I am currently in Sydney, Australia, enjoying the first half of a two week birthday vacation.
I flew in to Melbourne early on Saturday morning, and the plan was to collect my three young kids at the airport, then fly with them to Sydney, to arrive at 10.30am. However, a delayed departure from Singapore coupled with my baggage being “misplaced” resulted in us missing the Melbourne – Sydney flight, and being the first day of school holidays, the next available flight was not until 1pm.
Four hours later, as the kids and I were literally standing in the queue about to board our rescheduled flight, it was cancelled. Of all things, the plane was being grounded due to a bird strike encountered when the plane was landing at Melbourne earlier, which had caused some minor damage to the engine that could not be fixed in time for our flight. So, we were “un-boarded”, and another three hour wait followed while the airline searched frantically for a spare plane to ferry us to Sydney. Eventually, after they found one, we arrived in Sydney around 6.30pm, tired and bedraggled, only eight hours later than originally planned….
What was therefore meant to be a fun-filled first day of the holidays – I had planned a ferry ride on Sydney harbour and a visit to Taronga Zoo – instead became a day of duelling with airport baggage handling staff, checking on flight waitlists, and several very long hours trying to amuse three frazzled children in an airport lounge. Thank God for obscure video clips on youtube – I have no idea if he is in fact the “World’s Best Robot Dancer”, but he sure as hell is the world’s best bored kiddie entertainer.
At some indeterminate point in the day one of the kids asked me for the umpteenth time: “Are we going to Sydney yet?” Out of sheer desperation I thought I’d attempt to distract them with stories about other journeys gone bad – with the amount of travel I do, I have had my fair share. To my complete surprise, this tactic worked: the kids sat rapturously listening to the stories, interrogating me about the smallest details, and laughed with delight at my evident misfortunes. Clearly the concept of “stop whining – it could be worse” resonates even with those under the age of eight.
In particular, the children seemed to get enormous pleasure from a story I told them of a horrible recent road-trip in India, which my son has now named: “The story of the Dead Chicken Restaurant”. I have thus far been asked to retell it four times, so, I thought I might retell it here, too.
This particular story centres on a fly-blown town known as Bokharo, in Jharkhand province, India. Bokharo is not known for anything other than steel production, coal fields, and being precisely 259 kilometres north-east of Calcutta. About a year ago I somewhat reluctantly agreed to visit the place in the course of negotiating a gas project at one of the local coal mines.
I flew into Calcutta and had a peaceful night’s sleep at the wonderfully colonial Oberoi Grand Hotel in central Calcutta. The plan for the next day was to hold some pre-meetings at the hotel, and then our group would board the 5pm Rajdhani Express train and alight three hours later at Dhanbad, the nearest major railhead to Bokharo. From there we would drive another hour by road and arrive at Bokharo around 9pm, giving us ample time to check in to the “Han Executive Guest House”, eat dinner and get some sleep ahead of a full schedule of meetings the following morning. Total advertised journey time: four hours.
Of course, that is four hours in Indian Standard Time, and I have no idea why I even allowed myself the fleeting expectation that the journey would in reality work out as advertised.
Things in fact began to unravel at around noon in the hotel lobby, when someone from our local office popped by to inform me that rural villagers somewhere along the route from Calcutta to Dhanbad were objecting to rising grain prices, and had therefore tied themselves to the train tracks. I confess that the connection between the problem (grain price inflation) and the protest (let’s delay India Rail’s services) was not entirely obvious to me. Nonetheless, what was completely obvious was that the protesters, we were being told, weren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and thus there could be no telling what time the Rajdhani Express would be able to depart Calcutta that day, if at all.
Our Indian office manager presented a solution: he had commandeered some cars, and so instead of the train, we would now drive to Bokharo. Only, on account of the fact that the journey might be a bit longer than the train ride – “the roads are in bad condition” – we were advised we should leave a tad earlier. I had a bad feeling in my gut, but I agreed to this plan – after all, how bad could a 259 kilometre drive be, right?
Much, much worse than you could possibly imagine.
We set off at 3pm in a two car convoy, and it was a difficult drive along a narrow, pot-holed road. The road-side was teeming with all manner of life – human and animal – and in between was a constant flow of cars, buses and trucks, so progress was very slow. Still, with the benefit of music, conversation, and staring out the window watching India whizz by, time initially seemed to pass without too much effort.
About four hours after we left Calcutta, and as the sun was setting, I politely enquired of the driver: “are we nearly there yet?”
“Yes….” the driver said, and I smiled for a second, but then my smile vanished when he finished his sentence – “ ….we are almost halfway, and will stop for a tea break, soon”.
Only halfway after four hours – how could that be? But, it was true – the monotonous, slow grind of the journey had completely warped my sense of time and distance, and I was struck by this horrible, sinking feeling that things were about to get a whole lot worse.
20 minutes later, we were sipping tea from small clay cups at a roadside shack. A train chugged past us, and our driver laughed and gestured frantically: “Oh, look, that’s the train you were meant to be on – they must have been able to get away, after all!!” I’m not sure I was quite as tickled pink by this news as the driver was, but there was not much I could do besides whisper profanities under my breath. I finished up my tea and resigned myself to another four long hours in the car. After all, how bad could half of a 259 kilometre drive be, right?
Really, really bad is the correct answer to that question.
By now it was completely dark, and there was not even any moonlight that night to pierce the inky blackness. As we drove along in the pitch black, it felt a lot like we were hurtling through deep space in a small sealed capsule, preceded only by the tiny and incredibly inadequate puddle of light cast by the car’s headlights. As a result, the four remaining hours of our drive to Bokhara (which turned out in the end to be actually five and a-half due to having to go slower in the dark) were possibly the most harrowing hours of my life to-date.
I can’t recall exactly which of the following was more terrifying:
(i) The fact that the road, more often than not, suddenly and without warning narrowed into being a one-lane road – that is, a one-lane road servicing both directions, not a one-lane road in each direction – creating complete mayhem as all those using the road found themselves being funnelled (in the dark, remember) into a seething crush of vehicles, animals and humans, all moving randomly in different directions;
(ii) The bone-jarring pot-holes, entirely invisible given the lack of light until it was too late to avoid them. My head became very sore from the number of times I was bounced over a pot-hole so violently that my skull smashed into the low roof of the car;
(iii) The pedestrians and cows and bicycles meandering along the side of the road, totally unseen in the darkness until the last instant, such that our driver was repeatedly flinging the car wildly to the right so as to avoid side-swipe collisions; or
(iv) the very big, very fast, and very noisy-horn-blaring Tata trucks that careered down the road directly towards us, headlights glowing in the dark like the fierce eyes of an oncoming monster. Our driver seemed insistent on playing chicken with these trucks, but it was not a game he could ever win, and at the last second possible would swerve sharply to avoid a head-on impact.
Occasionally, all four of these individual nightmares happened simultaneously, at which times I simply closed my eyes in silent prayer.
Somehow, we arrived in Bokharo alive. Our extremely late arrival meant that the dinner service had ended, and the best that could be rustled up was a two day old curry. And on being shown to my “suite”, I discovered that the grandly titled Han Executive Guest House was little more than a roach-motel – stained sheets, swarms of mosquitoes, and the occasional rat scurrying across the floor.
I did not sleep that well, and the next morning, I was feeling incredibly low….. Perhaps it was only fitting, therefore, that the person I was supposed to be spending all day in a meeting with came to the hotel at around 8am, and advised me that due to a mine-site emergency which he had to attend to in person, he could only spend 30 minutes with me now, very sorry, I am sure you understand “but that’s the oil and gas business, ha ha”, and we will have to meet some other time to further our discussions.
So it seemed that I had risked my life, endured eight hours of hell on the road and shared a room for a night with a family of rodents, for the sake of a half-hour meeting that didn’t get beyond personal introductions and the Han Executive Guest House’s fairly awful breakfast coffee. Are you fucking kidding me?
The only teeny tiny bit of silver lining I could see in what was now an otherwise incredibly dark cloud was that we could begin the return trip Calcutta at 10am. Assuming an eight hour journey, at least there would be no further need to drive in the dark – thank G-d for small mercies.
On the return leg we had a different driver, and my luck, it appears that India’s slowest man was now behind the wheel. We inched along at a snail’s pace, and after about six hours I was tired, hot and dusty. Plus, I was really hungry. “Not to worry”, one of my Indian companions told me, “not far from here is a road-side diner that is famous throughout this area for its fresh chicken dishes, and we will halt there for a late lunch. You will feel much better”.
I am not sure what I expected – the words “road-side diner” had conjured up images of European style routiers with flashing neon lights and over-flowing buffets. This road-side diner, by contrast, appeared indistinguishable from every other sweltering concrete-box plastic-chairs restaurant that seem to line the side of every road in India. The diner was, however, packed to over-flowing even in the late afternoon, which as any travel guidebook will advise, is always a good sign.
We entered, and a table was hastily cleared for us in the main dining room. We ordered up a feast of chicken – more than a dozen different dishes made using all the bits and pieces of the bird. The food was delicious, washed down by several bottles of icy cold Coke. I was indeed feeling much better.
Halfway through the meal I got up to visit the bathroom, and the waiter directed me out the back of the dining area, where there was a brick wall about five feet high, and a trough running along the bottom. A line of men were urinating onto the wall – an outdoor pissoir of sorts. I joined the queue, and as I shuffled towards the wall and began unzipping my fly, I realised that it was the outer wall of a giant chicken coop, inside of which maybe 500 chickens were running around, squawking and pecking madly in the mud and dirt.
And as I proceeded to relieve myself against the chest-high wall, I had no option but to look over it into the chicken coop. The result was the rather surreal experience of peeing at the same time as watching men on the other side of the wall chase after the live chickens, grab them roughly, splay them out on a big stone slab, and effortlessly chop their heads off with big, rusty machetes. A fleet of young boys then carried the still warm and wriggling carcasses off to the adjacent kitchen, presumably to be whipped up into the aforementioned feast of chicken dishes.
Somehow, watching my meal get prepared while I and thirty other men pissed on a wall not three feet away seemed to dampen my appetite, and after that I just couldn’t bring myself to tuck in to the butter chicken curry with quite the same level of enthusiasm.
Needless to say, the rest of the journey back to Calcutta was predictably awful: we were still on the road by 7pm when it got dark, so we had a 90 minutes replay of the driving hell from the night before. When we finally arrived at Calcutta airport we were just in time to see our plane push back from the aerobridge, meaning we had to then find last minute accommodation for the night. It was only the next morning that this particular journey from hell came to a final close.
As I explained to my kids, the 259 kilometre journey from Bokharo to Calcutta took almost 11 hours to complete, a staggeringly slow average speed of 23km per hour. Sitting there in the lounge of Melbourne airport waiting for our delayed flight, I tried to put things in perspective for the kids by telling them that it would take us almost two days to drive from Melbourne to Sydney if we travelled at the same speed, so a four hour delay was not that bad.
To which my eight year old daughter’s response was: “Do you think on the way we could stop to see them kill chickens, too”. Clearly, she hasn’t quite yet grasped the moral of the story.