Last Days in India

I think I mentioned it in a previous post, but I badly needed to get out of Goa… that place is, literally, a vortex. I made my way down to there after my friend’s wedding in Delhi specifically to cut loose a bit over the holidays… and Goa is a great place to do just that, as you and several hundred thousand other like-minded souls are there for the same reason… see here and here. After the holidays I figured I’d find a quieter spot within Goa to just relax for a bit and recover from the last couple of months… I mean, it’s a whole group of towns on the beach, and people tend to stay for seasons at a time, so relaxing on the beach shouldn’t be that hard to do right? Well… I was wrong… it’s very hard to relax here. Goa is really a party place in every sense of the word… and after being there for a bit, it seems that that partying is the only reason this place even exists as a spot on the tourist map. So, being there, I found it really, really difficult not to go out because everyone else was looking to do the same exact thing… which is great when you’re there on a holiday, but not so good when you just want to relax. I mean, I’d go out with friends for a quiet night and end up watching the sunrise before going to bed… it would just happen… all the time. So, despite being fun, I knew I needed to get out of there. But precisely because it was fun, it was really hard to leave… I’d make a plan to go in a week, or a couple of days, but Goa would just suck me right back in. The week would pass in the blink of an eye and I’d still be no closer to leaving… hence why one American friend of mine and I started referring to the place as “the vortex”… we both continually told ourselves we had to get out of there, and actually made plans to leave several times, none of which we followed through on. The thing with a place like Goa is that it’s really enjoyable, as having fun is a great escape from reality… but when the escape becomes your reality you can get a bit lost, especially when, like me, there’s no structure, or end date, keeping yourself in check… So when I got the invitation to Thailand I literally jumped on it as my exit. It was an easy decision to make. So I’d be saying good-bye to India…. but, of course, nothing about India is ever that easy. As an aside, I don’t mean to discourage anyone from going to Goa… I had a brilliant time for most of my stay, met some great people and can honestly say it’s an amazing place… just that, if you go, go with an end date (there’s a reason Burning Man, to which Goa has a similar feel, is only a week long…).

Back to the story… I buy an airplane ticket from Bombay/Mumbai to Bangkok departing five days from the date of purchase. Those of you familiar with Indian geography will note that Goa and Bombay, while close, are not exactly right next to each other… and getting to there from Goa involves somewhere around 12-14 hours of overland travel depending on the method. Now, you may be asking… in all seriousness of course, why fly out of Bombay when you can fly out of Goa? Simple… for me anyhow… cost. The ticket out of Goa was twice as expensive as the ticket from Bombay.  But wait… I’ve gotten ahead of myself in the story here… I TRIED to buy a plane ticket from Bombay to Bangkok with IndiGo Air (the cheapest fare that I could find by far), buuuutt… their website would not accept payment from a foreign bank issued credit card. Yes… really… this is apparently a thing in India. So, I try the call center for the airline. I explain my situation, have them book the ticket and then try and process the payment over the phone via the same card. The guy on the phone assures me that it shouldn’t be a problem given that my credit card is from a very large US-based, but multinational financial institution. But… my card still won’t go through. However, this time, the guy on the phone informs me that it’s not that they can’t process the card, it’s the fact that I’m calling from a touchscreen phone, and that when I enter the numbers over the phone, their payment system can’t pick them up… I have no response other than dumbfounded silence… I ask if I can just tell someone my credit card information verbally over the phone, but he assures me that idea is impossible. As I sit awestruck at the ridiculousness of their over-the-phone payment system, the man nicely places my reservation on hold for 24 hours and tells me to call back with a non-touchscreen phone. Alrighty then… the next day (well before my 24 hours is up mind you) I find an internet cafe with an actual land line and go through the whole spiel again… only to have the over-the-phone payment system officially deny the payment via my US-issued credit card… shyte. The lady, this time, on the other end of the phone places the reservation on hold for another 24 hours.

Now… as you may have noticed, I’m running into a bit of time crunch here… the flight I have on hold leaves Bombay at 6:30 AM Thursday morning. At the time of my second payment denial above, it’s Monday afternoon. Now, there is an overnight train between Goa and Bombay, but that arrives at 6:15 AM in the morning… clearly not enough time to get between the station and the airport for the flight. I go into two travel agents (you can never trust just what one says) and ask about sleeper berth availability on the overnight train for the following (Tuesday) night… sold out (confirmed by the other travel agent… you always have to check because sometimes a particular agent will tell you the train is sold out to try and get you into a bus seat where he’ll make a bigger commission). That leaves two remaining options… the overnight sleeper bus leaving Tuesday night, and buying an unreserved train ticket for the day train on Wednesday. Given that an unreserved train ticket will get you onto the train, but does not guarantee you a seat (i.e. the possibility of standing for the entire 14 hour train ride between Goa and Mumbai), I felt a more comfortable opting for the overnight bus (note that I could not find daytime buses for Wednesday). But I decide to wait until tomorrow before buying a bus ticket because I want to know if I can get on the plane first… prudent idea right?

I hear, that same day, in my inquiries with various people, that I should be able to find a travel agent that will pay for my ticket, and then I can pay them in cash… with a small surcharge tacked on of course. I inquire at the same two travel agents above… but no dice. I keep plugging along down the road (I’m riding a motor scooter between shops this whole time because all business takes place face to face here and the shops aren’t exactly what I would call next to each other) until I finally find someone who does this sort of thing. In this case, the payment will take place via net banking, whereby the agent will pay the airline via a direct bank transfer from their account, and I’ll pay the agent in cash plus 200 Rupees (the airline does not care if the names of the payor and the ticket holder match since it’s a direct bank transfer and they have the money). Another problem arises though… of course… the server for the whole North Goa area is down, so they can’t make an online payment. When do you think it will be back up I inquire… to which I get the ubiquitous Indian head wobble, which I interpret to mean “I don’t know.” I ask when they close and tell them I’ll be back right before to try it again to see if the server is back up. I drive back up at 9:30 PM, but the server is still down… better luck tomorrow (hopefully).

I get up Tuesday morning with an I have to get shit done attitude… as my 24 hour hold expires at noon, I call the Indigo call center to ask to have my reservation hold extended as I think I have a solution but I’m not sure about the bank’s server at this point… which they do, but only until midnight that evening (the flight being in two days and all)… so there goes one alternative plan out the window, which was the overnight bus to Bombay and a cash payment at the airport in the morning. I make my way back to the one travel agent that does net banking to see if the server is up… and… holding breath… it is, so I make the transfer and my flight is booked… phfew… some relief. Step one down. Now I just have to find a way to get from Goa to Mumbai. I ask the same travel agent if they can book me on the overnight bus leaving that night, which they can. Nice… step two down. I head back to my beach shack and tell them that I’m checking out (it’s around noon, so no problem) and call the guy from whom I rented my scooter and tell him I need to give the thing back to him tonight (and not so subtly tell him that I want the money back for the extra two days that I paid for and am now not using… 500 Rupee). He says alright, and he can meet me in late in the afternoon. Cool… plan is now to head north to Arambol to file a police report for the stuff that got stolen (for reimbursement via my travel insurance), return the scooter in the town I’m at now (Morjim if you’re following this on a map), then take a taxi south to Anjuna to say goodbye to my friends, then take another taxi out to Mapusa to get on the bus (9:45 PM departure). I head north and arrive at the police station around 2 PM… even though this is India I figure it can’t take all day to file a police report.  Oh naivete…

At the police station I find one guy sitting behind a desk… I go to talk to him and he gives me the do-not-talk-to-me hand, but then motions me to sit in the chair across from him. Mind you, he’s not doing anything at the moment, just sitting there. After ten minutes he asks me what I want and I tell him that there was a break-in at my room, some stuff of mine was stolen and that I want to file a police report. He asks where I was staying and I tell him, to which he informs me that I need the owner of the place present and a copy of the C-form for him to do anything (the C-form is the registration form filled out for every guest by the hotel… and not all the places I stayed at filled out this form, including the hotel where the break-in occurred). Now, to be clear for everyone out there, this guy doesn’t really need the C-form to fill out a police report… he a) just doesn’t want to fill out the paperwork and b) for those of you that can’t read between the lines, he’s looking for a way to extort some money from the hotel owner if the proper paperwork wasn’t filled out. I, politely, inform him that the C-form is business between the owner and himself, that owner is not here at the moment, and that he take the issue up with him at his convenience, but I need to get a police report filed now as I’m leaving Goa tonight (note, in hindsight, that telling him this is a mistake on my part). Another ten minutes of silence goes by… yes, really, he just sits there, but then he starts asking me questions about what happened. I tell him the story, and he gets really upset that the incident happened two days beforehand, but I’m only now coming in to file a police report… he says, several times, that I must really not care about getting this stuff back. Frustrated from the ticket shenanigans, it being about a thousand degrees inside the station and the general unhelpfulness of this guy, I snap back at him and tell him that I doubt very much that he’ll be able to find my stolen stuff, but I need to file a police report for insurance purposes. His eyes light up… how much insurance are you going to get he persistently inquires. I immediately realize that I’ve made another huge mistake and try and backpedal by telling him that I don’t know how much I can get until I file my insurance paperwork (I had/have no idea), for which a police report is necessary (again, for those of you not reading between the lines, he wants to know how much money I’ll get so he can size me up for a proper bribe to file the report). I, politely, keep badgering him until he agrees to file a report, sans bribe. But he’s got another card up his sleeve. First, he makes me write down a letter, which he dictates, a letter to the police inspector explaining the incident, what was stolen and requesting that a police report be filed. He then informs me that the inspector isn’t in at the moment, and that I should come back at 7 PM to get the report. Shyte… I, of course, agree, but now I have to call the scooter guy to rearrange our timing and severely crunch down the time I can see my friends before I leave. I spend what turns out to be a rather pleasant afternoon in Arambol on the beach and take in my last Goa sunset.

My last Goan sunset... Arambol Beach

My last Goan sunset… Arambol Beach

I come back to the police station at 7 to find a group of about 20 guys screaming, literally, at the same guy I was speaking to earlier. They’re all standing, so I put myself right down in the same chair across the desk from the guy I was sitting in earlier and do my best to look impatient. I am ignored… and maybe for good reason as there’s some very heated discussion going on. After 15 minutes go by, I decide I have to take some action because sitting here is clearly doing no good, so I stand up, put my hands on the desk and ask the guy if the police report has been filed. He motions me to sit back down, which, after a moment, I do, and he starts rifling through a stack of papers, all of which, I notice, are letters asking the police inspector to file a police report for some incident or another. He keeps rifling through them, ignoring all the shouting, but he keeps missing mine, so I grab it for him. He then looks at me and asks if I can come back at 9… No, I tell him I can’t, and I need that police report now. He then puts my letter down and goes back to the shouting. I wait for ten minutes, then try to get his attention again… nothing, he just ignores me as if I’m not even there. It dawns on me that I’m clearly not getting a police report without producing the proper…ummm…errr… paperwork… so I just leave. I call the scooter guy (who’s been calling me) and tell him I’m on my way and will meet him in 15 minutes. We meet up, he inspects the bike, and un-mysteriously finds about 600 Rupees worth of damage for he which he must be reimbursed for (recall that he should be paying me 500 Rupees for the two extra days I paid for but am now not using). We argue, he calls someone, that guy shows up, we argue some more, until I finally crack as I need to leave and just walk away… they shout a bit that I owe them 100 Rupees, I tell them to stuff it, as they’re already cheating me out of 500, and keep on walking out to the main street. It’s now about 8:15 and I need to track down a taxi to get to the bus station, which I manage to do rather quickly. I make him stop at the kebab place down the road to pick up dinner and call my friends to tell them I’m heading out but can’t stop by to say goodbye in person. Kind of sucks, but I have some good heartfelt conversations and end up making my bus no problem.

Now, I’m on the bus. One thing that I failed to account for when I chose the overnight bus the unreserved train ticket was the general nature of Indian drivers… politely, they generally choose speed over comfort. And the road from Goa is not exactly what we would think of as a highway… well, maybe a country highway… picture a two-lane road twisting through the mountains and going through the middle of every village on the way. Now, picture a bus hurtling down that road… slamming on the breaks, bouncing hard over speed bumps, accelerating hard of stops and leaning through the corners… and now picture yourself in an upper bunk towards the back of that bus being tossed around like a crabbing boat in the Bering Strait. Not exactly a restful evening…I actually had to find a way to wedge myself against two of the walls to avoid being slammed into the opposite walls on every other turn… very, very uncomfortable. I think that it goes without saying that I did not get very much sleep that night… and I was seriously questioning whether or not the potential of standing on the train for 14 hours would have been worse than that experience. To late now I guess. The bus pulled into Bombay around 6:30 AM. Now, I had done one smart thing, and that was book a hotel for the following day/night (thank you internet). The hotel was right next to the airport, so I told the bus driver I needed to be dropped off at the airport, which they did… sort of… I got dropped off in the middle of a highway near the airport (other people were dropped off as well, so I didn’t feel strange getting off the bus in the middle of a proper highway… but I was probably to groggy to care or notice anyways). As it’s a regular drop off point, there are cab drivers around, but, as is the general case with India upon arrival from anywhere, they refuse to use the meter, so you kind of have to negotiate in the dark about what the price should be (in hindsight, maybe I could have flagged one down on the street, but I was very tired and really, really tired of dealing with Indians at that point). I haggled the guy down to 25% of his initial offer, but still felt stiffed once he drove me to my hotel (asshole). Once at the hotel, at least my room was ready, and after a little (okay a lot) of mosquito killing, I managed to sleep until noon.

After finding some food, and a bit of bumbling around, I found an internet cafe where I could check in for my flight… done and done. But, of course, not without a bit of fun… you see, in India, to use the internet at an internet cafe, by law, you’re required to show your passport. Now, only about 50% of places actually follow this rule, so when the kid behind the desk didn’t ask me for anything I didn’t think anything of it. But by the time I finished checking in and checking e-mail, I had run out of time and wanted to add a bit more to do some research about things to see in Mumbai and how to get there from where I was (I had the whole afternoon to myself so might as well poke around right). However, now there was a different guy behind the counter demanding to see my passport. I tell him that I don’t carry my passport just to walk around, and that I’ll gladly give him the information (as I know it by heart after all the immigration forms I’ve filled out), but I need another 30 minutes please… all to no avail. He keeps demanding my passport (our communication in English is not so smooth), and I keep telling him I don’t have it, but that I want another half an hour anyways (there wasn’t another internet cafe around for quite some distance). He gets some people off the street with better English communication skills to relay to me that I need a passport to get on the internet, to which I tell them (about 4 people) the same thing… I don’t have it, but I’ll gladly write down all my information for them. After some more nonsensical back and forth, he finally gives up and logs me on for another half an hour (only to stiff me on my change when I go to pay). After that bit of fun I headed out to see some of Mumbai (why oh why do I keep trying is what you must be asking right now… honestly, I did seriously consider giving up and just heading back to the hotel… but now I knew where to go and how to get there). I eventually (after an auto-rickshaw  a train and a twenty minute walk) made it downtown to see what there was to see, which isn’t all that much (although downtown was much, much nicer than the area I was staying). A couple of photos:

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India Gate…

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Mumbai, or at least a small part of it.

Those of you who have read the novel Shantaram might recognize this place...

Those of you who have read the novel Shantaram might recognize this place…

After dinner at Leopold’s and a drink at a recommended place, I made my back to the train station to head back up towards the airport… Now, note that I took the train downtown from where my hotel was located, but that was early afternoon, heading inbound, so it was crowded (is there anything in this city that isn’t crowded?), but not Mumbai-style crowded. My way back was a different story… even though it was past rush hour, this being Mumbai, it’s never really not rush hour anywhere. I know I’ve explained a bit about my experience  riding trains in India here, but that was a long distance train… you know, with reserved seats and everything. The Mumbai Suburban Railway is a whole different animal… and not much can prepare one for it. Here’s some google images of the trains… and aside from the people on the roof (none when I was there), the train cars and the stations were that crowded (interestingly enough, on my long ride down from Delhi, my train passed several of the Mumbai Suburban Railway trains around the city… I was really glad I wasn’t packed in with those folks at the time… and note, for the women out there, Indian trains have special ladies only cars, which tend to not be as crowded). And this being India… the concept of lines and politeness just don’t really fly here, so getting on and off the train that crowded is an adventure in itself… here’s youtube clip of a Mumbai train showing what I’m talking about (although, of course, a bit on the extreme side… but not by that much):

Since I boarded at the first station I didn’t have to deal with getting on the train that way, but I did have to deal with the crowds starting just one more station down the line. I’d hang by the door, and when we pulled into the station I’d get off (generally while the train was still moving as the crowd behind me would start pushing their way out before full stop), but I’d stay right next to the train holding onto the edge of the door with my hands (in the video, you’ll notice a guy in a blue shirt next to the first door doing the same thing). The crowds would surge around me, and when the train started back up, I’d jump up onto the edge, push whomever I needed to push to get a perch and travel half hanging out the door… ala these guys. It was only slightly disconcerting since, depending on which side of the tracks the train is one, sometimes the electrical poles would whiz by a bit close for comfort. When I needed to get off it was actually pretty easy since I was already, basically, out the door anyhow (luckily, I was on the right side of the train for that particular station). Honestly, I had a smile on my face the whole time… it was great fun… probably, maybe entirely, due to the fact that I didn’t have to do it everyday (could you imagine?). Made it home just fine and was off the Bangkok the following morning.

Now, when I left India I was a bit frazzled from all of the above in addition to the Goan vortex I had been experiencing the last two weeks or so. Needless to say, I was very, very, very (yes, three very’s) glad to be out of India. You guys should have heard me bitching about it to my friend upon arrival in Thailand (and what a contrast Thais are to Indians). But, like everything, time has mellowed me a bit… and now I’m even contemplating going back to see a lot of things I missed out when I was there (ummm… like all of the country besides Goa). Stupid, stubborn, idiotic, crazy, do I have a learning disability..? All valid thoughts and questions in regards to me going back to India… we’ll see how the trip plays out though… maybe I’ll be back.

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