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visitors since May 12, 2002
September 2, 2002
Ignore good advice and wait
(In which, months after we started, we finally get to Dum Dum.)

In his wonderful book The Tropical Traveller John Hatt says that if you have the choice between taking a reputable, slightly more expensive airline, or an unreliable, slightly cheaper airline, pay the extra money. This is valuable advice, as the ever more sensible Alipali can tell you. She flew to Bangkok on Air India. Her plane arrived on time, left on time, and took her smoothly to the right city.

I, however, was determined to save the equivalent of three Bolivian pesos. So I flew Air Nirvana, the new name for the airline formerly known as Panic In The Sky. The good news is that Air Nirvana did eventually reunite me with Alipali in Bangkok. But only eventually ...

The bucket driven economy

Calcutta's airport is called Dum Dum, which seemed to make sense. When I arrived there, right on time, I was assured that my plane would also be leaving right on time, no problem, sir, everything very good, nice weather, lovely to see you, no problem at all. Three or four hours later, there was still no plane, and no rumours of one. Even the guy responsible for passenger reassurance had vanished.

I walked over to the window to investigate possible sources of the delay. This was a mistake, because as I looked across the tarmac, I noticed that they were still building the airport.

Of all the problems that the tourist can encounter, the "unfinished airport" scenario is one of the more serious. I considered my options. I had a grand total of one option: I could sit there and watch them finish the airport.

The Indian way of building things is fascinating. It starts when a suitable patch of ground is located. Then a hose is turned on and water is sprayed all over it. That's Step One. So far, it's all quite straightforward. Very low-tech. The eventual result of water on the hard Indian earth is the appearance ... of a puddle. Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached Step Two.

Now the real action begins. An old, old man arrives, wearing old, old shorts over his old, spirally legs. The old man carries a bucket. The bucket appears to be the crucial element. Our senior citizen then approaches the puddle and scoops up some mud. He walks a few paces away, and throws the mud somewhere else.

India seems very relaxed about this sort of thing, and the tourist often gets to see mud being flung. Eventually our senior citizen repeats his scoop-and-fling procedure, and after more time passes, the sun goes down. By ancient tradition, no mud is flung after dark, so everyone can take a break and get something to eat. This also makes it much easier to appreciate the Indian night: only then can you walk around free of the fear of being hitting in the face by a bucketful of mud.

At Dum Dum airport I watched this bucket-and-mud dance for hours, without ever seeing a real connection between it and the activity known in the West as "building." And I'm no time-and-motion expert, but I'd say that what we have here is the world's slowest way of digging a hole. But that's India. It's a low-tech country, which means that almost everyone has a job and there's an amazing amount of mud everywhere you look.

Until next time: farewell, good night

And, if you wait long enough, and look far enough, you eventually see your plane arrive. When mine touched down, the man who'd made the earlier announcement made a triumphal reappearance. The long delay had vanished from his mind, and he took pride in announcing that Random Flight Number would be leaving from Gate One in a few minutes. "No problem at all," he added. "Nice weather. Lovely to see you. Everything very good."

As I walked through the gate I suddenly remembered my arrival in India, when a local representative had rubbed my stomach. And this memory gave rise to a spontaneous urge. "Sorry about this," I said, and leaned forward and rubbed the announcer's stomach.

To my astonishment, he looked at me without even a flicker of surprise.

"Did you like India?" he asked, as if tourists rubbed his stomach every few minutes. "Yes, I did," I replied, "everything very good. No problem at all. Lovely to see you."

He smiled. "Come back one day," he said.

And as soon as he said it, I knew that I would. India had bewildered, frustrated, exhausted and intrigued me. I couldn't wait to go back.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 10:04 PM in the Dog Biscuit category | Comments (0)
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