The Great Camera Drama

At close to our very last moment in India, while packing up to catch our flight out, Sheryl had discovered that she’d left her camera in the taxi that had taken us to the airport hotel. I reckoned there wasn’t a chance in hell we’d ever get it back, but we went through the motions anyway because Sheryl’s luck is legendary. Amid frantic preparation we managed to contact the owner of the hotel we’d stayed in downtown, and he’d promised to try and find the taxi driver for us. We had to be satisfied with that, but Sheryl was still heartbroken as we left India.

She tried not to think about it afterward, much. She was too sick while we were in Kyoto to worry about it, but when we reached Tokyo I could tell it was still bothering her. She tried to convince herself to be fatalistic, but as the days slipped by with no word, the more upset she got. Things weren’t moving quickly in India. At first the desk clerk who knew which taxi driver it was had gone home to his village for a few days and couldn’t be contacted. After that, we found out later, the taxi driver was sick for a week.

Finally we decided to give up and buy her a new camera. It’s a lot of money, buying a new camera - money that we just can’t spare. It wasn’t just the replacement cost of the camera itself - her whole camera bag had been left, and that’s six rechargeable batteries, a fistful of memory cards and the bag itself to replace too. Not to mention the sentimental attachment to the camera and whatever photos she’d lost.

Easier said than done, though. It took ages to decide which camera to buy. We couldn’t find the same model - it was discontinued already when she’d bought it in Chennai five months before, and now all the product lines had moved on by two models and all the new cameras in that line were far too expensive. So there was a big discussion with Sheryl, trying to figure out what camera to buy her instead. This was complicated by the fact that the only camera she really wanted was in India and she didn’t really want to think about any other cameras. But at last we settled on one, and then had to call around to a bunch of different places to sort out how quickly they could deliver it and if they could accept a foreign credit card - all with the help of Jun and Sayaka, the friends we were staying with in Tokyo.

At last we ordered it, and I thought that was the end of the matter. But no more than an hour later, we finally heard from Mr. Singh in Calcutta. He’d tracked down the taxi driver, and the taxi driver still had the camera. Honestly, I nearly had a stroke on the spot. In any normal, rational universe, leaving something valuable in a taxi in Calcutta would mean that it was gone forever. Only Sheryl could possibly have this kind of luck. The driver was not just honest, but conscientious and altruistic - he’d driven back to where he’d left us at the airport area not once but twice, trying to track us down and return it. I wonder, sometimes, if the solid gold horseshoes that Sheryl finds up her bum keep her awake at night, clinking together when she rolls over.

The situation wasn’t without irony, naturally. We’d ordered the new camera just an hour before Singh had finally emailed, and had to cancel the order. The universe is sarcastic by nature. Naturally, too, we were now presented with a completely new and novel set of problems - to wit, how to get the damned thing to us. This turned into a long exercise in problem-solving and a lesson in patience for Sheryl. I feel no shame in admitting that I left her to it - I figured I’d done my part.

By the time we got the word that the camera had been found, it had been two weeks since we’d left Calcutta, and we’d stayed a lot longer than we’d planned to stay in Tokyo. Our friends Jun and Sayaka are generous people and it wasn’t costing us anything to stay with them except food, drink and train fare, but we really couldn’t afford to stay that much longer and we didn’t want to strain their hospitality longer than we had to. So it was pretty important that we get the camera as soon as possible.

But Mr. Singh, as it turned out, is a very calm, methodical and unhurried sort of man. He told Sheryl over and over not to worry, that he’d get the camera to her, but he never quite seemed to grasp the urgency of the situation - we weren’t going to be in Tokyo for long, and the camera needed to get there before we left. Days were wasted while he meticulously researched the various shipping methods and costs in trip after trip to the post office. Just when Sheryl thought it might come together, he announced that he didn’t trust the post office to deliver it unharmed and thought we should use a courier instead. Disaster! He’d insisted all along, very generously, that he’d be happy to pay for the shipping cost, but the price of the courier was, understandably, too much and he balked.

Just throw it in some bubble-wrap, stuff it in a padded envelope, and get it to the post office, Sheryl said. I’ll take the risk and I won’t hold you responsible, she said. It took hours of convincing before he finally agreed to give up on the courier. Even then, he was too worried about the camera being damaged, took another two trips to the post office to check up on packing methods, and afterward utterly refused to be swayed from following the post office’s recommendation that the camera be packed in a specially-made wooden box. So another day was wasted while his friend made him a box.

None of this was good for Sheryl’s nerves - or any of ours either. She was increasingly fretful and anxious with every new delay but, dependent as she was on Singh’s kindness, she knew she had no choice but to put up a false front of calm cheer and politely urge him to hurry. The knowledge that she couldn’t make things happen any faster infuriated her. She drove us all crazy, flipping manically and unpredictably between rabid fury and fits of spastic nervousness. Jun and Sayaka’s house isn’t big enough for four people at the best of times, and before long the rest of us were twitchy and hollow-eyed like war refugees. I think it was at that point Jun mentioned that when they’d known us in India he’d thought that Sheryl was a nice person for putting up with me for so long, but now that he knew us better he thought that I was a nice person for putting up with her. I’ll treasure that remark of his forever, because it’s the one time in my long history with Sheryl that someone, anyone has realized that I’m really a much nicer person than she is.

But finally, finally, we got the word - the camera was on its way. Now there was nothing left to do except to send some money to India to pay the shipping costs and the taxi driver. But how hard could that be, we thought? Plenty hard, as it turned out. The first question was how much to send. The shipping costs were a known amount, but the taxi driver had gotten a bit cheeky and was demanding a reward of 2000 rupees for his trouble. We’d been thinking that 800 would be generous and were taken aback - he wanted $50! Mr. Singh, indignant on Sheryl’s behalf, told him he wasn’t getting that much. Mr. Singh was the one we were sending the money to and he’d be the one handing it over, so there wasn’t much the driver could say about it. In the end the total amount we needed to send was around Rs2000, and I think a thousand or so went to the driver. It never occurred to us for a second that Mr. Singh would cheat him - he’d been absolutely fantastic through the whole episode. We’d been incredibly lucky that we’d chosen his hotel randomly when we arrived in Calcutta. Only semi-randomly, really - his turban made the decision for me. Sikhs are good people.

The next question was how to get the money to him. That was mostly my job to figure out, and it was no fun at all. I thought it would be a simple matter of an inter-bank transfer, but the fee was an unacceptable $20. I looked into remittance services - the good thing about sending money to India is that there are millions of non-resident Indians around the world who do it every day. But not from Japan, apparently. Even the single branch of Mr. Singh’s bank in Japan wouldn’t let me deposit money into an Indian account without having an account myself.

I tried a few online money-transfer services, and none of them worked either - they all refused to handle the transaction when their systems reported that it originated in Japan. I even turned to Western Union, thinking that at least I could wire the money even if he had to go and pick it up physically - only to discover that none of the wire-transfer companies operate in Japan. I was seriously pissed off by that point - I mean, come on, I’m not trying to send silver coins to some nomadic Mongolian yak-herder by hot-air balloon. It’s the twenty-first goddamned century. We have a worldwide electronic financial network and this is what it’s for. In desperation we asked Sheryl’s old boss who has an account at the same bank to make the deposit. That worked, but it cost - you guessed it - $20. I suppose there’s a lesson there about trying to avoid the inevitable.

Finally all the dust and the drama had settled and there was nothing to be done except to obsessively track the package sixteen times a day. It came in good time and we had a little party when it arrived. The parcel was wrapped and sewn in white linen and sealed with red wax in the Indian manner. When Sheryl opened it we found a massively-built thick wooden box with a hinged lid that looked as if it would survive a bomb blast. There was no way the camera could possibly be damaged - it could have gone to Mars and back with that kind of protection. Nevertheless we all held our breath as Sheryl pressed the power button, and I wept just a little bit as the screen lit up - the long nightmare was over.

The last picture showed a paunchy Indian man with a moustache and a startled expression, standing in the sorting office of a postal depot somewhere in Calcutta.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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