On a cold, foggy night in January, 1994, I arrived in New Delhi, India. I had flown all day and most of the night, and I was exhausted. But it would be several hours before I would be able to sleep. First I had to clear customs and immigration. I tried to rub the sleep from my eyes.
I found my extra-large backpack--the largest Jan Sport made--stuffed until the seams nearly split (for it would need to provide clothing and basic necessities for 4 months) rotating slowly on the baggage carousel. I made my way through the crowds of foreigners and locals-coming-home to the area where my bags would be searched. Customs was thorough. I repacked as best I could.
Time for the crazy part: Getting out of the airport. Despite the hour (3am), the cold (40 degrees) and the thick nightly mist, the exit from the airport was packed with pushing, shouting men offering their services as taxi and rickshaw drivers. I'd been warned by my professor ahead of time about this situation. "Just keep looking straight ahead," he had said. "Don't speak except to say 'no thank you,' and don't make eye contact with anyone. And hold on tight to your bags." So I did just that. I won't say it wasn't intimidating, maybe even frightening to have several dozen men try to steer you to their vehicles while shouting, "This way, Madam!" "Cheap ride from me! This way!" But my imitation of confidence must have been convincing because soon I was through the throng in once piece and heading towards my bus.
There were only half a dozen of us on the bus, including my friend and travel companion Rachelle. The driver was snoozing while he waited for the proper time to leave. Soon we were on our way. It was hard to see anything through the darkness and fog, but I caught glimpses of cement walls along the street plastered with Bollywood posters and scrawled with Hindi graffiti. A few late-night rickshaws dartied in and out of side streets. But most of the world was asleep.
We reached our hostel, the Blue Triangle YMCA, after half an hour. And despite our reconfirmed reservations, the man at the front desk seemed to have no idea that Rachelle and I were coming. He told us we would have to sort it out with the morning manager. In the meantime, he would send us to the two available beds in the hotel--those in two separate dormitory style rooms.
My room was a long rectangle, maybe 50 feet long. A row of perhaps 8 or 10 low beds flanked one wall while lockers flanked the other. At the end were a couple of sinks and a door to the toilet and shower room. The dormitory was cold. Though the curtains were drawn on some of the windows, others were bare. I could see several broken panes of glass letting in the cold, damp air.
All of the beds were filled with sleeping occupants; all but one, at the end closest to the door. It had a cushion-like mattress, no pillow, and no blankets. The porter who showed me to my room threw up his hands when I asked him for bedding. "All full" was all he would say. It was well past 4am at this point and I was just too tired to argue. So I took out a sweater from my backpack to use as a pillow and curled up on the bed to sleep.
I shivered awake for a while, too cold to sleep. I replayed the last few hours in my mind, recalling the details I had been too overwhelmed to notice--how dark all the faces had been, the lack of women at that hour, the thick smell of pollution, the strange trees, the mangy dogs roaming the roads, and men in turbans and lungis warming their hands over make-shift stoves. As I thought, occasional noises from cars or buses would make their way through the broken windows, but mostly I heard only the sounds of sleeping strangers. Eventually fatigue must have overcome me, because the next thing I knew a faint light was coming through the windows. There was movement and soft voices in the room. And I was suddenly very warm. I forced my weary eyes to blink open a few times, and I saw the sweet face of a young Japanese girl leaning over me as she placed a thick blanket on my curled up body. I think I tried to smile. But before I could squeeze out a thank you, I had relaxed into exhausted, contented sleep.
When I awoke a few hours later, it was full daytime. I got up and went to the window. The mist outside was nearly gone. Somewhere in the distance, a muezzin was calling the faithful to prayer. I turned to examine my surroundings, but the room's occupants were all gone for the day. I repacked my sweater pillow and found the day manager downstairs. Soon I was situated in the correct room two floors up with the other students from my group. We got busy exploring Delhi, visiting the temples and gurdwaras, sampling the local food, and basking in the ecstasy of dirt-cheap shopping. I never saw the group who I had shared a room with on the first night. And I never got a chance to thank the girl who took the time to cover the shivering stranger the end of the room. She is out there somewhere. And she has no idea that I still think of her with gratitude, 16 years later.
So wherever you are, Angel, thank you.