At 27, Jason Kurtz bought a one way ticket to India. He was in search of happiness.
I watch, petrified, as the other members of flight 756 open the glass doors and step outside. A roar of noise shatters the serenity of the airport terminal as a screaming mob of Indian men, women and children engulfs them. I try to follow the passengers’ progress, but they disappear among shouting voices and sweating bodies.
The doors close softly behind them and tranquility returns to the terminal. Outside, however, countless eyes peer through the glass doors and stare at me, the only foreigner left in the airport. I’m a skinny, t-shirt clad Westerner holding a gigantic green duffel bag tightly in my arms. It offers scant protection from the mob I have to face. I swallow hard, walk towards the doors and step outside.
“Taxi!” a dozen bedraggled Indian men shout, reaching for my bag.
“Money,” beg scores of women, motioning with their hands towards their mouths.
“A sweet,” dust-covered children cry, looking up at me with hopeful eyes.
I stand among a seething multitude, confused and afraid. Over the heads of the desperate crowd, I see a line of black taxis stretching towards the horizon. Drivers wearing gray, button down, short sleeve shirts lean against the trunks of their cars, watching the chaos with only casual interest. I hold a ticket for one of these taxis in my hand, but I have no idea how to use it.
I search the frantic horde for a friendly face. Amidst the commotion, one man stands still. He meets my gaze, nods, and steps forward with a sense of self-assurance. The crowd parts for him, and he tugs at the ticket in my hand.
Having grown up near New York City, I think I have good instincts about how to protect myself. I know that if I let him take the ticket, I’ll have to follow him, so I tighten my grip. The short, stocky man glances at the ticket then snatches my duffle bag from my grasp. I watch, dumbfounded, as he marches down the row of taxis, my luggage dragging behind him on the ground.
I run after him.
As we emerge from the crowd and move past the taxis, the drivers wake from their stupor and shout at my guide, gesturing that he should put my bag in the trunk of their cars. He ignores them, but stops to glance at my ticket once or twice as we go. This helps me hold onto the illusion that this situation is under control and that the ticket I bought, and not this stranger, will determine my fate. When we finally stop, however, reality and panic set in.
I bought a “non-air condition” taxi ticket in the airport terminal. I wanted to travel as local Indians do, not start my trip like a pampered American tourist. I should have reconsidered when the visibly shocked ticket seller explained that an air-conditioned taxi was “more comfortable,” but I insisted that a non air-conditioned car was what I wanted. Now, however, I understand the ticket seller’s surprise.
The car’s body is dented all over, like a very large and very angry man beat it with a sledgehammer. Cracks riddle the windshield beneath a thick coat of lumpy brown slime, in the midst of which two large blurry circles – clearly rubbed away by the sleeve of the driver in a vain attempt to improve visibility – give the impression of frightened eyes. Inside, ripped seats spill clumps of cushioning onto the floor, where the last remaining vestige of carpeting has been worn thin by the footsteps of thousands of people, revealing the cold metal of the car’s frame.
It’s clear that this car doesn’t have air-conditioning. But does it have brakes? I may have been too naïve to pay for air-conditioning, but I would have paid extra for brakes!
I stare in dismay as my guide puts my bag in the trunk. If I want to switch taxis, I’ll have to grind through the mob behind me, return to the airport, buy another ticket from the ticket seller, come back outside, push my way through the crowd a third time and try to find my new taxi, this time without the little man’s help. I’d also have to remove my bag from the trunk and deal with an angry guide and driver, when I don’t speak their language. I take a deep breath, climb into the back seat and close the car door.
The driver gets in the front, turns towards me and takes my ticket. Outside, the man who led me here stares at me. He thrusts his hand through the car’s open window, palm up, and says, “baksheesh.” My guidebook, which I read on the flight over, explained that “baksheesh” means “tip, donation, or bribe.” Since he carried my bag to the taxi, I probably owe him something.
I reach into my pocket and pull out the coins I received at the airport’s Currency Exchange Booth. I start to look them over, but the man’s brooding presence intimidates me, and I feel that counting the change makes me look cheap, so I simply put them all into his outstretched hand.
He flings the money back at me.
“Baksheesh,” he shouts, cupping his hand and shaking it under my face.
Chastised, I reach into my wallet and hand him a 10-rupee bill. He takes it, but furrows his brow in disgust. I give him five more and he starts to yell at me in Hindi. I have a feeling I’ve already overpaid him, but between his anger and my ignorance I don’t know what to do.
My driver saves me. He looks over his shoulder and says something to the guide. The man scowls resentfully, but pockets the money and walks away.
The driver starts the engine, and we slowly head back toward the horde of beggars. They surround the car and stare at me with despondent eyes. Row upon row of bone-thin women and children, desperate and hungry, plead at my window.
It’s almost unbearable to look at them and do nothing, but I don’t have enough rupees to give something to everyone. I know that if I give money to some, I’ll feel even more guilty about the people to whom I give nothing, so I shake my head no as we pass by.
Once we’re past the beggars, the driver picks up his pace. He looks at the ticket and then glances back towards me.
“Colaba?” he asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
He turns around. We are on our way.
I watch the airport recede behind me, and feel a momentary sense of relief, followed by panic.
“Do you know any good hotels in Colaba?” I ask.
The driver smiles at me in the rear view mirror, but says nothing.
“Do you speak English?”
He shakes his head no, and reality sinks in. I’m on my own. Even if we get to Colaba, which my guidebook said had the cheapest hotels, I have no idea what I’ll do when I get there. No one knows where I am, and no one expects to hear from me anytime soon. I remind myself that this is what I wanted. And I remember that this has worked out before. But what if, this time, I don’t get out unscathed?
–Excerpt from Follow the Joy:
Want the best of The Good Men Project posts sent to you by email? Join our mailing list here.