into Mumbai. Despite it being 1 am, its still extremely hot out – the sort of heat that sticks to you like flypaper. 1000% humidity. Supersaturated air. You exhale here, it rains somewhere.
Finally, we’re at the apartment; its beautiful. Running water, two beds, plenty of space. Constant electricity. A foofaaing television! Pots pans silverware cleaning supplies. Unbelievable. I owe these two chaps my life.
Sleep that night consisted of lying awake, wide-eyed, wishing for a beer and friends.