My new year's resolution is to begin every year by writing about an experience I'm grateful for. Here's the first installment.
Half my lifetime ago, in the mid-80s, I was itching to make my leap into the world. I'd saved fifteen thousand dollars, which I figured would be enough to propel me through a round-the-world odyssey -- or at least a few years through Asia. The day I told my multi-millionaire Diamond District boss I was quitting my job and abandoning the rent-free mid-town Manhattan apartment that came with it so I could go see the world, he looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Well, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." True enough, even if I still felt awkward being called a "man."
Before flying to India, I spent about a month traveling around the United States, visiting relatives and friends before setting off on my great adventure.
"Leaving on a jet plane. Don't know when I'll be back again."
In those pre-Internet days, a one-way ticket to Asia took you further than it does now. Much further. It would take a month for my letters to reach friends and another month or so for their responses to find me at whatever post office I anticipated visiting two months down the road: Poste Restante. I carried a pocket-sized short-wave radio in my backpack so I could follow some of what was happening back in "the world," though the BBC signals I picked up seemed to be primarily cricket scores, but at least they were in English. You'd have to be willing to live on squirrels and acorns to get that far away from this world these days. Back then, you just had to fly to India.
As I made my way through my farewell tour of family and friends, I came to feel like some epic nineteenth-century explorer about to step into the great unknown: Joseph Conrad or Richard Burton. Between my aunts' kisses and uncles' firm handshakes and advice, I noticed that a few of my female friends were responding to me differently, as if they sensed my impending ruggedness and budding fearlessness. These hints of halting admiration strengthened my sense that I was doing the right thing by dropping my "dream job" (even if it had been a far cry from any of my dreams) and flying off into the unknown with my pockets full of traveler's checks.
Well, not my pockets really, since after reading warnings of crafty Asian thieves I'd bought a money belt to wear under my clothes. And not traveler's checks either, since I'd heard that I could get a better exchange rate for cash. So my new money belt held my passport, an AMEX card, and fifteen grand in hundred dollar bills. I was set for a long trip into the unknown.
I'll never forget the late-night taxi ride from the airport to Old Delhi. The area had been recommended by an Israeli who was next to me on the plane. I told him how I'd been reading up on India, preparing for my trip. He said, "There's really no way to prepare for India. You'll either love it or you'll hate it." He was wrong about that, because I ended up loving it and hating it. It drove me crazy, but the place also drove me hard toward solid insight and confused admiration.
But that came later. The first night, I was too overwhelmed to ponder loving or hating anything.
I remember the smells most clearly now: spices, wood-smoke, sweat, exhaust, cow dung, kerosene lamps, human shit, clove cigarettes. We drove along highways lined with families sleeping, one after the other, night refugees absorbing the warmth of asphalt, blanketed with exhaust from trucks passing a meter from their feet.
The next few days are a blur in my memory. The Israeli on the plane was right in recommending I stay in Old Delhi. The dusty streets were swirling rivers of smells, sounds, cows, identical old-style cars (in those days, India had only one car, the Ambassador), bicycle rickshaws, the motorized rickshaws known as tuk-tuks, a few elephants, and people, people, people ... everything moving, everything alive, everything flowing into everything else.
After a few days, I bought a ticket for the early morning train to Kashmir. I packed my backpack the night before, so I'd have no confusion getting to the station on time. I'd just wake up, brush my teeth, throw on my clothes, and go.
Which is what I did. I was drinking chai in the café of the station, forty minutes before the twenty-hour train was scheduled to depart, when I felt the bead of sweat running down my spine and realized my money belt wasn't there. Wary of thieves who might creep into my room at night, I'd been sleeping with the money belt under my pillow, certain I'd awaken if someone got that close to me. Now I realized I'd left all my money and my passport under the pillow when I'd checked out an hour earlier.
My great round-the-world adventure had lasted three days.
Running back to the nameless guest house in a back street of Old Delhi, I saw my immediate future coming at me like a falling piano. Of course, nobody would know anything about any money belt, and how could I know who was lying? I'd demand the notoriously corrupt police be called, and what would I tell them? "Were you robbed, sir?" "Well, not exactly." "Not exactly, sir?"
Fifteen thousand dollars could have bought the guest house I'd stayed in and the one next door. My US passport could have brought enough cash for one or two more. In India, in 1986, this was a lot of money. And whoever had it now knew it wasn't mafia money that would bring hard strangers knocking at the door. This was the easy-come easy-go money of a foolish tourist who would just call his mother and the embassy and be on the next flight home. This was no-strings-attached money.
I charged into the hotel, sweaty and wild-eyed, blowing past the man at the front desk, up the stairs to my room. My pounding on the door provoked panicky responses in Hindi, but no entrance. It seemed someone else had already checked in. I went down to the desk, and told the man that I'd left something in the room. He was Sikh, his beard pulled up under a tight turban.
"What did you forget?" he asked.
"Papers? What kind of papers, sir?"
There was something in his eyes that felt like a test - a challenge. Not unsympathetic, but still, testing.
There was no point in lying. My dignity was long gone.
"You left your passport in your room? Sir, this is very serious! Was there anything else?"
"How much money?" he asked.
"All my money. About fifteen thousand dollars." I admitted.
"Fifteen thousand dollars?" He started to laugh, despite himself. He wasn't trying to be cruel. I could sense that he wasn't a cruel man. He almost seemed relieved, somehow. I was confused, but I couldn't help laughing with him.
He reached under the desk and pulled out my money belt. He handed it to me.
"The boy who cleans the rooms found this."
I unzipped it and saw my passport, the credit card, and what looked to be all the money - a stack of hundreds thick as a small paperback.
"This boy earns about ten dollars per month working here. You can imagine, sir, that he is a good boy."
I pulled a few hundreds off the stack and said, "Please, give this to him, and let me offer you something, as well."
For the first time, his eyes clouded a bit. "No, you would insult him if you offered him money."
"What can I do?"
He thought for a moment. "Give me two hundred rupees (about five dollars) and I'll have a party to honor him."
I gave him two hundred rupees.
"Now, you must catch your train, sir. Please, be more careful in the future."
Not knowing what else to do, I shook his hand and ran off to just catch that train into the future - this future, my life, from where I write these words. Tonight, a few minutes before midnight, December 31st, 2009, it occurs to me that there are many ways to lose a life, and as many ways to save one.