I returned to Delhi from Khajuraho a few days ago on an overnight train. It leaves in the evening just after 6 (on time!) and arrives in one of the big Delhi railway stations a little after 5 a.m. I was in the second class three-tier sleeper—not as cozy and comfortable as the two-tier, but Surendra got me a lower berth so I didn’t have to climb up the monkey bars to one of the upper levels. I just had to duck my head to avoid hitting the berth above me.
Here’s a link to photos of the three-tier cars.
Before bedtime the middle tier serves as the backrest for the bottom level. Then when it’s time to bed down it can be flipped up and anchored. One of the anchors above me was broken or stretched so the berth above me was held by one brace instead of two. The other dangled and banged above me during the night. I wasn’t too happy about that, but the guy above me was one of those thin Indians, so in time I relaxed and slept some. We are each given a pillow with a clean case, two sheets and a blanket to make up our beds.
Phones can ring and conversations can be carried on loudly until quite late. I took some tryptophan and hoped for the best. Shortly after midnight most everyone was sleeping.
On departure Surendra and a driver called Ana (doesn’t sound like Anna, more like Ah-Nah) took me to the station and got me settled into my spot with all my stuff (including a little container of fried rice for my dinner). The arrival in Delhi was less lovely.
Having done this sort of thing before, I was braced for it. Literally! I woke as we were pulling slowly into the station—that goes on for a long time as Delhi is enormous—and got my socks and shoes on along with my new Medicare-supplied knee brace and my little back support belt. I waited for a porter to come into the car. That took a while but I was in no rush. I shouldered my backpack and purse and another tote, while the porter got my roller bag off the train and then put it on his head (40 pounds at least, but they can carry far more—I’ve seen them put two such bags on their heads with only a towel for protection). When you arrive at a small station in India or on platform 1 of the large ones, you can just roll your own bag out to the street. But in the large stations there are many platforms and you have to go up a long stairway and across an overhead bridge before descending another stairway to the exit or your train’s platform. Hence the need for porters.
We threaded through the crowds together—up, over, down, then along the last platform where taxi drivers started trying to sell me a ride (white face, more money). I knew this would be challenging, as I am staying in a part of Delhi known as Gurgaon (the part where the Trumps have fantasies of building another of their luxury high rises). To me Gurgaon is a concrete nightmare of relatively recent construction. Old Delhi has a certain amount of charm, with parks and trees and wide boulevards. Gurgaon is largely big apartment buildings and shopping malls. Endless traffic. A good metro connection. Some cows. Few trees. It’s upscale with an underbelly.
But I am not staying in the main part of sprawling Gurgaon. I’m staying in a new section that’s under development (the developer is from Dubai). It’s very far from the main part of Gurgaon, let alone from central Delhi; most taxi and Uber drivers get lost trying to find it, and I don’t know how to direct them–though I hope I’m starting to learn.
I don’t have a smart phone with an Indian number so I can’t use Ubers unless someone arranges one for me, which is often the case. But at 5 a.m. I had to take one of the traditional black and yellow taxis at the station. None of them have GPS.
As I followed the porter down that final platform, the first taxi driver I encountered proposed 1800 rupees when I said I was going to New Palam Vihar. Almost $30. I scoffed. Very, very far, madam. Yes, but not that far.
The best offer on the platform was 1500. I kept heading to the street where I expected to find a hungrier driver, and tried to ask the porter to find me a good taxi. I found a willing driver for 1000 and at that point quit bargaining. The driver looked solid enough.
We whizzed down the dark empty streets of Delhi on a Sunday morning, out past the airport, onto the Gurgaon highway, turning off at some point onto rougher roads, passing some schools, a hospital, crossing train tracks. I had made the journey once before but was no help to the driver. Eventually I started calling the two women I’m staying with (more about them in a minute) for directions. Hard to give them when there are no street names, no significant landmarks, dim light, and the driver had never been here before. A few people were up, opening up roadside shops. After four or five calls and several stops to talk to locals, we turned around on an increasingly potholed road, and found another guy to ask. He said “Puri construction.” I said “yes, yes” in excited relief.
We continued to backtrack, the driver turned down a narrow rutted road that curved to the left and then to the right between low buildings—and finally I saw one of the 20-story buildings of the Puri Diplomatic Gardens looming up in the first light of day. Since this was my second arrival at least I knew which of the highrises to point him toward. I gave him a good tip. He smiled and thanked me.
I am staying at a flat owned by a couple that now lives in Colorado after many years over here. He’s Indian. She’s American. I know Diana from Kathmandu and have stayed in touch during my various trips to Delhi, where they moved around 2009 when he went to work directing flight operations for a new airline called Indigo. He had been a pilot for United and Gulf. Saleem has family here and they didn’t want to give up a foothold in Delhi even though they had decided to settle in Colorado for the clean air and their sons’ educations.
Hence the new flat in New Palam Vihar.
In residence in the four-bedroom flat, which is very nice, are Snehi, the former nanny of the youngest son, her daughter Kanchan, and a rescued dog that Diana calls her “crazy Dubai dog.” I have never met the dog even after many visits to their various homes over the years. He was apparently so abused he can’t tolerate strangers at all. He’s old, but Diana is very soft-hearted.
Snehi is Nepali. She started working for Diana and Saleem in Kathmandu when their youngest boy was baby, and later as they moved from place to place she became more a cook and housekeeper. A couple of years ago, after the family moved to Colorado, her daughter Kanchan came to live with her in a rented flat in the center of Gurgaon.
I stayed with them briefly last year when I was sick and I lost my room at the Fulbright Guest House. Diana rescued me, sent me to a doctor and told me to move in with Snehi and Kanchan until I felt better. She said the same this year, though I’m not sick, just need a home base in Delhi since I pass through here en route to other destinations.
The previous flat was right on the metro line. Now Kanchan, who works in Delhi, has to get an Uber in the morning to get to the metro station. It’s at least a half hour ride through pretty bad traffic, sometimes longer. Once at the metro, we whiz into Delhi.
The metro is really very good. It’s just not available where we are yet, in this new development, and won’t be for years. Auto-rickshaws, the ever-present form of on-demand transportation throughout India, are not to be seen in this semi-desert. There are no shops. We are the only people as yet in residence in this 20-story high rise. The buildings across the street are at least partially filled.
It’s a strange kind of ghost town. Snehi is stranded without much to do and loves it the two times a year the family arrives to visit and she is busy taking care of everyone. Kanchan has to commute about 3 hours a day. It’s kind of nutty. But they are Nepali, and I love Nepalis. We have a good time. Snehi cooks nice simple Nepali food. She takes care of the 16 year old dog, packs Kanchan’s lunch, tries to get her to eat breakfast, and has dinner ready for her when she gets back here at 8:30 pm or so. She keeps the place spotless, irons Kanchan’s clothes, makes fresh chapattis for each meal. She misses the other place because she could walk, go shopping for groceries, talk to neighbors. Awful as I find Gurgaon on the best of days, for Snehi being in the developed part of it was a manageable life. Kanchan is smart and trying to find her way to a career she likes. She had a music show on the radio when she was still in Nepal. We chat a lot about life.
Now for the broken tooth, my first health emergency in India so far.
Yesterday I joined Kanchan on her trek into Delhi, leaving the flat around 8:30, getting in an Uber that fought its way for 45 minutes through morning traffic, getting closer and closer to central Gurgaon and the metro line. The cars are new, the trains are on time and fast, there is a women-only car and we reached Green Park station by 10. We emerged from the cool tunnel to the chaos of Delhi: honking horns, hot bright sun, dozens of auto-rickshaws clustered, their drivers fighting for customers.
During the day I had two meetings over good South Indian food in Hauz Khas village: one with a new acquaintance, a young Fulbrighter who is doing some really interesting work related to water; the other with an Indian journalist and researcher I’ve known a few years who shares my fascination with the stepwells I mentioned in an earlier post.
I paid a visit to the Fulbright office, after which I headed off in an auto-rickshaw to some markets to buy various food items before meeting Kanchan around 6:30 for the return trip. Un-mindfully biting instead of sucking on a breath mint, I cracked a tooth and filling. Thanks to help from my hostess-in absentia, Diana, I have lined up an emergency appointment tomorrow with a dentist she recommends—a woman, even.
Next post: dental adventure in Delhi. I hope she can put some sort of temporary filling in the hole to get me through the rest of the trip.
I fly to Orissa (now Odisha) Friday.