Off Season Tourist - India Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta
Two weeks in India, 2003 Notes from the Off Season Tourist
Midnight Arrivals.
Marcus flies in to Delhi one night after Julie.

Standing at the currency exchange in the Delhi airport I see my first mosquito. Actually, a swarm of them … and they are, naturally, in front of the only window of the exchange that's open. Leaning over the swarm I drop my US dollars on the teller's desk and stand back a few paces, never looking at the cash register to verify the calculation of rates of exchange. Julie should be waiting for me outside with a car, but just in case, I need enough rupees for a taxi to the hotel. So the bank can suck me dry on multiple fees so long as those wispy insects don't take my blood in the transaction.

Thankfully Julie was there, having arrived the night before, and we walk out into the midnight air and walk through the hectic parking lot to the hotel-provided van. The hotel's Sikh driver is sleeping on the roof of the white Omni van and has unwrapped his turban to use as a sheet cover. The roof of the tiny Japanese vehicle, no wider than a single bed, has concaved to the shape of his resting body. As he opens the passenger door he gives one well practiced strike of his open palm to the roof and it springs up to accommodate the full height of the western travelers. In the time it takes for him to drop to the ground, open the doors, fix the roof and climb into the driver's seat he had wrapped his turban back around his head and we were moving.

On this trip, in the darkness, it is hard to tell if it more the smog or the dust that is being forced through the windows and into our lungs. We gulp dryly for oxygen as the night journey reveals vague shapes of lorries, buses, Omnis and little misshapen beetle-like motorized rickshaws all of which careen into the speedy path of our Omni, miraculously swinging past the right headlight of the van. Julie has read that six people die every day in Delhi from car accidents, but keeps that piece of information to herself for now as she passes Marcus a refreshing bottle of purified water. In only ten minutes of being outside water is a necessity.

The oncoming lights at night are ethereal in Delhi's solid atmosphere, so they don't panic us in ways that will soon come regularly in daylight drives. The site of oncoming traffic does not persuade any driver to shift their feet to the brakes. The only acceptable movement is that of the hand to the car's horn which mostly reminds the riders of their mortality than serving as a warning to other drivers to move swiftly away. We will learn on this trip that the brake is reserved for only two things, cows and the huge furrows of speed bumps that are installed on streets either far too regularly, or in the least appropriate of places. In some states, these massive government-created reverse potholes are painted with stripes to give some slight forewarning. In others, the stripes appear about 25 feet in front of the speed bump; intriguingly, in some parts of Rajasthan they are placed 25 feet after.

Although it is midnight, the temperature is a solid 32 degrees Celsius. In our summer of 2003, Delhi will experience an official heat wave with temperatures that were 5 degrees above the normal 40 C. Few vehicles in India have air conditioning and the Omni is no exception. Like the French Citroen's and Renault's of the 60's and 70's, the Omni's windows slide towards us to open instead of rolling down. As we come into the city, leaving the ring road from the airport behind, the open windows bring in the cacophony of a city's congestion that has increased tenfold with people filling streets that have narrowed by the same factor. Although New York City is billed as the city that never sleeps, Delhi appears to be a city that cannot sleep.

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