Bamboozling: Welcome to India

Monday 28 April 2014 by

Bamboozling. There’s simply no other word that convincingly captures the enigma that is India. With its in-your-face diversity, from snow-dusted mountains to sun-washed beaches, tranquil temples to feisty festivals, lantern-lit villages to software-supremo cities, it’s hardly surprising that this country has been dubbed the world’s most multidimensional. Love it or loathe it, and most visitors see-saw between the two, India promises to jostle your entire being, and no matter where you go or what you do, it’s a place you’ll never forget. -Lonely Planet website 2010

Well I had made it to this “bamboozling” country that is India, my life on my back and a guide book I’d skimmed through on the plane. I was pretty “bamboozled” because I arrived at two in the morning and was the only person getting off the plane. A good tip while travelling is to make friends with people on the plane, it’s easy enough to do because they supply unlimited amounts of booze on flights, a delight I found out on my first trip to Thailand when I tried to ask an Ethiad air hostess how much a beer was:

“They are included sir,” she informed me as I was digging in my pocket for money.

“It’s free?” I replied holding out my change imagining I was going to have to pay at least 80 pounds.

“All inclusive sir,” she beamed. She had to be new; she would lose her job for giving away free booze.

“Are they definitely free?” I urged, not believing my luck and nearly convinced she was right.

“Yes sir, they are definitely free,” she smiled. I can imagine my smile was bigger than hers finding out it was an open bar on a 12 hour flight.

“I’ll take two then,” I beamed back. My long haul flights have been the same since. I think I was the last person to learn about these all-you-can-drink bars that fly.

You can talk to people on the plane. Once you’ve watched a couple of movies and drank a bit, you can find out where they’re heading, where they’re staying, and useful information like that. On my flight everyone was heading to Goa though, so when we arrived in Mumbai the people I had talked to went to another departure lounge while the plane drank fuel: I headed for arrivals.

Like a cool summer breeze when walking in England, India has the reverse. You leave the air-conditioned airport and a raging hot breeze knocks you back inside. The India Lonely Planet has its uses: where to go, what to see, where to stay; it gives you a basic idea and it makes a cracking door stop to as it is the size of a brick. What it doesn’t mention is what to do if you arrive at two in the morning being the only white person in an ocean of Indian strangers, with no idea what to do. The light reading I had done of the book had filled me with paranoia to. I had to watch out for everyone and everything, locals might try to rob me or spike my drinks to steal my money, I wasn’t to confident at this point, I hadn’t got the gist just yet.

That’s not to say I wasn’t greeted warmly with smiling faces from the locals, whether these smiles were saying “welcome to this new and magical country, we hope you enjoy your stay and have blessed travels” or smiles saying “what the hell is this white guy doing at the airport at two in the morning on his own?” Two Indian brothers approach me (not in a gangster brother kind of way they were actually siblings) and offer to buy me a coffee. India was starting straight away to scam me, I was ready for her though, and I wasn’t going in for the oldest trick in the book. Then again I had been drinking on a plane for 12 hours, watched Bridget Jones’ Diary twice because I’d watched everything else, I was pretty tired and needed to find somewhere to stay, a coffee was probably a good idea.  I wasn’t stupid though, obviously I enquired first whether the coffee was drugged, spiked or laced. The two brothers looked at me with a strange look but still with a smile on their faces, I drank the coffee along with its marital partner the cigarette. Luckily I didn’t wake up 12 twelve hours later in a ditch with no bag or dignity, it was ten minutes later and I showed the two brothers the Salvation Army hostel address in Colaba, which is the backpacker district of Mumbai. They kindly escorted me to a taxi and jumped in with me.

There wasn’t a complete language barrier between us but I did never quite manage to ask the two brothers why they felt the need to come with me in the taxi. Did they live in Colaba? Had they always wanted to visit? Was this a lucky coincidence that we could all share the cost of a taxi? I didn’t really mind, so far I didn’t feel like India was trying to take advantage, I felt comfortable and showed my new brothers pictures of my family as we drove deeper into the crazy juxtaposition that is Mumbai.

Imagine driving past the Hilton in London and someone has built a garden shed next to it. It would look very strange; this is what Mumbai’s like. Our taxi window looked like it was getting close to “civilisation”, the odd lit up ATM sign, or a fire, maybe a late night cigarette and Samosa stand, but at this time of the morning the only residents awake seemed to be dogs and cows. Cows? I later found out that they are sacred. It’s just a bit weird for me  waiting at traffic lights while a cow crossed the road carrying a briefcase and wearing a bowler hat on his way to work (probably for you too, unless you’re a cattle herder, enjoy country lane driving or London had a zoo outbreak). Ok that wasn’t true but there were cows milling about everywhere. Cow is God.

My first tour around Mumbai was of all the different full hotels. Suffice it to say I didn’t know where I was as I was chauffeured to, and then paraded in front of the staff of these hotels who just looked tired and confused. That same question “what is this white guy doing here at four in the morning?” seemed to be on all their faces, except my brothers who just bundled me back into the taxi to try somewhere else. The hotels looked nice enough even the ones that seemed to be located in slums; this is quite common in India. The builders of the hotel live in little metal villages around the building site and once the hotel is erected the villages stay and people move in. I couldn’t help thinking I really should have done some research about this country. Nothing bad had happened yet though so I just continued to follow the white rabbit in the form of my two brother friends to see where it would lead me.

Calm and collected and pretty awake, thanks to the fifth coffee the brothers had bought me along our journey through night time Mumbai, a police van pulled up next to our taxi. My guide book induced paranoia jumped to the forefront of my mind the scary stories of corrupt police and Indian jail cells, I’d seen Midnight Express and that’s closer to home. I hadn’t done anything wrong had I? I didn’t have any drugs strapped to my chest, it can’t have been illegal to drive round different full hotels and drink a lot of coffee, can it? It was about half past three by now and I could have easily been taken away by these officers and have no way of telling anyone; I could literally disappear and never be found. I don’t think I could have found myself which is mainly why people go travelling; I go for cheap drinks. After noticing these officers had guns I quickly exited the taxi on their instruction with my white rabbit brothers and assemble my passport, camera, and money on the bonnet of the taxi, also on their instruction. Seeing everything is there I’m pointed back to the taxi and I never see my Indian brothers again as they are escorted to the police van after flipping me a “west side” hand gesture. OK that didn’t happen either but a bond, whether savings, James or blood cannot be forgotten.

The officers couldn’t translate this to me but I found out from other travellers that my two brothers would have wanted money after finding me somewhere to stay. They would have received a payment from the hotel to for bringing custom; a finder’s fee I guess. They didn’t so much find me as drag me but I don’t see anything really wrong with it, couple of chancers bless them. The police didn’t want to throw me in jail either, they were simply making sure the two brothers hadn’t stolen anything from me. The two were taken away in the police van but wouldn’t have been harassed any further.

So imagine it, I’ve arrived in a country I know nothing about on my own. So far the only people I’ve met are two Indian brothers, siblings not gansters, various confused hotel workers and the fuzz. I am now being escorted by the police somewhere in a taxi with a driver who can’t speak a word of English. All the driver hears is a slightly concerned voice saying “hotel, hotel” from the back seat of his cab and refuses to respond until his cab arrives and the Salvation Army hostel, the place I was trying to find but the police didn’t know that. The police officer then appears at the window of the cab and points with a smile saying “hotel?” Thanks India. What a great arrival. To have your emotions sent on a rollercoaster of paranoia, intrigue, fear, wonderment and eventually relief is pretty common in India. This wouldn’t be the first journey my emotions would go on and it wouldn’t even be the same emotions taking the ride but I had a feeling this country was going to be “bamboozling”.

I finally checked into aptly titled Salvation Army Hostel and dropped my bag off (150 rupees for a dorm room) mainly because I was wide awake thanks to the bromantic coffees acquired along this hectic maiden voyage. At this time of the morning, people are asleep on cardboard beds with blankets. Not the whole city of course but a vast amount of the population come to Mumbai to work and have no house, how they manage to stay asleep with all the dogs about I don’t know. The night time guardians, they patrol in numbers and hunt in packs. Always knowing how to survive – living on the bread line. Very much like many of the underprivileged, under educated, under nourished population that inhabit this vast cultural myriad of mental and religious states: most of them cracking fellows though, as soon as you mention cricket.

I dare to venture outside, I use the only phrase I know, “Namaste” to anyone awake and am thanked with big smiles in return until I eventually hear “Tom!” It is the policeman who escorted me to the hotel. “You go home now. Not safe.” I think I’d pushed my luck already on my arrival so I agree to go back. It’s too early to be deported, detained or derailed.

I’ve not been in India five hours and I’m already known by the police. However far you travel, some things never change.

You can follow Tom on Twitter: @ThomasBazza

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