When you first arrive in New York, you do what all tourists do. You visit the Statue of Liberty and the Freedom Tower, take a walk around Central Park, spend late evenings and nights at Times Square, and, among other things, visit museums and art galleries. You can’t help but marvel at the city, at its efficiency and luxury. But as the weeks pass by, you begin to notice other things. You see, for instance, that the people dressed as superheroes on Times Square, when they relax in the by-lanes and unmask themselves to smoke cigarettes, are rarely ever White men but mostly Mexicans. Sometimes the superheroes are drunk in the afternoons, and I once saw a Statue of Liberty and Iron Man get into a fistfight over sharing tips. You go to Atlantic City, once billed as the East Coast’s answer to Las Vegas, and find several of its casinos closed down, and spend the evening chatting with an elderly card dealer who is worried she won’t have a job in the next few weeks. You could meet an old acquaintance who once spent several weeks in prison for overstaying his visa, but now has a great corporate job and is living the American dream. You could frequent ghettos like Chinatown, and discover the best and most exotic dishes of the city—and an unusual beverage called teacoffee, made by mixing half a cup of tea with half a cup of coffee. You begin to appreciate the city more then. You see it for what it is. You start feeling its cosmopolitan buzz. And you begin to understand what promises the city’s streets whisper into so many ears around the world.
By the last week of my holiday, I supposed I had done most of what a tourist could do in the city. But an old acquaintance who I was yet to catch up with was bullish that our first meeting should be over something new. “Have you tried paintball?” he asked over the phone after much thought. I admitted I hadn’t.
Up till then, I had imagined paintball as a game played by overgrown kids. Where adults, either as a corporate team building exercise or just for plain fun, dress up as military personnel, imagine a combat situation and shoot one another. Not very different from the first-person-shooter- videogame fantasy, I used to think. So it was only after much mock condescension that I agreed.
So we travelled that Sunday on a particularly warm and bright August morning from Queens to a distant paintball location in Long Island, stopping only at a solitary paintball supply store for gear. Inside the establishment, displayed in glass cases and mounted on walls were paintball guns that looked and felt exactly like real high-calibre firearms. There were automatics that fired several rounds in the span of a few seconds, high-impact shotguns and rifles, and even small Berettas and handguns that you could carry in a holster or squeeze into a ladies purse. Elsewhere, there were shelves of ammunition canisters and belts, smoke grenades, masks with thermal lenses, and cartons of paintball rounds placed one on top of another. A strange whirring and hissing noise constantly emerged from a nitrogen tank, which, I learnt, is used for paintball propulsion. In one corner, two large muscled men, wearing dog tags and vests, were tinkering with paintball guns and sharing war stories from old paintball adventures.
It was all very amusing to me, until one of them learnt that I had never played paintball before. He yelled across the counter to his friend, “Hey brother, did you hear this? This guy ain’t ever played before.”
“No way,” the other replied. “He’s gonna get massacred.”
Paintball, as I came to realise, is all testosterone and American brawn. Outside the entrance of the paintball facility is a huge US army enlistment advertisement. As we walk inside, the littered paintballs on the ground and the asphalt popping under our feet, all around us are big strong men who could have just walked off a Rambo set. Goggled and masked, armed with sophisticated militaristic toys, some of them with leaves strapped around their bodies as jungle camouflage, they shoot one another in play aggression. And every splatter that hits a man is followed by a raucous celebration.
But, to my surprise, the game is also highly strategic. The team that I am put into for my first game spends 15 minutes discussing and practising strategies. They draw a layout of the playing field on the ground, discuss shooting angles, what positions to take, and which areas to target. One of them, a middle-aged South East Asian player with a deep scar across his right cheek, assumes the role of the leader and decides that the hull of the aircraft that is part of the field’s layout should be our command centre.
“Got it?” he asks. And I shake my head in a vigorous nod, although I have got absolutely nothing.
With a vest for protection, a mask over my face, which I am told not to remove at any cost lest a paintball hit me and make me go blind (or worse, die), an ordinary gun and several caskets of ammunition strapped as a belt, I descend into the battle field. My friend carries an AK47 like automatic gun, apart from a handgun, several rounds of ammunition and a few smoke grenades in his backpack.
Once the whistle goes, a chaotic splattering ensues. Players on both ends of the field scatter in a pre-planned fashion. They try to advance from barrier to barrier, creating more favourable angles from which to shoot down opponents. Strategy, forged beforehand, is carried out on the run. When someone gets shot, another quickly fills his position. And above the din of the splatter of paintballs, you can hear the players shouting directions and warnings at one another.
I stay back, crawled under a box inside the aircraft hull, too afraid to venture out or even look up. I simply shoot pellets of paintballs without even aiming, perhaps even hitting a few of my own teammates. When I finally muster the courage, I crawl to a tiny window and try to get a look. All I see, from the visor of my mask, is something bright and round like a marble headed towards me. And in the next second, there is a splat and the smell of paint all over me. I’m out and I’ve barely lasted 10 minutes. In the next game in another field, I am the first one out. Shot, again, at my face, within the first five minutes of the game.
Our third game is a World War II setting and I begin to understand how my earlier assumption of the game was flawed. It isn’t just a game for overgrown kids. The game demands quickness and fitness, but also great hand-eye-coordination and a perfect engagement of all your senses. It creates the thrill and alertness of a kill-or-be-killed scenario that we otherwise never experience. But as I crawl under vehicles and muddy areas; run, hunched, into trenches and barracks, shooting, but all the same, also coming under heavy attack, these sober assessments of the game are best kept for another time. Most of my team, including me, is now holed up atop a small mound, our heads ducked under bushes and rocks, surrounded on all sides by opposing players, as the overwhelming whizz of paintballs fills the morning air. Anytime now, there is going to be a charge and each of us is going to get shot.
I can’t help but feel miserable. All this exertion and fatigue has left me gasping for air. The equipment feels too heavy to lug around, and my heavy breathing has clouded the visor of my mask. I realise then that paintball isn’t like a videogame, it is a war. Suddenly, smoke grenades go off, and opponents emerge out of nowhere in the smoke, hollering orders to give up or get shot. I raise my hands to signal surrender, but despite rules that forbid people being shot at a distance of 15 feet or less, my friend gets shot in the unprotected region of his neck, and I’m shot at my exposed arm. Struck by a projectile travelling at around 320 kmph from a distance of less than 10 feet at an unprotected area, we are bruised, and soon even bleeding. We return from the field, tossing our weapons and masks, promising not to play another round.
But 15 minutes later, I’m back in a new playing field, a pink ribbon around my arm to distinguish me from the opposing team that wears blue, but this time determined to last. The game gives you a terrific high, especially when you rush into a reckless shootout. But I have by now realised that the more experienced players tend to hold themselves back a bit, letting the amateurs finish themselves off, before advancing for a final assault. So even as my teammates press forward, I find myself a large ditch in which to hide and occasionally shoot from.
When I get hit by a projectile, I cheat and hurriedly wipe the paint off my shirt. I am so determined to be the last man standing that I decide to not even look up and watch the rest of the game’s proceedings. Fifteen minutes or so pass, all shooting ceases, and I realise that everyone must have been shot. But when there is no sign of a whistle to call off the game, I know that someone from the opposing team must still be around, perhaps hidden just like me. I look around and discover my mistake. It’s not just me from my team who has lasted. Before the game began, I had seen a pretty young Latin American woman, the only woman in the paintball facility that day. And I now realise she is part of the game too, and she has hidden under a ditch not too far from mine. I wave at her and she waves back at me. She appears anxious. So I take charge of the situation. To better coordinate a final assault on the last member from the opposing team, I signal instructions at her. I will run towards the enemy and she is to shoot anyone who reveals himself to strike me. She waves back in agreement.
But as I run, the adolescent recreation of John Rambo in First Blood: Part 2 on my mind, the splatter of my paintballs at an invisible enemy creating enough din for anyone from an opposing team to locate me, not a single projectile is fired from the opposite end. I turn around in confusion to see a smile appear on her lips. She picks up her weapon, and as I get hit ball after ball, I spot—to my embarrassment—the blue ribbon of an opponent strapped around her arm.