Leaving India is an adventure of its own, as entering or departing the country always seems to be. On the way to the airport for the first of five flights which will take me back to the U.S., the driver Raj text messages on his mobile phone the whole way, his other hand pounding the horn as he swerves at high speeds around the huge, pimped-out Tata trucks and the cows, aiming instead head-on toward every oncoming rickshaw and pedestrian. With 60,000 traffic fatalities a year, India has only 2% of the world’s roads but accounts for 7% of its accidents. I have no trouble believing this.
After stopping along the way to pick up a friend of Raj’s, I ask him how far we are from the airport at Bhubaneswar, capital of Orissa. He says, “Five minutes,” and I wonder why I even asked. Everywhere I go in India, whenever I ask how far something is, how long to get there, when someone will meet me – the answer is always five minutes, accompanied by the little head wobble. Everything is always “very close.” Ask how far away a place is, and the answer will always be, “It is very close! Five minutes.” If you press further for exact distance as measured by kilometers, the answer may be one kilometer or 30, you may be in a town with extremely heavy traffic or light, the roads may be good or abominable; but that never seems to affect the resulting consensus that no matter the actual distance or driving conditions, the destination is always very close and five minutes away.
I have learned to use this same gauge in return. If a taxi driver is a little too persistent in wanting to take me somewhere, or a shopkeeper a little too aggressive, I simply reply, “Later – five minutes.” They instantly accept this, without fail. With the ever present, all-purpose Indian head wobble. It took me longer to decipher the wobble. Finally I realized that it can have a multitude of meanings. Often it means “yes” or “okay.” But it can also mean “Maybe,” “I don’t know,” or “I’ll think about it.” About the only thing the wobble doesn’t mean is “No.”
We reach the airport about 15 minutes later. Check-in is easy enough, although two blokes do try to nonchalantly cut right in front of me in the line. This happens everywhere – at ticket counters, at entrances and exits, getting on and off trains or buses – people think nothing of going straight to the front of the line and elbowing their way in front of you, although it seems men are slightly less aggressive about it with women than with other men.
As soon as I look back around and notice the two new guys crowding in front of me on line, I tap the nearest one on the arm and say, “I was in line here,” motioning at the queue. Once caught out, they act surprised to find me there and move behind me.
For once in a small airport outside a major Indian hub, I am not the main attraction. Today there is a large group of Muslims seeing off a comrade. Twenty men gather in a big huddle just before the ticketed-only entrance and have a prayer for the one traveling, facing Mecca and kneeling. With this interesting turn of events taking the center of attention, I am merely one of the crowd.
At security I obediently head to the ladies’ line, where a woman officer waves the electric wand over me behind the modesty curtain meant to protect this apparently erotic act from inciting men powerless over their natural male urges.
In the waiting area, the second that the P.A. speaker buzzes on – before the first word of the boarding announcement is spoken – the entire room springs to its feet and rushes to the doors, vying for position as if the plane will leave without them if they are not among the first ten on board; pressing together and jockeying for space with elbows, leaving no more than two inches between each body lest someone squeeze into the gap in front of him.
Passing through the doors, we must go through another security check – for what purpose I cannot ascertain since we just had the exact same security check not 30 feet back. I disappear once more behind the curtain, where the officer pats me down and demands to know if I have any matches or flammables on my body. I do not ask where she imagines I might be hiding this contraband, instead simply answering no.
With the other passengers I board the antique shuttle bus which will take us to the aircraft waiting on the tarmac. Approximately 90 seconds later we are at the plane, and getting down off the bus I see the remaining passengers walking the 50 yards from the building to the plane. Apparently there is only one shuttle, so some passengers must walk. Why, then, they didn’t just have us all walk escapes me.
The entire experience is just one of the many don’t-ask-why-because-you’ll-never-understand, incomprehensible ways of India. And of course, I will miss it terribly.