The flight to New Delhi is surprisingly quiet and uneventful. I drink a gin and tonic, read a quarter of my New Yorker, devour my Asian-vegetarian meal (dubious-looking, but who can go wrong with carrots and peas?) then settle down to “The Young Victoria” (I now know that Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg had to learn how to waltz to Strauss in order to woo the young queen…) The moment the credits roll, though, my eyes droop. I can feel exhaustion creeping over me. I wake to the sound of the pilot telling us to buckle up…and informing us, casually, that it’s 4.15 am local time and a mere 33 degrees outside. Whoa…
Inside the terminal, I’m in a state of shock. Indira Ghandi airport is a modicum of civility – they’ve finally upgraded. On my last journey there were posters all around the airport telling me to remain patient and assuring me that “we are preparing for a new day” (cynically, I took some photos, scoffing as I did so). Well, it’s time to eat my words. There’s shiny tiled floors and passport control lines especially for tourists.
Everyone’s helpful, there are trolleys that don’t squeak, and the toilets are pretty clean. Even better, my luggage is with me in a matter of ten minutes. there’s no line for the pre-paid taxi booth but – most amazing of all – they’ve installed air con. I feel like I want to kiss the floor, the way the Pope does when he sets foot on tarmac. This airport gives new meaning to the word “miracle.”
And then I step out of the airport – and it feels akin to putting my head in an oven. This is a searing, crushing, pulsating heat – heat, at 4.45 am that I’ve never before experienced (not in the Namibian desert, not in remote Indonesian islands, not under Australia’s burning skies, and not even in equatorial Kenya). This heat is choking me, I feel like I’m being suffocated, I’m giddy…because it’s not just the heat, it’s the dust in the air that seems to be seeping through every pore in my body. I am in New Delhi, in the high season, and it is no joke. It’s not even 5 am and I can sweat forming on the back of my neck.
And, true to form, there are hundreds of drivers, all with hands outstretched, trying to pull me to their particular rickshaw. The average wage in this country is $2 a day (yes, a day) so getting a fare to the centre is quite a prize. Now I remember how much I hate these first moments in the land of the Maharajahs – the screaming, the yelling, the hundreds of fingers attempting to grab my bag, clutching my arm, desperate to prise me away from their competitors. Hard enough to bear it under normal circumstances, but in this heat…prepare for battle.
Luckily, I’ve booked a pre-paid taxi because, through hard experience, I know how easy it is to end up held hostage to an unscrupulous local, on the make and on the take, who’ll pose as a helpful human being then inform me en route to the city that my hotel has “closed down” is “being repaired” or (sometimes) has been “burnt to the ground.” I’ll then be taken to his brother/cousin/friend’s grunge pad and pay over the odds for a filthy shack. The truth is, however, that most of my experiences in India have been very positive, with many people doing me great acts of kindness, even going out of their way for me when they had no need.
All this aside, I remain wary of certain scenarios, and even pre-paid taxis are on the list. My driver speaks almost no English but I figure we can manage. I give him the address and the nearest landmark – a famous Sikh temple. He revs up the engine and we screech off, hurtling towards the exit, almost crashing into an auto rickshaw as we do so). I’m 5 minutes into New Delhi and I’ve already used up one of my nine lives.
Some things in life never change – and the abominable driving here is one of them. The sky is turning from black to navy as we race through the empty streets. At least arriving in the middle of the night means you won’t get caught up in the notorious traffic that plagues the city, both night and day. Thirty minutes at night could be two hours in the rush hour (as I found out to my cost two years ago). People are rising from their slums at the side of the road, the chai walla is stirring his brew, small boys on their rickety bikes are wobbling by, precariously, and the city is coming to life.
By now, the events of the last 18 hours are really catching up with me. I’m desperate to get to Joji’s house, jump in the shower (I’m already sweating profusely since the cab does not have air con) and catch 4-5 hours’ sleep. But this doesn’t seem like the right way (or is my memory failing me?) We pull up at the supposed Sikh temple and I’m informed, in less than pigeon English that we’re here, and that I’ll have to walk the last 5-6 minutes to Joji’s because there’s a no through road. I put my bag on the side, look around and – before I know it, he’s off and away.
It takes a few seconds before I realise something’s not right…I know it (even through my bleary eyes and weighed down with jet lag) and I realise I’ve been left stranded. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid (this is my third trip to India and, besides, I’m Sarah Rachel, world traveller, resourceful and resilient, who’s hitched through Eastern Africa, bumped round Asia, slept in jungles in Guatemala and a brothel in Honduras (unwittingly, I might add). No, I’m just tired and bad-tempered, because that shower and nap is now further off than I hoped.
Well, when in doubt, find a local. I approach a group of pretty young women, all in shalwar chameezes, heading towards the entrance. 6 am is peak prayer time in India, for all God believers. They look friendly, and I’m sure at least one of them will speak passable if not excellent English. (Middle class Indians are notoriously well educated and often speak better English than your average Brit). And I’m right. Before I know it, she and friends have taken charge of the situation, conferred with the chai walla, guard of the temple and two passers-by. We call my friend Joji but he’s not answering (sound asleep no doubt). There is much animated discussion and the sweat on my forehead is in beads now. Finally they reach the profound conclusion that I’m at the wrong temple!
But not to worry – everything’s just a rickshaw ride away in Delhi so she negotiates a new price for me with a guy nearby. I’m relieved, she’s glad to have helped and the driver’s getting 100 rupees for a 20-minutes ride…and, look, it’s not even 6am yet. I thank the woman, we shake hands (terribly British) and I’m off once more. Off we go, fumes belching out of the rickshaw, weaving in between cars, buses and bikes, screeching round roundabouts (a hangover from the British Empire which really makes me feel at home) and in the direction of south Delhi. I’m pretty sure it won’t be long now…and it had better not be because I am dead beat, ready to drop, all out of energy.
Nevertheless, my compulsion to look at every scene on the streets is as great as ever. I love Indian society – every street, every village every chai stand is a vignette in itself. And terribly enjoyable – even when you're jetlagged, filthy and disoriented.
Along the way the driver stops, several times, yelling in colloquial Hindi/Urdu/Gujurat to locals on the street, sitting casually on stoops, drinking tea, reading papers, chatting with their neighbours Slowly we make our way past the Sikh temple that’s a stones’ throw from my host’s pad. It’s beautiful actually – simple, white, marble, elegant, imposing – and open for business. It’s thronged with devotees, all men in fact, in white dhotis and orange turbans, shoes piled up outside and quietly convening with the Big Guy.
But now I realise my driver’s truly stumped….and so am I. (Joji moved recently and the Temple is my last big landmark). Pocket A (the name of his road) could be anywhere… So it’s out of the rickshaw again and another conflab with the locals (not one of whom speaks English but all are trying to be incredibly helpful, waving their arms in several directions (nobody wants to admit they haven’t a clue where Pocket A is).
Inevitably, I’m driven round and round the area for the next 25 minutes, increasingly frustrated, yelling at my driver (who yells back in colloquial Hindi/Urdu/Gujurat…), stopping in every street to quiz every local.
In other circumstances, I could find this amusing but by now my patience is wearing decidedly thin. I’m almost ready to take a cab back to the centre, check into a hotel, and leave Joji to sleep. Of course, the downside of this is another rickshaw ride back into town. I’m weighing up my options when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I see a sign marked “Pocket B.” I grab the driver’s arm and we screech to a halt. We’re not far now. He’s perking up too – that 100 rupees is just waiting for him. Another few minutes of driving, peering down alleyways, swerving to avoid cows wandering in the streets and…it’s Pocket A.
We drive through the gate (there’s a security guard, but Joji’s told him to expect me) and count the numbers…which (in true Indian style) don’t seem to be sequential. Miraculously though, it takes only a few seconds to spy 28. That’s it! I thrust the blue note into the exhausted driver’s hand (he’s really earned it!) thank him profusely, grab my backpack and day pack. Sweat is trickling down the back of my neck now and I”m conscious of real thirst.
I trudge up to the first floor. Daylight has broken. It’s 6.30 am. I ring the bell three times and finally I hear the lock turn. Joji’s at the door, drowsy from sleep, but welcoming anyway. I’ve made it. Somehow, I’m here. “Chai?” he enquires, and goes off to boil water. But before he’s returned, I’m already sprawled out on his sofa, in my clothes, the fan whooshing above me, sound asleep.
And that thermometer is still rising…