Tag Archives: Travelogue

The Chronicles of Europe #5 – Stranded in Switzerland and other Tales

Why would I write about this now, you ask? Well, 2 things.

1. To get the fingers twitching again.

2. Because the events herein need to be catalogued, if only for the aspiring Euro tripper who lands up on these pages and is grateful for the information (Hey there!).

So let’s dig in.

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Timeline: Europe, October 2013

Somewhere between all the drinking and not attending classes on student exchange from the IIM Bangalore, we decided to get our asses to Switzerland. Less to experience the Kashmir of the west, and more to tick off the countries on our list. I’m unsure of the route we took to get there. In all likelihood it was jumping on a train from Brussels via Germany and into Interlaken, the first port of call.

There’s no two ways to put this. Switzerland is beautiful, and it hits you as soon as you enter the country. If you’ve seen Bollywood movies and wondered whether the directors chose the best places in Switzerland to shoot, I have an answer – the whole country is a postcard. You could superimpose Heidi on any landscape, and the story would come to life, almost exactly in the same way as in the book. Cows, mountains, streams, lakes, snow, houses, streets. It all fit.

SR and me set up shop in a hostel in Interlaken, and headed off to a quick dinner with an Australian girl (all of 19, and backpacking alone through Europe. Fancy that). Back at the hostel, we got a taste of Swiss hospitality when the guy at the reception offered to take us to a quaint pub in town. (Or so we thought. Turns out he was just putting the moves on the Australian girl, and thought we were companions. Bummer.)

The next day is when things got interesting. SR and me headed off on the Golden Pass express to Montreux, where after a grueling train journey which was the hallmark of his stay in Montpellier, AR would be joining us. I won’t dwell on the Golden Pass journey much, except saying that it’s a definite must do, and the huge glass windows on the train allow you to immerse yourselves in Switzerland. If you’re a lover of train journeys, this is most definitely for you. (PS: SR made use of the quiet train ride to indulge in a nap, which led to it being renamed The Golden Passout Railway by yours truly). Long story short, we arrive in Montreux, AR arrived late as usual, we hung around the lake for a while, made a failed attempt to catch a boat, and decided to head to back to Interlaken to plot further action.

The Golden Passout Railway (you really can’t blame SR for passing out.)

We switched trains at Bern and here’s where things took a turn for the worse. Due to a combination of prior events, I was travelling on a first class Eurail pass whereas AR and SR were not. Those who’ve applied for a Eurail pass will know that persons above a certain age limit (you don’t need to know how much) (ok it’s 26) MUST travel only on a first class pass. Apart from paying 35% more than the standard pass, it doesn’t change much visibly for the traveler (unlike India where the difference between second class and AC coaches is stark). So here I was, alone in first class, and looking forward to a quiet hour on the way to Interlaken. This was approximately when I had the brilliant idea of leaving my bag on my seat and heading off to the washroom. Here’s a rough list of the thoughts running through my head –

  1. Nobody steals in Switzerland. Why would there be thieves in such a beautiful country?
  2. Everybody is so nice.
  3. It’s a first class coach!
  4. I’ll cover my bag with my jacket. Nobody looks under a jacket.

I returned two minutes later to find my jacket as I had left it. But my bag was not where I had left it. Evidently someone had figured out where I had cleverly hidden it. Underneath my jacket. On a seat in a train. Without asking anyone around to watch.

Here’s what was running through my head then: Uh oh.

Why? Here’s a list of what my bag contained.

  1. Passport with visa which allowed me to travel in the Schengen zone
  2. My camera
  3. My Kindle
  4. My iPod
  5. My Eurail pass – giving me unfettered access to the vast and brilliant train system in Europe.

(The thief, however, was kind enough to leave my jacket behind. Really nice person. Now I wouldn’t freeze my balls off in jail when I was caught for traveling without valid papers. Thankfully I had my wallet on me at the time, which basically meant I could spend all my remaining money in ridiculously expensive Switzerland while trying to get a new passport made. See! There’s always a silver lining! Sigh.)

I temporarily stopped thinking about all the bad things that were about to go down, and tried to focus on the (hopefully) productive task of trying to find out the whereabouts of my bag. Everyone was generally very helpful, after they had expressed the requisite amount of shock that I had managed to get something stolen while in Switzerland. (This was a recurring theme. The opinion, in general, was that I had misplaced the bag somewhere, instead of it being stolen. For a while I genuinely felt I was the first guy who’d come to them complaining of a theft – ever. The police in Bern even went as far as telling me to wait a few days to see if the bag turned up on its own. Maybe I’d forgotten it under my bed when I left the hostel in the morning? All of these helpful comments eventually made me feel even more stupid – I felt like I was the only one in a few millennia to get something stolen in Switzerland.)

Me after being stupid and getting my stuff stolen in Switzerland

After the conductor and a few fellow passengers fruitlessly tried to find my bag on the train, I realized it was time to resign myself to my fate. At worst I’d be deported, at best I’d be able to stay on but not travel.

So this was how AR and SR found me when we finally got to Interlaken. I was standing outside my compartment when AR and SR walked up. I was apparently too calm while I recounted what happened, which led them to believe I was lying (just like the Bern police). It was only once I’d convinced them that was not the case, and that I really had lost my passport, that they came in to their own. (By that I mean hurling the choicest abuse at me, and then taking charge, which included a trip back to Bern, searching on all the platforms of the station, including the trash cans, asking the cops for help, and then giving up and hurling more abuse. Exactly what friends are for).

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Back at the hostel, we decided there was only one course of action. File a police report, and get our asses to the Indian embassy in Bern. The next few days were spent going through the rigmarole of Indian bureaucracy in Bern. (God has evidently decreed that the bureaucracy will follow us Indians everywhere). Part of this included an unnecessary delay in figuring out the process to get a new passport. (This was of course blamed by AR on me. In his own words “Aise time pe thoda rona chahiye, itna chilled out rehke bolega embassy mein ki passport chahiye to gh**ta milega.” What is a man supposed to do I ask?)

Big shout out to RK, who somehow managed to find a contact in the Indian Foreign Service, and after the requisite introductions were made, the whole process of getting a new passport became less hare brained. Remember when I told you the Indian bureaucracy never leaves us? Yea, that’s right. Jugaad. (All this just when I had prepped myself to stream a few tears down my cheeks. All that practice wasted).

While me and AR tried to sort out stuff in Berne, SR took off for Brussels to see if he could do something there and try and get me another visa. (Turned out you couldn’t get a visa stamped while I was in a Schengen country, or at least couldn’t.) The next three days in Bern were pretty much spent in and around the Indian embassy. (Bern is a beautiful city by the way). Day three was when I finally managed to get the passport in my hands. (AR also takes some credit for finding possibly the only Kannadiga in Berne – this was someone who worked the reception at the embassy. Turns out him and AR were almost neighbours back in Bangalore. Fancy that. By the time we left he almost had an invitation for lunch. I declined, chiefly because I wanted to get the hell out of there.) So I wouldn’t be deported, but it increasingly looked like I would confine myself to Belgium for the duration of the trip. Not the worst thing to happen. (More on that later).

The new passport called for celebration, and AR and me obliged by getting smashed near the famous Bear park, trying to talk to some bears, getting late for our train to Zurich, running like mad to the train station (resulting in AR’s glasses getting lost, but hey, at least it wasn’t his passport right? If this trip had taught me anything it was that you always had to look on the bright side.)

Bear Park – Last day in Bern

So it was in suitably high spirits (pun intended) that we arrived in Zurich, and were met by DM, a friend of my cousin’s, and we were shown around the good places in Zurich. This too, though, was not without incident, with the chief among them being walking around in circles in Zurich courtesy our collective inability to read iOs maps. (or maybe it was the beer. Not really sure.) Big shout out to DM for being a kick-ass host!

But the saga doesn’t end there. I had to make RR (aka HotRod) cut short his trip in Eastern Europe and come to Berne to pick me up. I was still traveling on a passport without a visa, and there were a few moments when Border police got into our coach when I started packing my stuff and getting ready to spend a night in European prison, but thankfully, I managed to make it to Brussels in one piece.

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If there’s one takeaway from this whole experience, it is that you should never leave your bag unattended, no matter which country you are in. But if you do manage to be as stupid/careless as I was, it does help to have friends around (mostly to share beer with).

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My “Will be seen at an airport” list.

1 person reading “The Fountainhead”

1 hot girl travelling alone, and trying hard to ignore the stares.

1 extremely overpriced food stall, comes free with one pot bellied guy staking it out.

1 family with 3 over excited kids and the mother trying hard to herd them in.

1 bored business man talking on his smartphone and typing on his laptop simultaneously

1 Malayalee traveling to the “Gelf”

How do you pass the time when youre on a long train journey with no company?

1. Sleep: First choice for me, but unsuitable for those who are averse to cramped spaces, incessant jerks, and a constant “chug chug” sound. But for those who can brave this, a nightout the day before and an upper berth makes for  a perfect combination.
2. Read: But again theres only so much of your reading that you can catch u on when the book and you are moving on two disjoint axes.
3. Music: An iPod can be a godsend, (I typed much of this on mine 😛 in hour 1 of my lonely trip back to KGP)
4. Ogle: Statutory warning: can cause risk to life and limb. Also severely restricted by the random selection of travelmates you have around you (I somehow always seem to end up with families, and no there are never any pretty girls around.  :|)
For those who want to give this a shot and want a strictly algorithmic approach, read Vinayak’s blog. He doesnt have a post dedicated to this, but the way he approaches the vagaries of life (taking a crap, chappals and the like) should give you some inspiration. To add my two cents read this/
5. Text random people: The girl you’re eyeing in college. The chaddi dost you havent talked to in a while, Random cousin. Hot female you met on internship. The guy on the next seat. Whoever. Its fun.
6. Write: Its what I did :).
7. Sudoku! Carry the days newspaper along. Sure fire way to spend an hour.

any more ideas on how to spend time are welcome.

The Lord of War

Its absolutely amazing how boring a train journey can be. Especially when its a long one (42 hours in my case). After reading the days paper twice and trying (unsuccessfully) to solve a four star sudoko, I laid to rest my ambitions, and resigned myself to a boring journey.
Whats also amazing is how seemingly ordinary persons have extra ordinary stories attached to them. I met one such man on this journey.
I will refer to him only as G. How we were introduced is irrelevant. What is relevant is this mans story. Here is what I gleaned from our conversation:
Born and brought up in Kerala, his early life was run of the mill. Complete graduation, marry, have kids, and in the manner of the majority of Keralites, move to the gulf to find a good job. Now G always had an eye for business, and when his low paying job didn’t yield enough, he promptly teamed up with a local and got into the restaurant business. Business was good, but not as good as he would have liked. G was still on the lookout for greater things.
His life changed forever one fine afternoon some years ago. The war in Iraq had broken out. Armies from all across the world were pouring into friendly middle east countries. With them came massive infrastructure, massive requirements and unimaginable amounts of money. It all started when an officer of the army (probably Italian) , approached him with a plan to get a share of the war pie. The job was simple. Procurement and transportation of goods required for the army. Not ammo and the like. But non lethal stuff like towels blankets, toothpaste and other items for daily use in the huge camps that they were setting up. G saw his chance, and with one eye on the money he jumped in. Starting a huge operation like this was not possible for an indian in the Gulf without official backing. It involved heavy collusion with officials. But G got lucky when someone with connections in the government offered to be his partner. All official doorways were now open.
Now G’s business involved supplying camps near the border in Iraq. It didn’t take long for him to figure out that this was a gold mine of opportunity. The camps were given a fixed amount of money (no small change,; sometimes the figure ran into hundreds of millions), for a fixed period, say 1 month. which they could spend as they pleased. For the army, money was not a problem. What they wanted was results. If they asked for a million blankets by midnight the next day, and if they got it, they were willing to pay anything.With such huge amounts involved, corruption is inescapable. G supplied the camps with the goods,on time and in full, and asked them to write out highly inflated bills, which they did happily. All they wanted was their cut, and G was more than happy to give it to them.
An example:
One such force wanted 10 million mosquito coils in 2 days. G approached the seaports. There was a shipment of coils lying in the harbor with no one to buy them. G bought out the captain of the ship. The shipment was his to do with as he pleased. He transported it as contraband, and under the cover of night to the base. He paid off the army men, delivered the shipment and hightailed it back across the border. Profit? Check this : When you buy a packet of coils in India you get five coils in a box for something like 40 rupees. G sold Each of the coils as a single coil. And each one was sold for 40 dollars. American. The army asked no questions. They had the goods they wanted. Everyone else was on G’s payroll anyway.
He dealt in all kinds of things: laptops, electronics cigarettes, you name it and he would get it for you. All for a price of course. Within a year he was raking in the moolah. He set up an office worth crores and had 40 foreign staff on his payroll. Life was looking good.
It all changed one day when he returned from a business trip to find his office hijacked by his own partner, his partner with connections to the royal family. It was all he could do escape with his life. He stowed away on a Russian cargo plane en route to Moscow, and somehow made it back to India. But he didn’t come empty handed. With him were a couple of suitcases of cash. He was waiting for the exchange rate to shoot up so that he can cash it all in.
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I cannot claim to authenticate each and every detail, but I heard it from the man himself. this was the sort of stuff you see in movies . You don’t expect these sort of people to pop up in train compartments. And yet there he was, and here is his story. Those who have seen the Nicholas Cage movie “The Lord of War” can draw parallels.