Searching for a SIM card and Shabana!

I wake early and enjoy the tranquillity of a Mumbai Sunday morning, sounds strange in a city of 20 million. Fortunately Swapan's travel memento decorated apartment is in a 'gated community' which has no through road and security guards so it is shielded from the hustle and bustle outside. After a simple vegetable omelette and bread breakfast which Swapan kindly prepared it was time to put the bike together, praying that the various airport baggage handlers had been kind to Dhanya and nothing was bent out of shape. Befitting her name luck and fortune were on our side and she went back together perfectly and in no time, with some trepidation, I was cycling out of the calmness of Swapan’s ‘compound’ to experience the streets of Mumbai…

The traffic was certainly an eye-opener. Black and yellow auto-rickshaws buzzing around like annoying wasps and moving as erratically, these were joined by lumbering old buses pulling over and continually cutting me up with no warning – it felt as if there is a conspiracy to test my patience. Added to this the dreadful state of the roads, potholes all over the place, scarily ill-fitting manhole covers, piles of rubble and rubbish, and the general bumpiness caused by shoddy workmanship. The constantly changing road surfaces added to the mayhem, concrete, tarmac and bizarrely block paving which of course has become very uneven with blocks missing here and there. And finally I must not forget to mention the people crossing the road with widely differing ideas as to the concept of ‘right of way’. All of this makes for very slow, stop/start cycling, I just couldn’t get into any sort of rhythm. As I was getting to grips with all this, with raised eyebrows I reflected on Swapan’s words, “It’s Sunday today so the traffic will not be so bad”!

As we are becoming more and more reliant on our mobile phones to stay connected my challenge for the day, other than negotiating the traffic in one piece, was to obtain an Indian SIM card. Based on my experience of getting SIM cards in other countries I had assumed this would be a straightforward process, but oh no… “Sir, I need proof of your permanent address in India” I hear repeatedly from SIM card sellers. “But I’m a tourist so I don’t have a permanent address, how about my passport?” I plead. “Sorry sir cannot, government rule since 26/11” they explain. 26/11/08 being the date of the Mumbai terror attacks in which 164 people were killed

Feeling a little despondent I cycle around the bumpy roads of Andheri (East) wondering how I can get my hands on a SIM card when suddenly through the dust and beyond a half constructed concrete flyover a beacon of light appears before me… the magical golden arches… The air-conditioned calmed interior being a welcomed relief from the heat and chaos outside. As I walk up to the counter I scan the overhead menu board, McVeggie, McChicken, Fillet-o-Fish, even a McSpicy Paneer, but no Big Mac, “What’s going on, no Big Mac!” I wonder to myself. I am just about to embarrass myself and ask where the missing Big Macs are when it suddenly clicks, ‘Holy Cow!’, of course Hindu’s consider cows sacred and do not eat beef… So a McChicken Meal it is and at $2.20 the cheapest McDonalds Meal I have ever had :-)

The following morning, still SIM-less, I fully load the bike as I have to make my way 10km across northern Mumbai to the coastal district of Juhu. I have an appointment with Shabana Azmi, the patron of the Mijwan Welfare Society, the organisation which I have chosen to raise funds for whilst striving to be the first person to circumnavigate (as closely as possible) India by bicycle. A few media interviews had been set up and we thought it would be best for the photos to have the bike fully laden plus me wearing the custom designed cycle jerseys (provided courtesy of JoyRide Sportswear, a China based cycle clothing supplier – www.joyridecustom.com).

Shabana’s late father, the noted Urdu poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi, believed that in a country like India where 80% of the population lives in villages, the villagers need to be empowered if the country is to make any real progress. To help facilitate this belief in 1993 he formed an NGO in the poor north Indian village where he was born, Mijwan in Uttar Pradesh, hence the Mijwan Welfare Society. To realise his dream he established a Higher Secondary School for Girls, a Computer Learning Centre and a Stitching & Embroidery School in the village. As well as improving education he set up a Farmer’s Club where the latest low cost efficient farming techniques were discussed in an attempt to raise families’ incomes. In addition a Women’s Self Help group was created to empower and encourage the participation of women in earning, small savings & micro financing. For the rest of his days Kaifi worked tirelessly for the empowerment of the people of Mijwan, especially the women. For more information regarding the work that the Mijwan Welfare Society does please take a look at www.mijwan.org.

After Kaifi passed away in 2002 Shabana took on the role of becoming the organisations chief patron. By this time Shabana had already become a noted social and women’s rights activist in India, however she was / is better known for her Indian acting career most notably in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. She is widely regarded as being one of India’s finest actresses, having appeared in over 120 Hindi films and has won numerous national acting awards. In 1984 she married Javed Akhtar a prominent lyricist, poet and Bollywood scriptwriter, cementing them as one of Indian glitterati’s most enduring couples.

With the help of Swapan I plan my route over to Juhu attempting to avoid the major express ways and head off early just to ensure I am not late for Shabana. The traffic and road conditions are much the same as yesterday, and riding the fully loaded bike, an additional 28kg, the constant stop / starting is fairly tedious to say the least. After just over an hour and only one wrong turn I arrive in Juhu and find the apartment complex where Shabana’s ‘office’ is located. As I’m 3 hours early! I take a short cycle around the Juhu area. It is one of Mumbai’s wealthier areas and comprises of winding tree-lined shady lanes and a number of ‘gated-community’ apartment blocks overlooking the sea, it is all very serene compared to the mayhem I had cycled through to arrive here (it even includes a road named after Kaifi Azmi!). After taking one of the lanes that leads down to the sea and having a quick look at the sprawling white sandy beach (shame it is generally advised not to swim in the sea due to pollution), I decide to hunt out an internet café. Easier said than done… and I end up sitting in a non-internet Western styled coffee chain, Café Coffee Day, Now when it comes to being a coffee snob I rank fairly low, however I fancied a Cappuccino, “Do you have a coffee menu?” I ask the ‘Barista’, “No sorry sir, not have. What coffee you want?”, “A Cappuccino please”, “Sorry sir not have”, “So what coffee do you have?” I enquire, “Hot or cold coffee sir” was the surprising answer…

As I sit back and sip my hot coffee accompanied by a samosa watching the world go by, I notice a shop across the road selling SIM cards. “Ah! What the heck” I think to myself, “Let’s give it another go, what have I got to lose?”. I wander over to the shop fully expecting the same futile discussion as the day before, “Hi, I would like to buy a SIM card” I tentatively enquire with a hint of desperation in my voice, “Sure, I just need a copy of your passport and visa and a photo”, he replies without the slightest hesitation – Halleluiah! Halleluiah! Halleluiah! is racing through my mind as I hand over the required documents, and within 10 minutes I have a 3G enabled Indian SIM card safely secured in my phone. “It will take about 30 minutes to activate, after that you are ready to go”, explains the vendor – once again the choral Halleluiah! Halleluiah! Halleluiah! is filling my mind. Back in the coffee shop after the 30 minutes has passed I make a test call and it works! I then test to see if the internet connection works – Halleluiah! Halleluiah! Halleluiah! accompanied by an awesome fireworks display fills my head!! “Yes, yes, yes, I am once again connected to the world!” I shout to myself. Says a lot about the world we live in when obtaining that small rectangular piece of plastic means so much…

At 3:15pm I meet Saleha, Shabana’s assistant, outside the ‘gated compound’ and after the usual pleasantries, after all we had been communicating via email for the best part of a year she leads me to Shabana’s ‘office’. We walk out of the lift and the ‘office’ door is opened… Wow! It’s not like any office I have been to before. Saleha introduces me to a couple of the Mijwan Welfare Society staff as I gaze around the apartment, as this is surely what it is rather than an ‘office’. There is a small reception area which is very sleek with futuristic transparent lucite furniture and silver domed lighting. Saleha invites me through to the next large room which is beautifully decorated, wooden parquet flooring interspersed with quality rugs, various stylish contemporary sofas break up the space, each with their own coffee table featuring beautiful fresh floral displays, and works of modern art adorn the lightly painted walls. The entire cream v coffee colour scheme is very calming and it makes for a wonderful ‘entertaining’ space. Shortly afterwards Shabana glides in looking delightful in a terracotta coloured traditional shalwar kameez, and orange scarf, wearing a big smile, “Hello Mark, I’m so pleased to meet you”, I repeat the salutations as we shake hands. Straight away she makes me feel at ease and we exchange pleasantries as I notice Shabana pointing a remote control towards the shades. As the shades begin to rise I am awestruck by what I see, floor to ceiling plate glass windows giving an uninterrupted 180 degree panorama out over the Arabian sea – breath-taking!

Meeting Shabana Azmi!!!

Over the course of the next couple of hours we exchange small talk in between the various interviews and photo shoots, including the Mumbai Times and BBC Radio. Shabana then graciously makes her excuses as she has to leave so that she can attend Lara Dutta’s (an Indian actress and former Miss Universe) baby shower. This being a celebration of pending childbirth where gifts are given to the soon-to-be parents. Traditionally the intent was for women to share their well-earned child-rearing wisdom and lesson and advise on the art of becoming a mother.

It truly was a magical afternoon and I had to occasionally pinch myself to make sure it was actually happening. Shabana is a charming, elegant and delightful woman, who is definitely doing more than most to assist those in India who are less fortunate through no fault of their own.

Shabana, Me and perhaps most importantly Dhanya (the bike)

However, the sense of feeling ‘special’ or ‘privileged’ did not last long as soon I was back fighting Mumbai’s roads and rush-hour traffic on my fully laden bike, becoming sweaty, dusty and dirty! That evening as it was my last night staying with Swapan we went out for a meal in a local restaurant where I got my first taste of Kingfisher Beer in India – Kingfisher Strong no less…

11 to 12-12-11

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