I think I’m starting to feel the effects of prolonged travel. Stuck in this weird, endless cycle of sleeping and eating, sleeping and eating, I awake just moments before each food cart passes down our section of the long violet and red colored isles of our Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787. I can’t quite remember how many meals we’ve actually had: a couple breakfasts and a couple dinners it seems, all in the span on something like twenty hours is my best guess. Airlines, the smart ones at least, keep your belly filled and your eyelids drooping, a plane full of food coma patients, docile and uncomplaining
Just as the cabin doors are closing before our third flight from Delhi to Lucknow Rowena realizes that her purse is back at the security checkpoint. The flight crew assures her in the same force-feeding tranquilizer fashion not to worry, all will be alright, the purse will arrive shortly on the next flight over from Delhi. This, of course, is not true and sets in motion a long chain of phone calls and return trips to the domestic airport in Lucknow during the first three days of our stay. Surprisingly enough, the purse is eventually recovered unscathed and with all its contents accounted for through the incomparable aid of the terminal manager, a good contact to keep for our future of uncertain domestic Indian travel.
Upon arriving in Lucknow, I’m neither specifically tired nor awake but simply content to feel the heat rising off the tarmac, waving goodbye to the cold, dry, recycled air or the the airplane air conditioning. We’ll be staying with the mother of an Indian friend of Rowena’s who lives with her father just four kilometers from the airport, Jiji. Our taxi drive, Veeru, drives us down the twisting bends of Kanpur Road, passing auto-rickshaws, normal rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, large trucks, and even the occasional car. The horn honks in rapid succession. We breeze by small stands on the side of the road selling piles of mangoes, chicken eggs, and tasty looking fried pastries.
The house is cream colored and set back from the street behind a small, gated, front garden filled with green plants, a few trees, and a thicket of tall, red-orange flowers. Rowena is greeted at the door by a small boy, six years old and looking confused. He is the son of Jiji’s maid, Mano, who in turn greets us in rapid Hindi and shows us through the door. We sit down in the living room with a couple of cold cups of water and the parade begins. We meet Jiji’s father first, Samesh, whose one hundredth birthday is coming up this very September, he invites us to his party. Then out come the kids: Krimpa, Mano’s friend, accompanied by her younger sister who is busy playing with Mano’s son, both eying us excitedly while kneeling at the edge of the bed, then Krimpa’s mother. The kids want to shake our hands and we oblige with pleasure which sends them hopping about the room and laughing hysterically.
Although unbeknownst to us we’ve arrived a full week earlier than Jiji expected us, we are welcomed with the unhesitating generosity I was told I should expect in India. Jiji takes us in to town and sets us up with SIM cards, introduces us to the owner of the shop, who in turn introduces us to his son, Shammi, who runs a consultancy down the street that helps connect Indian students with study abroad programs in the States and Canada. We will soon spend more time with Shammi, who lets us work in his office when we take a much needed break from the distractions back at home.
The sun sets and we go for a drive to see Lucknow and the unpopular statues and eco-park that Chief Minister Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh is blowing the state budget on. The giant pillars, domed ceilings, and half completed structures surrounded by loose stone and dust speak to the Roman Forum. A modern-day reincarnation of the ancient, alive during the day with the same droves of poor workers, shirts wrapped around their heads to block the sweat from their eyes, toiling away with pick-axes and shovels in the hot and humid sun.
We drive through the insane streets filled with cars and motorcycles that come at us from every direction. Jiji points out the sites along the road and my eyes start to become heavy. In all this honking and madness, I fall asleep, sitting in the front seat with my window rolled down, waking only occasionally to see near misses with motorcycles and auto-rickshaws and the far-too-close bumper stickers of the trucks in front of us.