Arriving in India: First Weeks in Pune [en]

Bombay domestic airport; July 20, two hours to wait

Before India

Start of my troubles: Saturday, just a day before leaving, a wicked cash machine swallowed up my VISA card. Impossible to confirm my hotel reservation in Bombay. Travel to Paris and pick-up for the night goes smoothly. Still no news from my hotel, that I had informed of my VISA troubles…

Next morning, before departure, last e-mail check: no success. While writing down the phone and e-mail address of the hotel, I notice a link on the Internet page: a “traveller’s notice” about my hotel.

Click of the mouse, and I learn about confirmed reservations that ended up in no airport pick-up and a full hotel, and e-mail reservations unheard of at the reception desk… “Well, I had better consider I have no hotel reservation!”

I just managed to catch a chat friend on the Internet who gave me one of his friend’s phone number in Bombay – just in case everything else failed.

Arrival in Bombay

Take off was a little late, and a very sweet Bombay-bred and New York-married girl was my seat neighbour. She gave me her number to write down too and a few tips about the town.

Safe flight, safe landing, hunt for luggage. The zip of my suitcase had burst open in one corner – hope I didn’t lose anything vital! – not to mention the broken pull-handle and the missing strap.

I did quite well until I got out of the customs (that must have added up to about 30 metres), and then a member of the airport staff simply jumped at me and proceeded to drag me to a hotel reservation counter. I tried to brush him off and finally realized he was probably more official than what I had thought at first.

My hotel was not on their “tourist recommendation” list, had “no style” and was a rather “hanky panky place” (sic). Adding this to the fact that my flight neighbour had already told me Juhu was not a nice area… Gosh. Hesitation. What should I do? In the meantime, a member of the airport staff comes back saying there actually is a guy from the hotel waiting for me. Even though the plane is an hour and a half late!

I am impressed by the efficiency of my e-mail reservation and embarrassed by the thought of cancelling it. I’m quite certain I don’t want to go to that hotel anymore, but after all the fuss I made by e-mail to maintain my reservation, I feel quite bad. Finally I decided that putting my safety possibly at risk for a question of politeness would be a bit silly.

The official tourist-helper was nice and indeed helpful – and obviously he didn’t seem to be after an oversized tip; he just wanted to give me his phone number for the next time I passed through Bombay ; ).

He packed me into a (free) van heading for the hotel they had chosen for me – same range of prices as what I was ready to pay. First whiff of Bombay night-air and honking traffic – awesome.

Hotel in Bombay

The guy in charge at the hotel was helpful too. Arrangement was made to care for my ticket to Pune, with free shuttle to the domestic airport.

Air-conditioned and mosquito-free room. Deafening sound of the fan and the “fridge” (I mean the air-conditioning device). Old and a bit scruffy by my standards (nothing awful) but seemingly clean (I decided all the same to use my sleeping-bag instead of the freshly pressed but non too white bedsheets).

I tried to compose myself a little, had a shower and proceeded to spray myself with mosquito repellent (fun, I hadn’t turned off the fan…). There were quite a few flies in the room and I couldn’t be sure one of them wasn’t a malaria-carrying mosquito. I must say my brain wasn’t functioning too well at that moment – so I decided to apply “health-rules” blindly (I started by brushing my teeth with tap-water – strictly forbidden!).

After having turned off the fan, the air-conditioning and the TV, there was relative silence. Continuous buzzing from somewhere in the building (too loud to be called a hum) and traffic noise unheard of in Europe (especially at 2 a.m.).

Gosh, it was so hot in that room. I had felt the heat on the journey to the hotel (27 C had said the airport) but it hadn’t bothered me too much as I had been rather cold on the plane. But trying to go to sleep, I did find it a little disappointing to feel hot and sticky only minutes after my shower. At least I was clean.

Sleep at last, one middle-of-night wake-up (“Damn! I wish it were morning!”).

I got out of bed around 7 a.m. without having the slightest idea what time it was. With the jet lag and without a watch, it could have been 11 a.m. for all I knew.

Busy streets.

I waited through the morning with breakfast, TV, shower; I sorted my papers and tried to learn how to use my camera. I remembered to take a snap of the room – for history, my first Indian night. By midday I had my plane ticket just about sorted out (including the trip to the airport) – of course, nothing had gone exactly as expected.

To the domestic airport – about tips

After dinner, another helpful guy put me in a car with one of the hotel staff.

The man who had carried my suitcase asked for his tip. First time. I had tipped the hotel boys once or twice rather awkwardly (to tip or not to tip, and how much?). I had a vague idea that a tip for these circumstances should be something like Rs. 5-10, and I could choose between Rs. 10, 50 and 100 banknotes. I had this impression that I had been systematically tipping the wrong people. Guess I’ll learn more about it as time goes by : ).

Travel agent. Now that I have seen the desk at the entrance of the airport where you can buy tickets, I’m not so sure why I had to go through a travel agent. Especially as it took 45 minutes instead of the five or ten scheduled.

The hotel guy was nice and friendly until he dropped me in front of the airport and asked for his tip. Two porters had already rushed up to us and looked almost ready to run off with my luggage. I fished a note out of my pocket for the driver – Rs. 10.

Enough? Not enough? I had already paid the hotel Rs. 150 for a trip which was supposed to be free at the start.

When he saw the banknote the driver became somewhat aggressive. That was not enough! He had waited one hour for me! (as if it was my fault the ticket guy was slow – *he* was the one who had been doing the negotiating).

He wanted Rs. 100. That sounded a bit exaggerated even to inexperienced me. Without taking into consideration it would have freed me of just about all my remaining local cash. As I protested he went down to Rs. 50 (the porters had sided with him). Anxious to get into the airport as fast as possible and get rid of him and the porters who were fluttering about my suitcase, I fished out enough notes from my purse – porters peering into it at the same time. Sensing what was about to follow I told the porters I could push my trolley alone. As they insisted more than I did I finally found myself in front of the ticket counter without having won back my luggage.

The airport employee at the counter told me to go inside to check in – and for that trip I was firmly decided not to accept any help. The porters charged in again but that time I won the battle – with a little help of a lady behind the counter who shooed them off.

All that got me rather annoyed. I had never seen anybody insist so much when you have already said no half a dozen times, and I do get irritated quite easily when I am stressed and have had little sleep.

I hadn’t got ten metres into the airport that it started again. Another porter approached me. “No thank you! I can do it myself!” Oooh… but he was official – airport employee – I saw his badge. OK, OK. Let him do his work *prepared to give him a reasonable tip – by my standards*.

Check-in. But there he was again! I was supposed to put my hand-luggage in his trolley. No way! I like doing things myself. “Little money, little money…” Oh OK, he wants his tip. I fished out Rs. 20 (that I mistook for Rs. 10!) just when he was telling me something about 10 DOLLARS!

He got away with Rs. 30 – and I felt all of a sudden very grumpy about Indian helpfulness in hotels and airports…

Pune; July 22

Arrival in Pune

The flight to Pune went OK. It felt good to find myself in a familiar environment again (the clean airplane). Radha, my contact in Pune, was there to pick me up and greet me in her home. After Bombay, Pune was cool, less crowded, cleaner.

I took a little rest and then a shower (a “bath”, as it is called in India). She lent me some Indian clothes so I could change.

We went to one of her friends’ for an “international supper” – it was very nice. Food was delicious.

The next day we went to buy me some clothes – beautiful and incredibly cheap for me, of course (and it was the sales, half-price!). A rickshawallah got us lost in town – he didn’t know the way but had taken us because he had heard us talk French, according to my host. I noticed she seemed to have to argue a lot (at the shop, with the rickshawallah) – and that seems normal in India.

We had another nice meal at her home (that I ate with my fingers). In the afternoon, we went to visit the place she had found for me to stay in. A bit out of town (in Aundh), near the university. Calm and green. Enormous. And very posh by my European standards – almost too much.

I’m starting to feel more at ease – at least with my host’s family. I haven’t ventured out alone yet, and it does scare me a little. The simple thought of taking a rickshaw alone is surreal – and I’m really not a scaredy-cat at home.

Sick : (

In the evening we went out to eat. I had already been quite bold with my health by eating salad and brushing my teeth with the tap-water, so I was starting to feel a bit (too) confident. I ordered a lassi. Drank some – it tasted strange. Must be the yogurt. All the same, I didn’t finish it.

We got back home and about an hour later I started feeling sick.

I went to bed hoping I would wake up the next morning feeling better, but instead I woke up at 3 a.m., sicker than I had ever been in my whole life. One hour and a few painful moments later I went back to sleep.

I didn’t feel very well the next morning, but tried to nibble and drink some tea. Bad idea. A couple of hours later I was sick again. I decided to go for a straight fast. I slept just about all day, and in the evening felt thirsty enough to drink a little.

The next morning I felt quite well, and hungry. I ate some toast and my temperature dropped.

This episode put me off masala dosa (the main thing I had eaten that evening) for nearly six months…

Pune; August 1


After having been sick, I was bundled off to the pay-guest place Radha had found for me. Nice at first, it soon became unbearable. It seemed impossible for me to do things the right way. The climax was when I found myself waiting two hours in front of the gate because I had come back early and the old lady still hadn’t given me the keys to the house.

It seems a couple of things had disturbed her. One of them was the fact I hadn’t yet paid her (even though money didn’t seem to be an important question at all when we discussed my accommodation). And I think she didn’t approve of the way I was coping with getting inserted into my new Indian life (God knows why).

In any case, she “suggested” that maybe I should look for another place after my trip to Rishikesh. And seemingly she had already done a bit or phoning and organizing behind my back to make it possible.

I didn’t need more than that to decide that I was about to spend my last night in her custody, and I found a hotel the very next day.

Nevertheless, during my short stay there I had managed to get myself finally into town. I registered at the Police Commissioner’s office (exhausting experience, including running all over town to have photographs and multiple Xerox copies made of all sorts of documents, getting a bona fide certificate from my university and taking a blood test for AIDS). I did some shopping. I took a rickshaw – more than one, in fact! I got acquainted with the university catering and library.

I was helped a lot in all this by Mithun, one of my Internet contacts and by Madhav, the boy who was staying as a pay-guest at the same place as me.

Pune; August 7

Living at the hotel

The hotel I moved into was quite nice, and people there were friendly and helpful. But I knew that I could get better for the same price. Unfortunately, the hotel I wanted to go to could not tell me for certain if they would have a room for me.

I phoned and dropped in there for about four or five days in a row, each time hoping I would get a chance to move in. Finally I asked Madhav to go and enquire, and miraculously I was told I could have a room two days later. But until the last moment I was expecting things to go wrong.

I went into town a bit more. I must say I found the Deccan area very pleasant to be in. I ate out. Met a couple of Internet contacts. I visited a few libraries and found my heart’s content (or the nearest I could get to!) at Deccan College.

I also met a Japanese student from England, and it was a great relief to be able to share my feelings with somebody who had lived in the same world as me. Of course my Indian friends had all been very understanding, but I guess that you cannot really understand how distressing India can be for a foreigner if you are not a foreigner yourself.


On Sunday I went out for a trek to Sinhagad with a group of Law College students, friends of Madhav.

It started with an hour’s waiting at the bus station (I’m getting used to waiting in India!) and then a forty-five minute bus ride. It was like being on a roller coaster! I also enjoyed feeling the usual excitement of going out on a field trip. I was slowly starting to enjoy being in India, and was happy to find myself in a known environment: a group of boys and girls going out together on a trek.

This was my first expedition out of town in India. I found it so beautiful!

The bus dropped us in a little village at the foot of the big hump we were going to climb. It was steep and we climbed with hardly any pause. I have heard Indians joking about stressed Europeans before, but there it was roles reversed. I almost thought we were going to run up the whole way! It rained quite a lot while we were going up, and I couldn’t make up my mind whether to keep my jacket on or off. ; )

We passed an old fort and stopped in a little place where we could get something to eat. Tea and delicious pakoras. I must say I was starving.

It was really quite delightful to feel part of a group of people my age. But little by little I had to come down from my pink cloud. Although everyone was being very friendly and accepting with me, there *were* differences in the way people interacted with each other. I was not at home. Gradually I started to feel uneasy. I had probably been less wary and had been caught by the culture shock unexpecting.

But that didn’t prevent me from having a really refreshing day.

After the snack we proceeded to the top. It was amazing. The place was one of the windiest I had ever encountered. What was particularly impressing was that the wind was vey local. You could find a calm spot but a couple metres away be nearly blown off your feet. A little stream dropped off down a cliff creating a little waterfall. If you stood next to the stream, the water from the waterfall would be blown back into your face – a free shower. Unfortunately we were in the clouds, so there was not much to see. Only to feel.

We had lunch on the way down at the same place. I thought I would break my neck going down, it was so steep and I was starting to be really tired. So I just played safe and walked extra carefully, tiring myself out a little more. It is much more demanding to walk without taking risks than simply running down!


One of the things I had wanted to get done for days was find a place to do some judo. This trek had drawn my attention to how much I needed physical activity to really settle down in my Indian life.

I had an address and went to enquire. In five minutes I discovered I was a judo expert from Switzerland looking for somewhere to teach. I was nevertheless shown a place where I would be able to train.

First surprise: women were accepted. Second surprise: the class was actually mixed. Third surprise: the majority of people there trained every day.

Before I actually managed to free myself, I was shown the whole PE centre (or was I the one being shown around?). The manager seemed very keen on my contacting him as soon as I had a moment – I’m not sure exactly why.

Back at my hotel, I decided to try out the gym mats that were used as tatamis as soon as possible

So, the very next day, training. That was tough. After more than a month without judo I was really out of practice. And as I expected, the training was rather rough compared to the kind of judo I am used to, and not very technical.

For me the worst part was having to go without a shower after training. I guess I’ll get used to it : ) – in fact, there is no changing room; the boys change in the dojo itself and the girls have a kind of closet on a balcony…

Delhi; August 19

A normal week

Before leaving for Delhi I spent a rather “normal” week.

I ate at Mithun’s place and got to know his sister and family. I went shopping. I ate out in various places with various people. I thought I had found a flat – but it just slipped away. I spent a lot of hours arranging my web site – mainly to keep myself occupied: I had just learnt that my cat had died and was feeling a little depressed about it. I jumped on the occasion to start learning HTML and think a little about web designing (which by the way decided me to think my site all over again…). I had a stomach upset followed by a couple of digestively painful days. And – for a change! – I waited.

Just before taking the train to Delhi, I had to get some papers and medicine out of my safe. Unfortunately, the bank was closed (national holiday!), and I had to leave without them…