Category Archives: Fail

Welcome Back

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.

Yoga

I’ve been doing Mysore Ashtanga yoga for some years now, and one of the things I was looking forward to when moving here was to get some serious in-depth lessons, straight from the source. Think Miyagi-san in Karate Kid, the whole trimming the Bonsai tree and doing some “wax on, wax off”, inner enlightenment thing.

But no. This might come as a surprise, but yoga is not a big thing here. It’s not a national sport – that would be cricket – or even a common hobby.

In Helsinki I would see people carrying yoga mats quite often. The gyms would be crowded to the point of every class being a hot yoga class. And that’s good, people taking care of themselves is a very positive thing.

But here the only time I’ve seen anyone, ever, carry a yoga mat has been by some foreigners down in Goa or Kerala. In Varanasi, the birthplace of sun salutations, the only people doing them in the light of the rising sun were westerners.

So that’s one myth busted.

Oh well, at least the Chinese still do Tai-Chi every morning. Right?

Right?

Photo: Crematorium, Varanasi

Crematorium, Varanasi

Although Varanasi is a city that features many spiritual aspects, I think one of the first that comes to people’s mind is its way to handle death: few places are so open and direct with seeing a life come to an end.

In the past the deceased were sent floating down the Ganges river. However, since this resulted in high contamination levels in the water and remains washing up on shores, the practice became – for most – to burn the bodies and spread the ashes in the water. This sacred ritual is done on cremation sites, also known as burning ghats.

Most of the numerous ghats in Varanasi are places where people go to bathe, in the Ganges river. But a few of them are burning ghats – the largest of which is the Manikarnika Ghat, pictured above. Throughout the ghat enormous piles of wood lay stacked, constantly being fed into the several fires. The firewood is of a special kind and therefore expensive, and for the people who are there to send off the deceased it’s usually a big investment – not only an emotional one but a monetary one as well.

One thing that is good to know before I go on, and this is something everyone entering Varanasi are told: taking photos of the cremation sites is strictly forbidden. You could get into serious trouble, not with the nonexistent law enforcement, but with the relatives and workers at the ghat.

So as we entered the premises of the Manikarnika Ghat we politely put our cameras away. Immediately a few locals approached us, claiming to be some kind of authorities in the area and wanted to show us around. We let them know that we weren’t interested and would rather just walk around and mind our own business. They were persistent; Lauri got fed up with them and went off to the perimeter to find things by himself. Meanwhile I was stuck with the two guys, one of which proceeded to inform me that he’s also into selling opium. Not really my cup of tea, so no thanks.

I turned to the other guy, who claimed to be a foreman for the firewood workers. He told me there’s a place where I could get a good look over the area, if I wanted to. I assessed the situation and decided to follow him. A few corners later we came out to a ledge, close to the river bank, overlooking the cremation site.

People were offloading firewood from boats, carrying it up to the fires. By the water others were going through ashes and remains, looking for jewelry. Off to one side a fire was burning, at the last stages of the cremation process. Next to it a few bodies were lined up, wrapped in orange cloth and waiting for their turn.

Taking in the scene, we talked about the price of firewood, and how that’s something one could donate to. Sensing an opportunity I asked if there are any ways a tourist might be allowed to take a few photos; if the foreman carried enough weight in the community to permit that, and it actually being ok with all parties. Well, as it turned out, that was probably exactly what he had in mind, and after some negotiations we agreed that for 500 rupees I was allowed to take two photos. Being high up on the ledge, in plain sight of everyone, I knew this wasn’t going to be a few snapshots off the hip. Everyone was going to see what I was about to do, and I wanted to make sure they also see the foreman standing next to me. If it was a sanctioned exploit perhaps my intrusion would be forgiven.

I took out my camera and was as discreet as I could about it. Point, click, pan, click – done. Camera away. Gave 500 rupees to the guy and started doing a retreat while I could.

Too late.

Another guy rushed up to the ledge. Hey, you took photos, we need to go see the boss now, he said in a firm tone.

I told him of my agreement with the foreman, who was still standing next to me, and told him that whatever issue he had he could take it up with him. They started arguing between each other, in hindi, which indicated that either one or possibly both were pretending to have authority that they didn’t possess. The new guy said ok, we could solve this between us if I gave him 500 rupees too. I told him he can split the money with the foreman, I wasn’t having any of this. But they were persuasive, and I had no desire to escalate this over such a relatively small amount of money, so I handed the new guy 500 as well, and started walking.

This is where things got a bit sticky. The two guys ran after me and blocked my exit – an aggressive move that I hadn’t come across with the previous miscreants. They wanted more money. I told them no. We had an agreement and I already paid more than that, so they were just going to have to accept it. They started pleading, saying there were many ways to solve this – this being the nice way. They insinuated what the other way meant: tourists had been robbed and assaulted over these matters, cameras had been thrown into fires and such. If I paid them 500 rupees extra, each, that would make the problem go away.

Now, in a situation like this there are several options: I could give in and cough up the money, and possibly feel tricked. Or I could call their bluff and just force my way out. But the thing is, I didn’t know the nature of the community I was in, and what role they played in it. If the community’s attitude towards photographers was as unforgiving as I had understood, and these guys were some sort of leaders in it, I could get into serious trouble if I got on the wrong side of them. Or they could be just scoundrels who had no backup from the others whatsoever. I couldn’t know.

So the bottom line was I had more to loose on this than they had. Reluctantly I paid them the additional money and shoved my way through before they could come up with more bullshit. Met up with Lauri a way down the street and had a laugh about it – admittedly a little relieved.

In the end though, I got to document a sacred area and situation – a rarity that relatively few have access to. Granted, it cost me 2000 rupees, but I can live with that.

FRO – Part 4: Return Of The Foreigner

Not too long ago I vented my frustration over the absurd amount of paperwork and back-and-forth involved with registering oneself as a foreigner in this country.

Well, we decided to drop the gloves and escalate this by hiring ourselves an agent. Enter Alok Mane; bureaucratic fighter and stamp assassin. We met him and went through our predicament, handed over all the paperwork we’d gathered and let him at it. A few days later he had the whole C-form business sorted out. Yes, just like that.

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Turns out the bozos at the FRO booth – the ones who, as documented below, had more pressing matters to tend to than customers – never even needed to meet our landlord, like they claimed. As a matter of fact, mine nor Sidd’s presence wasn’t needed either. And to top it off our paperwork had been fine on that matter for weeks. Funny thing. They just wanted bribes. But the uncompromisable integrity these noble men possessed wouldn’t allow them to express their desire for monetary bonuses. At no point did they even hint that our problems could be solved instantly with some additional paperwork – you know, the kind of paper with pictures of Gandhi and some numbers.

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Now, mind you, this might also be a smooth co-operation between the two parties; a scheme which creates a need for agents and easy bonuses for clerks. The clerks won’t offer the possibility to accept bribe from anyone they don’t trust – it’s much easier to push people to hire an agent. That way the clerks receive the bribes from a source they’re used to working with.

Be that as it may, our hitman was on a roll and shortly after getting the Certificate of Residence he had a meeting set up for us at the FRO. So today we went there, all three, into the lion’s den. This guy Alok, he’s a real smooth operator: he knows the people at the FRO and can navigate the murky waters like a trained shark with a taste for ink. He gets stuff done. All the clerks we presented our paperwork to were counting the months I have been here, unregistered, and by the time they had four fingers up they all had this “Four months late!? Are you kidding me?”-look. How did we even have the nerve to show up there anymore? But he handled it like a pro and talked them over.

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Although, Sidd did have to write a handwritten apology letter to the commissioner, for us being so tardy. You know, because it’s our fault. I signed it and, after handing everything in, we were informed we would still have to come in twice before I get the final papers. Oh, and someday a FRO employer might ring our doorbell and expect to see me, just to make sure we’re not pulling anyone’s leg. Yes, that is someone’s job description.

There is light at the end of the red tape tunnel, and next week this will finally be over – one way or the other.

FRO – Part 3: When Frustrating Is An Understatement

Sidd and me have been hanging out so much at the FRO (Foreigners Registration Office) lately that we could become regulars. And maybe we would want to, if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s a bureaucratic sinkhole filled with dying souls and broken dreams.

You might remember my previous encounters with the FRO (Part 1, Part 2), the place where I was supposed to register as a foreigner within the first two weeks after arrival. Well, it’s day 114 now and we haven’t even started yet.

It’s absurd. You hear jokes about bureaucratic machineries where booth 2A tells you to stamp forms A and B at booth 3C before proceeding down to booth 1C for a Certificate of Approval, which is needed by 2A before handling the forms required by 3C to even consider doing anything at all. That’s not far from the truth here. Except that the places where I should go to have these things handled are located all around the city, and with occasionally very limited opening hours. I could go into details but it’s a mix of boring, hilarious and infuriating – and not good for blood pressure for anyone involved.

The funny thing? No-one knows how this thing works, what the big picture is. Every clerk can just say “you’re lacking a stamp here and a defined date here” and it’s up to you, the foreigner, to figure out where to get that stamp – provided you even have the correct document.

If Columbo took this case he wouldn’t be able to crack it even with his famous last question. Hand this over to doctor House and he’d unexpectedly arrive at the conclusion that it’s in fact lupus – and still be wrong. You know Watson, the new supercomputer that can play Jeopardy? Ask it “how do I get my C Form approved?” and it would probably bluescreen itself into oblivion.

No, but seriously, this was the fifth time I was to the FRO and it’s such a waste of time and energy. Saying it’s frustrating would be an understatement.

I have more, but for the sake of protecting myself from any even remotely possible repercussions in later proceedings I’ll keep it to myself. For now.