Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Terror of Nightmares

The sleeper bus from Mangalore to Kochi was a completely new travel experience for me. Unlike on the sleeper trains, where it is one person per berth, this bus was a two people per berth set-up. I’m not sure what happens when you are travelling alone, or in a group but with an odd number of people – perhaps you have to pay double but get a berth to yourself, or perhaps you get ‘coupled’ with a complete stranger. I would have been a small child the last time the last time I had shared a bed with another male, and now here Daniel and I were climbing onto the top bunk together. At least we did not share a blanket or anything – with the warm conditions not requiring one – and so I can say that I still have “an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality” as George Costanza once professed. We lay on our backs so that our feet faced the front of the bus. I used a small travel bag as a pillow. Just like on the sleeper train, I could never manage to avoid getting my little shesh-besh board in by bag from sticking into the back of head.

I had the window position; Daniel had the aisle. Normally, on an aeroplane, I prefer the aisle. However, with no toilet onboard the bus, the aisle had little value. On both the window and aisle side of the bunk was a draw curtain. With both curtains closed, it was almost like we were sharing a coffin. You wouldn’t want to have been overly claustrophobic. Despite the bizarre conditions, not to mention the movements of the bus, I managed to fall asleep.

As I mentioned in my entry on Mind-Altering Experiences, I was using the drug Larium (mefloquine) as preventative against malaria, and one of the side effects I had experienced were extremely vivid dreams. The dreams had a tendency to start out as fairly non-disturbing (as far as dreams go) until right before the end, where there was a terrifying twist, often leaving you waking up feeling like you are in the Twilight Zone.
There might be something about sleeper trains and buses, because up until this night, the worst dream I had experienced had been on the train from Mumbai to Goa (see my entry titled Journey to Goa).

It isn’t easy to write about dreams and portray them as they seemed. This is because some of the most bizarre things can appear completely ordinary to the dreamer (at least while they are dreaming). Not to mention the plots frequently make absolutely no sense to the reader. So bear with me as I make this clumsy attempt to let you into another of my bizarre nightmares.

I’m not sure why, but this dream I had aboard the bus, like then one I had aboard the train, also started with a religious backdrop. While the changes I describe in the dream seem abrupt, to me while I was dreaming, they were seemless – as if each stage of the present was how it had always been. The first thing I can recall from the dream is that I was walking down the street in B’nei B’rak, Israel, where my Grandfather’s Sister lives. As you’d expect, a lot of Chasidic people were walking down this street. It was a Saturday around noon or 1pm, and they were presumably walking home for lunch after Shul. Then the streets were no longer the streets of B’nei B’rak, but the streets of the Perth suburb of Yokine, where I live, however, it was still B’nei B’rak – that is it was physically Yokine, but cognitively B’nei B’rak (I hope this makes sense). Pretty soon after that, it was no longer just physically Yokine, but cognitively Yokine also. However, there were still plenty of religious Jews walking on the streets. And just as seamlessly as the place had changed, so had my means of transport. I was no longer travelling by foot, but by car. I was thinking to myself as I passed by so many religious people strolling on the footpath: “ Since when did Perth have so many Chasidic people? It’s almost like B’nei B’rak here! And I hardly recognise any of them either! So many new people!”

Heading down Flinders street now, near Dog Swamp shopping centre, and must have turned right onto Wanneroo road (As I write this, I now realise that you can’t turn right at that intersection, but it was dream). At some point, if I had been the driver of the car (with no passengers), I was no longer. I was now a passenger in the back of a car, although somehow I was still essentially alone. Up to this point, as bizarre as the dream may seem, to me, in the dream, it felt quite normal and not really that disturbing. It was at this point though that the dream took a terrifying turn.

From the back of the car, I noticed a young girl of primary school age, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, standing in the middle of a busy intersection, not too much further up the road than the string of shops with the Marco’s Pizza and the Ezy Plus convenience store. Her head was facing down and she was holding her hands, in the way one might hold their hand up if ordered to do so by a person with a gun. There was a look of helplessness and despair about the girl. She had fair hair and skin, and was dressed in drab shorts and a singlet. I should add that she was not even Jewish, and thus I have no idea how the B’nei B’rak thing earlier in the dream was relevant to this latter part of the dream.

When my persona saw the girl, I recognised her from being in the news a week or two ago as having been standing in an intersection like this due to some psychopath(s) having her in the site of a sniper rifle, as well having taken her family hostage, and threatening to kill them and her. If she moved from this position, she would be shot dead, and her family would also be killed. My persona had not paid much attention to the news story at the time, but was now freaked out by the realisation that she was STILL standing there as this hostage of psychopaths, a week or two later after first casually reading about her in a newspaper. I had a sudden understanding that this situation with the girl was somehow of enormous importance, perhaps even to the fate of the whole world.

Now came the final phase of the dream. I suddenly became aware that the driver of the vehicle that I was in was involved in this psychopathic cult. I was now sitting in the back seat of his supercharged hot-rod, but it was if I was only now aware that he had stealthily hijacked me from my normal car or driver). He was accelerating the car, faster and faster (thinking about it now as I write this, I wonder if the real-life bus driver was accelerating the bus as such while I was experiencing this part of the dream). For some reason, I knew that I was the only the only person in the world who could save this poor little girl, and if I was going to do this, the first step was going to be to overcome this villainous driver. I could not see the driver’s face, just the back of his head – he had a short slick black ponytail, tied up in a way that it barely hung down from his head, if at all. Here was the most subjectively horrifying thing: even though I could not see his face, I was aware that when I did see his face, it was going to frighten the absolute hell out of me. I realised that his face was going to be not-quite human, but rather some kind of satanic face, straight out of the Polanski film, Rosemary’s Baby. It was with petrified anticipation, that I waited for him to turn around to reveal his face, and I knew it would happen within the next five seconds….

And then I woke up from my dream. Being a mefloquine-induced nightmare, it wasn’t as simple as sighing, “Ah, it was all a dream” and then moving on. I lay there in this coffin, with a few odd tears coming even out of my eyes and rolling down my cheeks, feeling both freaked out, but also guilty that I had not managed to save the girl. I knew it had been a dream, but I nonetheless felt that the girl and her family had been horribly murdered, and with the responsibility of saving them been thrust on to me, I had failed. I also then thought about why I had failed. I never had a chance of saving her, because I allowed my fear to virtually paralyse me. I should have reached over and applied a choke or strangulation technique to the satanic driver, but I had been afraid of him, afraid of seeing his face, his inhuman face. I was a coward.

I felt like I really needed to talk to someone about how I felt, to tell them what had ‘happened.’. I looked over to my left, and there was Daniel, who was sharing this coffin with me. Was he awake? I didn’t think so, but even if he was, I then I thought to myself: “Hang on, I can’t just tell him about this now. It will seem very strange. After all, we are just two guys travelling together – we are not a gay couple. Furthermore, I have tears on my face, so not only will it seem gay, but much worse than this, it will be like I am the woman of the couple!”

I know this seems ridiculous to you as the reader, that I should have been so upset about from a dream, but if you’ve ever had a drug induced dream like this, then may be only then will you understand how real it can all seem. Unlike regular dreams, the emotions and the events of these mefloquine dreams do not immediately fade away once awake. Rather, they linger with you for a little while. I didn’t really have a concept of time, but I am estimating that for the first 15 minutes I was awake, I was lying there feeling quite disturbed, with tears in my eyes.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Don’t want to be a Fryer.

The next morning Daniel and myself met Aaron and Sandra for breakfast. Our goal for the morning was a simple one: to obtain train tickets to get out of Mangalore and get to Kochi (Cochin) as soon as possible. The first step in this process was to get to the train station. Auto-rickshaws were in abundance, but taxis were far and few between. It wasn’t easy to fit four of us into the back of a rickshaw but we managed. We got to the train station and found the section for reserved tickets. After surviving the general unreserved section the previous evening on the train from Goa to Mangalore, I wasn’t yet ready to take that option again so soon, especially all the way to Kochi, which was an overnight train. Ideally we would get reserved sleeper class, but I was certainly prepared to pay more for a superior class if that was all that was available.

The queue at the reservation counter in Mangalore had a luxury that I did not see anywhere else in India. Instead of having to stand in the queue, they had a series of numbered seats. The seats are arranged in horizontal rows and the numbers snake their way to the front. As one progresses in the queue, one keeps having to get up and move to the next seat; so it’s a lineball decision whether it is more of a luxury or an inconvenience. Unfortunately, after queuing up for sometime in the seated queue, and finally making it to the ticket counter, we discovered that there were no reserved tickets still available for the train that evening, not even in first class. This probably should not have been so unexpected, as it was the Christmas/New Year holiday period, the busiest time of the year for the railways.

Mangalore is a transport hub, and as a tourist, you really don’t want to have to spend more than one night, as there’s not much to do there. We were all determined to get out of Mangalore that evening at the latest. Our next option was to find the appropriate bus station and see if there were any long distance buses we could take. Finding the bus station proved more difficult than we thought it would. My map in the Lonely Planet book showed a number of different bus depots scattered around Mangalore, and we had no idea which one was the one we needed to get to. These bus depots are far more chaotic than the train stations. There are no inquiry desks and no apparent central authority. Rather, they are just a parking lot full of buses either coming, going, or waiting. It was highly frustrating to ask various people around the lot about a bus to Kochi, and get various answers, all of these answers while probably well intended, were nonetheless unhelpful, succeeding only in sending us on a goose-chase. We rickshawed around to the other depots, asking the same question, but getting no closer to finding out what we needed to know. When it became obvious we were not making any progress, I suggested we go to a travel agent and inquire there. “It might cost a bit more, but it’s worth it if we can get out of here sooner rather than later.” Someone remembered seeing a travel agent around the corner from our hotel, so we all squeezed into yet another rickshaw and headed back to the hotel.

For Aaron and Sandra, seeing an Israeli in negotiations with an Indian was a new experience. Aaron tended to have the attitude that whatever things such as a rickshaw ride costed, it was almost nothing in terms of Euros. My own attitudes and behaviour on the matter now lay somewhere in between Daniel’s and Aaron’s. There were certainly many times when I felt like it was worth fighting for the best price, and many other times when I thought: “Who cares in the whole scheme of things – we aren’t exactly dealing with large sums of money here.” I would often see Aaron shake his head and roll his eyes in bewilderment as Daniel, for example, expertly negotiated a rickshaw driver down from 70Rs (US$1.70) to 50 Rs, and then down to a final price of 30Rs (US$0.70).

For me, the main cost of travelling through India (after the airfare to get there) was not the cost of living, which was minimal, but the cost of not working and earning back home. From Daniel’s point of view, he was on a very long trip, taking a year away from work to go around the world. While on each instance it might not be a significant amount of money, eventually it all adds up, especially over a long period of time. For someone just travelling through India for a month or two, it adds up to a less consequential sum than for someone travelling for a year or more.

There was also one other reason for Daniel driving such a hard bargain. On one occasion, Daniel tried to explain to Aaron that it wasn’t just about the money, but it was about one’s esteem in knowing one was not getting totally ripped off. This was part of the national psyche in Israel.

“For Israelis,” Daniel told Aaron “no one likes to be thought of as a …”
“A fryer” I contributed as a third party listening in.
“Yes, in Hebrew we call it a fryer” Daniel continued, “Israelis hate to feel like a fryer, a sucker. This is why Israelis are the best hagglers out of all the foreign travellers in India.”

We got to the travel agent and told him we wanted to get to Kochi as soon as possible. One of the guys working at the travel agent suggested we hire a car, but none of the others seemed to take any notice of that suggestion. We asked the main guy if there were any private-run buses going to Kochi. He made some phone calls, and seemed to be on hold, telling us that he had two tickets available. Aaron and Sandra suggested that Daniel and I take them, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. “No, we all go, or none of us. We’ll find a way.” I told the travel agent that two tickets wasn’t satisfactory, essentially telling him that we needed four tickets or it was no sale. He spoke again to someone on the phone, was on hold for a little bit longer, and then eventually came through with an affirmative for four tickets. It was a great relief, and there were smiles and back slaps all round. We now all had tickets for on an overnight sleeper bus leaving that evening.

With the tickets secured, it was now time to find a place for lunch. Daniel had in his possession some flyer that was adverting a restaurant in a shopping mall and he suggested we all go to check out this great big shopping mall. I humorously ridiculed the idea that there would be a large modern shopping mall anywhere near here.

“A shopping mall? I doubt it? In Colaba, I saw a shop calling itself a supermarket, and it was the size of little corner store. And this was in Colaba, which is far more upmarket and has far more tourists than here.” Sandra laughed also, and was expressing agreement with my opinion, but Daniel insisted that it would be a real shopping mall. I continued with the ridicule.
“What do you think it’s going to be like? The Dizengoff Centre??” I asked sarcastically, enjoying my own humour, and then taking a moment explain to Sandra and Aaron “That’s the biggest shopping centre in Tel Aviv” so they could fully share in my amusement.
“Actually, we have one now that is bigger than that” said Daniel a little curtly, who was not finding the conversation as humorous as the rest of us.

With nothing to really lose, I agreed to go. “It will be worth it just to get there and then see the look on your face when this so called mall turns out to be non-existent…” We got a rickshaw, and showed the driver the advertisement on the flyer, so he’d know where to take us. We had little idea of how far it was, so there wasn’t much negotiation for the price. The journey took us to a totally different part of Mangalore from where we’d been before. To my utter amazement, it turned out that there really was a five storey air-conditioned building that resembled a shopping mall.
“Ah, you see?” said Daniel as we approached.
“I can’t believe there really is a modern shopping complex here! I’m glad to say that on this occasion you were right, and I was wrong!” I offered. Sandra was also shaking her head in amazement and offered a little mea culpa of her own.

As we got out of the rickshaw, we could see that there was a Pizza Hut joint at the front of the mall, one storey up. Daniel and I were keen to check it out. I would never have any reason to go into a Pizza Hut joint in Australia, but I was rather curious to see how this American franchise would manifest itself in India. It was the first time on the trip that I had seen this type of franchise in India. Aaron, however, had a different attitude and plainly refused to even set foot in there. “It’s a terrible company and they cause a lot of harm all over the world.”

“We don’t have to eat there, but I’d like to just check it out, as I am curious to see if or how it is modified for Indian tastes.” I replied.

“No, I don’t mind if you guys eat there, but I personally will never enter a Pizza Hut store.” He didn’t fully elaborate on why he hated the company behind Pizza Hut so much, and I preferred not to ask. I gathered it was probably some anti-imperialist thing. I was too hungry to discuss politics, and it was a non-issue to me.
“Nah, don’t be silly,” I said. “There are plenty of places to eat here. We’ll find a place where we can all eat together”

I soon gathered that the Indians who frequented the mall (and I still saw no other foreigners there) must have been rather well off. The prices in most stores were closer to the prices of things back in Australia than they were to the typically inexpensive Indian market prices I had become accustomed to.

After lunch we decided to split up for the rest of the day, with Daniel and I arranging to meet Aaron and Sandra outside the travel agent that evening, as that was where the bus would be departing from. Daniel and I checked out the mall a bit more, and then we took in a film at the adjoining modern cinema. I would have preferred to see the Indian film “Kabul Express” that was advertised on posters outside the cinema; however, it had not been released yet. Daniel preferred to see the Bollywood film “Dhoom2,” starring the gorgeous Ashiwarya Rai, but I was secretly glad to see that it wasn’t showing at a time for us – I can’t stand musicals. With a limited choice of films, we ended up seeing “The Guardian” with Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, which was about the US Coastguard rescue swimmers. From what I could tell, most of the audience was made up of middle class Indian students. I thought it was a mediocre film, and I was amazed by how the parts of the movie that seemed so predictable or corny to me were met by expressions of surprise or general positive reaction by the rest of the audience.

After the film, Daniel and I went to a small (but large by Indian standards) supermarket under the mall and stocked up on snacks for the long bus trip that lay ahead of us. We got a rickshaw back to the hotel, had some dinner, fetched our bags from the hotel locker, and then walked up the road to meet Aaron and Sandra outside the travel agent where the bus was to pick us up. When the time came, the bus had still not arrived. The travel agent assured us it was just running late. In India you can never be certain about these things, and it was a relief when it finally did arrive. Kochi, here we come!