Thursday, June 9th.
The last 30 hours have been about moving across the land. And this will continue, to a lesser degree, over the next few days until we move through the air back home. We left Dalhousie last night in the rain on a 7:00 bus that left at 8:00, shoving and wedging ourselves and our belongings into a crowded bus that stopped just long enough to let us on, and then began the winding drive down the mountain while we stumbled and looked dumbly at one another. Our two seats were completely full with just our bags and we were tripping over each other in the aisle. Further, we were sharing a mild panic about the fact that our assumption that there would be a toilet was incorrect. How could this be!? We were to be on this bus for at least 13 1/2 hours, and while semideluxe, we knew, meant foregoing AC, it surely didn’t mean foregoing bodily functions! We wedged our bags above and below… leaving my big pack blocking the aisle and sat regretting our not-quite-empty bladders and our dinner–for both the increased likelihood of the unthinkable (needing to poop) and the all-too-common (needing to vomit). Fortunately we didn’t witness the latter directly, only indirectly when off the bus seeing the streams of evidence dried to the side of the bus. Yes, we did stop every few hours at dhaba’s (food shacks) along the way and to exchange passengers, usually in a two-off, six-on pattern. The first three hours proved to be a truly nauseating swing back and forth down the invisibly dark switchbacks toward the Punjabi town of Pathankot, the first six hours consisted of the shifting cast of too many characters until Chandigarh. The whole thing went something like this:
People crowding in, some lying in the aisles, some squeezing in on the corners of stranger’s seats. The odor of diesel and people. The thick moist air of a rolling can full of exhale. The warm and gaggingly acidic pungence of the man sitting on my armrest–like overripe pineapple, sweat and gutka (the chewing tabacco the entire male population of India seems to be addicted too). The TV in the front of the bus turning on, then having trouble tracking. The conductor selecting a movie from a menu that included a work of cinema titled “Naughty at Forty”… and the brief ridiculous notion that we’d be watching porn on this bus in this sexually repressed nation where men and women don’t even touch each other in public. And then then, yes, the movie, blaring over the speakers, and showing on the screen. Well, mostly showing, though in the wrong format with half of the picture missing. Simon and me glued to a movie we could barely see, and could hear all-to-well in a language we don’t speak, a movie that a little over an hour later when the dvd got irreparably stuck, started over.
And thus, swaying and napping, sitting in boredom, laughing at our inside jokes that at this point require only a single syllable or a facial expression, peeing on roadsides, risking a fresh mango smoothie (with ice!), passing up a good properly brewed chai at 1:30am, and lapping up a machine made one at 7:00… we by the grace of the divine managed our way to New Delhi’s Inter State Bus Terminal at 10-something, relatively unscarred by bodily functions, and manageably stir crazy.
We rickshawed “to the new delhi train station, please,” a close-enough destination that avoided the problem of being shown too many hotels along the way. I had four hotels in mind and wasn’t in the mood for any help. We made it painlessly to Prem Deluxe and got a room for 400Rs for six hours. Yes, a splurge, but I found the shower, the nap and the luggage-checking each to be worth the $10. Plus, it gave us a chance to audition a hotel for our one remaining New Delhi night next week.
The good nap and shower landed me into a happy luck bubble that proved very efficient. I left Simon in the room and went out to an internet cafe to research our next stops, the train availability, the inexplicable failure of my iPad to turn on, and things to do in Agra while the Taj is closed. Then I went across the street to a booking office and bought tickets to get us to Jaipur (completing the transport needs for the famous golden triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur). All of this happened seamlessly and without rigamarole. Something that, though very simple and straight-forward, is so uncommon in India. Glowing from the effectiveness of the outing, I went back and collected Simon. We scurried out for a quick meal (our first Palak Paneer–a favorite back home–and our new favorite, Aloo Jeera–potatoes pan fried in cumin seeds) in a great low budg fast food hovel, and then received a free ride back to the hotel: “enjoy the natural air conditioning of a rickshaw, sir?” And then after I’d declined but commended his joke, “please, get in. Free. For good luck.” We were running late, but re-packed, checked out, reserved a room for next week… and got to the train in plenty of time to walk nearly the full length of the train in the wrong direction before finding our coach and beginning the ride..
We were on the creeper, the one that takes four hours as compared to the fully-booked-for-the-next-few-days two hour morning train. It’s ok, though, because this is Simon’s first train since his first train in Italy three years ago. We were, unfortunately, in an AC car that closes us off from the outside world, and reduces the activity from vendors. That experience will have to wait until Saturday night when we travel from Agra to Jaipur. In the interim we will arrive in Agra and smoothly and painlessly find a place to stay (please!), spend Friday seeing various forts and tombs, and spend Saturday seeing the interior and grounds of the Taj before boarding the train.
So, golden triangle mass tourism here we come! The Taj, the pink city of Jaipur, and back to Delhi! I’m excited. Excited by the heat, the trains… and the magic of what is said to be among the most colorful pieces of this marvelous subcontinent. And excited by the remarkably flexible, patient, sweet and funny traveling companion I’ve acquired.