Temples, trains, and the kindness of strangers
Despite blizzards, cancelled flights, de-icing delays, and an adjacent passenger who had made unfortunate food choices resulting in alarming gastrointestinal events, I made it to India. The theory was that I would meet my friend Janine at the airport, and be met there by Jaya, our third roommate from University days. Nobody who knows any of us thought for a second that this could really occur. (Actual conversation at Passport Control: “Well no, I don’t have my friends’ address or phone number. But she’s going to pick me up at the airport. She lives in Gujarat. That’s in India.” Passport Control: [SO not impressed…])
I arrived first. As far as I could tell, the airport was staffed by the entire Indian army, each soldier carrying a honking huge gun. I grabbed my suitcase and exited baggage control into… India. Noise. Chaos. People, dogs, honking horns, more people. More soldiers. More guns. Dozens of sincere men who called me “Sister” and suggested they could take me anywhere on the planet I might want to go. No Janine. No Jaya. And, apparently, no way to get back into the airport. After several failed attempts at international texts, I realized I could (at heartstopping expense) send email to Jaya, who soon confirmed that she was on her way and that it was 3:00AM so I should go back inside. Except there were signs everywhere saying you couldn’t go back in.
“No problem.” Jaya explained how rules work in India. “People are very kind here. Just ask.”
To my shock (I’ve been living in the UK where rules are pure and graven in stone), the soldier at the door listened to my plea and waved his AK-Humongo to usher me back inside. There I found Janine attempting to send email or text. I told her neither option was likely for two technologically-challenged, jet-lagged, middle-aged ladies in a foreign country. At 3:00AM. In the end, we wandered over to the door and to our mutual amazement found Jaya waiting for us along with her husband, a hired driver, and a van.
As we headed back to her house, she casually asked if we’d like some tea. I thought maybe she had a thermos under the seat, but the driver pulled over to the side of the freeway (waiting for several cows to wander across in front of us first, of course) where a man was stirring a large steaming pan. He brought over a tray with little glass cups on tiny china saucers containing the best chai tea in this or any other universe.
That was the beginning of us eating our way across India, with occasional temple-viewing breaks. Apparently in this country there is absolutely no activity that can’t be improved by vast amounts of incredible food. We ate. We rested up from eating. We ate more. Then we each went into a coma, from which Jaya roused us with the promise of more food. Curries, chapatis, roti—I don’t know the names of all the dishes, but each one was better than the one before it.
Next day we staggered out to walk Jaya’s little dog, passing the motorbike milkman. On our way, a friend of Jaya’s invited us to come into her beautiful house. But when she disappeared into her kitchen to get coffee, Jaya leaped up with a look of panic on her face. “We have to leave. Her coffee is terrible.” The friend—made of sterner stuff—chased us all the way down the steps and through the yard thrusting various treats, snacks, and candies at us.
We barely had time for lunch, a quick trip to the local temple, extensive snackage, and of course a full dinner before we had to leave for the overnight train to Delhi. If you’ve never travelled on an Indian train, your life isn’t complete. We’d booked late, so we had upper bunks. That sounded fine until I figured out that I had to climb onto some little hooks and hoist my considerable middle-age tushie up the rest of the way. Jaya realized the odds of that happening were roughly equal to my getting Daniel Craig for a bunkmate. She was firm. “People in India are very kind.” She was right. The young man in the lower bunk meekly agreed to an exchange.
Meanwhile, several porters came by pleading with us to eat. They were saddened by our refusal of (another) dinner even when they brought out their trump card (ice cream) but agreed reluctantly to depart once we promised they could feed us a full breakfast.
As the train moved Delhi-ward, I fell asleep to the sound of wheels beneath me. I was in India, and it could only mean one thing. Soon it would be time to eat again.