Post 44 – Day 24 ‘Westward’ (Pt 1)

Post 44a Post 44b Post 44c

This is a day spent in transit, and of protracted hours waiting at interconnecting points of impending transit.

In Hollywood ‘westerns’, when the wagon train is about to roll the wagon master raises his hand, says “Yoh”, points his hand in the appropriate direction, and off goes the wagon train. There is a certain degree of faith on the part of the movie audience that the wagons and their occupants are actually heading westward, off into the great unknown, the possibility of running into unfriendly Indians not withstanding. The thought that the wagons are only going to do a quick circuit round the block, park out the back of the movie studio lot, the extras heading off for an all-beef hamburger, generally doesn’t occur. In the case of my departure for destinations west, there is no such episodic event. The driver says something in Hindi or Bengali, takes the silence of his passengers to be compliance, and we’re away. Only the prospect of meeting up with Indians is certain.

We leave the hotel at 5 am sharp. It is dark and cold, no hint of the warm subtropical climate that prevails in Orissa this time of year during the day. The luggage is squeezed into the car and I take up my usual stately position amongst it. It’s a kind of less-than-third-class-seating in a way, when you think of it, with me in the make believe baggage compartment.

The road journey north to Bhubaneswar is uneventful, the traffic sparse and mostly unlit. On straight sections of bitumen we hit a cool 70 kilometres an hour, sometimes a tad more, often less. The poorly illuminated road signs are mostly in Oriya, sometimes something else, rarely English. The Oriya script is distinguished by the almost circular flow of its letters, but the route by which I am led is one based on a faith of equal ignorance, that the driver is not trained in the circuitous meanderings of sly taxi drivers, but is driven by the moral constraints of karma, so is delivering me to my destination by the most opportune and straight path.

Tata trucks, indeed trucks of any description, are rare at this hour, but every now and then a solitary figure on a bicycle, or a man on a cart drawn by oxen or water buffalos, appears out of the blackness on the road, no headlights to herald their approach. Not even a red safety reflector. “You’d think at least the cattle would have tail lights”, I offer in a poor attempt to break the silence of the vehicle’s interior. My humour is greeted with neither applause nor jeers. Those occupying the more expensive front seats are either playing brain dead or are ignorant to the subtleties of my banal word play. If only out of civil politeness, I at least expected some attempted grunt of acknowledgement of my jest. “Tail lights”, I repeat, “tails on cows, get it?” Silence prevails. The ox-drawn cart is long past, the context of my humour lost. I’ve had this response several times already during this journey. I’m starting to seriously consider the likelihood that my companions have never watched a decent BBC comedy show in their lives. Their ancestors probably emigrated to Australia from lands where the guiding hands of mother empire had never reached. I will consider writing to my local parliamentarian in an effort to have questions of a suitable nature included in the federal government’s immigration test. Questions like “which of the actors in the ‘Goodies’ was an ornithologist and learned to play electric guitar at the age of 65”, or “name any of the starring actors in ‘Curry and Chips’, or ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’?” Questions like these would keep the Australian monarchist movement happy, demonstrate to the Queen our ongoing commitment to the British Commonwealth of Nations, and convince the Republic of India of the depth of our sibling relationship; after all most Indians I’ve met are more English than the English. I’m betting they’d know all the old BBC comedy series backwards. Throw in a few extra questions on the details of cricket and the numbers of prospective Indian-Australians will skyrocket. I’d be able to get a decent ‘marsala chai’ whenever I wanted one, and a good curry might get to be as common in Australia as Chinese takeaways. With all the expected extra sari-owning migrants we could finally get some colour back onto the streets, and maybe even a few inner-city buskers that can knock out a decent raga on the sitar. My mind was firing on the possibilities. I thought I’d run the ideas past my travelling companions but at least two of them were snoring. Maybe later.

At 6.20 am I arrive at Bhubaneswar’s Biju Patnaik airport. There I bid a final farewell to the driver. He has suffered my perverse humour with good grace over the last days. The airport is named after a famed Indian aviator, politician and supporter of Indonesian independence from the Dutch, and is the only airport of major size in Orissa. The terminal complex boasts a building reminiscent of a tiered pidha-deul. Architecturally ingenious I thought. Alongside are parked aircraft belonging to Kingfisher, Air India, and IndiGo airlines. I like the blue and white IndiGo colour scheme. ‘IndiGo’; ‘India’, ‘happening airline’; allusion to colour, all that. Nice play on words. Nothing brash. Must be a BBC influence coming through, or a marketing agency trained in the British school of advertising. But on this occasion I’m going with Air India, flight 878, departing 8.45 am. It was my travel agent’s decision. The flight time to New Delhi, where I will connect to Bhopal, is estimated to be 1 hour and fifty minutes. Maybe long enough for an in-flight movie. The wait to get through baggage security and check-in at Biju Patnaik takes twenty minutes. Again there is the bevy of armed security officers, this time among their ranks two special-forces soldiers immaculately turned out in black head bandanas, stylish camouflage fatigues, flak-jackets, and machine pistols; like something out of a Sylvester Stallone ‘Rambo’ movie. Most impressive. Glad they are on my side. Suddenly the soldiers run to meet an in-coming plane, and are not seen again.

So here I am sitting in a very comfortable regional departure lounge with a black and white Indian musical playing on a television screen in front of me. The film looks like a lift of an old 1930’s Hollywood Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald movie. There are more mosquitoes in the departure lounge than I have encountered anywhere else in Orissa, and the movie does not have subtitles.

I fly into New Delhi at about 11.30 am, there to be greeted by heavy fog and an outside air temperature of 6o Celsius. Fortunately my coat is in my carry-on backpack. Inside the terminal I receive a polite frisking by a security guards. Again I get a male. I wander the internal departure concourse, the very same place I occupied my mind with several weeks ago. I find various Indian, Chinese and miscellaneous ‘branded’ eateries, even Subway’s gets a look in. It’s just like being in Australia, and proof once again of our shared cultural destiny; “Who needs uranium sales to cement the ties!” The purveyors of food offer a range of liberally-priced choices, a small tin of salted cashews, for Rs480, among them. I decline the boutique food options aimed at the culinary elite, and exercising my right of choice as a discerning consumer, I opt for the stingy person’s choice of a cold coffee, price Rs50; at ‘McDonalds’ of all places. After all, I live in a rural area, I’m allowed to be provincial, it’s expected of me. But the beverage was actually quite pleasant, the only difficulty being my initial inability to adequately explain to the young girl serving me, what it was that I wanted. At first she didn’t have a clue what I was trying to buy. It turned out I was probably the first person to order that item from her. You could see her mind giving the item’s photographic image up on the service board a mental dust off. “Oh yes”, I could see her thinking, “that’s what it is”. I didn’t get a prize, but for a ‘first time’ she did make a great cold coffee. I just hope she doesn’t end up wasting her life in a telecommunications call centre backwater somewhere. “Do a barista course, get an Australian residency visa and move to glitzy Byron Bay on the north coast of New South Wales. Maybe open a sari shop. You’ll be the envy of all the sweet young hip tourists up from Sydney sun-baking down on the beach”.

Cold coffee consumed I sit below the main airport departure clock contemplating having to fill in another five and a half hours until my plane, AI flight 634, leaves for Bhopal at 1600 hours. I attempt no further comic discourse, instead I read a book. 3.06 pm still finds me camped in the departure lounge, having dined earlier on a vegetarian thali and a sweet lassi, price Rs150 and Rs90 respectively. My flight is still to post its boarding gate details. Outside the lounge a large array of Air India aircraft wait to be boarded or off-loaded. The airline’s colours are white and red with yellow highlights. I am hoping my internal flight will be in a turbo-prop aircraft. But unfortunately Flight 634 turns out to be jet propelled, three seats either side of the isle, and offering as an in-flight meal a white bread roll with salad filling, plus a slice of cake. The cake appears to be chocolate, but on tasting proves to be something different, tasty nonetheless. The roll is a little dry, its palatability saved by virtue of the liberal application of a creamy dressing. The flight to Bhopal takes about 1 hour, the outside temperature there about 15o Celsius, the walk across the tarmac to the spotless new terminal building brisk, and guards with machine guns on duty. This was the land of the serious, no being smugly off the world’s centre stage down in the Great Southern Land, as I usually was. When the Indian subcontinent broke from Gondwana it not only collided with the Laurasian landmass, unknowing, it entered the grand world of dire political contingency as well.

My new driver apparently has experience in rally car racing, even managing to cut several corners with all the verve of a man comfortable behind the steering wheel. We drive through the streets of Bhopal at a speed new to me in India. The roads are modern and spacious with lots of room to swerve around the occasional motorbike. We only narrowly missed one collision, that being with an autobicycle, who in an act of intended suicide persisted in cutting into our lane. It’s just like being home, except for the hotel, palatial with just a hint of a conference centre thrown in, the staff ever keen to deprive me of my luggage, me now forthright from experience at hanging on to it. I pay them off just to regain the command and ownership of my suitcase. Oh for the quite sanctity of a few old fibro-cement walls, a bit of peeling paint, and a wobbly chair to rest in. I stayed at Cudmore National Park in central Queensland once. In fact it was only a few years ago. Me and two others. We had thousands of hectares of bushland to ourselves, and the run of the absent manager’s vacant house thrown in. No one to hassle with over the carriage of your luggage, and the only vehicle tracks in the sand were ours. My single worry was the threat of flash flood, snake bite, and how to shut down the electricity supply and properly hide the house key when we left.


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