Saturday, February 10, 2007

sierra hotel india tango

I left my wallet in the crumbling belly of a wretched inn in Srinagar, a city located on the bank of the Jhelum River in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, some 10,533 kilometres away from me as the crow flies.

An inch-think fold of stitched black leather, a gift given to me by a girlfriend from another time, the wallet sits forever in my mind atop the bedside table where I last saw it. Positively stuffed with dinner receipts, taxi chits, and coupons, the wallet pouts. "You go on without me," it whinges, "I'm so full I just can't budge."

And so I do. In the theatre of my mind, a past me walks out that door leaving behind an inch-think fold of stitched black leather atop a rickety little table beside the infested bed in which I had slept for the better part of three weeks. I walk out that door and hop in a taxicab, paying with a crumpled banknote from my pocket on my arrival at the airport.

Then, taking full advantage of the modern ease of e-everything, I show the grumpy little airline clerk my driver's licence – which I had smartly kept in a safe place apart from my wallet! – and he checks it against my e-ticket. The next thing I know, I'm through security and hunched into a terrible seat aboard a decades-old plane somewhere above Eastern Europe shouting repeatedly, "Oh, god! My wallet!" and frantically checking and rechecking all of my pockets while inadvertently elbowing my seat neighbour all about the upper torso.

Yes. These are the things which they didn't talk about in archaeology school. Even then, we entertained dreams of Indiana Jones-esque adventures in long forgotten tombs, circumventing snake pits and being chased by Nazis while taking care to not trigger the deadly traps laid for us two millennia ago. Aw, sweet, sweet naïveté, huh? What I wouldn't give now to have had one single professor say, "And please, please, people; be mindful of your personal belongings while checking out of a hotel. I know you're going to be hungover as all hell on the day of your departure, but please take the time to make sure you have everything." Not part of the curriculum I guess.

We had flown up from Sierra Leone where we had attended a lecture on the Transatlantic Slave Trade of the 1700s, and set out to work that very day. The site, located just outside of Srinagar, lent little to the imagination, as it was barely more than three shallow squares carved in the hard, yellow earth, each marked off by white string. Meticulous scraping, brushing, and sifting ensued, days spent on hands and knees, unearthing green-grey statuettes from the Maurya period.

"Look!" I excitedly called out at some point, "this one's smiling!"

My colleague just looked at me like I was mad, scowled a little, and returned to his tedious work.

"What do you figure we should do with ourselves tonight?" I asked.

He shrugged, wiping the dust off his forehead with the ratty sleeve of his shirt.

"Supposed to be a pretty good discothèque in town," he suggested, "could check it out if we wanted."

"Discothèque," I scoffed, "what the hell's that?"

"Hey," he said, "that's what they call them here."

So we went, and found ourselves engaged in a reckless evening of tango far, far away from Buenos Aires, in the company of pushy beautiful women we could barely communicate with. One dance would end and another would begin before we could even stumble to the murky sidelines of the dance floor, and it wasn't long before the night was over and we were tossing and turning in the dirty, rough cots of our rooms. That's how it was that three weeks of trading the discomfort of days for the weirdness of evenings led to my eventual brain freeze and the forgetting of my wallet.

Home now. Back in metropolitan North America. Crunching toward my car down a snow covered sidewalk on campus, chatting a little uninterestedly on my cell phone to an acquaintance about my trip. I'm about to pay for my parking when I'm reminded again of the absence of my wallet.

"Shit!" I snap.

"Pardon me?" my acquaintance asks.

"Shit," I say, "I still haven't been sent my new Visa, and I've no cash for parking."

"Sorry," she says, "but you're breaking up – can you repeat that?"

"Shit, shit, shit!" I repeat, pounding on the ticket box. "Shit – Sierra Hotel India Tango – shit!"

I abruptly click my phone shut, and walk the one thousand kilometres back to the administration building where I happen to run into one of my Earth Sciences professors in the hall.

"So," she starts excitedly, "you're back! How was the dig?"

I let loose some kind of howl that transcends the noise needed to express mere frustration, and I storm on past her towards my office where I collapse into my chair and commence staring out the window.

10,533 kilometres away from me as the crow flies, an inch-think fold of stitched black leather dances the tango across the faded wood of a bedside table. It mocks me; the damn thing mocks me. And what's worse, is it's a better dancer, too, light on the toes with dexterity to die for, adroitly handling even the most expert of moves. My wallet: the adventurer I'll never be. Brave enough to never go home again. Courageous enough to not even care.

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