I experienced a classic India travel adventure today, one that reflects much about the chaotic, caring, improvisational, just in time country that I love. It’s the kind of adventure that I imagine AIF Clinton Fellows experience from time to time, and one that reminded me of my early years in Bangladesh. So I thought I should write it up for the Fellowship blog, mainly for the sheer fun of reliving an experience that improbably ended well despite many twists and turns.
I had spent Friday night on a campus of a rural development organization called SEARCH that is grounded in Gandhian values located about three hours from Nagpur, on the eastern edge of the state of Maharashtra. The place was peaceful, purposeful and spartan. We had arrived late on Friday when my flight from Mumbai was delayed two hours due to “weather at destination” but after arriving no one I asked said they had seen anything other than a few clouds in the sky. Upon landing I learned from my colleague Charu Johri, AIF’s director of public health, that the early evening flight we were booked on back to Delhi the next day had been mysteriously cancelled. As a result, we had to get on an earlier flight that departed at 12:45pm. (The alternative was to wait for a flight leaving Nagpur at 11:30pm.)
Before we went to sleep Friday night, after a day of shortened but productive meetings and a field trip, there was some debate about whether we should leave at 7am or 8am. It was decided that we should leave at 8am. I did not weigh in even though I usually like to leave a lot of time for things to go wrong en route and still make my flight.
At 8am the next morning we were wrapping up a tour of the campus and my hosts and Charu wanted me to see one more sight. I was a bit wary but agreed, and we pulled out of the campus in our car around 8:10am. All seemed fine. However, about one hour into our journey, the driver pulled the car over. Did he need a bathroom break or a cup of tea? It turned out no – we had a flat tire, perhaps a victim of one of the many gnarly potholes on these roads. Charu and I waited for him to change the tire, glancing at our watches every few minutes as we chatted.
Charu wanted me to get out of the sun, but I rather liked the warmth. We compromised, taking a walk that brought us in and out of the direct sunlight. When we returned to the car our driver sheepishly admitted that the spare tire was no good. Yikes! He and Charu began making calls to try to salvage the day. Next thing I know, our driver is flagging down passing cars. The first to stop was a Hyundai. He learned from that driver that the next town was about 6 miles away. If we could get there somehow, Charu and I might get a ride to the airport. Then he flagged down a white car; quite improbably, it was a Mercedes Benz. Next thing I know, Charu and I are shoving our bags into its truck and climbing into the luxurious vehicle. I asked whether he was taking us to the next town and dropping us off. No – it turns out he was driving to Nagpur and would take us there. Wow, what good luck!
An hour later, feeling quite relieved that we were likely to make our flight, Charu began talking to the driver – a skinny young man named Nitin with enormous ears – about exactly how far he could take us. It turned out he was driving this rather new car for its owner to a workshop, in order to get new tires. The ones it came with were blowing out frequently on these rough roads. They were going to see about replacing them with something more rugged.
So Charu called the company that had supplied us our original car and arranged to have them meet us at the workshop. I briefly wondered how this all would have worked out in the days before mobile phones were widely used. Anyway, all seemed fine, assuming the workshop was more or less on the way to the airport. I decided not to ask, since Charu did not seem too stressed about it, and she is someone who tends to wear her emotions on her sleeves (one of her many endearing qualities).
Not too long after that, we all heard a familiar sound: a flat tire! Our driver was pretty efficient in changing it, but the clock was ticking. Once back on the road, he drove noticeably slower, as the spare was not a normal tire but what we in the U.S. call a doughnut. It is designed for short drives at low speeds. I understand enough Hindi to track the basics of the conversation that followed: Charu asked how far we were from the workshop and how far the workshop was from the airport. Doing the math, she realized that we were unlikely to make it in time for our flight. “Half an hour from there to the airport, oh my,” she said at one point. Charu began shaking her head and grimacing. I didn’t ask her about the odds, as I knew it would stress her even more. I heard her tell the driver plaintively that we were almost certainly going to miss our flight and would have to wait for at least 11 hours for the next one (if we could get a seat). I began breathing deeply and resigning myself to spending the day in Nagpur. More and more of my weekend was slipping away.
I thought through our options. How on earth could we insist that the driver take us to the airport? At this point he didn’t have a spare tire! If another one blew, he would be completely marooned. But he started going gradually faster, and before long I saw signs for the airport. Might he be taking pity on us? Next thing I know, we are approaching an on-ramp to a highway to the airport and it’s closed. Thinking quickly, he drove to the nearby off-ramp and went against traffic to get us onto the highway. Making the final turn from the off-ramp into oncoming traffic was a bit hairy, but a big truck stopped to let us in. That was just before a worker at the construction site almost stepped in front of us to block our way. Or was he a policeman? In all the confusion, I can’t recall for sure. He certainly did not look happy with us.
Signs begin telling us we are 8km away from the airport, then 6km, then 4. We might make it! We speed through the airport toll gate and security check. As we would learn later, the owner of the car was a former state minister, and his Mercedes was considered a VIP car. It was not so much any tag but the make and the fact that the driver knew the signals that VIP cars give to government officials to announce their presence and receive special treatment.
Finally we reached the drop off area at the airport. The time was still super tight. We got to the check in counter and it seemed that I needed to check one of my bags due to its weight. That meant that I needed to get it screened myself. (In larger airports this is not necessary.) Officially, I needed to check my bag 45 minutes before departure, and that deadline had passed. Not waiting to discuss the matter, I jogged over to get it screened. I arrived just after a family with about 10 suitcases began their screening process. I noticed that one of the family members is Caucasian but speaks excellent Hindi; his wife and children appear to be Indian.
Five minutes passed and I had my suitcase with the proper tag. I rushed back to the counter and Charu smiled – the plane was 20 minutes delayed. Only for that reason was I allowed to check my bag for this flight. If it had been on time or delayed for 10 minutes or less, we might have been out of luck. How lucky! We rushed through security with enough time to get some samosas and a soft drink. Next thing we know, we are in our seats and on our way to Delhi.