India: Road Tripping to the Taj
Cruising along the left side of the highway at 60 km an hour; windows down. Free. The hot, dusty breeze making my hair tangled and dirty. Quick swerve to avoid a water buffalo, “This is India,” our driver, K.P. explains, as if it’s possible to forget where we are. He was late picking us up; the dashboard clock is showing inconsistent times, I look to the sky, it feels liiiike, three o’clock? I’m confident we’ll make it to the Taj Mahal for sunset.
Unannounced, K.P. slowly veers toward the shoulder and I realize the engine is no longer running. Matt and K.P. look under the hood.
“What’s the problem?” I call.
“It’s overheated, but it looks like something’s leaking,” he calls back.
Someone begins shouting in rapid Hindi. I look around and spot the voice’s owner – a fat, middle-aged man standing in the median. K.P. jogs over to meet him and a mechanic is called.
Matt and I came to India with romanticized plans of traveling via rail, but after several frustrating encounters with aggressive travel agents and sold out train tickets we were talked into a car and driver. That night we read a note in our Lonely Planet’s Dangers and Annoyances section advising against such a trip. But it was too late, we consoled each other over several Kingfisher beers – it will be an experience.
We are sitting in the shade, trying not to sweat in the 102°F heat when two police officers on a motorbike materialize, emanating a comical good cop, bad cop vibe; one – a baby-faced, broad smiling young man holding a very large rifle, and the other – a more serious fellow in aviator sunglasses. They seem to be asking K.P. about us when another car appears, its passengers shouting and pointing in the other direction; both car and motorbike speed off.
“What did the cops want?” Matt eventually asks. But before he gets an answer the cops reappear, ask more questions in Hindi and then, in English, suggest Matt and I wait at the nearby hotel. My first thought is air conditioning so I promptly agree. We follow Good Cop single file and take a table at a nearby roadside café. Dirt floor. Dirtier staff. Tiny black ants swarming in and out of a little snag in the once red tablecloth. Metal-framed chairs woven with plastic tubing to make a latticework seat and back. This is not a hotel, I deduce, and there will be no AC. We sit and wait.
“Would you like chai?” Good Cop asks. We decline, opting for a cool bottle of water, but it arrives anyway, steaming from narrow glass tumblers. I like chai, but I usually order it iced from Starbucks – to be polite I take a sip. The sweet, creamy black tea offers unexpected refreshment. I finish mine before Good Cop has even begun.
“You like American music?” Good Cop asks.
“Of course,” I answer.
In an instant we are listening to Aqua’s Barbie Girl. I desperately want to announce that Aqua is actually (thankfully) European but Matt speaks before I get a chance.
“How long have you been a policeman?”
“Only 6 years.”
“How old are you?”
“26—really I want to be a singer.”
He picks up his phone again and we hear a crackling, voice pour out from the tiny speaker. I imagine the singer’s eyes are closed and his fist is beating his chest. Very Bollywood.
Then it dawns on me, “That’s you?” Good Cop nods. “Wow!” I say with forced enthusiasm. He smiles and looks pleased.
“Really good,” Matt agrees. Good Cop continues to nod.
“Matt, I sense some hesitation.”
“No, no,” Matt says, eyeing his giant gun.
More convincing isn’t necessary as Good Cop answers Bad Cop’s beckon from across the highway. There is an accident between a bus and a small car. We move from the table to check on our own small car. The mechanic moves slowly, but he had already come, gone and is back again with a new part.
Eventually Good Cop returns with something to prove, he has Bad Cop in tow,
“So Matt, do you want to listen a song?” Good Cop asks after considering the engine for a minute.
He locks eyes with Matt. He sings in passionate, unintelligible Hindi but the English chorus makes me giggle, “I can’t fly without you…” he sings as he reaches out and touches Matt’s arm. “Great,” Matt assures then looks away.
We shake hands and say goodbye, duty calls, the cops explain. A lot of engine revving and shouting later our car is finally ready to go, K.P. points and asks if we want to take a picture – the sun is setting over the highway and the sky is a brilliant orange.
About the Author: Laura Ambrey is a wife, wanderer and writer who has backpacked Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe & the Middle East and taught English in Surabaya, Indonesia and Cairo, Egypt. Her favorite carry-on is her son, Bronson. Her website is www.writingsfromabroad.com.