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Home / Routes / Chapter 15 – Oh! Quel cul t’as! (April 1998)

Chapter 15 – Oh! Quel cul t’as! (April 1998)

Chapter 15 – Oh! Quel cul t'as! (April 1998)

I arrived at the railway station in Mumbai a couple hours before departure to check my bike onto the train. At the luggage office, I filled in the necessary forms and had the bike wrapped in jute and cardboard for protection, hoping the 100-rupee note I slipped to the packer would help ensure he did an extra careful job. By the look and smell of the man, I suspected the tip would be spent on English wine, which is what Indians call whisky.

Once all the preparations were finished, my boozy railway worker suggested I go over to my berth in the train, and half an hour before departure he would come to fetch me so that I could witness my bike being loaded onto the train, as I insisted on doing. After buying five litres of mineral water and as many packets of plain biscuits, I installed myself in my carriage, chained my luggage to the bars below the seat and observed the goodbyes all around me.

It was now fifteen minutes before departure and the packer still hadn’t shown up. I asked the older couple across from me to keep my seat and ran to the luggage car at the other end of the train. My bike was standing forlornly on the platform.

Breathless, I asked the porters milling on the platform, ‘Why is my bike not on the train? The train is leaving very soon.’

They looked at me, but no-one answered.

‘You must load it now!’ I cried. ‘I have all the right papers, look.’
One of the men pointed to the inside of the luggage car at a Suzuki 100 and explained. ‘Regulations say only one motorbike per car. Security reasons.’

My luggage was at the other end of the train, the train was pulling out in just a few minutes, I had to get my bike onto it. ‘Well, can’t you put it in another luggage car, then?’

‘No, this is only car for motorbikes.’

Only a few months before I would have cried, ‘Why did you sell me this ticket if you already had another bike to transport?’ Instead, I took a deep breath and went up to another employee dressed in a clean starched blue uniform.

With my best smile, I said to him, ‘Excuse me; I wonder if you can help me. This is my motorbike here and the porters say they can’t put it on the train. What should I do? The train is leaving in a few minutes. My luggage is at the other end of the train. Should I go and get it off the train?’

He didn’t answer me but walked over to his colleagues. They spoke for a minute. I didn’t understand but recognised the words ‘lady’ and ‘foreigner’.

Whatever he said had an immediate effect. Within a couple minutes, the porters unloaded the Suzuki and replaced it with my bike.

As I ran back along the platform to my car, the alcoholic porter – who had kept a low profile during the whole episode – ran up behind me, calling up to me. ‘Madam, madam!’

I stopped and turned around.

‘Bike on the train now. Everything okay.’ He stretched his arm, his palm open. ‘You give me baksheesh.’

I barely had the time to run back to my seat before the train pulled out. Indians trains rarely arrive on time but they do leave on time. I tried not to think about the owner of the Suzuki.

When the train eventually pulled into the station at Calcutta, our car was boarded by around 20 porters with bright red shirts, white lungis (a man’s sarong) and turbans to balance the luggage on their head. The strongest ones got hired first, and at the end, only an old man who couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds stayed with me. I had three heavy canvas bags full of clothes, books and motorbike tools I didn’t know what to do with, as well as my helmet and leather jacket. The old man took my biggest bag first and placed in on his head, he bent over for the second one which he slung over his shoulder, and he then reached for the third one. It is only when I promised
I would pay him for carrying the three bags that he let me take it.

We then walked right to the other end of the train to get my bike. Although only 8 am, it was already over 35 degrees and we sat in the shadow of the train along the platform, waiting for the railway employees to open up the luggage cars. Eventually, one of the workers broke the wax seal off the luggage car door, opened the padlock and tried to open up the door. He heaved and pushed but couldn’t budge it more than a few inches. He called his colleagues and between three of them they painstakingly pushed it open.

As they pushed the door back, boxes full of mangoes fell out. I looked into the luggage car: it was completely filled with mangoes – from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall. No sign of my bike. I looked to check I had the right luggage car. I did.

I asked the employees about my bike but they didn’t understand. Resigned I sat on my luggage watching them unload the boxes. As they pilled the boxes onto the platform I saw something sparkle. With relief I realised it was my left
mirror. But where had the cardboard and jute protection gone?

As the unloading progressed, more of my bike emerged: first the mirrors, then part of the exhaust pipe, then the bottom of the back wheel until Big Thumper stood all alone in the luggage car with bits of cardboard and jute scattered around it.

One of the railway workers radioed the train driver to move the car down away from the mango boxes to get enough room on the platform to unload my bike.

Gently, they lowered the Enfield and I inspected it, expecting the worst. But apart from a bent leg frame, there was nothing at all wrong with my bike. I loaded my bags onto the back of the bike and pushed it out of the station accompanied by my despondent porter who obviously feared his payment would be reduced by the easier return journey.

To get to the centre of Calcutta, I crossed the Howrah Bridge, known as the gateway to Calcutta, and one of the largest cantilever bridges in the world. It also holds the dubious distinction of being the busiest bridge in the world with over two million people using it everyday. It must also be the most polluted.
Calcutta. It conjured up so many pictures in my mind: the slums depicted in Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy, Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and the Destitute, the opulence of the British Raj.

But it was some days before I saw any of those faces; my first few days here were filled with getting a visa for Nepal, buying gear for the mountains, pampering my motorcycle with a visit to the mechanic and best of all, booking a five day trip to Bhutan.

The only way to visit the country, short of a personal invitation from someone who lives there, is to go on an organised trip, so I reluctantly agreed to leave my bike in the hotel’s parking lot for the duration.

One bit of trivia I picked up. The musical ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ has nothing to do with the city: it comes from the French ‘Oh! Quel cul t’as’ (Oh! What a bum you have).

Because the past couple days had been national holidays, the traffic in Calcutta was lighter than usual, or so I’d been told. It still seemed pretty bad to me and, added to the heavy circulation, I had the problem of getting to grips with the system of one-way streets. Almost half the roads are one- way but which way depends on the time of the day and the direction of rush hour traffic. Initially I didn’t realise this and got very confused when I tried to return to my hotel after the direction of the traffic had been changed.

Since I was in Calcutta, I felt I must visit Mother Teresa’s Mission. At least that’s what I kept on repeating to myself. I was not looking forward to seeing all that misery. So far I’d seen relatively few signs of abject poverty. Actually let me correct myself: I’d seen no more misery than in Delhi or Mumbai. But of course, I’d only ventured out in the commercial and tourist centres of town where there was the usual assortment of digit-less lepers, street urchins in torn rags and old men sleeping on the pavement, all begging more or less actively.

I was the victim of one particular example of active begging. As I walked down the street, a little girl of about eight attached herself to me. She grabbed the bottom of my T-shirt and pulled on it as she walked alongside and demanded money.

‘Baksheesh, baksheesh. Chapatis. Rupees.’

As I had no intention of giving her anything, I suffered the amused looks of Calcuttan pedestrians over a few hundred metres. I tried losing the beggar child by going into the first available shop, a travel agent, but she simply waited for me to come out before starting all over again.

I tried ignoring her, I tried refusing politely, I tried laughing it off and I tried getting angry. Nothing seemed to deter her. It is only when her persistent pulling on my T-shirt produced a loud rip that she took off running.

In preparation for the next few months in the Himalayas, I decided to fit a new back tyre to Big Thumper. He’d already covered 17,000 kilometres and I was unlikely to find brand new replacements for some months.

The man at the tyre shop couldn’t understand why I’d want to replace the tyre so soon.

‘Madam, I don’t want to cheat you. Your tyre is still in good condition. There is no need to replace it yet.’

‘How many more kilometres do you think it’s still good for?’ I asked.
‘Ten or twenty thousand kilometres.’

I would have been convinced if I couldn’t see all around me hundreds of examples of the literal meaning of threadbare tyres.

On the outskirts of Calcutta is a large park called the Botanical Gardens. It was founded in 1787 by a British officer of the East India Company and is a haven from Calcutta’s urban sprawl. I parked my bike by the entrance and walked down palm-fringed lanes, along glittering ponds and lush lawns shaded by giant trees. People were out on family outings; courting couples walked hand in hand, young girls played badminton in their saris and children swam naked in the ponds and tried to catch the dragonflies. What I didn’t see were the ubiquitous piles of litter despite the absence of rubbish bins, nor the begging despite the presence of a shantytown on the eastern wall of the park.

Botanical gardens in Calcutta
Botanical gardens in Calcutta

At one end of the park is a 240-year-old banyan tree with a canopy of over 400 metres – the largest in the world. A sign informs the visitor that there are 1825 aerial roots from the tree down to the ground. Did someone count?

On the way back into town I stopped to visit the Victoria Memorial building and the famous bronze statue of a stocky and dour faced middle-aged Queen Victoria. It’s probably a good thing the statue was erected posthumously as I doubt she would have been amused by it. Inside the memorial itself is a quotation from Queen Victoria carved into the wall. She said about her Indian subject in 1858: “In their prosperity will be our strength, in their contentment our security and in their gratitude our best reward.”

I wonder if she actually believed that.
Eventually, I went to Mother Teresa’s Mission – known locally simply as Mother’s Mission.

The building is in a major but not particularly run-down road of Calcutta. A door off a small alley- way brings you into a bare, white-walled room where the tomb of Mother Teresa lies; it too is white and plain. It stands waist high and carved in black letters is a quotation from the Bible that reads: “Love each other as I have loved you.”

Next door is an office called Mother’s Office where a dozen foreigners were waiting to register as volunteers; they included two Japanese young women, a middle-aged Baptist man from Nebraska, a Swiss nurse, a young woman wearing a University of Ohio T-shirt, and a British thirty- something man who looked like he’d suffered from dysentery for at least a month – his trousers threatened to fall off his hips and his glassy eyes roamed from object to object.

I signed up to work as a volunteer for a week in a children’s home in the slum city of Howrah.

Before starting work as a volunteer, I joined a group of Westerners on a visit to the Mission’s leprosy home an hour north of Calcutta at Titagaarh. While waiting for our bus, a young woman with a deformed leg and a speech impediment lurched towards me and grabbed my hand. She smiled and shrieked a question. It is only because I’d heard it hundreds of time before that I eventually understood she was asking where I came from. She then proceeded to ask for my good name.

I answered and suddenly, she screamed in my ears, while still holding my hand, ‘Give me rupees!’

‘No…no.’ I replied with a hesitant smile.

She pulled my hand very hand and shouted, ‘Rupees!’

I tried to prize my hand out but her grip was firm. Then suddenly, she let go of my hand and with pure disgust in her eyes, said in a calm and clear voice, ‘Fuck you’. And with both hands against my shoulders, she pushed me onto the path of an incoming tram.

Time slowed down. I was sure that I was going to get hit. I could see the driver looking at me in horror but my legs could not move.

Then out of the corner of my eye, a middle-aged man rushed towards me, grabbed my arm and jerked me back just in time.

‘Thank you, thank you.’ I kept on repeating.

I felt very shaken up, almost tearful. My first instinct was to go back to my hotel room and have a good cry but the bus arrived before I could make my excuses to the organisers.

It was with a lot of apprehension that I boarded the bus for the leprosy clinic. What would the people there be like? How would they see me? Like the woman who pushed me? A rich, selfish Westerner? I felt ashamed of going there. Am I just acting like a tourist who pays to see a bit of human misery because it makes her grateful for the life she has?

I was wrong. The residents were friendly, confident and proud of their work.
The leprosy centre houses 470 patients. It provides treatment as well as a place to live and work. I learned that because leprosy is a bacteria that attacks the nerves, sensation is lost in the extremities and therefore the patient is insensitive to burns or cuts. He or she then develops secondary infections that result in the loss of digits or even whole limbs – often because of gangrene. If caught early, the nerve damage can be reversed or at least halted.

Like tuberculosis, leprosy is transmitted through the air, but only affects people already weakened. It is very difficult to catch if you are generally healthy. However, because of the way they look, sufferers are often ostracised from their community or even their own family.

If after being treated, the patients are still unable to rejoin the general society they can stay at the centre to work. Many operate handlooms that make hospital bed sheets and the famous white muslin saris with the blue border worn by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. Some make special sandals for leprosy victims: it would be difficult for them to wear the flip-flops favoured by most Indians since many are missing toes. Others tend the vegetable plots.

We were introduced to a young man who had been diagnosed at a very early stage and now had no visible signs of the illness. The centre, which is solely funded by donations, is paying for him to train as a truck driver. We saw women rolling chapatis – quite a feat when you have no fingers left. The place was very clean and once I got over the shock of so many people with bits of their body missing, it was a very peaceful and beautiful place with a well cared for garden, flowers and even a fishpond.

The orphanage where I am volunteering is a two-storey house in a small alleyway with open sewers. The ground floor has a large room that serves as the classroom and above are three rooms: a washing area, a sleeping area, and a playing and eating area. The kitchen is outside on the roof under a corrugated sheet.
My work as a volunteer basically consists of hugging toddlers. When I arrived at the children’s home, the older girl orphans were bathing the younger ones.

Upon seeing me, half a dozen toddlers ran to me with their arms outstretched and demanded to be carried. I lifted a naked little boy who almost immediately fell asleep on my shoulder while a little girl in torn clothes climbed up my leg and into my other arm. This set the tone for the rest of the week as the children crawled all over me, played with my watch, hair, rings, hugged me and feel asleep on me.

The centre is in a Muslim slum in the district of Howrah that caters for abandoned children. There are about twenty children including two babies who look just like those painful pictures you’ve seen during the African famines: oversized heads on minuscule bodies, spindly arms and legs, the wrinkled skin of a sixty year old and big sorrowful eyes. The other children are well fed although quite a few have skin rashes and hacking cough. The sisters say it is tuberculosis.

I tried to play with the children but they were not interested. All they want are hugs and kisses. I suppose they feel abandoned all over again when the volunteers leave. One child especially stood out from the others for me. His name is Lobus, he is a very small two year old, with a constant stream of snot running from his nostrils, a painful rash on his forehead, lower jaw and armpits, and tuberculosis. And yet, Lobus has the eyes of an optimist; they sparkle and laugh with you.

On my last day, the older children asked to see pictures of my family. I was afraid that looking at other people’s families would upset them but instead they found my relatives hilarious. My father’s dungarees and my sister’s shorts got the biggest laughs.

Since I was soon to venture back into the Himalayas, I decided to get Big Thumper into tip top condition. In addition to getting a complete service and replacing the back tyre, I bought a tank bag so that I’d have no more fumbling through all my gear for the water bottle and the road map, I put a fairing for protection against the wind and the monsoon coming in a couple months and I even had the visor of my helmet polished to improve visibility.

It was nightfall by the time I finished all those errands and the streets were teeming with rush- hour traffic. Only one kilometre away from my hotel, and immobilised in a flow of cars, buses, trams and taxis, I saw a tram in front of me turn right and decided to follow behind it. I wasn’t too sure where it was going but at least we were moving in the general direction I wanted. For 100 metres I followed the tram when I noticed in my mirror there were no vehicles behind me. Instead I could see a very large policeman, all dressed in white, sprint up to me. He caught me by the shoulder shouting that I’d gone up a No Entry road.

Even though he spoke in Bengali initially I had no difficulty getting his point. I took off my helmet in the hope I could use the ‘innocent tourist’ routine.

‘Sorry, what’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘No Entry sign, wrong way,’ he replied in an angry tone. ‘Oh, I’m sorry…I didn’t realise. I was following the tram.’ ‘Show me your passport,’ he ordered me.
Shit. I’d left it in my hotel room.

He made me dismount and push my bike all the way back to the main turning where a thin, dark policeman – seemingly his senior – was directing the traffic from an island in the middle of the junction.

The first policeman told me to wait with my bike while he walked over to his boss and explained the situation. The senior policeman then signalled for me to come over.

In a very terse tone he said, ‘You went in No Entry road…That is a very serious offence. It is illegal.’

‘I know, I’m sorry, I didn’t see the…’

‘Keep silence,’ he interrupted. ‘It is a serious offence, there is a big penalty. You must pay 1,000 rupees.’

Shocked, I replied. ‘I’ll have to go back to my hotel to get the money.’ There was a pause.
‘Illegal. Serious offense,’ he repeated.
I looked – and felt – suitably contrite.

He came down from the traffic island, his face softened and he asked, ‘Do you have anything sweet to smoke?’

A policeman asking me for hash? I didn’t know what to say.
I smiled apologetically and said, ‘No, I’m sorry.’
He also smiled and pointed to a cigarette stand on the street corner. ‘Classic cigarettes,’ he said.

No need to tell me twice. I ran over and bought a couple packets of Classic cigarettes, one of the more expensive brands of Indian cigarettes, and gifted them to the policeman. This was the only bribe I ever paid in India.

I was later told by a Calcutta resident that traffic fines are 50 rupees!

Leaving my bike behind, I flew into Bhutan on a 72 seater Druk Air flight. As we approached Paro, Bhutan’s only airport, the plane banked steeply into the cloud cover and severe turbulence to emerge into a very narrow valley encased between high peaks. This flight is not for those scared of flying.
I smiled. Bhutan. I’m in Bhutan. That mysterious mountain kingdom.
Until 1974, no tourists were even allowed in and today their numbers are strictly limited. No more than five thousand tourists visit the country every year.

In the airport lounge, before taking off from Calcutta, I met a young Bhutanese woman working for the United Nations. She was dressed in fashionable Western clothes and spoke perfect English. She explained that all schooling is in English – at least for those who go to school.

She was obviously one of the few Bhutanese with a university education: there were 44 students in her graduation class out of a total population of 1.5 million. At least I think that is the population of Bhutan. The government seems quite reluctant to give an exact number. Bhutanese government brochures published between 1979 right through to 1995 quote a constant figure of 600,000. This UN employee quoted me a figure of 1 million and my Bhutanese guide later told me 1.5 million. I tend towards the higher figure because of the many posters I saw in the country encouraging the population to use birth control.

I was doing this trip to Bhutan in much greater style than usual: a guide and driver picked me up at the airport and stayed with me till I flew out. I did get the feeling they were there not just to make sure all my needs were answered but also to keep an eye on my activities and conversations with locals.

Both men wore the national dress, which consists of a heavy belted robe called a gho, knee-high socks and big white cuffs at the wrists. The king of Bhutan has made the national dress compulsory in the towns and failure to comply means a fine of $4. According to my guide, Kinlay, Bhutanese people change into Western clothes once they get home.

The women’s national dress (a kira) is made out of a similar heavy cloth fashioned into a long dress held together at the shoulders with round silver brooches. Most of the women have short hair and until recently they were forbidden to grow their hair because only women of the royal family could have long hair.

Kinlay mentioned that there is some opposition to the rule on the national costume from Bhutanese of Nepalese descent who make up approximately one quarter of the population. Most other Bhutanese are of Tibetan origins; they practice Tibetan Buddhism and speak Dzongka, a language very similar to Tibetan.

This is clearly a very religious society and there is a monastery in virtually every village, however small. Most families have a son who trains to become a monk.

I had hoped to climb up to Paro Taktshang, Bhutan’s famous monastery. Tragically, it burned down last week. It was reported that the oil lamps being too close to the hanging tapestries caused the fire. The caretaker monk died in the fire. Kinlay cried when he told me about it.

The monastery, perched high on a cliff overlooking the valley, is known as ‘The Tiger’s Nest’ because of the legend that Guru Rimpoche who introduced Buddhism into Bhutan in the 9th century flew here on the back of a tiger. It is the most sacred site in the country and every religious Bhutanese hopes to make a pilgrimage here.

Kinlay and I hiked up to another monastery at the top of a mountain where we had tea with one of the senior monks, known as the Master of Discipline. The 38-year-old monk was dressed in a maroon robe and had closely cropped hair. He explained that he’d joined the order at the age of 11 and had been very happy to do so because he had little enthusiasm for his two other options: school or farming.

It would be an understatement to say that Bhutan is a very mountainous country. Everywhere I looked my line of sight bumped into the side of a mountain. So much so that it was difficult to gain a sense of the ranges, their height or their distance. Instead I felt hemmed in, shut off from the normal world. It feels like a forgotten corner of the earth. The fact that television is banned and that there is only one weekly government-owned newspaper probably contributes further to the sense of isolation.

If one could not see that this was also a living society, it would seem almost Walt Disney-ish; a representation of what a successful tourist attraction should be like: smiling faces, natural beauty, traditional architecture, picturesque fashions and no pollution.

The flight back to Calcutta carried a Bhutanese soldier wounded in military training. Apart from rudimentary first aid stations and a handful of Tibetan medicine clinics, there are no medical facilities in the country.

Once re-united with my motorbike, I rode up to the eastern Himalayas of Darjerling and the state of Sikkim. It felt so good to be back on the bike. My bike was running well and the mountains were stupendous.
I’m lying on my bed feeling very sorry for, and angry with, myself. How could I be so stupid?

This afternoon I lost my money-belt with my passport, all my cash, travellers cheques, credit card and driving licence; it’s so banal and yet it’s also a crisis. I have no papers and I have no money to pay for my hotel bill or the petrol to get back to Calcutta. There are no banks here that do wire transfers.

I don’t know if my money belt was lost or stolen. It usually resides in the inside pocket of my leather jacket; perhaps I missed the pocket and it slipped out? Since I discovered the loss seven hours ago, I’ve spent the time at the police station, and wandering the streets of Gangtok in Sikkim in the dark and torrential rain with a flashlight hoping I’d find it lying in some gutter.
I’m trying to convince myself that someone will find it and turn it in at the police station tomorrow. It might be soggy, the cash may be missing but the most important things should be there.

I do wish this rain would stop; I have visions of my passport turning to pulp.
I woke up the next morning cheered up from a dream I’d found my money-belt. The sun was shinning and I optimistically set off again to explore all the places I could have dropped it: the Buddhist monastery, the park, the restaurant and the chemist. Three times I did the circuit and three times I went back to the police station. But eventually at noon I had to give up and I went back to the police station to appeal to the top man for a permit allowing me to leave this Indian state because I’m in a border area that requires special permission from the police.

Not only did he issue a letter to show at the checkpoint but he also lent me money out of his own pocket to settle my hotel bill and to get me back to Calcutta, which is two days’ riding away. This also allows me to buy my first meal since lunch yesterday.

Lessons to be learnt: wear the money-belt and hide some cash in my luggage. Fortunately I had the numbers of my lost travellers cheques, a photocopy of my passport, the number of my entry visa and an impression of my credit card.

(Two months later a young English traveller found my papers, minus the travellers cheques and the cash, in a cabin in the mountains of Nepal. He returned it to the British Embassy in Kathmandu.)

A few days later I was back in Calcutta where I replaced my passport, credit card and travellers cheque in only two days. Whoever said India was inefficient? The only problem was getting a new Indian visa in my passport. I could either wait two weeks while they checked that I had indeed entered the country where and when I said I had, or get a stamp allowing me to cross into Nepal within the next seven days where I could apply for a new Indian visa. I chose the latter.

But mentally I wasn’t back to normal. I could kick myself for being so stupid. It’s such a basic mistake to make. You’d think that after eight months on the road I’d have the sense to be a bit more careful with my money-belt. In addition, I now started to think of all the other things that could go wrong, and especially about having an accident. And yet, that thought didn’t make me any more careful. If anything I was riding more recklessly than before, and certainly much too fast.

I had rushed down Highway 34 back to Calcutta and now I was rushing back up the same highway towards Nepal. There were hundred of trucks on the road and I seemed obsessed with overtaking each one of them. I knew I should slow down: travelling nine hours a day on the motorbike was simply not sustainable. Besides I was not particularly enjoying it. The trees were in full bloom but I barely paid attention to the clash of oranges, yellows, whites, pinks and mauves.

There were palaces and mosques to visit along the way to the border but I refused to get off the bike. I was angry with myself and angry with the world.

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