Nacho arrived in Chennai Port aboard a mighty container ship after having floated from Bangkok to Singapore, and then across the Indian Ocean to India’s Central-East coast. The logical procession of events would have had Nacho unloaded from the ship so that we could be on our way, but in India logic has no place.
Our shipping agents were right on top of things from the start, quickly delivering our Carnet de Passages—a sort of passport for Nacho—to the customs agent for processing. But the first day went by with no action. And then the second and third days. And then four, five, six, and seven. Every time our agent asked Customs if they had done their job yet, they were told “tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Sheena and I passed from being “amused by India” to “under siege by India.” Day after day we renewed our hotel room on Triplicane Road and made our sojourns into the city for what we shall call “cultural experiences” to the chorus of cars honking, cows eating trash, and people staring at us.
After our first trip to the beach we realized that beachcombing wasn’t any longer in the cards for us on account of our status as extraterrestrials and the constant pestering that that brings. Our walks in the city became one-hour jaunts—expeditions, really—into frenzied and overwhelming territory filled with aggressive touts and beggars, and where our white faces marked us not as people, but as walking money, causing everything to cost double and people’s hands to magically open, palm up. These outings required immense mental preparations and were followed by evening bouts of PTSD.
One evening I took a picture of some children dancing, and then offered them two rupees in thanks. The rupees were snatched, and I was immediately mauled by at least a dozen street kids who poured out of the woodwork like angry wolves in a bad horror film. They hung on my clothing and limbs while I tried to escape, demanding more money. In my rush to get away, during which time Sheena and I lost each other, I was dragged into an ankle-deep gutter filled with fecal goo wearing only my sandals. I barely kept myself from concurrently barfing and slaughtering the kids, and the event was infuriating enough to send me into a two day funk. As the days passed and these events began to multiply, we became jaded, and I only partially emerged from my funk.
All the while cars honked, cows ate trash, and people stared.
One day a new face appeared at the hotel—that of Tatjana, a petite twenty-something German girl with blond hair and blue eyes. It seemed to us that Tatjana never left the hotel, a fact verified by Tatjana herself when we invited her out to lunch.
“I haven’t left the hotel in two days,” she said as we entered the restaurant a few doors down from our hotel. On her first day she had attempted to walk to the beach, but upon exiting the hotel became surrounded by twenty Indian men who proceeded to grope her body while one man tried kissing her neck while she walked. She looked to passersby for help, but everyone simply watched like dead-eyed spectators at a cricket match. She retreated to her room and refused to leave, and had been subsisting on granola bars that she brought from Germany. We wondered how she would cope during her planned six month stay in India.
On the morning of the eighth waiting day, ten days after we’d arrived in Chennai, I called our shipping agent. I could tell they were disappointed, but they told me to hire a cab and come by the office anyway. When I arrived, two of the agents got in the cab with me and told the driver how to get to the customs office.
As we approached the office, they explained to me that the customs agent was purposely ignoring us day after day, most likely expecting some kind of bribe to get him to do his job. By bringing me along, they hoped to force his hand. I was to be used as a sacrificial lamb in a fight against corruption and ineptitude. Our plan seemed destined to succeed.
When we got to the customs office, our shipping agent entered first and then grabbed my arm and pushed me into a chair in front of the customs agent. The agent was in his late twenties and appeared to be in a state of repose. He put down his newspaper when I sat down.
“This is a foreigner,” our agent began, “and he has been waiting for four days to get his car from the port [a gross understatement]. He is foreign. We would simply like for you to process the foreigner’s paperwork.” He repeatedly placed emphasis on my foreignness, perhaps so that I would be felt sorry for. It didn’t at first have the desired effect.
“Who do you think you are!?” the customs man began, addressing our shipping agent. “Do you think that you can pressure me? I have superiority! I am your SUPERIOR! Besides, it’s after 4:00, so it is impossible to process this today.” This was the part where the angry tribesman nonchalantly slices off the sacrificial lamb’s head. I closed my eyes and waited.
“Yes of course, you are my superior, sir,” our agent said, backpedaling a little bit. He had to play the game, and he had to play it with British imperial mannerisms. “I wouldn’t dare pressure you, as I am merely a shipping agent and you are a customs agent. I simply wish for you to accompany us to the port so that we can help this foreigner get on his way.”
The customs agent settled down a little as the praise was lavished on, and finally reclined in his chair. He had saved face, and waited a few moments before continuing. I stroked my doughy soft neck with my hand.
“I will accompany you to the port, but only because of my graciousness. It is my decision, do you understand? This has nothing to do with your demands.”
“Of course, sir,” our man said.
Awkwardly, I was to share the back seat of my cab with the customs agent on the hour-long journey to the port. I put on my cheery face and used the hour to make friends and bring him up to speed on our trip. I knew that a customs approval in India could get ugly really fast, so having the agent on our team would be critical. We arrived at the port and got out at Nacho’s container.
I climbed inside, fired up the engine, and backed Nacho out for inspection. I stood there looking dopy with an innocent smile on my face. This was intentional. After a cursory glance around the outside, it was time for the interior inspection. Nacho was supposed to be completely empty, as the Carnet only covers importation of the car and a few choice accessories.
“Ready to have a look inside?” I said cheerily, and then slid the door open to reveal our treasure trove of undocumented belongings. “Here she is, surfboard, clothes, this is a toilet, shoes…” I smiled at the agent and shoved my hands into my pockets like a bumpkin, and then stepped aside.
He looked dumbfounded. He checked the list of approved accessories, and then peered inside again. He turned to someone and whispered, “None of this is on the Carnet.” I pretended not to hear. He looked over at me and I smiled. After a few minutes he gave me the motion to close the door, and we were done. Bullet dodged.
But it wasn’t over. No, this is India, and it’s never that easy. I drove Nacho back into the container, it was re-sealed, and then a truck moved it a few rows over, where we would come back for it the following day to retrieve it.
The next day, after a couple of hours of paperwork, it was time for the grand finale. We opened the container, and prepared to remove Nacho. In true Indian style, the moment that the doors were opened people emerged from the woodwork and surrounded the container to watch. All work at the port seemed to cease, and I emerged to the blank stares of a dozen dead-eyed onlookers.
I had noticed a small pool of brake fluid under one of the rear wheels, so decided to stop just outside of the port to investigate. Sheena and I drove out and found a small, empty parking lot where I could work. I decided to start by checking my tire pressure, and I hunched down next to a wheel. Nothing out of the ordinary.
When I stood up to move to the next wheel I was shocked to find more than a dozen Indian men surrounding me, staring. I stared back, confused. Where had these people come from? This place is like the Twilight Zone. I walked over to the next wheel and the mob silently followed me, staring, as if witnessing for the very first time how man makes fire. I hunched at the second tire, and the mob stood directly over me, straining to see the pressure. They followed me around to each tire, and then waited in Nacho’s doorway as I found my tool kit. I crouched at the rear wheel, and the men stood over me. Nobody spoke. Occasionally I looked up or waved, but they stared back at me as if I were an alien. When I had finished I stood up, hot, sweaty, dirty, and hungry.
From the car, Sheena handed me a portion of briyani wrapped in newspaper, and I stood in the middle of the mob of men and opened it. They stared at me. I stared back. They said nothing. I said nothing. I scarfed down the briyani with my hands, all the while being watched intently by the mob, only inches from my face. I played their awkward game.
When I was done I looked around, turned, and got back into the car as awkwardly as possible.
“Bradley, please don’t set up the GPS right now,” she pleaded. “Let’s just go down the road a little.”
I agreed, and we rolled onto the congested, dusty street. A hundred meters away, where there were clearly no people around, I pulled over and started dialing in our destination on the Garmin. I leaned forward as I searched the map for our hotel, but after a few seconds something didn’t feel right. It was as if there was a presence of something nearby. I paused, and turned my head. Inside of my window, right behind my head, three Indian men stared intently at the GPS.
We were officially in India with our own vehicle. A place with no concept of personal space, where traffic is dizzying and dangerous, and where we are literally regarded as alien creatures. A place where Sheena can’t be left alone, where we’ll always have to be on our guard. Perhaps to the greatest extent thus far, we feel very far from home. We rolled on, eager to leave town. Meanwhile, the cars honked, the cows ate trash, and the people stared.