The Journey Home

Philip John

There is always sadness when leaving a place we enjoyed. We take time to establish relationships and uprooting when we are comfortable, is painful.

My flight home was London > Rome > Athens > Beirut > Bombay on BOAC, and to Delhi on Indian Airlines! Rome and Athens were a must on any travel itinerary, while Beirut boasted of over 365 nightclubs – one for each day of the year! My parents lived in Delhi and I was happy to fit all these places at no extra cost.

I landed in Rome and decided to leave my large suitcase at the ‘Left Luggage’ place. It would cost me 7000 Lires to store my bag for two nights. I could then take a Shuttle Bus to the Centrum and not be encumbered carting a heavy bag.

Railway Stations in the bigger cities have a Helpdesk where you can locate inexpensive accommodation. When traveling alone I choose rooms which have access to transport and food, instead of ‘a room with a view’. Why pay more for a bed and bath when you are out walking the streets most of the time?

I found a Pizzeria close by. It was a busy evening and the place was abuzz with loud talk and laughter. A waiter came over, looked around the room and pointed to an empty chair with a group of young people at a table. I hesitated but one of them called me over and offered the chair. They went back to their conversation in Italian while I ordered a pizza and glass of Chianti.

While we were waiting for our pizzas one of the guys at my table asked, “Tourist?” I wanted to say “No, I come here every day for a Pizza!” but instead said “Yes! I am on my way from London to India.” The whole table burst out into comments and questions, all in Italian of course. One of them knew a smidgeon of English, and took over as the Interpreter. We had a wonderful evening and I helped them finish their second bottle of Chianti. I was struck by the warmth and friendliness of the Italian people. We can have a good time with one another even if we don’t speak each other’s language!

Over time I have made several visits to Italy. For anyone interested in history and beautiful landscape there is no place like Italy. My wife and I spent 10 days at Lake Como last April. We also re-visited Milan, Florence, Pisa, and saw Livorno and Siena, for the first time.

The next day I did as much sightseeing as I could by the City bus service, as well as, on foot. In the sixties there were no Hop On Hop Off buses as we have today. I visited the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Fountain of Trevi, made famous by Frank Sinatra’s “Three Coins in a Fountain”.

The following morning I wondered what I should do since I had planned to leave for the airport by noon. I looked at the City map and saw that we were at one end of the famous Via Veneto. This boulevard was lined with cafes, tourist nick-knacks, artists who would draw or paint your portrait in 15 minutes, and book shops. Great place to saunter and breathe the air of Rome.

Just as I was turning to walk back to my hotel a car screeched to a halt and the driver leaned out and asked me if I knew the way to the American Import – Export office. I said “No, I am a tourist here”. He was about to leave when he stopped and asked another passer-by. Unfortunately the man could not follow what the driver was saying and he began to move on. The driver then asked me to check whether this person knew the way to American Import – Export office. He said, “Si”!  Pointing to the road he gave instructions in Italian. Of course, the American could not understand a word of what the man was saying. He asked me to find out whether the Italian was prepared to go with him and show him the place. He could do that provided the American would drop him back on Via Veneto. The American was more than willing. He asked whether I would be kind enough to accompany and ‘translate’ for them. He would drop me at my hotel well in time for my bus ride to the airport.

I sat in front with him while the Italian got into the back seat and began to direct the driver to the American Import – Export office. Once we got there we waited in the car while the American ran into the office. The Italian said he worked in a Bank at the Vatican. And Saturday was his day off.

A few minutes later the pilot came out fuming. His friend had been posted to Istanbul 4 days earlier.

He sat behind the wheel with his eyes closed, not making any move to start the car. We could see that he was in great distress. Finally, the Italian asked what the problem was. The American sat motionless for some more time, then finally spoke up. He was a TWA Pilot and had just flown in from Johannesburg and was on his way to New York. He had spent all his money on Kalahari diamonds which he was taking to the US to sell at a handsome profit. Obviously, he had done this before.

However, someone had tipped off the Joburg Customs. He was intercepted and could not produce the export documentation and the tax certificates required to take the diamonds out. Since he was an airline pilot he was allowed to go but they confiscated the diamonds.

He had managed to ‘save’ five diamonds and he was in a hurry to cash them before he reached New York. I translated all this from American English to English the Italian could understand.
The Italian wanted to see the diamonds. The Pilot took them out from his pocket. There were 5 blue Kalahari diamonds. The Italian tested one on the glass window of the rented Hertz car. He scratched the window with the diamond and it made a deep cut. The Italian seemed satisfied and asked me to find out how much the American wanted for the five diamonds. If the price was right he would  buy them himself. The Pilot asked how much money the Italian had on him. He said that he lived in the Vatican and we would need to go there. But that was impossible because the American was on the 2:30 pm flight that afternoon. He would never make it.

He then turned to me and asked how much money I had on me. I had 250 GB pounds. He could let the Italian have one diamond for that price. The Italian seemed ok with the idea but was disappointed that he was not going to get all five! He said he would bring the money to the airport before my flight, give me my 250 GBP and take the diamond. I felt sorry for the American pilot and gave him the money while keeping the diamond as collateral.

We were then dropped off as promised – the Italian on Via Veneto and I at my hotel. I had paid for the room when I checked in so all I needed was 100 Lires for the Airport shuttle.

I reached the Airport and waited for the Italian to turn up with the money to claim my suitcase from the Left Luggage cloakroom. I waited but when it was past 3 pm I went in and told the airline that something unexpected had happened causing me to bypass Athens and Beirut. I had to head straight back to Bombay. They said that there was a London – Bombay flight via Rome at 10 PM.

Every now and then I would go to the Men’s Room, take out the diamond, examine it and put it back. Maybe the Italian got held up. Anyway I felt assured that I had the better end of the bargain and would come out on top!

I had to reclaim my suitcase and I was also dying for a cup of Coffee. I hadn’t eaten all day!
I saw an older Indian gentleman and went up to him, gave him the short version of the story and asked whether he could help me with 7000 Lires! He was happy to oblige and gave me the money. I asked him for his name and address as I wanted to return the money once we got back to India. But he smiled and said that he was not from India. “I am a South African, but I am happy to help a young Indian!”
I thanked him profusely and ran in to get my suitcase from the Cloakroom!

I asked BOAC whether I was confirmed for the 10 PM flight to Bombay. “No, it’s a full flight and you are still waitlisted”.
I scraped together enough for a Coffee and waited for BOAC to give me some news.

At 8 PM the guy at the desk said, “I am sorry sir. It’s a full flight and we don’t even have one seat in Economy!”
What should I do for Plan B, I thought? I was too tired and quite exhausted with the events of the day. My mind blanked out and I dozed off. I woke up with a start when I heard my name being called. I was asked to report to the BOAC counter. “Sir, I took your case up with my manager and we are happy to upgrade you to First Class!”

The joy of the upgrade was superseded by the immense relief of getting out of a difficult situation. I was the first to board the flight! An air hostess welcomed me and offered me a glass of champagne and a warm smile. The First Class of yore was more or less the Business Class of today. I began to unwind a bit after my second glass of Möet & Chandon. We took off and drinks were served. The Chivas Regal with ice and two fingers of cold water went down really well. Then the dinner menu came around and since the flight was to Bombay there were some Tandoori dishes to choose from, which tasted even better with good French Red Wine. There was ice cream with fruit to follow, which I rounded off with a liberal shot of Hennessy.

The events of the day and the disappointment of missing Athens and Beirut was far away from my mind. I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. The next thing I remember was waking up when the Pilot announced that we would be landing in Bombay in a short while!

I then transferred to an Indian Airlines flight to Delhi and a few hours later I was in a taxi from Palam Airport, heading home!

Reached home and rang the bell. My mother opened the door and her eyes widened. “What happened? We were expecting you a week later!”

“I felt homesick!”

I don’t think she bought that but she let it pass and decided to enjoy her son instead.

I showered, ate something and crashed into bed before my ten year old brother could badger me with questions.

Next day, I got up late and took a taxi to Connaught Place, the premier shopping area in New Delhi. The main jewellers had their showrooms there. I walked into a big store and the manager came over. “What are you looking for, sir?”
“How much are Kalahari diamonds these days?”, I asked nonchalantly. The man looked me up and down, paused and said, “Well sir, if they are blue it’s about 5000 rupees a carat. If you want yellow it would be a bit more.”
For some reason I left my diamond behind, perhaps for fear of losing it. I asked, “Do you buy diamonds?”
“Of course, but prices depend on clarity and other factors.”

“I’ll bring some tomorrow!” And left.

The next day, I went to Connaught Place again but decided to go to another Jeweller. I didn’t want the first shop to know that I just had one Kalahari diamond with me.

I walked in and asked the same questions to check that I was not going to be ripped off. I took out the diamond and placed it on the black velvet cushion and moved back. The man held the diamond with delicate tongs and looked through his jewellers’ magnifying glass.

“How much will you give me?”, I pressed.
He took a moment or two to reply wondering whether I was having him on and then said,
“Two rupees!”


“It’s good quality well cut glass”, he explained, “and is of no particular interest to us”.

I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me.

I went home dejected and stayed in my room all day, pleading I was getting over jetlag. By evening I was hungry and joined the family for supper. I regaled them with my London stories. My father who had spent four years of college there wanted to know all about his favourite places.

And then I told them my Rome story. They listened spell bound. My father burst out laughing. I felt salt being rubbed into my wounds. “What’s funny?” I asked.

“Well, it’s a cheap way to learn a lesson”, my Dad said. “What if you had more than thousand pounds on you? You would be sitting here with five pieces of worthless glass!”

It was a bitter lesson and one I will never forget. I did go back to Via Veneto on the off chance of running into this team again. But that was many years later. They would have moved on or were behind bars. I ordered a double shot of Expresso and enjoyed the beautiful morning.

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