Last week I was just leaving Bangkok, Thailand, on the Navy C-121 Super Constellation, which in the 1950s through 1960s flew the Embassy Run along Southeast Asia once each week. It was Saturday, I had barely slept the last few days, and though I had always dreamed of seeing India, I planned to doze on the way to New Delhi.
Take some advice: If you’re young, interested in everything, and flying over the jungles of Burma, the soft blue waters of the Sea of Bengal, and the sprawl of Calcutta and Northeast India, do not plan on getting much sleep. It ain’t gonna happen.
Even when I finally managed to ignore all the stuff down below for a moment it did me no good. Just about the time my eyes blinked closed I heard the sharp click of the overhead speakers coming on and heard the deep voice of the Navy commander piloting our beautiful dolphin-shaped bird. “We’re taking the northern route today,” he said, “so if you’ll look through the starboard windows at the snow-covered peak we’re passing you’ll be looking up at Mount Everest.”
“That’s it!” I thought. “No sleep for me today.”
Hey! How many chances to you get to see something like that?
After we landed in Delhi, we boarded a small bus headed for the Imperial Hotel, where the aircraft crew and I were going to stay overnight. It was my first glimpse of another world. The sights, and sounds, and scents of New Delhi filled the air as our small bus careened along impossibly crowded streets. Shop fronts spilled out into the street. Shoppers drifted across the road. Our Indian bus driver careened around men, women, children, dogs, baskets, bundles, crates, bikes, cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, donkey carts piled with goods, bullock drawn high-wheeled tongas, and — worst of all — other madman-driven buses. The sights, the sounds, the dust, and the smoke of charcoal fires carrying the scent of exotic foods filled the blowtorch hot air coming in the bus windows. I breathed it all in, entranced.
At last we reached the hotel. I trudged up its wide stone front stairs and found my way to my room. The narrow single bed in my equally narrow room, fitted with nothing but bed, small table, and a button on the wall for room service, looked mighty good to my sleep-deprived eyes, but once again the itch to know, to see, to experience what I was unlikely to experience, overcame the urge to sleep.
“Eat,” I told myself. “Get a meal. Drink some strong coffee. You’re in New Delhi, India! Go see it! It’s probably the only chance you’ll ever get.”
Stuffing a large room key in my pocket I sallied forth.
First stop, dining room.
A sign on a rope — CLOSED.
Second stop, front desk. “What time does the dining room open?”
“At six, Sahib.”
It was just 2:30.
I was out of cigarettes. My spare packs were in my luggage, which we had been advised to leave in the comparative safety of the aircraft belly. I saw some packs on a shelf. “Can I buy some cigarettes?”
“Yes, Sahib. What brand?”
“Do you have American cigarettes?”
He looked at me like I had shot him. “No, Sahib.”
“OK. A pack of whatever you recommend.”
He placed a pack on the counter. “Eight annas, Sahib.”
Uh-oh! Indian money. I hadn’t thought of that. “Can I change some dollars here?”
His eyes lit up. He looked around. “Certainly, Sahib. How much would you like to exchange?”
I took a five out of my wallet. “How about five dollars?”
“Certainly.” He took a thing with a lot of balls on rods, rattled it around, did it again, dug in a cash drawer, and handed me a fat load of rupees. “I deducted the cigarettes,” he told me, smiling altogether too happily.
I was sure I had just participated in an illegal transaction, but when I saw I had 50 rupees instead of the 35 I would have gotten at the official rate I just shrugged and headed for the front door, opening the pack of cigarettes. As I stepped outside I lit one. It was like lighting a fuse. I lit it, took one puff, and it burned right down to my fingers. Coughing, I held it in front of me and looked at it as it continued to crackle at an alarming rate. Flicking it into the street, I gave up smoking for the day.
Aching to see more of the land of my dreams, but barely able to keep my eyes open, I peered up and down a hot dusty street. Across the way a shop owner sat cross-legged on the counter of his booth. A covered motorcycle rickshaw clattered by, its engine burning oil and smoking. A woman dressed in a beautiful red sari strolled by from my left to my right. My eyes followed her, but stopped when they came to the thinnest cow on the planet. Ribs showing, it slowly chewed away at a newspaper.
“Inside, idiot!” my body commanded. “Time to sleep!”
I know when I’m beaten, Johnny, but if you think we’ve reached the end of this tale, you’re wrong.
See you next week.