Page 36                                            Spring 1995

Sweet Sleep, or The Bombay International Airport Gig

By David Deeble


It is a question few Westerners have to ask: "What am I doing in Bombay?"


It was hard to tell exactly how long I'd been awake. I didn't sleep from L.A. to London, nor during eight hours of layover at familiar Heathrow (my oId friend). And I don't remember sleeping during the long flight to India. But sleep was not the first thing on my mind. After all, I would only be in India for the better part of the day before boarding the Pacific Princess and sailing for The (Other) Holy Land.


As I entered the Bombay International terminal I got a quick whiff of the sweltering April on the way to Immigration. I filled out the obligatory forms and stood in the line marked "All Others," as opposed to the numerous other lines marked "Indians" (the irony of which caused me to suppress a giggle). My passport was stamped and returned, and I carried my belongings to the carousel.


My rather extensive traveling experience has taught me, at least in theory, to be heroically calm and patient as the endless stream of other people's luggage arrives. So there I stood, practicing my soothing carousel mantra ( luggage is here... my luggage is here... ) when I noticed an airport employee holding what was almost certainly my six-foot steel unicycle. He was smiling heartily, as if holding a giant sailfish, freshly hauled from the Indian Ocean.


I approached him and claimed my prize. By this time, however, he had attracted the interest of several beautiful Indian women, apparently fellow employees. What ensued was a series of elaborate gesticulations on their part which I eventually realized as the international symbol for "Ride the unicycle, boy."


Now, conveying this six-foot beast through airports is literally the worst aspect of my job: the incessant stares, the mind­boggingly stupid remarks ("Hey, you're missin' a wheel! Haw! Haw!") and the general affront to my privacy it entails. But never have I been seriously asked, much less by airport employees, to actually ride the damned thing through the terminal.


My mind raced. If I declined their request, I might just attract more attention (and of an uglier sort) to myself than if I were to simply oblige my growing constituency and be done with it. Also, the remainder of my luggage had not yet arrived so I was eager for any kind of distraction. And, of course, the clincher - my insane desire to simply ride a unicycle in India.


And so, with the help of my swarthy assistant, I played "the good little monkey" and mounted the unicycle. I was weaving my way through the delighted throng of onlookers, looking down upon all these smiling strangers so far from home, when I experience... A Moment.


I'm too Occidental to write coherently about it, thought I'm sure our Eastern friends have an ancient term for it: "Satori," perhaps. I can only describe it as a "Cosmic Smile," as if, looking down upon these smiling faces, sleep-deprived in dream-like silence, it seemed I knew in a flash that all was well in the world, always was and always will be. The Universe as a Beautiful and Benign joke.


Reality (un-reality?) returned as I found myself nearly running over various members of my audience!


Once outside, I spotted a man with a luxuriant mustache holding a piece of cardboard with something scribbled upon it bearing a tenuous resemblance to my name. I introduced myself and learned his name was, conveniently enough, "Mike." Mike explained in that beautiful lilting Indian accent that we must wait for the arrival of two other entertainers to show up before he drove us all to the ship, which was docked about an hour-and-a-half from the airport. He advised me to place all my possessions into a neat pile (I'm paraphrasing now) and not to stray from it until he called for me.


I spent the next hour exhausting my entire coin-vanishing repertoire for four boys who were plying their trade, that of begging, at the airport. After countless French drops I finally offered the shiny English sterling coins to the always-smiling crippled boy with legs like a pretzel who conveyed himself with sinewy, agile arms. But he declined my offer repeatedly and seemed more interested in my token sleight-of-hand skills.


After an hour I walked over to Mike to say, in effect, "Mike, buddy, they ain't comin'." But no sooner had I left my belongings when I was approached by a uniformed man with a rifle slung over his shoulder. I felt compelled to listen when he ordered me to return to my things and in effect, "hover." "What an odd approach," I thought. "Forcing law abiders to create an environment not conducive to crime." Hmmm...... Orwell...


Another hour passed. I practiced my hat routine (the classic airport diversion), never straying from my belongings. I received numerous requests to ride the unicycle, but I felt this wouldn't be compatible with my recent orders. At some point, Mike came around to my point of view, crammed all my things into the trunk of his cab and, as I'm fond of saying, "drove to the gig."


I was sprawled out on the back seat, thankful to have it all to myself, when sleep began to set in. I felt its cool, heavy blanket gently envelop me, coalescing with the soothing warm air streaming through the cab's open windows. Then, in the comer of my closing eye, it happened: Bombay.


I am unable to do justice to the exquisite squalor of this city. The masses live in what appear to be... Well, imagine a human-size ant farm turned horizontally. In place of sand, picture the largest gathering of refuse possible, mixed in mud (as a bonding agent) and splayed upon acres and acres of corridors of the same material forming a roofed, Kafkaesque labyrinth of human horror. There goes the neighborhood!


But time didn't permit me to "go native" and explore Bombay outside the confines of the cab. We arrived at the ship only a few hours before sailing, but I boarded with surprising efficiency. Once again in the familiar air conditioned environs of a luxury liner, I went directly to my cabin and, without bothering to unpack, drew the curtain on the sunny porthole to close out Bombay, and slept.  

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