Monday, August 18, 2008

Time Trials

There is a bright white light beyond the windows of the bus. Is this heaven, I think? No. It’s the mountains. We are in a cloud.

It is morning and we’re still in the mountains.

We were supposed to be home at 6 a.m. That’s what I told my driver when I called him yesterday on Jonaki’s cell phone. Pick me up at the Chandralok Building at 6 a.m. There’s no way we’ll be there by then. It might already be 6 a.m. for all I know.

Jonaki’s awake. I ask her what happened.

There were landslides. Roads were closed. We had to re-route. I hear a woman in the aisle say it will be another nine hours before we’re home. We had to drive all the way to Simla, the hill station to the west of the state. We have taken a twelve hour detour on a bus ride that started out being twelve hours long.

I dig the business card that Balminder wrote his number on out of my purse, then I notice it says Palminder. “Did he spell his name wrong?” I think. Or have I been calling him Balminder in error all this time? I ring him up.

“Hi Balminder, Palminder,” I say.

“Yes, hello madam. Chandralok Building, 6 a.m.,” he tells me.

I wonder how much of this he’ll understand, but I launch into an explanation of landslides and diverted bus routes. I tell him I’ll call him when we’re nearer to Delhi, but I certainly will not be there by six a.m.—more like 5 p.m.

“Five p.m.?” he questions me.

“I think so,” I tell him. “I’ll call you back and let you know when we get closer.”

This means I’ll have to take another vacation day instead of going into the office as I planned. This means I have to call Amar and let him know I won’t be there, but I’ll have to wait for a decent hour to do that. This means I have to sit here for the whole day. Nine more hours. In this one seat. Trapped behind the necking couple.

We stop at another roadside stand with horrible bathrooms and inedible food in giant metal pots. It’s raining. It’s foggy. We are still in the mountains, still unsafe.

We stay at the roadside stand for what feels like an hour, all the while I am hoping there is not another landslide in front of us that traps us on this alternate route and seals us off from Delhi. Women and men squat and go to the bathroom behind the juice stand. I don’t blame them this time. I used the bathroom at this stop and it smelled like an unkempt pachyderm house at the zoo. Jonaki gets some toast and a bottle of juice that looks suspect to me. It’s not sealed. I buy a bag of chili spice chips because they’re packaged. They taste something like vomit, but I eat them anyway. I have one more package of granola bars in my backpack, but I’m saving them in case things get more desperate: my hoarding instinct. We’ll be trapped in the mountains for weeks. All the people on the bus will resort to eating the weakest among them, but not me. I’ll have that last package of Nature Valley peanut butter granola bars to tide me over until we reach civilization.

The Japanese tourists pick grass and feed it to some cows who have wondered near the bus. They smile and take pictures to commemorate the event.

Two other busses pull up to share the facilities. I’m glad I got to the bathrooms when I did.

The necking couple gets a big plateful of questionable food from the filthy metal pots stewing over the outdoor gas burners. The rain falls and I climb back aboard our goldenrod chariot.

Am I the only one who just wants this bus to move? Am I the only one who cares that we’re stuck in the mountains? I sit in my seat, alone, willing the bus driver to climb back aboard and honk his horn so everyone else takes his or her seat. Though I think this thought as hard as I can, I find it doesn’t work. I cannot control the bus driver with my brain waves. I’m stuck at this god-forsaken bus stop for god knows how long. If I’d have only used Hamnum’s dandruff shampoo, I could have increased my brain power as the advertisement claims, and I would have us underway.

After a seemingly interminable break, the driver climbs back aboard and the bus fills back up. We begin to back up, but I notice the necking people aren’t in their seats. Not that I want to stare at the guy’s frizzy hair as he pounces on his young betrothed any further, but I can’t stand the thought of leaving them in the mountains either. Before I can say anything about our missing persons, the bus stops and they join us once again. They were probably too busy necking and eating to notice the bus pulling away at first.

“I guess all the roads are closed because of the landslides,” Jonaki says.

“What roads? The roads ahead of us?” I prepare to panic. The situation can still get worse.

“No, the roads we were on last night. These busses are the only ones that made it out. The rest of them got stopped by Mundi.” Jonaki gets a lot more news than I do about our situation because she speaks Hindi, and all I can make out are the words “good” and “okay.” These words are not much in use in our current situation.

There is nothing to do but sit on the bus. I sit on the bus and sit on the bus and sit on the bus. We wind around precipitous drop-offs, through clouds, up switch-backs and down steep inclines. I think of a bus I saw the day before as we were driving in our cab through Kullu. It said, “God Save Us,” across the front. I thought at the time, “Who would want to board a bus that says ‘God Save Us’ on it?” Now, I have this very same thought. God save us.

Busses, even city busses, regularly sport religious messages here. I saw one speeding past India Gate that simply said in big block letters above where the driver sits, “Lord Jesus.” I’m beginning to understand the need for messages of this sort.

In my head I have a quick flash of the bus driving off the side of a cliff. I can’t stop the thought before it occurs, and I feel like I’ve jinxed us. Think the bus back onto the road, I tell myself. Pray that we’ll be safe. But my thinking or not thinking isn’t controlling the bus. I am not controlling my life at this moment. My life is in the hands of the bus driver who has been driving since 5:30 p.m. the night before with possibly some little naps in between. “You can’t control your life,” I see the smiling face of the woman from Mumbai. In this case, she is correct, only I’m not smiling about it. In fact, a few times on this ride I have to stare at the window as tears run down my face—and not just because my contacts have been drying in my eyes all day and all night, sucking onto my eyeballs.

Jonaki says we’re about four hours from Chandigarrh, and once we hit there, we’ll be fine. It’s all flat. When I call Amar, he says the same thing. We’ll be fine once we hit Chandigarrh. All we have to do is get to Chandigarrh.

Actually, the road flattens out even before then, and the threat of being trapped again abates. Now it’s just the discomfort to deal with after I put it together that we will be on this bus for a full 24 hours by the time we get to Delhi. 24 hours.

I creep up to the front of the bus and ask the driver’s assistant what time he thinks we’ll get to Delhi. He tells me three o’clock. This is better than the earlier estimate of five o’clock. I call Balminder Palminder and mess up his name again and tell him to be ready at three. He says, “Okay madam.”

Jonaki says there’s a rabbit on the bus and points to a couple sitting across the aisle, one row behind us. Sure enough, a woman has a white rabbit on her lap, covered by the maroon fleece blanket passed out by the assistant. I feel sorry for the rabbit, but the rabbit probably doesn’t know the difference.

We pass a brick compound with a large sign outside it, “School for Geniuses,” it proclaims, then underneath, it says, “fully air-conditioned.” There is an airbrushed picture of a smiling man in a turban on the sign. It’s important to keep those genius brains from overheating, I figure. That dandruff shampoo must really be doing its job if there’s a whole school full of geniuses here, I think. A few buildings down from the school for geniuses, we pass Springfield Elementary School. There are no claims of air conditioning here. This is where the less clever kids are consigned to sweating away their days.

At about one o’clock, the bus pulls off the highway again. I think we’re stopping to refuel since we’re at a gas station, but we’ve simply stopped again to eat at the adjacent vendors. The necking couple gets another plateful of food to split: bean slop and flat bread. I get a package of biscuits and eat the whole thing. The Japanese tourists even get food from the vendors. Jonaki asks one of them what it is. “I don’t know. It’s some Indian food,” the man tells her as he shoves it into his face.

This is, thankfully, a shorter stop. But less than an hour after this stop, we are once again on the side of the highway. People get off the bus. I think at first that it’s a stop for the men to pee, but Jonaki says people are buying fruit from the side of the road. Do we really have to do our fruit shopping now? Who can possibly need an apple at this moment? Can’t we just get home?

We hit the outskirts of Delhi, and Jonaki hears the man next to us discussing catching a train after the bus drops us off at the metro station. The bus picked us up at the Chandralok Building. Isn’t the bus dropping us off at the same place?

No, the man tells her. We are getting dropped off at the Ramakrishna Marg Metro Station.

Where is that?

It’s now quarter to three and I have to call Balminder Palminder again and tell him that I’ve told him the wrong location to pick me up. I have to hope he understands this, and hope he knows where the Ramakrishna Marg Metro Station is, and hope that I can find his car somehow if he happens to find the station.

I thought that at least this last part of the journey would be smooth, but now it is turning into another stressful event. My arms are shaky and I can hardly keep from crying as I dial the phone and get Balmimnder Palminder. I explain the new situation to him.

“Yes madam, three o’clock, Chandralok Building,” he tells me.

“No, Balminder Palminder,” I tell him. “It’s different. I had the wrong place. You need to go to the Ramakrishna Marg Metro Station.” I hope he understands.

We get into a giant traffic jamb occasioned by the downpour and probably the impending Independence Day holiday, and I come close to loosing it. I think, what would happen if I just jumped off the bus and tried to tell Balminder Palminder where I am on the highway? What would happen if I stood up and screamed and tore my hair out? Would the people in front of my finally stop necking?

We are trapped on this bus and not even moving. It feels like I’ll never get out. And even if I do get out, I won’t find my driver, so I won’t get home. I’ll just be marooned somewhere in the middle of Delhi in the middle of a rain storm with my luggage and no way to get home. But that won’t happen because we’re never going to get out of this traffic.

The people in front of us neck.

How can they kiss each other after eating all that disgusting food and not brushing their teeth for over 24 hours?

The traffic finally lets up and we are moving again. I’m okay as long as we’re moving, as long as I feel like we’re making some progress towards getting home. I still don’t recognize any surroundings. We are not coming into Delhi the same way we drove out of it, past the Red Fort and the Ghandi Memorial gardens.
We turn and drive into another sea of stopped traffic. Just before the bus grinds to another halt, I ask Jonaki how far we are from the station.

“Twenty minutes?” she says. But this twenty minutes can stretch into eternity sitting in the same place.

I decide to stop thinking about time. I decide to stop thinking that I am three hours or twenty minutes away from getting home. I decide to stop thinking about Balminder Palminder waiting for me since six o’clock in the morning, then going to the wrong place, then finding the right place at three o’clock, but having to wait there until five o’clock or later. I put the maroon fleece blanket over my head and recline my seat. I can’t look at the necking people anymore. I can’t look at the stopped traffic. I can’t look at this bus or the never-ending rain on its windows. I’ll close my eyes and try to sleep. When they wake me up, we’ll be at our location—wherever that is. Then I can worry about trying to find Balminder Palminder.

This technique works. I feel like a stinking, wheezing mummy under the blanket and I don’t sleep, but it’s like a cocoon. It’s at least a change of setting. And I’ve taken my eyes off of the coveted moment of arrival. I’m just on the bus, not waiting for anything. I’m just on the bus, until which moment I will find myself off the bus. We inch forward, but I don’t care. We could just stay parked until such time as I have to get off to go to the bathroom, when I will just squat in the road, a truly assimilated Indian visitor. I’ve got my camping toilet paper with me. I’ve got my granola bar. I’m fine.

At about five o’clock, we pull in front of the Ramakrishna Marg Metro Station and get off the bus into the pouring rain and puddles. Jonaki is on the phone to her cab driver again. He can’t find the place. She’s had him speak to the bus driver’s assistant to get directions at least twice and he’s still lost. There’s a parking lot and a circular drive. I don’t see Balminder Palminder anywhere. I creep over a puddle near the bus and grab our luggage out of the hold underneath. Thankfully it was near the front. Thankfully, Jonaki’s glass bottle of apple juice from Raju’s hasn’t broken and leaked onto all our stuff.

I hand Jonaki her backpack and hold my suitcase above the puddles while holding my umbrella with my other hand. I have to set my suitcase down when I borrow Jonaki’s phone to call Balminder Palminder who says, “Madam, I am driving. Ramakrishna Marg. I am driving. I am here.” I don’t understand. I pass the phone to Jonaki who speaks to him in Hindi, but then tells me she doesn’t understand either. My suitcase and everything in it is getting wet. We stand, without rides, in the rain. I look into the parking lot but see nothing. I wonder if I should start walking up the street, or into the parking lot towards the Metro station. Maybe there is another, different parking lot on the far side of it where Balminder Palminder is waiting for me. Just when I’m about to tell Jonaki I’m going to wander off, I see my driver standing in front of me. How did he find me? It feels like a miracle.

“Balminder Palminder!” I exclaim. “I’m so happy to see you!” He picks up my suitcase and puts it in the trunk of the cab. Jonaki wants him to talk to her driver and help give him directions. He stands patiently by as Jonaki talks on her cell phone. I close the trunk to keep my suitcase from getting any wetter than it already is.

“Sorry,” Balminder Palminder says and smiles.

“It’s okay,” I tell him. I am so relieved he’s here. Now if we could just get Jonaki’s ride to show up, I could be on my way home.

A car pulls up and honks three times. A man leans out of the window and motions towards us. It’s Jonaki’s cab. Finally. She says goodbye and follows him up the road to get in. As I’m arranging my wet accoutrements in the backseat, Jonaki appears at my window.

“Is that your driver?” I ask, feeling like I’m somewhat in a state of shock.

She just wants to say goodbye.

“Is that your driver?” I ask again, still in disaster mode, ready for a plan B or C or D.

Yes, it’s her driver. She walks off into the rain under her large, black umbrella as my familiar cab pulls away from the curb. We are on Ashoka Road. I read the signs and try to get my bearings. I see a large international yoga center that I decide I’ll check out someday if I can figure out how to get back to it. Then I start to see familiar landmarks, advertisements and buildings: the Old Fort and the paddle boating lake where I sweated out my morning mango with Sonu, the Golf Links colony. I am almost home.

My cell phone works. I call Scott. It’s about seven o’clock in the morning by him. I catch him before he leaves for work. He tells me he’ll Skype me at lunchtime and I start to cry. He asks what’s wrong. I’m home safe and sound. Why am I upset? It’s just that it was dicey for quite some time. It’s just that I’m tired. It’s just that it’s been a week since I’ve been able to talk to my husband and I love the sound of his warm, sweet voice.

Back at the Ahuja Residency, my driver hands me the receipt to sign. I notice that here his name is also printed with a “P.” His name is not Balminder at all. I thank Palminder again for finding me at the metro station, give him double his usual tip. The door guard takes my luggage from the trunk and carries it upstairs, setting it on the luggage rack in my bedroom. I thank him and he bows his head.

I close the door behind him and throw my wet backpack onto the counter. I change out of my wet shirt and pants into some dry pajamas and make myself a bowl of macaroni and cheese that Scott sent me in a care package. Even with my hoarding instincts, this seems like an appropriate time to eat one of the remaining three packages of macaroni and cheese I have left. I might pass out in the road were I to try to walk to the market for dinner.

I unpack my suitcase, sorting the dirty laundry from the large pile of clean clothes that were a result of my over-packing. When I find my bottle of saline solution, it’s all caved in from the pressure change. I uncork it and the air whooshes back in. I wish I could also uncork my head, because I feel much like my saline solution: all caved in. I find the bottle of Ibuprofen I’ve also been saving for dire situations only and take two pills.

Back in the kitchen, I fish my digital clock out of the front pocket of my backpack. It’s all fogged up and wet. The display is totally messed up. Halves of numbers appear willy nilly, flashing. I set it on the counter. I wonder if the man at Khan Market will replace it for free, or if I’ll just have to eat the cost and buy a new clock that hopefully works better than this one did.

After a shower, I plug in my laptop and fire it up. When I try to get to the Internet, I instead get an error message that says “Cannot display page.” Cannot display page? What do you mean you cannot display the page?

I am not connected to the Internet. I will not be able to talk to Scott over lunch at all. If I could cry, I would, but I am too exhausted. I sit, alone, in my room. I decide to call my mother from my cell phone and let her know I’ve arrived safely home. She doesn’t know anything of the saga I’ve just undergone, and it’s probably better that way. I tell her a little bit of what’s gone on, but she doesn’t want to talk long; she doesn’t want me to have a big phone bill. She hangs up quickly.

With the Independence Day holiday coming up tomorrow, I decide not to waste any time in complaining about my Internet not working. No one will be around tomorrow. I call Ms. Sonu and tell her the problem. She says she’ll have her associate contact me. It’s Alok, the slight little student who tried to help me and failed the last time I was having this very same issue during the first weeks I arrived here. I don’t have the energy to go through this again, I think. I just want to be able to talk to my family over the Internet.

Alok says he’ll come over and see if he can fix it. It’s nearing lunchtime in America (the less popular Ronald Regan campaign commercial). I hold out a faint hope that I may still be able to talk to Scott today.

Alok arrives and asks me how I’ve been. Fine, fine. The computer’s doing the same thing it was doing before when the Internet wasn’t working. He looks at my machine and restarts it. Then he goes downstairs and, I think, restarts the router. He comes back up and says it’s working. “What did you do?” I ask him.

“Nothing,” he says. “It’s working. Now I’ll have to drive home and it will take me nearly two hours,” he says with a strange smile. I apologize but he tells me it’s no problem. He shakes my hand and gives me a weird distant hug. Then he puts a handkerchief on his head to prepare himself to slog back out into the still rainy night.

I’m afraid to touch my computer lest I break my precious Internet connection again. I check my office email and several times while I’m doing this, I lose the connection. Then I see a Skype message pop up from Scott: “I tried to call you but I guess you weren’t there.”

I Skype him back as quickly as I can. It’s him. It’s him. I can finally talk to him. He has to go back to work way too soon, but it’s okay. I need to sleep. We hang up and I walk out into the kitchen to turn off the light. I notice my clock’s numbers are back on the display. I pick it up and press the setting button. It flashes dutifully, waiting for me to input the proper time and date. How can it be working again? Why was it broken the whole time I was on vacation? If I want to read the symbolism of this event, I’d say my clock was trying to teach me a lesson about the relativity of time itself. So what if I was 24 hours on a bus? Aren’t I back in Delhi now? What’s the difference? So what if Raju served dinner at eight o’clock or eight thirty? Weren’t the meals gorgeous and wonderful no matter what time they arrived? Can my little digital clock be so wily as to be purposefully illustrating this point for me? If I were anywhere but India, I’d say categorically not. But here… one never knows.

Regardless, I am back in Delhi. I know what time it is. I’ve talked to my husband. My Internet connection is somewhat restored. I am on flat, solid ground. I am dry.

I can finally rest.

1 comment:

auntlinda said...

YOU DID IT!!!!!!!!!!! congrats to you.. ugh ... so happy you are back to your adopted home... HOW FUN WAS THAT!!!!!! great ride .... thanks for letting me tag along love you