The Taj Mahal is off the agenda. It’s something that’s better done as a couple -- going there alone is like having a restaurant’s Valentine’s Day special solo. All the happy couples cluck their tongues and look at you pityingly.
I had my craziest auto-rickshaw driver yet. He spoke no English, and I spoke no Hindi, but we got on together swimmingly. Well, other than he didn’t know where he was supposed to be going, mistaking Asaf Ali Road for Ansari Road. But at the India Gate, we saw a woman smacking around a teenage boy with her slipper, and with hit, he cheered her on. H jerked the auro-rickshaw one way, made sudden stops -- the most close calls I’ve had thus far. When he scraped the end of a parked auto-rickshaw, he glanced at the damage, then moved on.
The combination of cars “temporarily” parked in driving lanes and narrow streets leads to explosive situations. While two lanes and directions of traffic tried to squeeze past in one lane, one driver got out of his vehicle and pushed around a much older rickshaw driver. All the while, my driver was honking, trying to get things moving, directing traffic around his auto-rickshaw with only inches to spare. He remained good-humored throughout and kept speaking to me in Hindi -- we were somehow on the same wavelength.
On the way to the airport, my taxi driver, shut the side window on the hand of a female beggar who had come up to the car. He didn’t do it hard, because she continued begging even as he yelled at her. I felt somewhat bad (but not bad enough to give up a coin). Besides, it beats getting your foot run over by a car (which happened earlier this morning). My sneaker took the squooshing like a trooper, and my toes avoided harm.
At the airport, a stylish young man carried a square, leather man-purse studded with rhinestones along its edges. Thankfully, the limited American definition of “gay” has not yet come across the ocean. McDonald’s has, however, serving McVeggie and McChicken burgers (would you like chapatti with that?). There’s the Indian version of Starbucks, Café Coffee Day. There’s the Indian version of Panda Express, Yo! China. And there’s the Indian version of Coke, which is also called Coke and has the same color and carbonation, but tastes nothing like Coke.
In Ahmedabad, my luck ran out. Getting to the bus stand from the airport at 9:30 p.m. was no problem, but once there, the ticket taker, a hearty, middle-aged man, informed me -- through awkward, broken language -- that the bus to Bhuj was full. Others attempted to get on the bus, and he steadfastly refused them. He didn’t know when the next bus would be, and even so, the ticket office was closed. I wouldn’t be able to reserve myself a seat. By this time, I was carrying a unwieldly number of bags: my carry-on, a laptop bag, my day bag, two hanging suits, and an umbrella. I could either try to catch the 11:59 p.m. train, or I could find a hotel and arrange transport to Bhuj tomorrow. He pointed another bus that was going to Bhuj, and as it started moving, people swarmed onto it, one hand on the bar, the other on their luggage -- and I understood how people get trampled to death at Indian train stations.
Perhaps the driver took pity on this lost foreigner, looking pitiful and bewildered. But before the bus pulled out, he waved me on. The cost of the bus to Bhuj was less than the taxi ride from the airport to the bus stand. There wasn’t an official seat available, but I could sit behind the driver on a ledge, near the gear box. The ticket taker handed me a cushion. I think this was where he normally sat, but there was room for two -- barely. An elderly gentleman in the front row offered up his seat so that the ticket taker could relax. We sat together, this gentleman and I, as the cool Gujarati night came through the window. As the other passengers reclined their seats and let the breeze come to them, we two kept a vigil with the truck drivers flicking their high beams so that it looked like flash lightning; with the factories lit from within like a Christmas light stuck inside of an eggshell; with the passing cars and motorcycles, playing symphonies with their horns; and with the three-quarters full moon, reflecting the puddles of the salt marsh so that the ground glowed phosphorescent.