Friday, February 3, 2012

Around the World: Arriving in India

February 3, 1992

Last night, one of my hostel mates was retelling some of her experiences from her travels in India, some of which had us both in crying with laughter.  The only one I can recall is about a man that approached her in New Delhi's Connaught Place, a busy circular thoroughfare devoted to shops and travel and more.  She got disoriented in the layers of streets while looking for the address she needed to arrange her plane ticket.  This man approached her, claiming to be knowledgeable of the area and walked with her for over two hours, all the while boasting about how he knows everything about this area.  From time to time, she would point out that they had passed the same building before, but he vehemently corrected her and continued his boasting.  Eventually, they found the office, exactly across the street from where they started.  Despite her obvious irritation for wasting her time, he held out his hand and demanded "baksheesh", a tip for his services.

Her advice: Don't forget to pack a good sense of humour and a lot of patience.

It's Chinese New Year and Hong Kong airport is exceptionally busy.  The plane is packed to capacity and the gentlemen in front of me insist on reclining their seats back as far as they will go, making it physically impossible for me to get into my seat.  My knees are smashed into the back of the seat in front me, my back is wedged into mine and my butt is suspended about a foot above where it should be.  What has the potential to turn into five hours of hell suddenly becomes a few hours of heaven when the stewardess asks me if I'd be willing to sit in First Class, as they have oversold Economy.

Yes.  Yes, I would.

I have lots of leg room now and one of the choices on the dinner menu (yes, I have been given a "menu") will be lobster with a side of cloth napkin and silverware. 

The introduction of the Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit says:

"Basically India is what you make of it and what you want it to be.  If you want to see temples, there are temples in profusion with enough styles and types to confuse anybody.  If it’s history you want, India has plenty of it; the forts, abandoned cities, ruins, battlefields and monuments all have their tales to tell.  If you simply want to lie on the beach, there are enough of those to satisfy the most avid sun worshiper.  If walking and the open air is your thing then head for the trekking routes of the Himalaya, some of which are as wild and deserted as you could ask for.  If you simply want to meet the real India you’ll come face to face with it all the time – a trip on Indian trains and buses may not always be fun, but it certainly is an experience.  India is not a place you simply and clinically ‘see’; it’s a total experience, an assault on the senses, a place you’ll never forget."

The plane is on approach to Bombay.  After dinner, I was moved back into the middle row of Economy, into a seat with less leg room than I had, but just a little more than I need.  Sitting beside me is an older man, with a very fatherly demeanor, asking me where I plan to go and offering suggestions on places to see.  He tells me he is a doctor and writes his name in the back of my journal.  "I wish you a wonderful holiday and hope you don't need to call me."

Stewardesses are walking down the aisles, wielding a mysterious aerosol can in each hand as they "spray the plane prior to landing".  Nobody volunteers what they are spraying or why.  I bury my mouth and nose in my shirt, mostly because the spray smells horrid and because that's what the doctor beside me is doing. 

Exit the plane, inhale and follow the masses to the immigration counters, which seem to have been hurriedly constructed for our arrival.  Now to find my knapsack and search for transportation to a hotel.  It's now 10pm.  Outside the airport is a taxi stand with five cars and their drivers engaged in conversation. 

I approach them and ask, "Is this where I can hire a taxi?"

I think one of them looks over at me and nods.

"Can you take me to Cowie's Guest House?"

Standard Bombay (Mumbai) taxi.
Photo by Niall Corbet

Their conversation continues undeterred for several minutes and is still going on as I leave to wait by the cars.  Perhaps these are not taxi drivers after all.  Perhaps these men are paid by the taxi drivers to guard their cars, India's version of automobile security.  Well, whatever the situation is, I've slept in worse places.  I get into the back of one of the cars and wait for the driver to arrive.

One of the men from the group comes over, opens the back door, and motions for me to get out of the car.  "No," I respond, "I need a ride to Cowie's Guest House and I would like a taxi to take me there, please."  He closes the door and the drivers work amongst themselves what to do with the tall, crazy blonde person bent on being driven somewhere.  The door opens a few minutes later, "He will take you."

He welcomes me into the taxi and reassures me with, "Cowie Guest House?  Yes, I know this place."

No one told me getting there could kill me.

Bombay traffic.
Photo by Lucy Spink

Red lights are optional, as are rules of the road, right of way, and other traffic is treated as a figment of the imagination.  My taxi driver knocked a motorcycle off the road, sideswiped several cars and a bus, but fortunately was able to miss being sideswiped by a bus.  After several brushes with catastrophe, my driver turns around to face me, while driving, and strikes up a conversation.  Lucky for me, he's also good at following suggestions, and responded appropriately when terror let me shriek out instructions to, "Watch the road!"

I won't even mention the pedestrians and I lost count of how many times we bumped the back of the moving car in front of us.  I never did make it to Cowie's Guest House because the driver, who claims to know the place so well, had us hopelessly lost.

He stops for directions and in moments, I am dropped off at another hotel.  The lobby is immaculate, decorated in sprays of black and white marble from floor to ceiling.  The ceiling is adorned by the largest and most elaborate chandelier I have ever seen.  I am sure the quote for a room is going to run into the hundreds of dollars, but being close to midnight and having survived the taxi ride, whatever the hotel clerk charges for a room is money well spent.

"One night?  400 Rupees."  A new place always means new currency.  What kind of math do I need now?  At the airport, I got 25 Rupees for each dollar.... that's 4.... at least it's better than 7... 4 is 100... times 4 again and ...$16 for this marble-topia?  Deal!!

The hotel clerk leads me to the elevator, the kind where you have to shut the door yourself and hold the button until you arrive.  On the second floor, he shoves the elevator door open, revealing a dark hallway, only one light in the distance flickers with the intermittent buzz of flowing current.  He guides me down the hallway to my room and opens the door.  Inside, it's pitch dark.  He turns on the light and what I originally thought was a blanket on the bed scatters into unseen crevices in the walls, revealing a concrete slab, covered by a thin mattress under a white sheet. 

It's a far cry from the lobby, but it's home and only for tonight. As for my skittish, six-legged room mates, the light is staying on.

• ¤ •

The Hindi word for yesterday is "kal".  It also means tomorrow.