India is an incredible country. Many of the classic metaphors and perceptions regarding “foreign travel” can be found here: loud, crowded cities, people living in the streets, water and sanitary issues, harsh living conditions producing harsh attitudes, etc.
But as I was about the discover in one of the most densely crowded cities in the world, first impressions can be more a reflection of our ignorance than the truth. What you see on the outside doesn’t necessarily reflect chaos or apathy on the inside.
As I got in the ticket line at the Mumbai airport, I went through my silent routine of counting my bags again to make sure all was with me:
1) Large Pelican case with medium format and SLR cameras, check.
2) Shoulder bag with 2nd set of SLR camera gear, check.
3) Brown leather duffle bag with clothes and general supplies, check.
4) Larger day pack with in-flight clothes and reading material, check.
Looks like everything was there. I took too much on this solo trip, split between 3 weeks in India and a month in Kenya. Carrying it myself all the time was a major pain and lesson for future travel. This was before the era of efficient and inexpensive rolling bags and lightweight yuppie travel gear came into vogue.
The one consolation was that I was glad to have more, rather than less, photo gear when great light and subjects came together in these premiere destinations.
I had been waiting in line about half an hour when I decided to check something in my hip pack.
Deep, jaw-dropping shock. No hip pack!
Over 160 rolls of 35mm and medium format film, malaria medicine, toiletries, shaver, notes, etc. Could a pickpocket have stolen it in the last half hour?
No way. I had avoided crowds and gotten right in line when I left the cab.
It must be in the cab!
Now what? All the blue and yellow cabs in Mumbai and India look the same.
And there are thousands of yellow cabs in Delhi. Mine left half an hour ago.
Millions of these cabs honk their way around India
What to do? What would you do?
One thing I don’t do is give up too easily.
It was about 5:30PM. My flight was due to leave at 7:50PM.
Do I forget about the film (160 rolls + developed shots), go to Delhi and buy more there? I can buy film, though I’d be unsure of the integrity of the emulsion. But losing developed images would sting for years.
Or get out of the long line (took me about an hour to get where I was) and start a wild goose/film chase?
Traveling solo affords one the freedom to change one’s mind without guilt or hesitation. I immediately got out of line, realizing I would be staying at least another night in Mumbai, as there were no other flights out to Delhi that day.
I found a phone to call the hotel I just left. Maybe they had a record of the cab that picked me up.
I was shocked when, two minutes later, they gave me the name and license of the cab driver.
Next stop: Airport police. I learned that they supposedly keep a log of all taxis arriving and departing from the airport.
After another hour, I make it to the police office and they check their lists.
Nothing. I find out that they only keep a list of cabs leaving the airport, not arriving. They offer no advice.
I went back outside into the mass of humanity and honking vehicles. I had no idea what to do.
A private cab driver was outside his vehicle by the drop-off area and asked me “What’s going on?”
Bekesh, my cab driver for the evening.
“I think I left a camera hip bag in the cab that dropped me off about an hour and a half ago. Are there any airport cameras here?”
I don’t know sir. But even if there were, I don’t think you can access them. Do you know the cab license number?”
Do you remember what the cab driver looked like?”
I thought that was a funny question, as though he or I could pick him out of the 10 million drivers in Delhi, or if I could just wait at the airport whenever he returns.
But I did remember something.
Well, he was a young driver with a beard and a pink shirt.”
OK, here’s what you have to do. Trust what I say and nobody else. My name Bekesh. Hop in my cab”.
A lot of thoughts flashed across my mind. As vulnerable as we can all be in this type of situation, at some point you have to muster all your powers of social and interpersonal observation and awareness, and decide in short time whether you are willing to trust a stranger in a strange land.
I knew he would want money. But after only a week or so in the country, I had made two observations about Indian personalities. Although they are more assertive and confrontational in their interactions than most Americans, never were their confrontational tones threatening, aggressive or abusive, in my opinion. This unoffensive openness on my part allowed me to carry on numerous long conversations with strangers, and kept me appreciative of the general honesty this culture. (There are always individuals whom one cannot trust in any culture, but there were none that I met on this trip).
Father loading baby on train, India
Woman & bulldozers, Mumbai
Crowded 3rd class train, India
But they are an adjustment from the usual Western conversational mannerisms. Direct, assertive behavior is often a sign of confidence, which can be comforting to a foreigner, as long as it is evaluated with the mix of other signals indicating whether the person is trustworthy and not a threat. The assertiveness I witnessed was never directed at me personally. It was always in relation to the topic being discussed. This told me that the speaker was genuinely interested on giving truthful information, rather than denigrating or playing mind games.
Perhaps it was their strong cultural or religious foundation, combined with the constant need to rely on others in such a crowded, dense existence. Or it may have been the novelty of seeing a solo American in the areas I had visited. Or maybe (I’d like to think) it was the combination of my verbal and non-verbal interaction that struck a chord with those I met.
Or perhaps it was just luck with the people I encountered. Right place, right time, and an empathetic soul. Regardless, in those split seconds after Bekesh offered his help, I just smiled and got in the cab.
When you have little else to lose at that point, it does make the decision a bit easier. I was acutely aware that hope can override fear or common sense in many cases, but based on the observations mentioned above, I felt the balance was heavily tipped in favor of “nothing left to lose”.
Bekesh said “The first thing you have to do is cancel your flight to Delhi.”
I walked again to the ticket counter, got in line behind 20+ people, and wait another hour. When I got to the counter, the power suddenly went out in the airport. Nobody flinched or sighed. So, unphased, I described my situation and asked if I could cancel or postpone my flight.
In her monotone voice, the ticket agent said “You are too late. There is nothing I can do until the power comes back on.”
I controlled my mounting exasperation. Traveling in places like India has taught me a life lesson: not overreacting at the first sign of a brick wall. Frustration with the “system” in most countries is a way of life, not an exception. But the flip side in many places with a lack of the technology that Westerners are used to is the ability to find a human with discretion. (Even with technology, you can find a human with discretion, but oddly enough, a lack of technology often means one one less roadblock to getting the outcome you want).
Then she looked at my ticket and said “Oh, you paid in rupees, not foreign currency. There will be cancellation charges. Go see the Duty Officer”.
I located the Duty Officer, and waited half an hour in another line. The Officer approved my cancellation. They subtracted 25% from the refund, and I bought a flight for the next day.
I went back outside to Bekesh, who said, “The second thing you’ll have to do is give me some money.” The money was not for him, but “so the police will seriously work on this to help us”.
I considered whether he would keep some of it and give the rest to the police. But a little money goes a long way in India, and since I only had to cough up 200 rupees ($7 at the time), it was a moot point).
Clever mattress sign, central India
We drove to another area of the airport close to the departure zone again and went inside to talk to the police. Bekesh told me to let him do the talking. They make some phone calls and find an address of a cab driver. I have no idea what’s going on, but again, out of millions of Indians and billions of possibilities, I have nothing to lose but time now, so I go with the flow.
We then drove with the 2 policemen (and all the luggage) in the cab for about 45 minutes through Mumbai’s filthy, crowded and raucous streets. When we arrive at the supposed residence, the policemen get out and start asking locals some questions.
By this time, it is about 10:00PM. I haven’t eaten. I have the driest throat in Mumbai. My brain is spinning from all that’s happening. My stomach is out for revenge, and my bowels are ready for the emergency exits.
After about an hour, the police returned to say that the cab driver didn’t live here. The cab registration had changed since last year. But one local told them that he might be living in another part of town (he didn’t have the address). I didn’t even know how they were assuming this was supposedly the right cab driver.
We drove the policemen back to their respective posts (each one at a different location). It was midnight now.
Bekesh said that he would take me to a nice hotel and we could try again in the morning. But on the way, he stopped at a corner where there were a lot of cabs parked for the night. A cabbie “guard” was sleeping in one of them. It is 12:45AM.
I waited again in the car, feeling slightly better from the Pepsi that he offered me earlier. After 15 minutes, Bekesh returned and drove to another cab parking area, this time with about 50 cabs in a guarded residential area. There was a huge 5 story apartment complex. He talked for a while with the taxi guard.
A man walked out of the building in the 1:00 AM darkness. They seemed to argue a bit, then the man left. Ten minutes later, he returned with my camera bag. I was beyond shock.
Bekesh was smiling, the guard was neutral, and remember holding back tears. After about 100 miles and 6 hours of crazing driving through Mumbai in the dark, we found a needle in an incredibly dense haystack of civilization.
The man with my bag was the father of the cab driver. Apparently, when his son returned home, it was late. He cleaned out the cab, found the bag and was supposedly going to bring it to the cab office in the morning.
The elusive hip bag, found in good hands after a 6 hour search throughout Mumbai.
Two questions plagued me at this weary point in the early morning: First, I’ll never know if I would have ever retrieved the bag by just waiting at the airport, or at the taxi office? Second, and most baffling — how did Bekesh find these people?
He told me that the two clues I gave him were critical: a pink shirt and a beard.
Most Indians at the time are Hindus (about 90%). Hindus usually don’t have beards, nor pink shirts, according to Bekesh. It was a simple as that. He knew the neighborhoods where Hindus and Muslims live and park their cabs.
But more than his knowledge, it was his incredible, relaxed persistence that impressed me. He never knew how much money I had or would have been willing to pay him. He was never threatening or in any way anxious about the situation. His confidence was encouraging, even if the longer the night went on, the less I thought I’d see my bag again.
Perhaps the depth of poverty and daily hardship others live every day of their lives in countries like India gives rise to an equal depth of patience and tenacity in the face of the unknown. Living in a Westernized society, insulated from the rawness of these other countries may also insulate us from the benefits of pushing through when things may seem hopeless.
Traveling forces us to trust a lot of people, knowingly and unknowingly, without meeting or aware of who may be controlling your fate at the time. You throw your hopes into the wind and dance with the fire sometimes, always with the risk of being burned.
There will always be untrustworthy people with bad intentions in the world. But I learned that beneath our surface impressions. and the ignorance from limited experience and media information, there are human beings here with the same capacity for understanding as ourselves.
The warmth I felt from this stranger’s persistence and kindness will not only last me a lifetime, but has been passed forward to others back home and abroad.
~ ~ ~
“What if the worst thing that ever happened to you became the best thing that ever happened to you?” – Joe Dispenza
© Ron Levy 2020
Note: Three weeks later, this camera bag disappeared again, in Kenya. This time it was a different story. See Part II here.