At last we arrived in Mumbai, the planned termination of our Indian adventure. Lo and behold, as we wound our way into town, we were pulled over by a cop. Indian cops are nothing more than common criminals, and this one fit the stereotype to a T. After pulling us over in thick Mumbai traffic he got off of his motorcycle and waddled over to my window, his mustache like a smudge of barbecue sauce on his bulbous face. He quickly got to the point that we had committed a heinous crime.
“You have committed a heinous crime.”
“And what would that be?”
“Your windows are tinted.”
“Ha!” For a moment I thought that perhaps it was a bad idea to laugh in the cop’s face, but then I remembered that I wanted to strangle him to death, and laughing was a much better release of energy.
“That’s really funny,” I said, just to be sure he knew that I thought he was a joke.
“What is the solution?”
“I said, what is the solution?”
“The solution to what? To me having tinted windows?” It should be noted that our front windows might have 5% tinting at best. It’s hardly detectable. As I argued with him several vehicles drove by with full blackout tint. It didn’t matter, he hadn’t pulled me over because of my windows, he pulled me over because he thought I was retarded.
“I guess you’ll have to give me a ticket.”
He looked confused, so tried again. “What is the solution?” He repeated. I slowly mouthed the words to him as if speaking to a deaf person.
“I – guess – you – should – give – me – a – ticket.”
The conversation went around and around and I practically begged him to give me a ticket. I knew he wouldn’t; too much paperwork. He wanted a bribe, and went so far as to say that I could just give him a monetary gift to make it all go away. The he showed me a laminated page stating why tinted windows are illegal: to keep people from concealing criminals in their cars. I handed the page back to him.
“This says that tinted windows are illegal because they can be used to conceal criminals. I promise you I’m not a criminal – I’m just a tourist. But if you think I’m a criminal, please just give me a ticket so I can stop wasting your valuable time.”
At this he again asked me what the solution was and stared in my eyes. Classic. I stared intensely back at his eyes, studying myself in the reflection of his aviator sunglasses. After thirty seconds it started to get ridiculous, two men silently staring at each other in the middle of Mumbai traffic, waiting to see who would crack. I focused on not blinking, just as I do when having staring contests with my niece. Finally, he cracked. A few more words were said and I was waved on. I watched with great delight as he waddled back to his bike, his pride shattered. I stared at him with laser beam eyes as I pulled away, like a disgruntled gang member trying to instill fear in his rival after a territorial squabble.
The next couple of weeks in Mumbai passed in a continuous sequence of days in which we dealt with shipping logistics, punctuated by small endeavors of tourism. Over one weekend we had nothing to do, so we headed for the hills. I had done some internet research and found that there was a campground nearby—the only real campground we’d heard of in India—and we set out for it. At first we were unable to find it, and we ended up passing through several small villages where the people stared at us as if they’d never seen a car before. We ultimately found our way into a nice forest on a mountainside, drove through a dry wash for a while, and found a nice camp spot in the trees.
In the morning we were awoken by several men surrounding Nacho. They rudely demanded that we leave, and stood next to Nacho until we had packed everything up. The leader of the pack, some kind of officer, was the most assertive and rude, barking orders at us nonstop. He took copies of all of our vital papers and called them in to his main office, and came back several times asking for more papers. Birth certificate, marriage license, auto title. It was ridiculous. Then he said he had to photograph us and all of our stuff, so he carried on doing that. In the end, just before we pulled away, he blew me away in a way that only Indian authority figures can.
“Excuse me, one more picture.”
“Why, you already have pictures of everything.”
“No, picture of you for my Facebook.”
“Hey Sheena, this guy says he wants to take a picture with us for Facebook,” I yelled.
“You can tell him to go to hell!”
“My wife says she doesn’t want her picture taken.” At this I got in Nacho and we sped off through the wash, furious. What the hell is wrong with these people?
Just when our faith in humanity had sunken to a new low, our phone rang and it was Wayne, the owner of the campground that we’d been trying to find. I had emailed him inquiring about the location, and since I had dropped out of communication (and into the hostile Indian woods, as it were), he had called me.
“Brad, it’s Wayne. How you doin’ buddy? Meet me at the corner of the village by the highway, I’ll come get you.”
And ten minutes later we were met by the world’s nicest Indian: Wayne. Wayne, as it turns out, has a penchant for cowboys. He listens to country music and reads lots of westerns. One day, he says, he will live out his dream of traveling to Texas where he will ride a horse.
“That would be the life,” he tells us a couple of nights later over dinner under the stars, “saddling up in the morning and heading out into the hills, just me and my horse.” Given India’s overpopulation, I can see the allure of some wide open space. Sheena and Wayne compare their favorite country music stars and their eyes light up. Dwight Yoakam? Willie Nelson!? CHRIS LEDOUX!!!??? Ohmigod, I totally LOVE them! Sheena and Wayne are like adolescent girls.
I tell Wayne that I grew up with horses, but refused to ride them after I turned twelve. The horse I was riding had lost its footing while I was riding it down a steep hill and “tried to kill me,” and would have if not for my Superman-like skyward jump which saw me free of its rolling mass. From that day onward I took up mountain biking. This revelation of horse-as-murderer fell on deaf ears, and Wayne maintained his fixation with the unwieldy beasts.
Wayne’s campground, The Big Red Tent, is located about an hour or so inland from Mumbai up in the dry hills next to a sizable and clean river. I spend the days exploring the river on the paddleboard, sitting in a chair with Sheena in the shade watching the river, and chatting with Wayne and the other campground guests about various topics, among them the intrusion we experienced in the forest on the day before our arrival at the campground.
“They probably thought you were poachers,” Wayne said. “They know me pretty well, and don’t mind when I bring groups in there for camping trips.”
I tell him about the Facebook photo thing, and how it is to me completely inconceivable how a rational human being could think that that would be appropriate. But by now the feeling of rage toward the forest men has diminished somewhat; The Big Red Tent is something of a camping paradise in an otherwise non-camping-friendly country. And that’s just the point, Wayne tells me. He and his business partner are trying to sow the seeds of a camping culture in India.
“People here don’t have tents or camping equipment of their own, and the thought of sleeping on the ground is considered absurd. They don’t want to make their own food. That’s not Indian culture—we want to be waited on. But we’re trying to show them that there’s adventure in it. Being self-sufficient is fun.”
It’s true, the service industry in India is set up to convey a feeling of superiority, and camping doesn’t really fit that mold. Wayne’s operation lets Indians slowly immerse themselves into the idea of camping; he holds a nightly barbecue so that people can still have an outdoor eating experience without having to cook for themselves, unless they want to. Tents are erected around the grounds, complete with bags and pads, campfire rings, and a collection of canoes for the river. All of the ingredients are there, and there’s even a rural train that takes people from downtown Mumbai to within walking distance of the campground.
And from the healthy weekend turnout that we saw, people are taking to it pretty well. As Sheena paddled down the river on the paddleboard I conversed with several of the Mumbai couples and families that had congregated there. They seemed modern, fun-loving, and, after what had been three months in India that were anything but normal, these people seemed refreshingly normal.
Normal. It was just the kind of weekend we needed. And for the next overlanders who plod their way through the wilds of India, rest assured that there’s a campground near Mumbai run by an Indian cowboy who can cook up a mean chicken tikka over the barbecue that will provide a much needed dose of normalcy.