I meant to post this a couple of days ago, but Diwali has kept Internet cafés closed here in Junagadh. The cab ride from Mumbai airport to the hotel reminds me why I am not crazy about this city. Huge billboards, wide, congested roads and some of the most pitiful slums one might encounter - these are not the things that I love about India. My wife Tanya and I decide to head off to Junagadh, my friend Hardik’s town as soon as possible. The next day at ‘India Railways Tourist Ticket Counter’ a woman with a rough, commanding voice violently taps at the keyboard with her long fingers, she looks at the computer screen and proclaims that it is impossible to travel where we want tonight. We plead with her to find a solution, she does – we have to get the train to Ahmedabad – a city that is an eight-hour bus trip away from Junagadh. I dread bus trips in India, but there is no other choice.
Our train arrives in Ahmedabad at 5 am. I take my almost immediate stepping into a pile of dog crap after disembarking as an official welcome back to the Indian Railways.
A riksha takes us towards the bus station; on the way we buy a ticket for the ‘deluxe bus’ to Junagadh from a shifty eyed travel agent. – "The deluxe bus is very best! Beautiful!" It will be here at 7 am. He says.
We wait and watch life go by. A vendor in front of us sweeps a pile of rubbish away from his stall into the spot of his neighbor. On a road clogged up with motorcycles, rikshas, cars and buses a couple of boys in a buffalo cart slowly make their way; they and the buffalo are oblivious to the modern motorized transport that rushes by. A young lion-haired man who looks and dresses like a Bollywood star checks himself out in the mirror and jumps into a riksha, while next to him a crowd of village women and children in colorful, raggedy clothes pours out of another riksha and head to the bus stand.
The bus is 40 minutes late. The journey is exhausting, but halfway through there is a pleasant surprise. I hear my name at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere. I turn around and see Hardik. We were meant to meet in Junagadh, his bus was to depart 3 hours later than ours, but the leisurely pace of the ‘very best, beautiful’ deluxe bus has meant that we have ended up at the same rest stop. A nice coincidence, but a frustrating realization of just how slow we are moving. We exchange hugs and briefly chat until our buses depart.
An unpleasant surprise comes as we near our destination. – Hello! Junagadh, riksha! Go, go! The bus is making a detour and Junagadh is no longer the planned destination. A few of the passengers, including us are crammed into a riksha that farts its way through a pot-holed road at a speed of 30km an hour for the remainder of the trip.
As we approach Junagadh my heart begins to beat faster. Having spent a lot of time in the town over the four times that I have been here, it is as close a place to home as there is for me in India.
I check into “Relief Hotel”, a pleasant and extremely helpful place, where the owner – Faiz, has become a good friend over the years. Minutes later Hardik arrives at the hotel and we go roaming around (as the Indians like to say).
A couple of hours later, exhausted, Tanya and I fall asleep in our room to the overwhelmingly loud noise of the firecrackers and fireworks outside. We miss the peak of the Diwali celebrations, but late in the evening we meet Hardik again and plan to catch what’s left of them.
The old part of town is still very much alive and full of people. Few tourists make it to Junagadh and Tanya and I attract attention wherever we go, for a moment we get away from the crowds and turn into a quiet lane. Unexpectedly we experience one of those surreal ‘only in India’ moments. Two bullocks with huge horns majestically pull a large cart filled with hay, atop the cart sits a bearded village man in a traditional white costume. The ruins of the old city are behind him and suddenly fireworks go off to light up the scene. Diwali is like Christmas and New Year at once and Tanya is quick to make the comparison of the bearded village man in the bullock cart to Santa Clause. A Junagadhi Santa Claus with bullocks in place of reindeer - I guess it’s true when photographers say that some of the best photos are the ones that only exist in our memories.
Diwali means that almost everything will be closed. I anticipate staying a few more days in Junagadh, at least until Hardik heads back to work. We’ll somehow have to sort out the motorcyle issues – the bike is in a bad need of servicing and I need to have luggage carriers made. Hopefully I’ll have at least something sorted out by the time of the next post.