I never really expected a St. Patrick’s Day card would ever be given to me in Bombay, India. But upon awakening at the Tulip Hotel Sunday morning, Anna Marie presented me with a card she had brought along for her Irishman.
Upon good advice, we were headed south to escape the riots and bloodshed in Gujarat. By 6:00 a.m. we had checked out of our hotel and were in a small taxi headed for the Bombay airport to fly to the large interior city of Hyderabad. After a couple of days in Hyderabad we would fly on to the Bhubaneswar - Cuttack area and then on to Orrisa on the east coast of India.
After checking in I picked up an India Times newspaper and to my amazement read of how over 300 rioters had stormed the legislative facilities in Orissa. We were flying from Hyderabad into Orissa thinking that we were staying out of harm’s way that was in Gujarat on the west side of India. We would see if we could now play hopscotch successfully around the violence in the east.
Upon landing in Bhubaneswar, Anna Marie and I were met by Dr. Ranjan Singh, and taken to the Blue Lagoon Hotel to check in. We were in the heart of rural, eastern India. We would be spending Sunday and Monday primarily in Cuttack, an area, along with Bhubaneswar of about 2.8 million people.
Dr. Singh was eager to have us visit his hospital. Following graduation from medical school he had gone to Calcutta to specialize in surgery. When he returned to Cuttack he worked at the government hospital and medical school, but at the same time opened his own small clinic and lab on one of the side streets of Cuttack. Over the years he had built his “Seba” hospital into an impressive facility, but he desperately needed Project C.U.R.E. to help him out with medical supplies and equipment pieces. I admired what Dr. Singh had accomplished.
Dr. Singh was also an active Rotarian. Before we left we were able to get all the papers signed that would help secure some matching grant money from International Rotary to help cover the costs of shipping the container of Project C.U.R.E.’s donations in the future.
Monday, March 18
Orissa state had experienced a devastating weather phenomenon. A storm developed over the Bay of Bengal that weathermen referred to as a “super cyclone.” As the storm moved onto the coastline it brought incredible winds, but more devastating was the water that accompanied the storm. The sea was actually pushed up onto the shore and then inland for miles. When the cyclone abated, all the water that had flooded the inland rushed back out to the sea with such force that it carried everything in its path back out to the Bay of Bengal. Tens of thousands of people were swept out to the sea and drowned. There had never really been any accurate accounting of how many lives were lost.
Entire villages were washed away. The village of Bagadia, located a full four miles inland, was left under eight feet of water once the water had swept back out to the sea. As we viewed the devastation we were urged to join Operation Mobilization to help bring needed relief to Bagadia.
We drove back along the Bay of Bengal then turned directly west for another nearly four-hour drive to Cuttack. While driving I once again observed the driving habits of the people in India. Perhaps of the nearly 100 countries in which I have traveled, no other drivers were as dangerous as those in India. I thought to myself, “In America we drive defensively . . . in India they drive defiantly.” I still think that the way the TATA truck drivers operated their rigs in India reflected the fact that most of them were either from the lowest caste level or of the untouchables beneath the caste floor. Behind the wheel of the huge trucks they had the ability to finally level the power-tilted social playing field, and if their recklessness resulted in their death they could only return as something better. That was just an unofficial opinion on my observations. But they frightened the puddin’ out of me.
Tuesday, March 19
A crazy thing had happened in the riot riddled area of Ayodhya on the west coast of India. The Supreme Court of India had taken the whole Hindu temple issue under consideration. That had an effect on the people to slow down their violence and wait for the Court’s decision. Neither side would abide by the decision when it came down, but it temporarily defused the explosive face-off. The other interesting thing accomplished by the government as a conciliatory measure was to allow the shiladaan stone of the Hindus to be delivered and presented on an adjacent site in Ayodhya rather than the actual temple site. That allowed the Muslims to claim that they had kept the Hindus from declaring the construction had officially begun on the old site of their mosque, and at the same time, allowed the Hindu holy people to claim that the sacred stone had been officially delivered.
Somehow the pleas of the officials for peace and calm had temporarily postponed the radical bloodshed. Be that as it may, it had allowed us an opening to travel through the “hot spots” during the small opening of the window of opportunity. We would go ahead with our plans to return to Bombay and push for the trip into Gujarat.
We checked out of the Blue Lagoon Hotel in Cuttack and were taken back to the airport in Bhubaneswar where we caught an India Air flight back to Bombay and made our way to the Bawa Hotel not far from the airport. That night we purchased our tickets for our ride on March 20 from Bombay to Surat. We needed to check our e-mail messages, but the hotel computers were all down. We walked the streets of Bombay that night until we found a cyber storefront where we could connect to the Internet.
It was nearly 10 p.m. by the time we walked back to the Bawa Hotel. Bombay is not a pretty or desirable sight that time of the night. Leprosy victims and scores of little children, some toting babies on their hip, mobbed us as we quickly walked down the dark streets. Off in the shadows I spotted the “beggar masters” who organized the beggars and directed their actions. They are like pimps are for prostitutes. The beggar masters not only encouraged and controlled their herd of street beggars, but would force them to take only a certain percentage of the money while they kept the rest. Begging was a huge business in India.
Wednesday, March 20
Over 700 people had been killed during the civil unrest, including the people torched in the train incident. But, God had protected us and we had been able to sidestep the mêlée. But the most precarious part of our trip was yet ahead of us. Wednesday our travels would be within the state of Gujarat where the majority of the killings and conflicts had taken place. We felt that we would be safe if we flew from Bombay to Bhuj. If we were to go by train we would have to go through Ahmadabad and the other cities where the majority of the killings had taken place. Curfews had been placed on almost all those towns, so flying was really the only option.
Next Week: A second attempt into the riot area