Lea Wait, here. And, yes, I did that. Do note: although they were illegal for me to bring with me, the drugs included aspirin, vitamins, medications for scabies and other skin infections, and antibiotics. I also took children’s tape recorders, incubator parts, balloons, hair elastic and barrettes, children’s underwear and an assortment of other gifts for clinics and orphanages and missions.
All these goods were illegal because they had not been manufactured in India. It was October of 1985. India was focused on self-sufficiency and developing its own industries. Nothing manufactured in India could be imported. But domestic goods were expensive, and the organizations I was going to visit had very little money. (I also brought money to buy a refrigerator that could be used for medications — something one of the child welfare organizations I was working with couldn’t afford.)
Why was I going to Calcutta (now Kolkata)? To meet and bring home Purnima, an almost-ten-year-old girl I was going to adopt, and, I hoped, at least one other child waiting to travel to the United States. The supplies I was bringing were donations from me and other single adoptive parents.
I’d collected them (speaking to groups, calling friends who were doctors, asking companies to donate) for about six months. In total, in addition to one large “pocketbook” (one of my daughters called it “Mom’s big ugly red bag”) which held paperwork and the only personal clothing and toiletries I was taking with me and could carry on board, I had three very large vertical duffle bags on wheels. Every day my three daughters at home and I removed any packaging from donated or purchased items (to save space) and crammed the supplies into the large bags. They expanded as the days grew closer to my departure.
I wrote to Air India, explaining what I was doing (“bringing supplies for orphanages”) and asked for a baggage weight waver. They agreed.
When my children and two adoptive parent friends dropped me at Kennedy Airport in New York I had a four page single-spaced list of what was in the bags I was checking (tape recorders became “music machines,” and so forth), my ugly red bag was over my shoulder, and I had over twelve hundred pounds of luggage. While people around me were having boxes inspected before being checked in (four months before this an Air India flight had been the taken down by a bomb, and airline security was high,) my duffle bags were zipped open, given a cursory, horrified glance, and then checked. The letter from the president of Air India was successful.
About twenty hours later, at three a.m., we landed in Bombay (now Mombai), where I had an eighteen hour layover before taking an Indian Air flight to Calcutta. I had been told the airline would arrange for a hotel room for me.
After waking up the man behind the Air India counter I was told that there was no room — unless I was a first class passenger. I wasn’t. When I pleaded for help, the clerk went outside the terminal, woke up several people sleeping in a bus with broken windows and torn seats, shooed them away, and told the driver to take me to a hotel he had called.
We sped past people sleeping in and alongside the streets in the middle of the night. Finally we stopped at a small building where I checked in and was given a room key. My large bags, which had been checked through to Calcutta, were still at the airport, and that made me nervous. I stepped over people sleeping in the halls of the small hotel and found my room. A mattress was on the floor, the toilet was a hole in the floor, and one faucet supplied water. At some point it occurred to me that no one in the world knew where I was. I wasn’t sure myself.
I didn’t sleep much. I kept worrying about everything in the bags left at the airport. After several hours I checked out and asked for a taxi to take me back to the airport. I spent the day there, watching my luggage (which was in an open area,) reading, and then speaking with a young Iranian woman who saw my books and was eager to practice her English. While her husband glowered at us, we chatted about being parents, living in a city being bombed (her,) and adopting children (me.) When we parted I gave her two of the paperbacks I’d brought so she could read them. We exchanged addresses, but she said no mail would be delivered to her, and she doubted she would be able to get a letter to me.
As she predicted, I never heard from her again.
Finally that evening my flight to Calcutta took off. To ensure that the luggage checked belonged to passengers on the flight, each passenger had to identify their bags at the foot of the steps to the plane, and their identity had to be verified.
Three hours later, at about midnight, the flight landed in Calcutta. It was Diwali — a major festival — and fireworks filled the air. I was the last person off the plane. I didn’t expect to see the uniformed soldiers with machine guns stationed at the foot of the steps and throughout the terminal.
I’d been told by contacts in Calcutta to collect my bags, and then try to get them through customs and security. If I had any problems, I was told to invoke Mother Theresa’s name … but only in desperation. She did not normally accept donations like mine, and that was well-known.
By the time I got my bags and maneuvered them, (thank goodness for wheels) to the customs agent (it never occurred to me why they were checked here, and not in Mombai) the agent in charge was clearly ready to leave and party. I handed him the list of what I’d brought. He glanced at it. Then he opened the top of one bag — stuffed with balloons and underwear and combs and unidentifiable items. “All like this?” he gestured to my bags.
“Yes.” I said. He shook his head, clearly not prepared to check every item, and gestured that I should proceed.
Immediately, three men ran in from the outside of the terminal, grabbed my bags, and headed toward a waiting car. I crossed my fingers that they were people I could trust, and ran after them. Within couple of minutes we were on the road to Calcutta, passing celebrants and lights, on the way to my hotel.
I stayed in Calcutta and other cities in West Bengal for ten days. Every day was an adventure. Everything in my bags found homes, although there were complications of various sorts.
I met my daughter, and another child I would bring back to America with me.
I learned a lot about India.
And perhaps I’ll write about all of that in a future blog.
But for me, arriving safely with the supplies I’d brought was a major success — and relief.
After that, the next part of the story could begin.