Of the throngs of humanity sleeping on cots by the heat-blasted roadside our flashing honking careening bus disturbed not a soul.
We had witnessed this Indian ability to sleep through anything before. We were but a few minutes deep into our semester abroad in Delhi and already a crisis had established a bond between us.
On our flight to India my classmates watched as I tested my theory that America’s 21-and-over law didn’t apply once over the Atlantic. Timidly I ordered a beer. Less timidly I ordered the second and still less timidly the third. Blithely I ordered liquor in cute little bottles, passing them off to fellow students until the Air India flight attendant said, “Come with me.” He took me to the food service galley and demonstrated how to open the drawers. He pointed out which drawers had liquor in them. He went off to sleep.
We scrummed together mid-plane and got so drunk we were shouting in each other’s faces. It was here that we first witnessed the Indian ability to sleep through a racket. Not a soul around us was awake, nor did anyone even stir when we broke into a lavatory to recover a girl in our group. She’d felt sick and gone to the lavatory and by the time we’d realized she was gone she’d been passed out in that tiny space for two hours.
We’d drunk together as if we were already a family. Similarly, we had stuck together during our unscheduled daylong layover in New York and visited museums as if we shared a connection. Our life-changing year abroad hadn’t even started yet. I couldn’t have said we knew each other from previous lives because I hadn’t yet been to India to learn about that.
Perhaps it was that very first moment of the trip that had brought us together. You know that moment: your plane accelerating down the runway, the front wheels becoming light, ready to suddenly disengage from this location and lift toward your destination.... In your belly you anticipate the lift.
At that very moment when the front wheels should have unglued from the tarmac you hear a loud and hollow pop. Your speed wanes. Your classmate with the seat looking out over the left wing heads up the isle toward you (crawling because the flight attendants are hollering for everyone to stay seated). He is alerting you and every other University of California student that the engine on the left wing has burst into flames.
The plane coasts to a stop and fire trucks catch up, their very red airport-issue fire truck lights casting a devil’s nightclub ambiance over the plane’s arched interior. Suddenly the cabin screens become possessed by a hauntingly high-pitched Indian singing and dancing movie. This keeps up for the three hours it takes the powers that be to determine that the flight is unsalvageable.
So Air India turns the plane around and books you a hotel in New York with a group of peers you suddenly now share a story with and with whom you are about to live some of the most memorable months of your life.
James Moran was born in Washington, D.C. in 1976 and raised in the area. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he teaches yoga, practices astrology and writes, pursuits all of which directly followed the starting point documented in this story.