There are too many stories. I may share more later, but I wanted to end this cycle using the last notes taken during my final night in Mumbai. I wish I could sit an novelize our time as a group celebrating Christmas or the incident at the beach or just our entire time vacationing in Goa, India after the tea. But maybe those would be better served as live, stand up stories.
This was my first trip out of the country. Looking back now, I understand why people get the urge to travel. There is a particular endorphine that surges through you while you’re re-adjusting to a different world and lifestyle. God knows what kind of man I could have become had I stayed there another few weeks on my own.
But my last morning in India was spent poolside after we’d been evicted and the villa cleaned for new vacationing tenants moving in later that morning. My taxi arrived and after the requisite hugs I rode through the country-side, my heart aching over the unique beauty around me. The houses, the Christmas nativity scenes, the narrow roads and small farms. It was like the southern part of the states very barefoot country, all green trees and dirt roads.
The driver takes me to the airport. I was so greatful to have a kind, English speaking taxi driver I well over-tipped him and he blessed me and all the family I don’t have.
The plan: fly from Goa back to Mumbai, then Mumbai to Hong Kong, then home. Goa to Mumbai is like LA to San Francisco, if not a touch further. During the flight over the Arabian sea, I understood why I remained so congested so long. The air is quilted in haze. Through the reddish smoke, you can make out fires along the ground, glowing eyes peering through like an intoxicated demon just waking up.
There were no problems reclaiming my luggage after the hourlong flight. But I have a lot of time. I buy water and mango juice and pace the airport. Where do I transfer? I never clearly understood what I was supposed to do. I get confused, lost. A man approaches, tries taking my bag to help me but I don’t understand. He leads me over to a nearby taxi stand. But… But…
What I didn’t know: I’m at the domestic airport. My flight to Hong Kong is at the International Airport, 8 km away.
I’m pushed into a taxi, my bag next to me. The man stands at the car door and firmly repeats: Tip? Tip? I handed him 20 rupees and the man shuts the door.
There are two men seated in front. The taxi pulls off and drives maybe the length of one city block, then pulls over. The driver turns around to me and says he wants 3000 rupees to take me to the international airport. But I don’t have the money, I’m confused and I’m feeling hustled. I’d forgotten that when I first arrived in Mumbai, my price from the airport to the hotel was 1500 and a huge savings since I did it the proper way– getting a taxi from inside the airport and pre-paying for it there. But that was two weeks ago. Now, I’m a hostage.
Then: the man sitting in the passenger seat turns and holds up a $20 bill in American currency. This startles me a bit because I hadn’t seen an american bill in a while.
Here’s the hustle: if I give them a $100 bill, they’ll give me $20 back and take me to the airport. Thanks to my roommates, one of them paying me with U.S. bills, I actually have $100 but in a variety of bills. Not a single Benjamin. They hold up one of the George Washington’s and say: What’s this?
I explain: Its a hundred dollars. $50. Two $20′s. $5. Singles. The singles they don’t understand.
We work it out. They take the money and then… kick me out of their taxi, and put me in another.
The man in the driver’s seat I just paid, turns to a man who comes up to his window and he tells him to take me to the International airport. I get out of the taxi and get into another and we head across the city.
At the time, I wondered if they were driving me in a huge circle and returning me to the airport on another side. I could have fallen for it. I had no clear idea what was happening. But sitting in the backseat I thought about it: The jet I took out of Goa, we boarded and off-boarded on the tarmac using buses to take us to and from the terminal. There wouldn’t be space to do that at a major airport. I began to relax and let go.
The last Cabdriver drove through busy streets and played some Hindi rock music, using an Abba sample. This is my last time seeing shanty style businesses, Christian temples with an illuminated Jesus surrounded by lights. The hustle and bustle of a life I never began to comprehend, even as most Indians accepted me with patient indifference. We don’t circle back to anything except to the airport where I arrived. The fly over looks familiar. I wasn’t kidnapped. Unlike when I arrived, this time I tipped the driver without question. Perhaps my tithe in the name of all the beggars I refused and the driver I didn’t tip when I first arrived.
I get to the Mumbai International airport and… wait. I won’t be able to even check in with the airline for another hour or so. Security guards here are uniformed military armed with automatic rifles. They dress and travel in mini-reinforced trucks, all in matching camouflage. They are all humorless.
For a while I sit on the ground and write and finish my mango juice before I decide to get up and try printing my e-ticket at the nearby kiosk. As I approach it, a man cuts me off. He is tall, thin his silver hair cut short. A bright red third eye. Dressed in working khaki’s. He shows me his taxi badge then points to a dark building on the opposite side of the busy traffic turn around. I see a half finished construction zone, cars turning and darkness.
Free wifi and food, he says. Good price, he promises. I’ll give you a good deal.
I’ve got more than an hour before I can do anything beyond sitting on the ground. Yet getting here has put me on edge. I keep saying No. He hovers around me and I approach the machine to do my business, but he won’t leave and i’m feeling bullied. Thank you, I hate saying No, I said, but No. I say I just want to print my ticket. He points to it and says, that machine is broken. But there is a working one “Over there.” I let it go. I walk away and came back to print my ticket a half hour later
I sit alone for a while. An older couple sits next to me on the sidewalk in front of the airport and eat snacks and drink water. In Goa, I bought a package of fruit and nuts to snack on for the trip, but wouldn’t open it before getting home… only to discover it had a surprise toy within: a wig! Threaded through the dried fruit pieces and nuts was several long strands of black hair. Like an idiot, it was the only thing I declared coming through customs and they didn’t care. I lost my sealed water bottle as a security threat, but kept a bag of unedible fruit.
Time machines exist. They are called jet airplanes. My travel day lasted at least 48 hours. I arrived in Hong Kong the afternoon of the morning I thought I was arriving in San Francisco. I sent a confused email to my friend holding my apartment key, saying maybe I’ll get there at night. But no– on the plane out of Hong Kong time went backwards, and I arrived in San Francisco the morning of the day I just left Hong Kong.
It was a working day and I returned to the neighborhood around my job. I was bearded and in a long kurta I bought out of FabIndia. A long men’s shirt that went past my knees. It was cold as I expected, despite me just leaving what felt like summer. I went to my friend’s office building and we met outside. I felt like a vendor of some kind. He gave me my apartment key and I pulled out of my backpack for him a gift: a full size chessboard with hand carved pieces. I also showed him the second kurta I bought. People had been giving me sideways glances, walking the financial district dressed as I was. But to me, it was envy. I let my friend see the second shirt I bought and he quietly removed it from my hand and tucked it under his arm. I learned later it fit him perfectly. I had no problems with that.
I jumped back on Bart and finally headed home. It had been a long, transformative experience and a once in a lifetime trip. I got off the train and… didn’t have enough change to exit the station. They only wanted a quarter and all I had was a $20 american bill and some torn, wrinkled rupees. The only change machine I could use was just outside the station.
Annoyed, exhausted, I go to the station agent, pulling my bag.
Look at me: I’m in a 9 day black and white beard, pulling a roller bag and carrying a backpack, all while wearing a long gold shirt reaching past my knees.
Me: Can I leave my bag here for a sec to use the change machine?
Station Agent: (Looking me up and down) There’s no bomb in it, is there?
Me: (Calming down, showing him my palm) There’s no bomb, dude.
I swallow my fuck you, and get change.
Imagine: nearly kidnapped and hustled by Indian taxi drivers, travelling thousands of miles, negotiating customs, immigration and armed and mean spirited security at the Indian airport, having my bags roughly molested and slapped in China, then sniffed by dogs in Oakland… only to be held up by a fucking miniumum wage Bart Station Agent!