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Saturday, November 14, 2009

jail story

                                Jail Story

  • In 1999, a few weeks before the millennium, I was sofa surfing in the spare room of a friend in England. We had an unspoken arrangement where he let me stay for free whilst I typed up some notes, providing I cooked a hot meal each day. He was the kind of absent-minded genius who's unable to make toast without setting the kitchen on fire. A Chinese stir fry made a welcome change from a supper of dry muesli.
  •     The publishers of my book "Hand to Mouth to India" had postponed publication until the spring and I found myself staring at a cold, dark English winter. I had around 50 pounds to my name, a thin denim jacket that kept out none of the December weather and a manuscript that I needed to show to some friends in India. I had no job, no urge to work and no idea as to how I was going to get out of England. On top of all that I sensed it was high time that I stopped abusing the kindness of my long-suffering friend.
  •     Ducking out of a rainstorm that left me drenched and full of self-pity, I took shelter in a second hand bookshop. I fingered through a book of mystic sayings of the Jews and the page I picked at random said:
  •     The only sin is to despair. To despair is to deny the providence and mercy of God who can make all things possible. Only when you trust can you invite the help you need.
  •     I walked back out into the rain and laughed all the way home about how down I'd let myself get. I'd been in tighter corners before. I would only be ever defeated if I lost my sense of humour.
  •     The next day i woke up to the sound of the telephone ringing next to my bed. I looked at it suspiciously. The gods seemed to be getting on the case pretty fast these days. I picked up the receiver.
  •     "Hello?"
  •     "Hi, is that you, Tom? Man, I've been trying to get hold of you for ages - It's Clive. Listen, did you hear about what happened to me and my girlfriend, Natasha? Well, we got busted at Delhi airport with a couple of kilos of charas, only I got away. My girlfriend is in jail in India, Tom. What are you up these days anyway? If I was to pay the flight tickets and expenses do you think you could out there and visit her for me? I need someone to talk to the lawyer and I've got my hands full just trying to make money to poy the baksheesh..."
  •     6 days later I was on a plane to Delhi.
  • Through the ten hour British Airways flight to India I enjoyed what would be the last ten hours of sanity that I would enjoy for months. A distant buzz deep within my ear canal and a twitching of my nostrils alerted me to imminent chaos. Soon all the dust and noise and endless sensory impressions of Delhi would be upon me. Beggars pulling at my elbow and waving stumps in front of my face. Exhaust pipes turning my snot black. Flies making love on my forehead. Hawkers shouting in my ears. Police searching my pockets. Prisoners crying desperately. Lawyers snickering like over-fed sharks.
  •     I opened up my plastic sachet of sugar and sweetened my tea. The clouds outside the window ignited in the sunset as we poisoned the sky at 710mph. Hundreds of Indians in suits and saris chatted politely up and down the aisles in English and Hindi. This was all completely unreal.
  •     "So where are you off to?" A pleasant Indian woman in jeans and t-shirt asked me. I just couldn't help it.
  •     "Well, actually, I'm off to try and get a girl out of prison. It was drugs, as you might imagine. Now she's looking at ten years of sleeping on concrete floors with cockroaches - unless I can find a good judge to bribe. Of course on the other hand it might be possible to break her out..."
  •     My new-found friend excused herself to go to the bathroom. I noticed she changed her seat when she came back.
  •     The stewards came by to fill up our tea cups and the extra caffeine helped me get things in perspective. India had found me 5000 miles away hidden in a quiet room in a quiet town to whisk me off on an adventure that promised only madness. To understand what I was doing in the middle of a story like this I had to reread the beginning.
  •     I'd first met Clive a couple of years before at the bottom of a hill in the Himalayas. It was 11pm and I was trying to walk along a swerving mountain road in freezing temperatures with only a candle to guide me. It was beginning to rain when a van pulled up and I heard a Manchester accent ask me:
  •     "So where have you just hitched in from?"
  •     "Well, London, actually."
  •     "Fucking hell, really? You'd best hop in then."
  •     I reckoned that to be a fairly auspicious beginning. Over the next year and half that I spent broke in India Clive always helped me out when our paths crossed. Even if it was just to buy me a meal or give me a place to sleep for a few nights. He was something of a scallywag but had more character in his little finger than most of the other travellers I met.
  •     Clive was a drug dealer in his 30's from Manchester. In the Himalayas and Goa he supplied the party scene with much of it's acid, charas and ecstasy. In the mountains he was often the one who made the parties happen, wading through all the bullshit to deal with the local mafia and police to get permission for us to dance to techno in the forests. The fluffy freaks were never going to get on the case so it was up to the guy born on the wrong side of the tracks to make it happen.
  •     Clive once told me that his careers officer had asked him if he wanted to become an electrician or a mechanic.
  •     "What about if I want to be a doctor or an actor?" He'd asked. The careers officer just laughed. Fuck it, Clive thought, I'll go my own way.
  •     He sold vacuum cleaners from door to door until he realised that his entrepreneurial talents would be better served in the music revolution that was sweeping Manchester in the early 90's. Every weekend rave parties took place in abandoned warehouses and chemical happiness was high in demand. Clive made a name for himself as the man to know on the party circuit and found himself in the backstage parties of bands like the Happy Mondays - old friends who had previously just been blokes down the pub.
  •     He got into just about every kind of dodgy deal imaginable until 1992 when he was running the biggest warehouses of hydroponically-grown skunk weed in the north of England. Success bred jealousy and resentment, however. One day his partner turned around and smashed a beer bottle on the back of his head. At least, that's how Clive told it and he still had a big scar on the back of his neck.
  •     He saw it was time to get out and so he packed his bags for India where he'd heard the grass was greener (and stronger). With kilos of charas to be bought in the Himalayas for a few hundred dollars, it didn't take Clive long to realise how much money he could make smuggling it back to Europe. All it needed was some advance planning and some good packing skills. He told me:
  •     "I'd see some first-time smuggler trying to stuff lumps of hash into their shoes and I'd have to show them how to do it properly just so they wouldn't get caught." Eventually, he was organising other people to take suitcases of charas around the world whilst he learned all he could about the cultivation of marijuana in the Himalayas. In between he made 5 or 6 runs a year to Europe and the Gulf states where the ex-patriots needed some chemical assistance to stave off terminal boredom.
  •     It's a cliché that every smuggler gets caught sooner or later. It's also not true. I was too innocent to realise it at the time but the majority of the long-term travellers in India made their living this way. Some of them had long ago made their nest eggs this way and now lived off the interest of their savings. Others still got their hair cut three times a year and took international flights with charas in their shoes or false-bottomed suitcases. The younger crowd tended to swallow a few hundred grams of bullet-shaped pieces of charas wrapped up in layers of cellophane. A quick trip to the bathroom with a sieve back home and hey presto! You had enough cash to head off to India again.
  •     Perhaps this was why it wasn't considered cool to ask someone in India what they did for a living. I heard of one guy who always answered this query with 'It's none of your business and you're an asshole to ask the question'.
  •     It never occurred to me to take so much as a gram across any borders. I agreed with my artisan and merchant friends who never saw any real future in it.
  • "Once you get used to making easy money it's really hard to earn money the hard way." A gem trader told me one day. A few thousand bucks didn't seem enough compensation for swallowing a few hundred plastic pellets and holding them through a 12 hour flight and two sets of customs channels.
  •     Clive was on a different scale. He was one of the ambitious smugglers who are always planning the big deal. He'd once enthused about a plan to train up as a paraglider and then fill up the wings with charas. He'd enter tournaments all round Europe and finally end up in Japan where he'd sell a few hundred kilos of charas for a million dollars. Who, after all, would search the wings of a professional paraglider?
  •     However Murphy's Law was probably invented for prospective smugglers. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Everyone in this business dreams of making the big deal and for most it's like trying to ride a bicycle to the moon. The dreams never quite meet the reality for the simple reason that things don't tend to go wrong in dreams.
  •      Clive might fly from Delhi to Amsterdam with a suitcase of charas and find that his buyers were short of cash. While he waited most of his profits were eaten up by the hotel and mobile phone bills as he explained to everyone why he was held up. Running late he'd then buy ecstasy at too high a price to take to the Gulf to sell to the ex-pats. Upon arrival he'd find that half the pills were duds. The manufacturer would apologise and offer to make it up by giving him sheets of acid which Clive would then take to Goa. He'd hire someone to sell them at the parties but then his friend would then take too much himself and end up giving half of them away. The stories were always long and convoluted, involving at least ten characters on up to four continents. Despite the genius, wits and dynamism that Clive brought with him, his stories often seemed to be woven with a sense of imminent disaster.
  •     This one was no different. I sensed that at the start but chose to ignore it as I'd already decided to get involved. Why did I go? Clive wasn't the closest of my friends but we'd always been on good terms and it was clear that he needed help. Fair weather friends in India fade just as fast as anywhere else and his dedication to his girlfriend touched me. It was also clear to me that he'd never get Natasha out of jail alone.
  •      Also I had survived the last few years largely due to the help and hospitality of others and so I saw it as a chance to give something back. Work off some karma. I was also stuck in a corner and the gods were throwing me a rope to climb out of it. Little matter that it was fraying apart.

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