Well, we're back.
A tip for travel out of Delhi: bring a printed itinerary with your name and flight information on it. They will not let you into the airport without it. Another tip: there is no place within Delhi airport where you can get an Airtel card. It's hard to imagine why this would matter, isn't it? Read on.
We moved out of Dharamshala on the 6th, and spent the night of the 6th at Pop's. The room at Pop's was nice - everything worked properly, the food was *really* good, the bed was clean, there was even a TV, which Andrea tested out and then abandoned. It's surprising how many channels you get up in the hills of Himachal Pradesh (and no, this apparently wasn't cable).
We'd planned to leave Palampur at 5am, just in case things got tight on the way to Delhi. Unfortunately, the last night of teaching went on until 2am. The folks at Pop's were very good-natured about it - they seemed to enjoy the festivities (the teaching ended with a party). We were really flagging, though - I'd been sleep-deprived from the previous night, and Andrea was still battling a bad cough.
So we finally went up to our room for our three hours of sleep (which was closer to two, because we hadn't packed yet). At 5am the sun isn't yet up, so the rice paddies had that gunmetal grey of pre-dawn light. It was very beautiful. There was a storm coming in, so there was a good wind going as well. Really, if you had to be up at 5am, this was a good 5am at which to be up. I think we finally hit the road at around 5:30 am. Our drive took us back toward Chamunda Devi. If you remember the picture of Chamunda Devi from a previous entry, the turn-off is at the top of the road from which that picture was shot - about a hundred yards on. There's a really sharp hairpin there, with a couple of hotels and dhabas, and the usual dogs lying in the road and cows everywhere. Another half-mile along is the nice rice-paddy picture from my first photographic blog entry this trip. This time instead of taking the hairpin, we went straight, into unexplored territory.
The road there is not particularly huge, despite being the main way to Delhi and other points flat. And the rain had hit by then. So we were driving through this murky wall of water, between buildings, fields, cows, and so on. It was very picturesque, but there wasn't enough light to shoot any photos. At one point we went left at an intersection where the right fork lead to Dharamshala. This felt nice - we hadn't had to backtrack all the way. The driver (Sanju) pointed it out, or we wouldn't have known.
The road was a bit bigger and straighter at this point, but it started to flood, so we kept having to slow down and ford major streams. There was a point where the road was itself the stream, for about a mile or so, right through an Indian town whose name I don't remember. At 7am, people were going about their business as if it wasn't raining - some had umbrellas, but most did not. It felt like we were having an adventure driving through all of this, but at the same time it was impossible not to be aware of what it was like outside the car. Inside, we had nice air conditioning. Outside, it was incredibly rainy, humid, and fairly warm, and there was no way your boots weren't going to be full of water. I suspect people in that town wear sandals a lot - I think it floods every time the monsoon rains come, which at this time of year is basically every day.
About fifteen minutes down the road, we started to see a big river off to the left as we began ascending into the next range of foothills. The ascent was lovely, and the glimpses of the river, farther and farther down, were too. At some point we crested the range of hills and started to descend again. The terrain here was very steep - there would be a 30-50' cliff going uphill on one side of the road, and a steep several-hundred-foot dropoff on the other. The road was wide here, but all of the uphill cliffs were sliding in minor ways, mostly dropping large piles of rocks on the road that we had to go around.
At one point, we came to a slide that had covered most of the width of the road and taken a tree down with it. On the other side of the slide were a Punjabi trucker and a bus. The Punjabi truckers are apparently fairly notorious in Himachal Pradesh because they aren't all that good at driving in the hills, and this one was no exception - he insisted that he had to cross the slide first, even though we could have crossed the slide easily and been out of his way on the other side, and there was no place for us to go on our side. Haste makes waste.
So the guy forced his way across the slide, and then made us back up onto the side of the road, right next to the uphill cliff. There still wasn't room for him to pass, so our driver kept honking, trying to get the people behind *him* to make a little more room so that we could clear the truck. The truck driver got impatient and just gunned it, Andrea shrieked, and there was a loud crunch. Rs 10,000 in damage in about a second, completely avoidable. :'(
Ten thousand rupees is about US$220. This is probably more than the Punjabi truck driver makes in a year. So needless to say, there proceeded a rather lengthy dispute, the outcome of which, since the truck driver had no insurance (I'm not sure they even *have* insurance in India), was that Sanju had the driver's license and operating permit. Andrea and I had discussed it in the car and decided to just pay for the damage ourselves, but unfortunately we were a little slow off the mark and didn't tell Sanju until after we'd left. I felt somewhat unsympathetic toward the truck driver, because he'd really brought this disaster on himself, but afterwards I felt bad at taking so long to offer to pay, because I'm sure the driver had an incredibly bad day. While you can argue that he brought it on himself, I know from painful personal experience that frequently the consequences of our actions are of much greater magnitude than the actions themselves, and so I actually had a great deal of sympathy for his situation. Sigh. Later on it turned out that Sanju hadn't told Amit I was going to pay - by the time I talked to Amit that evening, it sounded like he'd also had a really bad day.
Something to remember next time a Punjabi truck driver sideswipes the car I'm in.
Anyway, despite our offer to pay for the damage, Sanju was in a black mood for a good thirty minutes, but then he seemed to just brush it off.
We stopped for breakfast at a restaurant catering to foreigners along the road an hour later. Andrea and Michael very intelligently ordered potato parothas, but Nicole and I branched out - she had the biryiani and I had the chow mein. Both were inedible due to salt, and the chow mein was also cold, because they'd let it sit so they could bring everything out at once. I felt only a minor twinge of guilt at not eating it - I wound up having a parotha, and Nicole had an omelet with slice. This is an omelet with a slice of bread inside
of it. Weird, but apparently good.
The restaurant was cooled with a swamp cooler. When you live in Arizona, and you're out of town every year during monsoon, it's easy to forget why they're called swamp coolers. It's because if you run them during monsoon, they turn the place they are cooling into a swamp. The humidity inside the restaurant was immense. Probably up around 150% or something. We were a bit desperate to eat up and get out.
Michael and I had Cliff bars to supplement our breakfast after we left - the parothas, while fairly good (still a bit salty) were not sufficiently filling. We had really mixed results with the places our drivers took us to - there was one good place in the lot, but most of the roadside attractions at which we stopped were clearly aimed at the "you're never going to come here again, so it doesn't matter if the food sucks" crowd. The roads of India could really do with the equivalent of a Michelin guide.
One of the things that really strikes me about the roads of India is how much they are like what you hear about traveling along Route 66 in the fifties. Yesterday in our post-transit stupor I read the Chicago Tribune, and there was a good news article about how the death toll on American highways dropped with the advent of the Interstate system. India is pre-interstate. I suspect that their drivers are generally better, actually, because I think most of the people you see on the road, particularly on the major highways, are professional drivers, not people with private cars. But I wonder what India will be like if it every gets U.S.-style Interstates.
In the global warming debate, they always talk about how the pre-industrialized countries can't follow the Kyoto protocol because they want to have their own industrial growth spurt, but I wonder how accurate this is. Indians are *incredibly* efficient in their use of energy. Our car, in which we seated four passengers and one driver, is billed as a nine-seater. I've seen cars like it crammed with ten or twelve Indian passengers, who seem to think nothing of sitting in each others' laps for hours. We even saw auto-rickshaws with five or six passengers (I think they're intended to carry two passengers and one driver). Our car drove for twelve hours on a single tank of gas, and not a very big tank. All the way to Delhi. And this was a Chevy, if you can believe it. Most of the taxis in Delhi run on compressed natural gas. So I think it's not the pre-industrial countries that are the problem with Kyoto. We have met the enemy, and it is us.
Anyway, after several hours of car, we stopped for lunch at a very nice Indian restaurant with real air conditioning and a vegetarian buffet. Yum-ola. It was a bit heavily spiced, but we weren't complaining - Andrea even went up for seconds! The bill was a bit spendy after the prices in Dharamsala, but we survived.
I didn't take any pictures after we got out of the Himalayan foothills. There are two reasons. The first is that after a while the landscape hypnotizes you, and it's hard to know what will be a good picture. The second, and more compelling, is that in order to get a good picture with an autofocus camera, you have to open the window, and there was no way in hell we were opening the windows, because by the time we got into the Punjab, it took the car about ten minutes to cool off after the outside air got in, and the windows were hot to the touch. Not burny hot, but not merely warm either. By the time we got to the outskirts of Delhi, even with the AC going full blast it was still warm enough to raise a sweat in the back seat.
Our first stop in Delhi was the Thomas Cooke office, where we traded the last of our travelers checks for a giant pile of cabbage, which we counted and stuffed into an envelope to give to Sanju. Seventeen thousand rupees. We might have paid that just for the car ride if we'd gotten the car in Delhi; here that included the cost of fixing the damage from the morning's accident. The hot air of Delhi hit us like a hammer when we got out of the car, but fortunately Thomas Cooke was air conditioned.
The news on the hotel front was not good. Micheal and Nicole had been hoping to stay at the guest house that John Brady favors, which is called Prem Sagar Guest House. It's deep in the heart of Connaught Circus, and it's very nice by the standards of the area. Unfortunately there were no rooms available, and so they were working from the Lonely Planet guide. Say what you will about how great Lonely Planet is, their advice about hotels was terrible. We went through three hotels that they'd recommended, and they were all terrible. There was another hotel right next to the Prem Sagar, and it was bad too. Nice looking lobbies, lousy rooms. This is after two weeks in Dharamshala, so it's not just the "we were hoping for the Oberoi" syndrome.
Our friends Elly and Chunzom were staying at Prem Sagar, as were John and a few others (that's why it was so full). So we got to look at the rooms. They are small, but decent - a little nicer than what we had in Dharamsala, and air conditioned, which is a huge win in Delhi. I don't know how a westerner could sleep at night there without.
Personally, I'd be okay staying at Prem Sagar, but might spring for the Shangri-la instead - it's about twice the price, and much, much more than twice as nice.
Sadly, a night at the Shangri-la was not to be. We were scheduled to leave on a 12:15 am flight from Delhi airport. Sanju waited around for us while we had dinner with Micheal and Nicole at a very nice restaurant, Saravana Bhavan. It's right next door to Prem Sagar, the food is vegetarian, south Indian, and very
good. We were a bit taken aback by the menu, because it was completely
south Indian, but once we ordered, what we got was tres yummy.
Michael and Nicole got a car from the front desk at Prem Sagar, and we collected Chunzom. Tearful farewells were exhanged, and Michael and Nicole drove off in their car to the hotel they stayed at last time they were in Delhi, which I hope worked out well for them - we haven't heard from them yet. I think they should be back in the 'states by now. Sanju bravely drove off in the direction in which he hoped the airport lay, but got a bit lost and had to ask directions - he's from Dharamshala, not Delhi. We finally got on the main road, Sanju looked very
relieved, and we had a fairly quick drive to the airport.
One of the really interesting things about Delhi and Dharamshala is that after spending two weeks in Dharamshala, Delhi looks much more modern than I remembered from the trip out. Most of the buildings you see are complete, with no rebar sticking out of the roof, waiting for more money to add on another floor. The giant tenement buildings that looked kind of liveable, but only kind of, when we drove out of Delhi on that first day, now look quite posh. And the amount of light on the streets at night seems like a lot, whereas when we drove from the airport to the hotel on our first night in India, it seemed painfully dim.
When we got to the airport, it wasn't too dissimilar to any U.S. airport at first - the usual pile of cars, no way to get to the kerb. We unloaded, handed Sanju the big envelope, and also gave him a nice tip (I hope!). He seemed happy. He really took good care of us.
When we got to the entrance, the guard there wanted to see our travel itinerary, but since we were on E-tickets, we didn't have anything printed. Fortunately, there was a representative from the airline waiting at the door, and he was able to go inside and get some documentation that allowed us to come in. *Un*fortunately, the reason he was at the door was to tell us that our flight had been canceled.
We couldn't believe it - we expected that American Airlines would be the people to show us some good old American can-do after quite a bit of the Delhi runaround, and all that time in the back country, but sadly once we got inside we discovered that the worst was indeed true - American had dumped an entire Boeing 777 full of passengers into Delhi airport, with only four relatively inexperienced staff members to rebook us. American treats us very, very well in general, and I don't want to be too harsh on them, but this was a really major screwup. Andrea started crying when I proposed just going back to the Shangri-la, so we toughed it out in line for several hours instead.
Actually, about an hour and a half in, I called my father back home, and gave him all our information, and asked him if he could please call the AA gold desk in the U.S. and get our flights rebooked from there, because it was clear that it was never going to happen in India. He was a bit surprised to get such a request from out of nowhere, but he did it, and got us onto a British Airways flight to London, connecting to an AA flight to the U.S. Unfortunately, the Delhi number for American only answers during regular business hours and does not, as it probably ought, forward to the U.S. reservations line after hours. So there is no way to do your rebooking by cell phone, as most seasoned U.S. travelers do in situations like this. I suspect the line would have cleared in an hour and a half had this option been available to the majority of the travelers there, since they all had cell phones, and most spoke English. We actually tried to get some help from Andrea's father in the form of a phone number in the U.S. people could call (my father was a bit burned out after the first rebooking effort, which involved calling and waiting on hold for five minutes three times, and getting hung up on twice).
There was a Jet Air flight to London that left at about 2am, and a lot of folks in line got on this flight. We were actually feeling a little bit stupid for having gotten onto BA instead, since that flight didn't leave until 8:20 the next morning. We wound up camping out at the head of the BA checkin line, which worked out really well for us, because they gave us exit row seats when they finally opened at 4:30 that morning. The BA flight was really nice - I finally got some sleep, the first I'd had since the two hours I got at Pop's more than twenty-four hours previously.
When we got to London, we learned how lucky we were to have had my father's help. The folks on the Jet Air flight were sent from Delhi to London with no confirmed seats. Most of them were still in London when we left that afternoon. The folks on our BA flight all made it to their connecting flights. The only seats that were available on the flight from London to Chicago were two seats in different rows in the back of the plane, and we were pretty sad about that. The woman who was getting us our seat assignments said we could have one exit row seat, but the other person would have to sit in back. Andrea urged me to take it, but I didn't want her to be abandoned back there for the whole flight, so I said we should just sit near each other in the back. The ticketing agent took pity on us and called the gate, and managed to get us two bulkhead seats next to each other that were being held for people traveling with infants - at that point I think the flight had checked in full, so there was no reason to hold them any longer anyway.
So this was a pretty major fiasco for American, but they did take really good care of us in the long run. I really hope they figure out a better system for Delhi, though - from what I've read online they've pretty much maxed out their fleet of 777's with this Delhi flight, so this could happen again, and they should be better prepared for it next time. It would really behoove them to make the U.S. reservations line available for Delhi travelers, if not all the time, then at least when they have a flight cancellation like this. It wouldn't be that hard to do.
The stop in London was sweet. We exchanged 1300 rupees for 12 pounds twenty pence. Andrea stopped at Boots and stocked up on stuff you can only get at Boots. We stopped at a Brasserie that offered good food and free laptop recharging, and charged her laptop up for a while while we ate their vegetarian food. Yum. I got a cup of fair trade coffee at *$$, and a really bad scone (yes, in Britain!), and a sandwich for the road.
Andrea was having kind of a rough time due to some "female problems," as she would prefer that I describe them. I won't go into detail, but suffice it to say that it was a stressy time for her, but we didn't want to miss the flight, so we got on it. The purser had had similar problems in the past, and was able to reassure Andrea that she would be okay until Chicago. She's doing a lot better now, two days later - things are basically back to normal. But it added that little soupcon of excitement that made the final leg of the return trip really memorable.
The landing in Chicago was a bit of an anticlimax - the customs line was the shortest one I have ever experienced, the customs agent was a bit gruff with Andrea for calling her sister on her cell phone but didn't give us any real hassle about it, and we got through customs with no delay to speak of, and Debby had had a really easy drive to the airport, so she showed up almost immediately when we got outside. We drove back to Debby's house, chatted with her and Martin a bit, threw all our clothes in the laundry, showered, and went to sleep. Aah, the joy of an actual mattress to sleep on, after two days of pot luck.
I will see if any pictures from the drive down are salvageable and post them later - sorry for all prose and no pictures in this issue. :'}