I had three hours to kill before my flight to Delhi, so I sat down on my duffel bag and got out some Mark Twain. I had read The Grapes of Wrath on the way to California (not such a great idea); Lord of the Flies on my way to a tropical island (worse idea); and Siddhartha while in Nepal (just right). So, about to leave Asia for the Middle East, with a stop in India first, I put down my own journal and picked up Twain's journal from the Middle East, The Innocents Abroad.
I was in no particular hurry to get to India. About a month before, I had spent the worst 27 hours of my life there. I had been faced with insane heat, a more insane companion, and the special treatment that central Delhi grants to the Western traveler: a roaming throng of beggars, robbers, and hustlers of every sort, including a fortune teller who waited for me outside the post office for more than an hour while I was bargaining over the price of stamps.
I had, in fact, tried to rearrange my intinerary to avoid India. Alas, I would have to spend another 24 hours there, but this time I was heading in with a completely different attitude: "I'm not taking any crap from anybody." And, being a 23-year-old male, I was utterly confident that the entire city of Delhi would sense my inner strength and leave me be.
It was in this serene state that I heard a sound which, in the lobby of the Bangkok airport, rang like a chorus of angels: female Americans! There were three of them, my age and cute, and the magic of their appearance in that place was enhanced by the fact that one of them was smiling at me. Rarely have I felt so blessed.
I was still shy in those days -- India I could handle, but girls? -- but the travel gods smiled on me, and one of the lovelies sauntered over and actually spoke to me.
"Excuse me," she sang, "are you American?" I confirmed that I was -- from Tennessee, I added, in my best Southern drawl -- and she informed me that the three of them were headed to India and wondered if I had been there and could answer some questions about it.
I was happy to explain that, not only had I been to Delhi, I understood it, was prepared for it, and would like nothing more than to guide three nice young ladies through that maze of absurdity. So the deal was struck: They'd pay my share at the hotel, and I'd get to play the role of Macho Hero Travel Man.
When the plane landed and we got to the Delhi terminal -- several hours late, at roughly 3 a.m. -- we decided to arrange ahead of time for a hotel. One of the girls had a guidebook mentioning a place that was 60 rupees, or about five bucks. The nice man at the counter explained that all rooms in Delhi were at least 300 rupees -- a blatant lie -- but that included the 50-rupee commission to, lo and behold, him. I insisted that he call this particular hotel and get us a room, and a few rupees later he agreed to. He dialed the phone, waited a few seconds, said something in his language, then said, in English, "Oh, you are full?" and hung up. His smile said to me, "Hmmm, just a few rupees short."
When we emerged from the terminal, it was as if all my friends were there waiting for me. One guy wanted to carry our luggage out of the terminal, another one to the bus, and a third onto the bus -- the idea being that I would drop rupees at every point. It was like they were working in shifts. But none of them got a rupee from Macho Hero Travel Man. The girls, meanwhile, had been touched about four times each before we left the airport property.
We found a hotel at 5 a.m. and were told we could sleep for free in a small room until noon, then move into a big, 130-rupee room. I knew this was bull but put off the fight until later. Sure enough, when we woke up, the hotel employee said, "There has been a terrible mistake. The only room I have is 300 rupees, plus the 50 rupees for this morning."
"This is not what you said," replied Macho Hero Travel Man, "and it will not stand." My defiance was, the employee and I both knew, the opening statement in a negotiation process which resulted in the four of us paying a total of 200 rupees. Of course, when I asked about the price of coffee, he said to me, "Four rupees. But you pay 10, because you pay so little for the room."
The girls were mystified by this. Not so Macho Hero Travel Man. He knew when you come to a new country, they often send out their worst to greet you: the hustlers, the freaks, and the users. He knew the girls would have a wonderful experience after getting through this Wall of Insanity. And he took comfort in knowing that he would get to spend the next 24 hours protecting them from the dregs of Delhi, setting them safely on their way to savor India's wonders.