Sunday, February 18, 2007

India - Impressions on the first day (Don't Panic)

Melanie and I both ended up getting waaaaay too little sleep the night before the trip – probably a mix of pre-travel excitement and poor planning on a few final details. In the end, we managed to get our acts together and get out the door pretty much right on time.

We had our friend Eric the Limo Driver take us to the airport. He charges less than a taxi, picks us up in front of our apartment, and drives a brand new Mercedes Benz, so calling him up is a no-brainer. We had initially expected traffic from all of the folks heading down south for their Chinese New Year dinners, but traffic turned out to be pretty sparse, so we go to the airport very quickly. Over the course of the trip, Eric told us about his personal experiences traveling within India, and how he and five of his colleagues all ended up going a few rounds with Kid Dysentery after drinking the water – in one case just a couple drops while brushing his teeth at the Sheraton (still a 5-star here as well). But enough about that for now – while I am hopeful, I am also pragmatic enough to realize that this might not be the last time we talk about this subject.

At this point, we received quite a nice surprise. As we were checking in, we found out that Cathay Pacific was bumping us to Business Class for the Taipei -> Hong Kong leg of the trip. This was great, and we both really enjoyed the service and the seats. I know this might not sound like much of an accomplishment, but they ended up serving the best airplane food I have probably ever had. The salad was the best I have tasted in years, and they even served up a Hungarian dessert wine at the end of the meal.

Obviously, this trip was off to a very strong start.

Reality settled back in for the 6-hour Hong Kong -> Delhi leg of the trip. Somebody sitting near us had supernaturally stinky feet, and took their shoes off shortly after boarding. Somebody else nearby suffered from chronic flatulence. In addition, after sitting in Business Class so recently, the normally cramped Economy Class seats seemed smaller than ever. While the meal was still decent, (I had the lamb curry – Melanie had the veggie dinner) it was hardly memorable and certainly not delicious. By the time we landed in Delhi, I felt like an unfolding accordion as I stood up to gather our luggage…everything just felt tired and sore.

As we arrived in Delhi at just past 3am on February 18, I could not help but notice that the airport was a bit dilapidated and generally unimpressive. This was pretty much what I expected, but it is still startling to realize that we are no longer in a highly industrialized part of the world, and that things really would be different here.

As we walked out into the passenger pickup area around 4am, we were lucky enough to find our driver waiting for us relatively quickly. He took Melanie’s bags and instructed us to follow him outside. At first, I was not sure if I should just blithely trust him, but he seemed an honest bloke (who also happened to be short, older, and skinny) so I figured we would be all right. Within 5 seconds of walking outside, we were exposed to what appeared to be the louts of the country. Young men would walk up to us, point to our driver, and say things like “we are together”, or “I am with him” and try to take our bags. When the third one came up and kept following us for a few dozen meters, our driver turned and said something that sounded like irritated Hindi, and the guy backed off. While I cannot say for sure what would have happened if I had let him “help” me with my luggage, I am fairly certain that it would have been more adventure than I would have wanted during out first few hours in India.

From there, we went to the car (small little number), got in, and started on a 30-minute trek to the bed and breakfast we would be staying out during our first few days in Delhi. The initial impressions in the dark were that Delhi was a city in transition – one moment we were driving down a long dark street in an area that I would normally avoid even in Mexico, and then the next we saw super-highways under construction, and then a few seconds later we saw an elephant “parked” out in front of a set of buildings.

I must confess that thoughts of “what the hell have I gotten us into” crossed my mind more than once as we drove towards what I sincerely hoped would be our planned destination. Within 10 seconds of getting into the car, I pulled out our trusty guidebook, looked up the emergency number for dialing the police (100) and held my cell phone at the ready, just in case my spidey sense started to go off.

In the end, all of my fears appear to have been unfounded. After a slightly harrowing but uneventful trip, we made it to the B&B without issue and were shown into our room. After brushing our teeth with bottled water (hopefully it is still too early for that part of the story to come into play) we started settling down for the night.

As I type this at 5:30am, sitting on the edge of the bed in our guest room, I can hear horns occasionally honking in the background. I can hear sounds of construction and loud little cars with loud little engines zooming by a few blocks away. Probably the coolest thing that I can hear is the unmistakable sounds of people either singing or praying off in the distance. The voices are clear and ululating, and the melody is haunting and beautiful. I look forward to falling asleep to them tonight…

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