Pushing through the Surf and Bracing for Take-off

I pump up my phone, poison my shirts, and ponder what books to pack in my case; I count my southern blessings and brace for psychic assault.

A friend compared the pre-departure chaos to getting the boat through the surf as you launch out into the deep.  Or planning an extended tramping trip, wrestling to fit gear in your pack and weighing up what you don’t need and worrying about what you’ve missed, before the sigh of relief as you step out on the trail, the die is cast and decisions are left behind.

I’ve spent the last week crossing off multitudinous “to do” lists.  Loading Dad’s classical music collection, Hindi learning videos, maps and Lonely Planet India onto my new phone; last weekend’s Times of India news onto my Kindle.  Training Mum on computer tasks, and installing remote access software to help her from overseas.  Purging my filing cabinets and cupboards, filling bins with expired clothing and notes.  Sorting out Dad’s wardrobe with Mum to find cool shirts for English teaching in the heat.  Donning gloves to impregnate my mosquito net and travel shirt with permethrin to kill bugs on contact.  Getting hair and beard trimmed to remove excess insulation.

I’ve been googling internet security: had my gut been as infected as my USB stick was in 2007, I’d never have left the bathroom.  I’m higher tech this time, and the bad guys will also have upped their game.  I’ve confirmed accommodation contacts, and been invited to a wedding in Bangalore – with 2000 other guests!  Weighing up books versus clothes in my case.  For a list of physical (versus electronic) books I’m taking, see here .  I’ve re-read cards received during the year and am taking a couple to cheer me up in hard moments.

And of course I’m farewelling friends and counting the blessings I will miss.  Familiar faces.  Hokey-pokey ice cream.  Jogging along Auckland’s waterfront.  Spotting the Southern Cross; soon I’ll be navigating by the North Pole Star!  Turning on the tap for a glass of water; I’ve got purification tablets (dissolve and wait for 30 min) and an ultraviolet Steripen lamp (submerge and stir for 40 seconds) if I run out of safe bottled water.  I may desperately miss the public and university libraries, a few minutes’ walk from my office, but at least Bangalore and Delhi have good bookstores!  (I listed things I missed about New Zealand in India during 2007 here.)

In the words of writer Shashi Tharoor, India’s civilisation was “the birthplace of four major religions, a dozen different traditions of classical dance, 85 political parties, and 300 ways of cooking the potato”.  With such diversity, it’s frequently said that for any statement about India, the opposite is equally true.  It’s a land of contrasts, where even a steady stolid phlegmatic may become manic depressive, swinging between ecstasy and excrement.

I’ll probably be troubled by crippled beggars; yet India reportedly has the most billionaires of any Asian country.  India has around 40% illiteracy and standard women are far worse off than men; but few years pass without an Indian novelist shortlisted for the Booker prize – and many are female.  Earthquake-potholed, rubble-strewn Christchurch streets reminded me of normal Indian roads; but after the pumping commercial sparkle of Bangalore’s malls, Auckland’s central Queen Street feels like a drab small town.  Even the time zone is ambivalent and eludes the usual schedule: India is 7 ½ hours behind New Zealand.  So if my reactions range from delight to despair, I hope no Indian readers will take offence.

My next missive, God willing, will be from offshore: tomorrow I fly!

Rail Rage and Hindi: India Take Two

I battle to book grumpy trains and incensed hotels, I’m insured against mad dogs and bone up on strange scripts.

Friends, relations, colleagues,

For those who haven’t heard, I’m going to spend most of 2012 in Asia!

On Tuesday 28 February I fly with Malaysia Airlines to Kuala Lumpur for three nights, then on to Bangalore in southern India.  I’ll leave my suitcase there, and fly on 5 March with local airline SpiceJet to Delhi for a month in northern India.  From Easter I’ll be back in Bangalore, joining a team to teach academic English to theology students for seven weeks.  On 27 May, I’ll return to Kuala Lumpur for 5 to 6 months, continuing my current web development work for the University of Auckland on line, before coming home for Christmas.

I spent two weeks in Malaysia in 2004 and two months in southern India during 2007 – you can find my India reports here.  Now these countries are drawing me back.

Last week I battled to book trains.  With 63,000 km of tracks and around 6900 stations, the Indian rail network is the third longest in the world (after Russia and China – one guidebook said 109,000 km of tracks, making it the second longest).  7500 locomotives transport 13-20 million passengers per day.  It’s the world’s largest utility employer with 1.5 million staff and has a massive booking system, which, I have found, is massively overloaded.  The third-party website I used (www.cleartrip.com) was elegant and fast but mostly failed when interfacing with the national system.  Its upbeat messages were amusing at first, but grew stale after four or five readings, exasperating after seven or eight, and infuriating by the time they reached double figures:

“Oops! We weren’t able to process your payment.  Your payment has been declined by your bank. .. We know this sucks but it happens at times…”

Or

“Just like people, our system sometimes has a bad day and gets grumpy.”

Yes, it sucks, and I too became grumpy – to put it mildly – when getting these errors at all hours of the day and night; after typing my credit card details until I knew them by heart; after five long calls to my New Zealand bank made no progress, and bad lines plus strong accents rendered the Mumbai helpdesk incomprehensible (though high marks for courtesy and effort to both countries); when about one reservation per day succeeded, as I watched trains I wanted book out two months in advance and I began to wonder if I’d ever make it on board…

As well as the impressive stats above, 400-500 train crashes occur per year in India, I read, killing 700-800 people, making it the most dangerous rail network in the world.  Do I really want to get on board?  Here I am fighting Indian infrastructure before I even get there – why on earth am I going back?!

After a week that threatened premature baldness, I now have almost all trains and accommodation confirmed:

  • Two weeks in New Delhi with side trips to the pink city of Jaipur and perhaps the Taj Mahal.
  • A homestay in Lucknow, centre of the 1857 uprising against the British – I hope they’ll be more welcoming to me.
  • Two days at The Leprosy Mission’s Vocational Training Centre in Faizabad.
  • A week at Allahabad Bible Seminary – might I possibly teach there in the future?
  • Several days in Bhopal, site of the 1984 chemical disaster, from where a most welcoming e-mail provided some relief from railroad rage:

Dear Sir,
It is with special pride that we invite you to be our honored guest at Bhopal, Splendidly we introduce to you our New venture HOTEL SONALI, …
….  We Offer you the following exquisite facilities…
Our endeavor would be to provide you the best service, comfort and Convenience. So we hope during your next visit at Bhopal, you would surely Give us a chance to serve you better. We assure to make your stay a pleasant And comfortable one.  (sic)

We will see whether reality matches the rhetoric!  It is a good sign that the manager monitors travel website www.tripadvisor.com.  To the latest review on 27 January:

“Far too much incense is constantly being burnt in the lobby. When we entered the hotel it was like stepping into a cloud.”

He replied in three days:

“RESP SIR
THANKS FOR YOUR RESPONSE
We will take use of incense stick down immediately”

I’ll let you know whether I’m asphyxiated upon arrival!

As second and third classes were fully booked, I just had to go first-class for 15 hours overnight to reach Hyderabad by Good Friday.  (See a map of my trip here.  Click on any city for my dates there and information about it.)

Medical visits have also provided respite from the rail: my optician for an updated lens prescription; my dentist for my first filling ever L; my doctor for a typhoid booster, three rabies shots at $120 each, and so many pills he joked I’ll resemble a walking pharmacy.  (I had most other vaccinations in 2007.)

Rather less costly and significantly more stimulating is some great reading on Indian culture and history over the past months, and digging into Teach Yourself Hindi.  Of India’s 1 billion inhabitants, around 10% speak English, and 40% Hindi, the biggest of 23 languages recognised in the Constitution.  I can now slowly read the Hindi script and know some simple phrases with basic grammar.  Hopefully I’ll be able to pick up newspaper headlines and introduce myself after the month in Hindi-speaking northern states.

All in all, 2012 promises to be a rich mixture of travel and teaching, language and learning, culture and computing.  A time of growth and discovery and challenge, exploring options for my future.  I’m both effervescent and apprehensive, especially about the first month of solo India travel.  And later looking for a flat among the 7 million residents of Kuala Lumpur!

This will be my longest time away from home and family so a new season of life for me, and likewise for my mother, learning to live alone after Dad died one year ago.

And the Lord said to Abraham, “Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, and go to the land I will show you.”  Genesis 12, c. 2000 BC

If anyone asks for me, tell them I’m off on an adventure.  I’m lost on purpose, to be found by love.  John of the Cross, 16th century