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Magic Shoes from Nepal
by Mordechai Zoltan | 2010
The taxi ride to the airport was what you would expect in a city like Mumbai. Even after midnight, the city was a swarming multitude of sights, sounds and smells spinning together to create a surreal kaleidoscope of humanity.
It had been a month since I arrived in Mumbai and from the moment I entered this massive metropolis, all I wanted to do was leave. Not that I had anything against India or Indians in general. Quite simply, I was sick, tired and ready to go home. It had been over a year since I left on this supposed tour of enlightenment and my patience for chaos had worn thin. That's not to say that there wasn't predictability to the chaos. Take my taxi drivers for example. They were the same two turbaned Sikhs that occupied virtually every cab in the city. All turban and beard, with fierce eyes looking out of their dark faces, they were skilled in the art of deception. Using sleight of hand tricks, raising their voices in anger to frighten you, they would do whatever it took to extract an extra rupee from you. As far as I was concerned they could have all my money, so long as they got me to the airport, and I could spend the night in the terminal, and then catch my early flight to Frankfurt, and then land in New York, and finally return back to Ohio or what I perceived was supposed to be my life.
Looking back, I realize I must have made for a comical sight. I looked like a cross between Saddam Hussein after he crawled out of his rat hole and John Belushi as the Samurai cheeseburger guy. My hair was long and curly with the kind of dreadlocks that you get when you neglect to comb it for over a year. My beard was long and unkempt, a tangled mass of wiry hair covering 80% of my face. And of course, there was my outfit. I was wearing a long sleeve button down dress shirt and grey shiny silk suit pants. And then there were the shoes.
"Hello my friend! Allow me please to make you magic shoes for your trip home!" Om Mani Kari was his name. He joyfully told me that his friends call him Om and that I of course was one of his dear friends. So Om it was. Easy to remember, easy to pronounce. I was staying at Om's hotel in Naudanda, Nepal. At the base of the Annapurna range of foothills on the edge of the majestic Himalayan peaks, Om's hotel was a cinder block building overlooking the town, and had an awesome view of the deep freshwater lake that was the focal point of the town. As I saw, the it focal point of Naudanda was its proximity to some of the highest mountain peaks on the planet, but the locals were very fond of their lake.
Om knew that I was beginning my trip home and he also knew of my fondness for one of the local delicacies-hashish. In fact I was under its influence at the moment Om walked into my room. "Magic Shoes! Magic Shoes! Please let me make you some magic shoes so you may enjoy a bit of Naudanda when you return to your country." And there it was. Om explained to me in great detail how he had many times in the past secured an ounce or so of hashish under the insole of one or another of his esteemed guests here at his cinder block Taj Mahal and off they went on their merry way.
And that's how it was that I was sitting in a taxi driven by a fierce-looking turbaned man, in one of the most populated cities in the world, dressed like a castaway banker from the 70's with an ounce or so of hashish secured under the insole of my Nike high top sneakers. Had I been able to see into the future I would have recognized the idiocy of everything about this scene. I was many things, but unfortunately clairvoyant was not one of them.
So as the taxi came to an abrupt stop in front of the Mumbai International Airport I grabbed my backpack, allowed my drivers to rob me, and stepped out into what would become one of many not-so wise decisions in my life.
I never could figure out why people arrive at the airport so early in that part of the world. Maybe it is to save money on lodging for the evening, or maybe it is a fascination with airports, or maybe it is because departure times tend to be somewhat ambiguous. Nevertheless, the lobby was crowded with people even at such an odd hour.
After roaming around for a bit I noticed a pretty blond girl sitting on the floor some paces away from the throngs of locals who were either sleeping in heaps like wolf cubs or arguing fiercely. She was wearing a sarong as a skirt and a sleeveless cotton shirt bearing an abstract needlepoint design. There were bracelets piled up on each wrist—silver ones, cotton ones and beaded ones that I recognized as being from Kenya. She was wearing worn flip-flops, and underneath the mushroom tattoo on her left leg was strewn an anklet of silver links with Indian charms dangling from it. Very tan and very dusty looking, I could tell she had been in India for quite some time. Most likely somewhere in the south on the beach where "hippie" tourists tended to congregate.
Always on the lookout for my soul mate, I sat down close to her on the floor and leaned up against my backpack. The dirty linoleum was cool at that time of night, and for some reason the memory of sitting down on cold, dirty linoleum in a strange place sticks with me even today.
Her name was Beatrice and she was from a small town in Indiana. She had originally come to India as part of a college excursion, but she had fallen helplessly in love with a German boy while relaxing on the beach in Goa. Goa is India's answer to Venice Beach in California. At the time it was a haven for the worlds disenchanted or otherwise afflicted youth. Drugs, sex, alcohol, cheap food and cheap lodging made it an ideal place to drop out.
First thing Beatrice did upon arriving in Goa was head down to the beach for a swim and a little sunshine. No sooner had she dried herself off when a tall blond guy sits down next to her. His name was Werner and had lived in India for several years. He owned a hotel on the beach and invited Beatrice to stay there as his guest. His German name was Werner but his friends called him Bal raj which meant powerful in Hindi. And of course, he considered Beatrice her friend.
He told her that when he saw her on the beach the name Yoovarrani came to mind instantly. Meaning "princess" in Hindi, Beatrice blushed as he pronounced it. Ten months had passed since she had arrived in Goa and she was on her way to Germany to renew her Indian visa and take care of some business for Bal raj. It turns out that Yoov, which was much easier for me to say, was very talkative. We talked like two people who know they would never see each other again, and it wasn't long before we were in the bathroom smoking hash from a soda can converted into a pipe. Towards dawn, Yoov started to tell me more about her boyfriend Bal raj and more details as to the real reason for her trip.
Turns out Bal raj discovered that it was easy for him to befriend young tourist girls and bring them into his business of heroin smuggling. This was Yoov's third trip for Bal raj and she was quite nonchalant about it. She had several figurines of various Hindu gods or goddesses that had been hollowed out and filled up with several ounces of pure heroin. She even pulled one out and showed it to me.
Now I know what you are thinking. From your prospective—let's say watching this from above—the stupidity of this scene is obvious. And recounting it now, I agree with you. But at the time, it seemed like a perfectly normal thing to be doing while sitting on the dirty linoleum floor of the airport in Mumbai, India, just an hour before sunrise.
The line to clear customs was moving slowly. Even though we had spent the night at the airport, Yoov and I were still in the middle of a very long line. I could see ahead to the customs barrier and was able to get a look at the four or five customs agents. Droopy-eyed and very overweight, they looked pretty much like every other custom agent in the third world. Dressed in khaki uniforms that were five sizes too small, their tummies hanging over their trousers like enormous beach balls, the buttons on their shirts threatened to break free from their burdens and jettison themselves with great force at the long line of waiting travelers. Add an official looking hat with an emblem on the front and a few World War I-issue rifles, and the picture is complete. One starts to imagine a world controlled by armed, overweight cub scouts.
My turn finally came and I was waved over to the custom table. I handed my passport to my designated cub scout upside down, which I had originally started doing as a literacy test: nine times out of ten, they would thumb through it upside down, pause, look up at me, look down again, and ask something like "Are you hiding any explosives" or "Have you murdered anyone while visiting our fine country?", take their stamp out with great fanfare, theatrically roll it on the stamp pad, and with a loud bang stamp my passport and hand it back to me. And off I would go on my merry way. This morning, in Bombay India, it was no different. Bang and off I went.
The plane was boarding just as I cleared customs, so rather than wait for Yoov, I handed the tagent my ticket and climbed on board to find my seat. I was hoping that I could work it out so that Yoov would sit next to me. After all, we had bonded during our all night vigil, and it would help pass the time for both of us. It was odd being on a jumbo jet after having traveled so primitively for all this time.
I started to daydream about all the trips I had taken, the train ride through eastern Africa, the many bus rides throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East where I was often the only foreigner. At the time, some of these trips were hard and painful. But at this moment, I looked back with a sadness that they were over and a desire to do it all over again.
I came back to the present when my seatmate, an Indian businessman, sat next to me. The flight attendant came on the loudspeaker, eventually broke the connection, and I heard the door slam shut. With that sound still in my ears—that shutting noise, closing off, ending a phase in my life—I thought about Yoov. I stood up and looked around. I scanned the seats in front and in back of me. Back towards the center of the plane just behind the wing, there was an Indian family starting to settle in. They were chatting happily and seemed very excited about the empty seat in their row. This meant that their babies could spread out and maybe even sleep throughout most of the journey. Of course, I then knew that was supposed to be Yoov's seat. She never made it onto the plane. This girl with whom I had just spent what felt like an eight-hour lifetime had made her last trip for Bal raj.
Like I said, I am not clairvoyant or even very insightful in terms of what the future will bring, but this time I had been correct: I never did see Beatrice again.
The voice on the loudspeaker announced we would be arriving at Frankfurt, Germany in ten minutes. Looking out the window I was struck by how flat and dull the landscape was. An hour before we landed, I began to worry about my Magic Shoes. The event with Yoov apparently being arrested in Bombay had awoken that small part of my brain that says "Fear," and "Maybe not such a good idea". The fasten seat belt sign went on with a metallic ding just as I got out of my seat to head to the bathroom. I closed the door and removed my magic shoe. I pulled out the insole, removed the hashish and held it in my hand.
The smell of the hashish quickly reached my nose. A delightfully exotic smell, it connects at an almost primordial level with one's senses. I was facing the sink and the toilet was on my right. I took the flattened drug out of its wrapper and rolled it quickly between my hands making a small cylinder. I rewrapped it and covered it in the hand lotion attached to the sink. I undid my shiny grey silk pants, pulled my under wear down and did something I had never even dreamed of doing. "They will never find it now," I thought to myself.
The plane had finished taxing to the gate and the passengers were gathering their things together and filing out into the terminal. Walking into the terminal my thoughts were occupied with how I was going to spend the next 12 hours.
Carried away by the crowd it was easy not to notice the little man on my right staring at my hands. He was speaking at me in German and breathing hard to keep up with my pace. Old and frail looking, he wore coke bottle glasses that made his eyes look comically large. Just as a larger man approached from the left he asked in clear English to see my passport. In a well-choreographed move, the larger man produced a badge as the hunched-over guy grabbed my arm and asked me to follow him. While it is true that my patience for waiting in lines can sometimes wear thin, the fact that I was being treated to VIP treatment clearing customs at this moment was something I could have done without.
I suppose we all react differently under stress. As I was being lead away by my two Gestapo buddies, it occurred to me that I was about to learn German as a second language. While considering this, a strange disconcerting calm began to settle on me. Almost like a feeling of resignation to a predetermined fate. Maybe there is relief in realizing that you may no longer be in control of your life—your future is suddenly finalized, and there is no need to fret over what was going to happen or how things were going to turn out. Whatever it was, I did learn that once busted, I was not a fighter. I became extremely helpful and compliant almost to the point of being a complete pansy.
We arrived in front of a nondescript door on the right side of the terminal. The large man, who as it turned out was the good cop, punched in some numbers and the door opened, revealing a small room with a table to one side, two metal chairs on either side of the table, and a moveable fluorescent light on one of those flexible arms.
After we had all settled into our little private airport lounge area, the shorter guy, who I nicknamed Stoop, said, "Take off your shoes!" I was thinking I will need to send a letter to my friend Om in Nepal and tell him that the shoe thing is all the rage in Europe.
Handing my shoes over to Stoop, he attacked them like an expert surgeon. He twisted them, bent them, brought them close to his glasses to peer into them, smelled them and then reached in and ripped out the insole. Nothing.
Clearly frustrated, he ordered me to stand with my legs spread and frisked me. Nothing. I was clean.
Stoop looked me up and down. He was panting from all this exertion. His eyes were enormous from those thick lenses. He smiled and said, "Take off your pants and bend over." The bigger guy, who I named Schultz from Hogan's Heroes, had his arms crossed and was appeared to be considering what to have for lunch after shipping this punk American kid off to prison.
It's hard to put into words the thoughts running through one's mind when asked to drop your pants and grab ankles while in the custody of the German Police. This alone would be cause for most to become seriously concerned. Add the knowledge that you have firmly shoved up your butt an ounce of Nepalese Hashish—that, my friends, is priceless.
Have you ever known anyone that has an uncanny ability to extract their self from any trouble they may get into? There was a time when I used to think of myself in that way. With my easy wit and irresistible charm, I could wiggle my way out of just about anything. This unfortunate incident in the Frankfurt Airport was no exception.
After a few hours of signing seemingly endless forms (the Germans are nothing if not precise), I was released into the stark cleanliness of the Frankfurt airport. It is not such a bad place, actually. Extraordinary clean, incredibly well-ventilated and delightfully comfortable, it even has a McDonalds.
Most people do not realize this, but being arrested while smuggling contraband into a foreign country can cause a guy to work up a fierce hunger. I walked over to the McDonalds with three dollars in my hand and ordered a Happy Meal. My boxed culinary extravaganza had a miniature Hamburgler figurine in it to qualify it for Happy Meal status.
Looking out the window as we made our final approach into JFK, my mind was a jumble of thoughts. While it was a good thing that I would not have to become fluent in German anytime soon, I couldn't shake this feeling of sadness and remorse. I realized my heart was heavy with despair, my mood decidedly somber. I had come to terms with the end of my journey and my entry back into "real life". I was okay knowing that I would need to find employment and jump on the inane gerbil wheel of materialism in a never-ending attempt to keep up with the Joneses. But there was one thing that I could not accept. There was one thing that would not let me rest. The hashish.
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