Monday, May 09, 2005

Physical activity

After a gruelling train ride through the hazy heat of the plains, I returned to Mumbai with both the expectation of finding my new credit card and with the hope of gaining a ticket to catch up with Nick and Leah in Goa before they left the country.

I was exhausted. When the attendant at the Mumbai Central Station Ticket Reservation Centre delivered the sad news that the foreign tourist quota was full for the next four days, I gave up immediately on feeling sand between my toes. I returned to the Salvation Army Hostel and slept almost soundly while taxis drove by as though as the foot of my bed.

When I awoke I met Kurt, a Dutch traveller who shared valuable information about travelling to Pakistan and Iran. He laughed at my prospects of entering Iran; according to him Australians are not currently welcome. But he couldn't answer my next obvious question. Why? All he knew was that the Australian with whom he travelled through Yemen had been unable to obtain an Iranian visa.

Acknowledging an Australian is probably persona non grata in the eyes of various Muslim bureaucrats across the planet, I fail to see what Iran in particular would have against our government. I'm hoping that the refusal of the visa was just an isolated incident that is common in this part of the world where the same question to the same person twice within thirty seconds yields a different response.

Bureaucracy in the Third World can crush a man and leave him weeping. Sure, it's also irritating in the Western World, but without the mind-achingly number of ludicrously ill-printed forms that hinder your every move. Entering a hotel in India on a tourist visa is akin to writing a novella.

When you arrive at any hotel in the world, all you want is to be taken to your room. Here you must twice complete a recent autobiography. And the question that annoys me the most? 'What is your next destination?' Leading not to temptation and thus the response 'None of your goddamn business', I usually opt for a planet in the solar system. 'Mars' or 'Saturn' draw as scant attention as if I wrote 'Calcutta'. So I remain optimistic about the visa. I will simply take a pen, photos and some extra cash for bribes.

Anyway, Kurt had a map of Mumbai. North of the city was marked in large letters 'Go Karting'. Well, sure, I felt like a bit of go-karting. I've already complained of my inability to stay fit while travelling. And if go-karting can't offer the cardiovascular improvements of a run through Sydney's Eastern suburbs, it might provide the adrenalin rush I wanted.

We took a bus from the hostel to Churchgate station and then a train for an hour. Suburban train rides in Mumbai provide their own heart-racing palpitations, and when we arrived I wasn't sure that go-karting was going to be able to compete with the feeling that you have when you alight a suburban train wagon. Happy to be alive. And let's face it, if Mumbai's sixteen million residents can cope with travelling in an amount of space normally reserved for a small rodent, then so can I.

We took the obligatory auto-rickshaw ride to the Go-Karting stadium, a short tour through affluent suburbs of the worst taste. India now has money, but with it has come tasteless and crass materialism, the distinct impression that they're spending their cash only on what glitters. Colossal apartment buildings erupt from the foothills - some over forty stories in height and topped with the most ridiculous expressions of neo-classicism. Imagine the Governor Phillip Tower in Sydney with large pseudo-Corinthian columns and perhaps a Byzantine dome topping the structure. Maybe a stylised Acropolis atop the new World Tower in George St? Think Las Vegas casino architects recreating Elizabeth Bay high-density housing, and you have some idea of what is being constructed here.

The waiver we needed to sign before donning our helmet had some interesting clauses. To note: any part of a Sikh's hair, which may become entangled with either the motor or any other part of the go-kart, may be permanently cut in the instance where damage either to the person or the vehicle or both is to be avoided. Permanently cut? It also required any Sikh to remove his turban before being allowed to drive a go-kart (I imagine the helmet is otherwise impossible to wear), and this would lead to arguments in a country that loves to bicker as much as India.
On the circuit and loving every second of it, Kust overtook me twice. Those of you who have played passenger to my driver will fully appreciate that this was of no concern to me. I'm happy just to remember where to find the ignition switch and to discover that I don't accelerate when I mean to depress the clutch. Kurt thought my dubious driving skills hilarious, and when we received the print-out of our individual performances after completing the laps, I admit to feeling a little pathetic.

I've always been a crap driver. I don't enjoy it and don't see why I should have to do it when someone else always has a car. You can't read when you drive - eating, talking and sleeping are generally discouraged. It's just another activity designed to complicate our life and keep us from doing something constructive. You hear people complain all the time about being stuck in traffic jams. Use public transport and read a book. It's not like anyone has ever said to you 'I had a really interesting drive to work yesterday morning, the brakes worked like a charm'.
Still, it was quite humiliating to find that I was the slowest driver on the course all day ...

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