Urban Squalor-I'm going to love exploring India!!!

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Oct 17, 2008

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Friday, September 5, 2008

I am out of the Middle East now and on to India.  I enjoyed Bahrain and my last impression of the place was that driving is really a test of patience and skill.  The roads on the whole island seem to be under repair or widening at the same time.  Picture a road with two or three lanes on each side divided by a median.  Now picture the speed limit being 100 kph (about 65mph) even approaching the traffic circles that are common and frequent.  However, your top speed is about 98 kph slower than the posted limit because of all the construction and you move up a car length maybe once every thirty seconds.  Since the traffic is so heavy you enter the traffic circle from a standstill so you need some luck.  I found it's just easiest to look up to Allah, say a few inshallahs, close your eyes and step on the gas.  You get sucked into the mix and hopefuly get spit out on the other side.  Cars on your left are cutting in front of you to exit to your right just as you are doing to other cars.

The Tree of Life remained elusive and I never made it.  The traffic was too slow, the roads too confusing and so much construction it was better to just turn around.  The island is only about 15 miles long but it can take half a day to cross it it seems.  I think we can all imagine a tree growing in the sand so no need to actually see it in person I guess.  That's how I justify that!!

Having driven in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Dubai, I can say that Kuwait was the most pleasant.  I got cars in these places because they were cheap, public transit is about nonexistent and taxis are expensive and rip off foreigners.  Gas is extremely cheap since this is the motherland for our petroleum needs and I figure it was just over a dollar a gallon.   One of the biggest surprises driving was hearing hip hop where the f and n words weren't bleeped out.  For such a religious society, the mullahs sure aren't doing a good job screening stuff.  

My flight from Doha to Qatar and on to India started just before sundown so I was prepared this time for the evening prayer over the airport PA to break the fast.  Nothing happened really in my gate like what I told you about in Kuwait since 98% of the passengers on my flight seemed to be non muslim Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers returning home.  The other two percent consisted of me, a British military guy, and two Arab men in their white robes and red checkered tablecloth looking headgear. 

The stench in the gate took nasty to a whole new level and it was more an assault to my senses than hearing Ryan Seacrest on Bahraini radio hawking his American Top 40 show.  I had to wait it out in the McDonalds across from the gate since the greasy smell of Big Macs and McArabias (chicken pita) was more appealing than three day old sweat and cigarette smoke.

We even got an Iftar meal on the 20 minute flight.  Iftar is the special meal that breaks the fast and you start it by eating dates.  It's little snacks like pastries and meat filled fried dough balls.   The service was really rushed and while my new Brit friend and I got treated normally, the Indians and Bangladeshis were just handed cups and large bottles of water they had to pass around themselves.  The Indian guy across the aisle didn't get a cup so he just reached over and grabbed my empty one and drank from it without even asking.  The Brit, Arabs and I were allowed to finish our Iftar meals but the others had theirs collected after a few minutes whether finished or not since we were about to land.  Qatar seems to operate two classes of service within one economy class cabin!!

Speaking of McDonalds, evidently food courts at all the airports I have been to are open during daylight Ramadan so the infidels and nonpious among us can eat.  It seems to be the one huge exception to all the Ramadan rules.  I wonder though if Allah eventually blesses everyone with a giant case of food poisoning down the road for eating when the sun is up.  So far so good though. 

I'm glad to be out of Kuwait and Bahrain because you can go to jail if you are caught eating or drinking out in public.  I was being hit with Ramadan everywhere I turned including the inflight magazine of Qatar Airways.  It was actually interesting to read what it is so if you are interested here goes my attempt to paraphrase it:

Evidently in 610AD Mohammed was wandering around the desert near Mecca when Gabriel asked him if he wanted God's message.  Mohammed of course said yes and this time period was declared holy by Islam.  Ramadan now takes place in the ninth lunar month of the Islamic calendar as a result of Mohammed's talk with Gabriel and starts when the crescent moon rises.  So basically Allah has blessed this month and you have to be on your spiritual best behavior.  This means the tongue can't gossip, the ears can't hear anything bad, the eyes can't look at anything sinful and the feet can't take you anywhere of ill repute.

This must explain Saudis picking up Russian prostitutes at hotel bars, the three robed men eating at the McDonalds at the Bahrain airport, the men smoking and eating in the coffee shop at the hotel, and the young guys hooting and hollering at the scantily clad European women at Petra.  Yes, Acquiescense to Allah is selective.  One interesting note in that article is that whenever Mohammed was mentioned, Peace Be Upon Him (later abbreviated PBUH) was written after his name each time.

Well, back to the trip.  We boarded up as one pushing and shoving mass of people, got our Allah Akbar blessing over the PA, and there we were...me, a British military officer, and 140 ripe Indians and Bangladeshis blasting off into the darkness with Allah guiding us.

I got into Delhi at 3:30 in the morning after a quick connection in Doha, Qatar.  The flight from Doha here was only about 3 hours on an A330.  Just the airport alone blew my senses away as I exited the arrivals area.  The hotel had arranged to pick me up and the driver and I made our way the parking area.  The lot is cracked asphalt with huge potholes of dirt.  Actually it's more dirt than anything and there were people and cows asleep everywhere.  I am not making this up.  The exit booth from the lot was a decrepit old shack with broken glass windows and holes in the walls.  The gate arm was a tired old piece of red and white striped wood that drooped about 60 degrees lower than straight and level.  The attendant just fell back asleep in between cars.

The car was made by Tata, and I loved riding around in a vehicle with that name.  Tata is India's big car maker and the car is a piece of junk.  It made my VW Chico in Cape Town look like a  Rolls.  The fanbelt squealed the whole time and thick black smoke poured up through the floorboards.  It shook everytime it came to life from a standstill and the vibration at top speeds made my whole body shake. 

Have you seen those Fisher Price cars for kids that are red with the yellow roof?  That's what it looked like now that I think of a better description.  Driving here is insane, even at 4am.  Where's that Allah Akbar preflight blessing when you need it?  This driver did have some kind of spiritual looking thing glued to the dashboard so even here I guess people are guided to their destination by a higher power of some sort. 

On the way I saw a sign at a heart and lung hospital that said "Don't Smoke, Save Lungs."  Hah.  I guarantee you that the thick black smoke and dust EVERYWHERE will kill you first before a single cigarette will.  I probably inhaled more truck and car exhaust in 45 minutes than I would in a lifetime back home. 

Travel lanes painted on the "highway" are merely suggestions.  People make their own lanes and announce that by honking.  The police decided at 4am to use the left lane to check truckers' documents so that made traffic worse.  Red lights mean nothing so you just shoot through the intersection at top speed while the car tops and bottoms out over the uneven pavement.  That little Tata was not made for this kind of driving.   You also dodge people, cows and motorbikes crossing in front of you out of nowhere.  

The city is an absolute run down mess everywhere you turn.  People sleep anywhere they can find a patch of dirt and the buildings are just in a state of squalor.   Dozens of wires run around each one and the walls seem to be crumbling.  It has character and makes for a memorable adventure.  When I get out to explore I will take some pics of it all so you can better imagine it.  There are a few sights worth seeing here like the Red Fort.  The only purpose really of coming here for me is my visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra tomorrow.  Delhi is just an added bonus.

I know this update is long but I hope it gave you an image in your mind of my last two days.  I am about to explore the dilapidation around the neighborhood and see if I can get to the Red Fort in one piece inshallah.  I travel so that I can experience places the total opposite of home.  India is colorful, dirty, noisy, crowded and full of life and it fits the bill.  This is exactly the kind of destination I love to explore because it really wakes up all your senses. 
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