Pretty soon Delhi loomed darkly on the horizon with great relief on my part. My global circadian rhythms were shot – what with drugs, delays and damnable dreck dressed up as movies. So I had little idea what time, or even day, we were approaching. I knew that somewhere we crossed that invisible line where you are actually travelling back in time. Or was it forwards? At this point I was well past caring. My next adventure was looming ominously, which is to navigate myself plus belongings through the nightmare which is Delhi traffic. But before that, more prodding, questioning and other indignities had to be suffered to be allowed into the Republic of India. Indira Gandhi airport got a serious makeover a couple of years ago – (which Delhi’s international hub is questionably named)-before which it was a dreary holdover of bureaucratic inefficiency.
Now it’s all gleaming signs of it’s prosperity and proper place on the international stage. But Third World distinctions die hard. Randomly placed signs lead one nowhere, and before you know it you are in entirely the wrong queue for Indian residents – who always seem to have a fraction of the quota of staff to check them through than us more privileged tourists. It’s always been that way since I have been travelling here…some holdover of the slave class that still beg deference to us Whiteys. We even get a special tourist quota on the trains, along with a special AC waiting room in New Delhi station one floor above the teeming hundreds who sweat in queues for hours only to see the wickets empty mysteriously of all human life for some appointed Indian Railways tiffin or chai break. I know this first hand as I was down there on the first floor, little knowing until one of my own redirected me from my foolishness the way upstairs to our own private ticket Nirvana.
Then there is that crap shoot known as “Baggage Claim”. My worst fears always get the better of me, imagining my vital supplies ending up looping endlessly around some virtual carousel in Dubai. Just as I am mentally re-ordering anti-parasite tincture (a life saver for my healthy existence in India) to be drop-shipped by drone to replace the missing bottles..the familiar battle-weary luggage shows it’s bright ribbon which Karen festively festooned aeons ago for one of my many distant foreign treks. NOBODY would do that to their luggage..it’s quite distinctive amongst the sea of semi-identical Samsonite and it’s got some other hand-adorned insignia also which makes my heart leap for joy.
28 hours of travel plus jet lag plus robotic customs people really drain all my resources, and sometimes it’s tempting just to crumple in a weary heap on the floor and weep copiously so that some kind soul will take care of everything. But no, it’s just me, and I have one more hurdle I dread – which is negotiating fares and directions for cab to where I don’t know I am going. I mean, I do know the address – but the cab / auto-rickshaw drivers never seem to know. I have learned one thing in my numerous travels here: never accept the near larceny foisted upon the new arrival by the shoals of sharks (human form) whose singular purpose is to relieve you of as much money as possible to take you in their vehicle to the stinking hovel that masquerades as a hotel that just happens to be owned by their cousin. I only ever was once weak enough to capitulate to this unnerving strategy when I was swarmed by the most aggressive mob in Rajistan. I was fair game as the only non-Indian, having barely survived a 14-hour grueling bus ride where I was continuously evacuating from every orifice. And predictably the rat-infested dump where the driver delivered me was 100 times worse than the Grand Marigold Hotel.
So instead I sensibly stride to the “Pre-paid” taxi booth which is one of the few price-controlled services in India. You tell a clerk the address, he tells you the fare, and gives you a voucher to a waiting driver. He can’t squeeze you for a rupee more, and my 700 rupee ride turns out to be a bargain as my host appears to live closer to Mongolia than Delhi. Classically the driver stops other equally mystified souls who point in various directions with that inimitable Indian circular rolling of the head which could mean agreement, or that they have as little idea as the driver. Luckily I do have the phone number of my host, and after a few about-turns I protest after several requests that the driver call my host. I even have all his details nicely printed on a piece of paper, another useful tip. Which he could have done at the get-go; but that would be far too obvious for your average Indian male driver. Occasionally we do seem to be going right out of Delhi and my driver ominously and increasingly tells me how far we have come. I expect giraffes and tigers any minute. I have been assured in past trips on more than one occasion that we were at my destination only to be dumped off in the middle of nowhere. So I hold my ground, insisting that my host is waiting for me. Which he is. Out in the street, prepared, hospitable, and up before dawn to welcome me, as he had insisted in our email exchanges. Welcome home to Mother India. Hospitality Central. Guest is God.
Dr Khatri Senior is quite formal, and my heart sinks as we seem to barely understand each other. This feels not a good sign, as these are strangers to me, introduced as SERVAS hosts, an international hosting agency that started after World War 2 to promote world peace. My first time in India I availed myself of these kind spirits, and one of them saved my bacon, as his was the only place to stay after I had everything stolen.
The good doctor shows me into a nicely appointed room and quickly breaks the ice by offering chai. There is nothing that warms my heart to a situation than the communal consuming of chai. He graciously suggests I rest for awhile and shows me the adjoining bathroom: typical of interior Indian plumbing, no hot shower. If you want that, take a “bucket shower”. There is a separate geyser that supplies hot water. I unceremoniously dump buckets over my travel worn body, and retire to bed. But it’s far too interesting to sleep. The family and sleepy street is waking up, and my soul quickens as I take in all the sounds of India. This is a communal country. They have yet to be largely infected by our Western disease of separation. How often have I heard of the epidemic of loneliness in The West. Whole studies are devoted to it. In fact it’s now considered as a serious health threat by many health professionals and governments. It’s just impossible here: people are consistently interacting. Dr Khatiri lives with his whole joint family of sons, daughters, and grandchildren.
After awhile he returns and informs me of The Program. I am to be brought bed tea – a delightful, decidedly Indian, institution. Then I must sleep more, and he will be back from his errands to take care of my needs. But not only tea- a plateful of omelette in a sandwich also appears – and deliciously spiced.
Meanwhile the street outside is alive with the cry of vendors, the devotional chanting of women, and of course endless car horns. It all feels so welcoming. India is never strange to me. It’s like I have come home, being wrapped in a warm blanket called community. The 6 weeks I had planned seem Ike just the beginning. Already Vancouver seems another lifetime away. Only a couple of times have I been invited into someone’s home there: here it’s second nature from perfect strangers.
A bit later Doctor-ji Junior pops his head around the corner and fills me in more about the Program. In the next two days they are going to show me the highlights around Delhi, and introduce me to the rest of the family. That seemingly ever so important SIM card that I thought I need to connect my cell phone to the internet just seems to recede in importance. This kind of connection is just so much more real.
YOU CAN SEE MORE OF MY DELHI PICS HERE: