I've been at home, in Madison, Wisconsin, for nearly two months now. I've been removed from the place which once seemed so much like a home, Mozambique, for almost three. The Earth has done a quarter turn around the sun, and fall has faded into winter which is now fading into spring. A lot has changed in my life and in the life of Mozambique, undoubtedly, since the fateful day that I crossed the border into South Africa at midnight and began a long reintegration into the life I formerly knew in The United States of America.
A lot of people ask me whether it's been difficult to integrate back into the first world life of technology, TV, cars, running water and all sorts of other machines that do our work for us here in America. To them, I usually have a somewhat unsatisfying answer. No, not in the way I thought it would be. I made a pretty seamless transition from bucket baths to hot showers, from the back of a flatbed truck to the driver's seat in my own car, and from coal burners to microwaves and ovens. What I didn't expect, however, was that America would be a different place in January, 2013, from the place that I left two years ago; not only from the reality of the evolving technologies, but also in the way that I connected with and viewed my own culture.
In this blog, however, I have a long way to go before arriving in the USA and facing the iPhones and plasma TVs of Americaland. This story begins in November, 2012, the day I crossed the border to leave Mozambique, and three weeks before I would get stamped in at the arrivals counter of Chicago's O'Hare airport. In the weeks leading up to my arrival I dreamed that the person working the immigration counter at O'Hare would be a guy like the Marlboro man, an embodiment of American spirit. I imagined him with a big mustache, a rugged, wind-torn face, and a hardened disposition, yet also betraying traces of a good-hearted appreciation when there was an American that passed through his gate that deserved recognition. He would check my passport, realize that I had been gone for two years teaching in Africa, shake my hand with his callused and leathery palms and, with a deep enveloping drawl, say, “Welcome home, son.” Well, unfortunately, that never happened. So spoiler alert, the story today will end with an immigration official paging through my passport with cursory interest, stamping it and unceremoniously calling out, “Next!”.
Flashback to Mozambique. I was at the bus stop in Maputo, getting ready to board an overnight bus to Johannesburg, South Africa, where a plane would take me to Abu Dhabi, and then to New Delhi. Given my history on overnight coach buses, and this being the last form of ground transportation I would take in Africa, I was a little jittery. Thoughts echoed in my head like, how fitting this would be if this bus crashed on my final trip. In the days leading up to that last exodus from Mozambique I counted down the times I would have to get into a vehicle or a plane in Mozambique, as I was terrified of both. There was an open back truck from Tete to Chimoio, a road on which the car I was in once hit and presumably killed a child, I never found out, a taxi to the airport, a two hour flight to Maputo in a plane that I could probably lift with one arm, and a taxi into town. Miraculously, I thought, I might make it out of this country alive after all. But it all rested on one final bus. I thought the transportation gods would punish my audacity for booking the overnight bus rather than the day-time bus in order to save time, wondering whether I had learned anything traveling around Mozambique for two years, and from the time an overnight bus I was on rear-ended a logging truck at full speed causing logs to coming shooting through the windshields.
In order to cool my nerves I walked down the street one last time while the bus was loading. I bought 10 plastic sacs of roasted peanuts, my favorite Mozambican street food, from a lady on the side of the road, which I hoped would last me until arriving in America three weeks later. Then I bought a Ceres juice and a pot pie for the road. These would be my last tastes of Mozambican food, despite how un-Mozambican they are, and my last meal ever, I mused, depending on how the bus ride panned out.
At midnight, when the bus arrived to the border to South Africa, I got off, as is customary, and walked seamlessly and unceremoniously out of Mozambique for the last time. As I walked under the ostentatious “Welcome to South Africa” sign, a luminescent omen of development in contrast to the Mozambican darkness behind me, I saw the dank immigration buildings of Mozambique morph into the modern processing facilities of South Africa. I saw the walking Mozambicans morph into driving South Africans, and I saw a country that ranks 184 out of 187 countries on the UN's development index fade out behind me in favor of a richer but somehow more drab South African landscape span out in front of me.
Somehow, the bus arrived to the station in Johannesburg without any mishap. After spending all day in the Johannesburg airport, it was time to leave Africa. Hannah and I boarded a red eye to Abu Dhabi, UAE, and arrived at 7 a.m. in a completely different world. The Abu Dhabi airport was like a giant sphere with golden tiles, a dome ceiling, and a McDonald's that blew us away. Hannah left her pants on the plane, so while she negotiated with airport staff to try to recuperate her lost articles, I stared unabashedly at men greeting each other in Arabian thawbs, and women trailing them in full burqas. It seemed incredible that I could go to sleep in Africa and wake up the next morning in a completely different world. Who were these people? How did I get here? I imagined how Christopher Columbus would feel if he had been on the plane with me. They never found her pants, so in her first foray into Abu Dhabi Hannah wore her pajama pants, at least until we got the mall and she was able to buy another pair of jeans.
Abu Dhabi had the feel of a city that was built overnight. Modern glass skyscrapers seemed to have grown right out of the sand. Chains like Pizza Hut, Subway and KFC flashed across billboards and neon signs with a stylized Arabic script. A quick survey of the skyline showed that it was a skyline composed of cranes and scaffolding and that there were more skyscrapers in construction that currently in existence. I couldn't figure out exactly how to classify it. It was modern and impressive, yet unfinished. It juxtaposed a stark traditionalism in the dress and customs of the people with a daring modernism in the buildings, advertisements and commercialism.
In Abu Dhabi we visited the National Mosque. It was a massive pearly white structure with towering minarets and countless white domes reaching up into the heavens. The whole building glowed with the reflection of the sun as if it actually radiated heavenly light. Not even Hannah's new jeans fit the dress code for entering the mosque, however, so she was forced to wear a cloak, while I walked around in shorts and a t-shirts. It seemed a little unfair. It only rains an average of eight days a year in Abu Dhabi, and that afternoon while we were waiting to take the bus back to the airport the sky opened up and it started pouring on us. We waited for three hours in the pouring rain as four different buses heading to the airport went right by us without stopping. It wasn't a good start to our three week adventure which would be heavy on bus and train travel. It would have been par for the course in Mozambique, where one expects travel to be impossible, but we thought we had escaped our transportation woes when we flew out of Africa. We had no idea, and we were about to arrive in India...
We finally made it back to the airport and took another overnight flight to New Delhi after our flash tour of the Middle East. The next morning we arrived in Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. Before I tell you about that first chaotic day in India, and it was chaotic, you must understand the two factors that progressively compromised both Hannah's and my normally cheery disposition on that day:
First, in the days and weeks leading up to our arrival in India, we had tried vigorously to book as much of the trip as possible in advance. We knew that, especially during the holiday season, trains, buses and hotels would fill up quickly, and we had been well-advised to book train tickets months in advance, if possible. Well, how did that work out, Mozambique? It didn't. Despite our greatest efforts, we booked almost nothing from Mozambique. Whether it was our internet timing out, all of our credit cards being denied, not being able to reply to confirmations because we didn't have Indian telephone numbers, or any number of other hurdles, we arrived in New Delhi with only a few tenuous reservations made at various hostels, and no idea how we were going to get from one city to the next because we had no train tickets. This made the arrival more stressful, to say the least.
Second, neither of had slept in 72 hours. Here's a tip if you planning to do a lot of traveling: eights hours on a plane or a bus, is not the same thing as eight, or even six or four hours in a bed. We took an overnight bus to Johannesburg, an overnight flight to Abu Dhabi, and another overnight flight to New Delhi. As a result, it had been over three days without any meaningful sleep. We were one night removed from actually becoming zombies, and we arrived in India at 7 am even though it felt like it had to be night time.
We mapped out our game plan on the plane: we would take the reportedly new and easy to use metro system to get from the airport to the train station. There we would find a customer service agent and look into booking train tickets for the next two weeks. From there we would walk to the hotel that we booked online, which, according to our guide book, was only a few blocks from the train station.
We made it through customs with our snazzy holographic visas (one thing we were able to take care of ahead of time), and followed the signs to the metro system. As we were walking across the street in the direction of the metro an auto-rickshaw driver called to us and said, “You know, the metro is closed for repair. Where are you heading? I can take you there?” Well, I had been to India before, and had recently read the section in Lonely Planet about scams and touts in India – taxi drivers and hotel owners who will say anything to get you into their taxi – so I was ready for this. I waved him off and said, “Nice try, but I'm not falling for that one!” Well, we made our way into the tunnel for the metro, and what did we see? Yellow tape and a sign saying Closed for Repair. Sheepishly, we turned around and exited the tunnel, only to run into the same taxi driver waiting for us with a victorious smirk on his face, “So where was it you wanted to go?” Determined not to let the taxi driver win, we opened the guide book and considered our next best option—there was a bus line that went directly to the train station. Score.
When we arrived at the train station we got out of the bus with all of our bags and descended into what I can only describe as a sea of chaos and energy. Maybe it was the lack of sleep or the smog preventing my brain from getting enough oxygen, but everything seemed to be blurring in motion around me as I put one tentative step in front of the other in the crowd. Taxi drivers beckoned us to their cars, a cacophony of horns molested our eardrums, and every direction I turned my large backpack seemed to whack another miniature Indian woman in the face. Like when you're drowning in an ice cold river, the only way to move, it seemed, was to simply stop struggling and surrender to the current. So we followed the flow of bodies downstream and eventually found ourselves standing in front of the New Delhi train station.
In the train station, there were people everywhere. Men squatted on the cement eating puris and samosas, while women slept with their babies on fabrics laid out on the grimy floor. We needed to find the ticket counter and inquire about a special category of tickets called the “tourist quota.” We knew that all of the general tickets had been sold out on all of our trains, thus our only remaining hope was to secure “tourist quota” tickets, which are apparently withheld for people like us to plan last minute trips. This, we quickly realized, would be nearly impossible. There seemed to be no information of any kind anywhere. Most of the signs were written in Hindi, and the giant window that said “Tickets” had only one useless attendant who only knew how to say “fill out a ticket inquiry form” and with whom you had to press your ear up to the little hole in the separating glass pane to even understand. We needed to get out of there.
We decided to make our way to the hotel, regroup a bit, and come back when we were a little more clear-minded. So...hotel. According to the map, we just needed to follow the street we came in on, and veer right, then left, then right again, and it would be there. No problem. Well, we got to the street and were quickly enveloped in the raging river again. Car's honked past us, taxi drivers yelled at us, upset that we were walking rather than using their services, and more tiny women fell victim to my large backpack. We started one way, then turned the map around, and went back the other way. We quickly realized that, even if it was only a few blocks away, we had no idea where we were going, and amidst the chaos in the street we were not going to figure it out any time soon. We decided to step into the relative comfort of an auto-rickshaw. Surely he would know where our hotel is. I said, “Hotel Delhi Continental” thinking that there can only be one Delhi Continental, and that's when I realized our rickshaw driver was a feeble old man who didn't speak a lick of English. He hacked up a loogie as if he were summoning it from the deepest recesses of his lungs and shot a black stream of betel leaf juice onto the pavement so vile that I almost got out of the rickshaw right then. “Yessir, Delhi Continental. 300 Rupees,” he rasped.
I knew a thing or two about rickshaw rides in India, and there was no way I was going to pay 300 Rupees for a 30 second ride to a hotel right around the corner. I offered 30 Rupees and after a difficult negotiation we settled on 100 Rs, still what I considered robbery, but we were desperate. He revved his anemic engine and we pitter-pattered away in the direction of Delhi Continental. 15 minutes later, we had done about three u-turns and were in another part of town. Each time I pleaded with the driver “Delhi Continental, close...you know? Close? Nearby? Not far? Here?” my attempted Indian accent thickening with every word in an attempt to get him to understand, he looked back over his shoulder and said, “yes, yes, Delhi Continental, Delhi Continental.” I was sure we were not where we were supposed to be, but we finally pulled up to a large, multi-story hotel with a ritzy sign and a gate attendant. The driver stopped the car and said, “Delhi Continental.” The sign didn't say “Delhi Continental.” We refused to get out. “This isn't Delhi Continental,” we protested. “Yes, yes, Delhi Continental!”
I had read about this in the guide book too. It said to be very wary of taxi drivers and make sure you tell them that you already have reservations at your hotel, because they will want to take you to the hotel they are commissioned with. They will even tell you that your hotel is closed, or doesn't exist in order to get you to go to their hotel. I was sure that this was what was happening with our inept geriatric driver. As often happens during disputes on crowded Indian streets, bystanders began to approach to offer their opinions on the matter. Another taxi pulled up, a few people appeared out of the woodwork to hear what was going on, and before I knew it, there was a crowd.
I appealed to the crowd, proclaiming that we had asked to go to Delhi Continental, and this hotel clearly was not Delhi Continental. My statement was met with approval from the onlookers; “it's true,” I could see them nodding, “this is not Delhi Continental.” It was time, however, to hear the driver's side of the story. He claimed that this hotel used to be called Delhi Continental, and thus he had no fault in the matter. The driver's defense was also met with approval. Everyone in the crowd agreed that this hotel, indeed, used to be called Delhi Continental. So what to do? An idea emerged: “Are you sure you don't want to just go to this hotel? It's very nice...” “No!” Thus the onlookers reached a consensus that the best plan would be for us to pay the driver half of the agreed upon fare, since he didn't knowingly bring us to the wrong hotel, and then get in a different rickshaw with a driver who knew where the real Delhi Continental was located. This seemed a little backwards, but overall was agreeable for both parties, so we stepped into another rickshaw headed towards what we thought was the real Delhi Continental.
Surprisingly, this new driver didn't try to jack up the rates on us, and said he would take us to Delhi Continental for a very reasonable 30 rupees. Finally, we thought, an honest driver. A few minutes into the drive, however, his intentions became clear: he had a a friend who worked at a tourism booking agency that he'd like us to meet. What a coincidence! After a brief protest, Hannah and I looked at each other and realized that, well, we might actually need a tourist booking agency considering our inability to book anything at the train station just a few minutes earlier. We agreed and our driver whisked us away to meet the inimitable Nayeem, of Delhi Tours.
15 minutes later we were sitting in Nayeem's office sipping on chai and hearing about tour packages that Nayeem was offering us. For only $400 each, we could ride camels, stay at budget hotels, and have guaranteed second-class or A/C chair car train tickets around the country. We told him that we had already booked a number of hotel and only want the train tickets. This was a hard sell, but we eventually were able to reach an agreement with Nayeem, and booked all of our trains, a camel safari, and a few other bells and whistles for $200 each. We shook hands with the jolly fat man, paid him in cash, and got in the taxi that he had personally arranged to take us to Delhi Continental to drop off our things, and then take us on a tour of the city that day!
When we finally made our long-awaited arrival at the real Delhi Continental, we were met with some disappointing news. They had no record of the reservation and payment that we had made at agoda.com. We slumped our heads, tired and defeated. All this time we were trying to get to Hotel Delhi Continental, and not only did they not have our reservation, but it was a piece of shit hotel, with loose tiles, creaky floorboards and no hot water. We did everything we could, we lamented together, but Round 1 went to India. We forked over the cash for another room and slept for the next three hours. When we woke up, we reassured ourselves, we would take on India with a newfound energy!
To be continued...