Archive Page 2

Mishaps in the South

This morning I woke to the symphony of 9AM traffic. Gurgaon, Sector 43. Laying in bed, I could distinguish every car and it’s driver from the tone of it’s obnoxious honking. It was a sobering wakeup to the morning after. This time yesterday I was ordering breakfast on the merry beach of Mamallapundram. This morning I have the hangover of Gurgaon and a date with work, which I am late for. Last night I slept at Hex Tax for the simple reason that there is no food in the fridge at Kapoors, and perhaps I don’t like the thought of coming home to an empty house.

The smog is hanging lower in the sky, clinging to the office blocks as it descends in parallel with the temperature. It’s much colder now and visibility is next to none. My feet are numb from the walk home in flip flops. In the harsh transition from warm south to cold north, I remembered I might need a jumper but forgot about my feet. Bea’s boss dropped me at Infinity Towers and I walked the remainder to U block. Now I am sitting on my bed, listening to Punam as she comforts her baby while she should be cleaning. This morning I can forgive her, because its the first day back at work for both of us and she is the only one on time, and because there is no light or power for her to do her job properly. Come to think of it, there isn’t anything keeping me from the office. There is no hot shower waiting, no internet to dither on or check my mails and no point in waiting for Punam to produce the clean, ironed shirt I am short of, because there is no power. All I can do is to shave my Crusoe beard in the unlit mirror (assuming there is any water), and trundle late into work. Oh, by the way, there is no water.

So I spent Christmas and New Years in the South, taking leave from work because Christian festivals are less celebrated in the North and you only get Christmas Day as holiday. Me and Alex gave ourselves ten days, leaving work after lunch on Christmas Eve, returning yesterday ready for the new week. Of course, as is normal with our Indian escapades, it was not without mishap.

Thursday 24th, early afternoon at the office. In an effort to make an inconspicuous exit I email my team the final version of the report I am leaving them to finish and make briskly for the exit. Sid spots me on the way and just as I am bidding him well wishes for new year festivity the CEO passes and catches my eye, not the discreet escape I had envisaged. Nevertheless, we have lunch with Bea and Mari, who join us in Mumbai a couple of days later, and head home to pack. I throw a bundle of clothes into my bag and hop in the cab. Bad timing, rush hour on xmas eve, the road to the highway was blocked and we got stuck in a jam for an hour or more just getting out of Gurgaon. Nevertheless, our frustration lapsed into fatigue and we nodded off, coming round at the airport still on track to catch our flight. We touched down in Mumbai late evening and took a pre-paid cab to our hotel where Dasha checked in that morning. Drinks and a late walk around the district, feeling a little closer to the festive spirit than Gurgaon.

Pre-trip foot massage in the airport

Christmas Day and we wake for a day of sightseeing in Mumbai. Breakfast at a greasy spoons where the omelets were eggless and spicy as hell, compensated by a fresh black grape juice. We were staying in Khan West, a convenient minute walk from the station, so we jumped on the train south bound for sightseeing central. That’s when the first mishap befell (and last for Alex). In the holiday spirit and a little lapse on sensical thinking, Alex trailed his arm outside the door while the train was moving and in a second it collided with a metal pole with a high pitched “clang.” Understandably in pain, he barely muttered a word for the next hour. Yet we procured some pain killers from the station shop and Alex resolved to continue with the day’s itinerary (Dahsa has it all planned out), a red mark and a slight dent in his arm. Nothing undeserved, but it didn’t seem like a deal breaker at the time.

The three of us persist with the sightseeing. A statue of some significance, the train station that featured in Slumdog Millionaire, some colonial buildings, an art gallery, the Gateway to India and an hour ferry across the harbor to Elephanta Island, prized for its carved 17th century caves. Dasha flutters her eyelids and the ticket man drops the extortionate tourist price. The last boat back was at 6 so we hurry to the jetty, and everyone else does the same. With the sun setting and the cityscape faint on the horizon, we wait with a thousand other Indian tourists for the return boat. I hate that Indian’s can’t respect the decency of personal space, or the sense in waiting patiently without jabbing the person in front to get an inch closer.

After the boat back we stop by the Taj Palace, the hotel devastated by the 2008 bombings, and venture down Marine Drive to admire the glow of the city lights reflecting in the water. A much-needed dinner in a Chinese and we meander back to the station. On the way back we stop for a drink at a Hard Rock Cafe, though it took several stops for directions and following a man down a dark back alley to find it.

I like Mumbai. It’s a progressive and forward thinking city, I can tell from the buzz of the people. There is a trace of organisation, a sense of identity and the sign of a well functioning economy (where the consumer sets the price as opposed to the ignorant price fixing rickshaw wallahs). This is quite unlike the slow moving, backward looking political hub that is Delhi. No, unlike Delhi I really could live here.

Saturday morning, fresh juice and spicy pancakes again for breakfast, anticipation of another day sightseeing. Alex’s arm is still giving him grief, so we determine to pay a visit to a local hospital to check it isn’t broken, just for peace of mind. After a while waiting in a dirty reception the x-ray comes back. He has broken it, severely. Next step, consultation with a private doctor. We find his office but it is closed, so an elderly neighbor says to knock on his door at the top of the apartment block. His son opens (who happens to be a top 60 tennis player) and calls his dad to make special arrangements for us. When he comes the news is not so good. We had thought, worst case, a plaster and an extra day in Mumbai, but the break was so bad it required an operation to fit a metal plate, and it had to happen within four days. One more thing, sixty thousand rupees please sir. So the rest of my day was spent running around with Alex, fixing up appointments with surgeons and calling insurance companies. We find a way for his parents to send the money with a bit of help from Western Union and make the necessary arrangements. When we are done it is evening and Mari and Bea arrive at the airport. We meet them in a bar an auto ride away with Lavina, an acquaintance from our Goa trip.

Saturday night the six of us hit the club next to Hard Rock, followed by a whimsical visit to Marine Drive. Finally we crash in our cell of a hotel room, five to a bed. The morning brings one final breakfast of spicy omelet and grape juice. The waiters are intolerably slow and despite our protests, or perhaps in spite of, it takes half an hour just to get a menu. More troops arrive, Wendel and Helen find us waiting for our food. Finally the food comes; the first to order but the last to arrive, me and Bea scoff our breakfast with the departure time of our train looming. By now it is apparent we cannot all four pursue the trip we had planned. Mari volunteers to stay in Mumbai while Alex has his op, I carry on with Bea. Suffice to say Alex had the op the next day with the added complication of a floating a piece of bone that the surgeon had to figure out what to do with. They flew to Delhi the following Sunday, shared a cab from the airport with us and now Alex is resting up with his personal nurses in Hex Tax.

After breakfast we rush to find a rickshaw to take us to the station. In my haste, I leave half my luggage in the hotel room. The station is further out than we thought, Mumbai is a big city. We finally arrive a couple of minutes late and a rush of cabbies around us so kindly inform that the train has left, we are late and that is the end of world. Ironic, the first time an Indian train leaves on time we are two minutes late. We check the board to be sure we are not being scammed, then we are flooded with offers from cab drivers to take us to the next station to meet the train there. One man proffers “if you don’t catch it you don’t pay,” so we take him up. We failed to establish that the next station was 45 minutes out of the city and the guy wanted double the fare for the return journey. So, after we were safely on the platform waiting for the train, heated bargaining ensued. The kind of exchange I had hoped to avoid but inevitable on a trip like this. An expensive mistake, but we were out of options.

Relief from catching the train wears thin within a couple of hours as the hassling begins and the proximity of people, packed into a small space, grinds me down. One man sitting opposite is determined to be my friend but his arrogant persona and pushy commands only serve to aggravate me more. I’m happy enough to be lumbered with less pushy “friends” whilst waiting for my phone to charge in the connecting part of the train; one chap works for the air force, another is from Gurgaon. Yet before long everyone knows my name, even a passer by I have never spoken to, and enough people get in my face to make me want to jump out the window. A couple of hours down, twenty nine to go.

I slept soundly that night on the bottom bunk, despite several times awaking to find a man sitting on my feet. I would simply fall back to sleep, making sure that I kicked and shuffled enough that when I woke again he was gone. Another morning and afternoon floated by, nothing to do but read and gaze, nothing to eat but banana chips and veg biryani. Absorbing the view from the carriage door (making sure all body parts were safely inside), I watched rice paddies and green transition to palm trees and sand. It’s amazing how much the sight of a palm tree against a setting sun can lift your mood.

We got off a few hours early, altering our plans slightly to spend a day in Allepe where Angie and Steve were shacking up later. We bypassed the town and headed straight for the hotels on the beach. We found a good deal for a place a minute from the beach, enough space to accommodate the four of us. First thing’s first, a swim and a jog. The beach was deserted bar a few fishermen repairing their nets and some kids playing cricket. Wherever in the world I am I always feel at home by the sea.

On the backwaters

Early evening we set off to meet Angie and Steve for a boat cruise along the backwaters to see the sun set behind palm tree forests, a pleasant way to spend the evening. Then we headed back to the hotel and found a restaurant to eat. Again, the service was painstakingly slow and the menu wasn’t quite as abound with sea food as I had hoped, but the company was good and I was content to be by the sea and not on a train. After dinner we walked past a large stage on the beach, a local festival with Indian music, and took a stroll along the shore before retreating to bed.

Tuesday, Angie and Steve take off for Cochin and Goa. We hang back, review our plans over breakfast and make the most of the beach. In the afternoon we head back to the station to catch a train a few hours south to Varkala. All the rickshaws are on strike but a couple of the guys working at the hotel have bikes so we hitch a last minute ride. By evening we were in the bubble that is Varkala. We shared a cab with a couple of Swedish backpackers, bypassing the town and heading straight for the beach. Varkala is a tourist trap, a busy beach perched below a cliff top along which spans a strip of massage parlors, souvenir shops and seafood restaurants. For us it was paradise; fewer hagglers to deal with, sand and sea and all the seafood we could desire. Red, white and black snapper, barracuda, pomfret and calamari. That evening I got the meal I had been so looking forward to, red snapper in banana leaf with Keralan rice and real Tandoori.

Wednesday morning we setup for breakfast on the strip and met a couple from the AIESEC Chennai crowd. We ate breakfast and wondered along the beach to find a quiet spot while they picked up the rest of the group. The afternoon was spent sipping beers on the beach (disguised in coffee mugs because none of the restaurants are licensed) and a seafood lunch. The Chennai group depart after lunch to catch a train to Cochin, leaving us to enjoy food (apple crumble and cheese cake) and beach until sunset. Another beer and another seafood dinner. By now we have settled on a second night.

Paradise in Varkala

The following morning we pitch up on the main beach for a last bit of reading and tanning before the afternoon train. A man sidles up to Bea and asks to take a photo. She politely refuses, tired of creepy men asking for photos with foreign women. He doesn’t understand my aggravation over his manner and lingers for a while. Eventually he gives up and I look on to see a group of his friends staring at a girl getting changed in her towel. As if reading my mind, a man in uniform arrives with a stick and prods the drunks until they are safely down the beach and away from the “nice white people.” It looks like he is herding cattle back to their pen. There is the conflict, of willing the locals to be herded away with a cattle prod, whilst not wanting to invade their holiday on their own beach and in their own country.

Next stop, Cochin. The train drops us early evening in Ernakulam and we get a prepaid cab, a boat and a rickshaw to Fort Cochin, where Team Chennai have us a hotel room. Its late and we rush through the shower before joining them in a restaurant down the road. We order around 10 but the place is busy and the kitchen is tiny and we are many. I take leave with a lively Brazilian to pickup beers, but the food is still absent on our return. Plans are made for a party at an island resort a free cab ride away, but midnight arrives before the food and we call the new year in with our plates full of fish curry and nan. In the early hours we make our way by cab and then boat, picking up Italians en route and disturbing lone fishermen on an quiet backwater, to an old-school dance rave with fresh pineapple vodka and trippy lights. It’s meant to be an island resort but really it’s just a house on an island with a bunch of inebriated Indians and backpackers. When we’ve had enough we wait on the jetty, and the jetty almost sails off on it’s own. Finally we get a boat to the other side, but the cabbies are all drunk at the party. So we wait.

Boat to the Rave

New years day, 7:30 in the morning and a couple of hours after finding my bed, a man knocks on the door with a breakfast we didn’t order. Never one to pass an offer of food, I sit down for fresh water melon, soggy toast and eggs. In the afternoon me and Bea explore Fort Cochin, starting on the seafront alongside giant Chinese fishing nets, stopping for a colonial church and fresh watermelon. We pick out a fish from the market and take it to the nearest restaurant to cook for lunch. As if it is a Keralan fashion, we were presented with our food no less than two hours later.

Lunch anyone?

Back to the hotel to collect our bags and take a shower before the next marathon train. We discover our train tickets have not made it onto the “confirmed” list and were therefore invalid. I hate the way they do the train bookings here, sticking you on a wait list a month in advance and not telling you if you have a place until the day of departure. Anticipating problems but lacking alternatives, we made our way to the station anyway. Rickshaw-boat-rickshaw-foot. It took much longer than we had allowed for, but the train was a delayed a few hours so there was no need for the rush. After much consulting with the guard and some friendly passengers we determined the best option would be to buy a “general” ticket that permits admission to the train but does not entitle you to a seat. In other words, you either sit on the floor or convince someone to share their seat. Problem was, it was possibly the busiest time of the year to catch a train. When it finally arrived we took one look at the crowded sleeper class and made our way directly to the more privileged AC class. Our ticket does not entitle us to be here, but it is worth the risk to avoid the mess in the lower class carriages. I sense it is going to be a long night.

A few stops down and my fears are realised as a ticket man arrives and kicks us off the train. He is clearly not willing to negotiate and enjoys wielding the power he holds over a couple of foreign travelers. He brashly advises that there is another train stopping at the next station and we should alight and see if there is any space on that one. We oblige and hop off, only to discover that the train does not stop at this station and we have to catch a further train to a station where it does stop.

Onboard the next train to Thrissur we found a cabin in which the occupants were willing to squash to make room for us, as if they weren’t already squashed enough. As I sat with my book I could feel the heavy aura of hundreds of bodies, the smell of their sweaty flesh and the taste of the expired air from their filthy lungs. What was supposed to be a one-stop half hour journey turned out to be a living hell, purgatory perhaps? I buried myself in my book and tried to go somewhere else in my head, but I couldn’t escape the glares from the gentleman sitting next to me. He said hello and I politely returned the greeting, rapidly retreating back to my book. He had demonstrated great generosity in saving us from standing room next to the noxious smell of the squatter toilets so I felt compelled to humor his curiosity, but I all I wanted to do was to burry my face in my book and never speak to a soul again. I could sense his eyes boring into me as he investigated my face, and then came the second attempt. “So basickallaly… you are from the US.” When we finally reached Thrissur we clambered between body parts of women sprawled over the soiled floor and past children stacked on top of eachother on precarious beds, to find the exit to the platform. Safe again.

At Thirssur I make for the information desk to get details on the next train to Chennai. The chap was pretty unhelpful, but Bea manages to attract the attention of an official who advises that the train is full, unless we be willing to pay a little more? A small bribe and the guy is on the phone to the conductor to ask if he could find a couple of places in AC sleeper class for the right price. Armed with a piece of paper with the conductor’s name on it, we wait for the train to arrive. When it pulls in the conductor stands by the door to welcome us and show us to our beds. He even organizes a wakeup call for us. No smell, no bodies on the floor, no irritating neighbors. I settle down to finish my book and then make the most of the four hours to sleep. A chubby face appears between my curtains, the conductor wants his money. That is how the system works here and I admit to playing along as long as that is what it takes.

India is both power and money hungry and those two faces of greed can be represented in the railway ticket men. First there is the scrawny, unrelenting conductor who takes pleasure in asserting his authority and ditching us at the wrong station. He is not vulnerable to the bribing sort because he gets too much pleasure from demonstrating his power. Then there is the paunchy, nonchalant chap whose oversized belly indicates a diet paid for by “tip money” from his obliging customers, people like us who were willing to milk the system for a few hours of extra comfort.

Rather than riding the train all the way to Chennai, another balmy city of dust and fumes, we got off a little earlier and took an early morning bus to Pondicherry. This quaint relic of French colonialism kept us busy for the afternoon, wondering along the promenade and exploring winding back alleys with French road signs and tranquil architecture. In a fine little restaurant we even found a French speaking Indian family, imagine that. After a rest in the park we took an auto back through the furious Indian quarters of the city to find a bus to the coastal town of Mamallapuram, a couple of hours south of Chennai.

Mamallapuram

A last minute dash to make the most of the beach, we figured a night spent close to the sea would be favorable over a day of sightseeing in Chennai. It was a serene little town, if a little seedy with the tourist trail. We took a room in a guest house right above the beach amidst a bustle of ramshackle houses catering to backpackers. With the buzz of peak season there was plenty of activity, even a traditional dance festival that we skipped for a swim and a quiet dinner. Not quite the serenity of Kerala, the sea was stormy and there was a gusty wind. Nevertheless, the sun showed its face the following morning and the sea breeze worked its magic before we gave in to Gurgaon’s calling. One final seafood lunch, Calamari and just enough spare rupees for a fruit juice, before we hopped on the final bus into Chennai. From the city centre a long auto ride took us to the airport, long enough to get a feel for the city, at least we can say. Everything felt a notch slower, more gentrified than the Delhi suburbs. Palm trees, grass, greenery, sea and warmth, I’d consider the merit of packing up Gurgaon for here. And then we waited in the strangest looking airport before a brief flight back to the cold smog that we call home. Ah, Gurgaon.

The People and the Place

Its a cold afternoon in Gurgaon (20°c). I think I might need to buy a jumper after all. I’m alone in the office (Alex is working from home), thoroughly bored of the metal can manufacturing industry (my current project). It’s not so bad, but in India I get restless easily. There are other reasons for feeling offbeat of late. Things are winding down in the Kapoors household as people depart to face the next chapter in their respective parts of the world. On Sunday we were a family of six, and now we are three.

After coming down from the high (2,500 meters) of our time in Nepal, I spent the first half of the week traveling with a colleague visiting companies in Ludhiana, Chandigarh and Derabassi in the state of Punjab. The first time I have traveled on a project, it was good to be out in the field for a change as opposed to sitting in the office googling and telephoning. Actually I wasn’t of much use, suffering from a stomach infection, the fourth one I’ve had in India. And when the conversation necessitated a switch to Hindi there was little I could do but politely sip my chai, nod my head and mutter “thik hai” (OK).

That week also marked the first departure, our dear “cousin Kapoor” Jas, the crazy Singaporean we have spent so much time with partying and traveling of late. I missed her farewell party while I was away, but then I’ve never been that good at goodbyes. The weekend of the 12th, Saf and Alex were traveling, whilst I opted for a quiet one in Gurgaon since I couldn’t afford the time off work. We were also host to Yasmine’s family for a few days, who are traveling in India. On their final night with the Kapoors we arranged the table for a Christmas buffet of smoked salmon and Moroccan chicken. Despite my embarrassing lack of French it was very pleasant to be around people and family; it actually began to feel a little like Christmas (easy to forget such festivities in India). The following week was work focused, culminating with a presentation to our Danish clients on Thursday and celebrated with a team lunch at a steak restaurant (yes, beef steak) that I never knew existed in Gurgaon. Thursday night I ate again, the final “family dinner” together celebrating Mimine’s birthday, as she won’t be with us on the 26th.

The weekend was a bit more manic, hosting a house party on Friday night as a farewell for Yasmina and Safiye. It is the second house party we’ve hosted, flashbacks to the Crazy Sunglasses party on my second night in India. This time we kept it a little more exclusive, a smaller and more intimate crowd. As usual, Mo the Delhi DJ from Iraq hired a sound system and decked out the lounge. After a crazy night on Friday, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves on Saturday. Yasmina’s last night in India, we opted for a night in with friends, ordering takeout and playing games. Sometimes, those are the best nights. Sunday afternoon we ordered lunch from the infamous “Karims,” exactly what Sundays are made for. Then all-too-soon we were dropping Yasmina at the airport for her flight home to Morocco, the end of a year’s journey in India. We chilled the rest of the evening in Mocha, a late night coffee/chocolate bar, and watched films at home. Then on Monday Yasmine left midday on a flight to Kerala where she is traveling with her family before flying home to Paris. At least she’ll be back in late January. Then, freshly back from work yesterday evening, we accompanied Safiye to the airport before her flight home to Kansas.

So now it’s just the three of us; me, Alex and Jacek. I must admit that emotions have been running away with me this weekend. We have become such a close knit community, a second family. I have been living with these girls since I arrived in India, so the house feels dead and empty now they are gone. Good job I am traveling over Christmas, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself otherwise. The girls in Hex Tax are keeping us busy anyway, invites for dinner at Hex Tax C tonight and Hex Tax A tomorrow. Tomorrow and Thursday I finish off work on my project, then a Christmas lunch Thursday afternoon departing for Mumbai in the evening. Me and Alex meet Dasha for a couple of nights in Mumbai and then Mari and Bea join us for a third night along with some Indian acquaintances, and then the four of us train it all the way to Trivandrum, Kerela for new years on the beach with the AIESEC Chennai crowd. Then another long train to Chennai before flying back to Delhi on the 3rd.

I guess it’s not so long ago that we got back from Nepal, but already I am restless and I need to get out of the city. When we return in the new year things will be different, but new Kapoors recruits are in the making and I’m always ready for change. That said, the weekend has left me thinking about the importance of people and friends. After all, its the people that make a place a place, not the place itself. Here’s to the Kapoors family, wherever we are scattered now. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Picnics, Trains and Mountains

Just another Sunday morning at the Kapoors. The power is out, the shower is cold, Punam the maid is ill and has not been for days so the house is looking savage. We are recovering from a couple of nights partying, preceded by a week traveling in Nepal. My stomach is churning again and I have slept most of the weekend. So I guess this is the pay back. But it is a glorious day outside (I am trying hard to recall the British December), and we are a family, and families stick together. I don’t know how I could survive India without these people.

The weekend of 21st we went to a company picnic on Saturday and a day trip to Agra on Sunday. The picnic was one of those annual affairs organized by our company in the spirit of strengthening ties with colleagues and family. Yasmine accompanied the Technopak contingent of myself, Safiye, Alex and Jacek. A bit of a formality, but we had some fun with the team games and a bit of cricket and badminton. Saturday night we went to Delhi for a Reggae party and stayed for the after-party before catching the 4:45 train to Agra. A stiff (and very cold) night on the sleeper train and we rocked up in Agra Sunday morning ready for a day of sightseeing. Myself, Dasha (Russian), Mari (Brazilian), Maja & Alek (Macedonian), Jas (Singaporean) & Alex (German). The Taj Mahal was the obvious first destination, a beautiful building and a refreshing break from temples and holy monuments. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like the visit was a “take-your-photo-and-run” kind of trip. After lunch in the city we took our cabs a little out of the way to a large temple/fort, by which point we were all suitably fatigued to really appreciate it’s spender or significance. But it made for a pleasant afternoon activity before the return journey late afternoon.

Nepal shaped up to be the best trip thus far in (outside of) India. Must have had something to do with the people, because it wasn’t without complication. I crept out of work early afternoon Friday 27th with Safiye and Alex for a lunch with colleagues and then packing at home. Yasmine and Jas joined us at the kapoors and we left by cab for Old Delhi Station late afternoon. Shoe string travelers that we are, we opted for the budget 15 hour train and 10 hour bus ride, as opposed to the two hour flight into Kathmandu. As usual, we were delayed in traffic and hurried into the station late for our 16:55 train to Gorakhpur, only to find no sign of it on the departure board. I asked a helpful station manager, who promptly informed me that the train was late, by a minimum of 5 hours. So we took our bags and got the metro to Connaught Place where we found a coffee shop to pass the hours. A couple more restless hours in McDonalds on the station platform, running between card games and the departure board, and finally another station master advised us that the train was ready for departure. I think we departed at midnight, seven hours late.

The train was much longer than the 15 hours anticipated, because it stopped at every junction to allow the trains behind to pass by to avoid making them late as well. But like I said, surviving in India is all about the people you’re with, and I was in good company. I also quite enjoyed sitting by the open door for periods of time with my legs trailing over the rail tracks, reading my book and watching the rice paddies race by. As long as you are moving with a purpose, with direction and a destination, you can be quite content doing nothing for a while.

It was well into Saturday evening that we finally arrived close to the border in Gorakhpur. Behind schedule by at least half a day, our plan to cross the border the same day was thwarted because it is not crossable at night. So we found a cheap hotel to put up for a few hours before catching an early morning bus to the border town of Sunauli. A couple of hours on the bus (maybe more I can’t recall), and Sunday morning we finally reached the border. The crossing was relatively easy, I felt sure we could have walked straight through without being stopped. Yet we went through the formalities, exchanging rupees for dollars to pay for the visa, and our rickshaws took us and our luggage the short distance between immigration offices. Once on the Nepal side it was just a case of finding the hotel we had been directed to and picking up the tickets for the next bus.

We left the border Sunday afternoon on an eight hour bus that took us to the Neapli city of Pohkara. Worst bus I have ever experienced, and I’ve been on a few. It was falling apart to the extent that I was conscious I might put my foot through the rusted floor. But the comfort of good company and stunning views, jolts and jerks twisting and turning on uneven roads perched on mountain verges, saw us through. Then, finally, the driver indicated to the five lone and motionless bodies in the shadows of the back seats, that the bus had achieved its final destination. Dropped off in a dark and barren part of town, busting for the toilet and desperate for food we piled into the car of the first person that offered and gratefully accepted the first hotel we were taken to in a race to use the facilities.

The hotel turned out to be a good choice, managed by a very affable Nepali trekker who had an office in the garden. After showering, he directed us to the infamous “Everest Steak House” just down the road, and the promise of a decent steak and a glass of wine didn’t disappoint. It’s been a while folks, since I sampled a good red meat. A beer in the next pub, listening to live music, topped the evening off. When we were just about done for the night we convened back at the hotel in the manager’s office to lay out our plan for the next few days. It was a given, since we had lost a lot of time, that I would not be back in the office on Thursday morning as planned. Two days just wasn’t sufficient. So we settled on a two day hike with a guide and a third day paragliding and relaxing, turning for home on Thursday morning. None of us had planned for the extra expense or time, but it made sense while we were here, and I figured I could concoct a semi-true story to explain my absence from work.

Monday morning we were up bright and early with a fly-filled breakfast of Nepalese porridge and chai, ready to commence our two day trek. Views of the mountains overlooking the hotel were a welcome wake-up, quite the converse of the dark and dusty streets we found ourselves on as the bus pulled away the previous night. The guide took us a short distance into the mountains by minibus, and then we set off on foot with all our luggage on our backs. We took it at a slow pace, much to the annoyance of our guide who frequently disappeared over the horizon in front of us. But we were in no hurry, particularly with such inspiring views, the Annapurna mountain range peering above the clouds as if it were floating in mid air and the green sweep of terraced hills below. The day’s hike took us through a village for lunch and numerous rest stops thereafter as and when “the girls” required.

We finally reached the “village” early evening, just in time to watch the sun set behind the hills. Not so much a village, more a handful of outbuildings on the top of a hill. Our guest house was basic but adequate. Stone cold rooms with no light and nothing to stop the neighbors peeking over the head high walls, but sufficient for one night’s sleep in the mountains. After ditching the bags and rolling out my sleeping bag, I sat down in the smoky room that constituted the kitchen for a warm chai and a sample of the local liquor, watching dinner being prepared. Dinner with the other guests from various parts of the world, some light conversation huddled up in the girl’s room fighting for warmth, before bed became the obvious conclusion.

Tuesday morning we were up before dawn to march up the hill for a view of the sunrise. Beginning the ascent in pitch black with nothing but the torch of our phones to guide us up the uneven steps, we were all cold, hungry, and lacking energy. However, the incentive of getting to the top by sun rise gave me the energy to power through and before long we were watching the sun emerge from the fog above the Annapurna range. We were at about 2,500 meters, and the biggest mountain on the horizon was over 8,000 meters. Not Everest, but close. Back to the village for breakfast, Nepali pancakes and chai, before setting off for the hike back.

On the second day of the hike we were content to walk at an even slower pace as the beauty of our surrounds intensified and the conversation became more stimulating in the deserted milieu of the Himalayas. Our guide all but gave up and eventually disappeared into the village in the valley. At one stop, we were beckoned over by the head teacher of a small government school serving the farmer families living on the immediate hill side. A good place for a toilet break, I ambled over to meet him and took a brief tour of the school, saying hello to the kids and observing their English classes. An impressive setup given the resources available with chairs, desks, blackboards and text books for every child. At another stop we said hello to a couple of Nepalese women who were collecting fodder for their cattle from the village below. I think they were amused by our blond hair, and they sang songs as we continued the descent down the hill. The guide had long since disappeared and Alex and I missed a turning and ended up taking the long route to the village. However, the girls caught up eventually and we knew we were heading in the right direction, so we rejoined our guide late afternoon in the valley for a rather belated but much needed lunch of greasy noodles. Finally, a bus ride home along the banks of the vast Phewa Tal lake, and we were back in Pokhara for another evening of pleasant food and entertainment.

On Wednesday morning me and Alex were up early to make the most of a hearty breakfast at one of the steakhouses. The girls, still recovering from the previous day’s hike, stayed in bed. We convened back at the hotel to take a minibus a short distance up the hill to a series of launch sites for the paragliding. There we sat, an uninterrupted view over the valley and of the lake at the bottom, with the sun basking down us while our instructors prepared the equipment. Then we each took it in turn to go through directions with our instructors and one-by-one we took off from the hillside gliding from one thermal to the next, gaining elevation until the wind dropped and looking for another thermal to ride. The ride itself lasted a good forty minutes, plenty of time to discuss the intricacies of the sport and the life of a paraglider whilst absorbing the view. I was with an interesting fellow from Zimbabwe who spends his time chasing the paragliding seasons across all corners of the world. During the descent, we went through a series of fast paced “tumbles,” hurtling through almost 360 degrees whilst gathering pace toward the landing site. We convened for group pictures at the bottom while the equipment was packed and the minibus dropped us off close to the hotel late morning.

With time on our hands and a recommendation for a good bite at a lakeside restaurant, we decided to backtrack and followed the lake on foot for a good time before finding the restaurant and taking lunch beside another landing site. After lunch, a little further back up the road, a lakeside snack house awaited where we wasted the afternoon away drinking tea and looking out over the tranquil water of the still lake. Paradise. We couldn’t have been any farther away from the deluge of dust and dirt and stress and noise that is India. Nepal is quite the adversary. We made a pact there and then that we should all return to the same spot within the ensuing five years, something I would happily honour.

Aware that dusk would soon be upon us, we left the restaurant late afternoon and meandered back along the lake towards the town. Some time significantly later, after stopping for an energy boost of chicken momos, we were back in the tourist centre of Pokhara. Time for a spot of shopping and our last king-size meal back at the Everset Steak House. Picking up supplies on the way back to the hotel, we prepared for the long journey home the following morning.

Thursday morning we awoke at some indecent hour to hitch a cab to the bus station and take the first bus back to the border. The bus back wasn’t much smoother than the bus there, but by then we well knew what to expect. It was when we got to the border that afternoon that the journey began to sour, and ironically it was the border crossing that marked the end of our time in the bubble of paradise that was Nepal. We did exactly the reverse of what we had done on the way, stopping at the hotel on the Nepali side to purchase tickets for the bus to Gorakhpur, and taking a couple of rickshaws to get us through immigration. But on the Indian side an argument broke out with the rickshaw drivers over price, Indians being Indians, and the ticket master tried to rip us off by getting us to pay his friend to confirm our already confirmed train tickets.

As soon as we smelt a scam we asked politely to have the ticket back and walked off. But the guy still had our passport numbers and details, and refused to give them back. Hungry, fatigued and frustrated with the Indian preoccupation to make an extra buck, I ripped the page out of the man’s book, screwed it up and took off for the bus. What I hadn’t accounted for was the fact that the ticket master had seen what had happened and was obviously irritated by the fact that we hadn’t let his friend rip us off for a few extra rupees. So, in turn, he “lost” our real tickets and put us on a government bus. Without realizing this, a conflict ensued with the bus manager when we refused to pay the fare, given that we had already paid once. Voices raised, adrenaline pumped and the guy actually threatened us with violence, attempting to slap me and Alex lightly whenever the girls made a counter argument. This is one scenario I have never encountered in India before, but there was really nothing we could do but suck it in and pay the man before someone did something that really would sour the trip. A quiet observer sitting next me, obviously embarrassed by the conduct of his fellow countryman, insisted on buying us fruit at a market and lending me his jumper when it got cold. I couldn’t refuse such generosity. Still, it is ironic that we should come from our own little heaven in the mountains of Nepal, to our own little hell of stress and frustration the moment we arrive back in India.

Two hours later and we were back in the gloomy city that is Gorakhpur. Trust me, you don’t want to ever stay in this place for long. We rediscovered the same restaurant that we frequented almost a week before and waited for the departure time of our train. This time the train was only a couple of hours late, but there was concern for some time that it might be a repeat of our outbound journey. We finally arrived back in Gurgaon to the familiar malaise of noise and dirt. Malaise it may be, but at least it is familiar. We have made it our home, and we were happy to be back. After a short time to recover with a shower and some food, we were ready to hit the town to celebrate. Fond memories of the place and the people, this was without doubt one of the best trips I have graced with my presence since my time in India. I can only hope for many more like it.

Camels, Palm Trees and Bikes

It had been a bit of a dry spell in terms of traveling. A few weekends in Delhi after I got back from China, and then along came Diwali and all the associated festivities to celebrate locally. But there’s only so many weekends in a row you can spend in Gurgaon. So two weekends ago I broke the spell with a bike trip to Pushkar, and then took some days off work to go a Hindu wedding in Goa and explore the West coast. It’s been a good fortnight.

Pushkar is one of the oldest cities in India located in central Rajasthan. A popular pilgrimage site and a well known tourist spot. We went to see the annual Pushkar ka Mela, a five day camel and livestock fair that draws in both traders and tourists. I guess we hit the last weekend of the fair because I wasn’t aware of much livestock trading, but there were plenty of camels around and the place was packed with people, Indian and foreign tourists alike.

We set off in the early morning of Saturday 31st. Four bikes with pillions and a car convened at the Kapoors and departed at 3AM, two more by bus. Fourteen in total. A colleague from work and another guy from AIESEC joined the bikers, along with the usual mix of Indian, Russian, Polish, American, Moroccan, Peruvian, German, Italian, French, Singaporean and British. Alex, my new German room mate who arrived on Tuesday the same week, joined us for his initiation.

I took the pillion of Nakul’s bike, an Enfeild Bullet, and we rode in tandem with the others. Once out of Gurgaon, it was great to be on the empty highway with the wind on the face. It was bitter cold, the temperature has dropped a lot recently, especially counting for the wind chill. I didn’t get much sleep the night before but the rush of the cold wind was enough to keep my eyes open, at least for a while.

Just as the sun was breaking through the bike broke down. We were fortunate enough to be right outside a gas station, and I watched the sun rise in the cold morning air whilst Nakul fiddled with the bike to figure out what was wrong. Safiye and Phalgun stopped with us. After fruitless attempts at starting the bike, we cautiously woke two guys who were sleeping in the garage office. Another guy stirred from his sleep on a wooden bed outside. They were very helpful and located the problem swiftly, something to do with the fuse, and we were back on the road within the hour. It’s these comedy moments, when four of us are momentarily stranded at a deserted garage in the middle of nowhere, dreary eyed, waking up strangers to request assistance, that make trips like these so memorable.

The journey thereafter was tough. The roads were smooth and straight all the way to Jaipur, but sleep deprivation was getting to all of us. For the drivers, it’s just a matter of focusing on the road. For the pillions, its not so easy to keep the eyes open when sleep is wanting. There was some beautiful scenery in parts, rolling hills breaking through the first light. But then there would come long spans of desert with nothing to look at but the paintwork on the road. It was then that the going got difficult, desperately trying to keep myself from falling asleep and staying upright on the back of the bike. With nothing but the underside of the seat to hold on to, it may not have ended so well had I failed to desist the urge to sleep. Exhaustion necessitated a further two stops, one for breakfast and one a while later, so we lost another two hours. By late afternoon we were through Jaipur and into Pushkar, at our hotel the “Pink Floyd.” I’m guessing ten to eleven hours from Gurgaon including the stops.

A cold shower at the Pink Floyd woke me up and soon we were lingering in the crowded streets amidst fabric makers and fruit sellers whilst evening arrived. When hunger became irrepressible we found an intriguing place to eat in a side street. A fixed price all-you-can eat Indian buffet, with live performances of Indian dance and music. It was the perfect end to a tiring day, and after I consumed everything I had space for, we relaxed in front of the performance area watching the dancers. The night ended with a drink of “special” lasi on the rooftop of the hotel, and then we retired to our room, a bunch of mattresses on the floor.

Pushkar from the top

The following morning I woke early with Daria and Javed to walk up a nearby mountain and temple. From the top we looked out over Pushkar and the encompassing desert with its intervening hills. An elderly man welcomed me enthusiastically and announced that he had two daughters in Bangalore, should I happen to be looking for bride. For the remainder of the morning we explored the city in the daylight and walked around the fair, with a camel ride thrown in for good measure. The group reconvened for lunch in the late afternoon, knowing that soon enough we would have to get back on the bikes to face the journey home.

Travel in style

The return journey was fine to begin with, descending from the hills and along windy roads. Then Jaipur came and went, the sun set, and familiar bouts of lethargy endured. Later into the night the roads were deserted of cars and bikes, save us and the usual bursts of large Tata freight trucks. I battled to remain conscious as we weaved in and out of trucks and accelerated out of tight spaces. At times, in the delirium of headlights and smoke and fatigue, my eyes would start making pictures out of hazy shapes on the horizon. The canvas trailing the back of a truck becomes a waving child and a road sign metamorphoses into an elephant crossing the highway. It’s at these points that you know it’s time to stop for Chai and an energy boost, before things get dangerous. A final stop at the 24-7 McD’s half an hour from Gurgaon, and we were on the home strait, home by 3AM. A challenging ride, but worth it for the company of the other bikers. Now there’s a good way to spend 48 hours.

As if I needed any time to recover from our weekend escapades, I returned to work for two days and flew to Goa the following Wednesday morning. This time there were twelve of us; Kashmiri, Columbian, Brazilian, American, Moroccan, Polish, French, German, Singaporean, Albanian, and British. It was unfortunate that I woke with a stomach infection that morning, the third time I have had stomach issues in India and the second time the morning before a flight. So I spent the morning running between the bathroom and packing my bag, wondering how I would make the two and a half hour flight. Needless to say, I made it.

We rocked up at Goa airport early afternoon and met the groom, Roshik, a colleague of Karol’s who invited us all down here. He has the next two days organized, a bus from the airport to our hotel in Panjim, transport to and from Baga for a party that night, the wedding the following afternoon and the reception in the evening. After dropping our bags in Panjim we ambled around the city looking for a good place to eat. Me, I just moved with crowd clutching my stomach and hoping for a quick recovery before the evening. Back to the hotel for a couple of hours power nap before making our way to Baga for food and drinks with Roshik and his friends. Fortunately the nap did me some good and I was in recovering form that evening. It was a bizarre night at a club / restaurant where we danced first and ate dinner after. Good finish to the night on the beach just across the road.

Walking to the wedding

Thursday morning was a sight; eleven foreigners (minus Alex who was ill) in full traditional hindi dress, the girls in saris and the guys in kurtas, walking down a dusty track towards the venue of the wedding. We took a wrong turning at one point and ended up walking past local traders selling fruit and flowers. I don’t know what they must have thought of the sight of us, but it was amusing to watch their response. The wedding itself was not overly eventful. Roshik sat proud on a chair at the front, as if a king on a throne, before his wife-to-be was allowed to join him. They went through various different rituals including lighting up a fire and walking around it several times. But it was really difficult to know exactly what was going on because the photographer was always standing in the way and there was no PA system. After the ceremony we had lunch and piled back on the bus for the hotel.

The wedding

With some time to spare in the afternoon, me, Rouf, Basia and Karol took a cab out of Panjim to find a place to stay on the northern beaches. We found a place in Candolim two minutes from the beach, and hired “scooties” for the trip back to Panjim and the remaining three days of our stay. It was my first experience of driving on Indian roads with Indian drivers, so I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a tad intimidating. But it doesn’t take long before you’re fighting for your space on the road just as well as everyone else. That evening we attended the reception on the riverside in Panjim. It was a fantastic setting and we all got very sweaty dancing around in kurtas and saris.

Friday morning we checked out of the hotel and motored over to Candolim for three days of sun. I took Jas on the back of the scooter and we missed a turning and ended up at the next beach on, stopped for a drink, and wound up in some sort of lottery prize scam. We were in the holiday mood so we played along, and ended up “winning” seven nights accommodation in a nice hotel in Bali. There are catches, a booking fee, but if I’m heading that way soon anyway it’s not too shabby. Met up with the rest of the gang on the becah in Candolim that afternoon and got a cab over to Baga in the evening for drinks on the beach with friends from the wedding.

Me & Jas

Saturday morning those of us with bikes and pillions got up in reasonable time for breakfast at Infernos and set off to explore the Northern coast, stopping off for a swim at each beach on the way. Six bikes and ten riders. It was a fantastic day bopping around country roads and exploring the less frequented beaches. Reminded me of my January trip to Thailand, exploring the east coast islands by scooter. When the sun began to set we hurried back to Paradise beach, perhaps the most beautiful of the Northern coast, where we watched the sunset from the sea and chilled on the water’s edge. A super end to a super day. Later in the evening, after dinner back in Candolim, me, Saf, Jas, Yasmine and Yasmina cabbed it back over to Baga to make the most of the night’s entertainment. It was a super chilled evening and it ended in a good club just over the road from the beach.

The scootie crew

Sunday was perhaps more eventful than I might have desired. The plan had been for a few of us to motor back to Paradise Beach and chill there for the morning. I took Yas on my scootie and Jas took her own. It was all running smoothly; we knew the way, we were all comfortable with the bikes, the roads were deserted. Then we came to a cross roads and through no fault of her own Jas collided with another vehicle. She was going at a reasonable speed, slowing down for the other vehicle, saw that it was waiting and began to accelerate when the other guy veered into the middle of the road without warning. It is silly that we should encounter such problems with Indian traffic out here on empty roads, but there was nothing she could have done to avoid it. Fortunately, the accident wasn’t too serious. She came off the bike and suffered several serious skin abrasions, one to the face a few on the arms and knees, but that was the extent of it. We were close by to a hospital so got her cleaned up pretty quickly and back in Candolim for a recovery lunch. I spent my afternoon running between the beach and the hire man, negotiating a price to replace the broken plastics on the front of the damaged scootie. Not the ideal way to end a holiday in Goa, but this kind of thing is part and parcel of life in India. TII, as I mentioned in the previous post.

My final lunch in Goa was a beef steak at our favourite spot, Infernos. In the South, beef is much more widely available and since Goa is a Christian state there are no religious constraints on eating the sacred cow. So it was a welcome a site, having not had any form of red meat for the three months since I arrived in India (save a couple of meals in China). Finally, a cab back to the airport stopping off at the off-license to pick up some cheap Feni, a Kashew based vodka that is a local delicacy here. Ironically, it was raining as we left. Goa was crying for our departure.

So that was my fortnight. Eventful to say the least but typical of our Indian adventures. We are all assimilating back to life in dusty Gurgaon this week, and no doubt most of us have the post-holiday blues, especially poor Jas as she nurses her wounds back to health. But it’s only temporary. The weekend is close and our next trip is just around the corner. I can feel it already.

This Is India

A couple of years ago when I was in Tanzania, we coined the phrase “T.I.A.” or “This Is Africa” (from the movie ‘Blood Diamond’). It is an expression for those inexpressible moments when the absurdity of the circumstance is overwhelming to the point that you are left hanging, helpless and paralyzed, by it’s incongruence to your rational frame of reasoning. Well, India is not Africa, but it is definitely absurd. There are innumerable moments when all you can do is to shrug your shoulders and admit, This Is India. Today was just another day, abound with those T.I.I. moments, that make every day a challenge and an accomplishment. Another day alive. Another day survived.

102_6162This evening myself and Jacek took it upon ourselves to solve another crisis that has arisen in our house lately. Since the gas is not piped here, but stored in large cylinders, it needs replacing every now and again or you are left with no stove to cook on. This has been the case for several days now, after the gas ran out in the middle of cooking a celebratory meal for the Diwali festival. So, with a 15kg empty gas cylinder wrapped in a bedsheet on my lap, I rode on the pillion of Jacek’s bike to the landlord’s house in Phase II. We took the usual shortcut, across the middle of the road into oncoming traffic and a few yards along the wrong side of the highway. Needless to say the landlord was obliging and even offered a cup of chai, before making the trip back with a full gas cylinder on the pillion. If I am not Indian now, I never will be.

There are a few other T.I.I. moments I would like to share with you. I remember a while back, my first month here, relaxing at home on the sofa with a good book. I became aware of an itch on my neck and I go to scratch it, but am unable to alleviate it. Without warning it begins to hurt, so I ask my house mates, “what is up with my neck?” Gasps of cussing in their alarm, it turns out that a giant ant has embedded itself in my neck. I say giant because it was three to four times the size of the ants I am accustomed to in the UK.

I’ve always wondered if the countless weedy security guards that parade the entrances of offices and food complexes have any purpose beyond appearances. Once, on the way to work, a guard was perched on the pavement with his gun pointed toward the sky resting between his knees. Curious, we glanced over to get a closer look at the weapon, only to find that the end was stuffed with cotton wool. We laughed, and when the guard realised the source of our amusement, he laughed with us.

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Another bizarre sight that takes a while to get used to is the numerous cows that roam free in the street due to their status in Indian culture as sacred animals. Once, on my walk home from work, I rounded the corner to our house and there was herd of eight or nine cows and bulls, walking in single file down the road. The hilarious thing is, they have no owner or herder. They were just hanging out, as they do, with some sort of mutual purpose since they seemed to be going somewhere.

Another day, I caught a rickshaw home with Safiye and we got off at the top of our road to avoid engaging in the inevitable confrontation over price with the rickshaw driver, in view of our house (Jacek’s window was recently broken, I think by a disgruntled rickshaw driver). Anyway, upon rounding the corner we suddenly met with the savage sound of a pack of wild dogs in the distance. They were barking ferociously and although not yet in sight, it sounded like they were running in our direction. Be sure of one thing, we didn’t hang around to see what was happening.

One of the strangest nights I had was during one weekend when the girls were away traveling and Jacek was back in Poland. I had just returned from a night and was home alone, which is never a desirable thing. If you’ve been to our house you will know that we suffer from frequent power outages and water shortages, so that very often when our friends come round they find us huddled around the dining table in candle light, exhausted and thirsty with no drinking water or means of showering. Added to this the strange noises at night, from the cat jumping on the roof or the upstairs neighbors dragging their chairs along the floor. On this particular night I came home to an empty house with no electricity. There were eerie noises coming from the whistle blowing of the security guards and who-knows-what animal in the back yard. I lit a candle to find my way to my room, only to discover a splattered trail of blood, leading from the backdoor through the kitchen and dining room. It was equivalent to a scene from a horror movie.

Needless to say, we figure that the source of the blood must have been the cat, which frequents our house on a daily basis when we forget to close the back door. On the subject of the cat, it recently got itself stuck on top of the geyser in Safiye’s room, and we were forced to live with constant meowing for a couple of days. Turns out that it fell four floors from the rooftop, with no means of escape. After a failed attempt with our neighbor to lure the cat into a bucket lowered down on a piece of string, I think the neighbor must have called someone to resolve the problem. Because the following day the cat was back in the house, gazing at me with its piercing eyes, hoping that I would relent and sacrifice some food. I never do.

There are many other T.I.I incidents that I can recount, such as the time I nearly fell into a six foot hole in the middle of a zebra crossing, because you have to run to get across the road at rush hour and at night there are no street lights. Don’t ask me why there was a six foot hole in the middle of a zebra crossing, but the rickshaw drivers perched on the side of the road were astute enough to give a warning shout before it was too late. I had just come from a session at the gym, during which I recall lying on the bench mid-exercise watching a family of rats fighting in the air vent above me.

Another thing that astounds me is the marketing strategy of the local optician. Whenever I go to the market, I always walk past this place and my eyes are naturally drawn to the poster on the shop front. The graphic displayed on the poster is deliberately distorted and out of focus so that when you look at it you immediately become paranoid that your sight has deteriorated and, since you are standing outside an optician, feel compelled to call in and book an appointment.

Me & Safiye, riding the rickshaw Indian style

Me & Safiye, riding the rickshaw Indian style

Last week, on the day we celebrated Diwali festival at the office, I shared a rickshaw with Safiye to work. We were dressed in traditional attire for the occasion, which was novel in itself. But then the rickshaw punctured a tire, and we were forced to walk to the office dressed in kurtas. It must have been a sight, judging by the glances we got from passers by. Later that evening, I walked into the gym in my traditional wear. Head down, I was trying to avoid eye contact with my workout buddies, who thought I looked hilarious. Then my trainer walks into the changing room, takes one look at me and says “nice dress Mr Simon.” I guess I should’ve thought through the whole traditional-wear-to-work thing a bit more.

Then at the weekend, I answered the door to an Indian transvestite. A man dressed as a not-so-convincing traditional Indian lady. She was collecting money for something, I really don’t know what or why. But I didn’t have a clue what to say, I just stood there until a security guard from outside was so helpful as to move her on, sparking an argument between this weedy security man and an eccentric door collecting transvestite.

Later that day we had the privilege of sharing Diwali with a colleague and her extended family. They had prepared fire crackers for the occasion, as everyone seems to do here. The first fire cracker they got out was described to me, very aptly, as a bomb. I stood a few yards back, expecting a colorful display of dazzling fireworks, when all of a sudden there was a series of deafening bangs. I looked down at the floor and covered my ears whilst my legs were pelted with debris. Everyone else had long since retreated, I just stood there in utter shock and surprise. I should mention that Jacek, who was standing many yards behind me, got one in the face. He lived to tell the tale, and has a scar to prove it.

So I haven’t really done justice to the amazing weekend I shared with friends and colleagues celebrating the Diwali festival. It is bigger than Christmas here, and is more than worthy of a mention. But I shall leave that for another post, because this ones already kind of long. And I haven’t even mentioned the family of pigeons nesting in Jacek’s bathroom. But by now I think I’ve given you enough anecdotes to know, what I mean when I say; This Is India.

Attempting a fire cracker

Attempting a fire cracker

Cheng Du to Hong Kong

Five and a half restless hours of Bollywood chick flicks and hindi pop. I’m headed back to Delhi with Air India. Not the best of airlines, in fact the worst, but there is the novelty value of being the only non-Indian on the plane. A little disquiet about leaving China and Hong Kong. I could so easily have cancelled my flights and stayed in HK to pursue something new. But that would have been too easy. I have an Indian adventure to resume.

So a quick update on our exploits since Cheng Du. We arrived in Chongqing in the early hours of Monday morning. A few hours sleep before breakfast. After breakfast we were met by a representative of Omei Media Group, the leading billboard advertising agent in Chongqing. She drove us to the company office where we met with the chairman and discussed her company, what sustainability means to her, and Chinese innovation. In the afternoon the company took us to lunch at a nearby restaurant and we were treated to riverside views over the municipality. The place is an incredible feat of human development. 32 million people… and I thought Beijing was impressive (17 million). I’d been trying to figure out the population count all day. The lady that met us in the morning uttered various numbers in her non-native English; 3,200… 32,000… I came to rest on 3.2 million. But 32 million? Herein lies the most significant of drivers underpinning China’s economic growth, urbanization on a monumental scale.

Monday evening we were back on the sleeper train to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. Our local co-ordinator and driver picked us up at the station around 9. We spent a fascinating day at Broard Town, a huge industrial campus for the greentech air conditioning company, Broad Air Conditioning. We were taken on a tour of their facilities, from factory to offices to residences and guest houses. The place really is a town of its own and most of the employees live in the same complex. It was quite a sight sitting in the company canteen when hundreds of manufacturing workers wearing blue jumpsuits started pouring into the hall for lunch.

Broad are doing some great things for clean air conditioning technology. We were shown a variety of domesticated units, but most significantly these huge industrial “chillers” that recycle heat for power and consume only a small amount of electricity with minimal CO2 emissions. The technology is brilliant and it makes absolute commercial sense for any business. They are serving major companies such as DLF, an Indian real estate company that I am very familiar with considering that they own the part of Gurgaon I live and work in (“DLF Cybercity”). This is the model I advocate for getting ourselves out of the mess of climate change. Market-driven, profit maximising innovation that simply makes good common business sense.

Tuesday evening we had dinner with the local coordinator and her parents. The restaurant was good and we were given a private room with views over the city. The table ornament, a bird carved out of a piece of carrot, caused much amusement. We went out in the town after dinner. Wednesday morning we were taken to the Hunan Provincial Museum which exhibits the excavated remains of an ancient tomb, including a corpse that is circa 2,000 years old and extraordinarily well preserved due to the way it was buried. In the afternoon we visited the historic Yuelu Academy situated on the scenic Yuelu Mountain. Some interesting tourist spots. Time for a late afternoon tea in a teahouse, dinner and onto our final sleeper train to Shenzhen.

We arrived in Shenzhen Thursday morning, only to find that the tour company had forgotten to book the hotel. Some time wasted sorting out the issue and we moved hotels. I hadn’t realised how big Shenzhen really is. We didn’t have time to see a great deal but I got a good feel for the kind of commercial hub it has become, the most successful of China’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs), a legacy of the great Deng Xiaoping and his economic reforms.

After a light lunch we met with a professor working with the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology. He and his colleague showed us around the campus. The institute was setup as a R&D centre with the aim of developing new technologies, creating IPR for emerging industries in China and commercialising the technology. In it’s short life it has already had some success stories. The campus was huge, equivalent to walking around a small university. There were numerous teams of people undertaking experiments and scientific research. It was startling to learn that the building had only become inhabitable a mere five months before. This is a subject that has been discussed a lot recently amongst the expeditioners, how China appears to be incredibly good at reproducing technology and making it cheaper, but incredibly weak at innovating its own technology. Here, if anywhere, is a signal that China is beginning to think seriously about innovation and how to translate academic research into commercial enterprise.

Late afternoon we met the chairman of Motong Capital, a private equity firm channeling investment into green technology and initiatives. Some interesting conversation ensued, much of it lost in translation but a valuable insight all the same. He took us to a Japanese restaurant for dinner where the conversation continued. Topics included the remodeling of China’s education system, British politics and the contrasting concerns for businesses in Britain and China. He is interested in opening up an office in London to access the European capital market. After dinner we got a lift to the hotel and retired to bed soon after. Friday morning we packed up and checked out of the hotel. Chester and Charlie stayed the day exploring the infamous markets for cheap electronics and fake clothes. I jumped on the metro with Leon to cross the border into Hong Kong.

Arriving in Hong Kong was like returning home. Seven months since I was last there, it felt no more than a fortnight. It’s something quite special to have such affinity with a place that you feel comfortable enough to call it a home. I may only have stopped by for four days, but it was like catching up with an old acquaintance.

Friday night I met a friend in Festival Walk, the shopping centre in Kowloon Tong that I often frequented. Dinner and a stroll in Tsim Sha Tsui, catching up in a late night coffee shop. Saturday was conference day and we rolled up at the Jockey Club just in time for registration in the morning. A very successful event, with an audience of a hundred. A good quality audience too, many professionals from various fields. We had enough high quality speakers to fill the morning so I saved the audience from my CSR dribble and focused instead on conversations that ensued in the intervals. Saturday evening kicked off with drinks with the guys in Causeway Bay, followed by another evening in TST with a friend before meeting the guys in Lan Kwai Fong to rediscover my favorite watering holes.

Sunday morning I met a friend in Central and we got a bus to Stanley on the south side of the island. Nothing much there but a small market for tourists, the only major attraction I could think of that I haven’t yet seen so it seemed an appropriate way to spend the afternoon. Back to Causeway Bay for dinner and a film in TST, just like the old days. Met the guys again in a bar back in CWB to finish the night.

This morning I was up early again to meet another friend for breakfast in Festival Walk. Great to catch up with old acquaintances and a lemon tea in the University canteen was just like old times. I took advantage of a haircut in the salon (in dire need, and I’m dreading the backstreet barbers of Gurgaon) and met another couple of friends for lunch. Back to the hotel to pick up my bags and a cab to the bus stop to take me to the airport.

Such a brief stopover, but long enough to say hello to old friends and remind the city that I’m still alive. A great way to complete the expedition. I’ve come full circle; Beijing two years ago and Hong Kong last year. Now I can say I’ve done everything (well, some) in between; Xi’an, Chengdu, Chongqing, Changsha and Shenzhen. Fun times, lasting memories, comedy moments. I will take a lot from this trip, even if it wasn’t quite what was expected. A chance to meet new people, listen to new ideas and rethink my own. China, sustainability; they are becoming common themes. I have a feeling it won’t be the last time I find myself engaging with these topics.

Cheng Du

A dark, stuffy coach on the way from Cheng Du to Chongqing. The coach itself is of reasonable comfort, there is even a Chinese film playing. But the AC is non-existent and the last couple of hours have just crawled by. We left Cheng Du at 8:20 and I was under the impression it would be a two hour journey, but since we just made a services stop I guess I was wrong. It’s too hot to sleep.

After arriving in Cheng Du on Friday morning we found our transfer to the hotel and grabbed a quick shower before departing for a rehabilitation centre in Hanwang for victims of the Great Sichuan Earthquake in May last year. It was a bit of a ride out of town and the drivers had to stop to check their maps because the landscape has changed so much that the sat navs don’t correspond to the roads. While the drivers were checking their maps we parked up in the middle of a barren highway that was being reconstructed. When you look, signs of the devastation left from the earthquake are everywhere. It took me a while to see them at first, I guess because the effort at rebuilding the damaged parts of Sichuan has been so great that much of the area has been or is being rebuilt. I can’t imagine what the place would have looked like a year ago. But when you look, you start seeing derelict houses and shops around every corner, great big cracks in walls, unused land from collapsed buildings.

The rehabilitation centre was fascinating. Setup by the NGO Disaster Preparedness Centre, it was this huge expanse of land with long corrugated buildings split into small rooms for displaced victims of the earthquake. Leon volunteered here last year, when it was merely a city of tents. Now there are local shops along the main road, evidently very recent constructions. There appeared to be a good deal of spare capacity, I imagine because most people have relocated back to their homes or have found alternative accommodation. It’s certainly not the kind of place you would want to live for very long. But what the NGO has achieved here is a great example of a very effective initiative.

We had a chat with one of the guys manning the site office. He explained that they lend money to inhabitants for anything that is productive and has investment value, such as animals and pig stys. The NGO make loans for anything from 4,000 RMB up to 20,000, which are interest free and are not payable until the investment has made sufficient return. Much research goes into each case before the money is lent, and thus far they have had no failed businesses and people are already beginning to make repayments. They also provide free lessons on entrepreneurship and how to start small businesses. There are many other microfinance institutions as well, with interest rates between 5 and 10 percent.

We then had a conversation with some of the people living in the temporary accommodation. A Mr Yang had a PC setup in his room and was making a living from PC maintenance. He has to live there for fear of landslides back home and has a loan for 30k RMB from a national bank to rebuild his damaged house, although he needs 100k which he will try to raise from family and friends. It will take another year at least before he can move back. He does not feel comforted by anything the government is doing and feels lost. I can imagine, whilst the project seems to have been very successful at getting people back on their feet, I would hate to be trapped here in temporary accommodation for any length of time.

Before dusk we went a little further down the road to visit an abandoned area of Hanwang. It was literally a ghost town. All the buildings were standing in perilous ruin, old shop signs indicated what a busy little hub it must have recently been. There was a clock tower standing on one side of the road, in relatively good condition compared to the rest of the buildings. The clock was frozen at 14:28, the exact time that the earthquake hit. It’s also the time that school children were returning to their classrooms, and 700 students were buried at a school close by. The official death toll is 70,000.

Saturday was tourist day. A visit to the post-earthquake Wolong Panda Reserve, an essential stop on the tourist circuit. Then a few hours drive out of the city to see the still-functioning water irrigation system in Du Jiang Yan, the foundations of which were built 1,000 years ago. No mean feat, and some great views of the river and countryside, but I couldn’t help but feel ushered around yet another tourist trap. Still, a good way to fill the day.

The evening provided an additional source of entertainment as we went for dinner with Leon’s dad, his stepbrother and girlfriend, and a couple of guys from the conference team. I was the only person present with no Mandarin, so the lively conversation wasn’t especially meaningful to me. However, I learned more in that hour spending time with people and enjoying their company than I had the entire day trawling around on the tourist trail. We were treated to a massage after dinner. No complaints there.

Today was conference day, similar format to the other two. We arrived at the hotel a couple of hours before and the conference team had everything organised. It was a similar audience to Xi’an, mainly students. Again, the speeches were all mandarin so I kept myself busy taking photos and reading at the back. I repeated my talk on CSR, I hope that at least some people made sense of my English. Alas, Tony our TED guy from Guangdong helped out by interjecting with some translations and I actually got a few well-thought questions at the end. Nice to know I wasn’t preaching to myself. It’s such a difficult subject to broach in China, they just don’t really do CSR here. When I started my talk I asked for a show of hands who has heard of CSR, and not a single person put their hand up. Maybe some have heard of it and are just shy, that’s typical of the Chinese way, but I get the feeling this is an entirely new concept for most people. All the more reason for talking about it and supporting the SUCHEN cause.

We gained an expeditioner this afternoon. Charlie has flown in from the UK to join us on the remainder of the journey, and he will backtrack to do the bits he missed after Hong Kong. We also lost one this morning, she had to fly back to Shanghai, so we are still five. Having left Brad in Xi’an for his field work, it will be interesting to see how the group dynamic changes. Chongqing here we come.


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