We’re sitting here in the internet café waiting to leave on the 8:30pm train to Delhi. After a series of brown-outs, the power went out entirely an hour ago. The café has a bank of huge truck batteries and they’re amazingly keeping the internet connection going, though a few of the PC’s in the café spontaneously reboot from time to time, to the frustration of the german tourists trying to compose lengthy emails. (In German, even “Having a great time, wish you were here.” is a lengthy email.)
It’s about 5:30pm, and we check the departure time of the Shatabdi Express to Agra (the fastest train in India). It’s scheduled to arrive in Agra two hours late. Mr. Khan, our auto-rickshaw driver in Agra, suggests we hire a car to drive us to Delhi. It will take four hours and we could depart immediately. The cost would be Rs3500, everything included (tip, road tax, petrol), about $80.
We think about standing around a cold foggy train station at 10pm, hoping that the train will arrive. Then we tell Mr. Khan to summon us a car.
By the time the driver arrives to get us, the arrival time of the Shatabdi Express in Agra has been changed… it is now expected to be three hours late. We pack our things into the small car and head out towards Delhi.
The car, though little, is too large for the streets of Taj Ganj, the working-class neighborhood built by the original craftsmen of the Taj Mahal. Our driver struggles to escape through the evening mass of bicycles, pedestrians, and auto-rickshaws. He seems to believe that if he sounds his horn persistently enough, it will blast a gap through which his car will magically pass. A hundred yards our from our departure, we sideswipe an auto-rickshaw. Our driver looks concerned, but a pedestrian assures him it’s only the bumper, so we press on.
The inside of the car is damp with fog, and the driver has his window wide open. The front windscreen is damp and streaked, and we only get an impressionistic view of the traffic around us. Dan asks the driver to turn on the heat, forgetting that Indian cars (like Indian homes) don’t have heaters. We wonder if we’ll be driving to Delhi with the windows open and without visibility, but we finally work things out. Dan provides a towel from his bag to wipe the windscreen, we turn on the A.C. to dry the windscreen (it can’t get any colder!), and the driver closes his window.
As we leave Agra the fog descends, and remains with us all of the way to Delhi. Sometimes it’s thick, and sometimes it’s solid, thick as daal. Our speed is usually 20-30 kph (12-20 mph). When a more foolhardy driver passes us going faster, our driver uses him as a shield, following him at 60 kph (40 mph), never leaving more than ten feet between our car and the one ahead of us. The wisdom of this seems questionable, but I am the visitor here, so I say nothing. Dan grumbles about tailgating from the back seat, then continues reading the Ramayana to distract himself.
As we drive slowly through the fog, scenes appear and then disappear again, brief vignettes of life in India. Bicyclists on the highway, their drivers tightly wrapped in blankets as they pedal. A man rises from the bed of a moving truck, faces back, and pees out into the night, his stream making a long rooster tail behind the truck. We stop to pay a road tax. The toll taker works in the open air, the fog swirling around his Windows PC propped up on a wooden table.
Trucks often drive without any rear lights, as do tractors hauling wagons full of hay and manure. We come on these like dark monoliths in the road, and we have to slow down and swerve until we find a way around. Once we come on a man standing in the fog, waving his arms frantically. Behind him, a truck is stopped dead to change a tire. A different time a few large rocks in the road act as a warning that a truck is stopped in the lane.
Truck stops, which announce themselves with an random scattering of fluorescent light tubes, all of different colors, looking like an art project designed specifically for the fog.
A hundred kilometers out we stop at one of these truck stops for chai. By ‘truck stop’, I mean an open-fronted concrete building. Part of it has been designated a kitchen, and it’s filled with dirty pots. A few plastic tables and chairs provide a dining area. There is a Coke cooler containing various bottled drinks. The staff consists of a half-dozen boys, ages ten to sixteen. Most of them cuddle together on a cot watching TV, while the youngest is sent off to make us chai.
In front of the TV is a small fire, and we sit by it, trying to stay warm. The boys ignore us, totally engrossed by the show they’re watching. The show consists of single room in a stylized marble palace. Standing around the room are roughly a half dozen characters. Every 5 minutes a new character seems to enter the room, always accompanied by a dramatic musical flourish. In the palace, life centers around the father, who wears a dramatic bright purple shirt, sports a huge gray beard, and has golden eyes. He spends the entire show shouting angrily. I dub him Angry Beard Papa. The camera cuts to each actor in turn, who then makes an expressive gesture. Angry Beard Papa shouts something shaking his finger. Pretty Daughter casts her eyes down in shame. Son-in-Law enters the room and looks shocked. Mother looks concerned. Suddenly, Angry Beard Papa is holding a shotgun. (Where did that come from?) Other Pretty Daughter looks very surprised. Different Son-in-Law enters. Angry Beard Papa shouts something, shaking his gun. Different Son-in-Law wrestles with Angry Beard Papa for the gun, but is pushed to the floor. Mother looks concerned. Pretty Daughter looks like she smells a fart. Angry Beard Papa shouts some more.
This continues exactly like this for the entire time we’re sitting in front of the TV. Every five minutes they cut to commercials, but only after showing a preview of coming attractions. (Angry Beard Papa shouting.)
I ask our driver if all Indian families are like this. He starts laughing, bobbles his head, and says “Yes.”
We’re half way to Delhi, and it’s 11:30pm. We’ve come 100 kilometers (60 miles) in 3 and a half hours.
At around 1am, our driver starts behaving erratically. He will pass a slow-moving truck and speed quickly through the fog, then start slowing down until we’re barely moving. The truck will catch up with us and blare their horn to pass. Our driver weaves a little, then moves to one side to allow the truck to pass. This happens a few times before I give our driver a Meaningful Look. (Meaningful Looks are wonderful. They are pretty universally understood.) He nods, then pulls over at the next truck stop.
This truck stop is pretty much the same in construction and layout, but it does have a cage of rabbits out front. I feel sorry for the rabbits out in the cold, and wonder if they’re for pets or meat. I ask our driver, and he answers “yes”. His English isn’t too good, so I leave it at that.
This truck stop also has a working kitchen. There is a red-hot tandoor oven, and a 16-year-old kid in an apron stands over it, churning out beautifully seared chapati. We order three chai and three chapati. They tell us to go sit in the building, but there is no fire there, no tv, just harsh fluorescent lighting. We stay by the tandoor, enjoying its radiant warmth. Eventually the chai is served, very pointedly brought to a table in the dining room by a sleepy-faced ten-year-old with a stainless steel tray. We sit and sip our paper cups of chai, warming our hands around them.
The boy returns, bearing not chapati but buttered aloo paratha, a whole wheat flatbread stuffed with mashed potatoes and spices, and carefully buttered. It’s amazingly delicious and immediately stops my shivering. I devour my paratha, ignoring the occasional piece of grit that I feel between my teeth.
We finally get to Delhi, following street signs to Connaught Place. The streets of Delhi at that time of the morning are a different place. There is minimal traffic, and the streets seem wide and Parisian, quite different from the loud and messy chaos that changes them in day.
We arrive at our hotel at 3am, awaken the sleepy receptionist, and then fall asleep ourselves.