The moment the tires screeched upon the tarmac, seat belts were off and the passengers were scrambling for the overheads. It was half past midnight and everyone seemed to have urgent engagements. The volume of carry on luggage was truly a sight to behold. Full size suitcases were stuffed under seats, burlap gunny sacks were jammed into overhead compartments, and TV boxes bursting at the seams (only to be held together by twine) sat on laps and vacant seats. The mass of bodies in the plane effectively defeated the air-con. Any time saved at the baggage claim was lost inside the plane waiting for belongings to be negotiated through the crowded aisles. India had successfully transferred the Third World bus experience to the air.
In coming to India I had thrown my fate to the wind. I had no reservations, guidebooks or reference. The guidebooks had a way, with their pleasant descriptions, splashes of alluring photography and battery of brief descriptions, of easing ones' mind. For the longest while they had given me intention. I would read something interesting and go to investigate. Only infrequently did this intention yield the prize, which was often elsewhere - around a corner or glimpsed through a window. At first I knew it to be happenstance but once I grew to expect it and to anticipate it I knew, by definition, it could not be. Destiny was the only word I could find and with my addiction to it I embraced it. The purest travel was a step into the unknown where schedules were shredded and accidents rewarded. The best laid plans were, at best, folly. Now I was anxious and filled with anxiety, an anxiety I had not felt since Fiji. For me, India was going to be a blank slate. I was going to new, unexpected places. I wondered where my roads would take me.
First they took me to a tall, featureless, cement hotel. On the plane I had met Dalele after severe turbulence tossed my coffee into his lap. Graciously he suggested a hotel and kindly held his taxi while I breezed through baggage claim and changed money.
The long counter spanning one side of the hotel lobby was partitioned into five stations: the Bell Desk, the Checkout Desk, the Registration Desk, the Information Desk, and the Key Desk. To book my room I went to the Registration Desk where I was referred to the Checkout Desk. There, I waited for a half-hour while six employees intensely and earnestly sorted receipts. It was a one-man job being performed by three and supervised by two.
In the morning I went to the Information Desk to inquire about the location of the post office. India, I was under the impression, was a country, where one could buy, sell, or trade nearly anything. Travelers in Bangkok had told me of selling their passports and traveler's checks (report them stolen and then pawn them). I had read of the markets for children, young women, organs (not the musical kind) and, even, human skeletons. The one exception to this market frenzy seemed to be my damaged camera equipment. I had been toting it for over six months and now convinced I could neither sell it nor repair it, I decided to ship it home. Seeking directions to the post office, I asked the thin, soft-spoken gentleman behind the Information Desk. He referred me to the Key Desk. At the Key Desk I was sent to the Bell Desk. The Bell Desk was deserted. I asked the doorman.
"You must go to Connaught Place," he said, "then go left."
"Which way to Connaught?" I asked as I wrote the name in my notebook.
"Yes. Turn left. You can not miss it."
For emphasis his hand sliced through the air in a leftward arch. He made it all sound so simple, as if only a fool would not find it.
"Down the street and turn left? Simple as that?" I asked, a little bashfully.
Outside the hotel the heat was rising and it was barely eight o'clock. I turned left. A shaded, tree-lined street stretched to infinity. Traffic was sparse. At a traffic circle rife with lefts I spotted a half dozen policemen in light brown uniforms.
"I thought maybe you could help me," I said to one of the officers. "I'm looking for the post office." He pointed to his commander.
"Oh, yes," the short, round man in the captain's cap said. "Listen very carefully," he told me in earnest. "Go strreight!" He pointed down the side street, then thrusting his arm out, his hand rigid and on edge, said sternly, "Goo Strrreight!"
I put an arrow in my notebook, and looked up, waiting for the next instruction. I could see he was finished.
"So, I go straight?"
"Yes, go streight," he said very simply, "and you will see it."
The street came to an end at Connaught Place, a large plaza in the heart of Delhi. Loitering nearby was a clean-shaven young man in a neat turban. I asked him for directions.
"I will tell you your mother's name, number of brothers and sisters, and your age," he said. "This will be very good year for you. In two years you will return to India, with a girl. I will need five dollars to continue."
My curiosity was peaked. This was better than the post office. I paid him.
"In December you will meet a girl. She will make you very happy."
I thought of Papa Yohanneson's palm reading on Timor. According to him I would have two loves in my life and would live to be seventy.
"Many girls have loved you in the past, but you have been indecisive and have not loved them back. You are compassionate but see through people."
Me and about two billion other people, I thought.
He continued. "I require another five dollars."
"Sounds more like your fortune," I said. "You can do better than that."
"You have a very big heart and will live to eighty-five. You have snake eyes - when you talk you talk tough but you don't mean it. Five dollars or I cannot go on. I am sorry."
Thus far I had picked up fifteen years and a couple of girlfriends. I handed him two dollars.
"Money come and go and you don't care."
What was giving him that impression?
"You will be neither rich or poor," he went on. "Your big fault is laziness, but when you work you work like the devil."
Just standing in Delhi's sticky and relentless heat felt like "working like the devil." It was still early and already my clothes, damp with perspiration, felt like I'd been wearing them for a week. I couldn't see how anyone was getting anything done.
"I require fifteen dollars, please," he said without a hint of bashfulness.
Fortune telling was certainly the business to be in, I thought to myself. "Whatever happened to my age and my mother's name?" I said.
He looked at me for a moment and, then, wrote something on his notepad, tore off a piece of the page, crumpled it up, and put it in my right hand.
"Now you tell me the name of a friend," he said.
I did so and he jotted something in his notebook so that I could not see. He then asked the name of my brother, the number of people in my family, and how many were boys. Lastly he required my mother's age, name, and my year of birth. He scratched more words into his notebook, tore out a portion of the page and wadded it before placing it in my shirt pocket.
"Sometimes you believe in God, sometime you don't," he said. "I will write 'God'," he said and scribbled again in his notebook.
This page was also torn out, crumpled and placed in my right hand. Then he told me to switch the papers to the other hand. Only then could I read them.
Up until the switch I had been able to keep track of the papers. When I opened what I believed to be the first paper, written upon it was my mother's name and my age. It was my suspicion that he had been working backwards. "God" was probably written on the first piece of paper, not the last and from there on he filled in the blanks.
"And the post office?" I said determined to get at least that far.
He pointed down a street branching off the plaza. I thanked him and turned to go.
"Before you go, one more," he said. "The j-person is never good for you."
"I don't know a j-person."
The post office was a couple of blocks away. By the time I got there the sun was burning high and I could feel the dust of Delhi permeating my every pore. I thought the postal clerk might be the j-person for it was he who told me I could not ship my things in a cardboard box - I would have to have them properly packaged by a shipping office. When I could not bribe him to take the package off my hands, I knew he was serious.
"You make a right," he said. "There you will find the shipping office." He made it sound so simple.
I made my right and two more before circling the block. On passing a street vendor and his cart of fresh apples for the second time I decided it was time to give him some business. In the park I found a shade tree and a clean patch of dying grass where I sat and skinned the fruit.
"The skin is very good for you," a voice said.
I looked up to see three smiling teenagers.
"It's not very clean," I said with a mouthful of apple. "Might make me sick."
"I think you need a massage," the same boy said and then began kneading my shoulders.
Hoping his hands were cleaner than his clothing I gently discouraged him. "My arms are fine," I said.
"Oh, yes," said his friend, now mashing at my biceps. "We give very good arm massage."
"We give you massage!" chimed in the third, grabbing my leg. "Only twenty rupees."
"Everybody off," I said coarsely as I shook my limbs free. They froze in astonishment. "Thank you," I said, breaking the silence. "No offense gentleman, but I simply wish to eat in peace."
Quietly they slipped away but barely into the second apple, a young man with many questions came along. Where was I from, he inquired. Where was I going? Was I enjoying Delhi? Did I not agree that it was a charming city? It certainly had its share of characters, I agreed.
Opening a small metal cigarette case to show me a collection of stainless steel dental tools, he said he was a professional ear cleaner. Looking into the shimmering case held in his dirty hands I imagined teaming hordes of bacteria holding social affairs on the elegantly curved instruments.
"Only twenty rupees per ear," he said cheerfully. "I do very fine job. Many happy tourists recommend me."
He produced a small black address book filled with the flattering comments of his clientele. These people of questionable intelligence were from all of Europe and many parts of North America. All remarked on his bedside manner and their improved hearing.
Gently he took one of the instruments in his hand and directed it toward my ear canal. "Only twenty rupees," he assured me.
"I'm really not interested," I said, pushing his arm away and swallowing what remained of the apple.
"I do very, very good job for you," he insisted as he steadied himself with a hand on my shoulder.
I ducked and brushed him away again.
"You will be very happy. Only twenty rupees." He lifted the instrument a third time.
"No!" I said firmly.
A sorrowful frown coursed his face.
"Look," I said sympathetically, "I'm sure you're a very fine fellow and that you do nice work, but I can't make myself any more clear. I'm not interested. Now please go away."
Finally I was left alone to my lunch but it did little to relieve my exhaustion. On top of the draining heat I could feel a fever coming on. I reconciled that the shipping office would have to wait for another day and returned to the hotel. I requested my key at the Key Desk, only to be referred to the Bell Desk. The young man at the Bell Desk returned to the Key Desk and fished my key from its slot. I went upstairs for a nap and found myself sleeping away the day.