India the Matrix: Passing through Delhi, looking for coffee
The bus from Bikaner drops us off in Delhi, in the dark, on the side of the road, next to the pissing wall, right in the middle of a huge mud-puddle, and with little pomp or ceremony otherwise. At least the train usually takes you to a station somewhere. It’s 6 a.m., and that means it’s still dark in Delhi, in January. But that’s the trade-off, I guess: bus for train, comfort for convenience.
The bus was certainly more comfortable. I had my own single sleeper. The other side of the bus has doubles, so I guess you and your’n could double-clutch in sync with the bus if you felt so inclined, tres kinky. No one would ever know, what with the bumping and grinding from the bus already. India is not known for its smooth roads.
But for now I only know to keep moving. They say that he who hesitates is lost. Well I have no map, so I don’t really know where I am, but I know I don’t want to be here, so I grab a tuk-tuk for the New Delhi train station. That’s the only place I know to go, this early in the morning. It’s close to my hotel, at least, though it’s too early to check in. Midnight rides through the lost neighborhoods of urban India never fail to astonish, people apparently sleeping wherever they ended up at the end of the previous day—musical beds.
The train station is only worse at this time of the morning. There are throngs. A cat runs across my field of vision. But something’s wrong: there are no cats in Indian train stations—dogs okay, rats sure, and cows maybe, but no cats. If there were cats, then there’d be no rats. I need some help, Trinity. Footsteps behind me are gaining, due to catch up in three seconds; footsteps at 3 o’clock are due to coincide on the perpendicular in three seconds. Avert, Neo, avert; swerve hard to the left! Now!
One pickpocket attempt averted, in my imagination at least. I haven’t felt this creepy since the Mercato bus station in Addis Ababa in 2009. I need to buy some time. There are lights from eateries across the street. If I can make it there, then I’m good. I need to eat anyway, since I mostly fasted for the bus ride. I haven’t had much appetite. The world feels very unfriendly.
Then it hits me: this is the Bible. This is post-World War III. These are people in migration with the fall of civilizations. Governments are no longer effective, and the good will of people can no longer be counted upon. People only care about money now, and possession is 9/10 of the law. One slip or one fall and you will be crushed, and then recycled. In this scenario the hated touts are now my first line of defense, and the army of tuk-tuks my trusted cavalry. At least I know how they think.
But I make it to an eatery with no mishap, and find one that’s got what I need: food, and coffee (sort of). So I order an omelet with rice, now my safe haven for food. When you lose your appetite in India, that’s your body telling you to chill on the Indian food, or you will indeed be sitting on loose stools, wobbly and uncertain, lest you fall on the floor, in a pool of… I like the food, but I don’t like the hygiene, or lack thereof.
But the omelet is good, if greasy, and the plate of rice is huge, as always, but somehow I manage to eat it all, for a buck and change, and a whole set of new friends. Indians really can be nice, when you get off the front lines of tourism. By now it’s light outside, so I wait for the foreigners’ train ticket office to open at eight. Thank God for them. When it opens I score a second-class sleeper to Amritsar two nights from now. This is three times what I’ve paid for sleeper-class before, so hopefully an upgrade. I’ll arrive at dawn in the Sikh capital. They have a reputation for great benevolence… and free food.
Delhi wakes up slowly, but it looks no better by the light of day, not in the thick fog and muddy streets, not even in the backpacker quarter of Pahar Ganj. Some raised sidewalks would help, as would some Valium. Fortunately I’m accustomed to it by now. It looks like Freak Street, Kathmandu, c.1974, about the time High Times printed its first issue. Some of these old-timers look like they’ve been here since then. But the real Freak Street scene in Katmandu long ago moved to upscale Thamel. This place never changed. Hashish must be cheap.
They let me in the room early, at my hotel, but the WiFi doesn’t work. I hold my tongue this time. If you want dependable WiFi, then you go to decent hostels or backpacker digs. If you want prime location, then you go to hotels. I booked this one on Priceline. Later it starts working; fist-pump for the soul. The manager must have made a call, and paid the bill.
So with the Sat TV and morning hot water, this is not a bad $10 room, better deal than Thailand. But Thailand is cleaner, though, and by a sizable margin. At least the mall-like environs of nearby Connaught Place give some sense of a slightly modern—say 1972—India. They’ve even got espresso. I’m good. I spend most of my time in Delhi pretending to shop, and navigating the Metro.
So I show up at the nearby New Delhi train station a couple hours early, cautious fool that I am. There’s only one problem: my train for Amritsar doesn’t leave from the New Delhi station. It leaves ten miles away. For some reason I felt compelled to confirm. Something just wasn’t right; maybe it was the cat. But it was the espresso saving the day. Did you know that Delhi tuk-tuks have meters? My driver didn’t need one. He nailed it. I’ve seen veggie vendors weigh the product without using scales. They’re good.