Tuesday, March 8: Our day begins with a sprinkle of promise. The sun is shining, the buffet breakfast is palatable, and here, in the hotel lobby, is my friend Neeraj’s brother, Rajesh, who has come to say hi before we leave Chandigarh. Neeraj has told me he really wants pictures of me with his brother, so Jayne takes a bunch of photos in the hotel lobby and out front. Rajesh tells me he’s Neeraj’s elder brother and that he has two young daughters. He is quiet and shy and doesn’t say much. He’s probably wondering why on earth his brother has sent him to meet this perfect stranger who just happened to alight briefly in his hometown. But, he’s a good sport, and as we have to leave early for our “5-hour” drive to Rishikesh, he takes off and we load our stuff in the car and take off. It’s 8 a.m.
It’s a beautiful day and we are cruising along in the back seat with the windows open and dust flying into our faces. The air-conditioner in Singh’s car has two speeds, either full-blast freezing or off. We alternate between the two. Singh seems like a decent driver, unlike Ajay in Varanasi. Plus, he is a happy-go-lucky fellow and easy to get along with. We think that if we’re going to be with anyone for 7 days, he is a good one. At least this is what we think as we set out this fine, sunny morning.
We have a copy of today’s Times of India and I’m reading the headline story: Aruna Lives, But Others Can Die with Dignity: SC (Supreme Court) Legalizes Passive Euthanasia. I read the entire story of how one comatose woman has been cared for by a hospital staff who loves her and doesn’t want her to die. Their lives revolve around caring for Aruna, who does respond in some ways so does not seem to be officially “brain-dead.” Interesting that India has made this choice to legalize passive euthanasia, while the U.S. is still in the dark ages on this issue. I wonder if it’s because of their population of one billion people that they’re more amenable to letting someone go.
Reading the paper gives me insight into the Indian psyche. There is an advertisement for Lavana Tailam: For controlling excess body size and bellyfat. Who should use? ~ People who are obese and have lost their body shape. ~People who [has] flabby thighs which rub together while walking. (I find this hilarious!)
Then, in a plug for Indian-style yoga, there is an article: U.S. Turns to Yoga to Make Troops Fitter. An editorial criticizes the Supreme Court: Attempt to suicide must be decriminalized: “A person attempts to suicide in a depression, and hence he needs help, rather than punishment.”
And then I come across a funny editorial: An Outlaw Hero: It’s Time to Bring Billy the Kid in from the Cold. The writer argues that Billy the Kid should be posthumously pardoned. He says that “Tricky Dick” was pardoned, he “who besides waging an illegal war against North Vietnam, bombing and killing millions, also brought disgrace to the presidency by lying, cheating, and abusing the vast powers vested in his high office.” The writer goes on to say: “But former New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, announced not too long ago that there would be no posthumous pardon for famous outlaw Billy the Kid who was shot down by gunmen 129 years back….Having investigated this case from the time he took office (this means American governors [has] less work than Indian ones), Richardson said people should not neglect the historical record.”
All of this I find highly amusing, one, because of the way the article is written, but also because I think it funny that an Indian newspaper should have an editorial on this subject to begin with!
About 95 km outside of Chandigarh, suddenly the engine of our Maruti Suzuki Esteem LX starts hissing and spitting out steam. Singh pulls the car over and opens the hood, or the “bonnet,” as Jayne, who is British, calls it. Apparently, there’s a problem with the radiator. We sit alongside the two-lane road as trucks, tractors, donkey carts, auto-rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and motorbikes whiz by tossing dust in our eyes. I get out of the car to take some pictures as Singh pokes curiously into the engine trying to figure out the problem. He takes our water bottles and empties them into the radiator.
Two filthy boys sharing one bicycle ride up, and Singh gives them our now-empty water bottles to take somewhere to fill up. They zip off and return back quickly, although it seems we are out in the middle of nowhere, and I give them a 100 rupee note for their troubles.
An auto-rickshaw driver pulls over to offer his help. There is apparently nothing to be done with the car on the side of this far-flung road, so the driver pulls out a frayed rope and he and Singh tie the bumpers of the two vehicles together. Jayne and I are both incredulous that an auto-rickshaw could possibly pull an auto. They instruct Jayne and I to get in the auto-rickshaw, and Singh gets into his car.
We start down the road only to have the rope come untied after a short distance. They re-tie the rope and we’re off again. Finally, after what seems like 10 miles but is probably less than 5, we stop at a filthy auto repair shop in some small town. The auto-repair guys bring Jayne and me two plastic chairs and we sit out on the red dirt floor and wait for them to resolve the problem.
After about 1 1/2 hours, after one of the mechanics vanishes and finally returns with the necessary part from some other place, the car is finally fixed and we are on our way. We settle in, pretty annoyed at this point from the hold-up. Singh has been making excuses that this is not his car, that he borrowed this car from someone else, that his own car is currently in the shop for some kind of maintenance. We don’t really want to hear his excuses, but he is making them anyway and we are captive.
We are finally cruising along again, if you can call driving in India cruising. The potholed and decrepit roads in India are choked with every kind of vehicle and animal imaginable. On this particular route, there are all two-lane roads, and since a myriad of slower vehicles are always blocking the road, constant passing is required. It’s so funny, as I’ve gotten older I have come to fear fewer and fewer things. Years ago, I would have been terrified by this road trip. Since every minute we are passing someone, and hurling head-on toward other vehicles, I would have probably had a heart attack within hours. But “nowadays” (an English word Koreans love and use constantly), I seem to have become a little fearless. It helps that the guru in Varanasi told me I would live till 87 or 88 and die a quiet death in my bed. I keep reminding myself of this as we travel on this long day. Strangely, even though I’m of course skeptical of the guru’s predictions, his words soothe my fears on this torturous day.
Jayne and I are just sitting quietly in the back seat, trying to get comfortable, and watching all the crazy people on the road. Soon, we enter a road that is blocked off by gates. We seem to have no trouble getting through the gate, but a little way down the road, a guy alongside the road waves us down. He doesn’t look like anyone official, just some random-looking guy. But Singh pulls over, pulls some papers out of his glove compartment, and gets out of the car to talk to the guy. This takes quite some time, so we are getting irritated and wondering what the hold-up is. Finally, after about a half-hour, Singh comes back and tells us that we cannot take this road because he doesn’t have the proper permit. We have to turn around and take an alternate route to Rishikesh. Again, he starts making all kinds of excuses about how this isn’t his car, how his car has all the proper permits, how it’s not his fault that this car is not properly documented! Here, an argument ensues where we, especially me, start griping and complaining that he should have known what permits are required for this road, and he should have checked this car before he brought it from Delhi. He is unabashedly unapologetic, and just keeps making excuses as we turn around and get on another overcrowded road going in some other unknown direction.
At this point in the trip, we are still able to be a little giddy because we are clueless about what is happening. We are under the impression that we are taking some parallel road toward Rishikesh, and we think it may take at most 4 more hours. We keep trying to get comfortable in the car and we both stick our legs straight up, propping our calves on the tops of the front seats. My feet are right over Singh’s head. We look like two check marks in the back seat. We start giggling about this and Singh asks us what’s so funny. We say, nothing, just the way we are sitting. He is relieved, maybe, that we are at least laughing through this situation.
After quite a long time, I pull out my India map and I ask Singh what town we are in. He tells me we’re in Karnal. I say, What??? You’ve got to be kidding! We’re heading toward Delhi! Why are we heading toward Delhi?? He goes on to explain that we are heading to Panipat, another 34 miles south, where some people will bring his car and we will exchange vehicles. What??? Another big argument ensues where we are yelling at him that we can’t believe we are heading back toward Delhi!! He continues to make excuses and to say, again, it’s not his fault because this isn’t his car and he didn’t know it didn’t have the proper permits. We make our way slowly to Panipat, which takes over an hour to travel the 34 miles. Every distance in India takes double the time it would take to travel in the U.S. or other civilized countries. Sometimes it takes triple the time!
As we finally get to Panipat, which is 85 miles north of Delhi, Singh tells us that he thinks it is better for us to go all the way to Delhi to meet his friends with the car because if we stop in Panipat, we’ll have to wait 2 hours for them to meet us!! Again, another argument ensues, where we are reaming him out for this disaster of a day. Again he keeps saying it’s not his fault, it’s not his car, and when he gets his car it will all be okay. I’m thinking, didn’t he say his car was in the shop? What if we get his car and we have more problems because it’s not in good shape??
By this time I am so furious that I want to jump over the front seat and strangle him. But what can be done? We plod along another 3 hours or so to go the 85 miles to Delhi. My blood is boiling, but there is no solution to the problem other than to sit and take it. We are hot and uncomfortable in this small car. Our legs are cramped, our backs are hurting. There is nowhere to stretch out. Pure misery.
Finally, in Delhi, Singh’s friends come with his car and we move all our luggage and ourselves to Singh’s car. It turns out that his car only has one seat belt in the backseat. So Jayne and I will have to alternate wearing this seat belt and just hope we can reduce our odds of getting killed in a head-on collision. We get on the road toward Rishikesh, which means we head southeast (we’re supposed to be going north!) to Ghaziabad, then we head north to Meerut. Once we are northbound at least I begin to feel some relief that we are finally heading in the right direction.
At 6:00, we stop at a roadside cafeteria that is a kind of all-purpose place: it has a coffee shop, a “party lawn,” a swimming pool, and bathrooms. I order some vegetable samosas with a chick pea sauce, and Jayne orders a chicken tikka that is so soggy that it sticks to the roof of her mouth. This is the first proper meal we eat the entire day, as we had only stopped for some chips and drinks around Panipat.
We poke along the long route, passing through Muzaffarnagar, Roorkee, Hadiwar, then to Rishikesh. This trip from Delhi to Rishikesh takes another 5 hours. When we arrive at 10 p.m. in Rishikesh, to the Divine Hotel, the place seems truly divine to us despite its notably un-divine appearance. We are irritated beyond what any words can describe because we have just spent 14 hours in a cramped car traveling a route that would have taken no more than 3 hours in the U.S.!! Our relationship with Singh has started out very badly and we have 6 more days to spend with him! And Jayne’s and my friendship is being pushed to its limits. The tension between all of us is thick and sticky and uncomfortable. It’s as if we’re all stuck in a huge spider web made of taut metal threads. I think we all want to kill each other. I know I want to strangle Singh, and I feel frustrated because there is tension even between Jayne and me. I fear this may not bode well for the rest of the trip. I wonder how long it will last. All I can hope is that the trauma of this day will dissipate with each passing day.