A Commute From Hell

So it took a quick 20mins to get from work back to my posh hotel yesterday, but today it took a good 2.5 hours to get to work. In the morning, the usually desperate attempt to explain to either anyone from the hotel’s car pool management army and/or the cab driver where I want to get to. This morning, everybody seemed to be in clear agreement: Yes, Sir, no problem. So I guess I can read the Times of India and relax. Unfortunately, when I look out of the window, we are in a huge traffic jam at the end of the Western Express Highway, going into the opposite direction of where we need to go (i.e. south instead of north). 40mins later we finally get off the so-called highway and I am trying to explain to my driver that he needs to turn around and get back onto the highway going north. It turns out that the driver doesn’t understand a single word of what I am saying and my body language also appears to mystify him completely. Well, the sentiment is mutual, so eventually I just make him stop somewhere in the middle of traffic.

Stop he actually understood, but he wasn’t one to give up easily. As I try to hire a different cab going into the opposite direction, he catches up with me and literally begs me to get back in with him. He is a very very old man with a very bad cough. Luckily, I find a translator, so, surrounded by a whole collection of spectators, I try again to point out where I want to go. She translates and after many gestures, laughs and smiles, she confirms: Don’t worry, Sir, he got it now.

Happily, we are back on the highway. The Western Express Highway is literally a race track that is in pretty bad shape, has no markings whatsoever, is filled with two-, three-, four- and more-wheelers passing left right and in zig zag. There’s the odd traffic light then and again (it seems these are one of the few traffic lights anyone actually pays attention to in this town), and here and there you get pedestrians on the side of it, and of course, a number of seriously suicidal ones who will either sprint, or, equally frequently, who will extremely slowly, entirely unfazed by anything at all, walk to cross the highway. It is serious madness.

Even better, 20mins or so later, I realize that I am not recognizing the landscape. There’s a few hills in the distance, but they are on the left of the road, when they should be on the right. Then again, I might be wrong and not remember correctly, but I get the sneaking feeling that we are totally wrong and I make the driver pull over, right next to a long line of auto rickshaw drivers on their second breakfast break (on the highway). Ooops, it turns out we are on the Eastern Express Highway, not the Western. Well, that’s just entirely wrong. I think I need a cigarette.

So, I guess we’ll need to cut through the suburbs of Powai to get over to the west side. We pass an impressive roadbridge construction site where an army of women carry cement from one corner of the site to the other. They carry big buckets of that stuff on their heads, wearing incredibly shoddy clothes and flip flips, in the middle of dust and dirt and traffic at 36 degrees celsius. All of the construction workers are wearing flip-flops, actually. Forget about hard hats, gloves, or anything like that. It’s quite unreal.

Eventually I get to work and decide that I better get a car plus driver on a daily basis, at least untill I have bought my own car, which I am planning to do. By the evening, I got that sorted out, and get driven back to my hotel in a fridge of a car. The driver sort of understands me and I sort of understand him, but he insists on having the AC turned to subzero temperatures. He also drives like a complete maniac, but I guess that’s the way it goes.

Leningrad – Moscow – Delhi – Mumbai

Well, I made it. All the way from NYC to Nice, Paris, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Delhi, and Mumbai. We carried three suitcases and three carry-ons each, which turned out to get a little pricey. From the US to France, they charged us only $90 each for the extra two suitcases, but from Nice to St. Petersburg it was the criminal amount of 12Euros per kilo above 20kg each. So that turned out to be 1300Euros. Ooops. Of course that price tag came with a puffed up attitude on the part of the Air France employees and three different ones of them telling us off for bringing three carry-ons. Nevermind they were all small ones (the carry-ons that is), and there was plenty of space on the planes. They all had to give us a good lecture. But the food on Air France is excellent, so there: you win some you lose some.

Of course going from St. Petersburg to Delhi was another $11 per kilo above 20kg, but luckily we left a lot of stuff with Ksenia’s best friend in St. Petersburg, so my bill was only $300 and I guess we’ll see how much Ksenia’s bill will be when she gets here in two weeks.

Russian and Indian airports seem to be in competition on who can be the most ludicrously inefficient and annoying (then again, on the way into St. Petersburg, one Russian customs guy helped us quite a bit, when one of our suitcases didn’t arrive and he didn’t make us go through customs again when we finally picked it up the next day). NYC airport gets the first prize for having a complete bitch of a security woman not even flinching a millisecond and simply continuing her blank fuck you all stare as she drops my passport and waits for me to pick it up while my hands are full. Anyways, for some reason, you pass five or six security stations in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Not that anyone really seems to look at anything and it’s not like anybody at all couldn’t just walk around from the street straight to the aircrafts in St. Petersburg without much hassle. But for some reason, in St. Petersburg, the boarding cards get ripped off the tickets on the stairways to the aircraft, in wind and rain, by a single Aeroflot employee with a broken umbrella.

Aeroflot food was predictably crap compared to Air France, but the aircraft had an unbelievably high ceiling and the seats weren’t numbered at all. Or so I thought untill I found them above the trays on the back of the seats. Except those seat numbers indicated the seat whose back they were on, not the seat from which you could actually see the number. Luckily I was not the only one who was confused; half the people on the plane, most of them Russian, had no clue, so there was a lot of moving about to get into the right seats going on before everyone was happily settled. It was all very amusing.

The security procedures repeated in Moscow. In fact, I had thought the three hour layover would be plenty of time to have some food and a beer for bedtime, but they were barely enough to make it to the next plane. Different terminal, incredible security checks, ludicrous customs/passport controls, and of course three different lines to pay my $300 for excess baggage. Needless to say, noone knew, let alone gave the slightest fuck whether I’d get charged again in Delhi or even whether my baggage would actually go all the way to Delhi.

Yes, the story repeated itself in Delhi, except at higher temparatures, with more humidity and in the middle of the night. Some more papers to fill out, very important passport checks, the usual drill for the potential terrorists, smugglers, and tax evaders that we all are, and of course I had to schlepp my entire luggage around yet again. For some reason, in Delhi it seemed like one had to get out of the airport all the way to the hot and humid street just to get back into a different door in the exact same building to make the connecting flight. On the street, an army of cab drivers tried to convince me that my flight in fact leaves from an entirely different airport. Maybe I should have taken my cigarette break elsewhere, but it was 3:30am or so and I didn’t really mind, but was rather impressed that they seem to know all flight numbers and times by heart, so they actually backed off when I could give them my exact connection to their satisfaction.

The last leg was rather uneventful, if you don’t count my seat neighbor, who was belching, farting, and scratching his balls with gusto. After landing semi-safely in Delhi, the whole passenger cabin was clapping their hands, but no such entertainment now. To make up for that, the luggage arrived on the wrong conveyor belts, but they did arrive. The air wasn’t quite as bad as it had been in April, since it had rained a bit that night. My hotel pickup driver found me right away, carried me off to the Grand Hyatt (nice pad! yes, slums right next door!), quick shower and off to work. Well, not so easy, nobody in the army of drivers and hotel car pool managers seemed to understand where the hell my office was. So this was the first of what I expect will be endless encounters whereby I am waving a map and giving street names, but it never seems to matter, as not too many people understand my German accent I suppose, know how to read a map, or give a damn about street names in this town. Well, somehow, eventually, my cab driver and I get there. Luckily, I recognized the last stretch from April, so it turned out to be easy. The first day at work can begin.

Premature Puking

Well, I guess this is good preparation, maybe even a good omen. I am in Novosokolniki at Ksenia’s cousins’ and I am heading out for Mumbai, India in a few days. Ksenia will follow two weeks later. I’ve been assigned to work in Mumbai for a year, so we said good bye to NYC (Long Island City that is) and on our way to Mumbai we made stopovers at my parents in Italy and at Ksenia’s mother in St. Petersburg. So, in preparation for all sorts of stomach flues that we are fully expecting to get in India, I had some of Ksenia’s cousin’s sour cream for breakfast. Maybe it was the 8 hour train ride to Novosokolniki from St. Petersburg, maybe it was the vodka that I should have drunken but didn’t, in any event my head is over the toilet bowl and I am puking to my heart’s content.

It will be a fun ride back on the night train and probably a great flight to Mumbai via Moscow and Delhi. Novosokolniki has a fantastically blue painted big Lenin statue on its main square and, at least here, one is tempted to believe it when people say (which they do) that since Perestroika everything is in ruins. Who knows? What I am noticing the most in my few days in Russia, both here and in St. Petersburg, that people are actually seriously proud of being alcoholics. A 10:00am can of beer and an afternoon bottle of vodka seems to be nothing to write home about.

People are extremely friendly around here and St. Petersburg looks beautiful, especially with the sun not going down untill 11:30pm or so. Still, I am pretty anxious to get on that Aeroflot to India, especially now that my stomach has received a blessing of sorts.

Mumbai Traffic