Saturday, September 25, 2010


Over the years I’ve found I have a frightening affinity with snakes. I never go out of my way to find them but they have a penchant for finding me. 

From Australia’s outback to India’s suburbia snakes of all sizes have at times appeared out of the blue making my blood run cold and my mouth suddenly go dry.

 Agra was one memorable occasion.  Teenage daughter Jenny and I were on a bonding trip through India; the Taj Mahal was the next on our list of must see places and we duly booked into a small rundown hotel that still basked in its forty year fame of having once sheltered England’s then Princess Elizabeth.

I do hope Queenie slept on a more comfortable bed than we did and had a better choice of culinary delights. When I spotted tomato soup on the menu I thought I was on a winner.  My tummy had suffered badly on the trip thus far and desperately needed simple comfort food. Any thought of that was dispelled however when the waitress heated water in a jug, squirted half a bottle of tomato sauce in a bowl and then mixed it all in a concoction that set my nerves on end and my taste buds gagging.

Despite the heat we decided to walk to the gates of the Taj.  As we drew near we sauntered through roadside stalls offering bits and bobs their vendors hoped would catch this tourist’s eye.

It’s not a good idea to walk around India with your eyes cast down; you really need to look ahead, size up the oncoming attractions so to speak.   If I had I wouldn’t have reached down to admire a basket and then recoiled into the gathering crowd as a decidedly sleepy cobra obeying his master’s warbling on a flute emerged into my face with a hypnotic swaying gait.

The surrounding locals all thought it a huge joke.

I must be a slow learner because on a later occasion in Bombay, which now we must call Mumbai, the same thing happened in the market place across from the Taj Palace Hotel.  I’ll never learn.

Daughter Jenny had an interesting experience in the hair dressing salon of the gloriously upmarket Taj.  I hasten to add we were not resident there, just utilising their loos and other amenities.  Some weeks into our tour of the sub continent we both needed a trim and shampoo.  My daughter has masses of natural curls that sometimes she wished were not quite so curly.

On this occasion she enjoyed the shampoo, raised her eyebrows when the hair dryer turned out to be a vacuum cleaner on reverse cycle, and then glared at the mirror as she emerged with straighter than straight locks hanging dispiritedly around her pretty face.

I’ve never seen a girl move so quickly in the direction of the ladies loo,  turn the basin tap on full and douse her head under the resulting stream of cold water.  What a waste of money that hair-do was.

Bombay too was the site of my second run in with a rogue Customs officer, though to be fair the first occasion was no more than a love sick movie fan.  So desperate was he for his letter to be delivered as quickly as possible from Madras to the Singapore equivalent of Bollywood he allowed himself a wee bit of innocent blackmail.  If he could get us on the very next plane out of India we would see his letter reached the movie star of his dreams.  He did and we obliged.

The Bombay man though was a different kettle of fish.

Over the years I’ve conducted a love hate relationship with India.  I’ve made several trips there, some lasting no more than a touchdown in the international terminal of Delhi followed by a short stroll to the domestic booking office, a long wait in a queue with staff looking beyond me and thru me but never making eye contact with me, a quick furious return to the international section and an immediate booking on the first flight out to anywhere. Fortunately the majority of my visits were utterly delightful and completely cancelled out the rage of those few lemons.

This time I was queuing to board a plane for home after a few weeks alone in Kashmir. 

The line was moving slowly and as I glanced ahead I could see several confrontations taking place.  Men and women were at various times leaving the queue, racing across to the duty free store opposite, returning with a paper bag wrapped object, exchanging quiet words with the customs man who then popped the bag into a stainless steel type rubbish bin beside him while the passenger progressed into the departure lounge.

Eventually it was my turn to be processed.  The customs man looked at my carry-on luggage murmuring with an accompanying head wobble that I would not be allowed to take so much on board.  He went on to say he was a reasonable man and perhaps a bottle of whiskey might change his mind.  I didn’t have to say a word; just nudged the rubbish bin with my foot, smiled sweetly and walked through.

Though I hadn’t personally come across airport bribery in  other countries, a recent 2009 news story shouldn’t have surprised me.

Pocketless pants to combat airport bribery
Nepal's anti-corruption authority has come up with a novel solution to rampant bribe-taking at the country's only international airport - the pocket less trouser.

The authority said it was issuing the new, bribe-proof garment to all airport officials after uncovering widespread corruption at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport.

"We sent a team to observe the growing complaints about the behaviour of airport authorities and workers towards travellers and we discovered that the reports were true," stated a spokesman for the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. "So we decided that airport officials should be given trousers with no pockets. We have directed the ministry of civil aviation to implement our order as soon as possible," he said. "We believe this will help curb the irregularities."

I doubt it; I keep remembering an old cliché, ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’; a handy rubbish bin for instance.
©Robyn Mortimer 2010