Sitting in an overpriced Mexican restaurant in mid-town Manhattan one night in the mid-1980s, I decided to quit my overpaid job in the Diamond District (I was the only goy on the block), sell any possessions I couldn't (or wouldn't) carry, and buy a one-way ticket to India. Although I was still quite young, I was already beginning to hear "time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” I had about $15,000 saved up, so I got a money belt and packed it full of $100 bills. I’d heard that you could get a better exchange rate on cash than on traveler’s checks, and I was keen on having my money last as long as possible. I figured I’d have at least a couple of years on the road before I’d spent all that New York money in Kathmandu, Bangkok, and Jakarta.
I landed in New Delhi late at night, with the debris of the Diwali festival still in the streets. Spent fireworks were everywhere, but I hardly noticed, because everything about these streets amazed me. The damp olfactory chaos ranging from curry to cowshit, the sleeping cities of people lined up along the sidewalks and roadsides, soundly slumbering just a few feet from the passing tires of busses and ox-carts, the cows, elephants, camels clomping along between trucks, bicycles, and hurrying pedestrians. Then, as the sun came up, the colors. I’d never seen yellower yellow or redder reds—not even with chemical enhancement. It was overwhelming, and overwhelms me still, in memory.
The only still space in this roiling, marvelous mess—the eye of my personal Indian hurricane—was a small dark room I’d rented in a nondescript guest house near the Old Delhi train station. I'd chosen it randomly. There were a thousand just like it offering a dozen or so rooms with leaking, rusty showers, comically old locks on the doors that could be picked with a fingernail, and a small balcony overlooking the streets. I was probably paying a dollar or so per night for the room. Because some other traveler had warned me about stealthy night-time thieves, I slept with my fat money belt tucked safely under my pillow, sure that nobody could reach so close to my face without waking me.
A week or so into my trip, I bought a ticket for the long train trip to Jammu and Kashmir, which left very early in the morning and wouldn’t arrive at its destination until a couple of days later. I packed up everything the night before, set an alarm for 5am and went to sleep. When I awoke, I quickly dressed, brushed my teeth, shouldered my heavy backpack, and set off for the station, where I arrived an hour or so before the train was to depart. Plenty of time to stop in the cafe and drink some of the sweet chai I was already learning to love.
Although the sun had hardly come up, it was already warm, and the weight of my pack had me sweating. Just as generals prepare for the previous war, I’d packed for my previous trip, which had been a long hitch-hiking excursion to Alaska. So I was probably the only idiot in all of India carrying 70 pounds of camping gear: a tent, sleeping bag, portable stove… Absurd.
Sitting there in the train station, sipping my chai, waiting for my train, a bead of sweat trickled down my spine. I reached around to the small of my back to wipe it and—Where’s my money belt?
I’d left it under the pillow.
Everything. My passport, two credit cards and about 140 hundred-dollar bills. I’d lost everything. Not robbed. Not cheated or tricked. I’d calmly checked out and walked away from an unlocked room in a very cheap guest house in Old Delhi in which I’d left everything. Less than a week into my round-the-world odyssey, I faced having to call my parents (collect) to ask for a loan to get myself home. Tail between my legs, penniless and ridiculous.
I threw on my pack and ran through the teaming, steaming streets back to the guest house. I must’ve been a sight. A skinny, panic-stricken redhead tearing past lolling cattle and smoking busses. I rushed past the manager in the lobby up the stairs to my room, where I found the door locked, and the people inside unable or unwilling to understand my pleas to open the door. I went down to the lobby, where the Sikh manager met me with a concerned, vaguely bemused look.
“What’s happening, sir?”
“I need to get into the room. I left something in the room.”
“I’m afraid the room’s been let to another client, sir. What did you leave, may I ask?”
“I left some important papers.”
“Papers? What sort of papers, sir?”
“My passport. I left my passport in the room.”
He was older than me, probably around 40 or so. I remember his beard, curled up into the tight turban all Sikh men wear. I knew nothing about Sikhs other than that they had a reputation as good, honest businessmen and for fierce loyalty. The latter reputation had been complicated when two of Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards had participated in her assassination just two years previously, though even this was motivated by loyalty to their religion, which they felt she’d insulted by ordering an attack on the Golden Palace in Amritsar, the seat of their religion. I’d had to spend a day applying for special permits to pass through the Punjab—the ancestral homeland of the Sikhs—because of continuing clashes there with Indian forces. I was forbidden from getting off the train en route to Kashmir. This hotel manager was the first Sikh I’d ever met personally.
“Oh my, a passport IS important, sir. Did you leave anything else in the room?”
It was at this point that I started to sense I was being tested—possibly by him, possibly by the universe. He was watching me closely. True, his eyes held a hint of amusement, but I didn't sense cruelty. And I saw plenty of intelligence. There was no point in lying or making demands of this man. My fate was well out of my hands. What recourse did I have? Call the Indian police and tell them I’d left all my money behind when I checked out? I could practically hear their laughter already.
“Yes, I left some money in the room.”
“Money? How much money, sir?”
“All my money. … About fifteen thousand dollars.”
“Fifteen thousand dollars, U.S.! That is a lot of money, sir!”
He hesitated, then reached under the counter and handed me my money belt. I unzipped it and looked inside. I didn’t count the money, but the stack of hundreds looked as thick as it had been the day before, next to my passport and credit cards. (When I counted it later, nothing was missing.)
“Do you understand how much money this is in India, sir? One could buy this hotel and several others like it.”
“Yes, I understand. I can’t believe I did this.”
“The boy who cleans the rooms here found your possessions. He brought this to me. This boy earns about ten dollars in a month’s time.”
I pulled out a few hundreds and said, “Please give this to him, with my thanks.”
“Oh no, sir, that would insult him.”
“What can I do then?”
“Give me three hundred rupees (about fifteen dollars then) and I’ll have a party here with the other employees to honor him for his noble actions. That will be the thing to do.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am sure, sir. Now, go while you can still catch your train. And sir, please be more careful with your possessions.”
I shook his hand, thanked him, and ran back to the train station, where I immediately faced the challenge of finding my place in the surging rolling city that is an Indian train. It wasn’t until hours later that I had a calm moment in which to appreciate what had happened that morning, and it wasn’t until years later that I understood how close I’d come to becoming someone else.
Ultimately, that stack of hundred dollar bills took me through India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Greece, France, Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia and back to New York. Along the way, I came to see myself, and at least imagined others saw me, as a guy who could step out into the unknown and keep his balance. A savvy traveler. An experienced, tested adventurer. A guy who could handle himself. That became a central thread in my life story, my identity. Now, almost three decades later, I’m comforted and protected by that narrative, by that self-image. I consider it my own, something I earned. It’s an aspect of my life that can never be taken away, or erased by time.
But the truth is that this life of mine was given to me by a man whose name I never asked on a hot, humid November morning in 1986.