Nowadays what people call "adventure travel" might be skydiving or snowboarding, skiing or trekking up mountains or social service and the like. While all of that is cool, the average, everyday travel itinerary should not be overlooked or under-rated as adventure. Too often people associate adventure with what we see in the movies -- car chases, explosions, death defying feats etc. But real life isn't like that nor does it have to be for us to have adventure in our lives. It is when we get away from that, when we transform our perceptions to recognize and appreciate the ordinary and everyday, that we begin to experience adventure in Real Life (Tm).
When I stepped off the plane at New Delhi International Airport, I had no clue what sort of adventure I was in for. I wasn't kidnapped, jailed, chased, robbed, nor did I come down with any near fatal illness. It was an adventure nonetheless.
My friend Eric and his Canadian companion (later to be wife) Lila met me at 2 a.m. at the airport. They were taking a break from working on a fresh water project for an ashram in Rishikesh and helped smooth my immersion into the city. We took a rickshaw to the university apartment where they were staying and promptly crashed.
Day One with no third world experience, not much sleep, a bad case of jet lag, and culture shock setting in, I was plunged rapidly into the otherness of the culture that is India. On the second tier of a crowded bus watching it all go by, the crowds, colorful saris and clothing, crazy traffic, pervasive smell of something burning, dirt and dust, incredible ancient architecture, cows. Walking in the streets -- homeless people, beggars, street markets, cows, now a conspicuous racial minority, store owners and money changers vying for your attention, "no" is not an acceptable answer, temples, shrines, the sights and smells. It was intense.
Connaught Place, the Post Office. We went in and bought some stamps. When I was done I looked around but didn't see them. I went out and looked around. I saw the two of them standing nearby next to a pillar. Eric was involved in a discussion with a scruffy little Indian boy about 9 years old who was holding a small cloth bag.
This went on for a few minutes. I had no clue what was going on. "What's going on?", I asked. Eric said "We're taking a ride." Okaaayyyyy....
Next thing I know we're all getting in a motorized rickshaw with this kid. All of a sudden as the rickshaw started to pull away, a policeman jumped on board stopping us abruptly. I thought "Oh shit! This is it!" The policeman and the child started chattering away, and Eric said something to him. I asked what was going on. Eric said that the policeman just wanted to know where the kid was taking us and that everything was OK. The policeman got off and we were on our way. While traveling alone can be fun, don't underestimate the necessity for having companions to enhance your adventure quotient!
Eric said that the boy had wanted 125 Rupees (Rs) to buy a shoeshine box. The cloth bag held some of his supplies but he lost business without a real box. Eric refused to give him the money. After all, who knows what he would really do with it. Instead Eric offered to buy him one if he would take us to the person who sells them. I thought, this is nuts! Who knows where he'd take us and what's really going on?! Eric seemed to think nothing of it, that it was fine. Oy!
We rode off about a mile away from the main area to god knows where. To this day I would have no idea where to find it. We got off on the side of a big street and looked around. On the other side of the street was a large grouping of makeshift shacks. A shack city for the downtrodden. I hoped we weren't going in there. Looking down the rest of the street were two story apartment and commercial buildings with storefronts and some markets. No other foreigners in sight. We were definitely off the beaten track. The street seemed to go off into the distance forever like out of some surrealist painting. We were amazed.
It was a warm day, probably in the 70's. The kid started walking and we followed. Right into the shack city. I reminded myself that I had gotten all my inoculations. It was a trip going into this place, similar photos of which can be seen on CNN or National Geographic. The shacks were made of scavenged materials, tarps, corrugated metal for sides or roof, bricks, about 5 feet and some inches off the ground with a kind of black tar on some roofs. A few people around watching us, an old woman lying in the sun on something on the ground next to a shack, flies buzzing around. I wanted to take photos but wasn't sure of the protocol and decided to try to take a few surreptitiously.
We went in a few shacks deep and the kid started talking to some people in their native language. There was some confusion as to where the person who made the shoeboxes was. I asked the kid if the woman he was talking to was his mother. He didn't answer. I asked Eric, "Is this where he lives? This is his home, he lives here?" No, Eric said, this is where the shoebox guy lives.
Some other people including the shoebox man then showed up. The boy and the shoebox man did not appear to know each other. We were ushered to the door of one of the little huts. I watched them go in with some trepidation. I asked Eric "We're going in there?!?!" He nodded and said I could also just wait outside.
I'm almost six feet tall and Indians are typically much shorter. Hence things like cramped seats on buses and low doorways. I stooped down and followed them in. It was one small room with a little bed, some cooking appliances and pots, an old television, stone floor, a clothesline. The back wall was decorated with the ubiquitous posters of deities like Shiva and Krishna and photos of movie stars like Sri Devi, some flower garlands and a small shrine.
We all crowded in and I sat on the edge of the bed looking out on the room and the door. Soon curious onlookers crowded in and around the room. A young woman with a baby stands in the doorway. We exchanged glances, their faces a mixture of fascination and warmth. I think at that point I started to relax. These were just average people like us. There really weren't going to be any drug dealers or militant fanatics appearing out of nowhere.
Eric, the boy, and the man with the shoebox started bargaining. I began taking more photos. The guy wants more for the shoebox than the kid said. Probably cause we are there he figures he can get more. The shoebox was Rs 125 but how could he get it without proper supplies? With all that he needed the total came out to be Rs 250. Eric, Lila and I exchanged glances and a few words. We all chipped in and he had his shoebox and supplies.
We said good-bye to the shoebox man and comapny. With the boy we made our way out of the shack city back to the street. A small crowd gathered round, as curious Indian people are inclined to do in India, as we hung out and discussed our next move. We were hungry and the boy knew a good place nearby for lunch. Right around the corner was an outdoor eating place with thatched walls, tables, and food cooked in big pots on a long stone cooking ledge out front. It was very native designed not with tourists in mind. We told them what we wanted and sat down for lunch.
The boy told us his name was Rajeev and that his father worked in Rajastan or something. Rajeev had younger siblings and helped support the family. He didn't go to school because it cost money. How did he learn English? He said "You talk, I listen." He learned a few languages to speak with foreigners.
We took the shoebox and carved our names in it with a knife (so maybe he couldn't resell it), as a reminder to him of us we told him. After lunch we said our good byes and watched him walk off with the shoebox. We wondered whether we would see him in Connaught Place in the future shining shoes or if we had been scammed. But even if we had been taken, what harm was done? At the most we had given a family what amounted to $10 and a little boy a good lunch. At the least it had been an adventure.
I left India four weeks later and didn't see Eric for another year since he stayed on the project another 9 months. He told me that six months later he was in New Delhi with a friend and noticed the boy holding a cloth bag sans shoebox talking with a tourist. Probably asking for money to buy a shoebox. The boy didn't see him and Eric did not reveal himself.