Ahem. I'm With the Group, Too.
Sunday, February 19, 2006
The folks on my India tour were hard to miss at JFK. Cardboard ovals with yellow and black logos dangled from their carry-on luggage as they embraced like old friends. As it turned out, some were old friends. Most were seventysomething and in couples. I buried my nose in my magazine and decided that Delhi would be soon enough to make their acquaintance.
Once I might have gone trekking in Ladakh or sought out a guru at a hilltop ashram. People I knew were doing those things in the '60s. But India hadn't happened for me then, and my recent attempts to lure a companion to the subcontinent's wonders had met with resistance. The Taj Mahal? A tiger reserve? The burning ghats of Varanasi? The poverty! The dirt! The diarrhea! So when the cat died and I found myself unexpectedly at liberty, I ponied up the single supplement for a "mature adults" tour that promised a leisurely pace with first-class hotels and all meals included.
"I'm with the group," I announce to some mature yellow ovals at the help desk in Delhi. Air India's conveyor belt has ripped the handles off my suitcase. Five of the group's bags, checked through from Los Angeles, are missing.
Satya introduces himself as our guide. At 11 the next morning, he calls my room and rouses me from a deep slumber. I have delayed the group's bus tour of the city! My unconscionable lapse is completely out of character, but they don't know it. To make amends, in the next 15 days I will never claim a front seat on the bus, where the view is better.
In my defense, there is not much to see in Delhi. A cold, gloomy fog has reduced visibility to practically zero. "To the left is the former house of Indira Gandhi, to the right is the soldiers' monument of India Gate." What can we do but take the fellow at his word? "And now we are stopped in the traffic by a parade." Dimly we can make out the lines of men carrying banners.
"Yes, they are agriculturalists."
"Satya, what are the, uh, agriculturists demonstrating for?"
"The entire village goes. They do not know why."
Early signs of frustration have appeared in our guide. It can't be pleasant to gesture toward important sites that are invisible. Over the bus microphone he talks about balancing the seven chakras, the body's energy centers, to eliminate discontent and tension. Satya, I discover, is a secret smoker. Off the bus, he whips around the corner to take a drag when he thinks no one's looking. I'm taking drags from a smokeless Nicorette inhaler to get through the day.
Delhi goes by in a fog for our group. The lost luggage appears. As for me, I should have believed the weather reports on northwestern India in winter and packed warm clothes in my now handle-free bag. Most of my companions are already coughing, sneezing or finding it hard to swallow. As a precaution, I'm determined to eat vegetarian at the hotel lunch and dinner buffets. Roti, rice, dal and a glutton's choice of cauliflower dishes are my daily staples. Except for the cauliflower variations, I've had better Indian food in New York; there's a limit to what any culture can do with buffet cuisine.
By Jaipur, I have memorized all the women's names and started on the men, who are less outgoing. Bill, married to Ann, has a big bandage on his forearm; on the second day of the trip he got caught in the jaws of a closing elevator. Ted, married to Joyce, is ashen-faced, the first to be felled by diarrhea. Joyce isn't looking so good either. I obsess about a minuscule cut on my index finger. The others are squirting their palms with Purell, an alcohol-based sanitizer. What will I do if my finger balloons? Why didn't I pack an antibiotic?