With a heavier heart than I realize at the time, I left Kanpur in the afternoon heat. Dr. Harish and Rahna have shown us a hospitality I have never encountered before. They invited us into their home, booked us a room at the Visitor Hostel on campus, cooked us meals when we were sick, showed us the town, bought us beautiful hand-stitched Indian shirts, and introduced us to litchis, a delicious fruit that has the exact appearance and texture of snot. Dr. Harish accompanied us to the Kanpur airport, which was nothing more than a small airstrip and a waiting room full of ten Indians. Security was three guys outside of the door who checked our tickets. In the face of terrorism, we felt as safe as could be. We were the oddest looking people in the place, and the most threatening thing on my person were wet-wipes. I tried to suffocate someone, I would just make them smell really good.
We waited for about half an hour, until everyone stood up.
“The shuttle is here,” someone said.
“What shuttle?” The airstrip was 10 meters away. I was perfectly willing to walk to the plane.
“The shuttle to Lucknow,” he said without any surprise. No one seemed surprised, actually. Lucknow is two hour, bumpy drive away. An airport employee started to load our backpacks into a huge suburban, but we wanted some answers. Apparently, our plane was going to be about half an hour late. By then it would be dark, and the airstrip didn’t have lights, so we had to catch a different flight from another airport.
Before I knew it, we were driving down the road to Lucknow, crammed in the backseat with three Indian men as Indian oldies blared from the radio. Surinder, the chain-smoking, middle-aged business man in a crisp blue-button up and thick half-rims, said that these songs from the 80s were the prime of Indian music. “Evergreen tunes, we call them. They stay fresh always.”
A few days ago Dr. Harish had said to me that the main difference between American and India was this: In America, if your set plans change, the world has ended. In India, readjustments, no matter how ridiculous, can always be made and accepted to reach the same end. We were living, moving proof of it in the moment of this ridiculous adventure. Anne and I just laughed and laughed and laughed while our butts started to sore from the ride.
We made quick friends with our traveling companions. From the outside, two young women in the hands of three foreign men might raise alarms, but these guys, who didn’t know each other either, were just as bored and inconvenienced by the drive as we were.
Surinder was the first to talk. He speaks in slow sentences and discusses Indian culture at length. When not talking, he sings along quietly at intervals to the radio.
The man in the front, Rai, is a rotund and jovial young man who works on ships sailing all around the world for months at a time. When we met him, he was on his way from small Kanpur to the shores of Virginia, then to Europe, his favorite country, Brazil, and onward. He confides that he eat meat abroad, but never indulges at home. He paid for his secret taste, though. In China, once, he asked for “something like chicken” and ended up eating frog legs.
The other boy, whose “good name” I never knew, was a student in Mumbai, bouncing around the country for his summer internship. “If you haven’t seen Mumbai, you haven’t seen India,” he asserts. “That is what everyone says about their homeplace in this country,” I say, and he laughs. He hesitates when he has missed his connecting flight out of Delhi, not sure what he should do. The others advise him in his course of actions, although they had just met, too. Some calls are made, the plan changes, and his brow barely furrows throughout.
During the drive, we chatted in turns, and all started laughing when the driver started to drive down the wrong side of the median, obviously inconveniencing the line of oncoming traffic by honking at them to move.
“Why are you doing that?” Surinder asked in Hindi. The driver replied that his side of the road is better paved (it was) and that his tires are of poor quality (they weren’t). “He just told me to enjoy the music when I pressed the issue,” Surinder said wrly. We all just waited until the driver got fed up with his self-imposed difficulty and moved back to the correct side.
Eventually, we stopped for a drink. That three grown men attempting to catch a plane on a limited budge of time in a different city would stop in a rural restaurant, next to which a man was bathing in his underwear from a pump emitting the same water than undoubtedly comprised the half cup of chai they drank, shows how ubiquitous and important and delicious the drink is here.
When we arrived at the airport, having three Indian men at our disposal proved incredibly useful. Rai tapped on the glass of the Air India booking office, which is outside and surrounded by a crowd, to get the teller’s attention. We pool our tickets together to make the process easier. For once, we are coattail jumping as someone else is wading the quagmire of Indian bureaucracy instead of doing it ourselves.
In America, we would be booking it through security to sit at the terminal with a Starbucks cup for the next two hours. When we entered the airport and check our luggage, they say, “We will just go to that nearby restaurant for 15 minutes” before going through security. So they did, and we too, without one worry about the long security line or our approaching flight. Relative matters for some French fries (ordered for our tastes, I am sure) and four glasses of Coca-Cola. Afterwards, we caught our short flight to Delhi, finally, with ease.
“Farewell,” we said to them and this quick, impossible journey at baggage claim. They had given us an evergreen story to tell again, again, and again.