Wednesday, June 29, 2011



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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

2010/11 Incredible India Adventure - Part X

11 December 2010 – Saturday – Bombay, India
We awoke very early at Sandeep’s place. Very early, indeed. The chickens weren’t even halfway through their second to last dream.
But what choice did we have?
What sounded like a football stadium full of riotous fans drifted past our window at god knows what hour and woke us all up! It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard that didn’t have wings and turbo engines attached to it. It turned out to be a procession of Hare Krishna followers on their way to the temple, singing and chanting and beating their drums like they were trying to scare the sunrise away.
But I didn’t know that then.
What I did know, after being slammed out of the best sleep I ever remember having, was that Sandeep’s apartment had been invaded by an unruly mob of gangsters who were dancing and singing around my bed. (please don’t ask me why I thought gangsters would be singing and dancing around my bed at 6 in the morning, but in my groggy state, I was pretty certain they were). Sandeep came running in to tell us not to worry and that the Hare Krishna people go by at that time every morning. When my poor heart began beating normally again, I thought it strange that he didn’t tell us the night before, you know, give us a little heads-up or something. I could have prepared a small pile of shoes, or rocks, or a tub of hot oil or something that would fit through the metal grill on his windows and cause a lot of pain.

That being said, it was actually a good thing we awoke early because we knew we had to get to the domestic terminal for our flight to Goa, but we had no idea how long it would take.
So we gave ourselves three hours.
We packed up, said goodbye to Sandeep and his family, piled everything into the waiting cab, and set off for the airport. (The giant-sized, completely overstuffed suitcase fit nicely into the luggage bin on the roof of the cab. It was so big and heavy that it didn’t even need to be strapped down, said the poor, out of breath driver, who had to drag that miserable, deformed beast down 5 flights of stairs and hoist it up on top all by himself). When he was finally able to stop his poor bony legs from trembling, it was on our way we went, up to our necks in traffic, of course, but happy to be on the road.
It wasn’t long after that when GoAir, our airline to Goa, sent R an SMS message saying the plane was delayed by two hours. We hadn’t been on the road for 15 minutes. Had they sent it 15 minutes earlier, we could have hung out at Sandeep’s place an hour or two longer and not had to rush out of the house the way we did. And there was no way we were going to turn around and go back. That would be silly. I guess what it really meant was that we definitely weren’t going to miss our flight due to heavy traffic and that we could have driven to Goa from Mumbai in less time then it was going to take to fly there today. How stupid is that?

As it turned out, we made it to the airport in 25 minutes flat.

You know it’s going to be a great day when you give yourself 3 hours to do some menial task and it ends up taking a fraction of that time to get that thing done. Normally, you would cheer and think how cool you were that you got something done so quickly. We, on the other hand, groaned. It doesn’t matter how ‘nice’ an airport is, how modern or how many fun shops it has to poke around in, waiting anywhere for six hours is a huge pain in the ass. Literally. Especially when you’re in a great city like Mumbai and all you really want to do is walk around the city and take pictures.
And so, without ever taking the camera out of my bag, we waited and waited and waited some more. And when we were done with all that waiting, we changed seats and waited even more.
Finally, when we used up all the waiting time assigned to us by a god who didn’t give a shit about our asses, it was time to get into line to check-in. We stood up, rubbed our weary eyes and numb butts, stretched our arms and legs, and then began collecting all of our belongings, piling them back on the 3 wheeled trolley that had been straining the entire morning under the magnificent weight of the giant-sized, completely overstuffed suitcase. We also began steeling ourselves for the security check ordeal that awaited us after checking in.
It was right then that a booming voice came over the terminal loudspeakers telling everyone they had to immediately evacuate the building in a quiet and orderly fashion and that the entire terminal was being cleared.

What??? What the hell was going on with that? We had a flight to catch and fun to have…

But there was no time to think about any of those things because out came the big guys in military gear who pushed us out of the terminal the way those white-gloved guys in Japan do when they cram all the people into the subway cars, only I never saw a white pair of gloves anywhere..
We were quickly ushered out the front doors and into the massive parking lot across from the terminal entrances. As we all poured out of the terminal, the Bomb Squad pulled up right in front of us in their fancy trucks, and out jumped an entire battalion of heavily armed, heavily protected soldiers. It seemed to me that there was a kind of unhurried, nonchalance about everything they did, so I figured it must have been a test of the evacuation process and not a real bomb scare after all.
Or not.
It’s entirely likely that there actually was a suspected device somewhere inside the terminal and this was how it was responded to. It’s kind of how they respond to everything here.
Either way, I was happy to be out of the terminal while the bomb guys were inside. As I always say, it’s better to be outside alive than blown to bits and dead somewhere inside.
And so it was outside that we continued to do what we had nearly perfected inside – namely, waiting. We stood in the parking lot with all the other travelers, the aircrews, the terminal staff and everyone else who worked in and around the giant terminal, shuffling impatiently from leg to leg and trying to shield our heads from the hot sun. Myself, H, R, and The Little One, all huddled as best we could beneath a nearly dead palm tree. The poor thing possessed exactly three scrawny, almost brown, leaves that provided absolutely no shade whatsoever. I suppose, on a positive note, you could say that at least we weren’t sitting. We already did our quota of that for this entire trip.
I had no idea how long it was going to take before the bomb guys left and we got the “All Clear” signal to return to the terminal, but I was trying to position myself as best I could once it came, without letting anyone know that was what I was doing.
You see, whenever you enter an airport terminal here in India, you must first pass through armed military guards at the front entrance. The guards check your flight ticket and your passport, they look you up and down, and if they are satisfied, then they let you in. But it can take a good 3 or 4 minutes for a group of 3 people and a baby, like us. Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind tight security at airports, it makes all of us just a little bit safer, but I knew, as we stood outside in the parking lot with the thousands and thousands of others, that if we weren’t one of the first ones to enter back into the terminal, we could well be lined up for hours while the security guards check each and every person trying to re-enter the building.
So as soon as the signal was given to let everyone back inside, I broke away from the pack like a race horse and sped along, as quickly as I could, the suitcase trolley out in front of me like a battering ram. Through the crowds I weaved, across the sidewalks and the 3 lanes of traffic, bumping up and down against the curbs, nearly mowing down everything in my path. I have no idea why the suitcases didn’t all come crashing down on top of me because I was pushing that trolley like a mad man. I whizzed by as many people as I could, and finally ducked into the nearest entrance that wasn’t yet crowded with people. Once inside, I jammed my cart into the very end of the line that had formed there, nearly breaking several pairs of legs in the process. It was only then that I looked around to see if H and R and The Little One were anywhere in sight. I saw them, away off in the distance, with shocked looks on their faces running frantically to catch up.
Huffing and puffing and trying to catch my own breath, I was very pleased with myself that I had actually managed to get inside the big sliding pre-doors to the terminal before I hit the line-up. As I stood there and waited for the others to join me, I couldn’t help but turn around again and see the swarms of people that had suddenly amassed around the big sliding doors outside. It was going to take them ages to get inside. From where we entered, it only took about 10 minutes to make it through the armed guards, which was fantastic.
Once back inside the terminal, we dashed for the GoAir check-in line, which, unfortunately, was quite crowded by the time we got there. The irony, of course, was that there was absolutely no one in the line as we were preparing to check-in before the evacuation. It took another 35 minutes to make it to the check-in counter and check our luggage and get our seats.
Once we had our boarding passes, we walked the entire length of the terminal, took a hard left at the end of the check-in counters and made our way to the proper security clearance area, which everyone must pass through before moving towards their gate. By the time we got there, both the Gents and the Ladies lines where impossibly long. As a result, it took H and R and The Little One almost exactly the same amount of time to pass through as I did. That’s how busy it was. Usually the Ladies line is incredibly short and H always has to wait on the other side for me while the Gents line slowly snakes its way through. But this time I reached the X-ray machine a good 5 minutes before H and R and The Little One. It took 40 long minutes of shuffling forward, a few inches at a time, to get there, but I was first. Woo-hoooo!
When I finally made it to the front of the line, I fought my way through the crowd of men huddled around the x-ray machine.
I always find it shocking that there ever only appears to be one lousy x-ray machine working at every airport terminal security check-point I’ve ever been to in India. It’s so typical. It explains why the security check-in procedure is always such a harrowing ordeal - and why the crowds are always so massive.
I bumped and crashed into nearly everyone as I struggled to get the carry-on bag and my camera bag up on the roller wheels and watched, triumphantly, as they were both sucked into the bowels of the x-ray machine. From there I had to shoulder my way through the crowd of men around the rectangular door-frame metal detector.
Then, out of nowhere, just as I am about to mount the 2 steps of the detector, I feel a tap on my left shoulder. I turn around and it’s H. She grabs me by the arm and drags me out of the thick of things.
“We are in the wrong line.” She said.
“What?” I said, completely stunned.
“We are at the wrong gate,” she said. “We have to go back and find the right gate.”
“Are you kidding me?” I said, “I just put my bags through the x-ray machine.”
“Go through and get them,” she said. “We’ll wait for you over there.” She pointed to bare spot along the wall to the left of the teeming mass of people waiting to pass through security.
She said it just like that, “go through and get them,” like it was the simplest task in the world, like she was asking me to pick up milk on my way home from work. Couldn’t she see the hundreds of people I would have to fight my way through to get to the metal detector, grab my bags off the x-ray machine rollers, explain to the armed security guards that I was at the wrong gate, fight my way back through the crowd of men waiting to pass through the metal detector, and then fight my way even harder through the endless mass of waiting men squeezed so tightly together that air doesn’t even pass through them? Couldn’t she see that that is what I would have to do to “go through and get them”?
It could take me a week to do all that.
I suddenly wasn’t in a happy mood anymore.
But what choice did I have? So into the crowd I waded, hunched over, my weight low to the ground, like a football player. I pushed through to the front of the metal detector line and passed through as soon as a space became available.
The people I butted in front of weren’t happy, either.
I first had to plead with the guards who frisk you that I wasn’t really trying to avoid being searched, but that I was just passing through because I needed to collect my bags since I was at the wrong gate. They actually seemed amused by my frantic mutterings. I think it was because they knew what a frightening mass of humanity I would have to fight my way through to get out of there. So they let me pass. The x-ray people also seemed amused and let me take my bags off the rollers without a peep, and, with the sweat dripping off me, I draped my camera bag over my shoulder and picked up the carry-on bag and began to push my way through the huge crowds of people again. It was a horribly awkward procedure because I couldn’t drag the wheeled carry-on bag behind me since there were just too many people around, so I had to clutch it against my chest. My camera bag rested on my right hip and basically crashed into every single person I passed. After about the one hundredth “I’m sorry,” or “excuse me,” I finally stopped saying anything to anyone and just put my head down and forced my way through, bumping into every single person who stood anywhere near me. I felt kind of bad about being such an inconsiderate brute, but not too bad, of course - it was their fault, after all, for being in my way when I had a bloody plane to catch!
When I finally met H and R and The Little One at our chosen rendezvous site, I looked like I had just run a gauntlet. My clothes were disheveled, my hair was a mess, I was sweating profusely, and I was completely exhausted.
So much for ‘go through and get them.’
It damn near killed me.
But I was not dead yet and we still had a plane to catch. So once I caught my breath, we raced back out into the main terminal in search for the correct gate.
We searched.
And we searched.
We looked high and low.
We checked signs and billboards, anything that had something written on it.
But we couldn’t find it.
We began asking everyone we came across where the correct gate might be, but no one seemed to know, not even the stupid security guards! We kept checking our boarding passes to confirm the gate number, we raced this way and that, scrutinizing every sign we saw. But the gate didn’t seem to be anywhere. We still had about 40 minutes before our flight took off, but we certainly didn’t want to miss the plane now because of some small technicality – like being unable to find the stupid gate on time. I mean, how fucked up would that be?
But there was no gate.
We checked everywhere.
Nowhere in the main terminal was there a secondary entrance to another gate.
It just wasn’t there!
But wait…
Hmmmm…. there was an escalator up to the second level… But that was just for the Café Coffee Day coffee shop… wasn’t it?
There were no signs or anything indicating it was the way to another gate or anything, so how could it possible be…?
It was right then that the giant light bulb finally went off and all three of us turned to one another with owl eyes.
Without needing to say a word, we dashed off together towards the escalator.
Yes, it was to access the coffee shop, we could see it as we slowly rode the escalator up, but on the other side of the coffee shop, which you couldn’t see from the terminal floor, was a long semi-circular corridor that led to what appeared to be the back of the terminal. As we ascended, we looked all around the escalator for some kind of indicator that this was the correct way to the second gate, but there nothing, anywhere! How incompetent does an organization need to be not to clearly mark access to something you would think would be as important as this in an air terminal?
Oh wait, this is India!
Of course… The signs had probably been removed for cleaning, and some genius forgot to put them back. Duh…

As soon as we got up to the second level we raced past the coffee shop and down the long corridor, which took a gentle curve to the right, so you couldn’t see where it led. But once we got halfway down, the corridor opened up and right there at the end was the 2nd security check-in, and behind that, lo and behold, was the gate number we had been driving ourselves insane to find.
It was as though we had discovered El Dorado!
Wooooooo-Hooooooooo! All of us cheered.
I can’t believe it took us that long to find the gate. No wonder no one in the building knew where the hell it was. It was so totally and completely hidden from view that you needed a bloody bloodhound to find it.
(My god, traveling in this country can be stressful!)
I suppose if one were looking for a ‘silver lining’ in this little adventure, it would have to be that the line-up for the security check was astonishingly short. Compared to the madness downstairs, here it was a cake-walk.
So we passed through security without a hitch, found a nice comfortable row of seats to sit down on and there I promptly collapsed. I was exhausted. I fell instantly into a dead sleep. But it wasn’t 5 minutes later that the announcement was made for boarding. H said she shook me for a good 30 seconds before I responded. She thought she might need to call a medic.
As we dragged ourselves off the seats and took our place in line, I looked around at the rest of the travelers and thought that there was no way to tell us, who had pretty much moved into the terminal early this morning, from all the others who had arrived there an hour or two ago. We all looked the same.
The only difference, of course, was that all of our souls were scarred beyond recognition.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

2010/11 Incredible India Adventure - Part IX

10 December 2010 – Friday – Bombay, India
We awoke this morning just after 7am. By 9am we were back on the road with our cool car and driver. Our intention was to first go to Juhu for a walk on the beach, and then to the Juhu Costa Coffee for coffee, like H and I used to do every morning when I stayed here a couple of years back. The only problem was that it took so much time to get anywhere near Juhu from the Guesthouse at Chembur, that we scratched the beach idea altogether and went straight to Costa Coffee instead. We had breakfast and then sat for an hour chatting before leaving R alone to finish a PowerPoint presentation for her work. H and I and The Little One decided to go to Lokhandwala to change some more money (again on the black market) and leave R to work in privacy.
Getting to Lokhandwala, which wasn’t that far away, again took an impossible amount of time. The traffic was snarled and thick, it didn’t matter what road we took.
How does anyone get anywhere in this blasted city? It’s impossible. And what if you really had to travel great distances? Man, you’d be fucked. You’d grow old on the roads. Literally. Yes, it would probably be faster to walk, but since there is no place to walk, except on the roads with the rest of the insanity, you’d end up dead for sure. You’d either get whacked by some idiot, or by exposure to the heavy pollution, which drifts up from every roadway like the skirt of a sultry whore and settles thick over the entire city like her discarded lovers. And the last thing you want to do is end up injured somewhere in need of medical attention. I can’t tell you how many ambulances I’ve seen stuck in heavy traffic, lights flashing, sirens wailing, stopped dead, just like the rest of us, as dead as their precious cargo is slowly becoming in the stretcher behind them. You just can’t win here. And don’t think I never thought about faster, alternative routes. The thing is they really don’t exist. If there were secret, faster routes that hardly anyone knew about or used, our driver knew them. He knew the city better than most people know their own sock drawers. But even taking quick routes into account, the crazy idea of trying to get from point A to Point B in this city is like a serious bad dream. It is like one of those nightmares everyone has when they are running like the dickens, pumping their legs like a madman, but not moving anywhere.
That’s exactly how it is here.
When we finally reached Lokhandwala, the car stopped right out in front of the money-changer and in we went. Once the transaction was completed, H decided she needed a new pair of sandals and knew exactly where to go for them. She told the driver that we’d be back in 10 min and headed across the busy street to the shop. After about 30 min, however, we finally found what we wanted and headed back to the car.
The only problem was that the car wasn’t where we left it.
It was gone.
Not only that, but we had left our cell phone in the diaper bag, which was the perfect place to keep the phone during our travels, except that today, because we were only dashing across the street for the sandals, we left it in the back seat of the car.
It meant that we had no way of contacting the driver.
So we stood there like idiots for the longest time, looking up and down the busy street like we were watching the ball at a tennis match, praying that he miraculously appear before us like he always seemed to do. It was an odd predicament to be in, like when you’re a kid and you lose your mother in a crowd. Now you know you should never lose your mother in a crowd, and you have this sinking feeling in your stomach that you are probably going to get in a whole lot of trouble for doing it, and, like a lost child, all you really want is for your mother to step out of the crowd of strangers all around you, scoop you up in her soft, warm arms, and take you home. But you somehow know, even at that tender age, that’s not going to happen and all you are left with is to sit down on the ground and cry your eyes out because you have no idea what to do next.
That is exactly where we stood.
At the side of the road, like two miserable children with a baby, cranking our heads to the left and right, ready, at any second, to collapse onto the curb and start bawling our eyes out.
But even the baby knew that wasn’t going to work.
So we needed to think of something else fast. All of my instincts told me to wait right there and not move at all, but H had an idea and ran off towards the shoe shop we just visited, thinking the driver might be waiting outside it somewhere on the street. I wasn’t sure how the driver could possibly know which shoe store we went in to, so I volunteered to wait on the corner, in plain sight, hoping that if I stand out in the open he will spot me. There was no bloody way on earth I could ever hope to spot him with all the people and crazy traffic buzzing around me.
So for over an hour I stood there on the corner with The Little One, trying my hardest to make myself as conspicuous as I possibly could. But how could I be any more conspicuous than I already was?
My bright idea didn’t seem to be working at all.
H kept pacing up and down the street, hoping against hope that, if he was there, she could spot him and his car. But that didn’t seem to be working either.
Finally, when H came and joined me, I suggested we turn around and go back to the money-changer, which was only halfway up the block, thinking that if he was anywhere, he might be there waiting for us.
It seemed like such a simple solution to our predicament.
Why then did it take so long for us to come up with it?
Sure enough, as soon as we showed up outside the money-changer, he came running up to us, waving his arms.
I have never been more happy to see someone in my entire life.
It turned out that he was chased out of his original parking spot by the Bombay Traffic Police and just moved the car up to one of the side streets ahead.
But while waiting for us there, he fell asleep.
I figured it could have turned out a lot worse than it did, so both H and I agreed that we were just thankful we found him and that we wouldn’t drag him out of the car and shoot him dead for making us wait.
He took us back to the car and then drove us all the way back to Costa Coffee to pick up R, who was understandably upset we had taken so long, and from there we drove all the way up to Inorbit Mall. We had a bunch of stuff to get for the wedding in Kolkata in 4 days time, so we chose to go there as we’d been there before the last time I was in Bombay and knew what to expect, plus it was on the way to H’s NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) friend, whom we had planned to meet with in the evening. Sandeep had planned a big party for H and had invited a whole bunch of H’s old classmates to his place to celebrate H being back in India and the birth of The Little One. It was actually a really great thing he did for H and us. He worked very hard to pull the whole thing together and it really was a whole lot of fun. It was a good thing we agreed to spend the night at Sandeep’s house, however, because by the time the party wound down, it was after 1am, and we wouldn’t have reached the Guesthouse until 3am.
But we all had a really great time that night. It was a great party.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010/11 Incredible India Adventure - Part VIII

09 December 2010 – Thursday – Guesthouse, Bombay, India
So we arrived at Bombay Central Station over an hour late, which is unusual for the Rajdhani Express. It’s usually right on time. We gathered all of our belongings from the berth – except the giant-sized, completely overstuffed suitcase, of course, we waited for a professional to come and collect that – we said goodbye to the Sardar and his wife, disembarked and headed out to find our car and driver. Amidst the noisy rush and roar of the main exit from the train station, mixed with the throngs of people and taxis and vendors, we somehow found him. His name was Anwar and he picked us up in a big, brand new, shiny white Mercedes something or other and we set off for the Guesthouse.
Heading out onto the busy streets from Bombay Central, H and R and The Little One clambered into the back seat while I took the front seat and was blown away once again by the colourful insanity of downtown Bombay. Delhi is just not like this. For one thing, you don’t see the hundreds of women walking in brightly coloured saris everywhere like you do here. I also couldn’t help noticing that the skyscrapers around the train station are really breathtaking and magnificently huge. With the way almost everything is built in India, and the way you always hear of buildings crashing down and killing all sorts of people, it always amazes me that these buildings not only manage to get built, but that they don’t come tumbling down, too.
At one point in the drive through the busy Bombay streets, Anwar says, “Jail” to me and nods his head to the left in the direction of these high, dirty grey, unadorned walls that look to be a hundred years old, but could easily be, based on the kind of cement and construction techniques used in the city, as young as 30 years old. He says “jail” again and I ask him, off the top of my head, “Which jail? Is this the Arthur Road Jail?” He nodded and said it was.
No way! I thought! The Arthur Road Jail is the one Gregory David Roberts was sent to and made famous in his book Shantaram! It was one of the places I wanted to see in this visit, but never thought I would get a chance to. First of all, seeing it on the map, I imagined it was this huge, sprawling prison complex surrounded by vacant fields and lots and lots of barbed wire. If this was the place, it certainly never looked anything like that. What it did look like was pretty much everything else in Bombay – an old and decrepit place surrounded by ancient trees, parked cars, vendors selling fruits and pan, and the non-stop whirl of traffic all around it, like a circle of wagons. If Anwar didn’t point it out to me, I would never have known what it was.
It takes us well over an hour and a half to reach the guesthouse in the district of Chembur, which is basically midway up from the southern tip of Colaba, in the middle of the long peninsula of Bombay – far to the east of Bandra and even further south east of Juhu and Versova. I’ve never been that far inland in Bombay, so it was a completely different experience for me driving through all these new, never before seen areas of the city. Mind you, there is a pan-Indian look to every city or town in India. They all look pretty much the same from the road.
When we finally reached, we turned off the busy main street and had to pass through a huge wrought iron gate with many armed security guards and then we drove up this long quiet street lined on both sides by parks with green, well manicured lawns and old growth trees. We made a right turn and drove up a long sloping driveway that curves around to the left and eventually arrive at this beautiful old brick building at the top of a rather large hill. The Guesthouse is perched upon a mountaintop that, if it weren’t for the huge old trees surrounding us, one would have a 360-degree view of the entire city. It was magnificent.
We basically freshened up a little, then jumped back in the car and headed over to Bandra to meet H’s school friend, Rick Roy. That short drive, which anywhere else in the world would have taken 15 minutes max, took over an hour. Being away from Bombay, I had somehow forgotten what Bombay traffic was like. It’s crazy. There is no end to it. It’s always thick and heavy and moves at the pace of a choking, diesel-fumed, half-dead snail. It doesn’t matter what time of day or night. It makes travelling anywhere in the city a living hell.
We finally reached Bandra and met Rick Roy at this posh little Italian restaurant, Basilico. We had a quick lunch with him – it took us so long to reach that he had to dash off to a work-related meeting – and afterwards we headed over to Bandra Bandstand to watch the sunset, like H and I used to do whenever I was with her in Bombay.
It was relaxing walking along the bandstand with H and R, and The Little One, as the sun slowly set behind us.
At one point we passed this long-haired white guy with a gaggle of teenage Indian girls chasing after him. Trying to be funny, when he saw us and passed by, he mentioned something about “pro-choice,” meaning, of course, that we shouldn’t be having a baby, or the baby should have been aborted. I was incensed. I wanted to run back and drive my fist down the miserable piece of shit’s mouth. I swore that, as we walked back the opposite direction, that if I saw him again, I would make him apologize to my daughter for such a piece of crap comment.
After the sun had gone down as far as it could (in Bombay, the sun always disappears behind a curtain of smog a good 6 inches above the horizon), we had the driver drop us at the cinema complex near to the Guesthouse in Chembur.
We watched the newest Harry Potter movie.
It was actually easy to follow because it was shown with English subtitles. Usually I miss so much of the Harry Potter movies because I can never understand what the hell they are saying. Having subtitles, like we watch everything at home, helps with understanding the movie so much better.
Anyway, once the movie ended, we headed back to the Guesthouse and straight to bed. We had a long list of stuff we wanted to do in the morning.
We didn’t know it then, but it just wasn’t going to happen as planned.

2010/11 Incredible India Adventure - Part VII

08 December 2010 – Wednesday – aboard the Rajdhani Express to Bombay
Today we caught the 4:30pm Rajdhani Express to Bombay.
H and R ran out in the morning to pick up the tickets in, of all places, the Jama Masjid Market area where everything is fucking nuts, whilst I spent the morning with The Little One at R’s place.
Now you can call me a big dope for thinking it, but I was under the impression that the trip was all booked and paid for, seats assigned, and the whole deal signed, sealed and delivered, and that all H and R had to do was pick up the pre-booked tickets at the travel agent and we were on our way.
But that’s just not the way things were, I’m afraid.
It soon became apparent, once we were all settled on board the train in our assigned births that something wasn’t quite right. For all intents and purposes, everything looked just the way it always looks when we take the Rajdhani - the crowded isles, everyone bustling back and forth looking for their seats, the red shirted porters dragging huge suitcases everywhere – I could detect no change from all the other times we’ve ridden the trains in India.
I remember looking up at the red-circled numbers on either side of the window and wondering why there were three numbers stacked one on top of the other. I was pretty sure there were normally two. It must include the seats on the other side of the isle, I thought to myself, confident that I had broken the code.
Then H began saying that as soon as the others arrive, we will speak to them and get them to change seats.
What the fu….?????
For some reason, every time I asked her if we were in the right seats, she avoided the question and told me that when the TC (Ticket Collector) comes by she will speak with him and get him to exchange the seats with the others.
“Wait a second, wait a second!” I said. “Are these not our proper seats?”
“Well… um… No.” she finally confessed. “But when the others arrive, we will just get them to change seats with us. I do this all the time.”
I was suddenly jolted out of the relaxed and comfortable slumber I had gently fallen into since we secured our seats on the train and sat down. Now I looked back up at the three numbers and then up at the top bunk. For the first time I noticed the chains with the L-shaped clip at the end attached to the metal railing on the very top bunk which I had never seen on our 2 tiered trains. I noticed that the cushioned backrest we were leaning against also had hinges on it.
Holy shit! I thought to myself, we aren’t in a 2nd Class A/C 2 tiered sleeper car like we usually are! No! We are in a 3rd Class A/C 3 tiered sleeper car! Which means that instead of sharing the berth with R and H and perhaps one other person, it meant that we were going to be squeezed in with another 3 fucking people we don’t even know!!! What kind of bloody trip was this going to be???
As I sat there looking around in stunned silence, H whispered to me that our seats were actually by the window and not in the actual berth part at all. She mentioned again that once she speaks with the TC, everything will be fine and that I have nothing to worry about.
I think she could see that I was beginning to panic.
That was around the exact same moment these six burly Indian gents stopped in the aisle right beside us and dropped their suitcases on the floor. For about seven seconds they stared at the four of us sitting there with enormous owl eyes, obviously waiting for us to do something. The slow, painful moment was finally broken when one of the men, clutching his ticket in his hand, stepped into the birth and, moving my coat hanging on a hook above the window to the side, confirmed that they were, in fact, in the right berth.
We had to move.
I was completely and utterly shocked.
It wasn’t so much that we were being unceremoniously tossed out of the comfort of the berth I believed rightfully belonged to us! It was that I simply could not believe that the travel arrangements were not absolutely secured and booked weeks ago. We knew we were going to be travelling that particular day, why the hell were the tickets left to the last possible moment – that very morning we were leaving, of all bloody time??
But this, believe it or not, was only the beginning.
Things were about to take a turn for the worse.
By the time we dragged all of our stuff out of the berth – including our giant-sized, completely overstuffed suitcase, the train was jam-packed! It was almost like being in a busy shopping mall with the number of people constantly coming and going.
H checked the tickets and said that the two side berths were ours. H and I on the first one and R in the one next to it.
I couldn’t help noticing that our berth was right by the door. I’ve slept in that position a couple of times in the past and it is, by far, the worst place on the train. Every time someone comes in or out of the bogie, the opening door smashes against the bunk, which, invariably is always about 3 inches from my head. And every single time it happens, I wake up.
Oh crap, I thought. It looks like I’m not going to get any sleep tonight. Just my luck.
That’s fine, I thought more, perhaps I’ll read or do something else to wile away the hours.
Since H had The Little One, it meant that she would, of course, get the lower bunk, and I would take the upper. I could live with that. So I grabbed my bag and was prepared to lug it up onto the top bunk when I noticed someone had left a backpack up there already. I turned to the crowded berth behind me and asked, “Is someone sitting here already?” One of the boys in the birth looked up and said, yes me. “Oh, OK, so sorry.” And I left my bag on the floor. I sat down next to H on the lower bunk and said, in a calm and collected voice, “What the hell is going on?”
She checked the printout from the travel agent and then checked the berth numbers again. “This is weird,” she said. “According to the printout, our seats are facing each other and R’s is the next one over – all of them lower bunk seats.”
I asked here what the hell she meant by that, and then R grabbed the printout and started reading through it.
“Oh. My. God.” She finally said after 30 seconds. Her hands dropped to her side and her face had gong completely white. “That bastard! Do you know what that chutya has done? He’s booked us single seats – not bunks at all! We don’t even get to lie down this trip!”
What the hell were we going to do if we couldn’t even lie down? How were we going to make it through the night? And with a small baby and all? We were doomed!
All of our heads were spinning – the prospect of a long and sleepless night sitting bolt upright was too gruesome a thought to even consider. What began as an exciting adventure trip to Bombay was quickly turning into the worst nightmare imaginable.
R was obviously in shock, as well. She kept rocking back and forth beside me, repeating over and over again how she was going to strangle her stupid travel agent when she gets back to Delhi. He apparently charged her the regular price for 3 berths, but somehow ended up only giving us seats. Who in the hell books seats in a sleeper car?
We all sat on the same lower bunk that was, undisputedly, ours, scrunched together, like three monkeys on a very small branch, miserable and hot and dejected, wondering what the hell we were going to do.
Finally I suggested that the two of them should run up to the 2nd class cars and see if there were any seats there. Go up to First Class, too, I said. We will pay whatever they ask. We can’t spend the night in this car with no place to stretch out.
I sat there with The Little One, trying to keep her cheerful at least, pretty confident that there would be something in 2nd or 1st class and that we wouldn’t have to spend the night in this shit-hole place.
About 30 min later, H and R came back with the worst possible news. The train is completely booked, they said. There are no seats available anywhere.
I was shocked.
I could live with the side bunks. And I could live with the end bunk near the door. And although I wouldn’t like it, I suppose I could even live with all the constant crashing of the metal door against my bunk, 3 inches from head, the whole night long. But god dammit, there is no bloody way I could live with sitting up all night long in a cramped, hot and airless, straight-backed seat. Just the thought of it made my skin crawl!
It was then that I noticed R had disappeared somewhere.
When she finally returned, she was dragging another TC with her. She had gone, once again, to really see if there were any empty berths anywhere aboard the train – even a single one for H and The Little One - and this time she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She had that look in her eye – that Super Power Woman look – and I think the TC saw it too. He looked a little afraid in front of her. And that was before both H and R laid into him – they wanted something and they wanted something fast. It was unbearable here with a young baby they said. So the TC guy, wanting to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, said he would check.
Funnily enough, a few moments after he left, another TC passed by our bunk. And this guy seemed to know what the hell he was doing. Once again both H and R assailed him, pleading for another seat. He told them to hang on and he disappeared. In about 20 min, he came back with the best news possible – he had 3 bunks in a berth in one of the cars up ahead!
We all shrieked and then grabbed our carry-on bags and headed up the 3 cars to our new seats. The TC even got one of the many train boys in red-striped shirts to come and move the giant-sized, completely overstuffed suitcase – which, incidentally, should have been left at home and another, much smaller and lighter case should have been brought along for all of the travelling we would be doing over the next 2 weeks, as hardly any of the stuff that was packed in that monstrosity of a suitcase was ever taken out.
The new berth was fantastic. It seemed a much newer and bigger and airier car than the previous one, and not half as crowded, either. The berth was occupied by an elderly Sardar and his wife and another Indian chap, who must have been an important guy as he kept getting phone calls about every two minutes for most of the night. And, just to show you the hospitable nature of Indians, they welcomed us with open arms into their quite little space aboard the train – not even complaining when the giant-sized, completely overstuffed suitcase took up all the room on the floor!
So we settled in quite nicely in our new lodgings – just like all the other times I’ve travelled the Rajdhani. We talked and laughed and ate our faces off. And to top it off, I had the best sleep I’ve ever had on a train in India.

2010/11 Incredible India Adventure - Part VI

06 December 2010 – Monday – Haridwar, India
H and I and The Little One awoke at 4:30 this morning with the chickens. Today was the day we had to catch the 6:45am train for Haridwar. H’s sister, R, recommended we take the short trip up to Haridwar as she said it was spectacularly beautiful and well worth visiting. And it was. Like Varanasi, it is one of the most holy cities in all of Hinduism as it is considered the beginning of the River Gunga, or the Ganges River. From Haridwar and Rishikesh, the Ganges begins its 2700 km voyage across northern India where it empties out into the Bay of Bengal. But unlike the river when it reaches Varanasi, which is about 3/4s of the way, the river at Hardiwar is a very nearly clean and pure and the water grey-white and oh so cold. It hasn’t had a zillion tons of raw sewage and dead people and every imaginable piece of garbage dumped into it at that point like it has by the time it reaches Varanasi.
We reached Haridwar at around 11am and were literally blown off our feet by the volume of noise and commotion as we made our way out of the train station and out onto the street where the prepaid taxi stand was. It was such a shock to go from the relative calm of the rail car, through the terminal building and then smack dab into total chaos. I just never expected it to be so insanely loud and out of control in such a small town.
After we settled into our hotel and rested for a bit, we hired a car to take us down to Haridwar’s bathing ghats, or steps. We wandered around them for a couple of hours as the sun was setting. It really was beautiful and I got some great people shots, but it’s nothing like Varanasi. Varanasi is so old and derelict, so drenched in the dirt and grime of its own history, that nothing can compare to it. Haridwar is pretty, Varanasi is simply repulsive. But it’s the best kind of repulsive as it is a terribly photogenic repulsive. And I think that is what makes it so appealing to be there. At least that’s what I liked about being in Varanasi.
Being down at the Haridwar ghats at the end of the day gave us a preview of what I wanted to shoot when we arrived at sunrise the next morning.
Again, the next morning, we were up just after 5am and were picked up by our sleepy driver and taken back to the same place we had been the afternoon before just as the sun broke over the mountain tops to the east of the town. It was a great idea to scope the place out the day before because the morning light was just so beautiful and I was able to get some wonderful shots.After spending 3 hours at the Haridwar ghats, we had our driver take us further north to Rishikesh, about 30 km distance, which is another holy site in Hinduism and where the Beatles first visited back in the late 60’s.
In order to get to the main part of Rishikesh and all the ashrams on the other side of the river, you have to pass over this very long, very narrow suspension bridge. It’s basically a footbridge, wide enough for two people, but it’s got crowds of people crossing it in both directions, kids playing on it, beggars begging, and even cows sleeping on it. But the worst thing by far is the non-stop motorcycle traffic constantly screaming back and forth by you, blasting their loud and stupid horns every two seconds for you to get the hell out of their way. It really is enough to drive you insane and up and over the edge of the bridge in terror. This is what makes the crossing such a stressful, harrowing experience. Why in the hell would they open a stupid walking bridge up to motorcycles of all things? The cars and the trucks on the other side must be able to cross over on another bridge somewhere. Why not make the motorcycles cross right along with them? Why terrorize the foot traffic all the bloody time? It’s just another thing here that doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Another thing that doesn’t make a lick of sense either is the complete lack of anything resembling the religious or spiritual at these supposed super holy sites. These towns and villages propose to be the great centres of spirituality and learning, and the world flocks to them, wide-eyed and in earnest, deeply committed to discovering the hidden truths of life. And when they arrive, they must be so discouraged to discover how commercialized and decidedly un-religious these places have become. An entire community of sellers and hawkers has grown up around the sites to harass and bilk as many foreign bills from the poor suckers who flock as they possibly can. Even the supreme holy men themselves have realized how lucrative it can be to sit around and pretend to be doing holy work, while the phirangis drop money in their cups.
So why do people follow them?
I could never understand that. Why are so many people so desperate to find someone to follow? Why are they so eager to prostrate themselves before a guru or maharishi or yogi, give up their sense of self, their individualism, their ability to think and reason for themselves, and pretend that this is a good and honourable thing to do? And for what? Why do people need someone to follow anyway? It seems to me the truths you discover for yourself are far more valuable and useful than the ones some pompous, saffron-clad holy person bestows upon you from the front of the room while you sit there, cross legged and in agony on the hard floor behind him, mumbling some whacked out nonsense to yourself, all the while trying to maintain an unearned sense of superiority to everyone else in the world. What the hell is that all about? And really, what the fuck do these gurus know about living anyway? Seriously? They sit in caves or tiny little rooms in an ashram somewhere all day long, waited on hand and foot, meditating on their theories of life, while the real world whizzes by them at the speed of light. They don’t have to deal with the difficulties and trivialities of everyday living, like the rest of us do. And yet they feel perfectly justified in doling out the advice on how to be better people then everyone else, or achieve nirvana or some other such rubbish that is supposed to help them exist better in the real world. What have they done to deserve the right to do that? Get them a real job, for god’s sake. Make them work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, like the rest of us do. Make them deal with stupid customers, or incompetent bosses, jealous co-workers or megalomaniacal supervisors, let them push a heavy wheelbarrow up a muddy slope all day long or try to sell useless stuff no one needs, and then see what they have to say about living life properly.
I bet they’d be singing a different tone then.
So why do people follow them?
I could never understand that…
These and many more questions just like them flooded through my mind as I walked the so-called holy streets of Rishikesh, avoiding the crowds and the annoying motorcycles, the cows and cow shit everywhere, searching for some sign that this was indeed a centre of spirituality for the world.
I couldn’t find it.
Even as I sipped my café latte in air conditioned comfort at the brand new Café Coffee Day, which was just built about 30m from the holiest of ashrams in Rishikesh, I couldn’t come up with the answer.
So we left, disillusioned and unimpressed. The entire ‘spiritual journey’ thing seemed like such a complete waste of time, and totally self-delusional. We drove back to Haridwar in silence and caught the 6:30pm train back to Delhi.
There was nothing to say.

2010/11 Incredible India Adventure - Part V

05 December 2010 – Sunday - Guesthouse, Delhi, India
The Little One awoke this morning just after one am, her cold worse than ever. She cried and cried and cried and cried. The only way she can sleep is when she is being held. The second you lay her down, she wakes up and starts crying again. She can’t feed properly because her nose is blocked and she hasn’t quite figured out how to breathe and drink at the same time. So she struggles with feeding and sleeping.
So today, because of that, we spent the entire morning indoors. The Little One slept most of the time, as did H, who didn’t sleep much in the night at all. At around 2pm, however, H’s sister R came over and we drove back to Connaught Place and the famous Oxford Book Store, where we have been several times in the past. We had brunch there and I looked at photography books by the great Indian photographer Raghu Rai. His black and white work is amazing. It is so inspirational. I also found this oversized coffee table book of kite photographs of India. Kite photographs, you say? What the hell is that? (that’s what I said) I didn’t know either. At first I thought they were all aerial photographs taken from an airplane or helicopter, because that’s exactly what they looked like. But exploring further I discovered they actually were taken from a kite. This French guy developed and adapted a special Japanese kite with a photo camera suspended to the bottom of it that had some kind of two-way video camera also attached so he could see what he was shooting. Then he would wake up early in the morning and fly his kite high above all these historical monuments of India. The work is absolutely stunning when you consider they are not taken by some guy strapped into an airplane, but by a little camera attached by string to a kite, of all things. The other thing that really makes his images stand out is that they are taken just as the sun breaks over the horizon, which gives his pictures this warm, sculpted look and just reaffirms that the most beautiful light in the day is early morning light. I read a quote once that said something like ‘no good photo was ever taken in the middle of the day.’ I think that’s true.
We had to pack up all our things at the Guesthouse this evening and move all of our big suitcases over to R’s place, as we were leaving the Guesthouse first thing tomorrow morning for the train station for our short trip to Haridwar and Rishikesh.