There's that agonizing gap between dreaming up an adventure and actually being in it, a waiting period that arises just a few days before departure and consumes the mind for the duration. The excitement wanes and the anxiety grows and it's too late to turn back, and you're left with nothing but a scooter or a train ticket or a tiny backpack, and the crushing inevitability of the discomfort you're in for.
I could have been comfortable. I could have stayed in my cozy little house in Washington, or I could have spent the month basking in the sun and tranquility of my cozy little island in the Keys, or hell, I could have gone back to Ireland and watched the snow turn those great green hills into open expanses of pure, peaceful white.
Instead, I was sending myself to India.
The day-long plane ride from the States gave me a lot to think about: how I didn't really want the heat of Mumbai, or the crowds of Mumbai, or the endless honk-honk-honk of Mumbai. I did some reading on the plane, and I learned that more people live on the island of Bombay than on the entire continent of Australia, and that Mumbai is fifteen times more densely populated than Berlin, Europe's most densely populated city, and that these twenty-to-thirty million people aren't even evenly distributed, that two-thirds of Mumbai's citizens live on just five percent of its land.
I'm an introvert, so crowds drain me. I'm a cyclist, so cars anger me. Trapped in a tight seat and sealed in a steel winged tube and hurtling toward India at five hundred miles per hour, I was beginning to regret my decision. I regretted it Thursday night as the plane took off, and Friday morning as the Boeing chased the sun across the globe to Amsterdam, and all day long as our packed plane drew ever closer to busy Bombay. And then we landed, and the dread evaporated instantly, and the resting adventurer within me awoke. I was in India!
And fifty-two minutes later, I was on the back of a shiny yellow Honda motorcycle racing through the back alleys of Mumbai's outer slums. I gripped tightly onto the shoulders of the man in front of me, a savior of sorts, Bombay's balmy breeze feeling just wonderful on my bare head. As we bounced over potholes and careened around traffic and turned tightly into a narrow avenue, I really wished I had a helmet, but I suppose I hadn't expected to be needing one. Neither of us had.
Every time I travel, I maybe hope or maybe fear or perhaps just think that I've grown up, that I've become a responsible adult who makes responsible decisions and has reasonable, relaxing vacations. I imagine that I've outgrown my inner adventurer and the anecdotes I recount will be nothing more than courteous commentary on this monument or that museum. Every time I travel, I think that, and then something else happens.
Here's the thing: I had just arrived in a new city, a new country, a new part of the world, and that adventurer inside me had been hibernating since Europe. He needed to stretch his legs, and what better way to stretch one's legs than to walk? It had been nearly five months since I last enjoyed a warm night, the kind in which you can stroll with sleeves rolled up and top button undone and arms just pendulating with the stride, not jammed into gloves or pockets to protect freezing fingers. It was new city, and it was warm, and the hostel I had booked was just two miles away, and the fact that it was midnight or that I was on the outskirts of an unknown airport seemed unimportant, and so I pointed my sneakers north and off I went.
The autorickshaw drivers didn't walk me to walk. From the airport doors to the end of its access road they followed me, some on foot and others pulling alongside, all big smiles and hearty hellos. They asked where I was going and if I wanted a ride and I waved and shook my head and said no thank you, that I was just a little further, and they said to hop in and they would take me for free, "no charge, no charge!"
It wasn't about the charge, of course: the rickshaw ride would have cost pennies. It was about the speed. Life, Rebecca Solnit once said, is best experienced at three miles per hour, the speed of walking, and if that's true, then the lives of others should be experienced just as deliberately.
And it really is something, those lives. Mumbai is infamous for its slums, densely packed urban villages scattered all about the city. I knew of them, and I'd read of them, and even seen photos and footage of them, but it didn't take long on my walk from the airport to see them for myself, growing up like flowers from the cracks in the concrete. In just a few short miles I passed dozens of colonies, as they were called: some big and some small, some stacked and some single-story, some dwellings looking sturdy and stationed and some like the next rainstorm would do them in.
It was late, and so the doors were all closed and their residents asleep inside, the flaps of the tarps in the tent cities and all drawn tightly to keep out the mosquitoes. The dogs were still up, solemn strays roaming forlorn in the rubbish. They looked gentle. I gave them the sidewalk and trudged along the side of the road, occasionally pulling out my phone to see how much closer my blue dot had gotten to the red dot of the hostel. I passed a few people now and then, offered a smile, nodded to the group of men or gang of kids hanging out under the smoggy sky. I neared my turnoff, but couldn't seem to actually find it; I turned around and retraced my steps.
A few kids eyed me on my return with curious glances. I said hello, and to explain myself and why I was walking through their neighborhood so late, I asked if they knew where I could find the Anjali Homestay. The shrugged, the words not ringing any bells. I thanked them and moved on. A little further down the road, I repeated the name and the address to a man sitting on a stool, and he tossed it back and forth in his head for a moment, then pointed back the way I'd come. So again I turned around, and again I passed the kids, and again I made my way up the street.
About a minute later, one of the kids shouted toward me. I turned and waited for him to near. "Hostel, it's this way," he said, pointing the way I was headed. "Okay, thanks," I replied, "is it much further?"
"Okay, so maybe like a few minutes?"
"Yes," he said blankly, a slight grin reaching his lips.
Not really confident in his directions, but not in a position to question them either, I turned and continued up the road. He followed; so did his friends.
I glanced back once or twice, not trying to seem alarmed, but I was growing a little alarmed. I trust in the goodness of humanity, and I wanted to trust the kids, but it wasn't adding up: how they suddenly figured out where the homestay was, why he would catch up to me to tell me I was going the right way, why he and his six peers were trailing me through the dark.
They kept their distance, but matched their pace with mine. I couldn't turn around and come back the way I'd come without passing right by them, nor did it seem a wise idea to make a turn into an even darker, less-traveled alley. Though the streets were empty, a slow stream of rickshaws was heading toward me, and so I kept myself in the light of the headlamps and marched toward them, determined to appear casual to the boys behind.
The rickshaws neared, and I sidestepped, and they flew by with their little horns aflurry. The street ahead was now pitch black, and the kids behind seemed to be closing in. I felt a rare moment of trepidation.
And then, like a knight in shining Honda, the dull din of an old two-stroke engine. A motorcycle zipped around the pack, slowed, pulled to a stop ten feet ahead. Its rider removed his helmet and glanced back. "Excuse me!" I rushed over, seizing the opportunity he had offered. "I'm looking for the Anjali Homestay. Do you know where it is?" I thrust my phone and the poor set of directions on its screen in his direction. He looked at it, puzzled, but spied a phone number at the bottom of the confirmation email. "I can call them if you'd like."
"Ah, yes, please," I said, "that would be great."
The kids behind had edged up to us by this point; they stood awkwardly around the motorcycle as the driver punched the phone number into his device. He looked at the kids sternly and they moved on, grunting. The phone rang and someone answered and the two Indians spent a few minutes chatting back and forth in hurried Hindi. "Okay," he said when the call had ended, "it's just about a kilometer away."
"Just up here?" I pointed the way we were facing.
"Yes. Come, I will give you a ride."
I felt grateful, but didn't want to inconvenience him after all the help he'd been, so I said I didn't mind walking. Yet he insisted, and he showed me where to put my feet and how to sit and then, with a turn of the key, the Honda sprung to life.
As someone who drives a bike, I'm always amazed by how easily people will get on the back of one. "Oh, let me give you a ride home," I'll say to a good friend or near stranger, and, either way, they'll just climb right on like it's not an object capable of rocketing forth at lethal speeds that they don't have any control over. Sure, I have experience and a clean driving record, but they usually don't know that.
I always found it strange, maybe even careless, but now I suppose I was one of those passengers, clutching to a pair of strange shoulders and entrusting the safety of my skull to someone I had met four minutes earlier. Ricky was his name, I learned as we drove—Ricky, though his Indian name was Prabhat. He had spent his whole life in Bombay, from back when it was still called Bombay, and he liked it alright, and as we turned into a narrow alley and emerged onto a great big highway, Ricky asked me if I was Muslim.
Shit. I had worried about this, cursed this moderate ethnic ambiguity of mine. It always flared up when I traveled: Puerto Ricans thinking me Puerto Rican, Spaniards peppering me with Spanish, Italians rightly guessing and roundly criticizing me for not speaking my mother tongue. Usually it was no big deal, but on occasion—being mistaken for Croatian in Bosnia, for instance—it was something I'd rather avoid. And now I had come to India, and I had come with a shaved head and a black beard, and though I didn't look ethnically Muslim, I sure didn't look ethnically Hindu, either. Mistaking me as a convert to the former wasn't too wild a guess.
Hours earlier I'd been reading about the Bombay riots of the early nineties, when Hindus would douse their Muslim neighbors in petroleum and set them on fire. Whether one was Hindu or Muslim was a serious question with serious consequences in these parts, and though I was presently trusting Ricky with my life, I didn't really want to give him a reason to question his generosity. "Uh, neither," I said. "In the States, many people are nonreligious." I didn't use the word atheist, because everybody hates atheists, but nonreligious felt both light and correct, and he accepted it with a shrug. Onto another street we turned, and there was my hostel.
I'd only been in India an hour, and already I had found adventure—and good people, too. I couldn't wait to see what the next thirty-five days would bring.