The Sockeyed Blog

Ben Johnson's Blog


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I have arrived in India just in time for Diwali. Even at 10:30 in the morning, the boom from enormous firecrackers is resonating off the buildings in the area. I am in the apartment of Ramachandran and Meena in the district of Powai, on the edge of Mumbai not too far from the airport. Derek met Ramachandran on a train about five years ago when Derek joined a conversation in Gujarati. They have been friends ever since. Ramachandran and Meena are a lively and outgoing couple, with two grown sons and a grandson in the US. They have been lovely and relaxed hosts.

I touched down just before lunchtime yesterday and moved fairly quickly through immigration and customs despite many steps that keep an army of hundreds employed: swine flu screening, passport and visa check, 2nd passport check, baggage pickup, baggage x-ray, then finally customs slip collection. Nonetheless, I was through much more quickly than I was 10 year ago.

I changed some money (42 RS to the dollar), prepaid a taxi and rode in a fantastic ancient black and yellow tin can for the 45 minutes to Powai. It reintroduced me to Indian chaos: traffic tore around irrationally, horns sounded constantly, children thrust their arms into the car for coins and candy, the driver cursed a blue streak at everything (even I understood what he was suggesting be done to certain mothers), potholes and ruts were bounced through, and I noticed how everything in the world seemed coated in brown dust.

After some searching, the driver found Ramachandran and Meena’s place, and my hosts greeted me warmly. They live in a very pleasant area with a fair amount of greenery and a view towards a lake. When they moved here in 1989, theirs was the only complex in the area; now they are surrounded by a forest of startlingly-neoclassical highrises with what looks like Roman temples on the top of each. It has become quite a high-end area with many shops and a mass of call centres servicing N. American and European companies. In all, it’s a gentle re-introduction to India.

Ramachandran took me on a couple of walks to show me the area, one after I arrived, and one around dusk. The traffic was largely dysfunctional – trucks pulled out and blocked entire lanes, and people abandoned cars and wives in moving lanes to buy diwali sweets or groceries.

Diwali, the festival of light, is just getting started, with today as the first full day. Buildings are lit up, flowers and lanterns are hung, days off of work are given, and many a firework and firecracker are lit off. It is quite astounding what it legal in terms of calibre of explosive. At night it sounds a bit like an artillery barrage.

Strings of marigolds - Diwali decorations

Designs made with coloured sand are created on the threshold of houses

Nonetheless, I was sound asleep when Derek arrived at about 11:30 last night. Poor guy had flown all the way from Winnipeg via Toronto and Zurich. I continued to sleep well, and found he was already up when I got out of bed at 7:00. Three hours sleep is no good and he is back in bed for a snooze. Ramachandran has just taken us for a walk, and we stopped for some amazing chai across the street from his apartment. When Derek wakes, we’ll head to another neighbourhood and visit his old friends Vinod and Kulpina, whom I met in both 1995 and 1998. It will be very fun to see them again. After that visit, we’ll return to the airport and fly to Rajkot in Gujarat, a short 1 hour flight away.

My full day in Bangkok, the day before yesterday, was really quite successful. I spent the entire time with Piboy, but was also joined by Pinong, the director of the Ozone centre, and Nok, a very nice and capable translator that PSI sent along. The intent was to follow Piboy through most of a standard day for him. It began with a little bit of report writing on his outreach, then we rode a bus to the methadone clinic to get his daily dose. I could feel tension in him before he got the dose, and afterwards could sense he was relaxed and somewhat euphoric. We then went on some outreach together: to IDUs, siblings of IDUs, and female street sex workers. He had a strong rapport with many of the people encountered, and showed warmth, respect and compassion. He chatted and passed out needle kits and condoms, and we covered a lot of ground in the Ban Sue area and also over towards Khao San road.

The highlight was a trip to his fiancée’s house, about half an hour outside of the city core. She, Jeet, is a lovely woman with a glowing smile who met Piboy after hearing him on the radio talking about injection drug use and HIV prevention. She was interested in the subject, so she called in to talk to him and was touched by his warmth. She was a bit surprised by his age when they met – she is 25 and he is 52, but she still fell for him. It was five years ago that they met, and they’ll be married on the 31st.

Jeet lives in quite a traditional set of houses lived in by her father’s side of the family. She shares a small stilt house with her mother (who is not much older than me), and Piboy will move in with them when they’re married. I’m sure that it will be a transition for him as he now lives in a sketchy part of town full of illegal gambling houses.

We sat for some time on the floor of their house drinking Pepsi as I interviewed Jeet and her mother about their relationship with Piboy and took some photographs. Piboy is much respected for the work that he does and the compassion he shows, and his age is actually considered an asset as he is considered mature and settled. I photographed them among the houses and with relatives, then we rolled in a taxi back into town. Piboy stayed out in his future home.

Pinong, Nok and I had a tasty noodle lunch in a simple restaurant, then we walked back to Ozone. I documented a blood test, then left with Nok and we rode the subway then BTS (skytrain) back downtown. Nok and I said goodbye and I went to MBK mall to get a new cell phone. My old one died an ugly death, seemingly suffering dementia and loss of motor control in its old age. For $25, I got a simple new Nokia phone that should serve me well. Its most fancy feature is a flashlight. Of course, I had to visit the food court again. I had papaya salad, mango juice and some noodles that had a few too many entrails and vital organs for my taste.

Back at the hotel, I drank a Cheers beer in my room and packed up for an early-morning departure to India.


Written by sockeyed

October 16, 2009 at 23:47

Posted in Travel

Tagged with , , , , ,

4 Responses

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  1. Oh my god, please tell me you got photos of the neoclassical highrises???


    October 18, 2009 at 12:19

  2. Erm, isn’t this supposed to be a photo blog…?


    October 18, 2009 at 15:40

  3. Wonderful post Ben. I love reading your descriptions of what you see.

    And yes, I’d also love to see photos on your photo blog. 😀


    October 19, 2009 at 17:13

  4. Following along in your adventures, Ben…great posts and very interesting work you are doing. Looking forward to some images!

    david n.

    October 20, 2009 at 11:19

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