India is a fascinating country with cows in the street, four people on a motorbike and traffic that would make the British cry.
The plane trip to India was reasonably quite. The only incident was the lady behind me angrily pushing my chair rapidly forward and backwards when she decided that I had gone to far back. Landing was smooth and the passport control was divided between Indian citizens and others. The queue was long and I dreaded standing there for hours but it moved quite quickly. Passing across my passport and filled in papers I expected a few questions but not a word was exchanged. With my passport stamped I moved off to find my baggage. I was hardly in the row before my bag appeared. O joy I dreaded losing it and this was a welcome surprise. Next I looked for customs and looking a bit lost a man approached me took the remaining form I had from passport control tore of a piece and waved me towards some doors.
As I stepped out the doors I realised that there were a lot of people in India. A large crowd hung outside the doors and all I could see was a steel barrier and lots, and lots, and lots of people. Hung over the barrier were name boards. The crowd had lots of name boards. It was going to be a challenge to find the driver waiting for me?.. I slowly walked along the barrier looking for my name (And all the spelling variations I could think of) I got to the end and found nothing. At this stage multiple people decided I needed a lift and I had to say repeatedly a driver is fetching me. I slowly made my way back up the barrier scanning for my name thinking ?I do not know the hotel name?, ?I do not have my ticket for the next flight?, and ?this country is very different?.
Then I spotted my name on a board that in the UK would have been oversized, but, in India it was just another one in the crowd. I pointed to my name and somebody grabbed the board held it over his head and headed for the exit. I raced after him and the next thing my bags were grabbed and a chauffeur with a white cap was escorting me to a car. Cars and people were moving in the parking lot and I stayed very close to the driver who seemed to just walk across the lot as if he was invincible. Cars braked, cars went speeding past, horns were sounded but in the end we made it to the car. My bags were placed in the boot and the driver seemed surprised that I chose the front seat but reluctantly accepted the fact. Motion sickness had taught me at an early age sit in front when driving with strangers.
Upon climbing in the car I strapped myself in and noted that the driver did not bother. The driver was on the right hand side so in Theory they drove on the left side of the road in India. We pulled out of the parking lot and pushed into traffic. When I say pushed I mean that although traffic was approaching the drive did not stop, he merely made sure that he did not rear-end anybody. Somehow traffic did not crash into us. As we rounded the first corner the driver swerved to avoid a cow in the middle of the road. Next stop the hotel.
As we stopped at the hotel the doorman opened my door and welcomed me. My bags were offloaded and put onto a trolley. I checked in without much fuss. Thomas had arranged everything and all was well. I was escorted off to my room. After a shower I fell onto my bed exhausted from the flight but could not sleep. I phoned home to notify everyone I was still alive. Eventually I must have drifted off?..
My alarm woke me up and it was tough getting out of bed at what was 01:30 UK time. After dressing and getting my things together I decided to open my curtains and see what India looked like by day. A multi-storey building dominated the view. I was uncertain whether the building was falling apart or was being built slowly. A small shack village was next to this and some really old multi-storey square buildings nearby. A photo or two later I negotiated my way down to the lobby and after checking out I was soon off.
Traffic was frightening. How we did not hit anybody and how we did not get hit is beyond me. Two lanes were turned into four. Flickers were only used by the odd few people and possibly they were being tested for a driving license. Cars moved from lane to lane blowing horns all the way. Horns were blown to tell cars you were coming past. Horns were blown to say get out of the way. I tried to work out how many toots were meant for what but gave up. Small yellow three wheelers were everywhere. Motorcycles were in the majority and were weaving in and out of traffic. Bicycles were every where. In the middle of the road. Any gap left was instantly filled with some sort of vehicle. My driver was fearless and with many a push on the horn we slowly made our way to the airport. The airport was reasonably uneventful. I saw a ticket office for the airline I was flying on and after working out that queue was not a concept India was very familiar with leapt at the next available windows and had my ticket issued. Next was security and after placing my bag in an x-ray machine it was sealed by a machine that wrapped a tie around it. The wait in the lounge was uneventful and soon we were on a bus to the plane and then seated.
The journey took about an hour and a half. We were soon on the ground and looking for our baggage. I left the exit doors and another crowd greeted me. My name was shouted and shortly one of the office staff greeted me and escorted me to his car. Compared to my new driver the taxi drivers were calm when driving. He was obviously used to driving in rush hour traffic and getting from point A to be should be accomplished in the quickest time possible. I was afraid to speak to him because if his concentration was broken for a split second somebody was sure to die horribly. I thought that we were about to crash or be crashed into so many times I thought I heard Angels singing welcome. He pushed his car through spaces I thought possibly I would take a bicycle through. The other side of the road was used when cars were in front of him that seemed to take a second too long to go. Oncoming traffic was only a problem when there was a large bus. Cars, motorcycles, pedestrians, bicycles were hooted out of the way. I was sure a head on collision with a small yellow three wheel taxi was a certainty a few time. After all when you pull out over a white line into oncoming traffic you should at least crash. Cars just moved past each other with millimetres to spare. Yellow taxis were going both ways on both sides of the road. People pull out from the side of the road and then possibly look. Cars are so close to each other bumpers that it is amazing that they stop in time. Nobody wears safety belts. Only a few motorcyclists wear a helmet. Bare feet, shorts and a thin shirt are the preferred motorcycle clothing. Small child on the tank and two passengers at the back are familiar sites. Many woman ride side saddle on the motorcycles. I have never seen that many motorcycles and bicycles in my life.
After much prayer the journey ended at the hotel where I checked in and was taken to my room. After dumping my bags we were off again towards the office. Traffic was pretty much the same towards the office. We encountered what seemed to be a roundabout and the way to negotiate it was to drive as fast as possible and cars, bikes and taxis would get out of the way if they were smaller and brakes would be applied if something bigger was in the way. Going around a corner usually meant that four lanes of traffic would become two and the bravest would be in front. Amazingly we made it without any accident being witnessed.
I could just imagine letting one of the Indian drivers loose in traffic in Sunderland, giving him 20 pounds and telling him to get me to the airport as quickly as possible in rush hour traffic. We would leave smouldering wrecks behind with quivering drivers babbling about demons from hell on the road. Even better yet a race between a Soweto Taxi driver in a mini bus and a taxi driver from India would really separate the men from the boys.
We eventually turned up at the office, got onto an old lift that had a gate we needed to close and I was introduced to the office. I spent the next few hours destroying thousands of computer viruses and soon it was time for lunch. It is perhaps the time to mention now that travel to India means that one needs to take several precautions. Tap water should under no circumstances be drunk. This means that bottled water has to be carried around at all times. Fresh fruit and vegetables should be avoided. Horrible bitter malaria tablets should be taken regularly. And every person who had ever been to India had come back with some sort of stomach bug that kept them in the library for a few days. When asked what I felt like I asked if they had a mild curry available feeling sure that after traumatic experiences with my fathers ‘MILD’ curries no germs could possibly survive.
The curry arrived and my hosts had specially ordered it from one of the international hotels so as to avoid any unfair over use of their facilities by myself. Just as well the mild version was ordered. I put on a brave face and with the help of a few cans of diet cola sweated through lunch. Having practiced eating curries in Sunderland at an Indian restaurant I had become adjusted to various heats of curries. It was not as hot as the famous curry in Sunderland but was up there with some of the hotter ones.
Last year during the annual Children in need fund raising event we went as a work group to the restaurant under the street for a curry. They had a challenge on that day in support of red nose day. It was eat the special HOT curry and you would win a prize and they would donate a large percentage to the appeal. I can’t remember if it was Graeme or myself who first mentioned that it would be good to support the event but looking back neither of us will admit to it. We both ordered the extra hot curry and the waitress who almost called us on our first names due to the frequency we visited did a double take and asked us if we were sure. After we assured her we were, the curry was prepared and the chef himself served us so that he could look at the faces of his victims in person. Looking at the curry we noticed that raw chilies had been used to garnish the dish. Putting on a brave face we tucked in. Hot was not the word I would use to describe it. But we were there with various people from work in attendance and not wishing to look weak we took turns eating a fork full of fire. Tears were streaming down our faces as we took the second piece and I had to check if the fork was not melting and was my throat not glowing. My mothers words of you dished up you eat it came to mind. The waitress had delivered a jug of water and two glasses with a worried expression. With much water, tears and nose blowing we actually managed to finish. The owner of the restaurant came over and shook our hands. Nobody had managed to eat the full bowl of curry yet and it turned out we were the only idiots that got it right. Apparently even they do not eat curry that hot. The waitress took pity on us and served the two of us two bowls of ice cream which we kept in our mouths as long as possible to assist the cooling process. I had no taste for two days afterwards and also learnt another valuable lesson about curry not long afterwards. It burns on the way out as well.
A few thousand more dead viruses later it was time to get a taxi to the hotel. The driver did not speak English very well but had been given strict instructions to deliver me to the Raj hotel. Driving at night was a novel experience. Traffic was a bit lighter and due to the fact that it was dark I could not see how many cars we nearly hit. The driver pulled up at the hotel and I got out. As he drove off I thought to myself that he must have dropped me off at another entrance because it looked a bit different. Upon entering the lobby I was sure it must be another entrance as the lifts were in the wrong place and the lobby seemed different. The name was the Raj so it must be the right hotel. I took the elevator to floor two and when I got out the carpet was wrong. Now I started to get a bit worried. I looked for the room number 211 and soon found room 210. Next to it was 212. 211 had disappeared. I must have had a very puzzled expression on my face because a security guard came over and in broken English asked if he could assist. Showing him my room keys I asked if I was in the correct hotel. He did not understand and after a phone call decided to take me to the lobby. The lobby staff informed me that there were two Raj hotels and I was in the wrong one. I requested a taxi and soon was on my way to the correct hotel.
The next day I was picked up at the hotel by the same person who got me at the airport. I though at this stage that traffic could not get any worse. I was wrong. It started to rain. In India when it rains it rains. Sheets of ran descended from the heavens and the road was tuned into a lake. You would think that this would slow the traffic down. Apparently not. People were avoiding the edge of the road because a pothole or rock may be lying in wait for them. Pedestrians who walked on the side of the road could not due to the flooding so everybody used the centre of the road. Raincoats were un heard of. Everybody was soaked and it did not seem to bother them. Where there was a dip in the road the small three wheeled taxis were stalling due to water levels and passengers were pushing them to the side everywhere. Through all this chaos my driver hooted and shouted until we made it to the office.
After many curries (including a curry pizza) it was time to head home. I enjoyed my trip to India immensely. Traffic in South Africa and the UK will seem tame in comparison to what I had lived through. The people went out of their way to make me feel welcome and everywhere I went people were friendly. The music of constant hooters from a multitude of vehicles will be remembered with a smile. Hurtling around a corner and braking hard to avoid a cow wandering in the middle of a busy road was something the kids enjoyed me telling.