Delightful India – Domestic Flights & Taxis
In Pelling, Sikkim state, a remote corner of the northeastern Indian Himalaya 2200 meters above sea level, i have booked my private taxi to Bagdogra airport for 7.50 a.m, to reach my flight to Kolkata. At 7.20 a hotel clerk knocks on my door: the taxi is already waiting.
There will be no other decent food until the evening, so I have to take the good Indian breakfast at my lodge. The driver, booked through a local travel agency, speaks no English whatsoever so I ask the hotel clerk to tell the driver that I will depart at 7.50, as agreed. In the hotel’s ground floor restaurant, I have puris, masala omlette, aloo bhaji and a stainless steel pot of Indian milk tea while the driver watches me through the window with disapproving looks.
I have derived out a plan how to proceed from lodge to car without getting dusty dirty shoes, clothes and luggage. And it works. I will arrive in my pre-booked upper midrange Kolkata hotel in decent looks.
The five hours, 150 kilometers jeep drive from the Himalayan state of Sikkim to Bagdogra airport in the plains is charged at 1800 rupees (39 USD). This is the first of half a dozen drivers and guides I have across Darjeeling and Sikkim who does not bring a friend or micro nephew along. But when I make him stop at a small market place to buy Sikkimese cherry brandy, he asks me if he may take two passengers. They want to go to Jorethang, just nine kilometers away. There is a lot of cheap public transport available, but why not.
In Jorethang we stop near the bus station and the driver receives ten rupees (0,22 USD) from each of his two passengers. This spares me the tip.
Then he says “panj minit” (five minutes in Nepali and Hindi) and gestures like eating. By now it is much later than anticipated and I think the driver could have eaten when I had eaten too. Or he could eat momos or samosas whilst driving (but then, his driving time is needed for mobile phone talks).
I say “no” and point to my left wrist.
The driver gives me pleading looks, “panj minit…!”
I say “OK”.
The driver runs off into a small lane.
Six minutes later the driver comes running back.
In a lonesome forested stretch, I ask the driver to stop and say “bathroom”. I walk across the road, ten meters into the light forest, open the zipper and start to relief myself.
I hear steps. The driver. He positions himself next to me, opens his zipper and reliefs himself in synch with me.
The driver has a more and more reckless style now, even by Indian standards. My plane goes at 13.55, but I have told him that the plane goes at 13.00 o’clock (some drivers want to arrive just one minute before departure). Maybe the driver thinks we are late on time and is speeding because of that.
I had taken the 14 o’clock plane to get sunset in the Victoria Memorial park in Kolkata, even though the start in Sikkim was uncomfortably early.
I tell the driver that my plane departs at 14, not at 13 o’clock, to make him drive slower. He drives faster.
I receive an SMS from Jet Air that the plane will start only at 14.20.
I show the SMS to the driver, to make him drive slower. He drives faster.
I receive another SMS from Jet Air that the plane will start only at 14.40. I don’t show the SMS to the driver. My Kolkata sunset in the park is gone.
In the plains around Siliguri, the dusty sundrenched main road is completely clogged. Cows, bicycle rikshaws, motor rikshaws, rikshaw pullers, private cars, jeeps, busses, trucks, all compete for non-available space. Pedestrians try to weave through the dusty dirty mess.
At one point a police man signals our jeep to stop. The driver tries to drive through anyway. The police man steps in front of the jeep. I am sure he will be overrun, but our jeep grinds to halt a centimeter in front of the grimly smiling police man. No consequences. It’s exciting to be a human traffic light.
The driver has no clue where the airport is. He asks people on the road for the “earport” and speeds off without hearing the answer, let alone saying thank you. Finally I myself start asking around through the window. (It is a general experience in India that taxi drivers expect the passenger to know the way to his destination, after all he, the passenger, insists to go there, right.)
We end up on the military part of Bagdogra’s airport.
Ten minutes later, we reach the proper civilian area. I send the driver off without a tip and enter the departure hall.
(Actually, weeks earlier, I had entered India through this so-called Bagdogra International Airport: A 7 a.m., three hours Druk Air non-stop flight from Bangkok had taken me to Bagdogra. Then a three hours taxi ride up the hills, and around lunch time I had been sipping excellent golden tea at the fresh altitude of 2000 meters on Darjeeling’s delightful main square, Chowrasta, eyeing 8598 meters high mount Kanghchendzonga across the valley.)
As I talk to the check-in clerk at so-called Bagdogra International Airport, a tiny Indian man bursts into the conversation with his own question. In typical Indian fashion, the check-in clerk now talks to the queue-jumper. I say “Sorry” in a semi-sharp tone and then it’s my turn again for the moment.
The tiny Indian man interrupts my check-in a second time. The check-in clerk gives her attention to him, not to me. “Are you a VVIP or what”, I bellow at the tiny man. “Then let me touch your feet and let me humbly step back. If not, please wait!” With a disgusted face, he steps back.
The chairs next to the security check are so dirty that I don’t even want to place my hand luggage on them.
At the gate proper, I can’t check the waiting seat cleanliness: All seats are occupied, I have to stand again.
Arrived at Kolkata Airport, I find the prepaid taxi booth. Next to this booth another booth is being constructed, with lots of hammering, drilling and sawing noise and dust. The prepaid taxi booth wallah doesn’t look up as he hacks away into a keyboard, one finger at a time. Finally he notices me and quickly concentrates back on his hacking duty. Then he finally focusses on me and directs me to the next window. He also changes the chair to serve me from there. The prepaid taxi rate for the 22 kilometers to my downtown hotel is 225 rupees (4,9 USD).
I pay and step outside. Immediately a whole gang of Hindi mafiosi descend upon me, trying to get my prepaid slip and my luggage. I have to be very firm. Finally a guy checks the assigned taxi number on my prepaid slip and leads me to the car. The taxi is parked on a dust field next to the airport road.
I have managed to keep clean shoes, trousers and luggage while leaving dirty, dusty, rural, remote Sikkim. But now, at the Kolkata airport taxi stand, a place that gets nonstop flights from London and Frankfurt, wading towards my prepaid taxi, me and my luggage get dirty and dusty.
My taxi is a default yellow Ambassador oldtimer. There is no air-condition (it is not necessary in winter). The windows can’t be closed. My driver sits already in his car and makes no motion of welcome or any other reaction. The mafioso heaves my luggage onto the back seat and squeezes me onto the front seat. I look for a safety belt, but give up soon.
I hand one copy of my prepaid slip to the driver and say what’s already written there: “Sudder Street, Lytton Hotel”.
No reaction from my driver. The mafioso hangs in my front window that can’t be closed and commands “tip for me!”
“Let’s go”, I say to the driver.
“Tip for me!”, commands the Hindi mafioso in my front window.
“Sudder Street, Lytton Hotel”, I tell the driver.
“Tip for me!”, commands the Hindi mafioso.
“We go”, I ask the driver?
Finally, ever so slowly, the car wobbles through the dustfield upon the airport road itself, with the mafioso flashing deadly looks.
Sunset in the Kolkata traffic mess. We stop in a jam. A dark-skinned dirty beggar hangs himself into the front window that can’t be closed and tries to grab me. The driver doesn’t react. At the next traffic light, vendors hold strawberries, potato chips and flower garlands under my nose. There is no way to avoid that.
My destination is a well-known midrange hotel in a well-known downtown road. The driver of my prepaid airport taxi doesn’t know either road nor hotel. He knows the area and asks around for the road. Once we reach the road, he stops at next big building:
“Hmpf, ho, hhmpfl!”
He wants to kick me out.
“This is not the hotel. Take me to the hotel. You don’t know the hotel?”
We drive ten meters to a kiosk. The driver: “You ask.”
Through the open window I ask the kiosk wallah for Lytton hotel. It is 30 meters down the road. The driver wants to stop on the road, between hordes of beggars, drug dealers and rikshah wallahs watching for prey, but I make him enter the courtyard and stop at the hotel door proper. I let him go tipless. He must have guessed it.
The morning paper provided by the hotel has a long article about Kolkata airport taxi scams. I also remember that one rental car company at Kolkata airport had a big sign for “AC CARS”. I guess what they mean by that is “a decent taxi with closable windows that doesn’t park at the far end of a ricefield and with a driver who knows your destination and decent human behaviour”.
In my midrange hotel, I buy a 24 hours Wifi password at around 330 rupees (7 USD) mainly to book my next flight from Kolkata to Mangalore in Karnataka on the southwest Indian coast, just north of Kerala. To buy the password, I have to write my name and address into a book.
In my room, I type the Wifi password and my Indian mobile number into the laptop. By SMS I receive another password which now allows internet access (the phone company has a copy of my documents). The 24 hrs internet time cannot be split up and actually, if I only close the laptop, I may need to buy a new password afterwards.
The useful Indian booking site makemytrip.com suggests many different trips to Mangalore, all including a change of plane in Mumbai or Bangalore. The most convenient flights also include a change of airline mid-way. But can I check my luggage through? Given the stressful Indian check-in procedures with hairsplitting security, hardcore queue-jumpers and self-obsessed cart-in-my-heels-pushers, I definitely want to avoid a second check-in midway.
I ask on a prominent travel forum if multi-airline flights allow to check the luggage through? I get the usual abuse, unwanted off-topic advice and contradicting answers.
I call the central makemytrip.com service number and get no agent. I call their Kolkata office and get an agent immediately. In exceptionally clear English he tells me that on any multi-airline trip I will have to check-in again halfway – check-in myself and check-in my luggage. I don’t ask if I have to check-in twice if I use one single airline for both flights.
I decide on two flights on Air India only – not the cheapest, not the most convenient trip, but ok (final price 10.500 rupees, 228 USD, a total of four hours in-flight time). Thus, I guess, I won’t have to check-in twice.
When I finally click to book the offered all-Air India trip, the price on makemytrip.com jumps from the previous 10.500 rupees to 11.500 rupees (250 USD) “due to limited seat availibility”.
The e-ticket arrives promptly in my inbox and an SMS confirms my booking as well. I copy the e-ticket to the USB stick.
I enter an internet access shop to print the e-ticket. I have to write my name, country, hotel name and passport number into a book and get photographed with a webcam. They have around 20 terminals and exactly one other customer. The clerk makes me sit directly next to the other customer. We sit so close that I cannot even fully move my arms when typing and I can easily read her e-mails (boring).
I check out of my hotel at 4 a.m. I tell the receptionist I need a taxi to the airport. I know this is charged at 300 rupees (6,5 USD) and I re-confirm this price with the receptionist. (The pre-paid price from airport to town had been 225 rupees (4,9 USD) and I guess a metered ride would cost no more than 160 rupees (3,5 USD)). I had thought I get a taxi voucher from the receptionist, but not so.
While driving, I ask my taxi driver about the price again.
He says, “What did they tell you? Well, it’s 450 normally, but then we should use the early morning surcharge too”.
“You know exactly it’s 300 only.”
“Why, it’s early morning too.”
I open the door to exit in mid-drive.
“Ok, ok, sir, please stay, just some tea money, huh?”
At 4 a.m., Kolkatan streets are empty for once. There’s one desperate, lone cart puller in rags in the middle of a big avenue. The taxi accelerates and races straight towards the cart puller and almost touches him, even though three other lanes are free. The cart puller doesn’t look frightened because all local taxis chase human obstacles like that.
More obstacles: We get stopped at a police road control. The driver jumps out and barks something about “airport” and “cancel flight”. Actually, we are not at all late. We could stand around for 20 minutes. The drivers shows some papers, the western passenger is not of interest. Back in the car, the driver says: “See what I do for you? I gave them my licence, but I will only pick it up when I return to town. Get you to airport faster.”
At Netaji Subhash Bose International Airport, I slip him 300 rupees and leave the taxi wordless. At the airport door check, I stand in line no more than 15 minutes and there are not too many queue-jumpers. My self-printed e-ticket grants me entry, even though it could easily be faked. When I say good morning to the police man, he flashes a surprised smile; he hasn’t heard that for ages.
For the checked-luggage x-ray, I know now that I have to queue for my specific airline’s machine. At the check-in counter I wait behind two well-dressed young Indians. Suddenly one of them screams angrily: “What? I have to x-ray my luggage! Annoying!” He goes back with his luggage to x-ray it. I have to wait until he returns and hands over his scanned bag, only then I can check in.
I tell the Air India check-in clerk that I would like window seats on both my connecting Air India flights. He hands me one boarding card. I turn it around and see the baggage tag. Where is my second boarding card?
“That’s your baggage claim tag.” The check-in clerk now speaks for the first time.
“But what about the second flight from Mumbai to Mangalore? Can you check the baggage through?”
“And what about my second boarding card. I sure get a boarding card here for my second flight?”
“And my luggage – I have to retrieve it in Mumbai and check in again?”
So I booked an all-Air India flight for smooth change of aircraft, but still I have to check in a-new in Mumbai.
I line up for the cabin luggage security check. After ten minutes in the queue I realize that this security check is for gates 1, 2, 4 and 5, but not for gate 3 – where I should be. I ask an officer for gate 3 security and have to go upstairs. The check-in clerk should have mentioned that.
At gate 3, I read the menu at a Coffee Day snack booth (“Many Things Can Happen over Coffee”) and order a caffe latte for 30 rupees (0,65 USD). I put 100 rupees on the counter. The clerk takes the bill. After a very long while, he gives me a tea.
“I ordered caffe latte.”
He slowly starts to prepare a caffe latte, it is actually only pressing a few buttons on a rumpled machine, but he takes his time. My flight starts boarding now. Not many people on that one.
When I receive my caffe latte, my flight is done boarding. I see no more passengers at the gate. The coffee looks and tastes like Hooghly river water. I dump the coffee into the trash bin which already holds a big lake of Hooghly river water. I guess my flight starts taxiing now.
“Can I get my change now?”
He hands me 50 rupees.
“There should be 20 rupees more.”
He hands me 20 rupees more. I rush to the gate.
In the airplane I realize I have a seat looking onto the divider for the business class. So I cannot stow my cabin luggage under the seat in front of me. I take out laptop, book, pen and camera and heave the daypack into the overhead compartment. The plane is half-empty, there had been no need to put me into that inconvenient seat on a three hours flight.
For take-off, I want to stow laptop, book, pen and camera into the bag in front of me, holding a newspaper and the security sheet. That bag in front of me is not wide enough for my 13-incher and too flat for my guide book.
The seat next to me is empty. I arrange laptop, book, pen and camera all over this seat and drape a complimentary Hindustan Times over it. Unexpectedly, the stewardess accepts that arrangement for take-off. We depart on time.
We land in Mumbai ten minutes late due to clogged runways (which cause the pilot to do a few stomach-revolting curves over the Western Ghats). Compared to the dirty, dusty, run-down airport in Kolkata, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport feels like an ayurvedic oasis of cleanliness, orderliness and common sense. Actually, I hadn’t seen such a big, yet civilized space in my last 16 days in India. The first Indian airport I see with perfectly clean seats. My luggage arrives in no time and right at the baggage claim there is a sign for the departure area.
I have to get two floors up. There is a lift for that, but the Kolkata syndrome prevails and dozens of people queue up in front of the tiny lift. So I take the stairs. When they see me heaving my luggage upstairs, two different airport clerks remind me in a friendly tone I could take the lift if I wish so; it is the first time that someone in the Indian travel industry shows some genuine consideration.
A very short walk later I am in the departure area at Air India’s check-in row. Each check-in counter displays one certain destination, though not Mangalore. I ask an airport worker if I really need a certain counter to check in for Mangalore. He murmurs something and looks around. A white-clad official approaches without being asked and says I can take any counter, regardless of the destination on the displays. Only now I realize that first I had talked to a luggage-cart handler.
At the check-in counter, I get a trainee. She sends my luggage away without a baggage tag. Her instructor jumps after my bag and fixes the baggage tag. My boarding card doesn’t show boarding time or gate (even Kolkata airport managed to print that). All in all, still a smooth transfer, a transfer time of 30 minutes would have been enough in my case.
There is another outlet of Coffee Day (“Many Things Can Happen over Coffee”). I order another latte and pay again with 100 rupees. This time the coffee comes fast, it is drinkable and no change is withheld. But then, at Mumbai airport the same caffee latte from the same coffee-chain costs five rupees (0,11 USD) more than at Kolkata airport.
I start to write a submission about “Delightful India – Domestic Flights and Taxis”. Or shouldn’t i? Mumbai airport seems all to reasonable, this last part of my journey all to uneventful. The change of aircraft was almost smooth as silk. Not so much to write about.
I need cash. I ask an airport official and he says there’s no ATM within the airport. (The guide book says otherwise.)
I call my booked destination again to confirm that I’ll touch down at 12.10 noon and that I expect to meet their driver there. All is well. Sheesh – just a few hours from now I will kick off shoes, exchange long trousers for shorts and hang out in a hammock on a secluded northern Kerala beach!
At the security check, there is a very short queue. Still, a whole Indian family wants to smuggle themselves in front of me. I say “Sorry” in a semi-sharp tone. They step back with disgusted faces.
In the plane again I have three seats to myself. I start to wonder why so few people travel on Air India? The three personal entertainment monitors in my view show three different Bollywood movies. The monitor to my left has the glorious young Amitabh Bachchan of the 70s, while the screen directly in front of me shows the old Amitabh Bachchan of today plus his son.
We touch down 20 minutes late in Mangalore. Passengers line up around the luggage belt, but only few people depart with a bag. The luggage belt stops moving. The luggage car can be seen driving away. The airplane is announced to fly back to Mumbai immediately. At least 50 people still wait for their luggage.
There is no announcement whatsoever. In this tiny, half grubby airport no officials can be seen. I walk out to the exit to contact my booked driver. He should spot me immediately because I am the only male westerner on the flight. There is a driver waiting for “Mr. A.M. Singh”, but that’s not my name. No driver for me. I realize with a certain relief that there is a prepaid taxi stand (just in case) and many drivers wait to take customers about anywhere in southern India.
People sit and stand around, luggage-less. No announcement. Our plane is heard roaring back into the Karnataka sky.
Suddenly two officials in white shirts appear. They walk across the arrival hall and a cloud of people quickly forms around them. The officials hide behind a desk and a shouting crowd builds up. I am of course one of the last. There is no queue, no order whatsoever. The passengers approach the officials from left, right and center.
The clerks don’t make an announcement and don’t try to get the people into a queue. They just service who forces his boarding pass cum baggage tag closest to their noses. I see the officials fill out forms. It is obviously about the missing luggage. They hand out no forms so that we could fill them out ourselves.
The outside temperature is 31 degrees celsius. The arrival hall has no air-condition. Everybody in the mad, all-Indian crowd sweats profusely. Most people look like hard-working business men. There is a lot of shouting in clear English:
“Why is there no announcement! What kind of communication is that? Where are we?”
“Are you too stupid to bring a bunch of bags from Mumbai to Mangalore or what!”
“Please do form a proper queue. This crowd will go beserk soon.”
“This is the worst service I ever experienced.”
“It’s not the first time this happened on Air India!”
One man says: “They can’t bring the luggage tonight. There is no other Air India flight today.” Another one: “They must bring it on Kingfisher Airlines!”
After my time of high-voltage mass madness in Kolkata, I am surprised that these locals obviously believe in potentially better treatment. I am now close enough to the officials behind their counter to see that many passengers write down hotel addresses, not residential addresses. So they are not returning home. Actually, it is the 31st of December and quite a few of them might have booked new year’s eve gala dinners at their hotels – but now their dinner attire lurks in Mumbai, or whereever.
One lady behind me barks especially bitter remarks. Thus, she gets serviced before me. ´
It is eighty minutes past scheduled arrival time now. I realize that my mobile phone with the Indian number is still turned off. I switch it on and immediately receive an SMS from my telecom provider: “Welcome to Karnataka. Save 60 % on roaming charges…” I bought my SIM card in West-Bengal (with Darjeeling, Kolkata) and the very low domestic local rates are valid only there; in Karnataka it would be the domestic long-distance rate (still cheaper than Thailand and much cheaper than the Philippines).
From within the body-to-body crowd I call my booked, but not yet paid hotel. I wonder why my driver is not waiting outside.
“Sir, I tried to call you many times’”, shouts the manager. “I have to tell you that the driver meaning to pick you up had a traffic accident. He can’t meet you.” We agree that I will find a driver on my own.
Finally it is my turn. The sweating Air India manager writes my baggage number and mobile number onto the form. He claims that my tiny, lower midrange resort booked in the neighboring state of Kerala, 90 kms away, is wellknown. The luggage would be with me on the same evening.
Just with my cabin luggage, I walk out. I am smart: I will not talk to the prepaid taxi stand, but straight to the drivers, to get a lower price and to select my preferred driver. A sympathetic driver is quickly found in the crowd. He takes me back into the airport to report our agreement to the prepaid taxi stand and to assign me my actual driver. It is 1450 rupees for 90 kilometers (31 USD; the hotel’s driver would have been 1200 rupees, 26 USD).
My driver takes me to the car. Surprise: just like in Kolkata, it is an old Ambassador without air condition. I ask about air condition and they say this would be more expensive. (On a later occasion I heard that non-AC is charged with 8 rupees (0,17 USD) per km while AC is charged with 9 rupees (0,20 USD); Indians may get better prices. The rate is charged for the empty return trip as well.)
I sit down in the back even though the tiny, dark brown, moustached driver tries to get me sitting next to him (interestingly, he says “frente”). As we are on the country road, the driver turns back to me, shakes my hand, smiles at me and says:
“My name Sharif! Omar Sharif, haha!”
I press his hands. Referring to the popular Bollywood actor and his much-hyped upcoming movie, still eye to eye, I say:
“My Name Is Khan. Shah Rukh Khan.”
“Haha, you funny guy, hoho, masala, masala, haha!”
Omar Sharif and I are best friends now. He finally looks back to the road. He is my first Indian long distance taxi driver who actually tries to communicate with his guest.
I ask him to stop at an ATM. The ATM doesn’t work. Signs in the ATM booth are in Kannada, Malayalam and/or Hindi scripts only.
We stop at another ATM. It doesn’t work.
We cross the Karnataka-Kerala border. Immediately I receive an SMS from my telecom provider: “Welcome to Kerala. Save 60 % on roaming charges…”
At the state border, trucks must stop for a check. An enormous stench hangs in the air. Omar Sharif: “Those are all fish trucks, sir.”
Omar Sharif stops at a gas station and fills a plastic bottle with drinking water from the tap. This he offers to me. I drink Asian style without touching the bottle with my lips. Accidentally I spray water all over me. It’s nicely cool.
Somehow Omar Sharif mentions his liking for coke so I invite him and we stop at a small, airconditioned roadside restaurant. They have no coke, only fruit juice, so we order two juices.
We stop at a third ATM. I can use one credit card, the card from the other bank doesn’t work.
Upon my request, we stop at a food store. I buy two cooled half-liter bottles of Pepsi for 23 rupees each (0,5 USD) and return to the car. On the road, Sharif only drinks a sip, then stores the bottle under his seat.
I ask Sharif about his personal situation (even though that feels much more indiscrete than in ever-curious Thailand). He is 38, has a wife and three kids, 4, 5 and six years old. “But problem, sir… no monneee…” He says that he wants to keep the Pepsi for his kids: “They like it so much but I have no money to buy it.” He pleads: “Please, sir, is it ok if I keep the Pepsi for the kids?”
“Sure, Omar, have a new year party with that coke!”
We stop at a fourth ATM. Here, my second card works too. The booth is exceptionally well air-conditioned. Just to enjoy the chilled air, I do more transactions with the other credit card. Two Indians swelter outside in the heat until I manage to detach myself from the oasis of cool.
Looking back, it was stupid not to buy a toothbrush, underwear and shirts on that road trip with friendly Omar Sharif. Air India had promised to deliver my bag that same night, but why I believed them I don’t know now.
At the remote, isolated and simple resort, an almost tearful goodbye from Omar Sharif. I send him back to Mangalore with a nice tip.
At ten p.m. Air India hasn’t brought my luggage. I haven’t changed clothes or brushed teeth for a while and ridiculously sit on a moonlit tropical beach with my Kolkata city attire – long trousers and long sleeves shirt. I share dinner and the new year hour on the beach with two Swiss ladies and some Kingfisher beers. They borrow me their Nivea shampoo but convincingly claim they can’t help out with suitable fresh underwear. They suggest I should go for the local male’s fashion: a moustache and a chequered teatowel wrap-around skirt. One lady also offers me her spare toothbrush – “so far used only one time by me!”
Next morning after breakfast, there is still no sign of Air India. The airport guy had written two numbers on the lost luggage form. Both numbers don’t respond. I try 20 more times until 11 a.m. without any response. I see in the guide book that one number is Air India’s official Mangalore connection. The guide book also mentions a number for Mangalore airport; I try it and get a recorded response: “This numberrrr does not exist.”
At 11 a.m. I decide to make it to the small town of Kasaragod, about 12 kilometers away, to buy a toothbrush, moscito repellent and cheap casual wear at least. At the resort I only see the caretaker boy who cannot fully explain how I can get to Kasaragod. Anyway. As I walk out under the burning Kerala sun, I call Air India again. Unexpectedly, this time the Air India employee from last afternoon answers: “Sorry sir, we wanted to bring your luggage last evening, but police stopped our car (can that be?). So the car started again today at nine a.m. (why not at 7 a.m.?). It will be at your place in half an hour. Is that your mobile number? I will relay it to the driver. Sorry for the inconvenience and happy new year!”
I stop my trek towards the next small town and return to my cottage. My only worry: My mobile’s battery is running very low now. The charger is in the suitcase of course, so Air India might not be able to reach me. (Camera and laptop are running on empty as well.)
Looking back, it was stupid not to proceed to the small town. Air India promised to deliver within half an hour, but why I believed them I don’t know now.
2 p.m. There is no Air India car for me and the telephone numbers I have don’t respond. The head caretaker of the small resort suggests to take me to town by motorcycle and we go shopping together. He also tries to connect my phone to his charger, but it doesn’t work. He says if my phone really has no battery power at all he will give me another phone into which I could plug my SIM card.
He also asks me for the Air India number and calls them. Unexpectedly, he gets a response. The head caretaker immediately snarls away in a very sharp tone and completely in English: “Sir, we are still waiting for that luggage for 24 hours now! When will you deliver it! May I have your good name please! Will you kindly tell me the name and the number of the driver!”
The head caretaker tells me: “The car is just half an hour away. It is stuck in a traffic jam. Let’s wait.”
4 p.m. No Air India. No response on all available numbers. I ask the lodge’s head caretaker to take me to town now, even though I might miss sunset on the beach. How I crave a toothbrush and fresh undies. Just when I hop onto his rustic old Yamaha RX motorcycle, a family van comes bumping down the dirt lane to our resort. My bag’s in there. I have to show my lost luggage form, have to sign a paper and there I go –brushing teeth, showering with my preferred shampoo, changing dress and connecting devices to chargers in record time. The family van had five more suitcases in the back; so at least five more unfortunate travelers wait for their belongings, 28 hours after scheduled arrival time.
Sunset on the beach is great. I enjoy it in a mixed Hindu-Muslim crowd of very well dressed North Kerala locals only, taking lots of romantic pictures and videos against the dropping sun. The sarees and burkhas are stunningly elaborate, with lots of gold applications. They even get across their shyness to ask the exotic, white-skinned traveler if he would pose on a picture with them. The ladies take to the water in full saree or burkha do. A few fishermen go about their business. People are so much more laid-back and polite than in Kolkata and the western traveler is a gently welcomed rarity in these parts. Palm trees sway, backwaters beckon. Kerala’s stamped “God’s Own Country” and now, with fresh clothes and camera battery, I can see the point.
Happy new year. Weeks of exotic tropical pothole research lie ahead.
Welcome to bustling, buzzing, bumping, burning, bouncing, heart-crunching, nerve-wrecking, delightful India. One heck of a place. I’ll happily stay some more weeks. I’ll happily fly back to Thailand. I’ll happily do so not on Air India.
Very nice trip report indeed!