Again and again, between 1986 and 1996, we travelled to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Those travels ended when Ken, the not-always-responsible male of these stories, died of cancer. But the stories live on, in my notes and my memories.
I have taken them, in no particular chronological order, moving randomly from one part of the subcontinent to another to highlight the infinite delights and absurdities that assailed us wherever and whenever we went.
It will be obvious from many of the stories that Ken was an engineer of the old school, carrying in his precious ‘electrical bag’ tools for repairing anything from light fittings to broken teeth.
It is also apparent that although we travelled extensively, we were extremely conscious of our very finite finances.
We’d done a lot of backpacking when we were young, but some of the stories highlight the growth of our awareness that old backs, old feet and old stomachs sometimes need gentler handling.
Relax now and enjoy a collection of ‘mixed assorted’ happy stories from happy years.
By the same author: Sea Rhymes With Me, Zeus Publications, 2005.
‘Old? What do you mean old?’
Almost as soon as we’d announced our impending retirement, the comments had begun: careless little snippets, tossed nonchalantly into conversations.
‘There are lots of activities for old people.’
‘Some companies run “easy travel” for elderly groups.’
A word, that only last week had sounded like ‘Look out, world, we’re free again,’ was now telling us we were OLD.
We laughed and remembered our early travels.
In 1953, Ken was an engineer on an old steamship on which I had travelled to England, falling in love with the engineer and his old machinery along the way. As we sailed around India, I’d had the luxury of living aboard, while making adventurous little forays ashore by day. Ships then spent many days in ports. Time enough for the young engineer and his girl to establish their love of a very special country.
The principles that had applied in those early days could still be valid. Small amounts of money could be stretched to buy great slabs of experience. Surely we weren’t really candidates for those coach tours designed to cocoon the ‘old’ from invasive hardships.
Those faded memories of Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai) stirred.
‘That’s what retirement’s for,’ Ken laughed. ‘We’ll go to India.’
At home, taxis are a civilised, if expensive way of moving safely and efficiently around the city. In India, they are often the only way. Frequently there is no other way. Most flights from Australia have deposited us in one or another of India’s huge metropolises – Delhi, Calcutta (Kolkata), Madras (Chennai) or Bombay (Mumbai) – in the middle of the night. Count on an hour or two to collect luggage, change money and clear customs, so at about 2.00 or 3.00am, tired and bleary eyed, you are faced with finding your bed for the night. The guide book cheerfully tells you take bus No. X, walk a few blocks and catch bus No. Y, which will drop you a short walk from the YMCA. No doubt the author does his arriving at non-peak daylight times.
Faced with the thought of the verbal and near physical battle over an acceptable fare, which is the prerequisite to hiring your own taxi, we chose the coward’s way out in Bombay. We joined the queue of first timers and nervous old ladies heading for the official counter where pre-paid taxi tickets to your destination are sold.
At last, armed with a piece of paper stating that we had paid for an approved taxi to drive us from the airport to the YMCA, we moved outside. This doesn’t exactly let you off the fight with the non-approved taxi drivers, who race to greet you as you emerge, but it does give you an illusion of security as you elbow your way through the crowd of desperately enthusiastic owners, promising to drive you anywhere faster, cheaper and in greater comfort than anyone else.
On the edge waits a timid little man who speaks no English. Several large, would-be porters, who have followed us from queue to scrum, trying more and more persistently to acquire our luggage to carry, accept failure and become guides herding us towards the timid little man. As we reach their goal, one skilfully extracts the piece of paper from Ken’s fingers and with a flourish, presents it to what has become ‘our man’. Ken says, ‘YMCA?’
Our man looks blank but our guide says, ‘Yes, yes, YMCA, OK, OK. Very good driver, very good taxi.’ We feel doubtful on both counts, but it’s getting very late, so Ken forces open a door, which causes all windows to collapse into their slots. Never mind, it’s a pretty hot night. It also gives scope to the guides, who, having seen us carry our own bags, clear our own path and open our own door (and windows), now clamour in the open windows, demanding payment for their services. At this stage, ‘our man’, obviously more frightened of these loudly insistent helpers than he is of us, starts the car with an enormous jerk and we are on our way. With a few last curses, the helpers turn back to the airport gate to find someone else to help.
The drive to town could well have been an extract from Dante’s Inferno. The car, like some unsupervised demon, stalked the darkened streets. On either side, unnatural bundles of humanity lay covering every piece of pavement. Even median strips lay hidden beneath the silent outcasts. The streets grew narrow, the car swerved more frequently, the pavement bodies overhung the kerbs and the driver huddled anxiously over his wheel and peered into the uneven pools of light in front of him. After an hour, we shuddered to an uneasy stop in a little square. There were five roads to choose from, all clearly named. Not one sounded remotely like the street we wanted.
‘YMCA?’ asked Ken, still faintly hopeful. The driver looked at him as though he were mad and made shushing motions with one hand. Ken shushed. The driver shook the car till his door opened and wandered off to peer more closely at the sleeping homeless. Choosing a likely one, he knelt down and prodded him till he stood up, his rags falling like leaves around him. There followed a loud conversation, with our driver finally producing the piece of paper on which was written the precious YMCA address. The local expert, now aroused and interested, peered hopefully into the car.
‘Y-M-C-A,’ Ken said slowly. The man shrugged and looked with an equal lack of enthusiasm at the five possible routes, shrugged again, made a quick guess and chose a road for us. Duty done, he collected his rags, remade his home and went straight back to sleep. Ken, now aware of the problem, dug round in his bag and produced a road map of Bombay.
Next stop was what appeared to be an army barracks. The driver knocked; a huge army sentry appeared, listened carefully, shrugged and gave the unfortunate fellow a thump with his stick.
Ken took the opportunity to show the driver his map, pointing cheerfully to the X which marked our destination and then to the car. With a wonderfully quizzical expression on his face, he invited the driver to show him on the map where we were. I almost clapped. It was a superb performance. Who needed language when mime of such clarity could be produced at will, even in the wee small hours?
It failed. The driver merely glanced at the map, shrugged and quietly led Ken across the road to the pole holding the road sign. Pointing to it and shaking his head, he managed to convey his unbelievable message. He couldn’t read! Ken read it to him. He smiled. We all smiled. From there on, we’d stop at every sign and Ken would read it to him. For a long time, it was obvious he still didn’t know the way, but was happy to hear the street names. Suddenly Ken found a name he’d just read was on the map.
‘Stop!’ he screamed, and incredibly we did. Ken tried to show him where we were on the map, but he had no intention of being taught to read at 4.00am by a mad foreigner. So Ken navigated. At each corner, he’d tap the man firmly on the shoulder and point the way. At last, after two and a half hours, we slid without further ado into a piece of pavement free of night-time inhabitants, extricated ourselves from protruding springs and insecure doors, thanked our poor, still hopelessly lost driver, and entered the YMCA.
Our next visit to Bombay should have been one of the easiest, most relaxed days for some time. We had woken up in a sleeping compartment on one of India’s more up-market trains, with no major problems to solve and nothing to do but enjoy the view, as we were hurtled across half the continent. Even the afternoon arrival in Bombay would present no problems. Aware by now that accommodation in that city was, by comparison with other Indian cities, both expensive and very hard to find, we had written ahead, months ago, to the YMCA to book our beds for a few days. Things that look simple seldom are and the problems began early.
Ken had leapt cheerfully down at the first station to find breakfast. We’d recently discovered a breakfast acceptable to our terribly conservative stomachs. Omelette. Just egg omelette, no exotic spices, no unidentifiable mixtures, just plain egg, cooked in red-hot, wok-shaped bowls on railway platforms. They were cooked, flung dramatically in the air, caught on bread toasted in the same wok while the egg was doing its midair act, and folded neatly into a piece of banana leaf, all in a matter of seconds, for the princely sum of about 10 cents. Thousands of these breakfasts had appeared at stations all over central India in the last few weeks and no doubt Ken had grown less critical and less keenly observant watching our own ‘egg omelettes’ actually being created.
He returned in his usual good humour with the two juicy, leaf-wrapped goodies. As the train drew out, we settled down to make a great start to the day.
Wrong. It wasn’t egg omelette and it wasn’t with toast. It was a sort of flavoured pastry enclosing some highly coloured curried root and a few unidentifiable vegetables. Should we eat it? Common sense and enormous amounts of previous experience said, ‘No, give it to the next hungry-looking person,’ but our stomachs said, ‘Yes, you are the next hungry-looking persons.’
True, we were.
What should have been dinner time the night before, had been spent in one of those drama sessions, where Ken minds the luggage and I follow the poor station superintendent up and down the platform, in and out of his office, looking old, frail and frightened and shedding a few helpless tears, telling him we must catch the next train and no, we were too old to sit up all night and surely he had just two Second Class sleepers for us. At about 11 o’clock when we were all too tired to protest any longer, a compromise had been reached.
We would agree to travel First Class instead of Second, and he would find two sleepers for us. Wonderful. There had even been a railway room with a bed where we could doze till the 3am Bombay Mail arrived. Thus it transpired that we had had plenty of sleep, but no food since the lunchtime bananas the day before.
It wasn’t very hot curry – really quite mild, if you got it across the top of your tongue quickly. We did. It left a dry, breathless sort of taste, but it had definitely stilled the rumblings and at the next stop, a couple of cups of tea removed the taste. For about an hour, all was well. But several frantic dashes along the corridor later, Ken, now an unpleasant greeny-grey colour, decided his root must have been dead too long before it had reached him and all was far from well. Mine must have been a fresher root, because although I felt somewhat queasy, I remained unpurged. And so it was we arrived at Bombay’s magnificent Victoria Station in a somewhat limp condition.
I suggested a taxi.
Nine hundred scrabbling taxi drivers also suggested a taxi. Ken lost his greeny-grey hue as he shooed them all away. ‘A taxi in Bombay?’ He laughed. We’d travelled that road before. ‘They can’t even read! It’s only a twenty-minute walk to the YM. You wait here with the luggage and I’ll walk down and make sure our room is OK. Back soon,’ and with that, he strode happily off, leaving me standing there for one and three-quarter hours!
I watched the Deccan Queen glide into platform 14. I’d have loved to sneak onto the platform to peer inside India’s glamour Queen. I wondered what First Class sleepers on the Queen looked like. I tried a quick peek, but found it totally impossible to sneak two trolleys (heavily laden) anywhere. All the wheels go in opposing directions, like supermarket trolleys, so I stood nearby and watched the lucky ladies who were actually boarding the blue and cream Deccan Queen. Their gossamer saris swished imperiously, their golden adornments gave off a muted glow, their shiny children trotted alongside and strings of porters carried elegant luggage and tempting food baskets. No curried root in banana leaves for First Class on the Deccan Queen, that was for sure.
When the first hour of waiting had passed, I began to worry. What if his ‘off’ root had been really bad? What if he had just dropped dead in the street? Millions of Indians did just that every day, didn’t they? Where did they take them all? Would I ever find him? Inevitably I ran out of gruesome rhetorical questions and began to rethink the situation.
He’d booked in at the YM, and like Goldilocks before him, had tried the beds and found one to his liking. He’d gone to sleep. That’s what he’d done – miserable old Pom. To think I’d wasted all that time worrying about how to reclaim his body.
I’d just about finished those thoughts and was about to start a new selection, where I’d worry about me and what I’d better do, when in he came closely followed by a possessive-looking taxi driver. ‘I’ll explain later. Just get into this man’s taxi before I lose him.’
As if you could lose a taxi driver! We were loaded in seconds and the feet I’d stood on for nearly two hours were tingling back to life – all was well. There was the usual short battle about whether we’d use the meter or fix a fare first. With the help of evenly divided passers-by and fellow taxi men, it was decided we’d fix the fare. Just to be sure, our man set his meter going and we were off.
‘Where to?’ inquired our driver after covering some distance. A look of non-comprehension flitted momentarily across Ken’s brow, but he replied patiently and slowly, ‘To the hotel where you picked me up a few minutes ago.’ The driver screeched to a sort of diagonal stop, which managed to hold up a significant percentage of Bombay’s peak hour traffic. ‘Where was that?’ he asked innocently.
‘I’ve no idea. You were parked there, outside the hotel and you agreed to take me to the station and bring me, my wife and my luggage to that hotel.’
Bombay traffic is not nearly as accommodating as Calcutta traffic, where by now, traffic would have assumed we were broken down and divided, to leave us, an island in its flow. In Bombay we were an undesirable obstruction and must move. A cacophony of horns blew till we did. We continued along with the rest of Bombay for a while, until our driver, who had by now forgotten the previous conversation turned amiably and asked, ‘Where to?’
Ken ignored him, deciding it was easier to explain it to me. The YM had had our letter, but as we hadn’t written again with deposits (a new rule), they hadn’t kept any rooms. Ken had wandered off looking for likely places and had been found by a friendly shopkeeper. India is full of wonderfully helpful people – as well as taxi drivers. This man had taken him in, given him a cup of tea and phoned a friend who had rooms to let. Because Ken was by now his ‘friend’, the rooms were very cheap. The shopkeeper then provided Ken with a small boy who escorted him to the hotel to examine the room. It proved to be fairly adequate and indeed cheap, so everyone was happy.
The problem of course was, Ken hadn’t asked and no one thought to mention the name of the hotel.
‘Where to?’ repeated the hopeful at the wheel.
‘The Taj Mahal,’ said Ken facetiously. Surely we looked as though we’d be spending a few hundred dollars a night. The Taj it was. He knew the way there and it just goes to show miracles do happen. In a little alley, just a couple of blocks behind the wonderful old Taj, both Ken and the driver recognised the Apollo Guest House and there we were. I didn’t get my night at the Taj, but neither did I spend it driving round Bombay with a driver who had no idea where he was or where he had been.
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