Yesterday a friend of mine, and fellow Indiaphile, arrived back on the soil of Ma India and has been reporting with joy at her “homecoming.” As she is no more Indian than I am – yet as incredibly in love with the country as I am, warts and all, its beauty and charm and all its maddening aspects – I have found myself not only missing the country all over again, but reminiscing about my last moments on Indian soil.
Traveling into, out of or within India brings some of the biggest misadventures, funny stories, frustrating moments and sheer amusement of all the time spent. I think of nights spent on trains, among dozens of strangers blissfully snoring, spitting and farting – combining with the squeaking of the train’s wheels, regular blaring station announcements, and endless litanies by vendors who walk the corridor chanting “Chai, coffee! Coffee, chai!” to create a symphony that cannot be experienced elsewhere. And during which very little sleeping is actually done.
Driving in a taxi or tuk-tuk provides a different sort of adventure – sometimes death defying. Most of the Indian drivers I’ve had seem to spend half their time text messaging, while pounding the horn with the other hand and swerving at high speeds around the huge, pimped-out Tata trucks and the cows, aiming instead head-on toward every oncoming rickshaw and pedestrian. With 60,000 traffic fatalities a year, India has only 2% of the world’s roads but accounts for 7% of its accidents. I have no trouble believing this.
I think of the way you arrive at the airport where there seems to be no such thing as a queue – just a mass of humanity streaming toward a few tiny door openings like cattle, everyone pushing and jostling their way through. The way that, when there is actually a line – say at a ticket counter – people think nothing of cutting right in front of you. Jumping the queue seems to be a contact sport in India; people think nothing of going straight to the front of the line and elbowing their way in front of you. The last time I was getting on a plane out of India, two blokes stepped nonchalantly in front of me on the check-in line. I tapped the nearest one on the arm and said, “I was in line here,” motioning at the queue. Once caught out, they acted surprised to find me there and moved behind me.
Of course, the security procedure is always fun as well, here where there are separate lines for the men and the women – and the women must step into a small curtained-off cubicle to be patted down by the security officer. I assume this is so as not to arouse the hapless male bystanders with the extremely erotic act of passing the wand over our female forms. This is true not just at airports, but also most major historical sites as well.
In the waiting area, the second that the P.A. speaker buzzes on – before the first word of the boarding announcement is spoken – the entire room springs to its feet and rushes to the doors, vying for position as if the plane will leave without them if they are not among the first ten on board; pressing together and jockeying for space with elbows, leaving no more than two inches between each body lest someone squeeze into the gap in front of him.
Sometimes the entire procedure can be amusing, and sometimes it can start to wear on you – especially at three in the morning, when all international flights seem to leave the country, and you know you have 20-30 hours of travel in front of you. On my last trip out last March, I flew from Goa to Delhi where I was catching my connecting flight to Paris. I had three hours between flights – an amount of time you would think would be sufficient. Ah, but this is India! At baggage claim, the time passing neared an hour before the bags even began arriving. After a few dozen came out on the belt, suddenly the entire contraption lurched to a halt. A little guy jumped through the hole in the wall between the outside, where I could see the truck loaded with luggage that the workers were throwing on the conveyor belt, and the baggage claim area. He pulled a screwdriver from his pocket and began working at something in vain, clearly having no idea what he was doing. My next flight had already begun check in, and the international airport was still twenty minutes away. I was just about to leap through that hole in the wall myself, and grab my own bag that I could see with my own eyes sitting on the pavement not thirty feet away.
Finally the belt started up again and my bag came out. I rushed like mad to the airport shuttle area, but the next shuttle didn’t leave for nearly half an hour. I rushed next to the taxi queue, but the line was so long I knew I’d never make it. My flight left in less than an hour! I rushed outside, determined to find my own taxi driver even though I knew this was a big no-no and just asking for trouble. I was desperate though – something that I knew would work against me. As expected, I wasn’t outside for ten seconds before a man ran up to me and asked “taxi?” The bargaining began as I ran with him to the car, laughing at every price he quoted before agreeing to what was still exorbitant – I didn’t care, but promised it ONLY if he could get me there FAST. He ran every red light, and I made it just as the Air France counter was closing – but was able to check in and barely made my flight.
It’s time like these when you finally get on the plane that will take you out of India, and a part of you can’t wait to leave. You’re frustrated and exhausted already with the whole process. But yet, as I sit back in the seat and relax for the first time, I think about the fact that tomorrow, I will be out of India. I picture myself sitting in a restaurant full of people wearing shoes, with no incense or curry on the air, people keeping their distance, quiet streets without honking – and I begin to miss it already, inexplicably.
Yes, I might leave India…but it will never leave me.