By Christiane von Linz
The call for adventure had echoed in my head as long as I can remember. In early grade school, when letters and numbers finally began making sense intriguing images of weather-beaten Bedouins, almond-eyed monks and a red dot gleaming between brown Indian eyes off Christian magazine pages had me fascinated with the foreign element. The first time I heard somebody mention India I was charmed. With all the strange traditions, countless Gods and colorful people she held my utmost attraction and was on the top of my things-to-do-list.
So finally in March 1982, after three months 24/7 under one roof with an Indian family in Mombasa, my older sister Elfi and I, both in our twenties, were heading east to the land of gurus and maharajas. Now at 33.000 feet on board an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 727 approaching the Indian shore my childhood dream was closer than ever to becoming a reality. I thought of my parents, the lush, green hills and snow covered Austrian mountaintops I had left behind when a dry, desolate coastline came into view below. None of our family had ever ventured this far. Strong crosswinds pounded the big bird on our final approach into Bombay's Santa Cruz International Airport. Out the small square shaped plane window an endless carpet of millions of sparkling lights seemed to unroll into the distance.
"I can't wait to get to the hotel," Elfi said, her head against one of the thin pillows, they hand you when you get on the plane.
"Me too. It's been a long two days," I said, scooting nervously to the edge of my upright chair. The constant shaking and unusual engine sounds drove up moisture under my armpits and a heavy heartbeat into my throat. Taking a deep breath I glanced at Elfi. Eyes closed, hands folded into her lap, she seemed the incarnation of peace. I felt like a thousand pounds had lifted off my chest when the heavy wheels met the concrete in a sea of flickering lights. An edgy feeling of fear and excitement rose and fell with my breath as the reality of finally being on Indian soil began settling in.
Once we had stepped off the plane we were on our own in this big vast land. In an arrival hall packed with people we fought our way to baggage claim. I had never seen so many people at one time. They seemed to pour out from every possible direction like smoke from a building on fire. Very soon we discovered pushing and shouting was the name of the game. None of the rules we had grown up with applied. At the baggage carousel we battled for our bags and watching over them like a hen over its chick, we finally fought our way out into the Indian air thick with a stale, foul smell, new sounds, and a breeze leaving traces of salt on my moist skin.
A long row of old fashioned looking white cars with illuminated "Taxi" signs mounted on top of their slightly rounded roofs lined up along a semi-circle curb. Its make, as I later learned, called the Ambassador, reminded me of the black taxis I used to ride during one London summer. Our blond heads had barely adjusted to the busy crowd when several dark-eyed, skinny men dashed towards us. Trying to grab what they could get their fast hands on, the commotion resembled a prizefight for some gold trophy. Probably the guitar case Elfi was carrying must have given them the false impression that we were some of those wealthy tourists streaming from the doors of roaring jumbo jets landing over their tilted heads under a smog polluted sky.
Already stretched to the limits barely managing the weight of my fifteen-pound suitcase and bulky hand luggage I quickly tighten my arm muscles and felt a dull pain against my leg when I pushed into the screaming throng. A firm grip on everything I owned, I took off in a fast, zealous trot, my sister following right behind. Now it's really stupid to walk at night under a foreign sky where you look like some strange alien, don't understand the language and don't really know what's around the corner. After all , well groomed, tall, blue-eyed and white we were not the usual backpack hippies in search of some Guru. But our looks were deceiving for in a sense we were hippies, free spirited, always open for adventure and taking risks. And that also meant to travel light. So in all the years we roamed the globe a map was something that was constantly missing from our list of things to bring. A street sign in this part of the world as I later learned was considered a luxury.
The increased shouting and fast steps advancing behind us scared the hell out of me. But when you are afraid, walking really helps to keep you sane even if you don't know where you're going. So when suddenly a taxi slowed to walking speed I yelled "Horizon Hotel, how much?" "Sixty Rupees," the driver in a white shirt yelled back, a heavy Indian accent floating off scratchy vocal chords sounding like someone with a terrible cold. "Forty," my sister yelled back and a bargaining shouting match erupted as we slowly resumed walking. But that wasn't such a good move after all. Like bees swirling around honey combs all of a sudden black heads and hands were popping out of nowhere trying to cling to us. 'Forty.' was still hanging in the air when Elfi and I pushed our way through to the taxi. "Forty, okay?" I shouted back at the man, arm dangling out the window. 'Fifty," he yelled back." Let's take it we've got to get out of here," Elfi pressed and waved her hand in a gesture that signaled to him we had accepted.
"Horizon Hotel," Elfi said again slowly, scanning him carefully.
"Hanji, hanji," he kept repeating several times, rocking his slick, bald head from side to side to the rhythm of his speech. He wore a plain white shirt, smoked stained teeth briefly showing between a quick smile.
"He says yes and he's got a good vibe," I said after the man's glance had met mine. So, when he hoisted the luggage with his bony arms into the trunk I was relieved that our long journey would soon be over for at least one short night.
Feeling light in more than one sense we took off. A brightly lit, well-paved boulevard put me at ease. After all, growing up in a social state where the government makes sure each person is taken care of, shocking front-page stories featuring India's dirt-poor beggars, mutilated children and clever crooks had me a bit worried. But nothing beyond the white rounded hood seemed to look promising enough for any of those horror tales to ever unfold. Even though thick sandalwood incense hit my nose and the worn seat was hard as a rock it wasn't as bad as the cold chair I sat in for 12 hours on the overnight bus from Mombasa to Nairobi, before flying to Addis Ababa almost a day ago. My bum was still soar from hitting the deep potholes driving through the pitch-dark African night. I can't imagine what we were thinking when we stepped on that bus. But then again, how did we end up in that taxi after all?
Visions of a soft, clean pillow soothing my weary head I had almost dozed off when a violent jerk propelled me back upright. I thought I was still caught in a bad dream when the once so promising streetlights had become dark shadows drifting like ghosts past the rolled down window. Honking motor scooter flashing headlights dashed across the road in front of us while bare bicycles and man powered rickshaws fought with their high pitched bells for a safe spot between wandering long horned cows and fast, barking dogs. 'Something doesn't feel right.' I remember saying, feeling pearls of sweat stand on my forehead.
"Horizon Hotel, this way?" Elfi suddenly threw a yelling question at the taxi driver.
"Juhu, Juhu" he yelled back, honking the car horn, fighting his way through a cluster of people. Not in all my time with our Indian friends had I ever heard such a word. Did he mean 'okay,' or 'maybe yes?' Was it one of those words only used in one particular area that's why I hadn't heard it before? I had once read that India had some hundred different dialects and languages. So, who knows what 'juhu' meant?
"We want Horizon Hotel," she said in an even louder tone.
"Juhu, Juhu," he kept on hammering.
"Horizon Hotel," Elfi yelled.
"Juhu, Juhu," our driver shouted. At that point my heart was racing and I began questioning why he hadn't made use of 'hanji' again since we had come on board. In order to assure us peace of mind he could have simply said 'hanji.' Then we'd known right away that we were going in the right direction. But with this whole new 'juhu' thing I wasn't so sure now we were. Only later I learned that these poor taxi drivers and millions of other Indians say and do anything to make a few rupees. They never think about anything else but how to feed their families.
Despite the warm night I noticed a cold chill up my spine. How could we be so stupid to put our trust in a single word uttered by some strange taxi driver hoping to maybe take us for a ride for some extra bucks? I cursed myself. I was quite sure remembering correctly from the travel agent the hotel being somewhere close to the beach. "Where the tourists go, " she'd said. But for sure the tourists weren't going on this dark, bouncy road through the slums. There must have been a better road. Or maybe the agent was lying too?
"We need to do something," I said, my mother's voice echoing in my head. If she'd known what I was looking at right now she'd probably have a heart attack and poor Fati, that's how we called our Dad, had to deal with it. Both my parents hadn't been that lucky to travel like we could. World War II was ragging when they were young adults and raising one boy and five girls during the 50's and 60's their hands were pretty much tied. The furthest Mutti, my mother, had ever ventured was across the Austrian border into Italy in 1972 when we as a family drove for the first time to Lignano, a popular beach town on the Northern shores of the Adriatic Sea. India, besides it's bad reputation in more ways than one a world away, had raised the red flag in her mind even long before there was any talk about Elfi and me wanting to go there. Fati on the other hand had his life changing travel experience as a soldier in the German army at the war front. Growing up in peaceful times I could of course never imagine how he suffered but over the years repeated dinner stories of frozen feet panting painful trails through thick snow in Russia's harsh Caucasus Mountains made me appreciate the things I took for granted.
"How could we be so stupid," I sighed, "It's all your fault. We should have waited."
"Waited for what?" Elfi puffed back.
"I hope we get out of this alive," I said looking back through the window. The paved lit up boulevard had all disappeared and stood in shocking contrast to the countless begging hands trying to reach through the window of the slow moving taxi. I shuddered to think of somebody trying to take advantage of our situation, and this mind-boggling sight of half naked children, limping men and crying women only amplified the onslaught of nightmarish tales I once had read in newspapers and magazines. With no light at the end of my black tunnel I felt I had fallen from God's grace into the devil's abode. Now the once so distant horror stories of unlucky women disappearing seemed closer than my own skin. I couldn't bear the thought of us being one of them.
The stench in the air floating through the open window told me there was no system of any kind of protection. You either lived or died. So, at the mercy of some deceitful Hindi speaking cabdriver who pretends he understands what you're saying chances were we were better off sticking with him. Because the next one you might get could even be worse than the first one. At least the taxi was fairly clean. And despite the broken window crank it was still our little bubble of safety, and together, Elfi and I could somehow manipulate the men if we ever had to. Just the thought of venturing out into the dust and dirt of Bombay's shantytown fearing for life dragging our bags almost turned my stomach upside down. That's what I was thinking as we bumped along dimly lit dilapidated cardboard houses, lines of naked children squatting around dim roadside fires, their eyes squinting at the oncoming headlights. Where would we go on a nameless road to nowhere? Who would we ask for directions without knowing the language? Who would we call for help with the next telephone probably miles away? And who would notice and inform our loved ones if we disappeared from the face of the earth?
Putting it all into perspective among the 900 million people beyond our car door we were like two tiny aunts going about their business. The thought of our insignificance made my throat even dryer.
On this deserted road down to hell the sudden head on appearance of a rickshaw almost ended my Indian adventure. A yanking steering wheel and squeaking brakes spun the car sideways and missed the fragile two-person carriage by a hair. A shouting and fist pointing war erupted and mirroring the outside action Elfi and I got close to putting a wall between us. Still on fire driving away from the battlefield I wondered if exploring this vast subcontinent was worth all the trouble.
A surprisingly humid breeze drifting through the warm car gave me a strange reassuring feeling.
"It feels like we're getting close to the sea," Elfi said. Faint lights in the distance painted the horizon a pale pink. The bouncing eased gradually and like dawn gives way to a bright morning the dark sky disappeared under the bright glow of tall modern streetlights.
"Madam, this juhu," the cab driver suddenly said a faint laugh echoing in the cozy night wind. Awed I stared at the multi storey concrete towers lining the road to my left now bustling with zooming cars. Pink, blue and green shimmering sign boards were flashing promising names like Taj Mahal Hotel, Ambassador Hotel, Emerald Hotel, Jewel Palace Hotel, and Holiday Inn above tall swaying palm crowns.
"There's our hotel!" Elfi grabbed my arm excited before she bounced back into her seat like a little girl.
I can't remember any other time in my life where I experienced such a relief, except when going to the bathroom after drinking two pints of water. Exhausted I felt tears well in my eyes. Tears that reminded me of my fears; tears that made me thankful for being back in the civilized world. I just couldn't believe it. After all, the driver knew where he was going. Putting aside the fact that he was carrying two blond women his day had probably been as ordinary as any other. But from our point of view we've had an adventure of a lifetime.
By the skin of my teeth I dragged myself up the stairs into the hotel lobby. I couldn't help but smile when a big sign jumped out at me. "Welcome to Hotel Horizon, Juhu Beach," it said.