On my first trip to India, I was convinced I was going to die. I was to be met by someone from the tourism department in Mumbai but he/she was a no-show. In fact there were few travelers, and mysteriously few guides. The small tourist office in the terminal, was shut and padlocked tightly.
An obvious Westerner, seeing me looking perplexed and perhaps thinking he could be of assistance, told me to walk over to the Domestic terminal. (This was the old crumbling, dark airport, now replaced by the swanky Indira Gandhi international building). That in itself scared the hell out of me since suddenly there were dozens of children and adults pulling at my sleeves and pants, although my money pouch was hidden under my top. I felt they must know that and to me it seemed to be the next area of attack. I was pre-warned about the grabbing. But who could know how bad it was.
At the Domestic terminal, the small stalls and shops had their shutters locked. Back to the International terminal where there was a bus in which an unofficially dressed man, certainly not from the tourist board, suggested that I get on. Now, in retrospect, this was beyond stupid but there really wasn’t an alternative and no cell phones yet. Remember this was 25 years ago and India wasn’t on many tourist radars.
Three scary looking men also came on to the otherwise empty bus, except for the driver. The bus route was through a lowly, slum area. My thoughts: I could be dumped anywhere in this squalid place and no one would even know who this now dead person was.
I kept my eyes down, never making eye contact with these men who, thankfully, one by one, finally got off the bus. The driver then took me to a beachside hotel, just like that. What was going on? There were several armed police and huge rocks placed at the entrance. Soon, at the registration desk, I was told that a mosque on the outskirts of Mumbai (called Bombay then) had been burned down by Hindus and there was a war in progress. This was December 1992 and I had the last room available. I was told in no uncertain terms that no one was getting to the city. Riots were everywhere.
A TRAVELER’S GOOD SENSE CAME IN HANDY
Feeling safe, my sanity re-discovered. I called the Canadian Consulate. They were pleased to hear from me. I was told that “the situation is so bad that we can’t come for you until all is more stable.” I needed some fresh air so I thought I’d take a stroll on the beach. That is until I heard shooting. As a Canadian, I wasn’t even sure what a shot or bomb sounded like. Hotel staff, with their bit of English, and me with not a word of Hindi, made me understand that this wasn’t a good idea. Three days later the Consulate called to say someone would come for me with the proviso that “if there’s any trouble along the way, get down on the floor of the car”. Easily done, I promised.
When asked where I was staying in Bombay, but since I hadn’t met up with the tourist guide who had the itinerary, I had no idea, but I had heard of the Oberoi Hotel. So that’s where I stayed, again not allowed to go outside. But there was much to do in the hotel and the attached mall, where the shops were closed, was great for window shopping.
WHAT WAS THIS DISAPPEARING ACT ALL ABOUT?
The tourist office was relieved that I was still alive and safe. The situation was now stable so they sent a driver who gave me a mini tour of the city. I especially wanted to see the iconic Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and an UNESCO World Heritage Site) train station. Its blend of Victorian Gothic and Italianate Revival with traditional Indian architecture, hence the name Gothic City, is a masterpiece. After my site inspection, our car and driver had suddenly disappeared. The sounds of the slamming shut of the stalls, was a precursor that this was not a good time to be on that street. As I stood there alone, since my guide went searching for our driver, a rush down the street of a few hundred men, bleeding and swinging bats with which to batter anyone nearby, had me hiding between two buildings, where I survived.
Not the greatest welcome but one that has stayed with me and I have lived to tell the tale.
But subsequent trips have taught me that India is safe, and with all my travels to the sub-continent, since that first visit, I have only had wonderful and kind encounters.
It is truly an incredible country.
BARBARA KINGSTONE , AN AWARD WINNING TRAVEL/LIFESTYLE WRITER. MEMBER OF THE SOCIETY OF AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITERS (SATW) AND CO-FOUNDER OF TRAVEL MEDIA ASSOCIATION OF CANADA (TMAC).