chandigarh >> to delhi (???) >> to rishikesh….14 grueling hours

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.

Neeraj's brother Rajesh meets us in Chandigarh

Neeraj’s brother Rajesh meets us in Chandigarh

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.

Me with Rajesh

Me with Rajesh

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.

Along the road to Rishikesh.... every kind of imaginable vehicle :-)

Along the road to Rishikesh…. every kind of imaginable vehicle 🙂

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.”

tractors along the road

tractors along the road

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!

rickshaws....

rickshaws….

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.

Singh and the our broken down car

Singh and the our broken down car

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.

these two boys help us by riding ahead and filling up water bottles for our radiator...

these two boys help us by riding ahead and filling up water bottles for our radiator…

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.

hooking up the car to the auto-rickshaw

hooking up the car to the auto-rickshaw

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.

a goddess watches over us in the auto-rickshaw

a goddess watches over us in the auto-rickshaw

jayne in the back of the auto-rickshaw with Singh and the car being pulled behind

jayne in the back of the auto-rickshaw with Singh and the car being pulled behind

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.

at the shop

at the shop

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 waits.....

jayne waits…..

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.

i wait.....

i wait…..

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!

on the road again....

on the road again….

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.

typical brightly-painted Indian trucks

typical brightly-painted Indian trucks

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.

Finally.. a taste of the "divine" at the Divine Hotel in Rishikesh... the end of 14 grueling hours!

Finally.. a taste of the “divine” at the Divine Hotel in Rishikesh… the end of 14 grueling hours!

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varanasi to chandigarh: a day of travel for no good reason.

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.

goodbye to the doorman at the ramada in varanasi

goodbye to the doorman at the ramada in varanasi

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!

Goodbye and good riddance to Sanjay

Goodbye and good riddance to Sanjay

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.

Me with Sanjay at the Varanasi airport

Me with Sanjay at the Varanasi airport

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.

Our shabby room at Hotel Shivalikview

Our shabby room at Hotel Shivalikview

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.