Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers: An Indian Couple from Louisiana

It was almost midnight, I had been in motion for 22 hours, I was alone in a foreign land, and the only word I was reasonably certain I could pronounce in the local language was “salad.” Oh, and if I ate salad, I was almost sure to get the dreaded “Delhi Belly.”

I stood at an anonymous baggage carousel in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji airport (I can’t pronounce it either) hoping Delta hadn’t lost my bags in New York after a day that began at 5:30 in the morning in Sacramento, had interminable stops in D.C. and New York and had just culminated in a 14½-hour flight to the far side of the world.

A unique smell filtered in from the muggy air outside. It had hints of spice, humanity and exhaust fumes. As I saw my battered suitcase slide onto the conveyor belt, I decided it wasn’t an altogether unpleasant smell.

Once I picked up my bag, I headed toward the family that represented my lifeline. Dossu and Shitakme, the middle-aged Indian couple I had been sitting beside for the past half-day would see me to the Hotel Suba Palace, 45 minutes away.

Eight-hour conversations on 777s are a great way to either make friends or annoying enemies, and these two were the former. Emigrating to the U.S. about the time my parents were starting to date, the Indian dentist and his wife were a few weeks away from getting U.S. citizenship, and were returning to their homeland to attend a wedding. After giving me countless hints on how to keep from getting scammed by opportunistic locals, they asked where my hotel was. Once they found it was in Colaba and not far from their own, they offered me a ride with their friends, who were meeting them at the airport.

As I dragged my suitcase to them and their family, I was warmly greeted with a friendliness that would become happily familiar on this trip. I asked them to wait while I changed some of my dollars for rupees, and Shitakme handed me a 100-rupee note and said that I wouldn’t need any more before I got to my hotel. When I tried to give her the equivalent in American currency, she told me that if I offered her money again, she would slap me in my face.

I’m not one to argue with people in their own country, so I followed them through a security checkpoint and then through the door.

My first sight of India from the ground involved a guard with the curious habit of resting his chin on the muzzle of his rifle in front of a fence crowded with around 250 cab drivers, idlers and people meeting family and friends.

I switched my cell phone on to call home and let the folks know I was safely on the ground, and before I could enter the number, Shitakme thrust her phone in my direction and told me to call on it, since it would be cheaper. I didn’t dare offer her any cash for the call.

Since their car was full, I would ride with their luggage and a second driver. She gave him her phone and told me to call home again when I reached my hotel, and she’d get her phone back later. I thanked her and got into a red compact vaguely reminiscent of a Civic.

The most obvious thing was that there were people everywhere. They sat in dark corners, cooked over open fires on the sidewalk, stood in the cones of light emanating from streetlights, carried goods on their heads, slept on the street beside the Porsche dealership, and drove around in everything from autorickshaws to Bentleys.

We drove on the left side of the road, oblivious to red lights and lane markers someone had painted on the ground in vain. In a series of near-death encounters that would prove to be the norm when traveling by car in India, we skirted past trucks and bullock carts closer than I would ever have been comfortable parking in the United States.

We neared Colaba, and the driver, who patiently answered my myriad questions throughout the ride, asked me for the address to the hotel. I winced and read the only address the hotel has: “Near Gateway of India, Apollo Bunder, Bombay – 400 039.” For me, an address that began with the word “near” was frightening and archaic.

Apparently, it’s all good. Everyone knows where the Gateway of India is, and my driver simply drove near it, then asked one of the ubiquitous people sitting on the street for directions. He pointed and said something I couldn’t even guess at, and we drove another few minutes.

After one more stop for directions – apparently a normal way to locate something – I found myself staring at the familiar image I had seen on the Internet. I called home, grabbed my bag and thanked my driver, asking him to thank Shitakme and Dossu for their kindness once again.

He drove away as I approached the uniformed doorman, who greeted me with a grin and a hearty “Namaste” before leading me up some marble stairs to the registration counter.

I signed in on one of the last pages of a registry that looked like it had been around since India was still a British colony, then rode up the miniature elevator to my room. When I opened the door, I wasn’t sure what I would find, hoping it wasn’t a bait-and-switch differing greatly from the photos of the rooms I had seen on the Internet.

It might have been any hotel in America. Two beds and a chair that folded into a third bed were spaced out in the room, which was complete with a fully functional bathroom and TV. The lights, heater and fan were all controlled by a remote. I smiled and realized I had been uneasy and a little nervous for nothing.

It was my first time traveling alone to a foreign country (my friends arrived 24 hours later). It was my first third-world destination, and it turned out to be a great deal easier to handle than some experiences I’ve had in America.

Of course, I have Dossu and Shitakme to thank in large part for that.


rockaclimba said...

Wonderful account and very interesting write-up. I have provided your blog a link and published it on our forum for adventure and outdoor travel.

a smiley face said...

What an awesome experience, and you describe it so well. While I have no desire to visit India or any other 3rd world country, the people I've met from there are so warm and kind. It's always nice to read stories like this.

You must drop me a line if you're ever in my neck of the woods. We nomads have to stick together.