Sunday, December 10, 2006

Get Me to the Train on Time

“Holy shit!” I shout out loud into the depths of my blankets, the sound reaching the dark of my bedroom, waking my daughter next door. The illumined dial of my watch, even under the covers, says its five-thirty in the morning. Simple math. I can do simple math. Shocked and at five-thirty am, I can still do simple math. A six-oh-five departure time gives me thirty-five minutes to get to the train.

Five minutes later—whatever I could find thrown into a bag and clothes pulled over arms, legs, and head, with my daughter up and dressed—we wake the soundly sleeping guard to unlock the gate. He takes his time, has to put on his jacket, and can’t find his key. “Hurry!” I shout. “Hurry.”

Five more minutes takes us to a taxi stand with its drivers asleep on cots. Unintentionally, our flashing lights and honking rouses two soldiers—on nighttime duty—their automatic rifles jerking upright in our headlines. Two minutes pass as soldiers and guns try to decide if we’re friend or foe. Two minutes of waiting for the designated driver to wind his turban onto his head—God forbid he should go out with his hair showing.

“Hurry!” I shout. “Hurry.” Twelve minutes down. No. Only twenty minutes left. I’ve lost three minutes.

The driver doesn’t hurry, but he gets his car started, and we’re on our way. I barely hear my daughter calling, “Good luck.” The soldiers are on their feet now, the butts of their guns on the ground.

Why a taxi? Because our knowledge of the streets around the train station is minimal, and there’s another challenge—locating the right entrance to the station. As it is … . I punch numbers into my cell … have to do it twice. Whatever did we do without cell phones? “Here,” I hand the device to the driver. “Listen to the directions.”

He does. He can’t talk and drive, so his foot comes off the gas pedal and lands on the brake. His vehicle coughs and chokes, the engine threatening to quit. I get the cellphone back, and we pick up speed, and the taxi clangs and clatters as though detaching and dropping bits and pieces behind, leaving a trail like Hansel and Gretel. Honest to God!

But it is early and the broad streets are mostly empty streets. With five minutes to spare, we creep up to the station, the driver not sure of the entrance. Finally, he mumbles something, and the taxi groans to a halt. Taking it all on faith, I shove twice what the fare should cost at him and leap out the door.

The seat belt comes with me. My foot tangles in it, and I almost go head first into the high curb. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. The words ring in my head, as I run through the door, up a set of stairs, over a track, and down the other side. “Lucknow Express” says the sign. The train is there! Exactly as advertised. And the first class cars are right in front of me.

Now, I run faster, my bag bumping behind, leaping the irregularly placed paving blocks. Three minutes … all the time in the world. I slow. I stroll, looking for car number twelve. I begin to think about what didn’t go in my case, about what I’m wearing, about not bringing a jacket.

“I did it,” I say to my daughter a few minutes later, my case tucked into an overhead bin, my butt planted in a Pullman chair. We’re chugging east in the general direction of yesterday’s Burma where Kipling’s “sun came up like thunder over China cross the bay.” At the very least, we’ll get a red sunrise … guaranteed this time of the year.

My eyes close, and I repeat, “I did it, and with five minutes to spare.” Bed and sleep and a race across Delhi are a memory. The red sunrise is my future.


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