Without so much as a how’s-your-father Delhi was up our noses before we had finished taxi-ing on the runway. The acrid smell of wood smoke pervaded the air and the doors had not yet opened.
At the top of the dismounting steps I squinted into the fuggy air to see bleary lights glinting through the winter fog and smoke as if I had worn my contact lenses all night through a drunken haze. Shadowy figures did their work shifting vehicles and baggage.
Before leaving, many of my friends informed me that India would be ‘ten times worse’ than anything I had experienced in China or the Middle East in terms of traffic, seething humanity, begging, everything in fact, so I had mentally prepared myself to be utterly horrified whilst hoping for the best.
The airport was apparently going to be the first offence against my sensibilities. Clean modern buses deposited us at the hangar and people formed orderly queues clearly subdued by the early hour of 3am. Looking around it appeared some of the Diaspora was returning for the holidays and I felt the appraising eyes of a tall slim Indian girl with jeans slung low on her hips with earrings trailing on her shoulders. What a fashion klutz she must think me in my daggy travelling gear. Signs indicating work in progress were plastered over hoardings on one side of the customs desk: ‘sorry for the inconvenience’. I smiled. May as well get used to it now as this would be the first of many apologies I’m sure. I also wryly noted an ominous sign for ‘mishandled baggage’ which had developed its own following.
I found my driver Rajesh very easily. He picked up my bag and led me out a narrow hallway past huddled figures under blankets to the car park. At least, it had cars parked in it. It had the air of only moonlighting as a car park however, as it looked more like it performed the service of camel sale yard during the day.
Men huddled over open fires and the smoke machine worked overtime for the rock band that would not be coming. My throat was already sore from trying to filter some oxygen out of the haze and I realized I was taking very short breaths. With my lungs soon to be like a Victorian England chimney I would be joining the hawking masses before much longer no doubt. I squeezed my long legs into the tight space of the waiting Ambassador indicated by Rajesh and returned the gaze of the men outside the car peering in. Rajesh stowed my bag and we were ready to start negotiating culverts and rocks. The marigold garland hanging from the rear-view mirror swayed and jerked as did the large bell – the whole ensemble suggested that a Swiss cow somewhere was running around in a state of undress.
I mentally prepared myself to enter the fray, but on leaving the airport via a circuitous route which involved inventing our own lanes ad lib, the freeway was relatively empty, as well as wide ad straight. Not quite what I had expected, even if it was three in the morning.
Rajesh and I had exchanged a few polite pleasantries up till now, but the ice was broken when we overtook a car on our left side that was racing down the freeway backwards at full speed. We both laughed uproariously. ‘He is wrong way going!’ Rajesh spluttered. I was silently relieved that Rajesh also thought this funny and not normal Delhi driving practice.
I began quizzing Rajesh on his name and family and life in India in general. Eventually he gave me his wallet indicating a card. ‘You want license number too?’ His eyes glinted with cheeky amusement. Right. A sarccy bugger eh. The best form of defence is offence I say, so I kept going. He was clearly enjoying it anyway. We swapped information about marriageable ages in our countries and birth rates and family sizes. Rajesh showed me a small photo of his wife and made a special point of telling me he was ‘love married’ unlike his parents. ‘Is very hard, but good,’ he said. ‘You are a very modern man, Rajesh,’ I observed.
Rajesh tapped on the glass of the Namaskar Hotel and a sleepy figure emerged from under a blanket to let us in. In no time I was in my 300-rupee-a-night room ($9) which had two beds pushed together with clean white linen (and heaven be praised) an internal bathroom. The walls had bubbly crusty pink paint and the floor was cold tile. Very plain but entirely serviceable. I asked if there was hot water and didn’t really believe the head wobbled ‘Yes, is 24-hours.’ After being squeezed up on a long flight, anywhere you can lay stretched out is a godsend, but this room was better than I expected. Even the pillows were good. I had prepared to be horrified and dismayed, but it would seem that that would have to wait for another day. I’m looking forward to it. As my mate Paul is fond of saying, ‘Just think what a great story it will make!’