Come on Will, we will show you the other side of Bombay!
I followed my amigos out into the bustling street, dust rising up into the air, the most humid part of the day finally at an end, cars honking and jostling for spaces as they weave around a broken-down truck with gold and silver tassels hanging from the wing-mirrors. An old woman bent over with age, ambled past. I dodged the outstretched hand of a bedraggled beggar, side-stepped a dude with the biggest handlebar mustache I had ever seen and nearly ran into a sugarcane juice cart being pushed along by a fourteen-year-old lad sporting a blood-red tika smeared across his forehead. Horns, barking, shouting, a thousand conversations in a dozen languages; Bombay is one of the craziest places I have ever been.
I first travelled to Bombay when I was nineteen, spending a week Couchsurfing in a hospital with a junior doctor in dorms accommodation. I was backpacking around India on a budget of under $10 a day and rarely spent money on anything, determined to make the experience last as long as possible. This time, after a month driving an ancient rickshaw across India, I had popped down to Bombay to visit some Indian friends; Charlie, Sonny and Antony.
I was due to leave Bombay in just a few hours, travelling back up towards Rajasthan to meet my girlfriend and ex-wife, Nina, who was flying in from Iran to join me on the road.
It’s 4:20! You know what that means?
I had a pretty good idea what that meant. The twentieth of April is widely regarded as International Marijuana Day and it turned out that India was no exception. My friends were keen to smoke and heck, I was keen to join them – I had no idea it was a decision which would send me on an emotional rollercoaster and very nearly conclude with me being thrown in an Indian prison…
We piled into Sonny’s car and Charie produced a couple of thick joints, we cruised along at worrisome speeds looking for somebody who could lend us a lighter. Charlie rolled down the window and, at 80mph, shouted at a nearby driver asking for a light. Eventually, after much shouting, a Sikh in a blue turban relented and handed a box of matches to Charlie through the outstretched window… All in the middle of the motorway whilst driving just inches apart.
With our source of fire secured, we headed off the main road and found a pedestrian tunnel leading to Bombay’s seafront. We sat in the car, passing the joints and a couple of beers around. Without warning, Charlie freezes in mid-conversation, his eyes fixed on something in the mirror.
My blood turned to ice…
I watch in the wing mirror as an elderly police officer approaches the car, looking inside curiously. I am painfully aware that the entire car is completely filled with smoke.
Charlie and Sonny have a hurried and whispered conversation in Hindi in the five seconds before the policeman knocks on the window. Antony winds down the window, mustering up a casual attitude and a charming smile, saying something fast in Hindi.
The policeman smells the air, making a point of inhaling deeply. The joints have disappeared, thrown into the seat-pockets hastily, but there is no doubt that the smell is overpoweringly strong.
A heated exchange began as everybody, except me, attempted to converse with the policeman at once. I sank lower in my seat, hoping to be avoided altogether. Amazingly, the policeman appeared not to have seen me yet and was unaware that there was a foreigner in the car.
Five hundred rupees exchanged hands and the policeman was gone, disappearing into the night like a spectre. Breathing an audible sigh of relief, Antony turned to me.
That was so lucky man, if he had seen you the bribe could have been many thousands of rupees!
We got out of the car and with beers in hands, walked through the tunnel, leaving the car with my backpack in the boot, to check out the coast.
We had barely gotten twenty steps from the car when a shrill whistle blasted through the night. I turned, emptying the beer can behind my leg and crushing the can into the back pocket of my jeans. A new police officer, tall and angry looking, was striding towards us, a silver whistle between his lips.
Will, don’t say anything
This was the only piece of advise my friends had time to give me before this new policeman, thick-necked and red-faced, was upon us. He jabbed at the air, clearly angry about something as Antony and then Sonny tried to calm him down.
This guy was far, far less agreeable than the policeman from five minutes ago and very quickly reached for his phone. Charlie jumped in, attempting to convince him to close the phone, for a moment it looked like a scuffle might occur and then, out of nowhere, another policeman in dark glasses arrived on a motorbike.
He dismounted, spoke in quick Hindi to the lads and then approached me.
You come to police station for drug test.
Fully aware that I would fail a drug test and keen to get the fuck out of Bombay and meet up with Nina, I told him no, smiled my most charming of smiles, and asked him what the problem was.
Give me your passport.
I fish out my passport and show it to him from a distance. He reaches towards me, wanting to take the passport in his hand. I know backpackers who have been burned by cops who have taken their passports off them and I know that if I surrender my passport, the cops will only have more power over the situation. I tell him to look but that he cannot take the passport out of my hands.
With absolutely no warning he goes ballistic, shouting into my face, veins throbbing, spit flying. Charlie steps in front of me to try and calm the situation down. The first cop starts to search the car and within minutes has found two half-smoked joints and a small bag of weed.
At this point, I know we are in trouble.
Sonny reaches for his wallet and begins chatting to the police, amiably at first but then quickly turning to pleading.
They want $1000 or they are going to arrest you.
I can see the look on Charlie’s face, he is thinking I should run, or maybe it’s just my subconscious… I’m tempted to just leg it but all of my stuff, my laptop, and camera, are in the car. I need to get my stuff.
In a moment of foolishness, I open the boot and pop on my backpack. Whilst the lads are arguing with the police, I start to walk away… quickly.
The whistle blasts through the night once more and I consider running.
Charlie shouts at me to wait and I pause, frozen, deciding – I figure, given the police are on motorbikes, I won’t get far.
Fear sets in as I consider my options; run, fight or give myself up to the Gods… The bribe is significantly more money than I am carrying and, on principle, I am reluctant to pay anyway. Principles be damned – $1000 is more than I have.
I somehow have to get out of this – Nina is rocking up to India shortly, she’s already in the air and if I can’t get out of Bombay I won’t be able to meet her…
Maybe I can fight my way out? This idea disintegrates before it is even fully formed. I am, at this point, starting to freak out as my options dwindle.
Cold sweats seize me as my vision clouds. I think, desperately – measuring options as I once again look around me and consider running… My pack is heavy, I won’t get far.
The police rush over to me, one grabs me by the arm, they talk in circles – drug test, passport, arrested, body searched…
I struggle to control my emotions, angry at these bastards for preying on foreigners rather than focussing on catching real criminals. Police corruption is a well-documented epidemic in India and this is a country where, if you have money, you can literally get away with murder.
Anger gives way to fear as one of the cops saying something about putting me behind bars, a smirk plastered across his face.
I try playing nice, explaining that I don’t have much money.
I try playing to their sense of decency, explaining that my girlfriend is coming to India and I need to leave so that I can go and meet her.
I try a firmer tact, suggesting we call the British embassy in Bombay.
Chello! Shouts one of the policemen, pointing at me and then pointing at the car.
I look at my friends, they are lost, unsure what to do. Charlie leads me to the car, I get in the back with Charlie and Sonny gets in the drivers seat whilst one of the policemen rides shotgun. Antony gets on the back of the bike with the other policeman.
Charlie is white, ghost white, and Sonny isn’t saying anything. I figure the situation is bad.
Charlie, tell them I can give them $200 if they let us all go right now.
We drive, towards the police station whilst Charlie hurriedly negotiates with the officer.
Within sight of the police station we suddenly turn down a quiet street. The second policeman on the bike rocks up.
I hand Charlie my emergency cash, $200 I keep hidden in a zipped compartment within the inside of my belt. Charlie and Sunny both empty their wallets despite my protests. Together, we probably have about $350…
Charlie hands it to the officer who in return, hands back the two joints and the bag of weed.
Only in India…
The cops disappear into the night like a bad memory and we are left in the car. I feel totally exhausted and seriously stressed. My adrenaline is pumping and my senses are in overdrive.
My amigos are clearly in a similar space, having been terrified that they were going to be responsible for me being arrested and thrown into a cell for at least a night or two.
All I want to do is get out of Bombay and go to Nina.
The lads have a different idea.
Come on, let’s go to Karaoke!
Flash forwards thirty minutes and we are all huddled around a microphone screaming Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’. A wrinkled expat in a cowboy hat and far too much leather approaches me and before I know it we are doing shots of Tequila whilst Charlie busily takes photos to remember our epic success…
I don’t feel particularly successful. I haven’t slept in three days, I’m exhausted, sweating and still in shock from the thought of being locked up without being able to tell Nina that I won’t be able to meet her.
The night continues to tumble on until finally I say goodbye to my friends and, with great relief, I begin my journey to get the hell out of Bombay.
Just as I am boarding my train, my phone slips from my grasp and shatters spectacularly.
I can’t help but laugh.
Sometimes, when you’re on the road; everything seems to go horribly wrong and today was definitely one of those days.
I console myself with the promise of seeing Nina soon and hope that she’ll still be into me despite my disheveled experience. The train pulls away from the station, my chest loosening a bit as the city slowly fades away from view.
I lie on the hard sleeper bunk and watch the fan a foot above my face go round and round. Slowly, I surrender to sleep…
Disclaimer: Drugs are illegal and can get you in sticky situations. I don’t condone drug use of any sort. If you intend to consume, please be safe. Please also note that this account is entirely fictional and definitely did not happen…
Police and Backpackers
In some countries, the police are the bad guys… That’s because they are working for, and regulated by, a government which is also comprised almost entirely of bad guys. In places like India, police corruption is rife and most cops see no problem with extorting bribes out of unfortunate people who cross their paths. If you are a foreigner, the cost of this bribe is likely to be extremely high indeed as many cops perceive all foreigners to be rich…
When I travel, I always have emergency money hidden on me in a specially designed security belt. I strongly recommend travelling with one of these.
It’s worth pointing out that I’ve met many good coppers on my travels; the police in Pakistan are unbelievably good to foreigners and I’ve been picked up by cops whilst hitchhiking across Spain and Romania. A couple of my good friends back home are in the police force and I even had a Thai police officer drinking buddy a few years ago.
At the end of the day, don’t break the law in foreign lands… Some countries, such as Thailand and Indonesia carry the death penalty for drug offences and these are the kind of countries where a cheeky smoke can carry some very real risk if you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. In places like India, you just don’t want to give the police any excuse to engage with you.
You can usually bribe your way out of most minor drug offences in many countries within Asia but it is often not cheap. I know backpackers who have been rinsed by the police in Laos for upwards of $3000 just for smoking a joint. In general, if you find yourself in a compromising situation with the police, this is the best advice I can give you…
1. Do not sign anything which you cannot read.
2. Avoid handing over your passport.
3. If you go for a bribe, do it as early as possible. Once more police are involved it will only get more expensive. A good way to deliver a bribe is with a handshake.
4. Be extremely polite but stay firm, do not show any signs of weakness.
5. Get legal advise if you can but try not to let it get to that point; the sooner you can get out of the situation the better.
I wasn’t sure at first if this was a story I should write up or not. No doubt this may change some readers opinions of me, I am sorry if you had an idea of who I was and this depiction doesn’t live up to your expectations. This is very much a personal account, a bit like a diary entry really and it’s writing stories like this, raw unedited travel tales, that first got me interested in blogging. I don’t want to exclusively share positive tales from the road, this site is about real travelling – the highs and the lows. Thanks for reading!