Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Driven to distraction in India

Driven to distraction in India

A first-time visit to the subcontinent brings frustration and fascination in equal measure for one Thai businessman

Published on December 1, 2007

Driven to distraction in India

The sari-clad stewardess woke me up by announcing that it was time to land. The plane was approaching Bombay - a sea of fireflies in the deep of the night. As we got closer, I rubbed my sleepy eyes and looked down again, this time on a vast plain of brightly lit houses.

The official purpose of my mission to India was to install some machinery for a firm, but I had other ideas. My unofficial mission was to go exploring and soak in the Indian experience. Though a part of me would be working as an engineer, my other self would be observing the locals through an infant's eyes.

The first thing I noticed on the ground in Bombay was the time difference. I'm not talking about time zones here, but rather the pace at which people did things. Hours just seemed to slip by without clocks having any say in the matter. In fact, after the first couple of days I gave up trying to "be on time" for anything, because people only took notice of a clock when it was time to eat.

This worked out perfectly for me; Indian food, I quickly found out, is absolutely delicious. Yes, I was a little worried at first, recalling all the warnings about getting "Delhi belly" - or food poisoning - if you weren't careful, but dining turned out to be easily the highlight of my trip. Everything about Indian cuisine fascinated - what you eat, how you eat it, how it's served, in what order, with which hand …

In fact, the highlights of the trip were the times I ventured out to eat on my own. I would walk into a restaurant, ask for the menu and order just about anything that took my fancy. And stepping into the culinary unknown was fun.

It wasn't long before I discovered the joy of eating roti - tearing off a piece of the bread, swirling it around a bowl of curry and then folding the delicious dripping morsel into my mouth.

Back at the factory the work was tedious and way off schedule. The operation wasn't going half as smoothly as I'd expected, and my heart sank when one of the engineers said, "The material that was supposed to arrive yesterday will arrive tomorrow ... maybe. I'm sorry, but can you find something else to do in the meantime?"

That seemed to have been the theme of the trip - late and off schedule. Plans that I made before I arrived were thrown out the window from the very first day.

By the time the daily tedium at work wound up, I was usually exhausted and ready to sleep like a babe in a cot on the trip back to the hotel. Unfortunately, all I was offered was a Tata jeep with non-existent suspension and a regular kick in the pants from the pot-holed roads. There was no chance of peace anyway - the locals seemed to enjoy leaning on their horns at regular five-second intervals. So, sat on the backseat, bouncing between a Tata and a hard place, I had no choice but to soak up the sights and the people.

Everywhere I looked I was met by a sea of people - in houses, spilling from roofs and windows, on the street, under bridges, under trees, up hill and down dale … people everywhere.

Tough-looking weathered faces with huge sparkling eyes were an ever-present feature of the crowds. People looked purposeful, almost threatening, especially when I had to pass through tollbooths around Bombay where the "passing tax" is collected. But chancing a smile at a bunch of guys gathered around a local cigarette shop, my apprehension evaporated - they grinned back with the friendliness of children.

Another thing that struck me was how the simple act of taking a photograph became an experience in itself. Aiming my lens, the viewfinder almost always found someone posing and smiling. I decided at one point that my food was worthy of a snap; the kitchen staff was so pleased that they all trooped out for a photo shoot.

Despite the work at the factory being only half completed it came time for me to pack my bags and head home. Though a bit of a dead end where work was concerned, the trip had been a fascinating adventure for a first-timer in India.

I knew I'd be coming back but the realisation that it wouldn't be to an India seen through fresh eyes saddened me a little. Still, the thought of a nice hot bath and my own bed waiting for me at home were enough to lend a spring to my step as I got on the plane. And I know new experiences await in India the next time around.

Green Grass

Special to The Nation

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