It's a Guy Thing

Inside India

The humbling majesty whilst outrunning COVID-19

By Ian Kirke / Twitter = @ianjkirke

Sometime in my youth, I recall my parents commenting about their exact whereabouts when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on 22nd November 1963. This narrative was meaningless to me until I witnessed the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America. This chapter of World history unfolded on the TV as I was called in from washing my late wife’s car, a white Rover 200, with a bucket full of warm soapy water, a sponge, and chamois leather on our driveway in Fordwells Drive, Bracknell, Berkshire. Having returned from the Big Apple a week previously, after an incredible family holiday that took in Disney World too, the connection with Manhattan was tangible. My neck hurt as I arched my head back to take in the enormity and wonder of the Trade Towers as we passed below in an open-topped hop on hop off bus. My daughter Lucy also captured this unique perspective on a disposable camera, and I still have the picture proudly on display today. That was my JFK moment. A time in my history when the entire World was transfixed to the same incident. I then realized the importance of my parents recalling their exact location in 1963 and how an affinity with the rest of the human race is so rare that individual positioning is more than just a statement of fact. I guess that in years to come I may be inclined to reflect on COVID-19 in the same manner. It certainly fits the criteria of gripping the entire human race but even whilst we are still in the grasp of it this pandemic doesn’t feel to me as though it was a spontaneous event, more like a situation that had pursued me from South Asia 2,698 miles due west of the epicenter of Wuhan, China before finally catching up and cornering me.

In mid-January, I had picked up via mainstream media that a new respiratory virus had been detected by Chinese officials in Hubei province. Having lived through SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in the early 2000s and with the utmost faith in the ability of science to thwart anything on the scale of what the Hollywood blockbusters had depicted as the end of humanity as we know it, I wasn’t unduly worried. Although I did, once or twice, play the R.E.M. classic ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ on YouTube as I performed my morning ablutions. Furthermore, reports that the region had been sealed off by the military coupled with the almost speed of light construction of a huge purpose-built hospital facility and the lack of alarm from the World Health Organisation left me in little doubt that the only real concern for me at this time was whether my team, Notts County, could hold on to a play-off place in the National League.

A few weeks later on the toilet in Budapest, I thought that there might be a bigger problem. It was my birthday, the Heinz variety number, and I noticed on my mobile Stocks App that the FTSE 100 had plunged over 3% in a matter of minutes. This in itself made my buttocks clench that much more. The reason for this financial unrest was clearly the real danger of this virus becoming more than just an isolated incident in a far-off part of China that I had never heard of. As is a common human trait at times of potential crisis I preferred denial, finished off the paperwork, and continued my exploration of the enchanting capital of Hungary.

On my return to the UK Lucy confirmed that she would be spending time in Goa, India as part of her eventual homeward bound travels from her base in Australia. I had never been to India and the opportunity to meet her there was too exciting to miss! I had been lucky enough to visit Pakistan and the allure of, hitherto, The Jewel on the Crown was profound. Adam, my son, was up for it too and I gave him the task of booking up the itinerary which would see us fly to Mumbai for three nights then meet Lucy in New Delhi for our golden triangle tour. It was a relief to have Adam sort out the complete travel plans as I don’t really do that level of detail. I normally turn up at an airport and ask, “Where are we going?” Additionally, I am a tightwad. When Adam emailed me an Excel spreadsheet of the travel plans I was immediately drawn to the costs of the overnight accommodation at the 3 & 4-star hotels that he had selected, ranging from £5.41 to £14.71 per night, including bloody breakfast! India was going to be my type of place!

A short stop-off at Abu Dhabi exposed us to the emerging threat of coronavirus although to be perfectly honest my risk radar hadn’t even started spinning since this hullabaloo would surely be sorted anytime soon with a pill as it always did. Our modern-day NHS had consistently triumphed over adversity hadn’t it? I even posted a funny on Facebook: ‘At Abu Dhabi airport without a face mask. I feel positively underdressed.’

As we commenced the descent into Mumbai airport I completed a coronavirus screening form that essentially collected details of previously visited countries and our locations whilst based in India. As we negotiated passport control our temperature was taken via a non-intrusive thermometer held a short distance from the forehead. India seemed to be taking this virus malarkey seriously.

Proudly showing the taxi driver a printout of our hotel, we were met by a confused expression and scratch of the head. Our driver beckoned the assistance of a couple of other colleagues who displayed similar characteristics. Not understanding what was being said only added to the tension. We were both dog-tired and simply wanted to chill out at our luxury 4-star hotel whilst drinking in the skyline of this magnificent city. In a moment of utter genius, considering that it was boiling hot and I needed the loo imminently, Adam fired up Google maps on his mobile and offered to guide the taxi driver to our Shangri-La. As we sped out of the airport taxi rank with our cases strapped precariously to the roof of this blue and white museum piece that had, by the look of it, been used by the impressive Indian Army for target practice the full magnificence, madness and mayhem that is Mumbai hit us like a slap across the face with a soaking wet beach towel drenched in ice-cold water. I felt like I had just ingested some form of recreational drug as my eyes widened, my jaw dropped, and my buttocks once again clenched yet this time by a factor of ten compared to my Budapest bum.

The sound of car horns some aggressive, some almost reassuring and some continuous was the harmony whilst the dramatic overtures were the frequent moments when a collision appeared to be the only reasonable consequence of the myriad of vehicles that fought for the same space. If this had been at the start of a speedway race all four riders would have been called back for a restart as a result of first bend bunching. Yet this was Mumbai and the highway code was a mystical beast, less common than a unicorn. On a visit to Hong Kong, I was sure that the limit of human density had been achieved there yet this place made that former British colony seem like a Tuesday morning stroll across Hyde Park. Health & Safety was a term that had yet to permeate this corner of the World and acrobatic motorbike riders without crash helmets, carrying two additional passengers or piled high boxes of produce circumnavigated the pandemonium with the elegance of Torvill and Dean. The colors too, nothing subtle here. In the same manner that my ears wouldn’t rest nor would my eyes. The complete Dulux paint card was thrown at me making it almost difficult to remember to blink. My TripAdvisor for Mumbai was beginning to take shape even though we hadn’t even reached the hotel: Crazy, horn-tooting chaos that actually works and where being a driving instructor has to the most hazardous job in the World!

Adam had told me that the accommodation was a short taxi ride from downtown Mumbai where he had been informed by a London colleague to celebrate the first night at a swanky hotel roof garden that afforded the best view in town. Our hotel was certainly in keeping with this top-end feel since it was 4-star although as Google maps counted down the miles the surrounding

terrain became even more dense, decayed and depressing. The real poverty was as overt as it was incredible since the inhabitants were carving out their lives like we do at home yet with a purpose and endurance that I could only ever imagine. I had seen the brilliant Danny Boyle film Slumdog Millionaire and instinctively knew that we were in the domain of the central character Jamal Malik. My sense of awe was beginning to engage with sadness yet simultaneously respect for the dignity I saw on every street corner. I was truly humbled.

As we turned left into the unmade road my nostrils instructed my eyes to water as the taxi lurched from one crater to another scattering the numerous dogs out of harm’s way. Rubble and refuse were the dominant features although the sea of smiling faces was still in abundance. The source of the pungent odor was an open sewer directly outside of our hotel. It was at this point I released that the Indian hotel star system didn’t actually replicate what I had been used to back home. But then again who cared? Our Indian adventure had already proved to be an incredible experience and what better place to be housed than in the center of where ordinary Mumbaikars, Mumbians, or formally Bombayites called home?

On day two it was announced that all India travel visas for foreigners had been suspended as a direct result of the coronavirus outbreak. We had just crept under the bar. There was the odd but prominent poster that instructed you to keep a distance from anyone that was sneezing but then again how could that be realized in Mumbai where your shadow couldn’t even get a look in? Downtown Mumbai didn’t disappoint, and the local people were incredible. Friendly, courteous, and curious. On my travels I have made it my task in life to have a photograph taken of me in my Notts County shirt outside of any notable natural or manmade feature I come across. Rest assured that I don’t routinely wear it when I am abroad as it would be pretty minging in a short space of time. It’s usually tucked in a bag or rucksack, whipped out for a photo opportunity then replaced, all in the best possible taste! The Gateway of India with the majestic The Taj Mahal Palace hotel adjacent (the scene of the horrific terrorist attack in November 2008) provided the requisite backdrop for the shirt pictures as we waited to board a crowded boat to Elephanta Island. In an instant a series of smiling locals stood next to me for their own pictorial requirements. They must have been impressed that Notts had just beaten top of the table Barrow 2-0 away to keep our promotion ambitions alive. Adam said that they probably thought I supported Newcastle United. Nonetheless, the place was heaving with the hubbub of local and foreign voices including a dominant and excitable Italian presence. As I sat in a cramped bar drinking a bottle of, you guessed it, Corona beer the financial markets imploded. If Facebook was a barometer of domestic anxiety Britain appeared to be firmly rooted in the pre ‘Don’t Panic Mr. Mainwaring’ alert level, yet the rest of the World and the fragile financial markets were humming a distinctly different tune. Later on as we ate at the posh Hyatt hotel the fact that Lucy had been refused entry to the New Delhi hotel on the dubious grounds that she was a foreign national didn’t upset the applecart too much as we booked her into the Radisson online. Based on our experience in Mumbai we had probably dodged a bullet as Lucy doesn’t do roughing it that well. Monday 9th March was our last day in Mumbai that incidentally coincided with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte imposing a national quarantine. As we flew out to meet Lucy, having had our temperature regularly checked at restaurants and other public establishments, to meet Lucy the city formally known as Bombay went into lockdown too. Like Jason Bourne, we had escaped capture.

New Delhi was another cavalcade of emotions made even more memorable with Lucy forming the dream team and being escorted by India’s version of Jack Whitehouse, Riyaz. Having kids will often oscillate between insanity and incredible pride threaded together with unconditional love but being without my two amigos in my life wouldn’t even bear thinking about. We caught the last day of the Holi celebrations and were covered head to toe in colored powder at India Gate. With that amount of disruption, my Notts shirt stayed safely tucked away in my rucksack. This joyous occasion and drinking the evening away with my kids completely obliterated any sense of foreboding as the nightmarish reports from Italy dominated the news feeds. In addition, Adam and I had decided to go upmarket and stay at the same hotel as Lucy. Later on, having discovered a taste for this brand, Radisson’s became our first choice after the kids had obviously bagged the best online deal.

The next stop was Agra and the breath-taking Taj Mahal but beforehand our driver had to negotiate the cattle and traders which littered the roads that appeared to have been carpet-bombed on previous occasions. This part of town was marginally more upmarket than the slums of Mumbai but only just. On arrival, the haunted house of a hotel was administered by two surly chaps wearing industrial facemasks. We were asked in no uncertain terms to prove that we didn’t have coronavirus. The uncomfortable truth of the matter was that this was impossible, albeit the confusion that COVID-19 has since inflicted on many ordinary people was amplified during that Mexican stand-off involving one side from Europe and the other from Asia. This pseudo-Monty Python sketch was interrupted by my request to use the toilet. Witnessing the state of one of the

guest rooms I made the executive decision to relocate to the Radisson where we caught our first evening glimpse of the Taj Mahal on the far side of a town bathed in a gentle artificial light via the roof garden.

An early morning trek to the ivory-white marble mausoleum to witness sunrise was rudely interrupted when Lucy was bitten on the leg by an errant monkey. Rabies was a real and present danger and our morning took on a different track as we’re transported to several hospitals via a rickety ambulance enthusiastically driven by a wannabe extra on the Fast & Furious until confirmation that the necessary jabs were available. Hygiene was impoverished yet the staff were incredible, typified by the Doctor in his resplendent dressing-gown who arrived by car to administer the drugs. A happy pill of some description was added to the equation and Lucy returned into a more chilled state of mind. As the fight against COVID-19 has since been framed around personal and social cleanliness I often think of the challenges that this amazing country still has to face. A slight change to our itinerary meant that we finally got to the Taj Mahal the following day. Summing up this experience is perhaps better served simply by the tears that flowed. Once I had regained a modicum of composure the Diana shot with the shirt on was completed and we headed off to complete the rest of our golden triangle expedition that took in Jaipur, where elephants trundled down the main thoroughfares, and the stunning Pink City then back to New Delhi. As the World began to lock down and major transportation hubs closed down Lucy accepted that her onward travel plans were now over, and it was either the UK or Australia. She chose the latter. Often I wish I had followed.

As we bade farewell to this beautiful, peaceful, and incredible country there was a final meal and a cocktail that the attentive waiter lit and my kids cheered as the old man drank it one go. On entering the restaurant as had become customary our temperature was taken and the seriousness of the general public reaction was tangible even if I had yet to feel the real consequences of this horrendous pandemic. On our return to Heathrow on Sunday 15th, March Adam and I waltzed past a few signs that reminded us simply to wash our hands. The urgency and respect for public health protection was non-league compared to the status of the Indian response. Eight days later COVID-19 finally caught up with me when the UK went into lockdown.

In the not too distant future, I hope to be asked by my prospective grandchildren, “Where were you when COVID-19 happened?” I will have a choice. Either, ask your Mum or Dad or better still grab some pop and crisps as your old Grandad was once chased by the coronavirus …

© Ian Kirke 2020