… in which a bag of skis goes to India, we find a smoking lounge at the Mumbai Airport, and the Ambassador of Slovenia finds a new passion.
KAP Jasa – kite team Slovenia was invited to the great International Kite Festival Gujarat 2023. From January 6 to January 16 we rode planes, buses, cars, rickshaws, and camels from Slovenia to Ahmedabad and all over the amazing Gujarat state of India. We found old, and made new, friends; experienced beautiful, crazy, and astonishing things; and flew kites in incredible places. Enjoy the first instalment in the series!
“What’s in the big bag?”
“Uh … Skis. Skiing equipment.”
“And you are flying to Ahmedabad, India?”
“With these … skis?”
It was 4:30 in the morning at the Ljubljana International Airport. The nice lady at the check-in counter for the 6 AM flight to Frankfurt was looking a bit incredulously at the three rather dishevelled guys who claimed they are national kite team of Slovenia going to a kite festival in India while carrying 25 kg of skis in a huge – both oversized and extra – bag.
“And you need those skis in India?”
“Yes, absolutely. They are crucial for our … kite flying stuff.”
Sigh. Click click click –
“Okay. Your … skiing equipment … is checked in all the way to Ahmedabad. Enjoy your flight!”
Madam Silvana gave us our boarding passes with a wink. Our 2023 kite adventure has begun, and we passed the first obstacle rather smoothly – thanks to Lufthansa baggage rules and the big heart of Silvana. Time for the “before” selfie!
The flight from Ljubljana to Frankfurt was short, the next one to Mumbai was long, and even longer was the layover in Mumbai Airport. We had 15 hours to kill there, and we had a plan. We’d leave our luggage at the airport and go for some sightseeing (and a beer) around Mumbai.
But, after all those hours without sleep we were a bit stupid too. We left our luggage at the left luggage counter in the International Arrivals hall – and immediately remembered the quirks of airports in India: once you leave the Arrivals hall, you can’t come back, and they won’t let you in the Departures hall until four hours before your flight. So no way to go out and return to collect the luggage in the Arrivals, and no way to take the luggage to the Departures and leave it there. So – scrap the sightseeing tour and prepare for a looong wait …
The obvious solution to two thirds of the team was to cosplay a Renaissance scene:
The chairs at every airport in the world are designed to be uncomfortable, so at the break of dawn we had had enough. All the least-uncomfortable positions on the chairs were utterly exhausted, the levels of blood in the nicotine were wayyy above normal (8 hours and a half in the air, 9 hours inside the airport!), so two of us went out while the third member guarded the base (to be, as we still believed, able to collect the luggage from the inside of the Arrivals hall).
One thing we noticed immediately – of course it is possible to collect the left luggage from the outside! All our time in the Arrivals was stupidly wasted, the sightseeing of Mumbai was thrown away for nothing. The second thing we noticed a bit late: as we lighted our smokes and strolled in the relative chaos outside the Mumbai airport, puffing contentedly, we passed a huge and rather intimidating placard:
A 2.000 rupees fine and/or jail time was threatened, yet our shrunken brains still didn’t register the danger … until we passed a somewhat shocked policeman, finally connected the dots, and put out our cigarettes. Now the question arose: where on the inside of Mumbai airport perimeter is it allowed to smoke?
Answer 1: nowhere!
Answer 2 (given by a tired Vistara flight attendant): P8 West!
Solving the riddle of this benevolent Sphinx required both time (which we had) and ingenuity (which we lacked) … but in the end we did find the place, despite Ivor ranting incessantly about leopards (“Come on, we are in the middle of the city!” … “Yes! Leopards come to the city, I’ve watched documentaries!” … “Leopards are shy and smart cats.” … “They come and snatch small children and attack people having a smoke!” … “There are no leopards here.” … “Then why are all these dogs hiding inside? It’s leopards!” … “These dogs look rabid.” … “Dogs are okay, the leopards are bothering me!” … “Stop it.” … “Leopards!”).
For anyone having found themselves in a similarly precarious nicotine situation, here are the six simple steps to the paradise of smoke:
1) from the ground level go the western sector of the huge parking house in front of the main airport hall.
2) ride the escalator all the way up to level 10.
3) enter the first staircase and pass the dog, guardian of the stairs (yes, there is one, and it’s usually sleeping and generally benign).
4) descend to level 8 and exit the staircase.
5) go right and around the corner.
6) stop at the ashtray and light up.
We found ourselves a … well, a smoking lounge, and you can bet we were the only foreigners who knew about it!
The hours finally started to roll faster, and soon it was time for our last flight – to our beloved Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat.
We collected our … skiing equipment, were greeted by the organizers of IKF Gujarat 2023, squished into a cab – and drove right into the utterly berserk, totally Indian chaos of Amdavadi traffic. A great joy to the two of us who had experienced it before, a huge terror (at first) for the newcomer …
Traffic in India is notorious, but after one overcomes the shock and awe of everyone moving in every direction at the same time, it becomes clear the traffic is actually very efficient for its astonishing volume and rather narrow streets designed back when the cities were still towns and most people couldn’t afford a car. The rules are few and simple: 1) the bigger the vehicle you are in, the more right of way you have; 2) never ever stop; 3) if your horn is defective, your vehicle is not roadworthy; 4) tolerate every move others make.
The last rule is actually the most important one – it’s the reason why drivers don’t kill each other with their bare hands. The amount of tolerance on the streets of Ahmedabad can seem bizarre to a European above-average driver (they say 85 % of drivers in Slovenia think they are above average), used to non-stop cursing other (incompetent) drivers, road raging, sounding the horn of doom each time a granny in an ancient Fiat doesn’t accelerate in the first 0.01 seconds after the light goes green.
In India the horn is not a weapon, but a communication device. “I am right behind you on your left, going there.” “I see you, go ahead!” … and what one does on the road is absolutely none of other drivers’ business. Tolerate and be tolerated. Someone suddenly makes a U-turn in the middle of a six lane road? He must have forgotten something, what do I know – let them do it! Honk honk! A disintegrating rickshaw dives daringly on the far left into the intersection only to turn right across all lanes at full speed of 25 km/h? If that’s what it wants to do, who am I to interfere. Go ahead, and godspeed! Honk!
One of the consequences of this simple rule-based traffic is that crossing the road turns into an adventure, a skill to be mastered – and we still fondly remember when we first managed to cross a four(ish) lane street with a central divide without stopping to catch our breath in the middle (the commemorative plaque honouring this special event will be placed here).
The way to cross a road we devised through trials and close-call errors is this: trust the drivers, as nobody wants to kill you (this part needs a serious brain effort); avoid looking at the vehicles, as the eye contact with the driver makes them assume you know what you are doing, but you don’t; and don’t stop for anything until you reach either the central divide (to catch a breath) or the other side (to celebrate a successful crossing).
Anyway, after the terrifying drive and heart-stopping road crossings we settled into a nice hotel, we hugged our friends – and it was time to start the music, a time to light the lights: IKF Gujarat 2023 was about to begin!
Kite flying in India in general, and in Gujarat in particular, is a serious matter. Everyone flies kites – those little patang fighters – and everyone can fly kites better than you. The International Kite Festival IKF Gujarat is probably the greatest in the world, a real world championships of kiters – this year, coming back from a COVID hiatus, it boasted kite flying teams from 75 countries and a huge contingent of flyers from almost every state and territory of India. The kite flying ground on the bank of the river Sabarmati is huge and meticulously prepared, with neat little tents for every participating team, a fairground for visitors with souvenir sellers and foodstalls, a big stage and an even bigger sound system.
The big stage was set for the great opening ceremony … the parade of participants, each waving the flag, went for almost half an hour, supported by the loudspeakers blaring the tune from The Bridge on the River Kwai (it was an ominous sign that we didn’t really get then). The crowds were clapping, screaming, taking selfies, the VIPs were standing on the stage waiting in vain for all this to end quickly (it didn’t – there were speeches of prominent politicians and a (very good) cultural programme still to be held) … It’s actually quite a feeling to be a part of this fantastic event, representing a small country halfway around the world away!
One of the VIPs on the stage was from Slovenia, and as our parade was over and we started to fly kites, a hilarious encounter ensued.
“Hey, Shahir, come quickly, I want you to meet someone!”
Shahir is the international coordinator of the fabulous One India Kite Club, and one of the most prominent kite people in India.
“Who is it?”
“Is it a woman?” he asked with sparks in his eyes.
“Yes, Shahir, it is a woman!”
He increased his pace and we almost ran to our team entertaining the guest.
“Shahir, please meet the Honourable Ambassador of the Republic of Slovenia, Madam Mateja Vodeb Ghosh!”
Shahir was a bit shocked, but quickly gathered his bearings. A selfie session with all of One India Kite Team was of course a necessity, joined by Zmajoljupci – Croatian Kite Association, and even the Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mr. Muhamed Čengić! Then the Ambassador tried to fly some kites. With the expert guidance of members of KAP Jasa – kite team Slovenia, and One India Kite Team, Madam Vodeb Ghosh not only flew them, but – as she herself stated! – found a new passion!
The first day is the longest, they say, and this one was no exception. It almost never ended: as we gathered on the rooftop of our hotel with our friends from Poland to chill out and reminisce, a couple of Batmans attacked us while we tried to see if something in the tree is a large bird or not.
But let’s leave that for Chapter 2 – in which we fight Batmans, break a Guinness world record, eat the best food ever, and stage a mutiny on the bus.