Thursday, December 9, 2010

day 183

I’d like to say that I didn’t get sick on my last train ride in India. I’d like to say that I didn’t spend 8 agonizing hours on that train running to the toilet every hour. I’d like to say a lot of things but the truth is, I was as sick as a dog. Somehow I miraculously recovered once the train stopped in Delhi. Stomach bugs are strange and unpredictable things and one of the typically-Indian things that I would not miss.

My last few days in India were spent in Delhi, shopping. For 6 months I resisted buying too much (anyone who has been to India will understand how hard it is not to shop) but forced myself to travel as light as possible. Those days of travelling light were over and on the eve of my departure I had 2 large filled-to-the-brim duffel bags full of stuff and a huge Persian carpet in my possession. The carpet was for my mother and as much as I relished seeing her face when I gave it to her I did not find the idea of having so much stuff to carry appealing at all.

Apart from shopping and packing I also had to meet with Stephen and hand over the keys to the Yamaha. It was a ceremonious occasion and Shallu, ceremoniously, took a photograph of the ‘handing over’. I felt excited for Stephen’s impending travels and felt happy and proud that the Yamaha would be accompanying him. Like my friend Elke said ‘it’ll be easy, your bike already knows the way’. In Stephen’s eyes I saw the same anxiousness and excitement that I felt before I went up North and there was a moment when I envied him greatly but my adventure was over and my heart was yearning for my family and for the familiar. Before leaving though there were many goodbyes to say and it left me feeling sad and drained. One goodbye in particular left me feeling empty too. Saying goodbye to Shallu was harder that I thought. I never expected to find such a friend in India and there was a moment, while I was packing, when I considered stuffing her into one of my bags and taking her home with me but I was already overweight (my luggage, not me).

In the taxi, on the way to the airport, with the rolled-up carpet sticking out of the window, I felt my heart welling up with immense gratitude for the extraordinary experiences I had in this mad country that will forever occupy a space in my heart. I knew that the full weight of the experience and its effect on my life would become clear once I saw my life back home in contrast to it. I was different, that much I knew. Would my family and friends notice? I was embarking on a new adventure, I realized. Going home.

Checking in at the airport was uneventful. The checking clerk looked at my passport and noticed that my visa was expiring that very same day. ‘Making full use out of your visa, hey?’. I looked at her and smiled, a loaded, all-knowing smile. ‘You don’t know the half of it, yaar’

one more day in Bombay

I had an entire day to kill in Mumbai before catching the train to Delhi and spent it taking the Yamaha for a final service and finding a safe parking for it for a week until Stephen fetched it and started his own, brand new adventure. This didn’t take nearly as long as I’d hoped and to kill the time I went to the famous Regal Cinema and watched Harry Potter. It was the only movie showing and I soon discovered that at this cinema only one movie is shown per day (well, 4 shows a day but the same movie). After the movie I went for a farewell ride through Mumbai and ended up parking it outside the famous cricket ground (I forget the name) where impromptu cricket matches are held all day long. Have I mentioned that India is cricket-obsessed? I’m not a cricket fan but I was starting to get a little nostalgic (in a few days I would be heading back to South Africa) and thought it was an appropriate end to my last ride. As expected the cricket bored me so much that I fell asleep next to the field. I woke up about 2 hours later and realized that I had less than an hour to take the bike back to its parking and get a taxi to the train station. Plenty of time. I leisurely strolled to the spot where I’d left the Yamaha but the Yamaha was missing.

A nice man with orange henna hair told me that the traffic police had towed it because it was illegally parked. What? The seriousness of the situation hit me between the eyes and I went into a frantic panic looking around for anything resembling a traffic cop. I found one across the street who told me where I could find it. It was long walk but eventually after 30 minutes I arrived at the traffic department and saw my poor bike among hundreds of towed others. I asked around and ended up speaking to a very rude and impatient Punjabi traffic officer who demanded my license and registration papers. ‘Ok look’, I said (a little more forceful than I meant to) ‘I have it but I left it at my hotel’. This was the truth but he reacted like I had just slapped him in the face and insulted him severely. ‘You’re a foreigner! No foreigner is allowed to own property in India! You’re lying!’ he spat at me. A big part of me wanted to go fetch my registration papers, shove it in his face and say ‘Aha! I told you so’ but I simply had no time. I explained my situation to him as calmly as I could but his mind was set again me and my sorry plight. I’ve been alive long enough to know that in situations like these you need to go directly to the person in charge. By the time I found the chief commander’s office I was close to tears and by the time I shook his hand I was crying. I had 20 minutes to get my bike released, park it and find a taxi. Anyone who knows me well will know that not only do I cry easily but once I start crying it’s very hard to stop. The chief was a wonderfully patient and understanding man and within minutes he had released my bike, offered me a tissue and apologised for any ill-treatment inflicted by his department. ‘Please come visit us again’ he said. ‘Ok’ I said through my subsiding tears but secretly knew that as soon as I got on my bike and rode off, I would be gunning it out of there, never looking back.

I made it just by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin and was still trying to get my tears under control as I settled into my bunk on the train. Whew. Once I was relaxed enough to reflect I started thinking about the journey the Yamaha and I had been on. What an incredible yet incredibly hard adventure and one that I would not trade for anything. Goodbye old friend.

planes, trains, busses and omelettes

The day we left Kerela was my brother’s birthday. My brother has always had the misfortune of his birthday during exams or work (my birthday is on a public holiday) and it was a nice change that he would not have to study or work on his birthday. The day, however, would be spent travelling from Kochin to Delhi and then to Jodhpur and none of us relished the idea of spending anyone’s birthday on a plane or a train (especially not the train we were on a few days before). The plan was to fly to Delhi, spend a few hours there and have a celebratory birthday dinner before catching the over-night train to Jodhur. My brother insisted on an Indian buffet but we knew that he simply wanted Indian food and he wanted plenty of it and that was easy enough to arrange.

We arrived in Delhi around 17h00 and from the airport got a taxi straight to Old Delhi. If you want to experience the chaos of India in all its glory, Old Delhi is a good place to start. That’s exactly what we did and my brother and Mieke were plunged straight into the madness I experienced on my first night in India. Old Delhi is possibly more overcrowded, busy and noisy than a bee-hive and I watched the two of them with fascination and delight and wondered if I also looked as bewildered and amazed when I saw Old Delhi for the first time. There are a million things to see and everything you see is so extraordinary that you are always torn between wanting to take a photograph of it or just look and take it in. I understand that feeling very well, for the first few weeks in India my trigger finger itched uncontrollably.

We had dinner at a place called Karim’s in Old Delhi, situated right in the heart of the bee-hive. Karim’s is a very popular place among foreigners and locals because the food it great and the location fascinating. As an added treat, Shallu was also able to join us for the birthday dinner. It was great that I got the chance to introduce her to my brother and to Mieke and the dinner, although not a buffet, was just what we wanted. We ordered shahi paneer (a rich, tomato based cottage cheese curry and easily the tastiest dish in India), tandoori chicken, a spinach and potato curry and loads of naan. It was the perfect meal, my brother was a happy man and we would probably have stayed there all night but we had a train to catch. Earlier that day, Mieke pointed out that we had already taken a bus, a plane and a taxi and soon we would also be taking a train. All we needed was to take a cycle-rickshaw (surely then we’d be breaking some kind of record?). As it happened, we did take cycle-rickshaws to the train station because the tuck-tuck driver we approached asked a ridiculously expensive rate when he saw us (3 foreigners, plus luggage) and refused to be bargained down. The cycle-rickshaw wallah was much more reasonable. We quickly settled on a ridiculously inexpensive rate and got 2 rickshaws, one for me and the luggage and another for my brother and Mieke. The two of them immediately started taking photographs like Chinese tourists. It was a fun ride through the dark, bustling streets (it’s literally impossible to ride in a cycle-rickshaw and keep a straight face) and to top it off, a bird shat on my brother’s face en route to the station. It was hilarious and I felt deliriously grateful for the few crazy, delicious hours we got to spend in Delhi and suddenly, despite all the travelling, it felt like a birthday-day.

The train ride to Jodhpur was infinitely better than the one we took to Kochin. It’s amazing what a difference it makes if you’ve actually got a bed/bunk to sleep in as opposed to sharing a small floor space with dozens of strangers. We arrived in Jodhpur the next morning at 8h00 and were welcomed by my old friend Lucky who had a hard time hiding his excitement that Olga-the-girl-on-the-Yamaha was back and this time she brought friends. I knew he would be disappointed that I was back minus the Yamaha but he hid it well and I had to compliment Lucky, again, on his wonderful hospitality and on his exquisite little guesthouse. It really was a beautiful place and this time I had witnesses who agreed whole-heartedly. Our beautiful room-with-a-view however would only be ready after 10h00, when the guests occupying it checked out, so we strolled down to the market to have some breakfast.

There were many things I wanted to show my 2 companions and Jodhpur certainly was one of the places that I often wished I had someone to say ‘did you see that?’ to. I was deliriously happy that I could share this city with them and see it in a new light, through their eyes. During my first visit I ate mostly traditional Rajashtani food like kirchori (deep fried vetkoek-type thing filled with lentils and spices, served with a chickpea curry) and deep-fried jalapeno chillies filled with spiced potato. At the entrance to the market however there is an omelette shop (selling nothing but omelettes). Actually, there are 2 omelette shops right next to each other and, again, both claiming to be ‘the best’ or ‘the original’. I had a long chat with the omelette shop owner on the right on my first visit to Jodhpur and he assured me that his omelettes truly were the best and the original and that I shouldn’t be fooled by any other merchant making the same claim (especially not the one right next to him). I vaguely remembered that I promised to have an omelette but never did. This time, I had the ill fortune of running into him within an hour of my return to Jodhpur and had to re-confirm my promise to have an omelette. Later that day the 3 of us strolled over to the omelette shop for an omelette but we got more than we expected. Naturally I walked over to the omelette shop on the right but was intercepted by the omelette shop owner on the left who pointed an accusing finger at his competition and told me that his shop was the original. I looked at the guy who had made that very same claim (and had me convinced) but he avoided my eyes and I knew instantly that he had lied. The 2 shops were identical in almost every way but then I saw that above each shop was a banner. The one read ‘recommended by Lonely Planet Book’ and the other simply ‘recommended by Book’. Uh-hum. We went with the Lonely Planet-recommended shop and ordered the ‘famous’ masala omelette while the owner and his son shared their story with us. The owner had been making omelettes since the 70’s and a mention of his shop in the Lonely Planet had catapulted him into great fame and success. Eggs were his passion (fair enough, whatever makes you happy) and according to him and his slightly arrogant son he had perfected the art of omelette-making. I’ll be honest and say that the masala omelette I had was the best damn omelette I’ve ever had. The owner’s son should have just let the omelettes speak for themselves but he kept putting down their competition while we ate saying he was mentioned (not recommended) by an unknown Korean travel guide book and not the holiest of holies, the Lonely Planet, like they were thus implying that they were superior. Every now and then I’d glance over to the other shop and exchange a look with its owner that said ‘what was I supposed to do?’.

As with the lassis in Jaipur though, my custom was to try them all and decide for myself and so later that day I had another omelette, at the counterfeit omelette shop on the right, this time sharing uneasy glances with the Lonely Planet omelette shop owner’s son. I could see that he was eager, and a little anxious to hear my verdict. I finished the omelette, stood up, honestly declared that the 2nd omelette was better and left. No doubt the omelette debacle continues still but it felt good that I got to give an honest, objective opinion but in the end I realized that I was perhaps giving it too much thought and had to remind myself that it was, after all, only an omelette.

Later that day SAA (South African Airways) dropped a huge bomb on us (so to speak). In an email, they informed my brother that their return flight on the 21st of November had been cancelled. No explanation, simply cancelled. Two alternative dates were given, the 22nd or the 18th. Neither date suited them as both needed to be back in South Africa on the 22nd for work and should they fly on the 18th, our trip would have to be shortened by 3 days. After some angry phone-calls to the travel agent and a complaint/hate-mail to SAA we gave up, accepted defeat and set about changing our travel plans. On short notice like this all the trains were full and we had no option but to travel by bus to Udaipur and from Udaipur back to Mumbai, again by bus.

The only thing bumpier than a bus-ride through India would have to be a camel ride through India and I would not suggest either mode of transport to anyone planning to travel India. Not only was it uncomfortable but it was frighteningly dangerous (Indian bus drivers are terribly reckless) and much more expensive than the train. With every painful kilometre I grew less fond of SAA and by the time we made it to Udaipur we were completely spent. We were tired to the bone and semi-sleepwalking through Udaipur, shopping. We needed to sleep but, thanks to SAA, we had only a few hours in Udaipur and didn’t want to spend them sleeping.

Later that day we got on yet another bus and with heavy hearts settled into our sleeping seats for the long 18-hour haul down to Mumbai. It was now simply a race to make it to Mumbai by the 18th. We made it to Mumbai by the 18th but we were completely drained. We had no more energy, humour, excitement or tolerance and my two tired companions hit the hay within minutes of booking into our hotel. I was not that lucky. I needed to find Rikesh, the guy who was looking after the Yamaha and trying to find a buyer while I was gone. It was easy enough to find him but then he told me that he couldn’t find a buyer and I soon discovered that he had simply been using my bike as his own and probably had made no effort to find a buyer. I thanked him, a little irritated (he had not delivered on his promise and had not treated the Yamaha with the love and care he was supposed to) and immediately emailed Stephen. Stephen was a guy I met long ago In South Africa. He was coming to India and was interested in buying the Yamaha. He was planning to ride up North for 2 weeks and had lots of questions about bikes and the North of India. I answered his questions with my hard-earned knowledge and an eagerness to pass on what I’d learnt. I was very pleased that the Yamaha’s adventure was not yet over and it felt like the perfect end to my own biking adventure (passing it on to someone else). I couldn’t have planned it better myself.

That night my two, still-exhausted, companions climbed into a taxi and caught a flight back to South Africa (3 days earlier than planned). I was still furious with SAA and felt they were the cause of all the rushing, tiredness and frustration. They never did reply to our angry email. Bastards. Needless to say, the moment their taxi disappeared around the corner, I went to bed and slept like a dead person. In the end, I think my brother and Mieke did experience the India I was hoping they would, the exhilaration, wonder and frustration of it all in a compact, from the South to the North, 18-day nutshell. As for me, I had one more day with my beloved Yamaha before leaving for Delhi one last time. It turned out to be an unusual farewell, but that’s a story for another time.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

from Mozambique to the land of the coconuts

The South of India was totally different from the North but I never expected it would be so ‘un-Indian’. It reminded me of Africa rather than India and I knew I wasn’t the only one thinking that en route to Goa we must have been dropped off in Africa instead because both Mieke and my brother kept saying things like ‘this looks just like Mozambique’. Don’t misunderstand, we were not ungrateful for the experience and soaked up all that Goa and its beaches had to offer but we knew, in our hearts, that at the Southern tip of Africa (the place we get to call ‘home’) you’ll find beaches more beautiful than you can imagine. It’s just that we were expecting something else, something Indian and it was hard to see what all the Goa-fuss was about. To add to our disappointment, we discovered that most beaches were occupied by British or Russian tourists, with only a handful of locals (mostly taxi drivers and touts), so much for experiencing the local culture.

I knew exactly the kind of India my brother and Mieke were hoping to see and Goa, sadly, was not it. We also expected the rest of the way down South would be similar and thus a new plan was hatched. We gave ourselves another week in the South, then we would fly to Delhi, take an overnight train to Jodhpur and spend the last 5 days in Rajashtan (the ‘real’ India).

It took us the best part of a day but we finally had our plane and train tickets in hand and were ready to leave Goa the next day. By some twisted twist of fate, however, it started raining. And not just rain, tropical storm rain. That same day Mieke found an idyllic cabin-like beach cottage overlooking the Arabian Sea and dozens of palm trees and we were thrilled that we would be staying there for our last night in Goa. That night, we realized that the idyllic cabin was in fact a shabby little hut and we were forced to use my tent’s outer sheet inside the cabin to keep the rain out. It was leaking everywhere and everything was wet, even the bed. The next morning, after a bad night’s sleep I stepped outside and saw our neighbor looking just as miserable and sleep deprived. We were too far away to hear each other but she, very dramatically, mouthed ‘this is shit’ and I had to agree. Needless to say, we were very ready to leave Goa but we had another problem. All the trains down to Kochin (the capital of Kerela, the most Southern part of India and known as ‘God’s own country’) were full. That morning however, Mieke and I met a lovely lady who runs an Ayuverdic massage center close to our leaking little cabin who told us how to get on a train to Kochin that same day. It was risky but we were willing to try it, spending another day in Goa was not an option. The plan was to go to the train station, wait until an hour before departure, buy an ‘unreserved’ seating ticket and once we’re on board the train ask the conductor for an upgrade to a sleeper coach. The massage lady said it was easy and she does it all the time, we had nothing to worry about.

Just after midnight that same day, we got on the train to Kochin and were told, flatly, by the conductor that the train was full. No upgrade possible today. The reality of the situation hit us like a slap in the face and we sobered up to the fact that we had 14 hours on this packed train without a space to even sit (let alone sleep). We squeezed past hundreds of sleeping bodies, hoping to find a small open space, the situation getting more real with every step. Every available space was occupied (even the floors) but we eventually found a space, next to the urinals. We squeezed in and tried to get some rest looking at each other with a look that said ‘Ok, this sucks but let’s just get through it’ and I realized again that India is not for everyone. I could think of a few people who would simply have refused to get on this train. The 3 of us were made of tougher stuff and we would not be broken by another sleepless night next to a stinking, leaking toilet. In a few hours we would be hysterically laughing at this, right?

The next morning at dawn we were very rudely awakened by another conductor telling us that our ‘seating’ tickets didn’t allow us to be in this here ‘good’ coach and we had to switch to the correct one at the next station. I’d rather not say what waited for us in the next coach but thanks to Mieke’s friendly-but-firm way with people (a characteristic that I hugely admire) we found a spot, sat down and took turns sleeping until we finally reached Kochin, 7 hours later. We took a photograph which, I think, shows our mood perfectly, can you tell?.

Due to our new plans, to head up North, our time was limited and we certainly had none to waste. The minute we got to Kochin we enquired about taking a back-water trip on a house boat (again, a must-do according to the guide books) and rented 3 motorcycles (a long and frustrating process and after the day we had on the train, the last thing we needed). The next morning we left on our motorcycles for Kanikumari, the most Southern tip of India. This was something that I know Mieke, particularly, wanted to do. In that spot, 3 oceans meet and the plan was to ride down, along the coast, stopping in Kanikumari and swimming in 3 oceans simultaneously. The idea of this race down South appealed to me greatly and I was stoked that we would be going on a little mini bike trip after all. Further frustrating delays and more tropical rain stopped us from fulfilling that adventure though. A brief spark of intense FOMO (fear of missing out) took hold of us as we realized that we would have to get real and accept that we would not be able to do everything we wanted. India was simply too big and our time too short. We didn’t make it to Kanikumari but had to turn around and head back to Kochin without a swim at the Southern tip of India. Disappointment is a huge part of a true adventure, this much I know.

All in all I liked Kerela and I was happy to discover that South Indian food does not only consist of Dosas (a large, flat, pancake filled with spiced potato and served with a vegetable soup and coconut sauce). We had some amazing, colourful curries and coconut is used in everything. It was inspiring, delicious and a nice change. Kerela, just so you know, means ‘coconut’ or ‘the land of the coconut’. We were excited to be leaving the land of the coconuts and trade it for the chaotic and noisy India, the India of our dreams. Next stop, Delhi.

Monday, November 15, 2010

the arrival

After spending 15 hours on a Bollywood movie set (which would amount to no more than 15 seconds of B-grade Bollywood fame, if that) I spent a few days recovering from a severe case of diarrhoea and eventually decided to crack open the antibiotics my mother had insisted I take with. I’ll admit I was disappointed that I had not made it out of India without taking a course of antibiotics, in my mind it would have amounted to the same as climbing Mount Everest without oxygen. All the same, I was grateful for the medication because I was, by now, very sick. Three days was all I gave myself to recover because in three days my brother and my friend Mieke would be joining me in Mumbai and it was a visit that I was anticipating with great excitement. There simply was no space for illness now. At times during this trip when I was severely lonely or the road became too long and I felt like giving up, their visit served as encouragement or an incentive of sorts and I couldn’t believe the time had finally come.

Then the day of their arrival came and I went to meet them at ‘the Gateway of India’ just a 5 minute walk from my hotel in Mumbai. I had a hard time getting my mind to calm down. There was so much I wanted to tell them and share and ask but as irony would have it l fell into a strange and uneasy silence shortly after we greeted each other and were walking back to the hotel. Later, sitting across a table from them at a restaurant, I realized that I’ve been away for almost half a year and haven’t had a real conversation with either of them for all that time. Distance causes distance (that much I knew). But I told myself not to freak out and calm right down. We weren’t on opposites sides of the world anymore, we were together and we had 3 weeks in this crazy country to explore and see and taste and feel things, together. It would take a little time to ease back into each other’s company. In the meantime we had a 3 week adventure down to the South of India to plan.

There was one other thing that needed my attention before the adventure down South could begin in full swing. I had to decide the Yamaha’s fate. My beloved companion had overnight become a burden. The plan to do part of the trip down South on motorbikes faded into nothingness and it hit me that my adventure with the Yamaha was over. To say that it was hard for me to accept would be an understatement. I felt devastated. It felt like I had to sell a friend or a family member. This deep and unexpected sadness made me even more silent and distant but I couldn’t shake it. That night I told Mieke about my heartache and she told me about their beloved family Kombi that their father had sold when they were younger and how sad and empty they all felt after the sale, almost like losing a member of the family. She understood and it felt good.

Our plan was to take the train down to Goa and then move down the West coast of India stopping wherever we wanted but we did not make it out of Mumbai without visiting a Bollywood movie set, again. This time we were not 30 extras. It was just me and Mieke (Mieke and I) that they needed. Poor Hennie was told that he was most welcome to tag along and experience the Bollywood experience but they wouldn’t need him for any of the scenes (as it happened, he did, almost accidently, end up being in one of the scenes). It was another long day and this time Destiny the bus didn’t come to fetch us. We had to take a taxi, a train and a rickshaw to get to the set (in the middle of nowhere) and it was 23h00 when we finally made it back to our hotel. Mieke and I were both beyond desperate to take a shower. We had huge fake tattoos on our arms (long story) that we had to scrub off and poor Mieke had huge amounts of hair gel and hairspray in her hair that would take a couple of washes to wash out. Lying in bed, exhausted, we laughed again at the bizarre day we had.

But like I said, I still had to sort the Yamaha out before I hopped on a train (I couldn’t just leave it in the street while I went South for 3 weeks). But selling a motorbike in India proved to be much more complicated than buying one and it frustrated me that everybody thought I was completely clueless and kept telling me the most ridiculous things. Eventually, after a couple of frustrating days, I gave up and left the Yamaha with a young Indian guy called Rikesh who promised to take good care of it while I was away and would, in the meantime, try to find a buyer. This was trust on a whole other level but I had no real choice. I handed over the keys to Rikesh and hopped on a train to Goa. The bike admin had kept me in Mumbai a day longer than I planned and my brother and Mieke were already In Goa waiting for me. This was the last stretch of my trip and it was with sadness but that ever-present sense of the unexpected that I got on the train to Goa.

The guide books have much to say about Goa. About the beaches, the food, the Portuguese influence but in particular about the infamous party scene. In the late sixties a group of true blooded hippies rocked up on a beach in Goa and indulged in sex, drugs and rock and roll. When there was a full moon they danced naked on the local beaches while Jimi Hendrix blasted loudly from a Volkswagen kombi somewhere. The locals were appalled but not too alarmed. However, the next season more and more hippies appeared and the beach parties became larger, louder and out of control. Soon everybody (hippie or not) in other parts of the world knew that if you’re looking for a good party, Goa was the place. Over the years the parties became even bigger and a little more organized and by the late nineties Rock and Roll gave way to Techno and soon the Goan beaches turned into huge trance party venues all year round. Needless to say, party drugs were everywhere and after a few drug related deaths at such parties the government stepped in and shut it down. I could imagine the locals (and even some of the hippies of old) cheering loudly in celebration of the end of the madness that lasted for several decades. Of course it still lives on (especially during the month of December) and several clubs have sprouted up to facilitate the masses in search of a wild party. The government knows all too well how lucrative the party/drug business is and the biggest party club in Goa is actually owned by the government.

The party scene didn’t appeal to us in the slightest but Goa, surely, had more to offer than just a party and we wanted to find out what it was.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ferengi goes to Bollywood

What you are about to read is a true recollection of the events that took place on Monday 25 October 2010. However elaborate or ridiculous the facts may seem, I would like it recorded here that not even I can make this kind of stuff up.

There were about 30 of us. Foreigners (ferengis). Extras. We were all approached by slick Mr. Bollywood the day before and were now waiting to be collected from our hotel and taken to the movie set. It was 8am when around the corner suddenly appeared a bright yellow bus with blue letters on the side ‘DESTINY’. It was an auspicious start. The bus ride through the Mumbai streets was incredible and I definitely got to see parts of the city that I would not have seen otherwise. It looked like this was going to be an unforgettable day.

We arrived at the studio an hour later and were led to a large room where we were told to wait for further instructions. We were all a little nervous, not knowing what to expect and to break the ice, my new German friend, Benjamin (we met on the bus) made a joke and said that he thought this was a Bollywood scam and that we were going to be called in one by one, and then robbed and murdered. Everybody laughed. Everyone except the 3 Swedes (they looked even more nervous than before).

We did not get robbed or murdered. Worse, we got assessed: short/tall, fat/skinny, dark/light, pretty/ugly, male/female, dancer/non-dancer. After you are assessed you go to ‘hair and make-up’ and then ‘wardrobe’. I met Leda (from Argentina) while standing in the wardrobe line. We were both tall and dark (compared only to the Swedes, I thought) and were given our costumes together. The wardrobe lady took one look at me and yelled ‘dress! Yes! Yes!’ She was overjoyed that she would get to put one of us into a dress and to be honest, so was I. I’ve been riding a motorcycle for a long time and I’ve been fantasising about wearing a dress again (and take a bath with scented candles, buy flowers and other girly things). Yes, I was excited about wearing a dress, until I saw the dress I was supposed to wear. Leda and I both nearly had a heart attack followed by a laughing fit. It was a summer dress, yellow with a big brown corset closing around my bosom with, matching, yellow buttons. That in itself, was not so strange but didn’t quite ‘fit’ with the make-up I had been given. Thus, from the neck down I looked like a Bavarian dairy farmer and from the neck up, a prostitute. Ok, just work it girl, I told myself but Leda and I nearly rolled on the floor laughing. She also looked ridiculous but I took first prize.

Next, shoes. Needless to say they had no shoes in my size. I wear a size 8 (7 on a good day) and had to force my poor feet into a size 6 silver sandal (again, ill-matched to the outfit, I think). The wardrobe lady told me not to worry (who’s worried?) I would not have to walk in this scene. This would prove to be incorrect as, in this particular scene, I not only had to walk but I also had to dance, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

All made up, Leda and I returned to where they had all the extras waiting and the moment I walked in, the room froze. Nobody knew what to say until an Australian guy at the back managed a ‘whoa, now THAT is an outfit’ and everybody (including me) broke down laughing. At that moment one of the assistant-directors came in and did a double take when he saw me. ‘What?!’ I felt like saying to him ‘it’s not like I did this to myself’. But everybody looked a little ridiculous and I assumed it was part of the plot. By now, I had overcome any shyness or reserve I might have felt earlier in the day. It was clear that I was still going to feel very foolish and I made peace with that. An hour later we were called onto the set.

The scene:

A bar (a Cuban bar).

In Scotland (?)

1991 (suddenly the wardrobe made a little more sense).

The extras had to occupy the bar, i.e. sit at the tables, stand at the bar, dance on the dance floor and so on. I was told to sit at a table with Benjamin and pretend to be in deep conversation. This, I have to add, is much harder than it sounds. Benjamin has a wicked sense of humour and kept saying things that made me burst out laughing when I was supposed to be ‘in deep conversation’. On the dance floor were the ‘stars’, a young Indian couple, wearing normal (not 80-ish) clothes and dancing very closely together. Another assistant director told us that there is a big difference between ‘actors’ and ‘stars’ and very rarely do you find both qualities in one person. These were stars. Vain to the core.

The Australian guy that told me I had quite an outfit had a big role. He was supposed to dance up to the female star, rub against her and pick a fight with the male star. He also had to pretend to be extremely drunk while doing so. The poor guy was a terrible actor and looked retarded rather than drunk but the director didn’t seem to notice (or mind). After what felt like 500 takes of the same scene an assistant director (there seemed to be at least 10 of them) told me to wait for the music to start, count to ten and then stand up and walk out of the bar. And so for the next hour, I counted to ten, stood up, walked across the dance floor (in my size 6 silver sandals) and out the door where I waited with the light and sound people until the director yelled ‘Cut! Back to positions!’

My feet were screaming by now and just then, another assistant director told me to rather sit down again, wait for the music, count to ten and then get up and walk over to a table he indicated and have a short (15 seconds) conversation with the guy sitting there and return to my table. I waited for the music, counted to ten and then got up and walked over to a table on the other side of the dance floor occupied by a young guy from Finland. ‘Hi’ I said when I reached his table ‘I’m supposed to come over here and have an imaginary conversation with you. What’s up?’ But he was too shocked to react. Nobody told him that I was supposed to do that and all of a sudden I heard the director scream ‘CUT!!’ ‘What are you doing?’ he asked me, bewildered. I blushed, instantly, and (stuttering) told him that the assistant director had told me to do this. Of course, at that moment, that particular assistant director was nowhere to be found and I was told to go back to my table and sit down. Thankfully, shortly after that embarrassing incident we ‘cut’ for lunch. During lunch we all had to wear massive pink bibs (to keep our costumes clean) and I remember thinking, in that moment, that I didn’t think it was possible for us to look more ridiculous than we did, but I was wrong.

After lunch we were shooting the fight scene, which sounds exciting but after 500 takes gets a little old. In this scene, I had to dance with the others on the dance floor until the fight was picked and then act really surprised. I went for this scene, whole-heartedly, dancing and overacting my little heart out. After all, this was the 80’s. This was Bollywood. Overacting was expected.

At 22h00 one of the extras, a charted accountant from London said that she wanted to leave. We were told in the morning that we would be finished by 21h00 and everyone was tired and wanted to go back to the hotel. I was also tired but I knew that we would never finish on time. By now, I knew India better than that. But before I knew it the lady from London had gotten all the extras to walk off the set and demand to be taken home. I didn’t want to feel left out so I went outside and stood at a distance while she argued with the assistant director. He begged us to stay for ten more minutes but our spokes woman was fierce and refused to budge. Boycott! Boycott! Moment later, Mr. Slick arrived on the scene and also begged us to stay (the real drama was taking place off the set) and offered to pay us each 300 rupees more if we stayed for ten more minutes and eventually we were convinced to go back to the set.

For the next ten minutes we were all gathered around the 2 guys fighting and had to act really shocked. Everyone was too tired to act anymore and we ended up just pulling strange faces until the director yelled ‘Cut’ and then we were on the bus, Destiny, on our way home. All in all (and all and all..) it was a great day and I even earned a full R 100. You gotta love India.