Part 3: Leaving India
Well. This story is another big one. But trust me, it’s worth the read.
Deepali left India when we arrived back in Jaipur after a wonderful week traveling through Rajasthan and I then continued on to Agra as I had a few days left in India before traveling to Nepal. I went and saw the Taj Mahal and then spent some time in Delhi. I got to the Delhi International airport feeling like I had seen a beautiful slice of the country, albeit in a very short period of time.
I checked in, paid some extra baggage fees, and got into the security line. One thing in India is cutting the line really isn’t seen as a faux pas, so getting actually through security took longer than expected as it seemed the line was moving but I was not. Eventually my bag was scanned and I was then pulled aside so that the security people could look through my carry on. Instead of the TSA like in America, the Delhi airport has the CISF aka the Central Industrial Security Force, something more akin to a large military force equipped with camouflage jumpsuits, combat boots, AK-47s, and bullet proof vests…pretty intimidating stuff. Mind you, I’ve got a bunch of stuff in my bag like my GoPro, computer, jackets, books, cords, etc etc. I pull all of that out but they are most interested in my satellite phone. So begins my epic tale of almost landing in a Delhi prison...
After the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 where a group of approximately a dozen Pakistani men carried out a completely horrendous, coordinated, and evil attack killing hundreds of people and injuring even more, satellite phones have been completely banned in India among multiple other countries (see full list of countries that ban satellite phones here: https://blog.telestial.com/2017/11/countries-where-satellite-phones-banned-or-restricted/) (wikipedia page explaining the Mumbai attacks here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Mumbai_attacks) (an article detailing the timeline of the attacks here: https://www.ndtv.com/mumbai-news/26-11-mumbai-attacks-anniversary-the-night-india-wont-forget-a-timeline-1779897) . Technically in India you can use the Inmarsat network with satellite phones but the phone I had was using Iridium technology. The reason for the ban is that the terrorists used these phones to communicate with the S.O.B. running the show back in Pakistan and with each other. So unbeknownst to me, I’m carrying an item linked to terrorist activity. Great.
After an hour or so at the security desk, and after about a dozen or so CISF officers and a few Indian Immigration officials come by to take pictures, look at the satellite phone, and to call others for advice, I’m set free to go to my gate. Tk tk. Internally I’m thinking “Thank god, what a hassle that was”. Akin to me an Deepali’s experience getting to India….I had no idea of the “hassle” I was about to experience.
I then walked through the duty free shops pretending I’m going to buy that bottle of Johnny Walker Blue, looked in this store and that store, got some food, and eventually got to my gate and found a seat. Headphones on, play Bob Marley, mental prep for Nepal. Life is good. But then….tap on the shoulder: its the same CISF officer who originally stopped me. “Sir, you need to come back with us, we need to ask you a few more questions”.
I put my headphones away and start walking with two of these military guys with machine guns around their shoulders and another government official. “Am I going to still make my flight?” I asked. “Yes yes of course sir, it’s just a formality”. I start chatting with this officer, telling him about traveling through Rajasthan and sure enough this guy is from Rajasthan and is specifically from the nearby town Deepali and I stayed in close to Ranakpur. At that time, during the fleeting moment of camaraderie he says to me “when we get back to security, be very brief and direct with what you say, don’t talk too much”. I immediately then start to realize, oh shit, I’m in trouble.
Again, more CISF guys show up, more government guys too. I’m told: You are not getting on your flight, in fact you are going to need to exit the airport and we are turning you over to the Delhi police. More worry, more panic, more thoughts of ‘is this really happening?’. I’m brought to the immigration office. I’m interrogated about why I have this satellite phone, what am I doing in India, where am I going, who do I know here, what will I name my first born child. The answers to those questions obviously being terrorism, terrorism, Nepal, terrorists, and Terrorist James Church.
Im escorted out of the airport and into Delhi police custody. A CISF officer accompanies me. I’m eventually brought to the police station and escorted into a sub inspector’s office (the equivalent of state police in America) and along the way see my possible future: a holding cell with two roommates who have taken up residence and look like lovely people to chat with. Just kidding. Please God do not let me end up in that jail cell.
I sit. I stay quiet. And then the sub inspector asks “Has anyone told you what the penalty for having this satellite phone is yet?” I respond no, I have no idea. “6 months prison and 5-10 lakh fine, about 500,000-1,000,000 rupees, or the equivalent of $7,500-15,000 US dollars.” Now the real panic sets in. I’m in a foreign country, alone, arrested, and facing possible jail time. Oh. My. God. I really am in trouble here. It’s time to call Deepali.
It’s about 1pm in India at this point at about 2:30 or 3AM in America. I call and tell Deepali everything that is happening. Oh and by the way she has to present at a national conference in Washington DC the next day so she definitely slept SUPER well after hearing this news before the big presentation. She gives me the names, numbers, and information to get in touch with her family here. I call. I text. I get in contact with her family. I wait. Help is on the way.
In the meantime I notice that this sub inspector is sneezing, coughing, blowing his nose, and has red eyes. He says “I’m sir, I’m very sick”. I can tell it’s just allergies and I just so happen to have a bunch of loratadine in my backpack downstairs. I tell him “I think you have allergies and I have some medication that will make it go away”. His eyes perk up, “Really?!” I’m now thinking I’ve found my ticket out of here. I get the generic loratadine out of my pack give it to him, and 1.5 hours later the symptoms are gone. “It looks like you are feeling better sir” I say to him. “No not really” he replied. In my head I’m thinking: ya bulls%$!, you just don’t wanna admit that I helped. He still asks for my all my supply of loratadine “just in case it helps”.
Soon enough help has arrived. Enter Gaurav Mittal. Deepali’s cousin who literally drops everything and comes immediately to the police station after I contacted him and his brother Akhil. Gaurav and the sub inspector talk in Hindi, occasionally the conversation is translated to English. We have chai, I sign some things that say the government now owns my satellite phone, and I more or less try to stay calm. After about 4-5 hours there, I’m released after signing an undertaking that basically says “I pretty promise with sugar on top not to run away”. If it weren't for Gaurav and his family who are very well connected in the Delhi government and politics then I would have spent the next 5 nights in that prison cell. They take my passport and off I go. Just to repeat, the Indian government now has my passport in their possession. I’m now trapped in India but thankfully not in jail.
I get into the car with Gaurav and we head to his family’s house and he explains the intricacies of, at times, the corrupt Indian judicial system. If I’m going to get out of this, a police bribe is definitely on the menu.
At this point I get to Gauravs house and meet all the Mittals who I have heard about but never thought I would meet under these circumstances. Over the next 6 days they become family and I truly understand what Deepali and her mom meant when they told me how welcoming and wonderful they all are. That night I eat a delicious home cooked meal of daal chavel, roti, sabji, and some achar with a classic coca-cola to wash it all down. Early that day I was in the airport headed to Nepal and was facing jail time but now am stranded in Delhi without a passport in a place I never expected to be. Life can be so mysterious.
The silver lining of all this: the next morning is the Hindu festival of Holi and seeing as how I’m now stuck in India I plan to celebrate it to the max.
The morning starts off hanging out with Gaurav, his wife Neha, and their adorable daughter Anya as well as his brother Akhil, their parents and more family and friends. There is awesome food, colors, delicious beer and whiskey, and the special drink of the day: Bhang. Bhang is basically this powder form of pot, or marijuana, ganja, whatever you wanna call it. Bhang is this milk based drink that has many spices in it with, of course, the powdered cannabis (wiki page here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhang). I’m thinking “I’m at my wife’s family’s house in India, should I be drinking this? This is totally illegal in America” The answer became clear when Chachi auntie (Gaurav’s mom) brought some out and insisted I try. Bhang is the gift of Lord Shiva, who am I to refuse?! Eventually Akhil and I leave the family party and go to another Holi party across town. We arrive to this AMAZING house and backyard with about 50 or so people that are throwing bright pinks and blues and reds, dumping water buckets on everyone, and having the best time. There is a bar that has any kind of drink you would want, including you guessed it, a huge picture of bottomless bhang. I meet tons of new people, enjoy lord shiva’s blessings, and really forget the worries of the day before. The weather was perfect and I feel really great.
The next few days are spent strategizing and negotiating the police bride over the phone (for my American friends this doesn’t seem real but trust me it is). First its 250,000 rupees, then its 150,000 rupees, now its 200,000 rupees, the price keeps changing. If there is one thing I’ve learned here in India it’s that every price is negotiable, even police bribes.
I meant to fly out of Delhi on a Thursday, courts are closed on Friday because of Holi, courts aren’t open Saturday or Sunday, so Monday is my big day. At this point you might be asking “what is the point of this police bribe?”. Well I’ll tell you. The actual penalty for this offense? About 1000 rupees or about $30 US dollars. The thing is, the Delhi courts are so overwhelmed that nothing happens quickly. It especially doesn’t happen quickly if the sub inspector handling the case doesn’t submit paperwork, needs more time for investigation, feels I’m a danger or uncooperative, etc etc etc. The bribe is to expedite the process and to make sure this offense isn’t dragged out over months in a Delhi court and also so I don’t spend weeks wallowing in a Delhi prison waiting for things to happen. That's what the bribe is for. In America, I’m sure this kind of thing happens, but it isn’t “business as usual” like it seemingly is here.
On Monday I wear my nicest clothes, Gaurav gives me a blazer to wear, and we head to court. All in all, it takes about 4.5 hours to get everything done, including a lunch break of course! The fine is paid, my satellite phone is confiscated, my passport is returned, and of course the bribe is paid. Watching that dirty cop and lawyer count the money in front of me was one of the most unreal and also infuriating moments that I will always remember. I’m now a free man. As I’m leaving the sub inspector says “See! Only a $30 fine!” like he did me some favor. Hah, whatever. As I’m leaving I notice he isn’t sneezing or having any allergy symptoms. “The medicine seemed to work no?” I ask. “Oh yes sir, I feel complete relief”. Ya I bet you do….p.s. no charge for the free medical advice ya filthy animal.
Below are a few picture from my day in court courtesy of Gaurav.
Stay tuned as I’ll be updating the blog before we head out into the Himalayas. Thanks for reading and I hope my experience might help others be more cognizant of the things they are bringing with them on international journeys. Not everything that is legal in America is legal is the far corners of the world.