In 2004 I spent a week visiting coffee farms in India. It remains one of the highlights of my coffee career, staying in colonial era estates on coffee farms, in houses filled with ghosts that I don’t believe in but gave wide berth to nevertheless. But the memory of that trip that I return to most often is of something that happened on my last day in Bangalore, and it had nothing to do with coffee.
I have the habit, common to many, of exploring when I am in a place I’ve never been, at least when those places are cities. I like to walk about for a long time, making random turns, following my nose or my ears or whatever sense takes the lead. You know what I’m talking about. You do it too.
Having spent the week on a tight schedule, and far too much of my time in the back seat of cars playing chicken with other cars, cattle, people, motorcycles filled with entire families, and … well, chickens too, I was ready to walk and walk for a long time and let the sights sink in rather than blur past.
That’s what I did. As you might imagine, walking the street of Bangalore as the sun sets and the lights come up, there were many things to see that I had never seen before, many spots to linger and stare, or linger and listen, or linger and wonder. I lost track of time and after a few hours it was clear I had completely lost track of my location.
Now, getting lost is the goal, you should understand. Many is the time I have found myself on some random street in some random city and just hailed a cab. Man overboard. It’s simple. You give the driver the name of your hotel and you are whisked from the delightful fog of the unfamiliar to comparatively spare but comfortably familiar surroundings, where the innkeepers always greet you as if they knew you and the sound of the door locking as you enter your room is somehow the most proper punctuation to roaming without purpose on the edge of an adventure that rarely materializes. Adventure it may rarely be but an experience it always is, and a memory too on occasion.
But as I stood on a street in Bangalore, drunk on so many sights and sounds that were new to me just within the last two hours, it occurred to me that I could not recall the name of my hotel. In fact, it occurred to me that I may have never even known the name of my hotel. My plan had been, should the utter lack of anything resembling a grid pattern confound me, to take a rickshaw back to my hotel. This was half the reason for my going out, to take a rickshaw back. I had been watching the dubious three-wheeled motor vehicles for a week, but I’d been unable to arrange a ride in one. My hosts had gone to great trouble to ensure I was travelling in comfortable cars with experienced drivers and wouldn’t hear of me travelling in a rickshaw. And of course, I understood and acquiesced entirely. But now I was out on my own and damn it, I was going for a ride in a rickshaw.
Except … except that I didn’t know the name of my hotel. I stood on a corner at an intersection of narrow streets, holding a bag of things I had purchased during my walkabout, trinkets, and a look of puzzled concern must have been resting on my face because a police officer walked up and asked me if he could be of assistance. I began to explain that I could not remember the name of my hotel, but it soon became clear that asking if I needed assistance represented roughly 80% of his English. As we worked to understand each other, and he realized the gist of it, that I was lost, we began to attract attention and other people started to join the conversation. None of them knew much English, but when you combined the English they knew, my plight was made clear as they translated for one another. The American could not remember the name of his hotel.
This is when they started calling out names of hotels and it took a few minutes for them to understand that calling out names of hotels was not helpful because it was likely that I never even knew the name of my hotel to begin with. This realization was accompanied by some silence from the group, which was approaching a dozen in size. I tried to describe my hotel, which was one of the most nondescript hotels I had ever seen, and when I resorted to explaining how the hotel shot mosquito spray from its rooftop as the sun set, they laughed, and I laughed too because I understood, every hotel must do the same thing.
Then I remembered, just a few blocks from my hotel was a very striking red building that was, it had been explained to me, the “high court.” I blurted it out, “high court, high court, my hotel is very close to the high court.”
At this point, the fifteen or so people who were trying to help me included a rickshaw driver and he raised his voice, speaking to the police officer. The officer assumed a very official demeanor as he spoke to the rickshaw driver and it was clear he was vetting the driver on my behalf. After some back and forth the police officer invited me to enter the rickshaw and by way of assurance, he offered precisely the correct word in English.
“Home,” he said.
I stepped into the rickshaw with what I am not ashamed to call joy, not only because I was in the process of being unlost, but because I was getting my coveted rickshaw ride. And it was everything I had hoped it would be, reckless and fast, windy and loud, fifteen minutes of horns honking and non-existent paths suddenly emerging as if Moses had parted the traffic.
As we passed the high court, my driver pointed and shouted, vindicated, proven an expert at his trade. He pulled up to my hotel and I must admit if I knew how to tell him to take another pass around the block I would have done it. He told me the fare and I calculated it amounted to 80 cents. I gave him the equivalent of four dollars. He tried to give me money back, and he was very insistent. I could see it was a matter of integrity. But I put my hand on his shoulder and our eyes met and I am sure what he saw in mine was how the ride in his rickshaw had perfectly punctuated my experience in India, and he stopped arguing.
As he pulled away he saluted me with two finger to his forehead and I didn’t know what to do, so like the silly man that I sometimes am I waved with two hands, like jazz hands, then walked into the hotel, whose name I cannot remember, and all the staff greeted me as if I’d lived there for years and we knew each other well.