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Focus on Safety




"Time for lunch," Nagendra announced as we exit the coolness of the subway and once again feel the scorching heat on our backs. A short time later we meet his wife, Ritu, at a local restaurant.
"Do you mind if we order only vegetarian dishes?" Nagendra asks after we have been seated. As a practicing Hindu, Nagendra is a strict vegetarian. I don't mind at all and tell him so. I figure the best thing I can do at any given moment is to shut up and flow with the local culture.
Ritu smiles at me. She's one of those rare people in this world who are just: nice. "I'll tell you what you should, and shouldn't eat," she says sweetly. She catches my hesitation. "The spicyness, I mean," she says. "Some of these dishes are very hot. But perhaps you normally eat spicy food?" she wonders.I laugh and tell her I leave the spicy dishes to the real men and women of this world.
Nagendra and Ritu order, and a few minutes later our table is covered by a dozen bowls and variants of the most delicious flat bread I've been privileged to eat.
Everyone takes small amounts of the various foods and places it on on their plates. I follow suit, skipping any dish Ritu shakes her head at. "You eat like this," Ritu says, tearing off a small piece of flat bread and bending it into a shallow 'U.' She then uses the bread as pincers to collect bite fulls of the oh-so delicious food.
Lunch is over far too quickly and, as I find myself doing after every meal in India, I waddle out of the restaurant like a dieter who has fallen off the wagon.
Nagendra had said we would visit Akshardham, the world's largest Hindu temple, after lunch. Our driver picks us up and drives through heavy traffic to a huge, Disneylandish parking lot. Judging from all the children, parents and grandparents who enthusiastically walk toward the temple gates, visiting the temple must be a family affair.
I let myself flow with the human tide. People chat, gossip and laugh all around me. This feels like everyday life and anything like that on a business trip is always welcome. All the women wear the most beautiful, brightly colored saris. Fucias, lime greens, saffron yellows, bold oranges. We are a drab people in comparison.
The happily chatting crowd converges on two squat buildings which guards the entry to the temple complex. Without my being aware of it, the crowd has segregated itself along the way: men to the left, women to the right. "Security," Nagendra whispers in my ear.
The line moves relatively quickly and I soon find myself before the narrow opening to the men's security station. Two men, one standing, the other seated on the floor on a piece of cardboard he's torn from a box, comprise the inspection team.
The man before me steps forward and holds his arms out wide. The standing security agent runs his arms rapidly and expertly along the man's arms, neck and then pats him down closely, front and back. While this is taking place, the barefooted man seated on the cardboard runs his arms up and down the man's legs. My focus was on the man who was inspecting the upper half of each visitor so I didn't fully catch all that was going on below, but I had the nagging feeling--as I was motioned to step forward--that I had just missed something...important.
Upper-body man steps before me and stares aggressively into my eyes. This is a direct, bold challenge and I realize that if I was up to something nefarious then he would probably notice it in my reaction. Still staring sharply into my eyes, upper-body man runs his hands searchingly along the upper part of my body...
And then I become aware that lower-body man has been working on my legs at the same time and is now working his way...north.
His hands flow along the muscles of my thighs and then onward. I think: Surely he's going to pull up short any moment. Surely, he's not going to...
No such luck. I get the full, slow, thorough treatment. Front and back. Lower-body man doesn't just inspect--he lingers.
I'm then given permission to pass. I feel a bit offended. Lower-body man didn't take me dancing first. He didn't wine and dine me with flat bread. And he probably won't call me again either.
Nagendra and Ritu are used to this and lead me to an adjacent building where we exchange our shoes for slippers and a chit. I wondered if I am ever going to see my shoes again. I really don't want to wear slippers for the rest of the business trip.
I follow my hosts along the broad avenue leading to the temple and realize that everything...meaning, everything, is made of marble. Stairs, steps, flooring, buildings. I've never seen so much marble in my life.
The soft plastic slippers I've been given are too large and I walk along making irritating "sluff, sluff" noises which become quite annoying when we entered the peace and quiet of the temple interior.
And there, I admit it, I gawk. Never in all my travels throughout Europe have I seen such exquisite stonework. I was left slack-jawed.
Nagendra mistakes my amazement for reverential awe and enthusiastically leads me from station to station, explaining the nature and history of each of the gods represented. I don't want to appear insensitive, but there are only so many gods I can keep up with. I'm a monotheistic kind of guy. My mind starts to wander after God the Father, Jesus, and the other one. (I know, I know--that makes three).
Our tour is not judged to be over until Nagendra has led me along the outer perimeter to see the elephants, which evidently hold a special place in the Hindu religion. If I understand Nagendra correctly, elephants are a type of god, albeit not on the same level as Vishnu.
"Not as much a god as monkeys, but better than crocodiles" Nagendra patiently explains.
I learn that elephants are considered kind, cheerful and good in the same way that we consider foxes to be intelligent, yet sly. Each of the many statues we see in the garden displays a story or metaphor attesting to elephants' inherent goodness.
I know a woman who collect pigs, and another who collects beehives. If you are into elephants, this is your Mecca.
Nagendra notices the afternoon sun is beginning to get low in the sky. "We should probably finish our tour," he suggests. "We still have a three hour drive to make before we get home, and then we can have dinner."
I do a quick bit of mental addition and don't much like the result. "What time do you normally eat dinner?" I ask. "Ten o'clock," comes the reply. Nagendra pauses and then asks. "What time do you normally eat?"
"Five o'clock" I reply. The two of us laugh aloud in unison, each aghast at the thought of eating so early/so late.
"We should get going then," Nagendra says and leads us back-against the flow of the sari tide to the car. Few people are leaving as early as we are. We meet up with our driver and only a short time later we merge onto the three lane highway which is to take us to Nagendra's village.
The road is good, the lanes are wide, but for some reason our driver feels no need to drive at freeway speed. Perhaps he's just driving safely, I think. Indian roads do have a reputation as some of the most dangerous in the world.
A few minutes later I begin to understand why. The driver's cell phone rings and he stops to answer it.
Only, he stops in the middle of the freeway!
Cars slow, and then swerve past us, some of them brushing by after an exchange of surface dust and often accompanied by a blast of the horn or a dirty look.
Our driver remains blissfully unfazed and chats away happily. Nagendra and Ritu are nonplussed and wait patiently for his call to end. No explanation is offered. When his conversation ends, our driver hangs up, shifts into gear, and we creep further down the road.
Incredibly, not five minutes later he does it again! He stops. In the middle of the road.
I stiffle a curse. A perfectly good safety lane remains unused to our left as our driver puts his arm over the seat and leans back to say something to Nagendra. Nagendra doesn't like what he hears, and a volley of Hindi is exchanged back and forth. Nagendra slumps back in his seat in utter amazement. "The driver says we need to buy petrol,"
Nagendra says, throwing up his hands in frustration. "The whole time we were at the temple he could have bought it. I can't believe this."
Personally speaking, it's the parking on the freeway I'm having a hard time believing. Cars pass by, accompanied by oaths, shouts, horn blarings or gesticulations. Some drivers manage all four at the same time, none of which affects our driver in the least. It's as if they exist in another dimension. "Insects," he seems to think.
And thinking is exactly what our driver's doing, because we're still not moving. He leans his head back and again says something. Nagendra rolls his eyes at me. "He says the only gas station is many kilometers back and he doesn't know if he has enough gas to make it there, so he's going to cut across the middle of the freeway to turn around."
The freeway is indeed separated by a broad, weedy--and I might add, curbed--section of ground. When a gap in the traffic appears, our driver accelerates toward a broken section of curbing which we jostle and bump over, and then he slams on the brakes when he realizes the curbing on the far side of the median is significantly higher, presenting us with a 14-inch drop-off. We're stuck.
Everyone slowly exits the van and examines the situation. Our driver frowns, and then runs off. Is he 'legging it', as P. G. Wodehouse often terms it?
No, he's gone to get rocks! Our driver props a pile of them in front of the van, intending to use them as a ramp. Honesty compels me to say that his rockbuilding skills do not appear to have been passed down from the same ancestors who worked on the temple I saw earlier. The "ramp" looks...dodgy.
"OK, back in the van," Nagendra announces and everyone but me steps aboard. "Perhaps we should wait out here, and put less weight on the van?" I suggest rationally. This is quickly dismissed as illogical and I take my place in the van unwillingly, buckle myself in, and await the impact. Which comes.
We hit. Bounce. Bounce some more. Somehow, the ersatz stone ramp holds, and we join the flow of traffic back to Delhi.
We gas up a short time later at a chaotically busy gas station. One gets the impression it's the only one outside of Delhi. No-one lines up. Everyone tries to cut in front of each other. There are many arguments. But the attendants wash the windows, which is something we don't get back in the States any more, so I guess it's a wash.
At long last we head back to the freeway. Nagendra reaches beneath the seat in front of him and pulls out a CD case. I realize a video player has been mounted on the ceiling of the van and another in front, on the dashboard. Nagendra inserts a DVD and the film begins to play. I suppress a groan when I realize it's another Bollywood horror.
I also note that our driver realizes he can watch the movie if he cranes his neck a bit. There's a comforting thought for you.
I look out the window at the countryside rolling by. The sky glows red. Egrets along the canals have their bright white feathers turned pink by the fading light.
We are now deeper into the countryside, a distance from any village. A little girl walks alongside the road, a copper jar balanced on her head. She's gone out to get water for the evening. Her posture is perfect. In the fading light, she is the personification of grace.
She's all of eight years old.