Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Down and Out in Delhi

Every traveler has a "worst day ever." Here's one from the Flyer's designated wanderer.

By Paul Gerald

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  One of the nice things about writing a travel column is that you get to tell people about really cool places they should go check out. But I haven’t been to any particularly cool places lately, so I’m going to dip into my bag of stories and pull out the story of the worst day I ever had on the road, October 11, 1989. It’s a day that was so painful that at the time I wasn’t even able to write about it in my journal. I do so now for the first time ever.

It all started with a hangover. I had flown into Delhi the night before, and what began as an innocent, tourist-oriented drive around town that evening for some reason turned into an ugly night of drinking, from which all I remember is being scorned in a fancy restaurant because I was dressed like a bum, suffering the flashing lights and pounding music of a dance club full of screaming teenagers, and then having to literally push two crazy-drunk Indians out of my cab. The staff at my hotel had laughed at my drunkenness, and they are probably still trying to translate the cursing I gave them in return.

It was insanely hot, even at night, so before crashing I had cranked the air conditioner up all the way. When I woke up, my mouth was so dry that my first act was to gag. In my sleep I had knocked over my water bottle, and I would no sooner drink tap water in India than play Russian roulette. My contact lenses were chemically bonded to my eyeballs. My nose was so clogged from the temperature change in the room that breathing was impossible. All this in a room that was somehow spinning both ways at once.

But all I had to do on this day was check for mail at the American Express office, send a package at the post office, and get to the airport by 4 p.m. No worries, right?

So I go out to look for a cab, and the heat hits me like a thousand hair-dryers on every part of my body. The English-language paper said the high was supposed to be 97 – on October 11, remember – but I think they were off by about 20 degrees. For the first two hours of that day I lingered on the verge of vomiting. I ducked into a cab, which was soon stuck in a traffic jam. I never gathered what had caused a traffic jam at 10:30 in the morning, but on several occasions I saw streets get clogged while one or more bulls ambled among the cars. This traffic jam was a no-mover, which was real pleasant in the million-degree heat. So I rolled down the back-seat windows.

That’s when the beggars found me. Their arms, coming through both windows, could just reach me in the middle of the back seat, so I rolled the windows back up. After five minutes of that, I was out of water again, and my head started to swell to basketball-size. Down went the windows, in came the arms. I asked my driver what would happen if I gave them something, and he said, “Oh, sir, it would be veddy bod.”

I didn’t want to know how much worse it could get, so I bailed out of the cab. I had 12 blocks to walk to the American Express office, during which time 10 people followed me. There was a guy with one eye gone, a woman with four kids, a man who had a note saying he was a refugee from Bangladesh, and a particularly persistent gentleman who was dressed like a fortune-teller and kept saying, “Ah, you are a veddy lucky mon, yes, a veddy lucky mon. Let me show you how lucky you are!”

This little crew followed me right to the door of the American Express office. Inside, I was second in line. At last – a break! I’d get my mail, tear through the crowd outside, hit the post office, and wait out the rest of the day at the airport. But the guy in front of me in line was having some sort of dispute with the guy behind the counter, and soon they were both shouting and waving their arms at each other. I went up to ask if I could just get my mail and: “NO SIR, you will WAIT with EVERYONE ELSE!” The man behind the counter was all alone back there. His argument with the man in line lasted two and a half hours.

During this time, a crowd of probably two dozen people crowded into the room, which was about the size of your typical utility closet – and also not air-conditioned. The man behind the counter spent most of the time on the phone, occasionally emerging to trade some more screaming and arm-waving with the man in line, who would occasionally turn to the rest of us and jabber wildly in a language none of us understood.

When I finally got to the counter to get my mail, two and a half miserable hours after I got there, it took less than two minutes. I had one piece of mail.

(This is part one of a two-part story.)


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