Sunday, February 19, 2006

Watching Sachin at Gadaffi: Part I - The Crossing Over

During my college days, I had heard a lot about Lahore being the greatest city of the sub-continent. True, when you talk to the Punjabis, they have more emotional tales to narrate, with their ancestors having actually undergone the trauma of what remains for us simply a piece of national history, albeit a poignant one.
Anyways, once I got the opportunity to go and watch an India-Pakistan ODI in Lahore, I simply jumped at the opportunity. The match would have been a third one of the series, which would have meant the series would be surely undecided by then. I could have witnessed either of the two teams losing, or one team taking the lead in a crucial part of the series.
The match was to be held on Monday, a day before the Valentine's day. So this would have meant taking a two-day leave from office. Since there was a 5-member team going from office, this meant actually asking for a mass leave. I took it under the garb of a 'cultural trip', with the promise that come rain and hail, I will be back in office by Wednesday.
The plan was to go to Amritsar via a night train on Feb-11 (Saturday), cross over the border on Feb-12, witness the match on Feb-13, cross back on Feb-14 and catch the evening Shatabdi train from Amritsar to reach back in Delhi by the night. Well, the night train for going to Amritsar was supposed to arrive at the Delhi station at 2005 hours, leave by 2105 hours and reach Amritsar at 0840 hours the next day. We had some inkling that crossing over the border is usually a time-taking experience, with two immigration clearances of relatively hostile nations and hence possibly archaic rules and regulations involved. Hence, we had planned to rush to the border as soon as the train arrived in Amritsar, especially as the crossing was allowed only upto 1530 hours (or so we thought or knew).
Anyways, we reached the New Delhi railway station after gobbling down a quick round of beer and tandoori chicken at an old favorite, 'Amber' in CP. The train was supposedly half an hour late, and progressively kept getting delayed. When we learnt that it was to arrive at 2245 hours (with a possible departure at 2345 hours), we got slightly nervous. There was news that the crossover tomorrow would be chaotic. Basically, the Pakistani High Commission was issuing three day visas for each match - Day 0 for viewing the match, -1 for crossing over and 1 for crossing back. Any by a stroke of luck, Day -1 in this case happened to be on a Sunday. On Sundays, the only way to cross over the border was the land route through Wagah - no other mode of transport, like air, rail or bus is available on Sundays.
We decided to try our luck, there were actually four of us. The Indian Railways has a ruling that you get full refund on tickets if the train is more than three hours late. So instead of us waiting for the train to get delayed by fifteen minutes more, the railways immediately obliged us by announcing the arrival of the trains at 0045 hours. We decided to take the road route. There was bus available upto Jalandhar for 400 bucks each, otherwise go to Amritsar in the cabin of a bus with the same amount. Our office Tavera driver offered us the car at 9000 bucks, with the toll taxes to be borne by us.
Finally, we settled down for an Indica for 5000 bucks, all-inclusive. As we sat waiting for our Indica, a middle-class Sardar ji came with his Qualis. He was somewhat of a character like Shahrukh Khan in 'Chalte Chalte' (who says his films are fantasy), and owned a fleet of transport vehicles. He had just got an international tourist party from Jaipur-Agra, and was just waiting to settle his dues with the operator. We tried to upgrade, and finally the deal was settled at 6500 bucks. It was a Deluxe nine-seater Qualis, and the four of us left Delhi around 0030 hours. Two each were stationed on the two seats, and after trying out a lot of postures (sounds kinky?!), I decided the old yogic meditative position was the best one to try and sleep in a Qualis. I am decent at sleeping in odd positions, and I think I managed some three hours of sleep, dreaming about a better life and career once I get back. We reached Amritsar at 7am, and landed up at a hotel where our fifth companion was putting up. After a quick round of tea, brushing and ablutions, all five of us left for the Wagah border. The taxi cost us 600 bucks, when the estimate was 25 bucks per head.
We reached Wagah around 830 am, and saw a decent queue of around 80-strong (picture above, right). However, the scene changed quickly to the one on the right. Basically, a few people landed up who knew the BSF/Custom guys, and hence were ushered into the immigration quarter through private routes. The people who were in the 200th position in the queue now (the crowds had built up) thought that maybe they should also try their luck. What this meant was the pressure built up on the gates. They were scheduled to open by 1000 hours, but there was no action. Finally, by 1130 hour, people lost their patience, and cutting across gender and age barriers, starting jumping a locked gate. We took shame in our youth and claim to fitness, and followed suite. After that, we saw a entire mob banging on the locked door of the immigration room. We decided to take the back-door, and entered the room via an entry restricted to authorized personnel. The scene inside was the worst case of crown-uncontrol I have witnessed. Four counters, no air-conditioner, I think a 20X30 room, the authorized door broken down by a mob, and finally 1000 people on that room.
I had heard that 8000 visas had been issued, and I thought there were 10000 people there then. However, as I was later to learn, only 3000 visas had been issued, and in hindsight, they were enough to cause the commotion. I and one colleague thought we might as well turn back and return to India. Finally, our self-assumed leader managed to tieup with another group of tourists and by 1300 hours, decided to cross over to the other side. One brave guys from our side decided to stick it out, and by 1400 had the prized immigration clearance for the remaining four of us.
We crossed over to the Pakistani side, and glimpsed the tall Pakistani rangers. On television, I had seen the buffoonery the two sides indulge in when they lower the flags in the evening. I am very sure that this comic spectacle has no role in today's modern world. If I was the BSF commander of the region, I would put a stop to this jokerai immediately.
At the final point of crossing, BSF asks you to enter your name and sign against it in a register. Possibly as precursor to the things to come, the Rangers do the needful themselves. They simply collect passports and enter it by themselves. While returning our passports, the Rangers struggled to pronounce the name of a couple of our companions from South India. While one R. Venkat was identified by Tamil Nadu, a mallu PramodPP had his entire postal address (except for the pincode) in his name. So the ranger simply gave up and looked for him personally.
The border looks exactly similar on both sides, with the mustard fields made famous by Yash Chopra on both sides of the fence. The electrified fence runs through the zero line, and again I realized how the Bollywood films are not all fantasy. We crossed the famous post, made even more famous by Veer-Zaara. And once we crossed over, saw our leader standing in the queue on the Paki immigration side.
This really took the wind out of my sail, he had crossed over an hour earlier and was still wating. However, as we figured out, in his haste to be over-smart, he had submitted his passport and a visa form at different counters, and was just struggling to get back the both of them together. Ultimately, he had to pay a bribe of 1000 Rs. to get his papers back, possibly served him right for showing such haste and impatience.
I stood in the queue, but found the Paki side more responsive. Realizing that the pressure at a single window was building up, they put a table out in the open, to clear travelers manually. Once that also started getting jam-packed, they put another man out there. So in terms of pure on-the-spot management, the Pakistani customs won the day hands down.
Finally, the final clearance was required from customs. To prove to us how similar Pakistan is to India, an agent struck a deal with us for Rs. 500 to clear our luggage. Before we could realize whether we needed the deal or not, he went into a room, entered our passport nos., and immediately asked us to go. There was no proof whether he had actually done anything, and we realized since we anyway had bribed the man, we might as well had slipped in some booze.
anyways ways, we were now free to enter literally the hallowed land of the Muslims of the subcontinent, PAKISTAN.

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