When I landed in Hang Zhou there was some screw up on the planning front and the cab that was scheduled to pick me up from the airport did not make it in time. (Or my flight was delayed and the cabbie left since he did not know the flight number to check on. Either ways I was stranded on a foreign soil for thirty minutes).
As I exited the airport, a very India like feeling descended upon me. It was as crowded, as humid and as dirty in some respects. There was just one additional problem. I did not speak the local language. And I did not have a cell phone to call anyone in case of an emergency. I had a lot of numbers I could call, but for that I needed to find a phone booth and decipher the instructions. This is China just before the Olympics and the signage at Beijing airport, which was my port of entry, was dismal.
As these fears clouded my mind, I knew that I had to give humanity a chance and take my risks. I wasn’t going to spend the night at the airport, and neither was I going to call my Chinese colleagues in the middle of the night to pick me up. I was twenty-two and had strong notions of self reliance embedded in me.
I looked up the hotel address and with the print-out in one hand and my wallet in the other, my eyes looked for a reliable cabbie. I was looking for someone a little bit older, may be with glasses and someone who could speak at least a little bit of English. My query criterion was dubious to begin with. But hey what the heck.. I already told you I was twenty-two at the time.
I scanned my surroundings and a lot of cabbies approached me but I kept nodding my head indicating a negative response. I figured all Asians can decipher nods. Just then, a rather oldie cabbie pulled up on the curb and an American passenger got out of his cab. That was a sign for me. Something told me I could trust this cabbie and I did. There were some more subtle signs too, like the glass wall between the cabbie and the passenger, the good condition of the car itself, the previous passenger had used a credit card to pay the cabbie and the cabbie had a cell phone.
I approached the cabbie after his previous transaction was complete and I showed him the print out. He knew the hotel and we were ready to transact. He did not open the trunk for me as they do in the US. When I asked him to do so he clicked it open from his seat. I picked up my luggage and put it in the trunk. Regardless, I had found a way to reach my destination and that is all that mattered to me at that point.
We speeded through the empty streets and reached the hotel. I was impressed with roads and the clean air. It was quite late in the night and HZ pollution was nowhere as bad as other bigger cities in China. I did not tip the cabbie but I did thank him and he shook his head in appreciation. (Nods work!) We did not exchange any words throughout the twenty minute journey.
The bell boys at the hotel picked up my luggage from the trunk and escorted me into the hotel. I had survived!
As I unpacked and prepared to hit the sack, I walked over to the side of the room where large curtains were drawn. I was not sure what was behind the curtains. I was curious. And so I walked over and opened them. The sight was no different from when an airplane descends over Mumbai airport, the slums of Dharavi come into focus and you fly over the dim dim lights scattered over a vast expanse of illegal housing alternatives. Although at first glance the scene was remarkably similar, on closer observation I found there was a pattern to the lights and the houses were made of cement, organized in a grid.
That night when I drew the curtains in the room and then the sheets over me, I asked myself a simple question – “Could I have taken a cab from the Delhi airport to my own home in India with the same level of confidence as I did at the HZ airport?” And although my heart kept saying – “Yes, of course.” My mind struggled to be convinced and this started an eight year long war in my mind about why was China where it was that day in 2006 and why was India not there yet?
Agam knows how much this question has haunted me for the last eight years. I bring it up in every forum where I think there is some opportunity for resolve. But finally, I found the answer in this Ted talk, thanks to his uber surfing skills.
I have applauded China for their disciplined regime and I have blamed the Indian democracy and it’s self fulfilling political agendas for many years now. This talk helped me answer some questions.