Have you ever stood in front of an immigration officer at an airport with nothing in your hands except your passport? When I say nothing, I mean no small luggage, no backpack, not even a purse.
I can say that I have. It sounds ridiculous but it’s true. I found myself in that position last month at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.
The reason was because my backpack was very heavy, so my kind-hearted travel companion offered to carry it inside her small wheeled suitcase, after which we queued in different lines at immigration.
I didn’t realise this might be a problem, but then the people in front of me were pushed away because they did not have supporting letters or recommendations for their visit.
Only then did I start to worry, when I realised that my supporting letters were in my backpack. I also had a journalist visa – a red flag for immigration officials – because I was in India to attend a conference organised by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
I frantically looked for my companion, but she was far away and was also busy answering questions from her officer.
When my turn came I tried my best to look confident. I stared directly into the eyes of the immigration officer and answered his questions with a smile, even though inside I was choking with nervousness.
Luckily I made it through without too many questions. After that ordeal, I was able to enjoy the three-hour drive from Mumbai to the city of Pune, where the conference took place.
I fell in love with Pune as soon as I saw the view from my room on the 18th floor of Marriot Hotel. Surrounded by beautiful hills, it reminded me of Pyin Oo Lwin in Myanmar.
When we weren’t engaged in training sessions, we set out to explore the city. Our first destination was the famous shopping district, Phadthare Chowk. Our tuk-tuk travelled so fast – the driver weaving around motorcycles, bicycles, cars, buses and pedestrians – that we sometimes screamed in fear.
Our visit occurred during a Hindu festival, so the everything was decorated with electric lights and plenty of loud music was playing, similar to Thandingyut in Myanmar. There were food stalls everywhere, and we tried many delicious snacks whose names we could not pronounce or remember.
The next day we visited a famous shrine to Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity who represents wisdom and literature. Our guide said he is also revered as the Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences, and the deva of intellect and wisdom.
There was a long line of people waiting to pray at the shrine, but our guide helped us skip ahead as honoured guests. We prayed and we were told that Ganesh loved us, which was why we were given this fabulous opportunity.
We also visited the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum, “a collection of about 21,000 priceless artifacts which mirror the everyday life of India”, according to the museum’s website. These include textiles, statues, wooden and ivory utensils, and ornaments made of silver, gold and ivory. Many of them were similar in design to what can be found in Myanmar, including the betel nut crackers.
Our next destination was Shaniwarwada Fort, built in 1746. It was the seat of the Peshwa rulers of the Maratha Empire until 1818, when the Peshwas surrendered to the British. The fort itself was largely destroyed by fire in 1828, but the surviving structures are maintained as a tourist site. It is also considered one of the most haunted sites in India.
Even though the fort is located in the busy centre of the town, the atmosphere inside is very peaceful, and there were people relaxing under the shady trees.
There is also a fountain shaped like a 16-petal lotus flower, and each petal had 16 water jets with an 80-foot arch. At night it is illuminated, and people come from across the country come to enjoy it.
It was a beautiful sight, and I was happy that even though my trip started with a somewhat nerve-wracking experience, I was able to enjoy what Pune had to offer.