"Who is it?" A voice within demands in response to my sharp rap.
"The chief of police." I tell him in a mock Indian accent. The door swings open to Derek, his dreads hanging down over his bare chest and eyes turned to glass.
"Alright, Tom - Come in and make yourself at home." There are a few other friends sitting around the room, leaning against the walls and drinking coke; one or two I know by name and the others I've seen around in Goa or the Himalayas. Chillum smoke hangs like fog in the air and a beat-up cassette player puts out trance to get stoned to.
Of all of us in the room, only Derek is busy. He squats beside a pile of charas, the handmade cannabis resin of the mountains and weighs each bullet shaped piece on the electronic scales in front of him.
"4.5, yes. 5.2, yeah. 7.1 - fuck, another one!" He snarls.
"Too much to swallow?"
"Anything up to 5 and a half grams I can handle, Tom. But more than that I have to cut it smaller before I wrap."
"And you've got English cellophane, I hope?"
"No," He shakes his head with regret, "I forgot to bring any with me. But I reckon if I use three layers of the Indian kind it'll be okay - the stomach acid might burn through the first wrap a bit but the charas will be okay."
Derek is leaving tonight on a direct flight to London. He'll have about twenty kilos of checked-in luggage, a guitar to carry with him on the plane and about half a kilo of quality dope in his stomach. On arrival he'll stay with an understanding friend and head for the bathroom with a sieve and a pair of plastic gloves to await the course of Nature.
There's no shortage of demand in Europe for the Himalaya's finest and provided he doesn't smoke too much of it himself, Derek should be back in India in a few weeks with 3000 dollars or so to his name, equipped to enjoy the next six months of Asian adventures. Not a staggering profit, perhaps, but quite adequate for those living in the third world and all with a limited degree of risk.
Of course that all depends on your perspective. True, the customs officers at Heathrow airport won't lose any sleep over such small-time contraband; they're far more concerned with larger imports and with the commerce in class 'A' drugs.
What's of more relevance are the authorities on the Indian side; however chaotic and mismanaged the system seems to be in India, it would be a mistake to imagine that the locals are stupid. Tourists who venture too frequently up into the higher reaches of the mountains, and are then seen hanging around Delhi waiting for another flight, run the risk of the police being tipped off by an informant. The resulting raid can be very costly - Either for the considerable baksheesh that must be paid or, worse, by ten years in a stinking, over-crowded jail.
"That's why I stay in this hotel." Derek tells me, "The manager used to be the head of police in Delhi and so there's zero chance of them ever coming here!"
Others take less material safeguards. Trusting that the Almighty Shiva himself approves of their dedication to the sacred marijuana plant, they assume his protection as they make their honest (if illegal) supplies to genuinely appreciative customers back home. This may well be valid though I have seen a couple of these believers on the wrong side of the prison bars.
The other risk is that to the health. For those with a pretty robust constitution the prospect of passing half a kilo of charas bullets through their system is no big deal. But there is always the possibility of things going very unpleasantly wrong; I've heard stories of people throwing up a handful of bile-soaked charas while strapped into their airport seats - nothing to do except make it go back down again!
For others there is the risk of contracting food poisoning by chance at the same time as they make their run and their stomachs simply refusing to co-operate. Or else every such smuggler is at the mercy of airport delays, re-routing and cancellations. Once I was flying back to the UK courtesy of Syrian Arab airlines; they had already made us wait several weeks in Delhi for our return flight and now our way was supposed to be clear. We arrived in Damascus for our connecting flight and the lady at the desk told me that I was only on the waiting list. I was asked to wait by the side and I watched with amusement the sudden look of terror on the face of a friend who was still in the queue - I knew his fate would be the same of mine and, moreover, he had swallowed a stomach-full before we'd left.
"What's going on?" He hissed.
"Waiting list!" I let him know and all colour disappeared from his face as he contemplated what it would mean if his charas came through whilst delayed in the heart of Syria. Our tickets came through though and he was spared death by stoning.
Either way it's not a pretty affair. Each time the funds run low and you're faced with the prospect of forcing a large pile of inanimate, indigestible matter down your throat, it's understandable that the novelty wears thin.
"There's gotta be better ways to make a living!" Derek laughs as he takes a muscle-relaxant to help with his impending task. But really, the option of returning to the West to squeeze out a wage is not so appealing either - There are those who welcome a reprieve from the chaos of India and seek some structure in their lives again. But others have forgotten how to open a bank account, pay bills and sustain all the other implications of living in the first world.
So for those who do choose to continue living in Never-Never Land, the question remains of how to maintain the finances that keep you in flight. Some get by on trust funds or by the help of generous parents or friends, others make their trade with clothing, jewellery or other skills in demand on the traveller's route.
And others, sick to the stomach with swallowing, elect to graduate.
"…Yes…I know…look, you don't have to tell me for crying out loud…I said I would didn't I? Yes, yes, I'll put it in the post today! Yeah, you take care, too."
Clive tosses the Nokia onto the couch with a sigh and takes his cup of tea I bring in without looking up.
"Honestly, Tom, some people think they're the only ones that mater in the world! That was a girl in South Africa complaining because I'm a couple of days late in mailing her a few grams of MDMA that she was expecting - Which, I might add, I'm only doing as a favour - For as you can see I'm a little busy here!"
On the floor around him there are stacks of five separate currencies, three mobile phones and two scribbled address books containing the contacts that keep Clive afloat in this business. On the table there is a joint partially rolled, a small pile of cocaine on a mirror waiting to be cut and thick incense burning aromas of India, the ash falling onto the carpet. It's 10:30am.
"So where did you just come back from?" I ask him, clearing bags and suitcases out of the way so I can grab a place to sit.
"I was over the water in Amsterdam but I don't think I can do that route again." Clive smiles, "The customs on the boat back have stopped me five times in a row now! We're on first name terms!"
"But they never find anything?"
"Nah, they're a bunch of clowns, Tom! They're just used to catching idiot who come back with bags of pills in their underwear! All you need is the right kind of suitcase or shoes with a space in the heel cut out and you're home free!"
"So how come they always pick on you? Is it the teeth?" I ask, referring to his broken mouth; three years ago his best friend turned around in the basement where they were growing the best skunk in Manchester and broke a bottle over his face. Hard to know who your friends are in this business.
"Well, I usually cover it up with a bit of make up and, with a goofy pair of glasses, I can usually play the 'life's great when you're straight' character, hair combed forwards and all." He lights the joint.
"But now I think my legs are broken - There's got to be something against my name on the computer that keeps showing up. So I arranged for another passport which I have to pick up this morning actually."
An hour later we stroll into the post office and Clive collects his parcel with his real passport as proof of ID. He unwraps it as we walk back out to the street and he flicks to the last page.
"Curtis Spencer! Curtis, I like that!"
"Yes but, Curtis, it says you're born in 1974!"
"And what's so hard to believe about that?"
For lunch we meet two Irish men in their thirties at a nearby pub. They're surprised that I'm there but Clive puts them at ease that I'm cool and they take his word for it. The conversation is upbeat and friendly over pints of Guinness and then dropping to a volume barely audible to me as I sit next to the negotiations.
"Next week…fly to Bali…pills in the Dam…phone me in Dubai…friend will meet you in New Zealand…details on the net…"
I try not to listen too hard and contemplate my opaque pint. Presently they emerge from the conference and the chat raises back to a cheerful banter.
"Fuck, Tom! I don't want to be dealing with the Paddies! Could be IRA for all I know!" Clive jokes as we head back to his friend's flat.
"So why do you?"
"Because I can't always be a one man operation and it's very easy to set others up with the work they need. And if this Bali trip comes off and I collect what I'm supposed to receive in Dubai then it should net around 70,000."
And this is perhaps the crux of the smuggling business; on paper you're a millionaire in a matter of months. You can see how to handle both the supply and the demand and the profit margins are clear. You have a book full of contacts and your techniques are so good that there's a minimal chance of customs ever grabbing you.
So why has Clive been in the business for ten years and never achieved more than a comfortable living? Three weeks after this meeting, I bumped into him again and he was not in such good spirits. The Irish had been arrested before they'd even got out of Amsterdam - Seemingly as a result of intercepted emails. Thus the Bali deal went to someone else and the guy Clive had sent to Dubai had succeeded in snorting half the coke between himself and some girls he was trying to impress.
"It's a sickener, Tom. I'm an idiot for relying upon others when I should just do it myself. And I was just getting fixed towards taking 15,000 trips to Hong Kong and coming away with a quarter million dollars."
It seems every smuggler is forever working towards the Final Deal, the one pay-off that will set them up for the rest of their days without having to risk their ass ever again. But for most it's like trying to ride their bicycle to the moon. The dream never seems to meet the reality - For the simple reason that things don't tend to go wrong in dreams.
Every businessman knows how tricky it is to rely upon others to come through with their end of the deal and nowhere is this more apt than in illegal business. Clive takes 1000 pills to sell in Malta; upon arrival he finds that at least half of them are duds. The supplier in Amsterdam is extremely apologetic and pledges to give him 5000 trips at cost price.
However, upon his return, Clive ends up waiting around three weeks in a hotel for the promised merchandise to materialise. The hotel is fifty dollars a day, the mobile swallows more money than he can count as he has to explain to everyone else around the world why he's held up.
And so by the time the deal does come through, more than half the profits have been eaten up by expenses and he's missed out on all the other good options he had cooking. And that's not to mention the strain on the nerves and health through the whole frustrating story.
The lone maverick smuggler can pick and choose his partners in crime but he'd better chose well. He does have the option to cut out any time he wants but after he's had the taste of such potential profits and the accompanying lifestyle, it's hard to see him going back to working behind a bar for £5.60 an hour.
I was warned as a teenager of the perils of making easy money too soon in life. It's only a few years later in life that I've come to understand the advice. And whilst I have seen retired dope-runners who are now set for life in a tropical paradise, they are few and far between. Most of them, like Clive, are still running and running and running.
And sooner or later, most of them get caught.