Naresh-ji was unhappy. 3 o’clock in the morning was too early. We had booked his cab for early drops earlier. But they were all around dawn. To Naresh-ji 4 a.m. was acceptable, but 3 was night. I explained that leaving at such an ungodly hour is not our idea of fun. He relented. So we left exactly at 3 a.m. on a day that we knew would be long.
Statutory warning: this will be a long post about transit.
Travelling is not only about a destination; those who love to travel, love to travel. We are in such hurry to reach that we forget that the way is also full of wonders.
Kolkata airport becomes ultra congested in the wee hours. And it took us half-an-hour to finally reach the counter. This young boy, Kazi, was an international travel virgin. He became uber excited. He wanted our passports. Then he wanted the visa. I explained that the visa is usually found within the passport. Then he wanted to see hotel bookings (not one immigration officer in India, Hungary or Romania had bothered about hotels). I somehow resisted the urge to tell him “jab miya bibi razi to kya karega kazi” (shoddy translation: “When there is agreement between husband and wife, the priest cannot create any strife”). He finally gave us three sets of boarding passes for the three consecutive flights.
In Delhi we had to change terminals, which is a thirty minute bus ride. But we reached on time. The international flight, six hours this time, was as uncomfortable as the domestic one. Indigo international has the same ultra tight cabins even in the international sector. I kept telling myself you can’t have both comfort and cheap tickets.
Then we landed in Istanbul. That airport in Istanbul is enormous. First of all, the plane has to taxi for ages before your feet find land. After that you have to walk miles to reach any point of convergence. And if you are changing planes then you have to walk all those miles again.
The airport is quite like a shopping mall.
A bit of coffee later we reached the designated gate (roughly 3 miles). Soon we found out that those Kazi issued boarding passes were invalid. The Turkish Airlines crew were very sweet and issued new boarding passes. The plane (Turkish is also inexpensive) was quite nice with comfy seats and handsome legspace. They served good complimentary food: turkey sandwich, chicken salad and a brilliant little cake. We chose Coke from a bevy of beverages.
Budapest immigration was incredible. The lady just took our passports and stamped them.
From Budapest we went to Cluj-Napoca by train. From Budapest Keleti Station we took the 143 Transylvania.
One elderly Hungarian couple was in possession of our two window seats. After a lot of gesticulating they stayed firmly where they were. Then the lady had a moment of epiphany and gave us one window seat.
I was wondering about immigration. We had Schengen visas, but Romania is not a Schengen country yet. My travel agent assured me they honour such visas for short stays (as did the Romanian immigration website) but the recent Cox & Kings debacle made me insecure. So I sought out the ticket inspector.
He turned out to be a man with zero English. My frantic dumb charades worked unlike a charm. Border became restaurant to him. Immigration meant nothing. Then I held up my right hand and said Hungary, my left hand became Romania. I asked where is the between (no smuttiness please). He brought out his phone and showed me a place. My next question was what was the process. Imagine the physical effort! After five minutes of performance he had this eureka moment and said “polizia”. I nodded in joy. He showed me the door and pretended to come in. I understood.
It was a station called Biharkeresztes where three or four uniformed men appeared. They took our passports, went near the gate and came back promptly. One asked “India?” I meekly said yes. That was that. We were extremely relieved. The train started. We opened a box of biscuits. Before one biscuit was eaten the train stopped again. The station was supposed to be Episcopia Bihor, on the Romanian side. But there was only a faint light imagining a building! Otherwise it was pitch-dark.
Then one man of sinister appearance appeared and started checking papers. He took our passports. Thought for a moment, then said “10 minutes”. And he disappeared in the darkness.
How long can you hold your breath? In a foreign land money or bookings or academic contacts do not mean anything. Without passports you are completely vulnerable. Your passport is not merely your identity, it is your existence. In India it may not prove that you are Indian, but to the outside world it still makes sense. So Jaya and I did not breathe. We tried to look outside and read the darkness. After eight eternally long minutes he came back and gave us our passports. I hurriedly looked. All was well. I thanked the man and breathed. The rest of the journey was very quiet. What we felt was a crippling relief; that all passion spent kind of thing.
The other two train rides were very pleasant. Thankfully we had seats booked, for Romanian trains are small and very crowded.
From Cluj to Braşov we were in a five-seater cubicle. The co-passengers were three students of Babeș-Bolyai. None of them belonged to my discipline. One had Math, so Jaya was happy. Five of us had a great time. They had a lot of questions regarding India and specifically about Indian weddings. We shared food. When I write “shared” I mean they gave us wonderful amounts of sandwiches, breads and apples (all homemade and home-grown) and we gave them muffins we had bought from Panemar. They were surprised to find education could be expensive, as education is mostly free in Romania.
They left us at Sighisoara. We made three friends that day. A Japanese tourist came in their place and slept most of the way.
From Braşov the train was a two compartment one which took us through the stunning Carpathian Mountains.
It soon got extremely crowded; in fact young people were sitting on the floor. A small family was sitting with me. The mother kept talking to her quiet (who looked like a footballer) husband and her shy young daughter hid behind a Michael Jackson biography. Then some extra checking happened and she explained to me what was happening. And till Bucharest she kept speaking. She was a wonderfully simple person. Her questions were mostly about Hindi cinema. Her favourite is the Khan who has a Romanian friend. If you are a Khan specialist you will understand which one. What I found particularly interesting was this lady in leather and loud lipstick had gone to see Ek Phool Do Mali when she was courting her husband. She confided that she has never been on a plane, that they don’t own a car and they couldn’t go to Peleş Castle as it was too expensive. They were from Constanţa and had come to Sinaia to celebrate their daughter’s birthday. And since the daughter was very much into Michael Jackson they had showered her with MJ related gifts. The lady whispered to me that “There are more such surprises for her at home”. I wished the young lady. She was totally embarrassed. Our parting at Bucharest was very genial.
I had been forewarned that Bucharest taxi drivers are equal to their Indian counterparts. So I asked beforehand how much the fare to the airport might be. This man, looking like the chief henchman of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, said 70 Lei. Exactly what my Braşov friends had predicted. We had no time in Bucharest, so that ride was all the sightseeing we were getting. The driver took us through what looked like the dingiest parts of Uttar Pradesh. Finally we reached the airport and the meter said 80 Lei. As expected, the driver had no change. With a splendid show of apology he accepted the 100 Lei note.
Apart from a strong smell of kerosene the Tarom flight to Budapest was unremarkable.
It was the journey back home that again gave us a bit of excitement.
After the delight that is Turkish airlines, we came to Istanbul. We were supposed to get new boarding passes. There was a slip of a girl who got so nervous at my questions, she gave me information I could make no sense of!
I love the science of signs and I started following the sign that said “Transfers”, but after four miles I thought I should ask for help. I managed to find one young man who had a nametag announcing his officialdom. He assured me that all I should do is to wait for the boards to announce the gate number and report there. Thus instructed we sat and enjoyed a magnificent sunset.
After the sun disappeared, my faith in that nametag also began to disappear. I have travelled much and this, my gut said, wasn’t quite correct. So I went to a small duty free outlet (Istanbul airport has many) and asked. The lad pointed me to an older man who told me to walk to the end of the corridor (about 2 miles) and visit the Turkish Airlines office. I found it after some missteps. They told me we have to get to the Çelebi transfer counter where we will find Indigo. After several miles of walking we found the counter. Time was no longer on our side. Indigo had a very delicate presence and after much suspense we found our new boarding passes. There was just enough time to get a couple of gifts from the smaller shops.
By the time we reached our designated gate boarding was almost complete. Don’t forget we had miles to go before we boarded! We were quite elated to get back on the comfortless Indigo aircraft. But thanks to all the miles we managed to get some sleep! It is always good to go miles before you sleep. Otherwise life gets wearisome.
Earlier Posts: 1. Old Lucknow 2. Colonial Lucknow 3. Going Downhill - Versey to Dentam 4. Going to Garhwal 5. The Walkers 6. Palamau 7. Rishikesh 8. Kolkata Kolkata 9. The Roar of the Clouds - Santiniketan 10. Of Pests and Men - Uttarey 11. Where Hikers Fear to Tread - Rudranath 12. Old Times 13. History in Ruins - Pushpagiri 14. Once There was a Heaven 15. Serenity 16. Pilgrim's Progress - Kedarnath 17. Unfinished - Gaumukh 18. Ghatshila 19. Nothing Important 20. Manu's Alaya - Manali 21. Santiniketan 22. Little Lhasa - Dharamshala 23. From Varuna to Assi - Varanasi 24. Tunganath 25. Transitory Blues 26. Gurudongmar 27. The Beginning 28. Yumesamdong 29. Bangali in Bangkok 30. Mukutmanipur 31. Rasvanti 32. The Old Town and the Sea 33. Budapest 34. The Last Post of 2019