A driver fetched us at 5:00 a.m. so we could catch our flight to Delhi. The day’s temperature was already rising. At this hour, traffic was nowhere near as hectic as on Friday afternoon. Still, the air was already thick with beeping horns and the smell of diesel. Enroute we dodged countless Indian “autos” – small open passenger vehicles with three wheels – whose drivers used neither headlights nor tail lights. Needless to say, they were a wee difficult to see in the dark. So were the pedestrians.
At the airport we navigated security and were pointed upstairs toward our departure gate. Within 20 minutes we boarded our plane and I was seated next to a sari-clad Indian woman who appeared to be several years older than me. We made small talk until I told her that I was interested in hearing about the lives of Indian women, specifically the challenges they face. That topic grabbed her interest. She immediately began telling me about her past (“I’m the only one in my family who attended university”), her arranged marriage (“compatibility doesn’t exist”) and how she has financially supported numerous extended family members. Then she told me how her husband grew jealous of her business success and began beating her. “Daily abuse is the greatest challenge Indian women face,” she said.
When she finished telling me her story, I asked her if she had a dream for her life. She smiled. “Oh yes,” she said. “I want to make a difference in the lives of other people.” I smiled in return. “I share your dream,” I said. She extended her right hand toward me and said, “We are friends. If you ever come to Hyderabad again, please visit me.”
Several hours and another flight later, we landed in Bagdogra where a pre-arranged driver met us. Then we began a four-hour Jeep journey to Gangtok, Sikkim. The road wound through tea plantations (the home of Darjeeling tea), and a wildlife sanctuary where homes stood on stilts. “This keeps people safe from elephants,” explained the driver. Eventually it began its upward climb around hairpin curves.
Higher, higher, higher we climbed until we could barely see the bottom of the ravines below. And then darkness fell. And boy, did I pray! “God, there’s no safer place than in the center of Your will. Please…keep us on the road!” We had to stop at a police checkpoint and get special permits to enter this part of India, enjoying a 10-minute respite from the bumps and turns. But a half hour later, poor Gene, physically exhausted from the travel of the past few days, got sick to his stomach.
As the drive continued, we were surprised to find electricity everywhere. Teeny lights twinkled from hillside huts and tiny bazaar shops. And when we finally reached Gangtok, a city built on a mountainside, everything was lit up. Much different from our past experience in rural Nepal, when the brightest lights outside came from fires or flashlights.
What about the cows? Are there no cows on the roads?