woensdag 26 november 2008

We interrupt this programme for….terrorist attacks / We onderbreken dit programma voor…terroristische aanslagen.

I was planning to write a day-to-day account of our adventures in India, but this takes some priority. When M. and I were going to look for some breakfast, a disturbing headline in the newspaper caught my eye.
“Terrorists Paint Mumbai Red”, so the Herald said.
I quickly bought a copy, for three rupees, and started to read.
This paper says there are 80 killed and 250 injured, some other places online say there were 78 dead, some 87, some even up to a 100 - but I am guessing it will be something along those lines. As far as I understand, there are still some people being held hostage as I write this. Currently it feels rather surreal.

The rather strange thing is, if we had done things according to plan – we probably still would have been in Mumbai. We were planning to stay for a week, but M. hated it there and we left early. We would have left at the old Victoria station – one of the places that were hit. The Taj hotel, one of the hotels that were targeted, was in the street where our hotel, Harbout View, was. It was literally just a few steps away. We actually passed the Taj on several occasions, when walking to the Gateway of India. We saw most of the places that got hit and attacked.

The paper here does not give information on who these terrorists would exactly be, but online papers tell me it would be the Mujahideen of Deccan.
The weird thing is that, since we’ve been without a TV for a week, we wouldn’t even have known about it if I had not seen that paper. So, to my friends and loved ones reading this blog:

I am all right, though mildly scared. It does seem to be safe in Goa though. I do not know if this will or should change my travel schedule, but I’ll try keeping you posted.


Deze blog moest eigenlijk het verhaal vertellen van onze dagdagelijkse avonturen in India, maar deze gebeurtenis heeft enige prioriteit. Toen M. en ik deze morgen onbijt gingen zoeken, zag ik uit mijn ooghoek een krantenkop.
“Terrorists Paint Mumbai Red”, schreef de Herald. Oftewel: “Terroristen Kleuren Mumbai Rood”.
Ik kocht snel mijn eigen krant, voor 3 rupies en begon te lezen.
Deze krant zegt dat het 80 doden waren en 250 gewonden, sommige andere online bronnen spreken over 78 doden, of 87, sommigen gaan zelfs to 100 – maar de waardegrootte is wel duidelijk.
Van wat ik begrijp, zijn er op het moment dat ik dit schrijf nog steeds mensen die gegijzeld worden. Het voelt allemaal een beetje surreeel aan.

Het vreemde eraan is, als we het reisplan gevolg hadden - zaten we waarschijnlijk nog steeds in Mumbai. We wilden er eerst een week blijven, maar M. had er de pest aan en dus zijn we vroeger vertrokken. We zouden vertrekken aan het oude Victoria station – een van de getroffen plekken. Het Taj hotel, een van de doelwitten, was in dezelfde straat als ons hotel, Harbour View. Het was letterlijk maar een paar stappen verder. We zijn het Taj meermaals gepasseerd, toen we naar de Gateway of India wandelden. We hebben de meeste aangevallen plekken gezien.

De krant hier zegt niets over de identiteit van de daders, maar online kranten vertellen me dat het zou gaan om de Moedjahedien van Deccan. Het rare is; we hebben hier geen TV en we zouden niet van de aanslagen hebben geweten als ik de krant niet had gezien. Dus, voor alle vrienden en dierbaren die deze blog lezen:

Ik ben in orde, maar toch een beetje bang. Goa lijkt wel veilig te zijn. Ik weet niet of dit mijn reisplannen zal of zou moeten veranderen. Ik hou jullie op de hoogte.

(Above – a picture I took of the Taj Hotel a few days / Boven: een foto die ik een paar dagen geleden van het Taj Hotel heb genomen.)

Ps: B., I know you are reading this – please try to calm down my family, I know they will be going nuts. I miss you more than ever. I hope to get back to you in one piece, and I will try calling you when you are awake <3.

zondag 23 november 2008

India, Day Two

India, Day Two.

After our brief overnight stay near Mumbai airport, we took a taxi to Mumbai centre. This is about a 20 km drive, which of course did take longer than 20 km in Belgium.
Originally I had intended to drive around in India – I even applied for an international license. But hell, I’m not nearly suicidal enough to do that! Cars in Mumbai are packed so closely together that one wonders how they do not actually hit each other continuously. I think there are about 4 lanes of cars packed on what was originally intended as a three-lane road. However, one cannot be sure, as road markings are virtually non-existant. They don’t really signal with lights either – the only warning to other road users is perpetual honking.
Safety belts, of course, are optional – as are helmets. This is worth mentioning, as a lot of people actually use a motorcycle as transportation. We saw entire families on one motorcycle – mom, dad, a baby or two – all without helmet of course.
They would get instantly arrested in Belgium, but it seems to be perfectly fine here. We did actually see one car being stopped by the police, and one really wonders what exactly you have to do wrong to get a ticket in Mumbai, or how the cops even notice someone did something in that giant anthill of cars.

There was no airco, which wasn’t too bad, since the open windows let in a pleasant breeze while driving. The scents interchange between the pleasant scent of incense and a foul rotting smell, as a lot of trash does end up on the street. And in a country as hot as India, decomposition sets in fairly quickly, certainly on foodstuffs.
Mumbai is strange, skyscrapers followed by slums, followed by some more decent housing and monumental colonial buildings like the Victoria station to boot.

Before my trip, a lot of people told me the poverty there was quite appalling – and that is quite true. We saw a lot of people living on the street; whole families in fact. On a human level, it is quite a culture hock. We really do not know how good we have it. On an objective level, however, Mumbai is a fascinating city of contrasts. We were only there briefly, but it seems diverse as well, as we saw both Hindus and Muslims – no, it seems they have not all moved to Pakistan.

Upon arriving at our destination, a small lodge M. found in her Lonely Planet guide, we got a bit of a shock. The residence was being renovated, and we couldn’t stay the night there. Serves us right for not booking, I suppose. M. was dragged off by some people trying to get us to sleep at their place. You see – it’s all about money, and competition. Foreigners are thought to have money – so everyone wants to make money on them. I was waiting on the street, watching the bags – a bit lost. M. was gone for quite a while and I was entertaining some Indians that were rather curious about tourists. I was actually starting to get worried when M. finally returned, describing all the places she had seen as ‘closets’ – rooms with no windows and a hole in the ground for a toilet. She said she suspected some of these rooms were actually somebody’s living room – that they were trying to make money any way they could. She then disappeared with some other people, coming back with the same result: the places she had seen the second time were not places she’s like to stay in either.

We then upgraded to a fancier hotel, Hotel Harbour View, which was slightly out of M’s budget – about 50 euro per night per room (apparently you pay per room here, not per person).
However, it did live up to its name – it had a lovely terrace, from which you could see the harbour. If you looked slightly sideways, you could see the Gateway of India.
I have actually seen it in my dreams, before I even knew it existed – strange, maybe some weird subliminal thing.
There was also food served at the hotel terrace – and it was rather good. Later that day we walked down to the Gateway. There were a lot of beggars there. The beggar situation is a bit unpleasant – thing is, you could probably spare a few coins, and they do need it – but if you give money to one of them, they just swarm you, apparently.

We went down to a nearby beach – paying triple the normal price for a taxi, as we later found out. The beach was not so impressive, and dirty by our standards. However, there was a nice view of the Mumbai skyline. We attracted the attention of a young kid, who didn’t seem to be a beggar, just someone who found westerners quite funny and strange. There was this curious guy who followed us for a while, I’m still not exactly sure why. We also passed some teenage boys who were playing in the sea, and yelled "I love you" at us. This made M. roll her eyes, but I actually thought it was hilarious.

Since there was not that much to see, we returned to the hotel and had dinner on the terrace there, which was rather nice. I had chicken Madras and M. had some vegetarian thing made of lentils, I believe. We both drank some lassi - that is a dairy drink, for the record, not a drink made out of dogjuice.

Oh, bonus: this hotel had toilet paper. Most hotels don’t: it is luxury product here. So we didn’t have to go out to buy it, at least. M. went to bed early that day, I took the opportunity to use the Internet and reassure B. and the parents.

I had one more drink on the terrace, talked a bit with the reception guy, took a shower and went to bed clean, at least. And thus concludes Day 2.

India, Day One


Day one of the India adventure.

I left home at about 1:30 AM. My flight wasn’t until 7:15, however I was never one for getting up very early, and I would have had gotten up at about 4 to be at the airport at 5. Besides the fact that I am actually quite bad at getting up I didn’t have anyone to bring me to the airport at such an ungodly hour. So I decided to pull an all-nighter.
B. was so kind as to lose at least some sleep over me, as he was the one who brought me to the airport, where he managed to get some Starbucks coffee. Currently the stand at the airport is the only Starbucks in Belgium. Not that I am so very bothered about that – I don’t actually drink the coffee stuff.

After B. left to get some much needed sleep, I wandered around a bit, ended up drinking overpriced hot chocolate at Starbucks anyway, and read the first chapter of The Selfish Gene. Before I knew it, M. arrived, dropped off by a friend (she did find a victim willing to get up so early).
We first traveled from Brussels to London Heathrow, a fairly short flight. In London we got some snacks and some rest.

Upon boarding to Mumbai I got a curious surprise – I had been promoted to business class. I am still not quite sure why, but my theory is the following: M. had booked the flight under some special promotion – I booked about two months later and paid about 200 euros more. What I didn’t know, however, is that British Airways has some sort of class between economy and business – comfort class I believe. I had inadvertedly booked comfort class – probably because there wasn't any economy class left on that flight at the time.
However, I'm guessing that comfort class got overbooked too, and I ended up in business. This meant M. and I were not going to sit together – but I was going to travel in style. (I hope she doesn’t hate me too much for it).
I’ll tell you: I could get used to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. We actually got a food menu we could chose from, a personal entertainment system and seats that were basically cushy cocoons of comfort. I actually spent most of the flight sleeping, because I was absolutely shattered from staying up all night. Near the end of the flight (which was about 8 hours long) I watched Brideshead Revisited, which technically has been revisited twice over since it used to be a series. It’s basically ye olde bisexual movie with a whole bunch of English nostalgia and a truckload of Catholic guilt. Oh well, I saw it for free anyway…

We arrived at Mumbai airport shortly before 1 AM on the 19th, local time. Our luggage took some time to arrive, and we worried that something might have gone wrong on the transfer from Brussels to London. But it arrived eventually, late but intact.
I even still got to change some currency at the airport, which was a lovely bonus. Upon exiting the airport, I briefly thought the whole event was going to end like a bad soap series: M’s ex, whom she was going to travel with originally, actually showed up there. However, M. made it rather clear she wanted nothing more to do with him, and fortunately our pick-up from the hotel was already there. It was only a short drive to our hotel, Highway Residency, and the car smelled pleasantly of incense. I was quite content to have arrived. Our hotel was basic, but clean and comfortable.

And that, we would later learn, is certainly not an evident thing in India…

maandag 17 november 2008

India, here I come

This post will be shorter than I'd like it to be - in a perfect world it would have been filled with thoughts on the journey, and stories about how long it took to get everything in order. However, I still have a giant pile of underwear that I have to classify in "will be coming along" and "will not be coming along".
That, and I really have no clue where my summer socks went. I think they were stolen by garden gnomes, or at least hidden by my mother. See, in my mind my mother has this intricate psychosocial experiment where she hides something of mine, and I have to spend hours or even days or weeks trying to find the hidden object.When the lost object is found, she does it with a new object and the cycle starts anew. On bad days this even involves several objects at the same time! She, of course, calls this sophisticated form of psychological torture "cleaning up".

Anyway, I still have a bunch to do before I leave. On some level, I'll never be quite "ready". One can take precautions, but really, when travelling for a month anything can happen. I just hope for the best. I've never been anywhere in Asia, so I gather culture shock will hit me quite hard. That, and the heat. And the jetlag.

Opinions on my journey have been divided - from being the opportunity of a lifetime, to coming home in a casket. I shall very much try to avoid the latter.
I have no idea if or how I'll be able to reach anyone once I'm there, but I'm hoping this blog can become a travel blog, at least for a while.

So, I'll keep you posted....I hope!

vrijdag 7 november 2008

Work, Boobies, & Geriatric Roadrage (a week report)

I've had a rather curious week. This in itself is not unusual, because I manage to get myself into weird situations without even trying. However, most of this wasn't even my fault.

It started on Monday, when I was going to meet the girl who's going to replace me at work. Why do I need to be replaced, you ask? Well, that in itself is a bit of a story. Long story short : I'm going to India for a month.
This came to be because I thought the work project would only last until the end of September - or at the very last the end of October - so when my friend M. mentioned she was going to India, I actually started looking for ways to come along. Since it apparently was not too late to get a seat on her flight and a visum....well, India here I come.

Of course, the thing is, the project at work is not quite finished and has been prolonged a little. By a little I mean several months. And this is how it came to be that they need a replacement for me.
My replacement is a psychology graduate (or like one of my colleages says : a psychopathy graduate) who shouldn't be doing silly administrative jobs any more than I should, but apparently the so-called economical crisis can be felt on the job market.

Now to add to the visual image : The young lady came to take a job interview of sorts, along with two guys from the agency that recruited her. Now here's the twist...one of these guys...is my dad.
Not many people at work know this, at least not from me, as it isn't something I'm particularily proud of. But I digress.

Back to the interview: The unfortunate choice of location for this event was the porn room.. Well, it's not called that, of course, but that's what I call it in my head. It is, as a meantioned in an earlier blog, the place where field-working guys from our company eat. However this little messhall has some a particular wall decoration: namely posters of naked women. There's also some particular literature to be found on the tables. And I don't even mean Playboy or Penthouse: no, there's stuff of a slightly more seeedy and hardcore variety. As I mentioned before, I find this mildly amusing. It's also slighly surreal.

Imagine this scene: I'm sitting in between my dad and the replacement. Sitting across the table from us were my boss and my dad's colleague. Myself and my replacement had excellent view of some nudie posters (there isn't a direction you can face where there isn't excellent view) and my dad ended up sitting right next to a magazines that had headlines such as "I like semen" and "I like to be banged hard".
And while imagining this, keep in mind this is a job interview. Also keep in mind, the girl actually took the job.
See, I want to capture this moment. And I want to play it in my head every time I hear the word "surreal". Oh, and if at all possible : I never want to discuss it with my father.

So, that was another thrilling Monday. Tuesday was more calm. I booked a hotel in Mumbai, so we'll have a bed and a roof over our heads for the first night we're in India, as we'll be arriving after midnight local time. I don't exactly feel like running around trying to find a hotel at the spot. And these people have airport pick-up. Of course the owner insists on calling me "Sir" in his e-mails. I wonder if he just uses the title in a unisex fashion, of if he'll be very surprised to find two girls at the airport.

Yesterday I went shopping. Christmas shopping one could say. As I'll only come back from India on the 17th of December, I might not hve much time when I come back. I also went and bought some new underwear, as I'm very particular about what I will and will not wear, and it's hard to find that where I live - let alone in India I suppose.

When I was walking home fom the shopping trip, something hit my hand and my shopping bags with a considerable thud. It took me a few moments to realise that I had actually been hit by a car! Looking back on it, I was lucky to be holding some bags ,because otherwise my hand might have taken more damage.
Oh, and what's worse : the guy in the car didn't even stop and just went to park his car further down my street. I cought up with him : it was a geriartic case with glasses and an equally mummified wife. When I suggested to him he might try to be more careful driving, he actually got very mad and rude towards me. Obviously I called the cops, who are lazy as usual, and told me not much can be done unless a doctor can actually prove I've been hurt (which isn't really the case, and if it were I still don't know if I'd like to invest time in it.)

However, I'll say it here. If you come across a burgundy car with the Belgian number plate CBZ-943, RUN, they are geriatric road pirates!

So this is how I conclude this week's events in my personal life. This weekend I'll be in Monschau, Germany, for the Mensa weekend. I'll let you know if some stories can be told about that...