An inauspicious start to our travels – we arrive in Amsterdam in the early morning to find our connecting flight to India is delayed 11 hours because of thick fog in Delhi. This is typical at this time of year; last year we took over two hours to drive the 30 minutes from the airport into Delhi. Visibility was as bad as in a severe snowstorm. But it is unusual for fog to continue this late in January.
We’re not scheduled to fly out until 9 pm. How to spend the day in Shiphol airport? We’re given meal vouchers – just enough to cover a croissant and cappuccino. No less delicious…We try “comfort seats” – recliners set up in a quiet area, but our neighbor’s snoring is too disturbing. We adjourn to the meditation center and try to meditate sitting on a hard floor leaning against a plastic planter. After a short while the woman in charge comes over and politely asks us to leave because we’re sleeping! You cannot sleep here! I’m not sleeping, I’m meditating, I respond indignantly.
We are thrown out of the meditation center because our heads were nodding! Gerard returns to a recliner and I read magazines in the bookstore. Then we discover Yotel—a wonderful short term hotel made up of tiny cubicles – containing a fold up bed and miniature bathroom, free Wi-Fi and flat screen TV. A total of 56 double and single cubicles economically crammed into a very small piece of airport real estate. Claustrophobically similar to a prison cell, but very clean and comfortable. Stretching out on the surprisingly soft mattress under an organic cotton white comforter, we fall into a deep sleep. I wake up suddenly – totally disoriented….I have no idea where I am, but feel confined, hot and sweaty – then I remember… and look down at the heat and light controls on the arm of the bed. I read 5.02 – what I think is the time. I freak out – our alarm didn’t go off — we were supposed to be out of the room at 5 pm. We’re going to miss our flight! I wake Gerard and in a stupor he rushes into the shower. Then he checks the clock —it is only 2.40 pm. I realize I was reading the temperature – upside down—20.05C.. In my confusion, I not only mistook the temperature for the clock, but I reversed the reading…Gerard is so exhausted that he manages to go right back to sleep. I lie there for a while, and then trying not wake him yet again, get up and try to do yoga in the tiny space between the bed and the cubicle wall. Challenging for even the most adept yogi!
There is something very liberating at having to consolidate your belongings for three months into one small case. But my case which began quite light, when I packed the first time – has suddenly- three or four packings later – become ridiculously heavy. It’s about 10 pounds heavier than Gerard’s – and he has the heavy locks and chains, the water filter, the guide books, the mosquito net etc. etc. ….. I’m already throwing things out, and figuring out how much more I can leave in Delhi.
Delhi- a mix of old and new
The sun is struggling through the fog by the time we arrive in Delhi at 11 am. We wait two hours on the tarmac all the time worrying about our Indian host waiting for us.. There are so many planes stuck in the airport that we have to deplane on the tarmac and be bussed to the terminal. First we have to wait for stairs… then buses to arrive… then another hour for our bags. The smell of India is the first familiar impression – a mix of spices, smoke, incense, dung …and now fog.
We are staying out on the outskirts of Delhi, in the newly and rapidly developing Gurgaon suburb.- known for its sea of huge shopping malls. But we’re protected from them on a residential street, with a local market of small shops and vegetable and fruit stands that was characteristically Indian long before the malls arrived.
Nightime is noisy. The wild dogs that live on the streets are especially numerous here. Largely, we surmise, because it is an upscale neighborhood and the trash is more abundant than in a poorer neighborhood. The dogs bark throughout the night, guarding their territory from invaders. Added to the barking dogs, the neighborhood watchman periodically bangs a metal tube against walls, gates, whatever, as he passes to reassure the residents that he is awake and guarding them. Each resident pays him $100 rupees per month to guard their neighborhood, and another $200 to wash their car at the end of his duty every morning.
Delhi is being transformed by the arrival of the metro. It won’t reach Gurgaon for another year or so but will eventually extend right out to the airport. Our host, Ravi, drops us at a metro station in town on his way to work. It is clean, and sleek – the trains arrive and leave like grease lightening. The challenge is actually to get on before the train leaves……All passengers go through security checks to enter the metro – manual body plus mechanized bag searches. The same is true of all public buildings. The metro has elements of the London Underground; including the computerized “mind the gap” announcements at each station. .
We take the metro to Chandi Chowk to visit the narrow busy streets of Old Delhi. Before partition in 1949, Delhi was a Moslem city. Refugees from the Punjab arrived and the city was divided, with New Delhi becoming the political capital of India and predominantly Hindu. We visit landmarks: the largest mosque in India the Jamam Masjid; the Red Fort which is closed for a public holiday but we walk along the outside, beside spacious gardens.
The next day is spent with the family of our Indian hosts – a long ritual of eating and talking. One lovingly prepared meal is followed by another with plenty of cups of chai and sweet snacks in between. Conversation is lively and at times profound – we discuss reincarnation, karma, politics, marriage and family. We enjoy free flow of ideas concerning all things spiritual. It seems so many Indians can talk about such matters as easily as Americans can talk about their favorite baseball team! And Gerard of course was able to hold his own…
An ancient mother who’s suffered a stroke, comes out of her room on a walker. She surveys us through large magnifying glasses, and then begins to cry loudly – lamenting in Hindi how she once was healthy and active. I feel uncomfortable and apologetic for my good health, and am relieved when she returns to her room. The maid who dressed me in a sari for Shruti’s wedding two years ago, is happy to see me again. We embrace but can’t speak to each other in the same language.
We finished the day with a walk through Lodhi Gardens – a lovely Mogul park with numerous crumbling edifices.
The Trivandrum Express to Goa
Our wait listed status on the train to Goa is finally converted into confirmed reservations just four hours before departure. We wait on the station platform, watching urchin children running along the train tracks, collecting discarded paper and bottles in sacks that are larger than they are. They wear incongruous green school blazers, the crests still visible under the dirt on the breast pockets.
Impressively, the train arrives and leaves on time. We are well serverd in our 2AC compartment with a continuous flow of surprisingly good food, lunch tea, dinner, breakfast…and then lunch again,. served by young boys. Other porters come round with fresh linens and blankets. At intervals one boy mops the floor spraying it with a strong smelling bottle of disinfectant which makes me sneeze. I was so impressed at their efforts to maintain cleanliness under my feet until I realized that he used the same mop to also swab out the floor of the Indian style toilets!
We share an open compartment amiably with a young mother and her tubby little four year old son she keeps good natured with an endless diet of love, food and electronic games that create annoying sounds When it’s time for the boy to sleep his mother hoists him up the ladder to the top bunk – pushing and shoving while he grunts and pants – much to the amusement of the surrounding passengers..
The train ride is 25 hours long. We read, sleep, eat.. The countryside is unimpressive – save for the occasional sight of colorfully clothed women working in the fields, boys playing cricket on flat scrub land. And then the sun sits on the horizon for a moment – a huge red globe – before disappearing and leaving the sky streaked with pink before everything goes black.
During the night mother and son disembark near Mumbai and are replaced by an elderly couple – probably our age. They sleep in the bunks above us. The man is large and I expect him to snore but instead he whimpers in his sleep – perhaps from disturbing dreams? His wife – like so many older Indian women in the south – is tastefully dressed in a soft Indian cotton shirt of wonderful colors – the kind you try to buy yourself…. and can never find…but would probably not look anywhere near as good against my white skin anyway. Her simple necklace has stones matching the colors in the shirt.
As we travel south, the scenery becomes invitingly more tropical. Lunch comes just in time before we need to disembark in Margoan – the transit point to a lot of Goan beach towns for tourists. The small train station is well organized with a long line of prepaid taxis waiting to take us to the various destinations. Fortunately, the majority are bound for the more popular commercial beaches than our destination, Agonda