People sometimes ask me if I freaked out at any point when preparing for the trip, if I started stressing about what I was getting myself into. And I would say no, since what I was feeling was something closer to positive excitement, a pleasant unknown – a sense of adventure!
But this still was, subjectively speaking, quite an undertaking and bound to rattle somewhere. And, admittedly, I did get the fight-or-flight feeling, once: 15 minutes before boarding the flight from Helsinki. I was sitting in the terminal, feeling quite calm and looking out toward the runways – at nothing in particular. Then it hit me, like a wave from an unseen horizon – as these things usually do.
My skin started tingling and my mind was racing, frantically trying to find a solution to a problem that didn’t exist. What am I doing, moving to another country? More or less by myself, to almost the other side of the world, for six months? Did I really want to do this? What if I hate it, what if I can’t cope? What if I get seriously ill?
Alright alright alright, this was to be expected, I thought. Tried to keep a cool head, took a few deep breaths and started walking through that inner maze, telling the lizard brain that the more evolved parts got this covered; everything was going to be fine. Just let go.
Just let go.
A few minutes later the wave had passed and my head was back on my shoulders. Not as firmly as before, but good enough.
It was almost time to board the flight. Decided to call my parents, to give a final farewell from Finnish soil. Also told my mom – who, not surprisingly, is usually the more fretting one of the two – not to worry about this whole India thing; I was going to be just fine.
I’m still not sure if it was her or myself that I was trying to convince.
For a moment there I thought the East India Express would be my last trip here in India. And I would have been fine with that; with that nine day train journey and the recent trip to Hong Kong I’ve certainly been keeping my travel bug content.
But, lo and behold, it’s not over yet! I had a look at the calendar, counted the weekends, reviewed my notes and came to the conclusion that there’s still room for a little something. So today I got tickets up to Jammu and Kashmir, where I’ll be enjoying mountain scenery, barren landscapes and blends of buddhism and Indian culture in the small town of Leh. Departure is in one week – a four day extended weekend is all I could manage. I have to work too, you know!
I have to say, the new T2 terminal at Mumbai international looks quite nice. They could, however, use slightly better signage – after getting my tourist visa and backpack, I stood outside trying to find the prepaid taxi station. There were practically no signs that lead me anywhere in particular. Time was about two in the night, and I still had to get to Dadar East – the bus station that busses to Pune leave from – and sit in a bus for three hours before being even close to the apartment.
A guy came up to me and asked me where I was going. He was a, shall we say, freelancing cab driver, willing to drive people for prices slightly lower than the prepaid ones. The normal fare from the airport to Dadar East is somewhere in the vicinity of 300 rupees.
So this guy, probably thinking it was my first time there, looked at me and said he could drive me for thirty-five hundred rupees.
Now, I’m the kind of guy that easily defaults to a look of skepticism. This usually results in me having big wrinkles on my forehead. But this is a good thing: I was told by a sikh in Hong Kong that it means good luck. Especially if there are three distinct lines.
But I digress. With a look of something between a frown and a smile, I asked the guy: wait, did you just say three five zero zero rupees to Dadar East? Really?
He nodded enthusiastically. Yeah!
That’s quite a profit margin these guys are aiming for. A one thousand percent fare hike.
Sensing my not too subtle disbelief, he gave me a special offer: but you, I can drive there for 1500 rupees. I told him that was still a bit more than I was willing to pay. With that kind of money I could get a cab all the way to Pune.
He didn’t have much to say to that, I think he was sensing that this fish wouldn’t bite the hook. So I told him I’d been there a couple of times and knew by now what the standard fares were, bid him farewell and continued my way down to the prepaid taxi station – now that I had figured out where it was.
Entering the elevator, I was joined by a fellow foreigner being chased by another scoundrel. Where do you want to go, I give you good price, the driver said. I advised the foreigner to ignore those and just go with prepaids. He agreed. Another swindle averted.
Besides that, getting the taxi to Dadar East went without problems. Although I did have to deal with the regular helpers, meaning the guys who show you which cab you have the reservation with – in exchange for some money of course. He insisted on foreign currency, but I tried telling him that since I live in the country I had none, he was just going to have to take the 50 rupees or leave it.
Perhaps you can sense my slight frustration. Hong Kong was such a breath of fresh air: no hassles and no-one trying to con me out of anything. Here I’m, immediately after arrival, tagged as game and harassed with several requests for money in one form or the other.
We rolled up to Dadar East. It was silent and deserted. I stepped out of the cab and looked around; there didn’t seem to be any busses around, at all. Apparently I had been misinformed regarding the nightly departures.
A guy was walking down the street, came up to me and confirmed this; the next bus was leaving at six – in four hours.
Great. So there I was, stuck in downtown Mumbai, in the middle of the night, with no way to get to Pune.
While I stood there, reviewing my options, the man continued: You want a taxi? There I went with that skeptical frown again. How much? Four hundred, one seat, A/C cab.
Four hundred is actually a good deal. Really good. I had to double-check that we’re talking about getting a cab, to Pune, now. Yes.
Sounds good, I said, let’s go.
The guy calls someone, and within a minute a car drives up. It was not a cab, it was a regular car. Squeaky and run down, it looked like it had been used for road races for the last two years. The driver sat low, one hand on the wheel and the other on the gear stick, a real slick jock. Next to him was someone I reckon was a passenger and, color me surprised, the back seat had two more! So the only space remaining was this narrow half-seat in the middle. And the guys sitting at the sides weren’t small ones, either.
I looked at the man who arranged this, asked him if this was it, if this was my ride. Yes.
Well, that explains the cheap fare. Car didn’t seem to have A/C but I let it slide.
Ok, fine, unlicensed cab it is then. I threw the large backpack in the trunk and hopped in. Despite me being the tallest one, the other passengers weren’t terribly interested in changing seats. I squeezed myself into the middle seat. Looked like I had to hunch over a bit for the entire trip unless I fancied hitting my head on the slightly collapsed roof.
It wasn’t convenient but it was the best option I had. So off we went, down the Mumbai overpass. Meanwhile I struck up a conversation with my temporary neighbours. They were both indeed on their way to Pune as well, for some work thing. How long they had been waiting in the cab was unclear, but I still find it wonderfully random to get, on a few minutes notice, an almost fully loaded unlicensed cab, in the middle of the night, to go somewhere 150 km away.
Soon enough we were heading towards Navi-Mumbai, and from there into the mute silhouettes of the Pune highlands. There are practically no streetlights, so all illumination is from other vehicles. This makes it all a bit eerie somehow.
The drive took about two and a half hours. I couldn’t move, at all. By the time I stepped out on Baner Main Road, in Pune, my right thigh was almost cramping. The clock was a little to five, sun was getting up in an hour or so. No people in sight, only packs of street dogs roaming freely.
A while later I arrive at the Vasant Vihar Towers. The gates are closed during the night, with the guards sleeping out in the yard. I clonked on the gate a few times in an attempt to wake them up, but they wouldn’t even stir.
Ah, whatever, I thought and chucked my backpack over the wall, and climbed over. Well this night was fun. Laughed by myself all the way to the elevator.
Good to be back after all – even if only for a while.
The flight from Hong Kong landed a little past midnight. Gone were the neon lights and vertical scenery of that enchanting city. My feet were once again on Indian soil.
Or, almost. I still had to go through immigrations and – since my employment visa had now expired – apply for an on-arrival tourist visa. There wasn’t supposed to be any snags, but considering my dealings with the FRO and the general bureaucracy involved I didn’t take anything for granted.
The area was virtually empty at this late hour: behind rows of empty chairs stood several deserted booths. In front of one of them sat a suit clad man, waiting. I sat down in the vicinity and waited for someone to turn up. Asked the man how long he had been there. About one hour, he said with a slight nod. We both knew that was close to the standard minimum you could expect. His application was filled in and he was just waiting for the final documents. At the same time an official turned up. Nice fellow, asked me if I was there for a visa-on-arrival and handed me the form, with a smile.
Again I had the pleasure to assure the state of India that my grandparents had nothing to do with Pakistanis; a standard question on immigration-related matters in India, but still something that might surprise a first-time visitor. We went through the form and I told the official my story: I’ve been working in India for six months, and now I’m looking forward to a one month vacation with my friends in Pune. Even though I was going to work to Finland during my stay I wasn’t going to risk complicating things at this point.
I handed over some supporting documents and a passport photo, and was a while later escorted to a dusty office in the back. There, among cardboard boxes and old computer equipment, sat a man on a squeaky chair. This is where I was supposed to make the 60 USD payment, for which I got a receipt printed out on a nostalgic dot matrix printer – the color of which, as with all other equipment in that office, had long ago turned from eggshell white to café latte beige.
Everything went surprisingly smooth. I was expecting some interrogation, additional clarifications and three hours of waiting, but was after one hour handed back my passport, along with a fresh visa stamp. Expiry April 18th. The official wished me a good stay and we shook hands before I left to see if my backpack was still somewhere to be found.
Ah, the thrill of being on the move again. The time for my visa is up, and as a solution I decided to get out of the country – so I can enter it again. The destination I chose was none other than Hong Kong. So yesterday I hopped on the taxi in Baner and set forth towards Mumbai.
Gradually, as we approached Mumbai, the Pune highlands morphed into the flat lowlands of the west coast. Dark silhouettes receded into urban skylines, and three hours later I stepped into the brand new T2 terminal of the Mumbai international airport. After taking in the vast inner space and the intricate shamiana patterns in the ceiling, I proceeded to the baggage drop and immigrations. For the last time I flashed my employment visa and exited the borders of India.
The flight was a red-eye, in other words a night flight, with departure at 1:30 and arrival at 9:00 local time. With a flight time of a mere five hours, the chance of getting anything resembling a good night’s sleep was next to nil. As always, I had a window seat. Because I like to look out of the window. If I can’t get one at the online checkin, I give my most charming smile at the airport checkin and ask if there is one available. Everyone are not aware of these options, including the young indian man who sat next to me on the flight. Every now and then he would lean over, a bit too far into my space, to glance out the window or to take photos. That, or he was trying to make advances. And every now and then I would respond to his approaches by looking at him with my most sincere “can I help you with something?” face. He calmed down a bit, but I’m not sure he got the hint.
Clearly he would have appreciated a window seat more than the middle one he had.
Sunrise over the Chinese mainland below was beautiful: long mountain ranges protruding from a cover of clouds, casting vast shadows underneath the rapidly heartening gradient horizon. Quickly the light became blinding and we had to close the curtains, which gave me some breathing room from my cuddly neighbour.
Not long after that we descended through the strata and landed in Hong Kong international. Since the clock was only 10 and check-in was in four hours, I was in no particular hurry to exit the airport. I had a latte and took in the scene. That’s when it became clear to me: I was not in Kansas anymore. Or, to expand the Wizard of Oz -metaphor: I had come back from Oz. It all felt so.. functional somehow. Subtle things that made more sense. Didn’t cause confusion like their counterparts in India would. Clear signage. People were queueing properly. No need for second-guessing if a train would be on time or not.
So I bought an MTR ticket and took the train via Tsing Yi and Kowloon to Hong Kong island. From the central station, instead of hopping on a local train or bus, I decided to get to know the surroundings a bit better by walking to the hotel.
And it was very different: the developing landscapes of Pune had been replaced with this modern, multi-layered, towering metropolis of glass and neon lights.
A thought struck me: in terms of solitariness, this is as far as I’ve ever been from everyone I know. Closest friends are 4200 km away, in Pune. Distance to family and friends in Finland is 7800 km. It doesn’t have to have any greater meaning, but it is a healthy reminder that I’m here, in fact, very much alone.
So where to from here? I don’t know. But it sure looks good.