Monday, March 7: After a sleepless night from my bad case of guru-itis, I finally give up and get out of bed at 5 a.m., soak in a long bath, and rearrange all the junk in my suitcase to make it more manageable. We eat the breakfast buffet at the hotel, settle our bill, and sit out by the pool for an hour or two, tickled by the lovely breeze. The Ramada’s hotel pool is a definite oasis in the middle of the maelstrom of Varanasi, so we enjoy the couple of hours of serenity. I for one am looking forward to the next leg of our journey.
Sanjay picks us up at around noon to take us to the airport. He drives like a freaking maniac, jamming his wrist onto the horn at every opportunity, shattering the otherwise quiet drive for no good reason. At one point we ask him to please slow down as the car he has brought today has no seat belts. He grudgingly slows down just a wisp. Surprisingly, we arrive in one piece at the airport, where we catch our 1:40 flight back to Delhi. It’s obvious that Sanjay is happy to be rid of us, as we are of him!
When we arrive at the Delhi airport, we do some shopping at the British Marks & Spencer to kill the 2 hours and 25 minutes we have between our flights. At 5:25, we finally catch our next flight to Chandigarh, and we arrive there safely and without incident at 6:30 in the evening.
Our new driver, Singh, is a little late meeting us at the Chandigarh airport. He lumbers up to us, looking more than a little disheveled, as we walk out of the airport hauling our suitcases behind us. Singh is an older heavyset man with streaks of red dye in his dark hair and an earring in one ear. His hair is standing on end. He wears a sweater vest over an untucked shirt and a pair of frayed pants. He says, I thought your flight arrived at 7:00. Sorry for being late. He has a huge grin on his face. He then proceeds to tell us he just arrived from Delhi, after a 5 hour drive. He also says he will be our driver for the next 7 days.
We look at each other. He came all the way from Delhi today? Our plane had arrived in Delhi at 3:00 that very afternoon.
This is when it begins to dawn on us the error of our ways. At first it is just an inkling that something isn’t right. In the next day, the error becomes magnified 100-fold as our nightmare folds into and over itself in a multitude of ways.
When Jayne and I first began to plan this trip to India, I was in Korea and she was in California. Because of the time difference and the difficulty of planning such a complicated trip over Skype, we decided in January that we better hurry and start making decisions. I had a huge map of India at my end, and we both had the cumbersome Lonely Planet India guidebook. We had each skimmed through the guidebook and decided which places we wanted to go. The next part was to plot it out on the map and buy our in-country plane and train tickets. We bought our tickets to arrive in Delhi around March 1 and to leave India from Mumbai on March 22. We then decided that after spending a few days in Delhi, we would fly to Varanasi, stay there a few days, then fly to Chandigarh via Delhi, where it seemed on the map that the distance was short to our ultimate destination of Rishikesh. Rishikesh has no airport of its own. We then planned to go by car from Rishikesh to Corbett Tiger Reserve, drive back to Chandigarh, and fly back to Delhi. Ha! Little did we know the folly of our plans.
After booking this part of the trip ourselves, we were getting stressed out and we decided to contact a travel agent in India, Umer Ullah of Discent Travel, recommended to me by another teacher in Korea. Umer came back with a good plan for a reasonable price, so we went ahead and asked him to book the rest of our trip. We told him of the plane tickets we had already purchased (Delhi-Varanasi-Delhi-Chandigarh-Delhi) and asked him to work around these tickets. When planning our itinerary he suggested we should forfeit the flight from Chandigarh back to Delhi as it would take just as long to drive from Rishikesh or Corbett Tiger Reserve back to Chandigarh as it would take to drive directly to Delhi.
Knowing this, we wonder why he has sent a driver all the way from Delhi to pick us up in Chandigarh. If in fact it takes as long to drive from Rishikesh to Chandigarh as from Rishikesh to Delhi, why didn’t Umer tell us to forfeit the flight from Delhi to Chandigarh as well, and have the driver pick us up in Delhi and drive us directly to Rishikesh?? We are more than a little baffled by this, but ultimately we realize we had asked Umer to work around our already purchased plane tickets. Still. He already advised us to forfeit the tickets back to Delhi from Chandigarh. He might as well have advised us to forfeit the ones from Delhi to Chandigarh today too. Ultimately it would have saved us the horrendous day that we encounter tomorrow, Tuesday, the day from hell.
Singh drives us very slowly in the dark to a lake in Chandigarh called Sukhna Lake. It is a beautiful 3 km long manmade lake, created in 1958, that lies in the foothills of Shivalik range. It was made by damming the Sukhna Choe, which is a seasonal stream flowing down from the Shivalik hills. We can’t see much of it sadly because it’s dark, but we talk a nice walk along the promenade anyway. We can see some lights far in the distant mountains. Later Singh tells us the lights we see are from the hill station of Shimla, which is another tourist destination in India but not on OUR itinerary.
Chandigarh is an anomaly in India. It is entirely different from every single town we encounter on our journey. It looks like a small town in America. It is the first planned city in India and is apparently known internationally for its architecture and urban planning. The city was designed by American architect-planner Albert Mayer, Polish architect Matthew Nowiki and the French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier (born Swiss). It has the highest per capita income in the country and is considered India’s cleanest city. It also tops the List of Indian states and territories by Human Development Index. It feels like we have escaped into a different country entirely during our one evening here.
We ask Singh about himself and he says he is married with two children, ages 19 and 21. So he’s about our age. We ask him where he will sleep in the 7 days that he will be our driver. He says sometimes he sleeps in the car, sometimes in special rooms provided by the hotels for drivers to sleep and shower.
It appears poor Singh has some night vision problems because he drives us ever so slowly to our hotel in Chandigarh, the Hotel Shivalikview, which is less than stellar. We do find that we get a complimentary dinner there, so at least there’s something good about it. But the room is run down (apparently the hotel is under renovation) and really a letdown after the lovely Ramada. We eat our complimentary dinner and both get on the internet to check emails. On Facebook, my friend Neeraj from northern Virginia gets on the chat and tells me he would love to have his brother Rajesh, who lives in Chandigarh, come to meet me in the morning. He’s excited that I’m visiting his hometown of Chandigarh. I say, sure I’d be happy to meet Rajesh, but I say we’re leaving by 7:45 a.m., so he should come before that time.
We go to sleep, and never in our wildest dreams do we imagine the insane day that we will encounter tomorrow.