When you are travelling on your own, there is no dearth of problems. They hit you like rounds from a machine gun__ with a lot of force. The most affluent and seasoned traveller also has to go through his share of woes. Money disappears much faster abroad than it does when you are in your home country. Parents and friends are miles away and can’t help much. One often feels like packing up and heading home. But that is not an option. I believe problems test one’s strength, patience and interpersonal skills. They give one the ability and strength to come back stronger than before.
This is a story about three idiots, hailing from three different countries. I’m the first idiot (no prizes for guessing that), followed by Joshua Staynings from Wales and Russian student Anastasiia Sergeeva. Each of us goofed up big time and won’t forget it soon.
We met at a youth hostel in the old quarters of Shanghai. This hostel is the cheapest and is a favourite with Chinese students and strugglers who come to Shanghai to try their luck in the big city. Joshua and I met during ‘Happy Hours’ in the evening when everyone is supposed to get some beverage or goodies to share with the others. A guy from Argentina offered us ‘Matte,’ tea from Argentina, over which I bonded with Joshua. We met Anastasiia the next day.
I have always been stubborn. Despite my guru, Navy commander Dilip Donde’s, advice that I should fly to Australia from China, I was adamant to travel in a ship.
Shanghai is the biggest port in China and that’s the reason I came to this city__ to look for a seat in a cargo container. I needed at least four weeks for the task. I applied at Shanghai for getting a visa extension so I could stay back and get my work done. Usually, Chinese authorities are reluctant to give a visa to Indian nationals (visa extension is out of bounds). But I was extremely lucky to get both. The problem was that my passport was detained by the authorities for two weeks in order to grant me a visa extension. This meant I couldn’t move out of my hostel till the time I got my passport back.
It’s no secret that I’ve been on a shoe string budget throughout my journey. To save money in Shanghai, I was eating stale rice. Some of the rice was hard and while chewing it, the silver filling in my tooth gave way. I had tried to save Rs 60 for a decent meal and was now facing the prospect of paying up Rs 6000 to a dentist. I started chewing only from the left side of my mouth and this seriously affected my ability to consume food properly.
This was just one of my problems. A friend from India was operating my bank account and loading money onto my travel card so that I could use it overseas. For two weeks, he had been requesting the State Bank of India (where I hold a savings account) to transfer money, but they flatly refused. The bank wanted me to come back and sign some papers which was impossible. I had only 350 Yuan in cash (Rs 3500) left with me. This used to be the daily budget of one of my acquaintances in Mumbai. Naturally, I was pissed off with the situation. I tried to network on social media (again through friends in India as social media is banned in China) to arrange for money, but nothing worked out. I increased restrictions on my spending to sustain for one more week in China.
I stopped having dinner completely. I also found a supermarket where defective apples were sold at Rs 20 per 500 gms (while the rest of the world sells products per kilogram, China sells them per 500 gms). I never purchase bottled water and always look for sources of free water such as government offices and local shops. This is because a single four litre-bottle of water costs 7 Yuan (Rs 70) and I need at least six litres to drink everyday. At the hostel, I get hot water from the boiler and then cool it for drinking. Once, I was carrying a pot of hot water when I tripped over a cat and scalded my hand. The burn was serious and the temperature in Shanghai was a horrible 40 degrees Celsius (it was the third hottest day in Shanghai since 1897). I tried to contact my Indian doctors on Whatsapp but both of them were unreachable. I held my hand under the tap for some cold water and suddenly thought of applying toothpaste to my wound. It looked disgusting but gave me relief. After an hour, my Indian doctor got back to me and suggested medicines which were not available in Shanghai. I did not wish to use Chinese (local) medicines and decided to bear the pain.
During Happy Hours the next day, I was cutting apples for everyone. I had managed to purchase 1kg apples for Rs 55. I was using a plastic knife and undermined its sharpness. To cut the apples properly, I applied force and the blade of the knife pierced my finger. The hostel reception staff did not have any first-aid kit nor a bandage. My finger had started to ooze blood and I was numb with pain. I remembered an Indian remedy to stop the flow of blood (you cannot guess this one and it’s going to be yucky). The remedy is to piss on the injury. The pain is unbearable but I had no other option to stop the flow of blood. After this experience, I decided to lie low. I wouldn’t venture out much except to buy food and would spend the rest of my time sleeping in the hostel. But doing nothing is akin to doing something wrong, at times.
I had put out a request on Facebook and Twitter, tagging the Indian Shipping Minister, to seek help to find a seat on a cargo container. I also called up the JNPT Chairman and some of my sources in the Mumbai Port Trust. But I had forgotten to call up a friend who had a good network among shippies. When I finally contacted him, it was too late. He told me that a ship was leaving to the US from Shanghai and the Chief Engineer on it was his friend and was an Indian. I couldn’t have possibly arranged for a visa at such short notice and missed a free ride to the US on the ship.
Joshua is the second idiot in my story. A graduate in Sports and Exercise Science (B.Sc), he has been travelling for the past few months. Unlike me, his priorities during travel are safety, security and luxury. He has a good budget and has visited Russia and Mongolia already (he has an enviable Instagram account). I’m an old generation traveller. If I’m parting with money, I expect services to be offered to me immediately. Joshua is the new generation traveller who makes all bookings online. From Shanghai, he made an online booking in a Hong Kong hostel for the next leg of his trip, without reading reviews of it. For a stay of 10 days, he paid 110 GBP. He made the mistake of paying the full amount at the time of booking.
Thereafter, he read some reviews that left him worried. The Hong Kong hostel was located in an area notorious for criminal activity. Burglary was common and Joshua was hesitant to go there. He mailed to the hostel to cancel his booking. They happily did it without refunding his money. I suggested that he shouldn’t cancel and should try staying at the Hong Kong hostel for a few hours. If he felt uncomfortable, he could always leave. He then booked a room in another Hong Kong hostel online (I don’t know how his experience was eventually).
Joshua did not learn. He bought a railway ticket from Shanghai to Hong Kong online on a website that was offering discounts. He paid 98 USD for the ticket. On the day of his trip to Hong Kong, I joked that he should stay back in Shanghai. He replied that he had already suffered heavy losses with the hostel cancellation in Hong Kong and did not want any other problems. A few friends and I dropped him to the metro station and returned.
That evening, I was writing a few emails when someone slapped the back of my head. I was angry as it had hurt me. When I turned behind, Joshua was standing there. He had missed his train as his ticket was fake! He started to laugh.
Joshua had booked an online ticket on a portal which was recommended by some blogger. He had tried to save 20 USD by booking a discounted ticket. Now, he would have to shell out more money to buy a fresh ticket. Unfortunately, he couldn’t lodge a complaint as there are many such portals where travellers get tricked online. I tried to console him but it wasn’t necessary. He did not look particularly dejected.
The third idiot in the story is pretty Anastasiia. She was like a Bond film heroine__ fair complexioned with perfect features and super slim. But she had no airs. We called her a “Russian spy” just to pull her leg. Every guy at the hostel wanted to shake hands with her or hug her. She had come to Shanghai with her friend and is an undergraduate student of medicine.
When it was time for Anastasiia to leave Shanghai, she started packing her bags. The flight was at midnight, so she checked out of the hostel the previous evening. Would you believe that she still missed her flight? Read on to find out what happened.
It was a hot day and we were all sitting in the lobby. Except to buy food, nobody stepped out of the hostel. Anastasiia had an early dinner in the evening. She put on some make-up and sat in the lobby with her bags. Around 7pm, the hostel reception staff informed her that her taxi had arrived. It was parked outside and friends helped carry all her bags. The driver loaded the bags into the vehicle and waited for her to board. After sometime, he got impatient and mumbled something in Chinese. Anastasiia went to the vehicle but was overcome with emotion. She stepped out to hug her friend. At least thrice, she entered and left the cab to hug her friend this way. She was upset about having to go alone.
The driver lost his cool and started to shout in Chinese. Anastasiia’s friend spoke Chinese and understood what he said. She pushed Anastasiia towards the vehicle and the “Russian spy” got in. But she stepped out again looking confused and nervous. I thought the driver had misbehaved with her. But he said something in Chinese and everyone started to laugh. It turned out that Anastasiia did not know which airport was her flight taking off from.
All of us gathered around her and quizzed her about her ticket details. She was about to cry when her friend explained that Anastasiia’s boyfriend had booked the ticket for her. He had all the ticket details but he was in Russia. Anastasiia had not noted down any of the details nor asked him to mail her a copy of the ticket. Except for the name of the airline and the timing of departure, she knew nothing.
Anastasiia started to call up her boyfriend frantically. But he was asleep due to the time difference between China and Russia. His mobilephone was on silent mode and he did not hear any of her calls. She got through to another friend in Russia and asked him to go over to her boyfriend’s house. After a lot of effort, Anastasiia managed to get the flight details but the driver was still confused. The hostel receptionist, Zu, explained things to him in Chinese. Anastasiia got into the taxi and finally left the premises.
The driver was a good chap and drove fast so as to drop her to the airport in time. He took her to the correct terminal. Anastasiia was still confused. She went into the terminal but stood in the wrong queue. She put on her earphones and started listening to music. It was time for her flight to depart but Anastasiia was still standing in the wrong queue.
A Russian airline executive came up and started asking around if there were any passengers for Russia. The executive said that it was time to leave and delayed passengers could break the queue if need be. Anastasiia smiled at the airline executive and continued to listen to music, unaware of what he was saying. There was an announcement over the public system but she remained clueless.
When she finally reached the counter, the staffer pointed out at her flight through a large glass window. Anastasiia was hysteric and made repeated requests but boarding had been shut by then. Worse, her flight was delayed by 45 minutes and she could see it standing on the runway. But she was still not permitted to board. After the flight took off, Anastasiia spent the night at the airport.
The next day, she boarded a metro at 5.30 am to return to the hostel. For the next two hours, she kept drifting between stations as she was half asleep. She changed trains at least thrice. Eventually at 7.30 am, when morning peak hour was to start, a friendly woman helped her get off at the correct metro station and Anastasiia reached the hostel.
Meanwhile, Joshua was fast asleep and had a dream about Anastasiia missing her flight. He felt someone tap his forehead and opened one of his eyes. It was Anastasiia and she had indeed missed her flight!