Safe and Sound, On the Ground

Not long after I finish writing the last entry, an announcement comes over the PA. The snacks and drinks that were ordered for us while we wait won’t be necessary – the flight is leaving!

And soon we are all aboard, and I am happy to find that my seat is as good as it can get in economy class for someone on the tall side:

Today’s flight will be the longest I’ve ever done: Gate to gate it is over 14 hours. There is something surreal about such a flight. Once we get in the air we’re told to pull the window shades since at any given time someone is likely to want to sleep. And so it is that I find myself along with 341 other passengers in a magical tube that teleports me across the world.

I haven’t done many long haul flights but this one is the most genial I’ve been on. People are going up and down the aisles to talk to people. Restless children run giggling up and down the aisle.

And we are never hungry: Two dinners and breakfast are served along the way. Every time I think I might like a little something to eat here comes the cart with a full meal. With a full flight of 342 passengers I’m amazed to note that that is 1,026 meals served. Where is all this food stored?

I speak Hindi with my two seatmates from Punjab. They ask if I live in Delhi – um. Not yet? Later, a young woman about my son’s age in the seat in front of me asks where I’m going and recommends that I go to Kashmir because it’s so beautiful.

Not everyone is happy on this flight, mind you. There are a lot of babies. These planes have an ingenious design that lets you hang two cradles on each wall that separates each of the passenger compartments. And so there are two babies right next to us. They are not happy to be here in this boring, noisy, dark tube and they’re letting us all know about it. The adults manage beautifully, though, with mom, dad, aunts and uncles trying to entertain the kids and give the parents a break when they need it. Once the babies asleep the curious girls who were chasing each other up and down the aisle tiptoe up to look at the sleeping babies.

I sleep in fits and starts, in between reading the new Tahir Shah book filled with more of his travel anecdotes and relating them to Mullah Nasrudin stories. After a while I get restless too and though I don’t chase my seatmates up and down the aisles, I do stand in them for a bit, enjoying the feeling of the plane moving underneath me.

I must be sleeping more than I think because soon I open my eyes to see that someone on the other side of the plane has opened their window and outside are the Himalayas – incredibly beautiful. I get up to go to the exit window on the side facing the mountains so I can take a photo but there is a mom with a sleeping baby – the same one that was inconsolable just a few minutes ago. So you will just have to trust me that the mountains were stunning.

And before we know it we are in Delhi. It is now almost exactly the same time of day as when we left – but one day later. There’s no snow now, though. The weather is quite nice – 21 degrees centigrade.

When I get inside there is a din of people shouting about connections to Ahmedabad: Some people are clearly about to miss their flights. I’ve got all the time in the world, though. And I’ve planned for it. The first two times I came to India I spent over two hours in the lineup for immigration. This time, though, I am shocked to find that I am in and out in about 20 minutes. Then I’m in the baggage hall looking for the oversize baggage. And there it is, my bike is waiting on a cart. The box has a couple of holes in it – not sure what from. I’m optimistic it isn’t serious. Remembering Sage’s observation that I am too quiet when I speak Hindi at home to people, I go up to the attendant and ask where my other bag is. He doesn’t blink and tells me where to find it.

And then I pass through customs. I’m not entirely sure what this is about. None of us even goes to a counter – we just keep walking – and out in to the airport proper. I’m getting enough of a routine now that I know the drill: Immigration, baggage, customs, and now SIM card. I go pick one up and as usual I’m grumpy – not at the experience here but how it relates to back home. For $16 I get unlimited calling and text and 1.5 GB per day of 4G data – all for a month. That is about a tenth of the cost of a plan in Toronto with 10GB data.

Now, with baggage and phone the last thing is to get a car. I grab a prepaid minivan to carry me and my bike. And now we’re out of the airport. I’m struck by the poor air quality. I think it is as bad as I’ve experienced here and I make a note to find a pollution mask for the ride.

We ride on some of the streets I’ll be cycling on tomorrow. I am surprised to see some wide lanes labeled “Cycle Track”. And even though I see the occasional autorickshaw or motorcycle in it I’m happy. But still I alternate between “I can do this.” and “Wow this is intense.” We’ll see how it goes tomorrow. At least one thing is true – the worst of the traffic is likely to be in the beginning.

I get to the homestay and get checked in. A few minutes later, Jun, another guest from New Zealand arrives. He’s an architecture student on his first trip to India. Though by now I am exhausted with jetlag, I have to eat and off we go to get some dinner. We get lost in a set of narrow streets near the enclave before coming to the main road. And now it’s time for the next task on any visit to India: re-learning how to cross the street. With seemingly no break in traffic, you need to know how to carefully yet confidently make your way across. The key, as I see it, is maintaining your speed and direction. If you do that everyone makes their way around you. Lose your predictability and you are in trouble. But at this stage in the trip I am still at the “Wait for someone else to cross and walk next to them.” stage.

I have a simple dinner of channa masala (bonus: it had paneer in it too!) and Jun has his first masala dosa. We chat about our experiences in India and what our respective countries are like culturally and from an employment state.

Once I have eaten I’m really tired. I head back to the homestay and when we get in our host, Laxmi is back. Long-term readers may remember her from this entry. Today one of her sons and her daughter are also here. She says hello and I respond in English. She scolds me and tells me to speak Hindi and I switch back to Hindi. She is visibly pleased and remarks at how much better my Hindi is than when I was here in January. I am also pleased. It often feels like I’m making no progress because the changes are so small over a long time I can’t notice.

After we catch up, I am wiped out and go to bed and now it’s time for the final routine of the first day of an India trip: Exhausted insomnia! I am exhausted but as far as my body is concerned, it’s noon. Planning for this I take a single melatonin tablet, lie down and think distracting thoughts, naming world cities in alphabetical order. I make it to Frankfurt and I remember nothing after that. But the fun isn’t over. My helpful brain says “Hey! You went to sleep at noon and you don’t want to sleep the day away, so I’ll wake you up after two hours!” And so I wake up – but now I’m quite groggy. I am confused. Where am I? Where is Sage? Do I need to have an alarm for work? It takes a good minute to realize where I am. And then it’s back to bed and “Gainesville, Hopewell Township, Iowa City, Jackson…” And this two hour cycle repeats every two hours until I wake at 4:30.

I wake up to a lovely surprise. Sage has edited the cover to a Hindi children’s book I recently read in which a man living in India and bored with his work, gets on his bike one day and goes off on a multi-day ride. And now I am on the cover!

More adventures planned for today…But you’ll have to wait to find out what they are.

6 thoughts on “Safe and Sound, On the Ground

  1. I had read about the air pollution and am sad to hear it is as awful as you are finding it. As for Kashmir–sounds pretty dicey at the moment given the troops. Ride safely.

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