The flight from New York to Delhi was only thirteen hours, but the toll it took was brutal–on the fully booked plane there was nowhere to sleep but ramrod straight, hemmed in between someone’s reclined seatback and a stale pillow. I was glad to land, so our adventure may begin–and my legs can uncoil.
Our ride from the airport is with Dr. Liladhar Gupta, a world-renowned Ayeurveda doctor with a clinic near Vrindaban. He picks us up in the clinic’s ambulance, a Land Rover type vehicle with two rows of bench seats, space for a short stretcher in the rear between two more rows of sideways benches, and the steering wheel on the right hand side. Still a British colony when automobiles came along, they adopted that crazy left-side-driving thing the Brits claim is normal.
With the fog so thick, I can only see two white highway stripes at a time; at that, the farther stripe appears as if rising from a primordial fog to dart soundlessly beneath us. This is our nocturnal introduction to India, like blind men trying to figure out an elephant. India to me is one lane of horn-blaring, light-flashing oncoming traffic. India to Annie is a series of brick and dirt piles and the occasional bicycle rickshaw sliding backwards past us, as it seems we are standing still in space.
Then the bumps start, and the lumps and the humps and we bounce uncomfortably around under our woolen blankets in the unheated ambulance. There are smoother paths on the moon than in this city, and leaving it for the country offers minimal improvement. We pass gigantic trucks with “TATA” painted, carved, or otherwise emblazoned across their loading doors and tanks. Our driver honks at first sight of their derrieres looming out of the fog, and then again as we pull up past the cab. Approaching the breaks in the low median that allow for cross traffic and right-hand turns, he blows a car horn salute to make any New York cabbie proud. So does everyone around us as they pass. You could make a fortune repairing and replacing car horns in India, and I’m sure someone does.
The trucks request it, after all–right there on the rear of each is the slogan “blow horn please,” usually near another polite request, “use dippers at night.” I think dippers are the emergency flashers clicking rhythmically on and off like jumbo fireflies, the invisible space between them filled with rusted steel that comes into sight mere feet away. It is remarkable to watch such giant trucks materialize so suddenly in the fog. Halfway past, I can’t see the cab, or the rear, just that port side with hand-painted warnings about flammable material onboard.
We smile at ornate white, horse-drawn carts clopping along through the fog; they are heading to, or from, the glowing spots of fog illuminated by acres of shimmering white Christmas-style lights. Tonight is a festival for a goddess, an auspicious day for weddings, so Delhi is full of songs and dance and carriages and lights.
The first meal
Dr. Gupta suggests we pull over for a quick meal, a two-in-the-morning roadside snack at the equivalent of an Indian diner. At the edge of the dirt parking lot is a small shack with only three walls. Inside the shack is a pile of blankets, clothes hanging from nails, a tin roof overhead and a man sleeping below. Beside this tiny home is the restaurant, under a larger tin roof. Plastic chairs and tables welcome us, and an old man sells foil bags of junk food under a washed-out television blaring a Hindi musical.
From my plastic chair I watch a boy too young to be up this late pound small balls of flour into disks on a stone table. There is a hole in the table where a low fire burns, and a grill and metal sheets for the disks to bake into chapattis–thicker than a tortilla, thinner and smaller than a pita. Dr. Gupta orders something from a man in rumpled clothes, who scurries towards a charred and misshapen steel pot over a propane burner on a concrete counter.
The first meal in a new country is always exciting; always a chance to impress your host, as they try to impress you. What would you like? they ask. Something authentic, I say; they smile that I didn’t ask for McDonald’s, and order something exquisite and novel and entirely foreign to me.
Asking for something authentic, here, is wholly unnecessary. Anyway, I wasn’t given the choice. An order of rice and dhal–lentil beans with spinach and seasoning–arrives promptly, with a stack of fresh chapattis. This is manna for the jetlagged.
“You must go easy on your stomach,” says Dr. Gupta. What we talked about in the car, about the weddings and festivals and culture, disappears in the fog. But these words I will remember many times. “Dhal is simple. Nourishing. Too much spice, too much different food, will be very bad for you. In one week’s time you may try something else.” It is his first bit of medical wisdom, and flies in the face of my quest to eat my way across his country. I smile politely, taking his words as recommendation rather than law.
But I have much to learn from Dr. Gupta, slow as I am to realize it.