So, you think you have rough roads and traffic snarls? Welcome to downtown Bombay, India, circa 1980.
The turbulence ended. I was looking out the window as the descending Boeing 747 finally broke through the overcast cloud layer. It was 2:45 a.m.
I thought we were at about 5,000 feet. It felt like it could be anywhere.
From that height, all I could see were clusters of dull, flickering yellow lights looking more like sprawling army camps than the outskirts of a major world trading center. My partner, Ken Langley, was pulling out of a cramped, troubled sleep.
“Where are we?” he mumbled.
“Started our descent into Bombay about 15 minutes ago. Have a look, that’s India down there,” I said. “It looks innocent. But everything is different. . . the language, customs, religion, food. It’s all down there . . .”
Ken didn’t think much of the food part. His stomach was still unsettled from a night of debauchery in Kalgoorlie, Australia. My stomach was fine, but I was apprehensive. It was Sept. 28, 1980 and Ken and I were into the 22nd day of an attempt to shave 37 days off the existing 104-day record for around-theworld driving. So far our trip from Toronto, Canada to Los Angeles, Calif., and then across Australia had come off according to plan.
Red Cloud, our blue and white 1980 Volvo DL station wagon, had run flawlessly. We were delighting our sponsors with plenty of good press and, with the exception of the finish-Australia-celebratory mustiness Ken was feeling, our health was holding up. But now the Indian sub-continent was waiting.
The cargo people who had squeezed Red Cloud into the 747 in Australia warned us to keep an eye on the car until it was off-loaded. Since the Volvo had to be steered into and out of the aircraft’s cargo hold, its doors had to be left unlocked. Apparently the Bombay Airport had a reputation for swallowing up cargo, so when we landed, the tools, cameras, spare parts, and other gear would be open prey for fast hands.
The aircraft was getting lower now, perhaps 1,000 feet. Thoughts of life below flashed through my mind as the big jet turned onto final approach. The yellow lights were closer but still flickering and dim. Then it hit: the stifling heat of the sub-continent started to seep in through the cabin pressurization system. It was getting sticky inside when the aircraft touched down. Ken caressed his air-sickness bag.
When the flight attendant opened the airplane doors, a wave of hot, humid air consumed us and the other four disembarking passengers, then swept through the cabin over the 300 London-bound passengers who seemed relieved to be staying aboard. Ken and I descended to the tarmac where an airport official called us aside, introduced himself as the cargo manager and ushered us into an immaculate 1959 Morris sedan. A woman maneuvered the car to the other side of the aircraft where a dozen workers waited to off-load Red Cloud.
“We have only handled an automobile once before. Would you like to watch?” The cargo manager seemed genuinely excited by the task at hand.
An hour later, the disorganized crew had the car on the tarmac. The pilots, already late, gave a round of applause from an open cockpit window.
We were informed that the car wouldn’t be released until Customs opened on Monday, 28 hours later. Nothing could be done so I scratched my head, locked the Volvo and headed for the terminal building. Morning was a faint purple glow in the eastern sky. We were soaked with sweat.
Outside the terminal, we turned down offers to purchase snake-skin purses and whatever else in favor of a beat-up taxicab. On the way downtown to the Taj Mahal Intercontinental Hotel, we passed endless lines of people waiting for water and kerosene. Throngs slept on the streets, sidewalks and in culverts. Trucks and buses were everywhere, lumbering around in the dingy dawn. The heat was making me itchy all over.
After not enough sleep, we awoke to significant surprises. The front page of the Bombay newspaper announced that war had broken out between Iran and Iraq. Ken’s unsettled stomach had erupted into a full blown case of the dreaded dysentery. I discovered my torso had become home base to a colony of Australian body lice that most likely had climbed aboard during our debauched night in the Australian Outback.
Since remedies for both our ailments were conveniently stored in Red Cloud, I had good incentive to scratch off to Customs in hopes of an early release.
It took four days to get the car cleared. By then, our plan to transit Afghanistan and Iran had been scrapped. We would have to arrange for an airlift over the war and make up the lost distance by driving into the Scandinavian Arctic. Ken’s dysentery was getting out of hand and, even with a fresh crew cut, the lice shampoo was a welcome sight.
The next morning at 3:15 a.m., we climbed into Red Cloud and departed the swanky Taj Mahal Intercontinental. An hour and a half later, from a crest on the highway north of the city, I looked back and saw them again.
But, with an unknown road ahead, those dull, flickering lights looked more like home than when I had first seen them a few days earlier.