It’s Tuesday morning in Bangalore and the alarm is going off. 5:00 AM. Time to do our final packing and catch our plane. Our first flight will take us from Bangalore to Delhi, dropping us off there just around lunch time. Our second flight, though, doesn’t leave until nearly 3:00 AM.
I’m pretty tired. I had stayed out until 10:30 having dinner with colleagues from work. Once I got back to the hotel I was still excited from dinner but also reluctant to go to sleep. After all, going to sleep meant admitting that our trip was over. But finally, around midnight, I admit defeat. I have to go home and that starts with getting some sleep.
And so, as we pack our bags, Sage and I talk about how our day will go. Since we had no coffee, I felt particularly tired. I figured that though it might be expensive, let’s get a hotel at the airport, check in, have a nap, and check out in time to get to our flight. Sage agrees that this sounds like a good plan.
And off we go on to the airport. At 6:00 AM there is barely any traffic in Bangalore and we make amazing time. Such good time, in fact, that the driver has time to stop and pick up his breakfast on the way. As we ride we watch the contrast that we’ve seen for the past several weeks go by. Sometimes there are huge glass towers for multinational companies and the homes of their employees. Other times, we stop to allow a rooster to cross the road. This contrast is something that I love and will miss.
We get to the airport, check our bags and get through security. By now we’ve been awake for almost three hours. We are hungry and short on caffeine. Fortunately there was a restaurant advertising a breakfast thali that looked delicious and included coffee.
I am definitely going to miss this sort of breakfast. Yes, there are things that are as sweet as many breakfast items in North America but the presence of savoury and even spicy elements is delightful. Looking back, I think we should have had one thali to share. That was so much delicious food – too much for either of us to finish completely on our own.
We board the flight and take our seats. Because we had a bargain flight and chose not to pay to choose our seats, we are not seated together. No matter, I’m dozing in no time.
As we make the 2.5 hour trip from Bangalore, though, I remember a conversation I’ve had a few times on the trip whenever I met someone from Pune. They ask me if I’ve ever been and I answer: “Well, um, I took a train there because I was going to go run a half marathon there but then the pollution made me think it wasn’t a good idea. And so, instead of doing that I checked in the hotel and stayed overnight until it was time to go back to Mumbai and I caught a ride with a colleague. So I’ve been there but I’ve not seen anything but the walk from the train station to the hotel.” I’d had that exact conversation with another colleague from Pune just the night before.
So with this bouncing around in my mind, I review my plan for Delhi. I’ll be there for about 14 hours. My current plan is to get off the plane, make my way to an airport hotel and go to sleep for a few hours before eating in the airport restaurant.
Also bouncing around in my mind is the Facebook conversation in which a former friend told me to give up trying to learn Hindi unless I could go to university to study as anything less was disrespectful and people would be upset and laugh at my expense. I had had many conversations about this with everyone from Sage to my teacher to other Hindi speakers and was feeling a bit better but it’s one thing to feel better in theory, and another thing entirely to feel comfortable in practice. Going to the hotel was not going to give me any chance to speak Hindi to people and work on regaining my confidence.
And so, when I got off the plane I talk with Sage and explain my reasons for changing my plans. We figure out an alternate plan which involves checking our bags in the cloak room at the airport. She’s still pretty tired and doesn’t want to go traveling all around Delhi but is happy to wait at the airport for me. And so, after a quick meal (chana bhatura – somehow this has become my most-eaten meal on this trip), I’m on the Delhi metro.
I’m bound for Qutb Minar station because I want to go visit the Mehrauli Archaeological Park again. It was one of the first places I explored in Delhi and I have fond memories of it. It has many really old buildings but is not as touristy as the Qutb Minar next door.
I get to the station and go outside. As happens in most Metro stations, auto drivers make their way to me offering me cheap rides to the Qutb Minar. I’m not interested, though, and so I walk past and tell them in Hindi: “I’m walking myself.” Now something about the combination of words is tricky for my western tongue to form. I have to go very slowly. And here’s a ridiculous fun fact for you: When I am concentrating really hard and speaking slowly in Hindi, the pitch of my voice changes, I enunciate clearly and suddenly, out of my mouth comes a voice that made both Sage and my Hindi teacher laugh and exclaim “Amitabh Bachchan!” And so, imagine, if you will, me turning to an auto driver and in a deep and serious voice saying:
And though I’m not the least bit angry, instead of dropping the price or trying to find a way to convince me to ride with him, the drivers simply say “OK, OK!” and walk away quickly.
The first thing I find that is different is that instead of having to steel my nerves and cross the street there is now a pedestrian bridge. For the first time in India I cross a busy street without the least stress.
I walk along the sidewalk (I know! Sidewalk!) past people selling pani puri, motorcycle helmets, chewing tobacco, and flowers until I get to the entrance to the park.
The walk is beautiful. I’m instantly glad I am not sitting in some air conditioned hotel – effectively already outside India.
I get to the place I’m looking for – Rajon ki Baoli, a stepwell I visited the first time I came to India, found accidentally while wandering in a park near my Airbnb. There are more people there than last time – 4-5 teenagers hanging out, some chatting, others on their phones.
I climb all over the well, from the top to the very bottom, taking it all in. I am so happy to be here, literally walking on history. I’m free to explore it as I like, there are no blocked off areas thought to be “too dangerous for visitors.” I’m allowed to go where I want, my safety my own responsibility.
I have one more stop before I go – Quli Khan’s tomb. This tomb was built in the 1600’s and it is a thing of beauty. Nobody is fully certain who Quli Khan was but it is thought he might be the son of Emperor Akbar’s foster mother and a foster brother to the emperor.
Some years later, when William Metcalfe came from England, he thought this would make an excellent part of a summer home and built an addition on to it and made it his home, called Dilkhusha, for some years. This has always struck me as the height of disrespect. You can see a bit of what’s left of one of his additions in the photo below – the Qutb Minar is in the distance.
I go out to the other side and explore the park further. While it was empty the first time I came, there are many people there. Soon, a tennis ball whizzes quickly past my ear and lands on the ground next to me. I pick it up and a young man fielding a cricket game comes to get it from me.
Soon all the players introduce themselves to me. They want to practice their English, and I want to practice my Hindi and so our communication is a mish-mash of both languages. Soon they’re inviting me to play but I beg off for two reasons. First, of course, is the fact that I’ve never played cricket in my life and really have no idea how to do it. How do you swing a bat even? I have no idea. And of course the second, more pressing reason is that I really can’t see with my right eye. As a result, I have no depth perception. If a game involves catching or hitting a ball, I’m useless. I even remember one day at a golf driving range my colleagues wanted to go to – I couldn’t hit a golf ball sitting on a tee in front of me. And so I tell them in Hindi that I will watch. And so they lead me over to a bench and they continue. I’m not planning on staying for long but now I’m here and it seems rude to just watch for a minute so I relax. Every now and again a player comes over to sit and chat, again in that mix of Hindi and English we’ve come to so that we can all practice. And then, after about five minutes they also decide to go. We head out and I go in one direction and they go in another. They ask where I’m going and when they find out I’m trying to leave they tell me to follow them – I’m going the wrong way.
As we go, they ask about where I’m from and what I’ve done in India and I tell them. One person says “I meet many people from the US and Canada and they’re so adventurous – I’m not sure I could do all those things.” I tell him that for me, India is an adventure because I never know what is going to happen when I go out. It’s always interesting and often wonderful as well.
At the gates of the park we go our separate ways, them back toward Mehrauli or perhaps Hauz Khas depending on where they’re going, and I back to the metro.
I ride the metro back to the airport and before long we’re on the long flight first to Amsterdam, and then after a short layover, back to Toronto.
After getting our luggage, Sage has to use the washroom so I take our luggage cart over to a group of chairs to wait for her. Soon a 60-something Sikh man walks straight over to me and starts speaking in rapid-fire Hindi. He has his customs paperwork but isn’t sure what to do with it. I give it my best shot. As is my habit, when I don’t know a Hindi word, I toss in the English word I’m looking for but this guy is not having any of it. Every time I try he says “No English” and I’m forced to make do with the words I have. And soon he is on his way to the customs officer who takes your customs declaration on the way out. Sage arrives then and we follow him out making sure he’s safely on his way. After he passes the officer he asks me what to do next and I ask him whether he’s going on to another city or staying in Toronto. But by this time, the customs officer is impatient and tells me to move on and he’ll ensure that this guy gets help. And so we head out the door in to Canada. It is only then I realize: He never asked me for my university credentials.