Passport: The First 24 Hours

Landing in New Delhi, India, feverish and alone, with nothing but a ski bag

Dropping into the unknown in Kashmir, India. PHOTO: Ptor Spricenieks

Dropping into the unknown in Kashmir, India. PHOTO: Ptor Spricenieks

Passport is an online department featuring stories from the road. This one told by features editor Porter Fox about his first assignment for the magazine.

The first day of an exotic ski trip is always the longest. And the best. And the worst. My first assignment for Powder started on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in 1999. I was heading to the airport to fly to the Himalayas for the first time. I’d stayed up the night before with my friend, partying and explaining every detail of what would happen over the next two months: 18,000-foot peaks, 100-mile treks, trains, helicopters, camels, tikka masala.

Twelve hours later, after sleeping through the first half of the flight, I realized I’d picked up a nasty flu from my friend. My temperature was pushing 103 degrees and every hair follicle on my body tingled. The plane was dark and most of the passengers were asleep. I looked out the window and saw sparkling lights in the middle of a pitch-black desert. I thought it was a hallucination, then a young woman next to me said, “It’s Tehran.”

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The magnitude of the trip hit me then. My skis were tucked away in the cargo hold. I was going to the largest mountain range in the world to use them. I’d never seen the Middle East, never been to India, never skied anything besides the Appalachians, Alps, and Rockies. The woman must have seen how feverish I was. She got a cold towel from the flight attendant and put it on my forehead. When we deplaned 12 hours later, she took my elbow and guided me to a cabbie to grab my bags.

A liaison from the Indian Ministry of Tourism met me at the hotel that night. He was four-foot-six and didn’t speak English. He insisted we go out for dinner, and we loaded into a small black sedan with tinted windows. His driver took us 45 minutes into the heart of New Delhi and left us at a restaurant that looked like a castle. For the next three hours we sat across from each other, not saying a word, grinning, picking at our food, and watching two diminutive teenage boys dance a scene from the Bhagavad Gita.

I had no idea where I was the next morning. My skis stood in the corner of the room. My passport was on the dresser. The fever broke but I still felt dizzy. I took a cab to Red Fort, home of Indian Mughals for 200 years, and walked through the cricket fields and tall trees surrounding it. The massive auburn walls of the old city wrapped in an endless arc. I followed it for a while then crossed an intersection and walked into the Old Delhi spice market—destination of the first western explorers. The scent was so strong I had to cover my nose and my eyes watered. I bought a few things then hired a rickshaw to take me back to the hotel.

The woman from the plane was waiting there when I arrived. I’d given her my name and hotel before we parted ways. She said she wanted to show me a temple on the northern edge of the city. It was all gold with a dozen turrets and 100 marble steps leading to it. We took off our shoes and approached the temple door. A man there asked us to drink from the fountain then go in. The woman said she was there to pray for her father, who had fallen sick. She asked what I was doing in India and I said, I’m going skiing. To which she covered her mouth, giggled, and walked inside.

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