Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Escape From Delhi (Part 2)

By Paul Gerald

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  When I stomped out of the American Express office I saw that the guy in the fortune-teller outfit was still waiting for me. He had followed me there in the first place, along with a crowd of other street folk, for what seems to be a regular practice in Delhi: trying to get a tourist’s money. And here he had waited for me, the whole two-and-a-half happy hours I had spent inside waiting to get my mail. He was made happier by our reunion than I was.

I leaned into the viciously hot air and tried to outstride him, but he was like a fisherman with a 20-pound trout on the line. Two blocks later, I was coated with sweat again, and he was running circles around me, saying he wanted to show me his “gift from God.” I finally snapped and told him he had about two minutes and stood to gain at the most about 25 cents worth of rupees.

A small crowd gathered as he handed me a piece of paper and told me to write on it the following things: my favorite color, my mom’s name, and my girlfriend’s name. “Then you keep the paper, and I will read your mind. I will tell you what you wrote down.”

In a rare moment of intelligence, I realized his shtick was to get the notebook back and see the indentations I left while writing. So I took it and, with the crowd buzzing, wrote with the weight of a feather the following words: chartreuse, Gertrude, and Marquinta. Might as well check his pronunciation, right? He snapped the notebook out of my hand, raised his pen, and focused his stare where he expected to see something like “red, Mom, and Lisa.”

In the 27 hours I spent in Delhi in October 1989, the only moment of pleasure I experienced was the look on that man’s face. He looked like a wolf that had been whipped by a lamb. The crowd erupted, and he looked at me with the desperate eye of a showman whose show is bombing. I sort of felt bad and tossed him some rupees, figured I’d shuffle along. But before that money had made it from my pocket to his hand, there were people headed my way from 17 different directions. My little moment of pleasure was lost in a jungle of outstretched arms.

I needed Indian stamps for some reason, so I went to the post office. That line was moving better than the one at American Express. I only waited 45 minutes at the post office. Then I had to bargain with the man there for the price of the stamps. It took about five minutes, but I finally got them for the low, low price of exactly what was printed on them.

I went to the hotel to get my stuff, but the staff there was on strike. They were picketing outside the door and would let no one in or out. I watched this for a while, and then all at once they all put down their placards and went inside. The manager explained it to me: “They strike for one hour each afternoon. It means nothing, sir.”

After another hour or so of being stuck in the heat-blasted traffic, I finally made it the airport. Salvation was at hand – I was headed for a nice hotel in Kathmandu and a hike into the mountains the next day. At my gate, I saw a man with a Memphis T-shirt on, and I went to him like a politician to money. I jabbered wildly, but he just looked confused and responded in what may have been Swedish.

I had gotten lost on the way to the gate, naturally, and when I got there the plane was leaving in three minutes. Then my seat on the plane was taken, so I took the one right next to it. There was some confusion about the seating, though, and soon they discovered I was in the wrong one. This led them to the gentleman in my seat, who responded by backing himself against the inside of the plane, waving his hands in front of him, and yelling what sounded like Arabic for “The devil! The devil!”

This guy went on the biggest freakout anybody ever saw – begging, arguing, threatening, and sobbing all at once. After five seconds of it, I think the attendants were trying to tell him everything was okay, but by then he was practically under the seat in front of him, kicking his feet and whimpering. I assured them that under no circumstances did I want that seat, and we managed to return him to his upright position. He mumbled to himself for the first hour of the flight.

I ordered two beers and got out my journal for the first time in two days. I exchanged nervous glances with the guy next to me. Then I wrote, “I’m escaping from Delhi on a sardine-can airplane. I’m still hung-over, and the man sitting next to me is paranoid, plainly crazy, and probably carrying a bomb. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the best it’s been since I got here.

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