Always Be Prepared

ND airport IMG_1588

Day 17 – the end of the end – almost

After our rooftop lunch we gather our bags and meet in the lobby. We are leaving behind three more. Fred, Shanthi and MB. Like Rishikesh, it’s sad, but we’re rushed so there’s no time for weepy good-byes.

Back on our bus we head to the train station for our last Indian train ride. It’s a piece of cake now. No tension, no worries. Some of us even wander a little from our track for water or bananas waiting once again for our late train.

The ride itself is uneventful. We’re tired and already thinking ahead to repacking our suitcases, checking in at the airport, finding our seats on the plane and touching down at home. We’re so far from here right now it’s hard to hold a conversation.

Because our train was late, our bus driver had to circle around quite a few times before we arrived and so he’s hard to find. It’s almost 9 PM now. This driver doesn’t speak much English so when we do locate him, there’s a lot of head bobbing on his part and looks of expectation on Swamiji’s part. The rest of us just trust.

Vishnu and Lalita are the first to fly out this evening. They were smart enough to bring all their belongings to Agra with them so they can be delivered directly to the airport. But no one knew this. Once Swamiji is aware, she let’s the driver know that we will need to go to the airport instead of the hotel first. He mumbles something then pulls over. He turns off the van, steps out and gets on the phone. Maybe he needs to clear this with his boss.

After 5 minutes of speculation, Sethu hops off the van and investigates. The driver is still on the phone mostly ignoring Sethu. Swamiji is watching closely. A rickshaw driver is nearby and comes up to join the conversation. Fingers are pointed, directions given, maybe? He remains on the phone. Swamiji tries calling his boss. He yells at her and hangs up. Uh oh.

Having some great karma, Vishnu and Lalita are able to procure the taxi we “happened” to park behind. They are whisked off to the airport with hasty good-byes and we breathe a sigh of relief on their behalf.

There’s still the matter of us sitting here. Our driver has disappeared. He returns a few minutes later with a water bottle filled with gas. We were out of gas. The van won’t start. He is now under the hood priming something. Swamiji and Karin jump off to help. Karin gets back in with the keys and tries to start the engine while the driver continues tinkering. Nothing. Close, but no.

Meanwhile rickshaws are being arranged for us. We need four – three of us in each. We are guided off the bus with all of our bags, in the dark, toward several waiting rickshaws. There is one Indian gentleman in charge of all this. Karin, Angie and I choose one, get in, and arrange our bags around us. We are snugly crammed together with little room to move. We feel completely protected by our stuff. Just as we’ve completely settled, we’re told, “Van’s running, we’re taking the van now.”

Here’s the thing I love about Indian people (just one of a million); as we exit the rickshaw we thank the man who has been arranging all of this for us in our time of desperation, he smiles hugely and says, “Namaste.” He’s not mad that he’s losing fares and money. He’s happy we’re going to get where we’re going. “Happy journey.”

The ride to the hotel is pretty far and on extremely busy highways. Taking this drive in rickshaws would have been more of a nail-biter than usual. Things always work out as they’re supposed to. (I may need to be reminded of this periodically.)

Once back at the hotel we’re in a slow motion whirlwind of activity. Ned and Karen (the other one) give us good-bye hugs then leave. They will be staying in New Delhi an extra day. They are staying miles apart but will actually run into each other tomorrow while seeing the sites. Maybe their drivers have the same cousin with a ‘really great shop.’ Next Angie leaves for the airport with Sethu as her guide, then George and Marian. It is just Kali, Karin and I now. We have a little more than hour before we have to leave but we have packing consolidation and ticket checking in to do.

It’s time to go. We fiercely hug our two amazing guides, Swami Divyananda and Sethu before getting in our taxi. We have been amazed by their energy and equanimity our whole trip. Our love affair with them will last a long time and our paths are sure to intersect again.

It’s almost 1 AM when Kali, Karin and I are deposited at the airport. Kali hugs us and heads for her terminal. We walk toward ours. Our flight leaves at 3:40 AM. Plenty of time. Back at the hotel we were unable to check in online and we couldn’t reach anyone on the phone. We’re not excited about our seating prospects, but a seat is better than none at all.

I have my itinerary in my hand. Karin could not find hers so she had the one from home scanned and emailed to her. We should be fine. We’re not. I go first, no problem. Karin’s name is not on the scanned and emailed itinerary. The guards chat back and forth, look perplexed, then find a third guard to look confused with. I should probably mention here that these are armed military looking guards – automatic weapon slung over the shoulder guards. Their English is scant, their faces serious. Somehow I’m not so worried. Maybe I’m too tired, maybe this has happened enough this trip and worked out that I just believe this will too. Finally one of them comes back to us, hands me her passport and tells me to go in and get a boarding card.

I find a wandering British Airways helper who assures me this happens a lot. He’s speedy to get me the card. I hand it to the guards, they consider it another moment – to look official – then grant her access. Finally we’re in and standing in the first of several lines. We check our overweight bags without being charged and get our boarding passes for middle seats 15 rows apart. No worries.

Next line is Security at 2 AM, a mile and a half long. It gives us plenty of time to people watch. By 3 we’re nearly through. I am standing on the other side of the scanner waiting for my “suspicious” bag to be searched and scanned again. A humorless female guard asks me to remove my camera, lenses and chargers. They’re placed in a smaller bin left with me. My bag is placed atop the scanner where it seems it will rest indefinitely. Finally it is sent back through, scrutinized closely and passes. I am dismissed.

I still have some rupees burning a hole in my wallet so we head to the food court. Fortunately the international terminal is lit like daytime and everything is open, otherwise we may just fall asleep where we stand. In the food court there is a McDonald’s. I’m not ashamed to say I made a beeline for it. Out of curiosity a little – what will they have that’s different – and out of familiarity. They have no beef of course, what they do have are two pretty special sounding chicken sandwiches: McSpicy Paneer and Chicken Maharaja Mac. Tempting, I pass and opt instead for fries and a coke. A huge departure from my usually fare – just standing in line here feels foreign. The coke is only served with the meals. Huh? Okay. Fries and water then. So worth it.

With 2 minutes and 20 rupees left we hit the über lit, shiny bookstore at the bottom of the escalator. Both avid readers, we purchase four books, unload some rupees and head for our gate.

It’s time to board. I get to go on early since I am in the back of the plane. I find my seat, stow my belongings above it, sit down and fall asleep. The plane is less than half full, there are 20 minutes until we take off and I am mouth-open-head-back-breathing-heavily asleep. I wake up when they begin to walk down the aisles spraying disinfectant, long enough to cover my mouth and nose with my scarf, grab my eye mask, unfold my blanket then nod off again. I’m gone for four hours, I miss a meal, drinks and who knows what else.

When I wake up I’ll be over a country I have not yet visited, heading for one a little closer to home.

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