BOS->BOM Part 1

IMG_0037I went to India the second week of January for work. My colleague, a videographer, and I, a writer, were there to cover a water desalination device developed at our university and its impact on the lives of villagers in rural India, where electricity and money and clean water are all hard to come by.

It doesn’t sound scary, I know, but I have to admit I was a little nervous. For one, I would be away from my daughter for almost two weeks.

Two, I was going to a developing country, a first for me. I’ve traveled to well developed countries like England, Iceland, Italy, and France, but never anything like this. I really had no idea what I should be prepared to see or feel. All I knew was that apparently I was going to stand out, I should bring my own toilet paper, I’d probably get ill, and I owned zero appropriate clothing.

Three, I was going on a work trip, so, while I was traveling with a co-worker and wouldn’t technically be on my own, in a way I was going alone — another first for me.

Four, we weren’t going as tourists, meandering around big cities to see the sights and shop and eat our hearts out – we were going to mostly small, poor villages that lack basic amenities like 24-hour electricity and clean water. Did I mention how long the flights were? Oh, and I would be practicing a type of extended in-the-field journalism that I had never done before, getting nice and cozy with subjects and environments that were quite different from anything I’ve ever known.

Talk about moving outside your comfort zone. I didn’t know if I’d get there and burst with joy from experiencing so many new things all at once, or start crying and maybe vomit from the shock and horror of it all. It really was a toss-up.

Nevertheless, I was excited.

The flights from Boston, including a brief layover in London, were a breeze, but when we arrived 16 hours later in Mumbai, at 12:30am IST, we ran into a problem. Our luggage was nowhere to be found.

We stood impatiently in front of the baggage belt as hope dripped away, second by second, drop by drop. My co-worker went on a wide-perimeter baggage area check three times, thinking maybe we just overlooked our four humongous bags, which included expensive camera equipment and a non-standard-size 5-foot-long bag of tripods, monopods, and jibs.

Finally we acquiesced to the reality of our inconvenience and went to stand in the sort-of line for lost bags, the first of many instances of organized chaos we encountered. It was a crowded line being sourced at about three different points, at an apparently crowded time in the Mumbai International Airport, in the most crowded country I’ve ever seen. I was quickly becoming agitated and sweaty.

We waited for probably 45 minutes until finally it was our turn. My traveling companion, a 53-year-old man from Long Island, let his inner New Yorker loose on the customer service agent, who was checking people’s names off a list, clearly indicating to both of us that they were already well aware of our lost luggage. Fuckers.

He proceeded to ritually check off our names, although I’m frankly quite surprised he even noticed I was there, despite my several attempts to assert myself – another first of many. He was only addressing Long Island, who was more than happy to tell him how annoyed he was and how expensive some of the stuff in our bags was, and when and where they were going to deliver our luggage the next day. We did have another plane to catch in about 16 hours.

Somehow the conversation eventually ended and a porter for the airline walked us over to Customs for a reason that was unclear to me. Certainly we could walk ourselves over. We stopped at a long table manned by a guy in a white uniform, who asked Long Island what’s in his hard-shell carry-on bag. Long Island explained that it’s camera equipment. We’re here from a major research institution to do important filming, he continued, invited by a major organization in India, you may have heard of them; in fact we were practically invited by one of the richest men in India himself.

The man in uniform didn’t care much about any of that. He asked where our Carnet license was. We answered truthfully. We have no idea what you’re talking about. He explained that we’re supposed to have a special license from the US government to bring in this camera equipment. Long Island repeats his list of who’s who. We didn’t know we needed this license, I say, almost as annoyed with Long Island as I am with the man in uniform. What are our options now?

This goes on for about another five minutes until our ignorance becomes an irritation not worth this man’s time and he finally says, fine, just go ahead.

So our personal airline porter walks us over to what looks like a make-shift security x-ray belt and we swoop in from the side instead of standing in line and are told to put our stuff on the belt. It goes through. We let out internal sighs of relief, wake-dreaming about the flat, clean beds of our near future, and begin to walk fast to the exit. But we are called back.

Another man, this one in a brown military-style uniform, asks what’s in Long Island’s hard-shell case. Oh Jesus Christ.

He explains, in film industry lingo, what it is. How much is it worth, the man asks. Another man in military garb saunters up to join the party. Long Island points to the various pieces – “one thousand, two thousand, four thousand, one thousand.”

I’m shaking my head, but Long Island doesn’t see me.

The man reaches for a calculator that’s already lying on the table we’re standing over. In retrospect, that should’ve been our first clue.

“That’s 134,000 rupees,” the man says, “if you don’t have a Carnet license.”

We try to quickly do the math in our heads. $2,000.

We explain again that we didn’t know we needed such a license and that we don’t have $2000. Names get dropped again. We play dumb, which, frankly, we were at this point.

The man stands unimpressed.

“I can get my supervisor’s permission to let this through,” he finally says.

“Great,” we say, practically in unison.

“Should I do that?”

“Yeah. That sounds great,” we say. Idiots.

Blank stares all around and an awkward silence.

I turn to Long Island and mouth: “I think he wants money.”

The man walks away for a few minutes and then comes back. “Without the Carnet license, you owe us 134,000 rupees.”

Long Island opens his wallet and takes out 70 US dollars. “This is all I have,” he says, splaying it out sadly like it’s his losing poker hand.

The man says, “Put that away,” and walks away again.

When he comes back, he’s accompanied by the military man and another man I don’t recognize, and he says, “Follow me.” We follow him toward a back room, Long Island first, me close behind. But right before I walk through the threshold, the man says, “Not you” and closes the door in my face.

Don’t have to tell me twice, I think, relieved that I’m not about to get robbed in a back room, or worse. But once I sit down, I start to panic, realizing that it may be worse that Long Island is in there by himself.

About three minutes go by that feel like 10, and Long Island finally emerges, unaccompanied.

“OK,” he says. “We’re good.”

I stare blankly for a second, unclear as to what exactly just happened. But then I pick up all my bags as fast as I can and we walk quickly to the airport exit, currency exchange or Indian SIM cards be damned.

-Alissa Mallinson