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After two stops and too many hours, we landed in Delhi. I expected we would go to the nearest hotel to take a nap and freshen up. Freshening up was not on the agenda. What was on the agenda was an early morning trip to a slum.
Naasih and I arrived in the slum just as the sun was breaking across the smoggy Delhi sky. It seemed as if the shanties stretched for miles, an ocean of tin roofs and laundry lines. Naasih led me down so many passageways, I was sure we would never find our way back out. I hadn’t slept in 30 hours, I hadn’t eaten anything since the plane, and I was beginning to wonder whether the brightly colored shacks we were passing were part of a strange dream.
Finally, Naasih stopped and turned to me. “Give me your bag,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
He gestured to the small knapsack I had been allowed to bring on the trip, repeating, “Your bag.”
I handed it to him.
“And your shoes and socks,” he added.
I had agreed to go along with this man. I had promised to follow his directions, and in return, I was hoping to find whatever I thought was missing from my life. I reached down, took off my shoes and socks, and handed them to him.
“And now your shirt,” he commanded.
I pulled off my shirt, leaving myself in only the jeans I had worn on the plane. Naasih looked around and said, “I’ll meet you back here at sunset.”
“Where are you going?” I asked as he began to walk away.
He laughed. “Oh, I’m heading back to the hotel. Time for a nap.”
I began to walk through the streets. Oddly, no one paid too much attention to the tall, bald lunatic walking in their midst. My throat was dry, my stomach growling with hunger. My head was spinning from the heat and the people and the sheer, terrifying exhaustion of landing in India and finding myself in the middle of one of the most impoverished places on earth with no one to help me.
And then I saw it. A small shanty with a large blanket that read LA Lakers covering the opening. I rapped softly on the tin that comprised its walls. A young, skinny man, no older than 25, came to the “door.”
“Hello,” I began. “I noticed your … door, and, well, I’m visiting from LA, and I was hoping you might be able to help me.”
“Ellll, ahhhhh?” The man drew out the letters.
“Yes, and—” I tried to continue.
“Kooooh-beeeee,” he interrupted.
“Yes, yes, Kobe Bryant. I mean, I’m not Kobe Bryant, but I have been to a game, and … well, you see, I am in a bit of a bind.”
The man’s smile broadened even further before he uttered the words I needed to hear so badly: “Welcome home, Koooh-beee!” Welcome home.
As I soon found out, the Lakers fan in front of me was a recently graduated university student who had left his family and his home near the Kashmir border in order to pursue a dream of success in the big city. Instead, he had found work in the back of a restaurant.
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Sankar took me to meet his cousin. Shiva was married, and as his wife prepared us a hearty lunch filled with rice and curries, I told them how I had ended up at Sankar’s home. “You gave the man your shoes?” Shiva asked through his laughter.
“Well, yes,” I replied, beginning to realize how ridiculous all this was. Why would I give up my easy American life to be left half-naked in Delhi?
Finally, I realized. “I guess it was so I could meet you.”
After lunch, Sankar took me to play cricket with a group of children in a trash-filled field down the road. The sun was beginning to fall as the hollers and laughter of the cricket game echoed across the slum. I had been so caught up in my day with Sankar, I had nearly forgotten about Naasih. I had started the morning in fear and exhaustion, but I was ending the day connected to something much larger.
After the game, Sankar and I walked to Rata Road, where Naasih had left me. We shook hands.
“You tell Kobe he has big fan in Delhi. He come visit sometime,” he suggested.
“If I ever meet him, Sankar, I’ll be sure to let him know,” I said.
As I watched him walk away, I could hear a slight chuckle coming from behind me. There stood Naasih. He said, “You’re glowing, Leon.” Not really the kind of compliment a man wants to receive, but I understood. I was glowing. I had been knocked entirely off balance and out of my comfort zone, and I felt that wild burst of life that had been so sorely missing from my own.