Friday, 8 April 2011

India 2011: From Falmouth to Bangalore

It seems like every time I undertake a major journey, my life disintegrates into chaos mere hours before I am due to depart. I'm not talking about the regular hectic nature of last-minute packing or rushing to the airport in the midst of bumper-to-bumper traffic, but rather additional emergencies that inevitably spring themselves upon me and leave me thinking that it will be a miracle if I not only make it to my final destination, but also do so with my sanity intact.

Such was the nature of our trip to Bangalore. Our visas had been taken care of several weeks prior; I had painstakingly laid out appropriate clothing a few days beforehand; I had carefully packed my bag with the utmost of organization on the evening of our departure. We didn't have to be at the train station until 2, leaving us plenty of time to lounge around drinking tea after breakfast. Everything was under control.

But then, as is so often the case when I make any sort of long journey, I awoke with a migraine. I think I must secretly fret about traveling (even in my sleep!), so that no matter how calm I think I am, there's actually a lot of tension under the surface. This is the most logical explanation for why I so consistently get headaches when I go anywhere. This particular headache was truly awful, to the point of preventing me from concentrating on anything--I literally couldn't see straight. Thus, you can imagine that I was particularly dismayed to suddenly receive a surprise e-mail from a scientific journal alerting me to the fact that one of my recently submitted manuscripts had been "unsubmitted" because they needed me to fix two minor formatting mistakes (which, I might add, were only "mistakes" because they changed their formatting requirements in the tiny space of time between when I submitted the manuscript and when the editor got around to looking at it; *sigh*). Anyone who is familiar with publishing scientific results will know that speed is of the essence, and I simply couldn't bear to let this matter wait for two whole weeks while I was away; I simply had to resubmit the manuscript before I left. Unfortunately, I couldn't do this from home, so suddenly I found myself racing into work.

To cut a long story short, I just barely managed to make the edits and submit the manuscript by 1 PM, the absolute latest time that my husband and I could leave for our 1.5-hour trip to the train station. Because of my extreme migraine, I immediately got carsick and had to lower my seat almost completely horizontal and cower with my hands over my face. This had the beneficial side effect of preventing me from seeing how incredibly fast my husband was driving in order to get us to the station on time. An additional worry was finding our parking spot once we'd arrived: We had arranged with a friend to leave our car at his house, but we had never been there and had no idea where it was; on top of this, there was road construction that our GPS unit hadn't taken into consideration when giving us directions. Needless to say, we were feeling very tense.

Luckily, the story had a happy ending...for a while at least. We got aboard the train and safely stowed our luggage; I popped my second migraine pill of the day and crossed my fingers that it would work better than the first. My husband went to the concession car and bought us some teas; predictably, given the tone of the day, I managed to spill mine all over my lap. All the same, this was the point at which my luck finally started to turn. The drugs kicked in and my headache began to recede. Then we arrived at Paddington Station just in time to make our connecting train to London Heathrow. There was no line at the check-in counter and we breezed right through, and kept on breezing all the way through security and into the gate area.

We had chosen to fly with Kingfisher Airlines, a relatively new, India-based company that has developed a reputation for having excellent food and relatively luxurious service despite charging what are, effectively, bargain prices. We were curious to see whether the reality lived up to all the hype, and it was, in fact, quite a comfortable flight. The TV screens for the in-flight entertainment systems were huge, we had tons of leg room, and, indeed, the food was restaurant-quality. As per usual, my husband embarked on a mission to watch every movie on offer, though he was dismayed to discover that they had all been edited so as to be "family-friendly" ("Kick-Ass" is just not the same once the swearing has been removed). I, on the other hand, continued my recent embargo of in-flight entertainment, and devoted myself to napping (I don't know why, but lately I just can't seem to concentrate on films; it's a shame because when else do I have that much free time to devote to movie-watching?).

Eight hours later, upon our arrival in the international arrivals terminal of the Delhi airport, I was feeling fairly well-rested and my husband was feeling pretty bleary-eyed. We made our way to the immigration area, where we stood in line behind a group of female Sri Lankan tourists. They seemed pretty uninterested in us until I reached into my purse and pulled out my roll-up travel case for jewelry in order to stow my rings. I'm not sure what about that process or object was so intriguing, but from then on I could tell that we--and I, in particular--really held their interest. There was much surveying of my attire, as well as several whispered conversations. I did not have the impression that I was seen as scandalous, or that I was receiving any consternation, but beyond that assessment I just couldn't figure out what to make of the situation.

Luckily we weren't on display for too long before it was time to hand over our passports at the immigration counter. Without speaking a single word to me, the officer took my passport, wrote some things down, gave back the passport, and waved me through--not a very friendly welcome to the country! In fact, nearly every official that we encountered anywhere was fairly stone-faced (though not outright unfriendly); this very much contrasted with the extremely gracious and helpful attitudes we were later to encounter.

The Delhi airport was obviously fairly new, so it was the sort of place where you don't mind spending a couple hours while waiting for your next flight. When we stopped by the restrooms in order to wash up, I noticed that the woman next to me at the sink was wearing a Cincinnati sweatshirt. Time and again I encounter people from home (or its vicinity) in the most random, distant places, yet I still feel surprised all over again the next time it happens. There I was, literally half a world away from home, in a country filled with a billion other people, and I find myself next to a fellow Ohioan. Uncanny.

Just to continue the American theme, my husband and I elected to eat lunch at Subway, following that useful rule, "When in doubt about what to eat in a foreign country, choose an American chain because you probably won't get food poisoning." We were later told by a friend that when she recently stayed in an Indian ashram for 2 weeks, Subway was the food of choice among Westerners after they'd reached a state of "curry overload." This was a phenomenon we were soon to become acquainted with ourselves.

At our departure gate, we were pleased to discover reclined seats in which to wait for our flight:

(My husband making good use of the lounge chairs to catch up on his sleep. My parents happened to be taking a trip to the Florida Keys while my husband and I were in India, and my mom sent me a very similar picture of my dad. Scary.)

From Delhi, it was still a couple more hours to Bangalore. We were to be met at the airport by a driver holding our names up on a sign board, which, for some reason, is something I have always wanted to experience. Unfortunately, the sign board only had my husband's name on it, so I will have to wait a little longer (until my travel blog makes me famous, perhaps?) for my moment in the sun. On a positive note, our driver was extremely efficient and he immediately whisked us away from all signs of hustle and bustle, got us bundled into the taxi, and began our journey across town to our hostess' house in the "suburbs."

We ended up arriving at our destination early, and the only person at home was the housekeeper--who didn't speak a word of English. Well, actually, she spoke one word--"water," which she offered us to drink. She appeared to be incredibly shy, or potentially just very uncomfortable around weird foreigners who couldn't speak her language. Luckily there was a dog on hand to break the ice--Lulu, our hostess' young golden retriever. Lulu is the kind of dog who knows no strangers, and within seconds of our arrival she was happily slobbering all over us, gnawing on my wrist (in a friendly way), and playing catch. The spectacle of our fawning all over the dog sent the housekeeper into a fit of giggles, and even prompted her to cross the language divide and tell us Lulu's name.

Before long, our hostess returned home with her three-year-old daughter, who was even cuter (but also even more energetic) than the dog:

(Shama, enjoying the view of the park across the street from her house.)

Our hosts, who are Indian-born but British- and American-educated, are quite familiar with the discomfort of long-distance travel to and from India. They very kindly provided us with a home-cooked meal and then let us slink off to the guest room for some much-needed rest. By this point, my husband was not only exhausted from the lack of sleep, but also battling a vicious cold that had ambushed him during the flight over from England. As you will soon see, it was a cold that would have serious consequences for the rest of our trip.

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