A friend of mine sent me an email a few days ago to say he’d received a parcel from India.
“The package was a classic Indian affair with hand-sewn burlap and globs of melted wax for seals,” he wrote. “Cool.”
I haven’t seen such a parcel in years and that simple message took me back decades in an instant. In the late ’70s I’d been traveling in India for several weeks and I had some souvenirs I wanted to ship home to lighten my load. The postal clerk in Darjeeling wobbled his head and explained that the box I had taped securely needed to be sewn with cloth and sealed with wax before he could accept it.
“Regulations,” he said, looking as if he was truly sorry about having to give me the bad news.
How on earth would I manage that? I wondered, having only recently acquired the skill of sewing buttons back onto my shirts. I left with my box not knowing what to do, and strolled over to Bethany School, a Catholic school I’d stumbled upon when wandering the streets in search of a piano to play. No, I wasn’t much of a pianist, but I’d taken some lessons before I’d left the States and found solace in a little piano practice whenever possible. Before Darjeeling I’d played in a Thai nightclub in Chiangmai, in the summer palace of the governor of Tamil Nadu, and at the Brooklands Guest Home, a Christian retreat in Ootacamund (Ooty) where the middle-aged woman who invited me in cringed at the mention of working in bars and beamed when I told her I was a writer.
“You should come back and write your books here,” she offered.
At Bethany School I’d been invited to play the piano whenever I wanted, and by now when I showed up I usually drew an audience of teenage girls who giggled while I played, probably with embarrassment at my skills. That day when I arrived I encountered the good sister who ran the school and had been so kind to me.
“What do you have there?” she asked.
“A parcel I want to ship home,” I said. At that she took it out of my hands with a smile, called out and another nun whisked up to her. They exchanged animated words in Hindi and off went the second nun with my box.
“Come back in an hour and your parcel will be properly wrapped,” she said.
And she was right. An hour later the box was tightly sewn in rough white cotton and sealed on the seams with red wax. Many months later, when I returned home to San Francisco, I found the parcel waiting for me, carried over the seas by slow boat and delivered to my home by the U.S. Postal Service.
It sat on my desk for days. I couldn’t bear to break the seals and cut the seams that had been sewn with love and kindness. As long as the parcel was intact I had a direct link with the school and the good people of Darjeeling, and I didn’t want to let it go.
Larry Habegger is a writer, editor, journalist, and teacher who has been covering the world since his international travels began in the 1970s. A freelance writer for more than two decades and syndicated columnist since 1985, he has written for many major newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Travel & Leisure, and Outside. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and in 1993 founded the award-winning Travelers’ Tales books with James and Tim O’Reilly. He has worked on all of the company’s more than 80 titles and is currently executive editor. Larry’s safety and security column, World Travel Watch, has appeared in newspapers in five countries and on internet sites, including WorldTravelWatch.com. He regularly teaches the craft of personal travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco.