Escape from Delhi
Delhi, India. Take two. Arriving in India was a truly surreal experience. I got off the plane, was waved through customs, got a taxi at the government desk, boarded said taxi for Pahar Ganj and the New Delhi Railway station, convinced the driver that I did not care for his recommendation of a hotel, stepped out of the Taxi, scoped out the backup plan for meeting Raja, walked into the Main Bazaar, successfully dodged every tout effortlessly, found a good hotel first, checked out the other which had been my default chosen from the Lonely Planet, made an informed decision to go with the first, checked into my room, put down my things, pulled out the beer I`d stashed from the Airplane, rolled a cigarette, kicked back, and... and... wait. I said. "That was too fucking easy..." Then the tsunami hit. I was now in Delhi, having fulfilled the promise I`d promised to India to return. Delhi really stunk. It was dirty and noisy, and I couldn`t for the life of me imagine what I`d do in India for a year. Imediately I started planning to go to Thailand and sit on a beautiful beach instead. But there was still one piece yet to complete. The following morning at 8:20 am I was to meet Raja, whom I met eight months previous in Amsterdam, and whom I`d only known in the flesh for five hours. We hadn`t even really kissed. But you can read that story elseware on this site. Now here we were, planning to meet in India, and to travel together for five weeks. As I sat on the balcony, with the flood of the distant past, the maelstrom of the preceding three weeks, and the lingering embers of Japan still warm, I turned my thought to the future, a ready-made girlfriend to arrive any minute. So, I finished the beer, ordered a Taxi and a wakeup call for the morning, and went to bed.
Surpisingly well rested, I bounced out of bed, ate, and went to find my taxi. I miscalcuated because I hadn`t adjusted my Japanese Clock for Indian Time, and ordered the taxi for actually 7:30. By 7:45 with no Taxi in sight, I went to manually hail a cab. After a brief haggle, got the 400 rupee roundtrip rate (still too much, actually) and set out on the home stretch of this three-week-like-clockwork-ly orchestrated plan. And in fact, I was in the waiting lounge with a cup of coffee in hand when her plane touched down, on time. But this is India, and too much had gone right. So, for a little balance, an hour passed and still no Raja (Its pronounced Rrra-eye-ya). I started making contingency plans. Talked to a guard. He assured me that the little green blinking light indicated that passengers were still arriving. So I took a deep breath, tried to hold my sign calmly and in plain sight, and waited a little longer. Sure enough, she finally emerged, sans her backpack. It`d been lost enroute. So, a minor complication, we went back to the hotel, and began getting to know eachother... with separate beds... The next day, her luggage arrived in India, so again, back to the airport (four airports, over three days is a lot. One airport three times in three days following that is absurd... I felt like I was in The Terminal 2: No Exit). So, you ask yourself. How hard could it be to get your own bag back from an airport. hehe... welcome to India.
So, first of all, the power was out at the airport. So, we walk into the darkened office of the lost luggage section, Raja brings the first form given to her by the baggage people (word of caution. If you don`t have a return ticket, and your luggage gets lost, its going to be a world of hurt getting it back). Then fills out a second form. They give her two others. With three pieces of paper she enters the airport, and I wait outside, lacking proper documentation to go further. From her account, the paperwork multiplies. A fourth document gets her to the next desk where yet another form is completed. Then a deposit of 100 rupees is collected to be redeemed at the lost luggage office when she returns the relevant paperwork to that office. In the time we`ve been gone (we got there quite early) bedlam had broken loose in the Lost Luggage office, in part because the electricity was back on. Briefly. As we got half way through the paperwork needed to be completed in order to get the 100 rupees back, we overheard someone say something about getting reimbursed for the taxi fare. So I bumped up the rate on our taxi to 500 rupees, in order to give the driver a little something extra for the hour and a half he`d then been waiting. Then, as file upon file pile up in front of us, our politeness keeps our paperwork on top, until they ask her to see her return ticket home, which of course she`d left at the hotel. So, much commotion behind the desk as they intermittantly discuss this complication and work on other files. Eventually they inform us we can fax the form to them, and Raja can give them an address to which they can mail the 3000 rupees for toiletries, clothes and necessaries she needed to purchase due to her lost luggage--wink-wink. So what was initially a pain in the ass to get 100 rupees back magically transformed into a run around to work the system so that she`d get 3,600 rupees. Eventually they placed us on our word of honor to fax them the ticket when we got to the hotel, assuring us that if we didn`t it`d come out of their pocket, and let us leave with cash in hand. This is the beautiful thing about India. Somehow it always works out. Often better than you imagined. And I was beginning to understand once again why I had returned to India.
Of course raja lost the piece of paper with the fax number on it in the confusion, but I`d dialed the number of the lost luggage office so many times at this point that I`d accidentally committed it to memory, along with all three extentions. (25652050-3117,3116,3130... in order of effectiveness). So... Raja and I, with all our bags in tow, a hotel with two beds, and five weeks of few plans in front of us, we set out to discover India. First stop Nainital.... or so we thought...
Escape from Delhi, India.
The plan was simple. Board an overnight bus, for an uncomfortable night sleep, but one ending directly at our destination in the Himalayas away from Delhi`s smog and sweltering heat. So we went to the travel agent, shunned the sleezeball who was obviously on the take, and went to the travel service in the Hotel Vivek (listed in the Lonely Planet, and hence, predictable). We paid our 300 rupee (which turns out to be double the locals` rate), and the following evening, met our guide who took us and several others to the side of the highway at the far end of Pahar Ganj. Well, this wasn`t quite what we had in mind... The guide flagged down a bus, a sort of glorified form of hitchhiking with a servant, and stuck us on it to be deposited at the edge of town, presumably, from whence the regional bus departed. But not before driving in circles for 30 minutes in Delhi. But within a hour and a half, after one 20 quarrel delayed us at one stop, we ended up at the meeting spot where we found our bus. Things were looking up. It was not yet 11:00 p.m. and we had left Pahar Ganj at 9pm.
Now, I thought when we got a "tourist" bus we we were getting a delux tourist bus, but no, it was just a local, negative-leg-room bus. Oh well, so we tucked and folded our knees as best we could, boarded the bus, and headed out of Delhi to Nainital. At the edge of town, as we were about to enter the bypass, disaster struck (again). The bus was pulled over, and the driver got off. The police officer and driver entered a heated discussion while the passengers gathered round. After about half an hour, it became apparent that we weren`t going anywhere anytime soon, so I enquired from an english-speaker, what, apparently, was the problem. Well, it turned out, the bus wasn`t registered to operate in Delhi, and so the police weren`t letting it leave the city. A paradox, I know. But where in any other country a citation would be issued, here they were impounding the bus. And there we were, stranded in the stinkiest shithole in Delhi (no exageration or metaphor), and I had my first case of the runs. Delhi belly, take one. Well, I did my business off the edge of a broken down wall at the end of a line of bicycle rickshaw drivers turning in for the night sprawled atop their mounts. The stench was encyclopediac. smog, filth, disease, rickshaw wallahs smoking dirtweed, and here we were, without a bus. I could do nothing but laugh, for at that moment it again began to crystalize in me again exactly why I was in India.
I reassured Raja, that in India, when things look darkest, that`s usually when things turn out better. But its hard to imagine a darker darkness than the offal-ridden outer wasteland at the highway interchange outside Delhi at midnight. I silently kept my bowel troubles to myself, and wondered about the "nine hour" ride ahead of us, were we ever to board the bus again. Well, things do have a way of working out in India, and many minutes later, a bus pulled up, and a mad dash ensued. I wasn`t thinking clearly enough at this point to realize that it was happening again, just as it did in Nepal, One full bus was being replaced with a bus several seats smaller, which meant... awe fuck... So. I went to the driver, who put us in the cockpit (Indian busses have cockpits consisting of a bench seat where the driver sleeps, and a big metal tabletop over the engine for even more auxilliary seating. This, was the beginning of the real adventure.
Now, for those of you who have never been in the third world or Meditaranian, probably have no idea how bad traffic really can be. Never mind at night, on country highways, during the monsoons. But even those of you who have been to India would not be prepared for this driver. In all my life I`ve never seen a more psychotic driver. He used his horn like a Valkyree screaming to carry the soul of a wounded warior to Valhalla. I`ve never seen such aggressive driving even in formula one. His beady, sleep-deprived eyes would size up oncoming traffic by the pound and charge straight at that which would lose in the crash. He drove like the four horsemen of the appocalyspe high on amphetimines. He hadn`t slept in three days, later he told us, as he was nodding off, right before our eyes, because, as I said, we had front row seats for this show.
Raja was not even inches from the front windshield, and I was holding her tight, consigned to meeting our doom together, yet, with a grin on my face, enjoying our busride to hell. The amazing feats of manouvering and intimidation I witnessed inches from my eyes spoke both of the mastery, nay, zen-like oneness of our honourable driver and his steed, and his grim fatalistic determination to crush all who would cross him....
[I`m writing this section sitting in a swan, floating on the lake, in the Himalayas, to which this bus did eventually take us. As I write, clouds roll up and across the lake from the plains of India far below, a chill breeze blows across my neck. The swan-shaped paddleboat bobbs gently in the breeze as the afternoon rainclouds gather. Don`t worry, we do make it.]
Not more than 20 minutes after we piled into the bus, we were on the Delhi bypass, and stopped, in an hour-long traffic jam. Trucks seemed parked on the inside lane, and movement did not seem likely. Yet slowly we inched forward, bit by bit, until we saw the source of the traffic jam. The only wreck was one of beaurocracy. A roadblock randomly searching vehicles and collecting taxes presumably. It wasn`t a toll booth, becuase that stalled us for ten minutues, fifteen minutes later (We were only the second vehicle in line the whole time, but the driver in front of us was engaged in some argument or discussion that I can`t even fathom. Was he trying to haggle on the price of the toll???). It was now well into the night, and we finally hit the crowded road heading for the hills. One by one we each dropped off in impossibly uncomfortable positions. The man beside me sleeping bolt upright. Even Raja, the first witness to the madness, managed to snooze. However, around four am, another traffic jam, more serious than the last. We were approaching the Ganga and there was a puja in process hundreds of thousands of people were streaming to and from the bridge crossing the river, and traffic inched forward around and through the hoard... Over an hour later, we managed to clear the bridge, and none around us could explain why the masses. The Indians sitting beside me could only say, "some puja." But finally we broke free with the dawn, and, of course the road now clear, we stopped for breakfast, our first proper rest stop since 9pm. After a half hour stretch, wandering around the truck stop town (you ain`t seen nothin till you`ve seen an Indian truck stop town) downing a chai or two, we were beginning to want to be there. It was approaching our initial ETA of 6am and we were still "3 hours" from our destination (read: 5 hours).
As the driver slept at the wheel, and the traffic on the road thinned, I consigned myself never to arrive; I am not an impatient traveller. I began to hallucinate that I was in Satre`s unwritten sequel to No Exit where the parable is, "Hell... is going nowhere." I began to envision days and nights ticking by with ne`er a rest stop, loose bowels, and a bus driver alternately high and crashing off amphetamines. The mountains never seemed to materialize, and nobody, in all this time had reached their destination or disembarked. The buildings and villiages were passing into the distance and open country, lush forests surrounded us on all sides and monkeys played in the road. Peasant farmers gathered sticks on the siding, and it felt as if we were slipping back in time. Just then, when all was lost, the first advertisement for a hotel in Nainital appeared, and the spell was broken.