Monday, February 18, 2013

The backpacker's guide to Pune on a shoestring budget

  1. Arrive at the Pune airport. With backpack.
  2. Avoid the pre-paid taxis from the counter inside the airport. They're much too expensive. Use the post-paid auto stand outside. They're just as expensive, but as you pay only after the ride, you earn a little bit of interest on the princely sum you'll eventually fork out.
  3. To save on exorbitant hotel accommodation, proceed to spend the night in any apartment you happen to own.
  4. Avoid autos for any other travel. Auto drivers are elitist and tend to accept fares only to very specific destinations. They'd probably be delighted to take you to Berlin, or say, Barcelona, but mention any local spot - and unless you've hit on the one place loaded with memories where the chap kissed his first girlfriend - the reaction you're most likely to see is wide-eyed horror that anyone would want to go there.* Cross off "Public Transport & Dealing With When There Isn't Any" from your list of to-dos.
  5. Once in your apartment, note its distinctive (but pleasant) smell that reminds you of a David Lynch movie. Not any particular David Lynch movie, but one he's never made. (I can't fathom how my memory works sometimes.) Cross off "Nostalgia & Household Cleaning Products."
  6. Now that autos are a no-no, you're left with virtually no way to explore the city, save walking. So, call up old friends with cars, who're willing to lug you around - particularly to the better restaurants. You may wish to stock up on medical insurance before you do. "Erm, that was a little too close to that little boy on the left, there..." "Oh, was it?" she replies conversationally, "You know, I'm so used to driving on that side of the road where I come from." Cross off "Traffic & Cross-Cultural Studies."
  7. While in the car, notice the signboard that says "Aga Khan Palace - 2 kilometres to the left." Have your friend describe it to you. Cross off "History & Architecture."
  8. Muse that there are now more girls in shorts on the roads than from what you remember. Cross off "Fashion & Culture."
  9. Now that the novelty of staying in your old flat has worn off, you may wish to spend the remaining days somewhere more habitable. Call up your ex-colleagues. Spend the next hour fending off invitations by the bucketful. One wants you at his place because he has a young son and you'd be just perfect for a "this is what you'll grow up into if you don't do everything I say" lecture. The second wishes to use me as a prop for a "there but for the grace of me, go you" message to her husband. You choose the second because the first is a vegetarian. And she cooks the best prawns and fish for you, for dinner - presumably out of guilt. Cross off "Sampling The Local Cuisine & Engaging The Natives."
  10. Meet with your ex-boss. He's only agreed to meet you because he wants to tell you all about the dreadful code you wrote for him, that he had to burn midnight oil for years and years afterward to fix. But he does introduce you to a new coffee shop, so feel free to cross off "Fine Dining & Dealing With The Past."
  11. Arrive at the airport with 2 minutes to spare. And then be chagrined to discover that Pune has a rule that you get your baggage screened before checking in. The line for that is a kilometre long. As you stand with tears streaming down your face, cross off "Punctuality & City-Specific Airport Rules."
*That said, you'd probably be interested to hear of this experience of mine. It was late at night and I had to get to my friend's place in a hurry. There was a steaming plate of prawns curry waiting and 16 kilometres lay between me and it. Flagging the nearest auto, I did my enquiry in the meekest voice I could manage. "Sure, 150 bucks," he said. I was astonished. He was asking me for a fare about 20 bucks less than what the meter would charge! This was surely a first for Independent India. I was torn between dragging him out of the auto and giving him a hug, or ordering a plaque to commemorate the spot. But a few kilometres later, doubts began to gnaw at him.

"Say, did you say you wanted to go to ***"
"Yes, that's what I said."
"You know, this is Saturday night and I'm a little drunk and I heard it as ****"
"Hmm..." I replied non-commitally.
"You wouldn't, by any chance..."
"I'd normally charge 400 bucks for this distance, you know," with almost a note of pleading.
"Tough shit, a deal's a deal."