Bright fluorescent lights beamed down on the international terminal of the Newark airport. Travelers were in motion, speeding past each other on moving walkways, clutching the handles of roller bags or gripping their luggage carts, headed from here to there or there to here; people from every corner of the globe. I stood before an immense screen of flights, destinations and times, locations, delays and cancellations, perpetually flickering and changing with the constant flow of new information. New Delhi, gate C16. India.
I had never had any particular interest in India, despite its exotic associations and remarkable distance from home. Yet it seems life has a way of tipping you off at times, pushing you in the most unexpectedly right directions at the most unpredictable moments. So it was with India. Hardly a month before, I had been looking at a springtime of meaningless work in my hometown, and now here I was, boarding a flight to Delhi to spend 40 days mountaineering in the vast Himalaya. I felt tired and slightly nervous as I approached the gate, knowing that other members of the expedition would be on my flight, that I would perhaps, now, be meeting some of the people I would grow closest to over the next month and a half. It struck me as strange to know beforehand something that usually happens in the most natural and unplanned of ways, and noticed how the airport’s architects had carefully chosen elaborately textured ceiling materials so that these thousands of people pouring through its halls would not make each other deaf with their chaos and noise. Oddly, it was that observation that filled my mind as I ambled towards the gate, where sure enough, two of my expedition members stood talking, smiling cautiously.
I recognized them not only by my memories of photographs from social networking sites, but also by the general likelihood that these athletic young women, with their mountain backpacks and recommended uniform of a collared shirt and conservative pants, were headed towards the same adventure that I was. Blinking the fatigue out of my eyes, I smiled and introduced myself to Sam, an energetic 20-year-old from Maine, and Megan, a sporty 21-year-old ski bum from Aspen. It’s funny now, to think about how we stood making awkward small talk in that airport, hypothesizing about who else at the gate could be on the expedition, total strangers all acutely aware of how well we would come to know each other. Together we boarded the plane, shuffling sideways down its cramped aisles, future tent mates and friends who had only just met.
Seated close to each other in the back of the plane, Megan and I watched as the rest of the passengers boarded the flight. A young man in formal, conservative attire slid into his seat near the front of the plane, bearing striking resemblance to a 19-year-old from Boston we’d seen photos of on Facebook – it had to be him. The woman next to me, enthralled by my description of our upcoming travels, nudged me in the side and pointed to another young man taking a seat several aisles across from us.
“I’ll bet you anything he’s on your trip”, she whispered. Judging solely by appearance, the guy’s age, long hair and outdoorsy clothes did make him seem like a likely candidate. We knew there were a few people who hadn’t managed to join our online networking group prior to the trip, and when the curious woman mentioned that he had the same NOLS folder I was carrying, we figured he must be among them.
These were my first impressions of the four people I would come to know very, very quickly over the course of the next 48 hours. Disembarking from that endlessly long flight, we staggered into the confusion of New Delhi’s airport, bewildered by the time change and surplus of transportation choices. I climbed into a hired car with Sam, and together we stared in awe out the window as the car proceeded to navigate a swerving, speeding river of traffic involving everything from rickshaws to mules, buses, auto-rickshaws and cars, masses of people hanging off most of the vehicles or piled atop them. Welcome to India.
Arriving at the hotel near midnight, we finally introduced ourselves to the guys we’d speculated about on the plane. They introduced themselves as Jon from Boston (exactly who we thought he was) and Zach, 23, from Virginia. We checked in sleepily, wandering off towards hotel rooms named after famous mountaineers and Himalayan peaks, to catch a few hours of rest for what, unbeknownst to us, would likely be one of the most action-packed sightseeing days of our lives.