Frequent travelling over decades made me a relaxed traveller unfazed by missing connections and customs. Anxiety coupled with a little terror was my inevitable companion during the initial years of my travel 36 years ago.
Wise travellers unlike ‘yours truly’ have invented words to describe complex emotions that invade a traveller’s mind. One European phrase makes so much sense that it is sure to become a global word. It is ‘Resfeber’,
‘Resfeber’ is a Swedish word and sounds like it reads in English with a little more pressure on ‘s’. Being one of the happiest nations on earth they are quick to identify mind games and came up with this word to refer to the mixed feelings of anxiety and excitement before the commencement of a journey. I used to be nervous as hell with constant anticipation of unknown doom. I would get this Resfeber fever a few hours before an international departure. But nothing compares to the intensity of Resfeber during my first two trips in 1983 and 1984.
International travel was a nightmare in the ’80s since the Indian government did not have enough foreign exchange reserves (it hit an all-time low in 1991 with barely enough to last for roughly three weeks of essential imports with foreign exchange reserves at less than a billion dollars compared to 400 Billion US$ today). Indian tourists travelling abroad were allowed to carry only one hundred US dollars (USD) for their expenses leaving it to the person going abroad to figure out a way.
My first trip out of India was in November 1983 to Europe to attend the three-day international plastic trade fair Kunchstoff ’83 at Dusseldorf along with a with a 15-day sightseeing tour of Europe. A travel agent in Mumbai specialised in group tours organised the entire 15-day trip. I was 25 and was eager to see the world, particularly Paris about which I had an almost delusional reverence.
After having decided to buy a new suitcase in Mumbai from where we were scheduled to depart for London, I packed all my clothes in a worn out kit bag since I would be throwing it away. I bought a brand new, Indian-made suitcase in Mumbai (Brand name withheld for fear of Libel) just before leaving for Sahara international airport to join my group members and catch my midnight flight to London. In those days, among the few branded Indian suitcases, the particular one that I bought was a moulded plastic suitcase considered to be light and very sturdy. It had two had wheels on one of its sides at the bottom to slide them along by pulling it through a plastic belt at the top of the suitcase. This flexible belt on the top of the bag with a rotating base was provided to slide along on its two rear wheels and had the conventional handle to raise it at such places where sliding was not possible.
I had been assured by one of one of my senior business partners that a currency broker by name Jain would give me USD 2,000 in Mumbai airport. After convincing me over the phone the previous day that he would meet me at the airport, he never turned up, and when I called him from the airport he told me that he could not arrange any amount and that I could get some foreign currency for rupees at the airport entrance through black marketers standing outside the airport. I had not carried any Indian money and not knowing what else to do; I left India with a mere 100 dollars with me.
With my mind nervous with an irrational and unknown impending travel obstacle, the intensity of ‘Resfeber’ in me was at its peak on that day in November 1983.
I pulled along my suitcase towards the check-in counter at the arrival hall in the chaotic Mumbai international departure hall amidst the mayhem and noise. Just as I approached the table and stopped, the suitcase suddenly twisted around all by itself as if it suddenly came alive and no longer wanted to board the plane. To my horror, the plastic belt to pull along the suitcase on its two wheels tore off from its punched base, and I was left holding a loose plastic band with one side attached to the bag. Now the only way to transfer the suitcase was to lift with the main handle and thankfully, it was not very heavy. The suitcase was checked in, and so was I along with the dozen or so members from our travel group equally nervous except for one or two.
In-flight service of the flight attendants in the British Airways flight with their indifferent faces and their irritation at passenger requests particularly to our group brought down my self-image a couple of notches lower. As soon as I arrived at Heathrow exit hall after standing in a two-hour-long line for immigration, I went searching for the baggage delivery area. The anxiety that pervades baggage delivery halls take even more cosmic proportions due to the combined tension of waiting for the Carousel to start moving and with concern if their suitcases would show up or not. Once the Carousel starts everyone rushes to the conveyor belt and start peeping over each others’ shoulders to sight their luggage. The next part of the adventure begins right after spotting their baggage. After a mighty sigh of relief, they then start retrieval of their heavy suitcase smuggling themselves in between the tightly lined up passengers bordering the conveyor belt with all their acrobatic and athletic skills. While I was in the last part of this expedition of lifting my suitcase from the belt, to my shock and utter despair the hinges securing the main handle gave way, and I was standing just with the handle in my hand with my suitcase sailing away on the Carousel, like a guillotined Cadaver. My brown and sweaty face turned reddish brown, and my mouth went dry evaporating the last trace of saliva, and a mild palpitation started that I could feel on my temples. I recovered somewhat after seeing my suitcase returning from its sojourn around the Carousel.
Imagine carrying a suitcase measuring two feet by two and a half feet, three-quarters of a foot deep without a handle by hugging it to your bosom as if you had somehow chanced upon a pot full of Gold which you hung on to like dear life with your arms wrapped around the whole damn thing? I carried the suitcase precisely like that for the next ten full days since I had no money to buy another bag. What a nightmare, every time I got off the bus to check in or check out of a hotel. It was hell. Trolleys were out of the question at Heathrow since they could be procured only by paying pennies, which I did not have.
Before exiting Heathrow, I ran to the nearest exchange counter and changed 100 US Dollars to Pounds and got about 40 pounds (Those days a British Pound was two and half US Dollars). I then bought a whole carton of John Players at Heathrow airport duty-free, paying eight ponds since loose packets were not available. I had less than 30 Pounds after my coffee.
We were scheduled to stay for three days in London and then take a ferry from Dover to Calais. A bus would carry the forty of us through Belgium, France, and then to Germany for the trade fair. Only breakfast was free. I had to manage my food and entry fees to all the attractions with the thirty and odd Pounds that I had. I would eat a substantial breakfast of rolls and boiled eggs since it was free, skip lunch and dinner and satisfy myself with John Player Special. With my Carton of 400 cigarettes, I had enough cigarettes to last a month.
By the time I reached Dusseldorf a week had passed thus. I still had an equivalent of 16 Pounds in my pocket. We would be staying at Koln, a beautiful city near Dusseldorf for a week for the trade fair. I changed all my Pounds to German Marks.
I got confirmation from my partner that someone from Paris would come over and pay me 900 French francs and also that he had arranged for the transfer of 5000 Deutsche marks to a German bank in Koln where I was staying. I went to the bank every day for the next three days without any news. After taking my free breakfast, I was starving for the rest of the day. I had just six marks and a few German coins. At last, on the fourth day, the man from Paris turned up. An elderly and respectable Tamilian he settled in Paris and reminded me of my father. He brought with him a Tiffin carrier full of spicy Indian food and 900 francs in cash. His chicken curry and rice tasted like heavenly food from the kitchen of Lord Krishna and the 900 Francs like my gate pass to Paradise. After seeing him off at the ‘Bahnhof’, I ran to the nearest mall and bought an extremely sturdy looking Delsey suitcase. This time I made sure the handle and the wheels were strong enough.
My second trip was in early 1984 to France to source certain critical aromatic specialities for our family incense business. There I was at my dream destination, Paris. Little did I know then that if there is one thing that Parisians hate more than bad Croissants with their coffees, it is talking to English-speaking tourists in Paris?
My Air France flight arrived in Charles-De-Gaulle at around noon, and I checked into a hotel called ‘hotel de le terrace’ near the maple area. This time around I carried US$ 6500 in Travellers Cheques. I ate lunch at the hotel restaurant and then slept for a few hours. In the evening, I felt like taking a walk and went to the reception to find out about local attractions. There was no one at the Reception or the Bell Desk, and I decided to explore the nearby surroundings.
Hotel ‘maple de le terrasse’ was a corner building that protruded onto the junction of five streets and I took the road that started right in front of the hotel all the way ahead. I found Paris mesmerising as I walked along watching the roadside cafes and Boulevards. I continued walking for about 30 minutes and decided to return. I had not made any turns and had been careful to stick to the same road or so I thought for even after an hour of walking back in the opposite direction, I did not find the hotel junction.
Thinking I must have walked a little longer in the reverse direction than necessary, I turned back and walked for another fifteen minutes. I was not able to sight the hotel anywhere at all. I remembered that the hotel was at the junction of five streets and the structure curved outwards with the hotel name displayed at the centre of the curved surface. The name of the hotel that registered in my mind was just ‘de le terrasse’ and I forgot the complete name. I had not written down the full name of the hotel nor had I picked up the hotel card or a map. I went to several street junctions looking for the hotel without any trace of a junction. I started to get dark, and I started to get worked up. I did not know the underground or metro and before I approached anyone with ‘Excuse me’ he or she would run away from me shaking his or her head disdainfully.
I went into a small cafe with an old man with a white apron behind the counter asking for directions in English for a hotel ‘terrasse’ and pronounced terrace as we commonly do in English. The man was extremely kind and nice but could not make out what the hell I was saying except for the word ‘Hotel’. Now pronunciation is paramount in French, and the way French words do not in any way sound the way they read in English. He could make out ‘hotel’ and ‘terrace’ and nothing else. When I kept uttering the word ‘terrace’, I was simply saying ‘an open area’ to a Parisian, and they had no clue that I was referring to the hotel by the name of ‘terrace’. The actual name was ‘hotel maple de le terrasse’ but I had completely forgotten the name of the hotel “maple’.
I realised how stupid I had been in not picking up the hotel address card or a map with its location. Many wanted to help me but didn’t know how. I went to several taxis asking them to take me to ‘terrasse.’ No one seemed to understand. Terrasse in French means an open terrace, a noun and not a proper noun. Little did I realise that it was like going to someone in New York and asking for directions to a hotel ‘Rooftop’?
I walked another half an hour in different directions trying to locate the hotel. It was close to ten. International credit cards came into existence in India only after 1995 and the USD 6000 in traveller’s cheques were in my briefcase along with my passport in my hotel room. I had about 1000 French Francs in my pocket. Hence money was not an issue. It was only my naivety and lack of imagination. I decided to relax and think with a clear mind. I went into the most expensive-looking French restaurant around the area that I could see. I waited for the ‘Maître De’ to usher me in and show me my table. I ordered the most expensive wine on the menu pointing my finger to it on the wine list and a dish about which I understood nothing except that ‘poisson’ meant fish.
After the wine and the Fish dish calmed my nerves, I asked for the bill that was around 230 French Francs. I left a hefty tip of 70 Francs. The waiter was thrilled.
I then asked for the telephone directory by bringing my hand near my ear and saying ‘Telephone Book’. The waiter asked me something in French. I did not understand, but I nodded nevertheless. He brought two huge directories and banged them on my table. I quickly went to the alphabet ‘H’ in the directory and was shocked to see not a single name starting with the word ‘Hotel’ listed. I asked the waiter nervously, “Yellow pages, a book of hotels?” He asked me something again which I again did not understand; he uttered something mildly and brought another big yellow book. It was the Yellow pages of Paris.
I went through a list starting with ‘de le.’ There were hundreds. I looked for the hotel ‘terrasse’; again no luck. I went through the whole list of hotels alphabetically. After what felt like a lifetime, I located a ‘de le terrace, 67, rue le tort, 75018, Paris.’ The address seemed vaguely familiar. I jotted it down very boldly, legibly, and precisely as it was in the book without missing even a print extension. I lit up a cigarette in celebration and enjoyed every puff of it.
I said, “Taxi,” to the waiter. He nodded pleasantly, and a taxi zoomed up in front of the restaurant within a few minutes. I gave the address to the driver. He nodded and took me to the hotel in ten minutes. Ever since then, as soon as I check into any hotel I make sure that I take three or four hotel cards, a map with the hotel circled by the person who checks me in.
A lot has changed since then. The advent of the Internet and smartphones has reduced Resfeber substantially but at the same time taken away the opportunity of self-discovery.
If you are in your initial travel phase make sure you pick up the hotel card wherever you go, keep your passport with you (I keep it buttoned up in my hip pocket) and of course, make sure your suitcase is strong and sturdy.
We Indians are notorious throughout the world for our travel manners. The problem with India is because of its diversity since the term ‘Indian’ could refer to an educated well mannered Indian and also the nose picking, mixture eating, pickle carrying Suburban.
It doesn’t hurt to pick up some travel manners and responsible behaviour and drop some of the more unsavoury ones that make us guilty of offensive conduct as travellers.
Rajashekar was the first tour member who became my close companion on tour. He hailed from Bangalore and was of extremely dark complexion. He hated north Indians and Brahmins unaware that I was a Brahmin. He called them bigots and racists who looked down upon other castes merely because they were dark-skinned people considering their fair complexion culturally and intellectually superior. He accused them of being descendants of an Aryan race who had migrated to India from Iran and stated it was the south Indian Dravidians who were the real and original Indians. All of this was new to me. He, however, demonstrated his cultural evolution at a London restaurant where we had our free breakfast. He asked for a glass of water, and after finishing his chicken sausages and bread with his fingers, he shamelessly dipped his fingers in the glass of water and rubbed his fingertips clean and then wiped the corners of his mouth with his thumb and fingers and dipped them again in another glass that next to him. I looked around, and by the grace of almighty, no was watching him or me with an ugly stare.
Ravinder, a Marwari from Mumbai joined our company of two. He was miserly to the point of having mutated a new disease, monetary anorexia. Exchange Bureau refused to convert his Belgian coins to German Coins since no exchange turns coins. He put Belgian coins in a German vending machine in Germany since he did not want to waste the Belgian coins left over from his just-concluded Belgian tour. After the first coin got stuck in the coin hole, he banged the machine several times trying to get it back damaging the German vending machine permanently.
Karunakaran, a Malayalee from Bangalore joined our group at Koln making us a pack of four. At Koln, he took showers in the bathtub without closing the curtains, and the floor of the bathroom had with three inches of water. The swearing screams of the housekeeper were loud enough to be heard throughout the city of Koln!
There were two invaluable lessons that I learnt from the trip. The most critical item in your travel is your suitcase and to never spill water on a European bathroom floor!