I’m running down a congested Delhi street during morning rush hour – side jumping pedestrians, dodging rickshaws and street vendors, making a general spectacle of myself. Second day of filming and I’ve bloody left the headphones for the cameraman back in the hotel room. Everything’s come to a standstill until I get back with the equipment. Sweat’s beginning to pour off my brow and I realize that within another block my shirt will be sopping wet and useless for the shoot. We have a big shot list for the day and now worry is beginning to prick at me that we won’t get everything done. We’ve got to nail this shoot. I pick up speed and now I must look like a poor man’s Messi moving up the pitch with a hundred defenders in my path. I’m hoping I don’t take a wrong turn in my hurry and get lost somewhere. Delhi’s traffic, heat and humidity suddenly feel unbearable and my heart is pounding like a drum…
48 hours earlier – after traveling for 28 hours, I was standing at 2am in the lost baggage line at Indra Gandhi International – with a pounding heart as well. Apparently my checked bags haven’t made it with me from Idaho to India, and after waiting for them an extremely long time, I’m now just standing forlornly by the Oversized Baggage carrousel watching the empty track go round and round.
After 33 years of expedition guiding in Asia, I thought I’d become inured to the vagrant whims of the travel gods, but the prospect of making several return trips through Delhi traffic to the airport to check for luggage was disheartening to say the least. Thankfully, our new camera gear was safe in my hand luggage, but through my jet-lagged haze I was trying to mentally tick through all the missing expedition gear I’d spent months meticulously assembling and paring down. The only non-replaceable item was my new custom dry suit from Kokatat and unfortunately I knew improvising for an intense, multi-day solo river expedition in the high Himalaya wasn’t going to be easy. I was just beginning to feel the onset of fatigue-laced stress panic when I felt a gentle tap on my right shoulder.
A uniformed baggage handler is saying something to me that I can’t quite hear above the loud background noise from dozens of other weary, frustrated travelers milling around. “Sir, orange and black bag you said, yes?” he repeats. “Yes! Yes!” I reply with relieved enthusiasm. He spins around on his heels and beckons me to follow him. And there, under the awful fluorescent lighting, serenely sitting on the shiny polished floor in the middle of the chaos that is Delhi baggage claim, is my orange and black Atomic ski bag full of expedition gear. Miraculously arrived and mysteriously very late…but I’m not asking questions. As I scurry through India customs on the heels of another family group out to the exit area, an older Indian man standing to the side – apparently caught in his own baggage-handling purgatory – bobs his head at me, grins widely, and says “lucky man”.
I have four days in Delhi and a lot to accomplish. I’m meeting Mr. Lalli Singh, the widely-regarded man-to-see-in-India if you require a Royal Enfield motorcycle. I communicated for months with Lalli via email and was often confused and worried by the sporadic radio silence lapses in his communications. He and his team have refurbished a 1980s-era Royal Enfield Bullet bike for me to ride on the expedition. I’m meeting them for a 2-day mechanics course that will supposedly ensure I’m not a complete idiot when the inevitable breakdown happens. As with everything in India, I don’t know what to expect when I arrive at Lalli’s shop, but I’m immediately reassured by his presence and the efficient bustle and cleanliness of his operation. Lalli has the demeanor of a kindly, very interested distant relative who’s happy to see you after all these years. He looks distinguished in his turban and his smile and genuine warmth make me feel right at ease. I needn’t have worried about the email black holes and delayed communications…it’s just India apparently and Lalli’s the Man. His boys have done a magnificent job laying out the bike, the tools, and the instruction…all is ready for filming. And, that’s when I realize I haven’t brought the headset for my cameraman. Bloody. Hell.
Back to me running like a fool to the hotel in 105 degree heat with 100 percent humidity, pissed off, uptight, and dripping with sweat.
Experienced travelers will tell you the key to a smooth transition from West to East requires accepting that things will happen when they happen, however they happen. Jettisoning our Western sense of time or urgency is critical to one’s sanity and overall ability to enjoy experiencing India. This beautifully intense country simply exists in a different time-space continuum than the one most of us live in. How you deal with the reality that is India is less about India than it is about you – experiencing it is truly a mirror reflecting one’s expectations, hang-ups, and outlook.
As I run, I see all these people looking at me- like who’s the mad white dude… and why the hell is he running in this heat… and then it hit me all at once… What the fuck are you doing Moffatt?? Why ARE you the only person in the entire street in a hurry?
It stops me dead in my tracks. Oh, that’s right. I’m in India. I’m on expedition. I AM a “lucky man”. I need to surrender. It was a bit like hitting the “play” button when you’ve been fast-forwarding an old VHS tape…everything immediately slowed down, came into focus and made sense again. The narrative went from blurry and frantic, to textural. The colors, the smells, the sounds. The saris, rickshaws, tuk tuks, street venders, horns and blaring Bollywood music distorted in that way only Indian speakers distort.
I end up walking the rest of the way back to the hotel and taking a long, cold shower before heading back to Lalli, the boys and the bike. (And the shoot went really well).