The View From My Apartment 13
The Trip Continues.
A nine hour plane ride is a curious thing. Things begin to blend—awake, sleeping, lunch, dinner—these things become a little meaningless. You’re in the air, traveling east at several hundred miles an hour crossing time zone after time zone. It’s a lot like being in a room with no windows—outside doesn’t matter. You could change your clocks and calendars and that’s the time and day it is. It’s a sort of purgatory of waiting. You have nothing to do but wait and fill time. They should show movies or something.
Oh. Wait. They do.
In fact they show lots of movies. And TV shows. There’s nothing that says you’re traveling to India more than a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond or Friends. Needless to say, I was glued.
Deepti and I sat next to each other just behind a divider—which provided quite a bit of leg room, with no one in front of us. Sadly, though, we were in the middle, so the window was WAAAAY over there. Which, in hindsight, is just fine—it was dark and foggy, I wasn’t going to see anything.
But there was a tiny little TV, all for me. The Tiny Little TV provided such a degree of safety—it of course did tell me what to do in case of evacuation, though not what to do in case the plane crashes in the mountains miles away from help and we are forced to eat the other passengers—and I’m surprised it didn’t. The Tiny Little TV was a safety blanket of culture, it was going to ease me in, be my sugar coated medicine as it were of arriving in a country where I don’t know the language and I have only a rudimentary knowledge of the culture. Ok. Let’s be honest. I was nervous. I hadn’t been to India before. I didn’t know what to expect. But the Tiny Little TV would provide a tether back to my home country and it would give me a final delicate TV kiss as I landed in India. Oh, Tiny Little TV—I should write poems about you.
Not only was there TV, but there were also movies, quite a few, some I hadn’t seen that I had wanted to. And now, for free! Well—if you include the 1500.00 airfare. (By the way, Lion Witch and the Wardrobe is BO-ring and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.) ALSO included: games that are impossible to play with the controls provided AND a map that plays out in real time. You can watch as your plane crosses into countries that may or MAY not be friendly to the US. (I had practiced my Canadian accent, just in case, eh.)
The food comes in two forms: veg or non-veg. Which of course is veg or meat—but I guess saying, “Would you like to eat meat?” sounds a little brutal. But, yes, for the record, I will take the non-veg. And yes, I would like another mini-bottle of wine, thank you so much for asking.
And they give it away for free!
There was a little movie at the beginning, on the Tiny Little TV, telling us passengers to make sure we drink plenty of water (does Bordeaux count as water?) and to exercise occasionally. Of course, British Airways does NOT provide a gym on the 747’s; at least not to us in coach, the only recourse is to walk.
Late at night, or was in the morning, or the afternoon, I got up to go to the bathroom and take a little walk. Behind me, there were rows and rows of sleeping people, heads back or to the side, eyes closed and still. Just the whir of the engine. I made a circuit. Up and down a row, and through where the stewards sat and whispered. Outside: it was black. And the plane was still. It was strangely peaceful. Calm. Just sleeping, whispering and whirring. It felt good to stretch my legs.
Food marked time. British Airways gives you a meal shortly after taking off (veg or non-veg!), a snack and shortly before landing another meal. Each one getting more and more Indian. Like ticks on a wall, food was our only way of knowing when we were in the Universe.
We were scheduled to arrive in the middle of the night. And as usual, British Airways was prompt in their lateness. We approached a fog covered Delhi sometime around three in the morning. At least that’s what our pilot said. To me and my body it was like five in the afternoon. I think. Maybe not. But it didn’t feel like three in the morning.
The plane landed. I still couldn’t quite make out the city—it looked like any other city that I have seen from the sky, late at night.
I get off the plane and I realize: I’m in India. I’m not able to read the signs. And there are even more Indians. Strange. India having Indians. But it’s true. My wife and I follow everyone else towards customs.
At this point, my wife and I have to separate. She gets to go into the citizens line, me…I have to head to the line for all foreigners. I get worried. What if they ask a question and I can’t answer it? What if they ask to see money to prove that I’m not going to be a burden to India? (I’ve been asked these questions before: when I made a trip to Canada, and I didn’t have a passport…I was grilled in customs…but that’s a blog for another day.)
I look to my left: there is a couple sitting off to the side. The woman is crying. I can hear her saying she didn’t know, she didn’t know. And I’m not sure what she didn’t know. Next to them is an Indian customs official, a woman who seems understanding. In my mind: some how they didn’t have a visa, or something. I don’t know. But the crying woman at three in the morning in Delhi makes me a little worried.
I get to my customs official. He takes my passport. Stamp. Boom. Boom. Stamp. He hands it back to me. I’m done. I’m free. I’m in India!
My wife is waiting for me and now we head off to the luggage.
The airport in India is chaotic. Families are returning home for the holidays and when they come home they are bringing gifts for everyone. Everyone. So, the floor is filled with people with carts filled to the top with fillings of gifts. Zoom. It’s like a freaking highway.
We stand at our designated spot. And we wait. And wait. Two of our bags arrive. The two that we had to check in at the gate in Heathrow. And then we wait again. And again. A baggage guy asks me if I have all my bags. I tell him no. Our names are on a list. The list is those whose bags are still in London.
These bags have most of our clothes and all of our gifts. When we had missed the plane that was supposed to take us to Delhi, so did our bags. And while we had gotten rebooked, they didn’t. So, now we had to fill out papers.
This means standing in line. Standing in line in India is a sport—because there really aren’t lines, well, lines that people are willing to follow. Everyone just hovered around the counter and started demanding attention. I let my wife go in. I knew I would be ill prepared. I was good at standing guard. Which I did. I should get a medal.
Finally, she gets a piece of paper, which we have to get signed by someone else before we can leave—these are the final gate keepers, more customs officials. We wait in a shorter hover. Get it signed, but then that man tells us we have to go back to the other desk to get something else signed again. And then we could leave.
So, Deepti runs back, gets the paper signed, again, and then we come back to the same guard and he looks at it, tears a piece of paper, keeps one—which turns out to be an important piece of paper that we should have had, but that only comes into play later—remember this. And then, we get to leave and go to the waiting area.
My wife hadn’t been home in four years. I don’t know what she was thinking. I was excited, curious, nervous. I had met her mother, father and her sister a while ago, but this was on their turf.
We see my father in law—here after referred to as Daddy-ji, and my sister in law, Swati, right there in the middle of the waiting area. Smiles on their faces. It was good.
Deepti and I hug them. We mumble stuff about the lost luggage, Daddy-ji nods—he expected something like that must have happened—because it took so much time for us to get out.
We follow them to the car.
Now—to wait inside the airport requires a small fee—this is to keep people out—to keep people from just staying inside the airport. And the entrance is guarded by men with guns. Semi-automatic guns. Every time I see a gun like that they always seem so unreal to me and I have to fight the urge to run up, grab it and run.
The door of the airport opens and it is a sea of people. Of cabbies asking me if I need a ride, of families waiting for sons and daughters to come, of beggars. We make our way through the crowd and find the car.
Inside is the driver they had gotten, he was sleeping, Daddy-ji knocks on the window and the driver pops up. We load in, partial luggage and everything.
It’s cold in Delhi. And foggy. Very thick fog. And there’s a smell—earthy, spicy. Something. Forgive me for fetishizing the country, but there’s a different smell in the air.
The car pulls out of the lot—we get to the gate where we have to pay. The guy who is responsible for the lot talks to the driver, the driver talks back, Daddy-ji joins. It’s something about money. Back and forth. I’m not sure what, I ask my wife, she, however, is involved in the discussion. Later: the guy at the gate wanted to charge us more because we were a few minutes past the “time” we were supposed to be there. Of course, the guy was ready to take a bribe to let us out, but when Daddy-ji asked for a receipt in return for the bribe…well…the deal fell through and the guy let us out.
On to the street. At this time of night, they are pretty clear. And thank God—the fog got so thick at time the driver had to slow to a crawl. The trip back was filled with questions about the trip, questions about home, questions about what we were up to, questions about what I thought. I didn’t have many answers, I was spending so much time just looking out the window, trying to figure out what Delhi looked like.
After a journey of about an hour through roads and paths that I would never be able to recreate, we arrived at the apartment of my Daddy-ji and my mother in law, Mummy-ji. We stagger up the stairs—by this time all this moving and driving and thinking and traveling was beginning to take a toll. I was getting ready to sleep.
Mummy-ji was up and ready for us. We come in the door and she smiles, thrilled to see her daughter home again after so many years. And Deepti was amazed at how much the apartment had changed—they had redecorated up to the minute of our arrival. New paint, new cabinets, new work in the bathrooms. It looked wonderful.
And then…that’s when my mummy-ji tried to poison me.
Now, I have to take a step back and say two things. 1. She didn’t mean to. And 2. She had no idea I had an allergy to cashews. I didn’t either until a year or two ago. It’s one of those things. One of those things that makes my face turn red, my tongue swell and difficulty breathing.
So, mummy-ji, because you are supposed to do welcome home prayer, or pooja, did one. A pooja involves rice, candles, and Indian sweets. Without thinking, as mummy-ji is offering the Indian sweet to me, she has to put it into my mouth, I open wide, ready to receive. It’s only after that my wife thinks to ask:
“Are there any cashews in the sweets?”
Daddy-ji, as proud as can be: “They ALL are made from cashews!”
I take the rest out of my mouth. We wait. Nothing happens. We breathe easy. It was out first cultural hurdle. Which we all came through with flying colors. We talk a little more but we are all beginning to fade, my in-laws have been up for many hours waiting and we have been traveling all day.
We head off to our rooms…ready to sleep in a non-traveling way…
And then…well…of course, then is the next day. My first day in India!