Sunday, 8 April 2018

Back to the Bikes


Looking down on India through the plane window I remember thinking that it looked so harmless from up there. We had been talking to one of the instructors at the paragliding school about our experiences in India. He had smiled and asked us ‘You do know what INDIA stands for, right?’ I’ll Never Do It Again. I can see his point. I also reflected on the fact that I’d never before been on a plane and not been looking forward to landing in the country I was headed for.

Upon arrival in Delhi, to our surprise we found the place to be far more bearable than we’d anticipated. A friendly tourist information guy assured us that despite Indian Railways website stating that they had a ticket reservation counter at the airport, they in fact didn’t and according to our friend, never had. It was getting late so we decided to head into the city and back to the area where we had previously stayed. We figured out that we could check at the nearby reservation centre to see if we could get train tickets to Jodhpur for that evening and if not then we’d at least be in an area we knew and could find a place to stay the night.

We made it all the way from the arrivals hall to the airport metro station before the tedious crap started. We already had metro cards but needed to top them up. After queuing for twenty minutes in one of two queues as there was no top-up machine, a sullen looking attendant silently rolled his eyes to the right to indicate that I would have to join the other queue instead. Tired, I decided to take the ‘when in Rome’ approach. I pushed my way to the front of the other queue and held out my money, ignoring the disgruntled looks from other people waiting with the kind of callousness that usually got my own back up.

Luckily the metro system in Delhi is great and took us to within a couple of hundred yards of the main street in Paharganj. As we exited the metro we were stopped at the police crowd control barriers at the entrance to the main train station by a man who asked us if we had a train ticket. Catching us a little off guard as we only intended to use the pedestrian overpass to cross the road, we said we had not and explained to him where we were going. At this point he became very serious looking and he said ‘You did hear what happened three days ago didn’t you? You do know that tourists are not allowed to enter that area at the moment?’ Admitting we had not, he went on to tell us that there had been a lot of trouble in the area to which we were heading, caused by ‘the Muslims’ and that in order to enter we would have to take his mate’s official tuk tuk to an office where we would be able to get a permit. Realising that he was nothing but a common scammer, we decided nonetheless to let him have it his way and thanked him for his advice before laughing and walking 50 yards across the car park to the next station entrance where we accessed the overpass with no trouble. 

Ten minutes later we were standing in the reception of the Smyle Inn again, asking if they room for us that night. Luckily they did and conveniently they also offered a train ticket booking service for a few rupees. Within an hour we had a room, hot shower and train tickets for the following night. Not only that but we were able to keep the room until 7pm the following evening, a godsend as we were both still suffering with our stomachs and it was good to know we didn’t have to wander the streets all afternoon prior to leaving.

Another great thing about Smyle is that it’s located in the same alleyway as the fabulous Everest Bakery and Momo Cave. While fulfilling our Nepalese food craving (ok, not really, we ordered chicken and potatoes) we got talking to a group of European backpackers sat at the next table. One, a twenty-something Belgian guy, was having some issues with Indian immigration. He explained that he had inadvertently overstayed his visa by three days and when he had discovered his mistake, he had gone to the airport and asked to leave. The reply he got was quite astounding. He was advised that he would not be allowed to leave until he had obtained a ‘permission to exit’ from the immigration office in town. A little surprised that he wasn’t simply fined, scolded and allowed on to his flight, he followed this advice and made his way to the address he had been given. Here he was asked for 2,900 rupees (about $45) and told he would have to complete a series of paperwork by way of an application to leave. This included requesting a letter from his embassy asking permission for him to be allowed to leave and a signed form completed by every hotel and guesthouse he had stayed at, detailing the days he had stayed there with no gaps.

When we met him he had already been trying to complete this paperwork for nearly three weeks. In addition, without a valid visa to be in the country he was finding it hard to find places to stay as hotels would refuse him a bed. This meant he had to pay for more expensive rooms that he otherwise would and it was slowly bleeding him dry. It seemed incredulous to us that this would be the official system, but he assured us that many were in a similar situation. Every day he went back to the office, sometimes he would be asked for more receipt-less money, but he would always see the same people there, stuck in the same loop as he was. One man, he said, had already been stuck there for six months. Another had only overstayed because his flight was cancelled just before midnight and he physically couldn’t leave, but still he was treated in the same way. We made a mental note to get out of there long before we ever put ourselves in danger of ending up in a similar situation.

The overnight train to Jodhpur, again in sleeper class, was as uneventful as our first journey and early the next morning we arrived in the city we now felt so familiar with. We were there too early for just about everything, the square was quiet and even the coffee shop was yet to open, so we headed back to the guesthouse where we had stored our bikes. We hadn’t told them we were coming, but as we arrived they greeted us with smiles and open arms. We were glad to see that our bikes were still there and untouched. After breakfast our hosts were eager to ask what our plans were next and when we told them we that sadly, would be looking to sell the bikes, one of the brothers almost tripped over his own feet rushing to register his interest. He told us that he’d like to buy both because he wanted to eventually trade them up to buy a Royal Enfield.

Keen to move on as quickly as we could, we allowed him to inspect the paperwork and it was at this point that the question of the NOC came up. A ‘No Objection Certificate’ is a document that must be obtained from the existing registration authority to show that there are no outstanding claims, finance or road fines related to a vehicle before it is re-registered in a new state. It’s a bit like a combined HPI & police vehicle check. To obtain this the prospective buyer must visit in person the registration office, in this case in Chennai over 2,000km away, to obtain this certificate and then must re-register the bike within ten working days. There is no way to do this remotely. This is India remember; where it can be made difficult or impossible, it usually is.

Despite this, our host advised us that he would like to check this out with a friend and that he would return in one hour with an offer. It was 10am at this point. At 7pm that night we had started to get more than a little twitchy. After enquiring as to his whereabouts several times he eventually returned with a completely new approach to the deal. Now he was standoffish, saying he had discovered that registration was impossible and therefore he could not buy the bikes. However his mechanic friend would give us 3000 rupees each for them, a tenth of their value, and break them for spares if we were interested. Reluctant to write off two very good bikes, or more likely hand them over to our host for next to nothing as it was obviously a scam concocted between him and the mechanic to buy the bikes very cheap, we politely declined.

Next, at the suggestion of a local, we listed them on OLX, a local selling site. Despite making it very clear that we did not have NOC’s, hence the low asking price, I was quickly inundated with messages from local people desperate to buy the bikes. Most spoke little or no English and didn’t understand the advert and eventually I reached a point where I just had to ignore them. One man was very keen however, so I arranged to meet him in the square and accompanied him back to the guesthouse to view the bikes. In hindsight this was a really bad decision on my part.

As we arrived he was immediately jumped on by the guesthouse owner who, after talking to him in Hindi, sent him packing before relaying to us that they had explained the situation and he was no longer interested. This was disproved however as the man spent the whole of the next day calling me incessantly trying to explain that he still wanted to buy them, but the guesthouse owner had told him to go away and that he could not have the bikes! Not only this, but we soon discovered that pretty much every mechanic within a ten mile radius  had been offered the bikes and the local police’s attention had been drawn to the fact we were trying to sell them, something that made us very nervous given the grey area surrounding their legal ownership and registration.

In need of an escape from the craziness, we decided to take a breather and headed down to the square. Here we got talking to a friendly local business owner who was horrified at the way we were being manipulated and immediately offered to take the bikes off our hands for a fair price. He advised us to simply go back to the guesthouse, announce that we had found a buyer and ride the bikes out of there. Problem solved. This we did and for the first time in days we felt a sense of relief that the ordeal was over and we could move on.

Our relief was short-lived though. The following morning an angry group of local people stormed into the guesthouse where unfortunately we were staying a further night as Evan was feeling too ill to move. They claimed that our bikes were now parked in a private parking area and that they wanted to know the contact details of the people we had sold them to. Refusing to pass these on, I assured them I would resolve the problem and they offered me thirty minutes to get the bikes moved before they notified the police. A hurried visit to our buyer revealed a misunderstanding between the parties involved as the bikes were indeed parked in a space leased by his business, only the new security guard on the site had not realised the bikes were now in his possession.

From this point onwards we felt an overwhelming sense of need to get out of the town as soon as possible, that were we to stay even a day longer the bikes would cause us problems that we might never escape from. Early the next morning we skipped breakfast, packed up our things and with a huge smile and thanks for their kind hospitality, we paid up our bill and left. After a quick coffee at our favourite coffee shop to say goodbye, we headed for the train station – destination Jaipur. As we jumped in a tuk tuk to go to the station two police officers stepped out in front of it and motioned for our driver to pull over to the side of the road. Our level of paranoia shot through the roof, convinced that it was us they wanted to talk to. As it happened it was just a random stop and after checking the driver’s paperwork and writing him a ticket, they apologised for delaying us and sent us on our way.

Although we had originally planned to continue our travels in India by train, at this point I think it’s fair to say that both Evan and I were totally and absolutely done with India. Earlier that morning before we left the guesthouse, we had booked a red-eye flight for the following night to Bangkok. We didn’t really have any great desire to go to Thailand in particular, but it was the cheapest flight out of there we could find. Six hours spent sitting at the train station and a further seven hours on a train we arrived in Jaipur. I wish I could tell you nice things about the city, but we spent our entire time there shut in our hostel room, partly because we both felt so rough and partly because we just didn’t care what was out there anymore. Leaving for the airport couldn’t have come soon enough.

Now I know there will be people out there who will be reading this with a sense of scorn that we were being so defeatist and negative about the place, but I would challenge anyone to put themselves in the situation we were in, battling stomach bugs that we’d had for a month at least and feeling thoroughly miserable and do any different. We’re both seasoned travellers and neither of us shy away from tricky situations lightly, but on this occasion it was the right thing to do. I’m sad that there are more than likely some fantastic places that we didn’t get to see in the north of the country, and maybe one day all these negative memories will fade enough to make me want to return and explore some more, but that was not the time to do so.

India being India though, nothing was going to be simple until we had taken off and physically left the country of course. At the airport we found the desk of our old nemesis Air Asia, who with a smile requested that we place our small, carry-on sized backpacks on the conveyor belt to be weighed. The weight limit for Air Asia is 7kg but having flown all over the world this has never been checked or enforced. We don’t carry much more than this, but with our bike stuff in our bags, both of course were a little over the limit. Smiling patronisingly, the girl on the desk announced ‘That’ll be $50 each please to check your bags!’ Uh-uh, I don’t think so. No amount of arguing was going to get our bags on for free though, so just to be difficult, I unpacked my bag and put on every item of clothing I possibly could. My bag wasn’t greatly over, so when I returned to the belt to weigh it again reluctantly she let me pass. This left us with one bag overweight and half the fee to pay. Agreeing to pay the fee, but only if the bag was allowed on as carry on, a manager quickly agreed and the fee was paid.

After undressing and repacking my bag we were about to head through the security line when the manager came hurrying over to us. He apologised and said that he had undercharged us and that we must pay another 700 rupees. At this point we had reached almost boiling point. Realising that getting into a fight with airport staff would not end well though, I calmed the situation, we handed over the extra money, advised the airline staff that they were doing their country a huge disservice and that we could not wait to leave this hell-hole. 

For those of you rolling your eyes at us for arguing when we had clearly exceeded a published weight limit, I should probably add here that there were seven obvious foreigners in the check-in queue. Each and every one had their bag weighed and a charge was created for something whether it be bag size or weight. Everybody else in the queue was Indian and many had carry-on bags that were grossly larger than the permitted size and therefore, almost certainly overweight too. Several had two or three bags per person. Unsurprisingly not one of those people had their bags weighed, counted or charged for.

Obviously having witnessed this exchange, we were met shortly after by stony-faced security officers who were as difficult as they could be, repeatedly making us open our bags, confiscating what they could and repeatedly running them through the scanner. After this we were made to wait at immigration along with dozens of other people while the staff on the desks finished watching a YouTube video they were gathered around on one of their phones before we were stamped out. Add to all this an hour’s delay to our flight and you can appreciate the sense of relief when we finally took off.

Last winter we spent our time in South East Asia and I wrote at the time about my dislike for Thailand. I would now please like to retract anything and everything bad I said about the place. Bangkok was marvellous. This time we decided to choose our accommodation a little more carefully and stayed at the wonderful Khaosan Art Hotel, an Israeli owned business that is one of the best places we’d stayed in the entire trip. Everything about the place from the rooms, to the service, to the food was perfect.

Having spent a fair bit of time in Bangkok before, we didn’t do much during our time there. Both still sick, we hunted down some antibiotics in an attempt to kill off whatever was making us feel so ill. Our plan had been to rest awhile in the city, then, once we were feeling a bit better, to find a quiet beachside chalet for a month or so somewhere to relax and recover. At this point there was still no real change in Evan’s eyesight, so while we were there he sent the results from his tests back to a doctor in Canada to look over. The following morning he received a panicked phone call from the doctor advising him to return to Canada urgently for more investigations. I didn’t and still don’t think that was the right thing to do, but reluctant to ignore his advice, Evan booked a flight home. Feeling very much defeated, I did the same.

And so, just like that the trip was over. Flights were booked and three days later on a Saturday evening we sadly left the city behind, Evan on a plane bound for Manila in the Philippines, myself on a plane to Ethiopia. Both of us had long layovers and although I had 18 hours to explore Addis Ababa, my heart wasn’t really in it. Being there without Evan didn’t feel right at all. Just when I thought the trip couldn’t get any worse and right on the brink of finally finding something redeeming to do, we were done and headed back to the cold, grey, and likely snowy UK and Canada, a couple of months earlier than planned.

*****

As you can appreciate my photo taking in these final weeks was non-existent, our minds firmly focussed elsewhere. Therefore, in an attempt to finish on a slightly more positive note I’ve looked back through the experiences we had over the previous four months and compiled a selection of pictures of the good bits, because despite all the crap we did have a few. I have no idea what will happen next, things really are in other people’s hands right now, but hopefully over the next little while we’ll figure it out and can start to look towards the future.






















Luxury accommodation at Mardrid Airport!

































































































































































































































































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