I: Return to the Raj

I don’t seem to be having much look with the flights at the moment. I’ve finally hit Mumbai, but did so via the city of Amsterdam thanks to some divine intervention from Him-on-High. After buying a ridiculously cheap ticket to India (less than £250 return), I took a train all the way up to Birmingham, pulling into England’s second city at 5.30 PM. From there, I jumped another train toward Birmingham International, but got off a couple of stops early so I could sharpen up for Bombay. Above me, the planes were beginning their ascent, & all about lay hooded gangs with dodgy accents. I walked a few miles, through the pleasant suburbs of Marston Green, before reaching the airport with ten hours to spare. To kill time I found a nearby hotel, reached via the megalithic NEC centre. There wasn’t a show on, so I found myself wandering through its cavernous interior like Jonah in the belly of the Whale. At the hotel I sat down with a couple of pints; watched the Birmingham / Coventry match – very apt – before mooching back to the airport & settling down for the night on a comfy Burger-King seat.

Come morning, me & my fellow passengers were led onto the plane at 6AM, only to be told Amsterdam was full of fog & the plane had been delayed. During this time I reflected on how well my new ‘e’ passport worked; it is a veritable breeze at check-in, all computerized, & that… I’d basically been using a dodgy passport for ten years – no more nerves anymore every time I pass through passport control.

After 4 hours on the tarmac we finally set off, soaring through the dull mists into the bright, amber sunshine of the lower heavens, before descending back into the thick fog which blanketed Holland. At this point, the pilot told us we would be landing blind, a first time for me and a little nerve-wracking. Anyhow, we landed safely, only to be placed in a queue for a new set of tickets… this has turned out to be a flight to London at 7, followed by a nonstop flight to Bombay, getting there at 11am tomorrow. I don’t mind really, cos it avoids late night crooks fleecing me in Bombay and I also get a chance to wander the canals and coffeshops, plus do a spot of window shopping down the Red Light district.

I decided to jump trains in & out of Schiphol airport, the yellow & blue double-deckers a nightmare for jumping – you have four different directions the conductors can come. I performed the train-jump perfectly of course, & was soon monorailing through the fog, over countless parked-up bicycles & anonymous suburbs, into the heart of Holland itself. I spent a pleasant couple of hours in the city centre, the sun a pale, white disc through the fog, lending a surreal glow to the proceedings. The Red Light district was just warming up for the afternoon trade; a handful of pimps, dealers & various miscreants slouching about, plus one ‘sex’ window in ten containing mainly Eastern European ladies entertaining a trickle of punters. Not me, though, & I just coffee’d & reefer’d it til the train-jump back to the airport. It was my last chance to cash in my complimentary tickets from KLM for the messy flight & so I had a huge steak dinner.

Getting out of Amsterdam was gorgeous, my plane at first slowly wheeling for ages through the mist, over motorways & canals; while other planes moved about like ghostly blimps as one-by-one we got ready to take off. Those in front did so with a huge roar & were soon just a tail-light twinkling as it faded into the fog. Finally it was our turn, & with a rush of power we were launched heavingly into the air. An hour later I was landing at Heathrow, marked out from the sky by the huge glasshouse terminal that glows with effervescent light. I then had to rush through London Heathrow to make my connection, picking up a copy of Viz en route (an unexpected bonus) & all of a sudden found myself surrounded by Indians! We were all catching a Jet Airways plane to Mumbai, which turned out to be an excellent experience – comfy as fuck, tasty food, good movies & a host of freebies – of which the toothpaste, blanket, socks, eye-coverers & comfy pillow will be accompanying me on my tour.

Ten hours later I finally made it to India, crazy fuckin’ country that it is! On arrival I immediately deflected an attempt at the pre-paid taxi rank to rip me off (short changed). I shared the taxi with an innocent Aussie, & as we hurtled through the epic sprawl of Mumbai I passed on some of the wisdom I’d received when arriving green-gilled a few years back. I mean, Mumbai is huge, about 25 million souls rushing around its virtually identical roads. We felt like a couple of white blood-cells (the tan hasn’t kicked in yet) surging around the arteries of a phantastic Chimera of the days of legend.

In the center of town, & with my lecture over, me & the Ozzie booked into the Salvation Army hostel & proceeded to go for a walk. My first target was the Britannia-topped, Empire-kitsch wonder that is the Victoria Train Station. I bought a ticket for Goa departing the next morning, wanting to get out of the crazy days as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, tomorrow morning I have to head across town on the rail network – the busiest in the world – in fact half of all India’s trains come in & out of Mumbai, with  people clinging to every spare bit of atom, hanging off the roof & sides –  I guess it’s gonna be fun.

On the way back to base, I visited the Asiatic Society’s Library. A splendid old white building which still uses cards to catalogue its books. It is also full of greaco-roman lifesize marble statues of not very famous Britons who’d been involved in the Empire. It reminded me that India is a land of opportunity for any Tom, Dick or Harry. Well, with a little will & hard work I can get these kural translated & maybe create a paper statue to my own literary efforts.



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