A very strange night last night. I was awoken by a commotion at 3am. Then, just as I was beginning to surface from deep sleep, an explosion. An explosion?! I lay in bed suddenly wide awake and frozen, this time not by cold but by fear, as the sound of falling debris and tinkling shards of glass hitting the ground subsided. What the fuck was going on?! A bomb? Some kind of rebel attack? A separatist strike at pro-India supporters? Whatever it was, it was close. Was my room next?!
I decided that the only thing to do was to get up and find out. Keeping the lights off, so as not to draw attention to myself, I drew back the curtain and peered in the direction that the sound was coming from. An ominous and eerie orange glow could be seen down the street, but I was unable to see its source due to the angle of the road. I was going to have to open the window. My mind did a quick Norton anti-virus style scan of my memory for any SCUK training advice that would discourage this: 0 files found. Gingerly I slid back the bolts, pushed open the window and peaked out.
It had been an explosion alright. The building next door but one was consumed by flames. I had no idea what was going on or if, indeed, I was in any danger, so searched the environment for clues: there didn’t seem to be any cries for help coming from the burning structure, nor did there seem to be any panic stricken people running around screaming, so hopefully no-one trapped inside; the building on fire was definitely in no way attached to Adhoo’s Hotel, so little chance of the fire spreading to here; the few people on the street seemed more curious about than perturbed by what was going on, so hopefully nothing more significant than an innocent fire; the sound of sirens could be heard in the distance, so help was on the way. I closed the window and returned to my bed to monitor by ear the ongoing drama.
Five minutes later, another explosion. Not so loud as the first but definitely an explosion. Then the power went out. Back to the window to see what was happening. No change. I think the explosion probably came from the same building: it certainly sounded like it did and the fire seemed even more intense. Back to bed. I did a quick security assessment in my head: a building on fire, two explosions, no signs of public alarm or panic, emergency services on the scene, no-one knocking at my door telling me to evacuate. Terrorist attack or fire leading to explosion of gas canisters etc inside the building? I’m going with the latter. I feel somewhat relieved, but the adrenaline is still pumping through my veins and bright red flashing warning lights – inactive since my time in PNG – have been triggered somewhere in my psyche and will not be deactivating any time soon.
No chance of sleep then. It’s unexpected and strange to be feeling that long dormant sensation of survival alertness which I imagined had left me when I returned from PNG in 2001, but had clearly only been on standby. It’s like a sudden sharp peak on the heart monitor of a patient that has been taken for dead. The familiarity of the emotion comes flooding back surprisingly quickly; it was always like this in PNG. You’d be happy, relaxed and everything would seem fine, and then all of a sudden, from nowhere, all hell would break loose. The burst of AK47s that awakes you in the middle of the night which you later find out is the police chasing some robbers through the school campus. The riot that breaks out in front of the staffroom as you walk in to work which turns out to be a dispute between students and landowners. The turmoil as a dismembered woman is found barley alive behind the students’ dorms, later turning out to have been the victim of an axe attack by her husband who had found out she was cheating. Always the same feeling of going straight to DEFCOM 4, of being jarred violently out of your comfort zone and of becoming almost animalistic in your survival response.
The other day, during Ajay’s and my induction to the office, Mustafa showed us a short documentary made a few years ago to celebrate 25 year of Infant Help International in J&K. In it, one of the previous programme directors talked about how – in order to reach the remote villages – they would have to trek along a frozen river during the winter months. As a safety measure, they would strap broom-handle sized sticks width ways along the bottom of their backpacks. That way, if the ice suddenly gave way, the stick would hopefully prevent any more than their legs going into the river below, and hold them suspended in the hole until their companions could drag them out. I thought about this as I lay in bed last night, listening to the burning building crackle away outside. Working in places like PNG, or in conflict contexts like J&K, it’s easy to become relaxed, to believe that the state of calm is permanent. That’s how I felt as I happily headed back to the hotel after dinner last night. But it’s not. It can break as easily and unexpectedly as a sheet of ice, sending you free falling into the shocking and chilling reality of the turbulent currents underneath. If you’re sensible you’ll be prepared, and those preparation will save you from becoming a victim. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll have friends who can help pull you back onto the relative safety of the ice. The fire down the street may have been an innocent accident, but it served as a timely reminder that for the next five months I’ll be walking on thin ice.
I’m now in my new – and hopefully permanent – accommodation. Relax Inn, a stone’s throw away from fucking Pine fucking Hotel and yet a whole world away. Don’t get me wrong, it’s basic, but it’s clean (relatively) and in a much better state of repair than fPfH. It also has carpet, which will hopefully make things a bit warmer, and a gas heater which I’m giving a try but don’t hold out too much hope for. It’s basically only effective within a six inch radius from the small metal gauze ball which is heated by the gas. My room is in essence being heated by something the size of a microphone. As I’m typing this, my left side – which faces the mic – is warmish whilst my right side – which faces the window – is on its way to Drass. I can also see my breath, which can’t be good.
I moved in this morning and loved the room immediately. Like I said, not because it is a particularly glamorous space, but because it is MY space. I took the morning off work to unpack and set up home. It was such a great feeling to hang up clothes, put books on shelves, put socks in drawers and nic-nacs in cupboards. I’ll need to buy a few things over the coming weeks to give it a bit more of a cosy feel – perhaps a rug, some better bedding, maybe new pillows – but it will be fun build a new, albeit temporary, home. Also, I’m on the first floor which means I’m high enough to keep opportunistic robbers at bay yet low enough to be able to jump out of the window if need be. Funny how having to think about things can become second nature so quickly.
Having emptied my bags (no £40, no USB stick) I pottered around for a while and then headed into work. And then headed straight out for lunch with Rahim. We went over to Hat Trick bakery, which it turns out is also a café, and who was there at his fish stall? Mr. Gillette! I was disappointed when he didn’t clock me on the way into the restaurant, but on the way out he saw me, beamed a smile and waved a hello. In the cold light of day I thought to myself that he wasn’t so much Mr. Gillette, maybe more Mr. Wilkinson Sword, maybe even Mr. Bic disposable. No, that’s too harsh, but definitely not quite Mr. Gillette. Shame, I had such big plans for our benevolent fish frying empire.
My afternoon was spent completing my Learning and Development Plan and filling out my first Assignment Plan: An exploration of the work of Infant Help International Jammu and Kashmir in improving quality of care and developing processes of deinstitutionalisation in orphanages in the region. As I was finalizing the details with Mustafa, he turned to me and told me that the word on the street (i.e. amongst the staff) is that I’m a big hit: friendly, flexible, not like many other international staff they’ve known and easy to get along with. I was so chuffed, and it reminded me of a similar remark made by the deputy head a couple of months into my placement at the Papua New Guinean secondary school. As I’ve commented before, I feel lucky to have been blessed with the ability to get on easily with people, and know that it has much to do with the challenges I have faced fitting in to the world as a gay man.
As it was raining when we finished work, Mustafa offered to drop me at the hotel. And en route…Hat Trick Bakery! This guy is going to think I’m stalking him! Sure enough, a smile and a nod, and in the semi-dark he seemed to have once again been elevated to the status of Mr. Gillette. The problem is that I’m too embarrassed to look at him long enough to really check him out. We then nipped to a small shop (Mustafa and I, not Mr. Gillette and I) so that I could pick up some water and the cute guy who served me asked me where I’m staying! Honest to god, I swear these people are fucking with my head.
So, back at the hotel now and my neighbours are shitting all over my new home. Not literally, of course, but some people seem to have moved in next door and they have the TV on really loud! What makes it worse is that we have one of those adjoining doors that can be opened if it’s a family straddling two rooms, so the sound is coming right through. I’ll have to monitor that one over the coming days and weeks, and if the problem persists, a move to another (non-adjoining) room may be in order. Bollocks.
Things that I have not done since I came to India: I have not:
1.Spoken to my family.
2.Spoken to my UK friends, except Lynn.
3.Heard from my god children.
4.Heard from David.
5.Been up after 12pm (except to go to the loo and check out possible militia attacks).
6.Been to a bar.
8.Been on a bus.
9.Lost my temper.
How quickly life can change.
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