troubled times. a struggle with indian bureaucracy and corruption

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facing the vicious goats of pakistan

When people ask me my favourite country I cannot answer. How can anyone, having spent half of their adult life moving between lands, choose just one as their favourite? Asia though is my favourite continent and I love buddhist countries for the mild, forgiving, and accepting nature of the people. Thailand is a country that I am always returning to as it is developed and civilised in nature. It is a travel hub and a place where things can be achieved.

I love Lao, I simply love being there and if I were really pushed for a favourite land then I suspect that I would say Lao. I always look forward to Vietnam. The first time I visited, many years since, I vowed never to return. But by god what a different Vietnam I now know; a fine beautiful land, lovely folks and some wonderful friends, especially a good friend of my grandson.

China, wow. I don’t know where to begin with China. some times uber modern, some times deep in the past. Nature pure and fresh and clean as the driven snow contrast areas so blighted by pollution they make Dante’s most disturbed visions look tame. Camping alone in the Himalayas, living in Beijing. China has afforded me many special memories and it has been a thorough privilege to have such an insight and understanding of this land that is often misunderstood in the Western world.

For adventure, real wilderness adventure, the Andes between Chilli and Argentina reign supreme for me. For the lone adventure cyclist this remote high altitude environment stimulates an emotion that very few these days will ever experience; the essence of our most basic instinct, survival. Combine this with the warmth and passion of the Argentine people along with a charismatic old world Southern European atmosphere and great wine at a euro a bottle and Argentina will always be a winner for me. At the other end of South America is Colombia, an absolutely wonderful country for cycling populated by a wonderfully polite and friendly people for whom cycling is the national sport. As a bonus it boasts the most courteous lorry drivers I have ever encountered. (Canadian truckers are, incidentally, the worst).

And of course, I cannot finish the list without mentioning the wonderful people of Iran and the real ale of the United Kingdom.

I used to answer in a more straightforward manner. Back in the days when I thought I had travelled and knew the world I would simply reply, “India”. India was my favourite country. India is a kaleidoscope of emotions. It is vibrant and colourful, it is mysterious, it is the home of spirituality. India assaults the senses and is a roller coaster of emotions. And then you have had enough.

Some first timers apparently, and I quite believe this, emerge from the airport, recoil in horror, return to the sanctuary of the airport and buy the first ticket they can to anywhere other than where they are. Those that stick it out become fascinated and drawn into the mysteries of Hinduism and yoga. Some become infatuated with the vibrant colours, the teaming humanity, the crumbling architecture. Others adore, really adore, the history and culture. But sooner or later, generally sooner, all have to escape.

For most India grows slowly like a canker eating uglily away beneath the surface of the soul until one day a catalyst causes an emotional eruption of all that has scared the inner being; an eruption that overflows quickly and is slow to heal

What follows is from when I considered myself an old hand in India. I was back on the Sub-Continent as part of an overland journey by motorcycle that began, not with the usual massive send off party that most over-landers have, but the words “take care, have a lovely time” as my mum waved me goodbye from the front of her house in Oxfordshire. The journey finished at Port Klang Malaysia.

This story was preserved by what was at the time a wonderful new and mysterious medium known as email, and is brought to you complete and unabridged from the far reaches of cyberspace.

The photographs are some of the few I have of that journey. They are scans of a lovely old photographic medium called film. Ah, the nostalgia of it all.

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iran

[Before starting this tale I must briefly explain what a

carnet is. It is a document that allows temporary

import and export of a motor vehicle. The carnet is guaranteed

and needs stamping upon entry to a country and again

when leaving the country. So long as the carnet is

stamped when exiting the country then no import duty

needs to be paid. If not then the duty can be as much

as 150%. It is a simple and internationally recognised

document.]

Well, what a few days we have had. To say it has been

a trying week would, I feel, be a fair comment.

We arrived in Bombay on Sunday evening, checked into

what is for us an extortionately expensive hotel, and

called it a day.

Our mission in Bombay being to arrange a flight for us

and the bike to Bangkok, Thailand.

Flying is something that is against my travel

principles. After all you need not to fly to see that

the sky is blue the world over. Unfortunately things

aren’t always possible. So far as overland travel with

your own vehicle is concerned the road stops in India.

Both the Chinese and Burmese borders are closed to

overlanders, so, what options are left? Sea or air.

As we have to cheat anyway we may as well do it the

quick way and fly over Burma. This is a great shame as

we know from previous experience what a beautiful

country Burma is. And with the exception of the

authorities, what beautiful people populate the

land. Ah well, heigh-ho!

The following day, after an early breakfast we set of

to the air India cargo office. there we met a jolly

helpful chaps who told us that we could not book

direct through them but through an agent. To make life

easier they arranged an agent to help with the bike and a travel

agent to buy our personal tickets. So far so good.

Our agent was a Mister Sandeep.

We met Mr. Sandeep mid-morning on Monday,

and apart from the fact that he had

a rather unusual claw growing out of the first joint

of his index finger he seemed like a reasonable

fellow.

“Oh yes sir, this will not be a problem, we must make

a crate and deal with the formalities” he said with

the all important head wobble. Little did I realise at

the time that the word ‘formalities’ was soon to

become a word that I fear will cause me great distress

for the remainder of this life, and probably for

several lives still to come. Oh yes, and I did begin

to find the claw a little unsettling.

There next followed a series of complexed calculation

the likes of which I suspect would have had Albert

Einstein scratching his head, followed by a reasonable

fee to convey our steed from the Sub Continent to

Thailand.

The next step Mr. Sandeep informed us was to get our

selves on a flight for Friday. Now this seemed a

little more realistic than air India who told us to

book a flight for “tomorrow sir”. tomorrow? thought

we. Sounds highly unlikely, and so it was. So

following Mr. Sandeep’s instructions we jumped into the

nearest auto rickshaw and made our way post haste to

the travel agent. A mere 3 hours later and we were the

proud owners of 2 tickets to Thailand.

Tuesday morning we made our way to the office of The

Claw with the bike so that it could be measured for

the crate. Whilst we waited for the packer to arrive

Sandeep and his assistant commenced a process that

would continue for the following several days. That

process was to photo copy every piece of official

looking paper as many times as the planets tree

supplies could withstand. I feel that there is now no

way that I can comment on environmental issues with a

clear conscience. The office staff seemed to spend

most of there time replenishing the “Xerox machine’s”

ammunition. I feel that I am indirectly responsible

for a major ecological disaster.

Still, what to do?

The packer arrived, took measurements and told us, via

Sandeep, that the cost would be 3000 rupees. We

explained as politely as possible that he was clearly

a raving maniac and that he shouldn’t be so silly. He

dropped to 2000, still crazy but he wouldn’t drop any

lower and I feared that if Sandeep’s photo copying

carried on at the present rate there would soon be no

wood left with which to construct a crate. So a date

with the packer was set for the next day at noon.

In the meantime Sandeep had begun what was soon to

become a depressingly familiar routine of explaining

to any one who cared to listen what a carnet is, how

it works, and giving a blow by blow account of all the

borders we had crossed and how we did it on a “BMW,

BMW”. It appears that he was extremely proud to be

exporting a BMW. Unfortunately what was becoming

crystal clear was that no one in Bombay knew what a

carnet was. The only reason Sandeep did was because

Sam had spent an hour explaining it to him.

Seeing there was little else to do until the next day

we went home.

That evening the phone in our room rang, it was

Sandeep. “Oh dear, big problem, carnet no good, you

can not be leaving India”. Oh bloody hell, here we go!

So after a medicinal whiskey I hot footed it to his

office. As I said, no one knows anything about

carnets.

I will not relate the whole sorry tale that unfolded

over the following days. it really is just too long

winded. In brief, some how some one came up with the

idea that the carnet is a document for temporary

import for exhibition purposes only, and that we would

have to pay duty to take our own motor cycle out of

the country. The reality is that a; no one knows, b;

no one has the spine to apply the stamp and signature,

and c; nobody in India is interested in any thing

other than lining there own pockets, after all one

buys ones position as a government official simply so

that one can steel from any one and every one. In

India it is called Baksheesh. In Europe we call it

corruption, or theft.

We visited Mr. Singh who seemed to hold a great deal

of power. He at least got us somewhere, and didn’t

react too badly when Sam’s bracelet broke and her

beads all rolled under his desk. Mr. Singh said that

the only man in Bombay who understood carnets and

could sign them was Mr. Debahdee, we would have to

visit Mr. Debahdee. Sandeep didn’t look best impressed

with this. The reason for his unhappiness was that Mr.

Debahdee’s office was at the docks, 20kms away through

the middle of the madness that is Bombay traffic.

To get to the port took an hour, to gain access to the

port took another hour as several offices needed to be

visited simply to obtain a pass to get in. In side we

were met by more corrupt, ignorant officials and

agents who know nothing and care about nothing but

theft. That is until we met Mr. Debahdee. Mr. Debahdee

was very clued up about the whole situation and was in

the process of trying to do something about it. He

explained how it all worked. He need not have, we already knew

be we listened politely. Sandeep enquired about

photo copy’s,he seemed to be suffer withdrawal symptoms.

Debahdee told him that it was

unnecessary to make even one copy, but if he cared to

make a thousand copy’s then he would gladly sign and

stamp them. I felt sorry for the trees.

We left the port. Sandeep’s care broke down.

When we eventually got home we drank, lots. We needed to.

I gaze bleary eyed out of the window at the rising

sun. The one good point about the Bombay pollution is

that it creates some dramatic effects at sun rise and

sun set. Then I think of what lay ahead for another

day of madness. I refrain from whisky for breakfast.

We arrive at Sandeep’s to find the carpenter with the

most pathetic looking crate you ever did see. We

explain once again, as politely as possible, that in

Europe he would almost certainly be certified and sent

to live out the rest of his days in an institution.

Still, we needed a box, and soon, so Sam explained in

words and pictures what to do and amidst a flurry of

Hindi curses he set to.

Meanwhile Sandeep was trying to pave the way into the

customs hall. The tyres were deflated, the petrol

drained, and the battery disconnected. The bike went

into the ‘crate’, was tied down and the ‘sides’ and

‘top’ were all attached. We go into the office and

regardless of whatever language Sandeep was speaking

it was quite apparent that the words he was using were

not words one would consider suitable for use in front

of ones mother. There was a problem, of course.

“Well, what’s up?” I enquired. “Ohh dear dear”

exclaimed Sandeep, scratching the piece of loose skin

on his face with his claw. “Oh dear” his head was

wobbling quite alarmingly, “bike is too big, it now

goes by volume, not weight!” Over a certain volume a

theoretical weight is calculated and used instead of

the actual weight, this took us from 240 kg including

the ‘crate’, to 522 kg, thus doubling the price. “You

are of course joking?” “No sir!!” By now his head was

wobbling so much that I was fearful that it would

become detached from his shoulders. “That, that is it,

unpack the bike, get it out of that pathetic bloody

crate. we are going to Nepal!!” We had realised 2

days ago that we should have ridden to Nepal. I

reasoned that we could have been in Kathmandu in 6

days, that gave us plenty of time to get to Thailand

by the end of the month. Sandeep was desperately

thinking. “wait” he instructed, and dashed off. A while

later he returned having called in a favour, lined

pockets or whatever and we were on the flight for very

little extra.

in the meantime the bike was in the customs hall but

the paper work was not being signed. We have to pay

duty they said. We were mad by now. back to Mr.

Singh’s office. By now my patience was really being

tested to the limits. I have been calling upon the

teachings of The Dalai Lama and the Buddha over the

last few days, trying to understand why things are

happening as they are. why people are behaving in the

way they are, following my breath to concentrate my

mind. I really have been trying. but now I have to

give into my other side, the less pleasant and

understanding side, the side that wants to rip off

peoples arms and beat them around the head with the

soggy end. I hate every one of them. I can’t

understand them, they are beyond all rational

understanding, I hate them and begin to wish most

unpleasant fates upon them. (There was one that came

to mind, that involved a blunt gardening implement,

that I was particularly shocked by.) The Buddha is dropped, praise be to Vlad the Impaler.

Sandeep asked us to wait out side. We complied, he seemed

anxious that we should. Time passes and we realise

that the bike will not be going on Saturday. Then

Sandeep emerges looking a trifle flustered, but at the

same time triumphant. Praise be to Buddha, God, all the angels in heaven and Vlad the Impaler, Sandeep had the carnet, and it was

signed.

We all went to drink beer. Sandeep was a little

loathed to tell us what happened at first, but after a

drink he spilt the beans. the reason he didn’t want us

there was because the sight of white skin would have

doubled the baksheesh. (the size of the bribe). As it

was he had to pay 1500 rupees. The other side to being

white was the doors that opened due to our being

Europeans. The people we had spoken to would never

speak to Sandeep. By taking us to see them he gets

straight in to see the most important of men, or rather we do.

This whole operation would take around an hour at a

land border, it had taken us 4 days and aged me by an eternity.

As the plane took of we watched Bombay disappear. The

view of the pollution from the air is beyond belief.

At the height of the clouds is a flat line. above it

is beautiful clear blue sky, bellow, for as far as the

eye can see is a blanket of thick, grey, smog.

“Well thank god for that” said Sam, “we are away from

that place”. Not wishing to sound pessimistic, but

excepting that I was about to, I said, “oh no we’re

not. not yet”. Unfortunately I was right. We had a

stop over in Delhi.

As we sat on the plane waiting for

the Delhi passengers to disembark and the Bangkok

passengers to get on there came an announcement, all

onward passengers must disembark, with their luggage

to go through security again. We can only assume that

they suspected that someone may have crept on board as

we trundled along , 11 kms up in the air at a speed of

800kmh. Or was it the fact that security at Bombay was

not exactly tight. Oh they had plenty of checks all

right, but, for example when they looked at the x-ray

of Sam’s bag and said “you have a knife in there”. She

said, “no I don’t” and walked off. Security breached.

In Delhi The machine that goes ‘buzz’ when you walk

through it went ‘buzz’. A thorough search of my

pockets revealed a 5mm ball ended allen key. “What is

this being?”

“This is being an allen key”. “A what?” “It’s an allen

key, look you can see it’s an allen key, it is

allen key shaped”. He confiscated it. If it was sharp I

could understand it, but it has a round end, a pen is

more of a weapon. And what’s more the ‘meals’ on the

plane were served up with a metal knife and fork. Sam

insisted that we have our 5mm ball ended allen key

back, there was quite a curfe over it actually, and shortly it was returned.

When it was returned we saw other ‘dangerous goods’ that had been

confiscated, for example AA batteries. It used to be

pirates and highway men that robed passengers, now it

is Indian security and customs officials. If this all

sounds a little unfair then I except that criticism.

The thing is that we have witnessed it at every Indian

border we have crossed. And to be quite honest I

am sick of it.

Still that’s all behind us now. We did have some great

times in India. It’s just that enough is enough.

So, here we are in Bangkok. We got the bike yesterday.

It was a simple operation that went as smooth as Thai

silk. The people are all friendly. We can eat a meal

without 30 people standing around us staring. We don’t

spend the whole day going over the same conversation,

“What is your good name Sir? And what is you native

country? Are you married? Do you have children?” Or

“what is the market value of your two wheeler?” Joy.

So South East Asia lays before us. We will have a look

around Thailand, then Laos and Cambodia. I am looking

forward to going to Luang Prabang. I have always

thought that going to Luang Prabang on a motor bike

would be good, just because it sounds like the sort of

place that an adventurous person on a motor bike

should visit. Or more to the point, should have

visited. “where have you come from?” “Oh, Luang

Prabang”. See, sounds right doesn’t it?

Well enough of my ramblings for now. I hope that the

above doesn’t give too negative an idea of how things

are going. Things are going great, it’s just that the

last week has been beyond belief. Enough to make the

Dalai Lama take a human life.

PS. As I write this I have received an email from the

AA saying that the Indian customs have no record of my

bike leaving the country, they are trying to make a

claim on the carnet! Get my point?

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crossing the baluchistan dessert

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refuelling with smuggled fuel on the pakistan iran border

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high and cold in the indian himalaya

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cultures meet, lao

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fording a jungle river somewhere along the way

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