Struggling to find vegetarian food and being limited to watching Korean channels were some of the hardships
Mihir Vasavda was put through while covering the Asian Games at Incheon.
Sept 17: Landed at Incheon International Airport around noon. A message flashed on the LED screens in the arrival hall: “Bhartiya mitra, Incheon maam aapka swagat hao (sic).” The girl at the foreign exchange counter greets you with namaste and shukriya. Warm welcome. Should be a fun fortnight.
Sept 18:Woke up early. Took a bus to the Games Village. Met an Indian athlete. He came in with the boxing contingent so you assume he is one of them. He speaks about the pugilists, their preparation and also gives a nice pose for the camera. Turns out he is a handball player. Embarrassing. You get in, try to spot the Indians. Easy. Has to be the building where clothes are left hanging from the windows to dry.
Sept 19: South Korea steal the march when it comes to broadband speed. The internet services have crashed after the journalists have milked the free WiFi on phone and laptops. On the notice board, there’s a prominent notice: “Sorry for the inconvenience. But the 2/4G network won’t be available on phone now on due to heavy traffic. Please use our supreme 5G services.” Unfair play.
Sept 20: Love the setting at Ongnyeon Shooting Range. Unlike many others, which are situated in the outskirts of the city, this four-storey range is bang in the middle of a residential zone, slightly uphill. Just outside the main gate, a family has set-up a makeshift restaurant. It’s a busy morning. Shooters, officials, media, volunteers and spectators all flood in for a 6,000 won ($6) buffet. Pork seems to be the best-seller. Inside, Jitu Rai is serving a master-class to his competitors. First day, first gold.
Sept 21: The flushes here have some intriguing options. It’s a touch-screen and offers these options: “Posterior wash, Feminine Wash, Enema and Dry.” You are curious. But the other three options make you cautious: “Oscillating, pulsating, rhythm.” What happened to those old-fashioned handles?
Sept 22: Apparently, being a vegetarian is a story here. Chatting up with a few Korean journalists, trying to understand why the locals have been giving cold shoulder to the Games. They ask if I’ve tried the Korean delicacies – pork and dog meat. I’m a veggie, I tell them. They turn pale. Their notepads are out and frantically write down every word I say. Don’t know if it ever appeared but they spoke to the organisers and got a couple of vegetarian dishes on the Media Dining Hall menu. Bless them!
Sept 23: Another dull day. Return ‘home’ relatively early. The television at the hotel room offers 97 different channels. Ninety five are in Korean and one each dedicated for Chinese checkers and sumo wrestling. What to watch?
Sept 24: India’s successful Mission to Mars is on the front pages here. The Korea Joongang Daily calculates that the entire project cost India almost one-tenth of the entire budget for the movie Gravity. The Korea Herald lauds ISRO, notes that no other country has managed this. While the landing on mars was smooth, Dipa Karmakar is having major landing troubles on the mat later that evening. She attempts the Produnova. But stumbles. Misses podium finish by a whisker. Heartbreak.
Sept 25: Still no gold in sight. A waiter at a food plaza curiously glances at your accreditation. He fiddles with his smart phone, smiles and walks up to you, but not to deliver your order. “Chungu, 32 gold. Korea, 14. Indo, ONE! HAHAHAHA.” You hide your face in embarrassment.
Sept 26: Seems like Indians have decided not to go for gold. The bronze tally has doubled but that hardly matters. The mood within the contingent is sombre. The wrestlers have made a makeshift prayer room inside the Indian building. They’ve come equipped: a hanuman idol, ghee, cotton and incense sticks. At the common zone, Saina Nehwal bumps into Akhil Kumar. “What happened to your game?” Saina asks him. “Lost,” comes the reply. “Well, I lost and our challenge here has come to an end as well,” said Saina, hands flailing and a smile on her face.
Sept 27: A week in Incheon and yet to have a full meal. Severely underestimated the problem of getting vegetarian food here. A friend says that you get decent burgers at a cafe at the city centre. Slurp. Skip the first set of squash semifinals. ‘No chicken, no meat,” you tell them at the counter. Ten minutes later, your order is ready. “No pickle, as you said,” the waiter says proudly. Clearly, the order is lost in translation. You lift the bun, there’s beef in it. You call the waiter. Minutes later, the chef himself is charging towards your table with a giant pig in his hand. “Try, very tasty,” he insists. Shrug, sip water, leave.
Sept 28: Big day. It’s South Korea vs Japan in the men’s football quarterfinals and the whole city is psyched up for this marquee clash. Finally, Incheon has warmed up to the Asian Games. The pubs have extended their happy hours and restaurants have put up giant screens. All roads lead to the Munhak today.
Sept 29: Heavens have opened up and the tennis officials are running around frantically. The rain threatens to disrupt the tennis schedule and to make matters worse, Sania Mirza has told the Indian officials she won’t stay an extra day if the final is postponed. Has to leave for a WTA Tour event. Luckily, rains subside and Sania wins her eighth Asiad medal. Gold in mixed doubles with Saketh Myneni.
Sept 30: Meet an Indian on my way to squash. Talk about Jansher and Jehangir Khans. Decline of Pakistan squash. And the politics in Indian squash. Yawn. “Aapke mulk mein bhi yehi haal hai?” he asks. “Things must be relatively better in Pakistan, no?” It has to be the beard. Indians and stereotypes.
OCT 1: The Indian expats who’ve settled in Incheon and Seoul, which is a 60-minute drive away, are nearly an hour early for Mary Kom’s final. They’ve got home-cooked food for her. Daal, roti and chicken. Mary accepts. But can’t eat. “Have to maintain my weight before the bouts,” she says, politely. But the coaches and support staff and no such worries. They dig in.
OCT 2: Hockey final. Bump into Yogeshwar Dutt after India edge Pakistan and clinch gold. India’s first Asian Games wrestling gold medallist is holding back his tears. “Hockey medal ki baat he kuch aur hai bhai,” he says, wiping tears. “This is bigger than my medal.” For his humility, Yogi deserves a gold.
OCT 3: Coffee with a Chinese journalist based in Islamabad, an Iranian and South Korean who works in Delhi. Talk people and politics. The charm of Asian Games.
OCT 4: Farewell party at the media centre. On normal days, the place is packed till late after midnight. But today, it’s just 9.30pm and the workroom is already empty. Best way to get a journalist stick to his deadline? Dangle the ‘free booze’ carrot!