When Nargis and Indira Gandhi Rescued Me!

Way back in 1984, I had to visit Cyprus to negotiate some business deals. Cyprus was very competitive for import of products like detergent, edible oils, paper reams etc in bulk, repack them in consumer packs and export them to European and Middle Eastern countries. Most of the manufacturing units were located around Larnaca and Limassol, on its South Coast.

I had to stay there over a weekend.   I was alone.  All commercial offices were closed.  I had nothing to do.  On the Saturday, I hired a car from Hertz.   I went for a beautiful drive to the popular historical places over the south coastal stretch of about 150 km from Limassol to Pephos and back.

After my Saturday drive, I was relaxing in the Hotel lounge and was wondering what I’d do the next day.  Just then, I found a pamphlet in the hotel rack with details of a drive to Mountain Troodas.  The mountain base was at a distance of 45 km and thereafter a steep climb of 6,500 ft.  From the base, it was about a 10 km road to the top of the ice-capped mountain.  It was winter season and was snowing almost every day on the mountain.

Unfortunately the mountain was closed except to those who took it up by foot and had a skiing permit.

Immediately, I wanted to rent a car to drive to the top of mountain Troodas as far as I could.    The car tyres had to have snow chains.  The chains provide grip while driving on snow and keeps the car from skidding.   The car rental company informed me that driving on the mountain was not permitted during winter beyond 2-3km.  Only skiers with permits could climb during that season.  Hertz refused to rent a car to me.  I tried Avis and they refused too.

I wasn’t going to give up, of course.   I decided to drive as far as permitted even if I had to return from the first security gate.  For that distance, I presumed I didn’t need the tyre snow-chains.  I did not go to Hertz or Avis.  I went to a local car rental company and hired a car.  I did not ask for the snow-chains.

I kept the car at the hotel over the night and made an early start on Sunday.  It took me about 45 minutes to reach the base.  I started driving up.  After about 3km, I reached the security post and the gate was open!  There was no guard either.  Maybe, the security did not expect any vehicle to come at that hour in winter!

I had the option to wait there or return.  I had underestimated how cold it would be.  I was not appropriately equipped to face 0-5 deg temperature.  I had just one a formal coat, a jacket, thick socks, woolen gloves and formal leather shoes.  For me, a change from warm weather to snow was an excitement.

There appeared to be no restrictions to go up.  I decided to go further up.  The mountain was covered completely with snow .  There was a thin layer of fresh snow on the road.  It was just thin flakes initially to about a couple of inches or so as I went up.

Slowly and steadily I drove further about 3-4 kms when I heard a car sounding a horn behind me.  I could see it was a security jeep.  I could see in my rear view mirror that they were signaling me to take my vehicle slightly to the left so that they could overtake.  But the road was narrow and covered with snow.  I could not take the risk of giving them enough space to overtake me. Moreover, it was not safe to stop the vehicle on that skidding slope.  After about half a km, there was a spot created for overtaking, where the road was slightly wider and flat.  The security asked me to stop.  I took my car to the side and halted.

They interrogated me severely with several security-related questions.  There were three gentlemen in the jeep, one of them was wearing a military uniform.  They asked me to show the permit to drive up the mountain.  I told them that I was not aware of the need for a permit.

To the question if I hadn’t read the sign at the security gate, I said it was snowing and hence could not notice it.  They said I was silly to have come to that height in a small vehicle without any snow chain and on and on.

Troodas, Cyprus

The car heater was not effective. I told them that I would answer all their questions, but I was shivering and needed a warm place and a hot drink, before I collapse.    The chief security officer ordered me to leave my vehicle there and join him in his vehicle.  I was sure they would investigate further as we were moving further up.

He: Passport?

Me: In Hotel

He: Which country?

Me: India

His colleague busted loudly: “Aaah!  You, from Mother India Nargis and Indira Gandhi!  Joker Raj Kapoor!”  There was a broad smile on his face.  He grasped my hand and continued, “We are friends! We like India.  We love Indians”.

I let out a big sigh of relief, bigger than his smile!  What happened thereafter was very exciting.

After a drive of another half a kilometer, he took me to a small hall.   It was isolated.  There was no one there except a lady sweeping the floor.  It was a coffee shop for the skiers.  They would normally come after 11 am and it was not even 9 am.  My fingers were swollen to the size of my greater toe due to the cold.  There was a fireplace at the center of the restaurant which kept the room warm. Gradually, I stopped shivering.  The coffee house was not yet ready to serve hot beverages.

The Cypriot took me out to his jeep, poured a cup of hot coffee from his flask and said ‘warm up’.  He probably could see a broad smile on my face. As both of us finished our coffee, he asked, “Now what do you want to do?  Stay here for a while or go down right away”.

I said “Neither.  I want to go up. Up further”.  He said something in their local language to his colleague, probably telling him, “This is a mad guy”.  He said, “Even the vehicles with chains cannot go up.  Roads are covered with 3 to 4 feet of snow and in fact it is difficult to trace the road under the snow.   My colleague will take you back to your car” and he left me with him to attend to something else.

I thanked him and asked the person with me, “Are you from security too?”

He: “No, I am the engineer in charge. I maintain the cable line and the satellite tower at the top of the Troodas mountain”.

I asked him, “If there is a problem with the cables at a higher level right now, how would you go?”

He: I have a special 4-wheel drive vehicle.  A dumper truck with snowplows clears the road and my vehicle follows it.   It is a slow process and takes hours to clear even one kilometer.”

Me: “Then I will sit in your vehicle and go with you.  If you can please take me up!”

He gave a friendly stare at me. I reminded him, “Nargeesh, Indeeraa Gyandhi”.  He started laughing and said. “Ok. The mountain peak is about 3 kilometers from here.  I think in this weather, I would be able to take you up about 1.5km.”  “Thank you” I said.

He made a couple of calls, called for the dumper to clear the snow.  It was like a bulldozer.  Within 30 minutes, the bulldozer started clearing the road and our vehicle followed.  After a couple of hours and climb of about one and a half km,

He: “Now we should go back”.

Me: “No, we should go further up”.

He: “How far?”

Me: “Right till the satellite tower”

He stared at me and said, “Nargeesh, Indeeraa Gyandhi.  Ok my friend we will go up, risky though”.  It was snowing and we continued.  After about two more hours I reached the top of Troodas mountain, the top of Cyprus.   There was a small one-room structure with some sophisticated machines and a tall tower at the peak. I walked, jumped and slided for about half an hour.

Cyprus Mountain

Dumper Clearing snow ahead of our car

When we started returning, the cleared road now had a thick layer of fresh snow.   The dumper ahead cleared the way and we returned to the spot where I left my little car.  It did not take long to return.  By then, it was already around 4pm.   We had a coffee at the coffee house and then he escorted me to the car.  I reversed the direction of the car to return.  “A lazy day converted to a complete thrill!”

When I was about to leave in my car bidding him good bye, my Cypriot friend said, “remember 3 things.

  • One, engage your car in 2nd gear and do not change the gear till you reach the base.

  • Two, do not apply brake when your car is on snow.

  • Three and most important, you will not go up again now.

Nargeesh, Indeeraa Gyandhi”

It is over 30 years, I still follow these lessons while driving down on slopes.  I am sure this will help when I drive in Iceland next fortnight!

Experienced and Written By: Badri Baldawa

Edited By : Meeta Kabra

Round The World in 60 Seconds

When we went to North Pole 90°N in 2009, I was told that we would be spending almost 24 hours at the extreme northern point of earth’s axis. Obviously, there would be no shelter.  To the contrary, it would be a trip full of hassles, especially if we encountered heavy rain or snow.  I wondered if I’d get totally bored of spending a full day there, with nothing to do.

Once we reached, it all proved to be interesting.

If one has to travel around the world, one could do it near the equator or the Tropic of Capricorn or Cancer or any latitude.  Which basically means you have to go around the axis of the earth.  90°N is also a point on the axis of the earth.  At this point of North Pole, it would take the shortest time to travel round the world.

Keeping this concept in mind, a beautiful event was arranged, “going round the World in 60 seconds”.  A flag pole painted ‘North Pole’ in red and white was fixed on the sheet of ice on the land’s surface at 90°N.  All the guests and crew formed a circle around the pole.  The circle was about 200 feet in diameter.

Then, every one sang and danced while going around in a circle.  About 105 guests from 24 nationalities.  While moving in the circle, we were waving the Indian national flag, which we had carried with us. We were one of the very few who carried our national flag with us, as can be seen from the picture.

It was symbolic of going around the globe.  At North Pole, going round the point of North Pole 90° North, is same as going round the world from any other degree of latitude.  This could be done in shortest time, even less than 60 seconds!  

We felt pride as we went around the world waving our national flag.  The captain prayed for universal harmony and suggested that we all accept the challenge to spread world peace.  The event was appropriately named ‘around the world in 60 seconds”

Round the world in 60 secondsat North Pole 90°

Round the world in 60 secondsat North Pole 90°

Another thrilling event was the Polar Plunge, which I have written about.

Also, for the first time in my life, I had barbeque, wine and dine on a large sheet of Ice.   No structures around for handreds of kilometers/  On the ice, chairs and dining tables were laid, the barbeque was cooked and served hot.  We spent the entire day at the North Pole leisurely.  I didn’t want to leave the place when we were told that it was time for us to sail back.

Amazing and absorbing events at oddest of odd places in the world.

It made me realise, wherever and in whatever condition one might be, with proper imagination and planning, one could still wholesomely enjoy life.

Experienced and Written By: Badri Baldawa

Edited By : Meeta Kabra

The Rich Indian Culture

I was outside Athens Railway Station, Greece.  My wife and I were  waiting for our one of our family friends, to pick us up. This was in 1983.

Just then, a 25-30 year old youngster from Netherlands approached us to check whether we need a hotel room.  I said ‘no’.  But, he prolonged the chat.

He: Why sir? Won’t you need a room to stay?

Me: We will be staying with a friend and are waiting for him to pick us up.  Where are you from?

He:  I am from Netherlands.  I just completed my studies.  I have been wandering the world for the last 3-4 years to experience and understand people and places. I earn money by providing services to tourists in the cities I visit. As soon as I earn adequate money, I visit my next  destination.

He continued:  Are you from India?

Me: Yes.  What do you know about India?  (At that time, India was not very well known  to people in Europe)

He: I love Indians more than any one else in the world. I take two vacations every year.  Out of the two, I ensure that I visit India at least once.

He then named about 20-25 small towns from all over India, particularly from Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal that he had visited. He then told us in detail how well the Indians treated him in the small villages and farms on his visit.

Me:  What do you think is the difference between the culture in India and Europe?

He: Pardon Sir ……. , probably I heard you wrong?

Me: In your opinion what is the difference in the culture between India and your country?

He then said: I heard that Sir, but your question is wrong, Sir.   You have an unbelievable rich culture.   When I went to any of the places including towns and villages, even the poorest of poor, whether farmers or petty shop owner, ensured that the food and shelter requirements of the visitors are taken care before they care for their own.  Here, even if a daughter takes a rose flower to her mother’s birthday, she collects the dollar, the cost of the flower.

There is nothing of such culture that exists in Europe.   Comparison can be only if it exists at both the places.  In this case, culture does not exist at all in our region.  Hence there cannot be any comparison.”

Every courtesy we extent to our guests makes our country and culture, more respectable and memorable.  Let us keep it up!
Experienced and Written By: Badri Baldawa
Edited By : Meeta Kabra

Unbelievable Miracle

It is common practice to offer a coconut and sometimes fruits to the Deities during prayers.  The Deities are of course, flexible enough to accept anything that is offered to them!

 Yummy sweets are of course the favourites.  In fact, sweets in quantity of quintals not uncommon in bigger temples!  But then can it be believed that a Deity, in the form of idol, consume quintals of sweets.   We have often heard, “Man proposes, God disposes.”  In the case of offerings in temples, it is more like “in the name of God, man disposes”, the people around who serve the Deity get rewarded.

Around 1989, we had 11 manufacturing units on lease in Shahpura near Jaipur. They produced granite tiles which we exported.  I was on a follow-up visit to Rajasthan with my business associate, Vishnu Goyal.  In our casual conversation while travelling, we came around to the topic of a Goddess who is offered liquor instead of coconuts and fruits. And what’s more, she gracefully accepts and consumes it on the spot, in the presence of the devotees. This supposedly had been happening for ages.

Incidentally, Vishnuji knew one of the trustees of that temple very well and he had witnessed this himself, from very close proximity.  I expressed my doubts.  He said, “ anyone can visit the temple and witness the act.   But if you are interested, I can arrange a visit where you can get very close to the Goddess’ idol.”  I was interested indeed.   He talked to one of the trustees and we visited the temple together.

I was very excited. Jeenmata temple is situated in a thick forest, about 10 kilometres from a village, Rewasa.  The Goddess had a large number of followers from all over India.

As per Wikipedia, “Mugal Emperor Aurangzeb wanted to raze to the ground the Mandir of Mata (Mother Goddess). Being invoked by Her priests, the Mata let out its army of bhairons (a specie of fly family) which brought the Emperor and his soldiers to their knees. He sought pardon and the kind hearted Mataji excused him from Her anger. Aurangzeb donated akhand (Ever-glowing) oil lamp from his Delhi palace.” This lamp glows in the sacred sanctorium till date.

Off the Shikhar-Jaipur highway, a rough isolated road leads us to the Temple. The villagers with their bullock carts used this road during the day for their regular agricultural needs.   However at night, it was not uncommon to see horse-riders on this road.   I was surprised.

This area had hidden villages.  The residents of those hidden villages were dacoits who used horses.   These bandits were loyal followers of the Goddess.   I was told that the bandits surrender half their loot to the temple to be used to help those in need.   Some mornings, the temple authorities had found many valuable offerings lying at the entrance of the temple.

Close to the temple, rooms were available free of cost to worshippers for overnight stay.  The temple offered free meals too.

I bought a bottle of brandy to offer to the Goddess.  To maintain the purity of the place, the visitors are usually asked to stand about 10 feet away from the idol as the priest performed prayers. He then offered the liquor brought by the devotees.

As a very special case, under the instructions of the trustee, we were taken inside the central sanctum of the temple.  It was semi-dark inside. I was just about two feet away from the idol.  The idol was about 4-5ft in height. The brandy bottle was poured in a deep copper plate of about 8 inches diameter.  The plate had a 2” tall rim and there was no way for the liquid to drain out.

I could smell the alcohol as it was poured out from the bottle to the plate. The priest offered the brandy to the Goddess by moving the plate from left to right in front of the Idol.  After the third round, the priest took the plate to the Goddess’ lip.   Aaah…..!  The liquid vanished and the plate was empty!

I was told that this act was being performed, many times a day, every day of the year,  for hundreds of years.  No outlet could be seen nor any symptoms of trickery. No smell of the liquor either, if the liquor was being thrown away.   Supposedly, there were a lot of investigations and studies by many Indian and overseas institutions, but could not find trickery, nor could they prove how it was done.   The space around the temple was also dug out, but no symptoms of the liquid were found anywhere.

I visited the temple a couple more time later with friends and relatives and found the same thing happened every time.  But, when I visited this place once again about 2 years ago, I was told that the practice of offering liquor has been stopped under advice from the authorities!

However, I am told liquor is being offered even now at another temple in India, Kaal Bhairavnath Temple near Ujjain.

Doesn’t the disappearance of liquor offered to an Idol, within seconds, sound unbelievable? But I had to believe after watching it myself.  Just one of those miracles!

Experienced and Written By: Badri Baldawa

Edited By : Meeta Kabra