I should know better. I've traveled in over thirty countries during the past twenty years without ever losing my passport. But on a recent trip to Mumbai I did just that, and I experienced the great grace of God, and of people too.
First, a couple of good excuses. One, I was really tired. Two, I was sick, or at least still feeling under the weather after suffering a bout of sickness earlier in the week. I took the late flight out of Delhi, and even that was delayed, meaning I arrived into Mumbai after midnight. I slept for most of the two-hour journey and I was downright groggy when we landed. Needless to say, as I stumbled out of the airport into the sticky air of Mumbai, I wasn't feeling my sharpest.
The trip to Mumbai was work-related, though I didn't have any responsibilities until the afternoon of the next day. My plan was to take a hotel in South Mumbai and then spend a good part of the morning exploring the old city before I made my way to my first appointment. Due to my late arrival and the distance to South Mumbai, I figured my best option for transport was a taxi. I knew it wouldn’t be hard to hire one, and I had checked out a couple reliable sources before the trip to see about how much it should cost.
As expected, when I stepped out of the arrivals area, I was immediately approached by a young man who was offering the services of a taxi. He asked the usual questions and we began negotiations. I decided to trust him, and we made our way to the curb as he made arrangements on his mobile phone. Within seconds, another man joined us from one direction, followed by a taxi from another direction. It often amazes me in India how many people can be involved in a seemingly simple business transaction. And that was only the beginning.
Before I entered the taxi, we agreed on a price, slightly more than I expected, but still reasonable. As I hopped in the back of the taxi, the driver was joined up front by the second man in on the deal. The young man whom I had originally met bid us farewell and presumedly returned to his post at arrivals.
As we sped out of the airport, the second man asked for payment, something which I thought was slightly unusual, but not completely unexpected. (During our three years in India, we’ve grown accustomed to that combination of feelings.) So, somewhat reluctantly, I fumbled for my wallet, which was tucked away in my back pocket along with my flight itinerary and my passport. As I handed over the money, the driver affirmed that this was normal procedure, which didn’t exactly convince me that it was.
As we rounded a wide corner, just two minutes into the ride, our taxi pulled over to the side of the road next to a long line of taxis. The second man promptly jumped out and approached a group of drivers. I inquired about what was happening, but the driver just begged for my patience. I saw what I thought was a transaction with another driver, and then sure enough, I was asked to switch taxis and assured that this new driver would take me to my destination.
I was slightly irritated by the complexity of the whole event, though I was also impressed again by the ingenuity of the Indian mind. It was quite obvious that this second driver was receiving less for my trip to South Mumbai than I had paid to the man who was making the arrangements. For him, the profit might be the equivalent to a Canadian dollar or two, maybe a meal or two for his family. It was at my expense, but I’ve learned not to feel cheated in this kind of scenario. I had willingly agreed to the price. Sure, I didn’t expect that it would be so complicated, but maybe to expect simplicity betrays my foreignness more than anything else. In this situation, I’m sure that everyone who had a part in the dealing reaped some benefit, the young man back at the airport, the first driver and the man who seemed to be the manager of it all. The second driver, as well, I’m sure was getting a fair price for my ride to South Mumbai.
As I shuffled out of the back seat of the first taxi, I collected my lone bag then I glanced back to make sure nothing of mine was left behind. In the dark of the night, I could see the white paper of my flight itinerary still on the seat. I reached back and picked it up, before making my way over to the second taxi.
My new taxi driver looked as though he was still in his teens. He seemed friendly and happy for the chance to be gainfully employed. We were together for not more than thirty seconds before I realized that I did not have my passport. My mind quickly traced the happenings of the past few minutes. Almost immediately, I thought back to my flight itinerary lying on the seat. I had little doubt in my mind that my passport as well had slipped out of my back pocket at the same time as I had pulled out my wallet. Even though I had checked the back seat and found the white paper, had my eyes missed the darker passport? It was a careless mistake, and despite the fact that it had all only happened minutes before, it seemed that my passport was as good as gone.
Without hesitation, I ordered the taxi driver to turn around. In my broken Hindi, I explained my predicament. As soon as he had the assurance that I would pay him for the extra trouble, he spun the taxi around and headed for the airport. We stopped briefly at his taxi stand to check if the other driver had stayed on there, but he hadn’t.
As we rushed back to the airport, I kicked myself repeatedly and pleaded for God’s grace. Flooding into my mind were various accounts of the value of foreign passports on the black market in India. I had recently read stories, set in Mumbai itself, about Canadian passports being sold for more than $10,000 US. I despaired.
Once at the airport, my mission was to find the men who had earlier helped me there. With desperation in my eyes, I scurried over to the arrivals area and quickly spotted the young man who had first found me. When he caught sight of my eyes, at a distance of about twenty meters, he immediately turned and ran the opposite direction. Presumedly, he thought that I was back to blame him for ripping me off. Fortunately, I was faster than him. When I caught him he was already together with the second man, the manager, who was quickly ready to subdue me by paying me back the extra money he had made.
When I explained that I was only looking for their help, they were both relieved. I told them about the very important "piece of paper" that I had left in the first taxi (not wanting to be too specific about something as valuable as a foreign passport). They were invigorated and quickly went to work to locate the taxi. The manager called the first driver and conveyed to him that we urgently needed his taxi again. I was comforted that their little network was so well intact and the lines of communication so effective. The taxi was on its way, but I still had no guarantee that the passport was safe inside. The two men with me laughed about all the panic, and encouraged me to relax. I tried to laugh, but found myself too focused. I was tense, but hopeful.
The intervening time, as we waited for the taxi, was probably a matter of two minutes. Of course, it felt like an eternity, as they say. By now, others had gathered around the commotion, including my new taxi driver. Finally, my friends spotted the first taxi swerving into the far side of the parking lot where we were now standing. I gulped. As the driver screeched to a stop directly in front of us, we all surged toward the back door. As the door swung open, I could see it immediately. The lights of the parking lot shone in to reveal my passport, resting on the back seat. I lunged in and picked it up, then standing beside the taxi in full view of the crowd and all the angels, I kissed it and gave loud praise to God. The crowd also stood amazed and entered into my rejoicing.
I was humbled. God had been gracious to me. And though my new friends apologized to me for the difficult situation, I made it abundantly clear to them that it was my error alone that brought on the hardship and that I very much appreciated their help in rectifying my problem. They laughed again, and this time I joined them.