Dash To Delhi
We checked out of the hotel Amar in Agra and caught an auto-rickshaw to the train station. When we got there we found our train to be delayed by 30 minutes. As they were announcing this news, Scott was intercepted by a fellow with a wooden box full of little instruments, not the least among them were shoe cleaning and polishing materials. Though Scott’s canvas shoes were not in need of (or indeed capable of) any polish, we asked the good sir if he might by any chance be able to repair my backpack the chest strap of which had been ripped of by a over-zestfull baggage attendant on my way from California. Upon hearing our request, the man pantomimed as though changing his hat, and proudly presented himself to us as a certified repair doctor, and to be very reasonably priced. So we agreed and he proceeded to rage on the location from which the chest strap had left, slicing it apart into its components using an old razor blade. In 20 minutes time, and much complaining about how damned sturdy my baggage was, he had re-sown the the thing to an approximation of good as new.
We thanked the fellow and he haggled us up to 100 rupees. Off we set only to find the screens of the Agra train station proclaiming our train was now delayed 3 hours. I quick calculation revealed that such a delay was getting dangerously close to cutting out our planned visit to Kaustubh Shah:s Delhi residence and even placing us in danger of meeting our train to Varanasi, and rendezvous with head snake charmer and Bangalore office chief Nikhil Kulkarni. Also of interest was the availability of “Bogie’s Position” on the information display.
As the heat of the day began to dig in, we set to solving the problem. We were pricing cab fares to Delhi from Agra when the Malarone we had taken about an hour earlier kicked in, and with it, the slow clutch of impending doom. What doom? you may ask, dear reader… well we too were asking that very question. Sensing the weakness, the driver we were talking with kicked his end of the conversation into overdrive. So we agreed to pay the fellow 2500 rupees to get us to Delhi in 3 hours. We took a look at the cab, asked for non-AC to save some dough, and soon I was passing said cash to a grumpy man in a white box in the parking lot. It turned out the man were talking to was not the driver at all, but a salesman. And our driver was introduced to us. In exchange for our 2500 rupees, we were given a little slip of paper “to sign and give to this driver when you arrive.” Our belongings had been loaded into the taxi that we had been shown, but after I had payed, they were removed and placed in a smaller cab. Our driver then got in that cab, and another man climbed in shotgun. “this man is a police officer. He is just going as far as the boarder.” Scott asked for his ID, and it looked legitimate. “You will need to pay 100 rupees at each checkpoint. It is like a tourist tax.” With stomachs full of ice, we pulled onto the roads of Uttar Pradesh, headed for Delhi. I tried to nap and not to play through scenarios in my mind: kidnapping, stealing of our organs, slaughtering us in the name of all the dirty tourists who were ever ass-holes to the Indians.
And as I drifted in and out of consciousness, the crazy hour passed. The police officer got out at the boarder, and smiled at us thanking us for the ride. Horses passed and the cars was delayed a number of times, by herds of cattle, traffic jams etc. But after about 4 hours we were entering Delhi.
Delhi is massive and sprawling. I saw the first traffic light I had seen since California (though it seemed to be broken). Everywhere people were building. Delhi is constructing an impressive new subway system, which demanded huge holes be dug at what seemed like every street corner. Our driver quickly became hopelessly lost, requiring many more than 2 calls to Kaustubh’s house, so a member of Mr. Shah’s staff could give directions in Hindi. Finally, we were on the correct road, at house 32 and the numbers were falling as we went, moving us ever closer to the fabled building number 23 (which was by the way directly across the street from the Turkish Ambassador’s residence). Despite this, our driver drove slower than ever, and stopped repeatedly to ask for directions. We tried to tell him it was just ahead, but then it dawned on us: this neighborhood has only English street signs. Our driver could not read English and as such, was baffled. But after waiting almost 6 hours and eating only little snacks (like “magic chapata” flavored potato chips), we pulled into the drive and were met by Kaustubh’s father heading out to go do business, he was immaculately dressed in a monogramed cornflower blue shirt and looked cool despite the sticky Indian heat. He paused to smile and shake hands, and was quickly on his way.
A well spoken man who introduced himself as Mr. Ashwani piled our luggage, Scott, another member of the staff, myself and his fine self into a small elevator. And up we went. The next moment were were standing, filthy and disheveled in an elegant apartment. Bowls of dried flowers delicately scented the apartment. Smells of fine Indian spices wafted from the kitchen and we were shown to an immaculately set table, with silver dishes. We were immediately served a steaming bowl of blended broccoli soup, accompanied by fresh buttered toast. Then came a green salad, the first such dish we had dared to eat in some time. Then the feast cam: a succulent chicken curry, fresh cucumber raita, mellow dal, roasted potatoes, spiced cauliflower and the fluffiest most flavorful basmati rice I have yet encountered. Needless to say, we were madly sated. Just as we were considering falling into the internet, our phone rang. It was non other than Nikhil Kulkarni, chief snake charmer and Bangalore office head for asiawheeling global. This meeting was one I had been most excitedly anticipating.
And Nikhil did not disappoint. His relaxed and gentle attitude, paired with sharp whit and keen instincts made him a tremendous asset to the team. Our ability to have a great time had just been increased by an order of magnitude. We had barely shaken hands by the time we were invited back into the dining room and served another meal of tomato soup and lightly grilled sandwiches, filled with herbs and goat cheese.
Now full to the point of bursting we piled in a cab bound for the Delhi station. At the station, Nikhil pointed out to us a singular phenomenon. Those people who wished to travel in the general compartment had lined up all the way down the platform. The train was idling, empty, and men were pacing back and forth with bamboo staffs, keeping these travelers in a tight line. Each member of the line looked frantic, clutching his baggage, in some cases his wife, and the fellow in front of him. Nikhil explained that each member of the line clutches the one in front of him in order to avoid people cutting. And as a second line of defense, there were the men with the staffs. We watched as many people attempted to cut in line. Some were extracted and beaten, others managed to squeeze in successfully.
Still others jammed some personal item through the barred windows of the general compartment in order to secure a seat via precedent. When the train doors opened all hell broke loose. People scrambled to get into the car, the men with staffs tried in vain to keep things orderly, and most fascinatingly, this phenomenon just kept going indefinitely, the line being so long and the disorder so great.
Soon we grew tired of watching and made out way to the first AC car and our luxurious state room. We had no sooner deposited our luggage on the floor that the sound of a scuffle brought my eyes up to the window on our stateroom door. The sight I saw in it is not one I will soon forget. A young woman, hair soaked in sweat and eyes wild with the crazed fear of a cornered animal, locked her gaze onto my own from where she was being awkwardly hustled along in the arms of two men. My mouth fell open and I realized I was staring now at a blank window. I shook my head and was about to address my cabin-mates, when suddenly our stateroom door burst open and in came the girl, carried by two men, who sputtered something in broken English about them having some mandate for use of the room.
The girl was placed on our long bench, covered in sweat and still staring wildly into the infinite, eyes darting around in her sockets, but looking at nothing. One of the men with us explained, “This girl’s father has just died on the platform, and she has been seeing the body.” We, of course, told them they could have the room for as long as they required and picked up our valuables, leaving them the bottles of water we had just purchased. Nikhil rushed off to consult the conductor and soon the two of them appeared together, talking animatedly. After assuring many parties, whose affiliation to the girl and/or the deceased was unclear, that we would be fine with sitting in Nikhil’s adjacent stateroom for as long as was needed.
And that we did. It was one of Nikhil’s first very wise insights into Indian culture. “In India, emotion is worn completely on the exterior; when we are happy we sing and dance, when we mourn we allow it all to pour out.” Before too long our room was once again free and we settled in for the night, as the Saraswati Express whisked on through the steamy Indian night.