So it was a cloudy, overcast day on which I returned to India after an absence of eight years. Not much has changed since then, but then I didn’t really expect it to: India is India is India and will be until the end of the world. A frustrating, intoxicating, bewildering blend of noise and nonsense with a few increasingly perplexed cows thrown in for good measure.
But I can’t help liking the place, possibly more than India likes me.
I said my goodbyes to the captain and the crew of the CMA-CGM Jade (a few times, as it transpired) and just six and a half hours after we arrived I was finally allowed to leave the ship with a couple of the crew who were leaving for Burma after a good ten months at sea. Customs took its time, and my bags were sealed with wax (seriously!) until I left the port. Which took another couple of hours.
It was when I found myself in a dank and dismal police station on the edge of the middle of nowhere waiting for the port police to come that I really started to worry. My stomach started to sink and I got that feeling I got in Cape Verde and the Congo… something was about to go horribly, horribly wrong.
I dived into my backpack (without breaking the wax seal, funnily enough) and pulled out my old, broken mobile phone. I then used my working phone to text “Help I’ve been arrested at Nerhu port, Bombay – inform the embassy!” and saved it to drafts ready to tweet at a second’s notice before stuffing the phone in my sock and placing the broken phone in my pocket to give to the police should the inevitable occur.
It wasn’t until much later that I realised my twitter account wasn’t updating from my mobile phone.
The port agent sat and waited with me, which was magnificent of him, but the feeling of dread was growing by the second. I had already paid the required bribe money and got my entry stamp and been checked over (thoroughly!) by customs. I had broken the golden rule of travelling in developing countries – don’t make a nuisance of yourself – and now I could see the next six days spent at the Maharaja’s pleasure, if you know what I mean.
It was now dark and it was starting to rain. To pass the time I pulled some card tricks on the port agent, but it was well after 8pm before the police chief finally arrived.
My arrival from Dubai on a ship clutching a multiple entry business visa had prompted the Indian bureaucratic nightmare into crisis mode. THEY DIDN’T KNOW WHAT LEDGER TO PUT ME IN! Terrified at the prospect of me not being entered into a ledger, I think the police chief had gone out and bought a brand new ledger for ‘Passengers on Container Ships’. I like to think that during the hour he kept us waiting he was drawing nice neat columns in the ledger with a ruler.
So, eventually, I was asked where I was going. It’s all a little complicated so I just stuck with Bombay-Kochi-Calcutta then out via Nepal, just to keep things neat and tidy. If I said I was planning to come in and out of the country a few times they would have probably chased me up the nearest flagpole and then cut it down with an axe.
So… I didn’t go to jail. Phew!
After thanking the port agent profusely, I took a taxi to the nearest train station and boarded the choo choo to Bombay.
The train was brilliant – no doors, no windows, chugging along at 100mph and only stopping for ten seconds in each station (seriously!). Ahh… this callous and foolhardy disregard for Health and Safety could only mean one thing… I was back in India, all right. And hurrah for that! On the Dubai Metro you could be fined for running in the station. In India running is compulsory.
Returning to Bombay I felt a tremendous sense of homecoming, back on the native backpacker trail. In fact, I had been off the trail ever since I left Central America, save for the trip from Cairo to Istanbul. There were so few backpackers in The Caribbean, Africa, Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsular I felt like an endangered species. But from hereon in it should be sandals and saris and dreads all the way to the Pacific. I might even meet some vegetarians!
Bombay was just as bombastic as ever as I flung myself through a flurry of tooting taxis towards the Colaba area of town, eager to find a place for the night. I had arrived at 11pm and the train to Kochi, my next destination, left at 11.40pm – there was no way I would be getting a ticket for that one, so I resigned myself to a night and a day in Bollywood.
I checked into the first place listed in the Lonely Planet (the size of a shoebox, but the price of a shoebox, so no worries) and got my head down for the night.