[Prince's Note: I knew that acclaimed travel writer Jeff Greenwald wrote great travel essays. His work transports you to other lands with vivid details, a genuine sense of wonder, and lots of humor. But when I recently saw him tell some of his stories during his one-man show, Strange Travel Suggestions, I was struck by how layered his work is and how every new discovery reveals so much about not only the places he visits but also the nature of humankind. The following very amusing and well-crafted true story takes place entirely at an airport in India, but is rich on many levels. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. Let me know what you think. Much thanks to Jeff for allowing me to share this, and much thanks to you, dear readers, for allowing me to take a blogging break so that I may meet my other deadlines.]
Most travelers have learned, usually through direct experience, the truth of semanticist Alford Korzybski's claim: "The map is not the territory." And many of us have learned this in India.
Everyone has an image in their mind's eye of what India must be like. And each visitor, no matter their wealth or circumstance, gets the same lesson: no matter how many maps or guidebooks you study, you haven't a clue what India is like until you step off the plane.
It isn't even necessary to get out onto the seething streets, gawk at the heartbreaking slums lining the railroad tracks, or wander through the marble-halled museums filled with Buddhas and daggers. My own education, for example, began at the Calcutta airport.
Granted, this was some time ago. I'm sure that by now Chandra Bose International, formerly Dum Dum Airport, has come of age, redesigned around an architectural scheme filled with brightly-lit food courts and duty-free boutiques selling Shisedo fragrances and iPod slipcases. At the time of my first visit, however, Dum Dum was a place that looked like it had seen its day, or perhaps five minutes of a day, at some long-forgotten moment between its ribbon-cutting ceremony and the arrival of the first British Airways flight. The floor was a collage of red pan juice stains, blue ticket stubs, and green bidi butts. Above my head, bug-filled fixtures flickered sickly yellow. Mosquitoes dined on the arriving passengers. As for the toilets: "let's not go there."
All this, I had expected. It was when I found baggage claim that I realized something was terribly wrong. Westerners, you see, tend to take luggage carousels for granted. If airports around the world look more or less alike, their baggage carousels are pretty much cookie-cutter replicas: oval- or circle-shaped tracks of neatly overlapping metal fins, carrying on in a smooth, choreographed motion. The bags appear slightly above us, emerging from behind a curtained duct. There is a slight sense of suspense as they bow slightly, slide down a moving rubber ramp, and halt with a thud against a hard rubber bumper that moves in synch with the polished fins. It's a beautiful thing.
At the Dum Dum baggage claim, the single carousel was nearly annihilated; it looked like a photograph of an Indian train derailment. The metal fins were bent, and forced their way ahead with a shrieking, grinding noise, like sheet metal being fed into paper shredder. The little burlap curtain, where the luggage usually makes its entrance, had been torn off; a small girl was seen darting from the terminal, wearing it as a skirt. Even the rubber rail had been peeled off, no doubt reincarnated as the jury-rigged bumper of a Calcutta taxi.
The conveyor ramp leading from the luggage chute to the carousel was jammed, and stuttered in place like the a disembodied frog's leg being shocked, repeatedly, by grade school students. After a nearly interminable wait the bags began to appear. Each suitcase emerged nakedly at the top, pausing as if terrified by the chaos below. Then, shoved by the bag behind it, the case tumbled end-over-end down the spastic belt toward the sharp silver fins, which shucked it like an oyster. The split bag would then smash against the naked metal rail and burst open, spewing its contents in a wide arc across the spittle-rimed floor. The metal track itself was covered with lingerie and earplugs, batteries and tongue-cleaners, aspirin and stuffed elephants. Panicked passengers rampaged through the jetsam, trying to recover their underwear and trousers.
I positioned myself directly in front of the chute. The moment my suitcase appeared, I leaped onto the carousel and darted up the ramp, ignoring the shouts of the security guards and the cries of the other passengers, whose vests and panties clutched at my ankles like Sirens. The bag tipped forward; I grabbed it by the flanks and, with enormous effort, wrestled it past all obstacles and onto the floor.
Many people imagine that, as a travel writer, I know how to pack. This is completely false. I have no idea what to bring on a trip. If I'm going to Calcutta for a week, I figure, okay, I'll be going for a walk in the morning, and I'll sweat through a shirt. I’m also going to walk during the afternoon, and evening. So I'll be needing three, maybe four fresh shirts a day. And figure it's going to be four days before I can find the time to do a wash. So I'm off to Calcutta with a suitcase full of 16 shirts, eight pairs of pants, sandals, hiking boots, dress shoes (because you never know), socks, sketchbooks, two cameras, an inflatable mattress, copious toiletries, and a vintage Scrabble game in an antique metal container. My suitcase weighed 87 pounds, and I realized the moment I grabbed the handle there was no way I was going to carry this behemoth through the streets of India. The only solution was to extract the absolute essentials, put the thing in storage, and reclaim it on my departure from Calcutta.
My first thought was that I'd have to find a tourist hotel, and leave the bag in a storage room or behind a desk. But, as I glanced around the baggage claim area, I spied a squarish, hand-lettered sign above an open door: "LEFT LUGGAGE." An arrow pointed redundantly downward, towards the doorway itself. My suitcase had no wheels; I pulled and hefted it, in stages, toward this specialized exit. Arriving at the doorway, I glanced outside. There was nothing but an empty field: a lost world which seemed to go on forever, in all directions, under the blinding Calcutta sun.
It was a million degrees outside. A shimmering haze rippled above the ground. But out in the distance—could it be?—stood a house of some kind, a tiny hut, at least half a mile away. There was no road, to speak of; just a cracked and overgrown cement pathway covered with spiky weeds and broken glass. Chipmunks ran to and fro. Emaciated cattle grazed on the horizon, and their dung—fresh, dried, and everything in between—was piled everywhere. I could barely make out the far-away shack, but it did seem to have some kind of signboard on the side; something that might have said "Left Luggage," but which might just as easily have been an advertisement for car tyres, in Hindi.
* * *
The Indian sun beat down on my neck as I dragged the impossible bag along the cement track. Perspiration soaked my clothing, and stung my eyes. The broken concrete abraded the corners of my suitcase, and the little plastic feet shredded like hard cheese. Shards of glass tore my sneakers. There was no avoiding the dung, and each time we met the droppings of a sacred cow a foul brown track followed us along the path. For many minutes, the shack seemed to get no larger. Finally, with a parched tongue and peeling shoulders, I staggered onto the front step of the square white building.
Inside it was cool and dark. There was a single wooden desk, long and venerable, a remnant from the British Raj. Standing behind it, silent and attentive, was an elderly man, dressed in an immaculate white kameez. With his white mustache and starched collar, he looked like someone out of Gandhi's Congress Party. Behind him, through double-wide doors, opened the storeroom. High wooden racks filled the space. They were covered with arcane luggage that looked like it had been checked in by Rudyard Kipling.
Mustering my remaining strength, I heaved my suitcase forward. The man pressed his eyebrows together, and began filling out a small tag with the stub of an oversized pencil. His eyes peered up at me.
"Your good name?" he inquired.
"Sir..." I croaked. I was dehydrated, sweating profusely, and at that well-known point where my anger and frustration were ready to erupt out of me and parboil anyone within earshot. "Sir. Getting here, to this place, was an absolute nightmare. No journey through Hell, no walk over glowing coals, could have been worse. Do you understand me? It took me 30 stinking minutes to get my bag to this stupid place. There are no handcarts, no shuttles, and the pathway is a wreck. It's an outrage. An insult! Tell me, if you can, what is this room doing half a mile from baggage claim? What's the point? Shouldn't you be in the baggage claim area? Wouldn't that make sense? Hmmm? How the hell are people supposed to...."
As I ranted on, the man reached down with both hands. On the desk before him was a huge journal, bound in rich leather, with a ribbed spine. It looked thick enough to be the Calcutta telephone directory. The spine was blank; but on the cover was a single word, stamped in gold script:
The man pushed the book forward. It slid across the dry wood with a hiss. "Yes," he sighed. "Please.... Please, you make a note of this."
"Oh, I'm going to make a note of it, all right. A long note. This is unacceptable. I'm going to give you airport wallahs a piece of my mind." I declined his pencil, and pulled an indelible pen from my passport case.
I opened the book, and began flipping through the pages. The tome was of some antiquity, with the earliest entry dating back to the late 1950s. I don't know when the Dum Dum Airport opened for business, but it is quite possible the book was inaugurated during the facility's first year of service.
The first entry, in fact, was written in 1958, in ink. The blue script was fading, and clearly written by a European hand, but the words were clear:
Best of luck viz your new endeavor. Airport clean and modern. This storage facility, however, is inconveniently distant from the terminal. Please address this problem for the convenience of your patrons. Kind regards, R. Sivarakham, Esquire.
Similar entries followed, firm but polite. I flipped ahead a few dozen pages, to 1966. These were the halcyon days of the Magic Bus, which plied the overland circuit through Europe and Central Asia, migrating through India before reaching the hashish-clouded tea shops of Kathmandu. In fact, a troupe of hippies had passed through the airport in July of that year. Their spokeswoman offered a comment:
Namasté, but why is the Left Luggage place so far from the airport? It took us forever to get here, man. And the cement is so hot that my thongs melted. No lie! Anyway, if you can fix this,we thank you in advance. Otherwise Mother India is the best. Janis. (P.S. - Also, the sidewalk from the luggage place to here is broken in a few places, those rocks are sharp. Owww!) (P.P.S. - Much fine weed growing in the field, the cows are very friendly! )
Many pages later, in 1974, an Indian visitor named Agarwal weighed in:
Sirs: If you will not change the location of the Left Luggage depository, at least attend to the pathway from the airport. I sprained my ankle in a pit, and my wife lost the heel of her shoe. Also the livestock should not be allowed to roam free. Their mess is not appropriate at an international air terminal. Requesting your immediate attention to this matter.
The tone of the discourse hardened somewhat by 1980:
What the hell were you thinking, putting this place a kilometer from the airport? I know the place is called Dum Dum, but it's named after the bullet, not the imbecile. Suggest you send one of your peons to carry a bag both ways, you will find it is a huge pain in ass. Correct this problem at once or I will fly into another city on future trips to India.
What the hell is 'Left Luggage' doing a half mile from the baggage claim?! For the love of Christ, or Buddha, or Krishna, or whoever! Can't you at least fix the goddamned sidewalk?
There were many entries I could not read, in every imaginable language; but even the most superficial command of French, German, or Italian revealed an increasing, and increasingly futile, sense of outrage. By 1989, the pleas had become almost absurd:
PAVE THE ROAD. PAVE THE ROAD. PAVE THE ROAD. PAVE THE ROAD. PAVE THE ROAD. PAVE THE ROAD. PAVE THE ROAD. PAVE THE ROAD. PAVE THE ROAD. PAVE THE ROAD. PAVE THE ROAD. PAVE THE ROAD. (P.S. - Please see footnote, below)
I glanced down:
PAVE THE ROAD!
Page after page, spanning five decades and hundreds of pages, the same complaint—until, a week before my arrival, the most recent pilgrim had simply uncapped a thick laundry marker and scrawled, across two pages:
I looked up from the register, and regarded the little clerk with astonishment.
"Have you looked through this book?"
The man wagged his head, an ambiguous gesture that could mean anything. I lost it.
"Well check it out, mister! Every complaint is the same! Thousands of them, exactly the same!" I picked up the book then smacked it on the desktop, raising eddies of dust. "What's the use of this charade? Nobody even sees this book!," I shouted. "It's never been opened by anyone with the slightest bit of authority! Are you aware of this? Do you care? Yes? No?" I took a single, very deep breath. "Sir. Listen carefully to what I'm about to ask you. Is there any way to get any official of this airport to spend five minutes with this book?"
The man nodded pleasantly, and pushed the volume back toward me.
"Of course," he pronounced. "Please. Make a note of it."
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