When the pilot comes on the intercom to say, “We have received word that the airport is now closed,” that’s the moment you know, there’s no turning back. After three hours of cooling our jets on a snowy Boston runway, Qatar Airways flight 578 to Doha somehow miraculously took off, and with it, fifteen Dublin School adventurers bound for India. At this point, time began to scramble. Dinner took place around midnight, somewhere over the Atlantic. Our flight path made a beeline over London, Brussels, Cologne. Some of us slept, others read. Ella Rutledge was watching Thor: Ragnarok for the third time. Then Budapest, Bucharest, Istanbul. Breakfast—or was it lunch? Ella Rutledge is on her fourth straight viewing of Thor: Ragnarok: “Totally worth it,” she says. And now we’re skirting the eastern rim of the Syrian desert, over Iraq: Mosul, Urbil, Kirkuk. The displays show us how far we are from Mecca. And now we’re sliding straight down the Tigris river toward the Gulf: Amarah, Basra, Kuwait City. Just around dusk, somebody’s time, the lights of Doha appear, and the flight attendant comes on the intercom: “Welcome to Qatar, the state of art…” Once you’ve seen the 25-foot-high, 6.8 million-dollar teddy bear between Terminals A and B, you’ll know what she’s talking about.
After an uneventful flight to Delhi, most of us squeaked past the immigration agents without incident and walked out under palm trees into the thick Delhi air. Watches were reset to 3:30 a.m., ten-and-a-half hours ahead of Dublin time. Ajay, our local escort, guided us to the bus that would take us to Shamnath Villa, our guest house. Even at this early-morning witching hour, the streets were chock-a-block with trucks changing lanes unpredictably. Red lights seemed to be optional before dawn. Our bags hit the floor with a thunk, and our fifteen heads hit the pillow about a second afterwards.
Our first day in India began later that morning in the villa’s sun-soaked garden. Such warmth! Such brightness! It was as though Mr. Ames had changed out the 50-watt light bulb up there for something stronger, and we all turned our faces up to it like so many winter-weary heliotropes. Rose-ringed parakeets screeched by overhead. We had breakfast of omelets and papaya and headed out for the afternoon. A metro ride brought us to the Chandni Chowk area of Old Delhi, a maelstrom of every mode of transportation: bus, car, scooter, motor rickshaw, bicycle rickshaw, wheelbarrow, ox-cart, and pedestrian. Our intrepid rickshaw drivers plunged us into the current. “Like the first three seconds of a mountain-bike race,” said Ella, “except that every second is like that.” We were dropped off, wide-eyed, at Red Fort, home of the Indian emperors until the mid-1800’s. An elaborate system of water channels wove between palace buildings, some crumbling, some shining, some veiled with wobbly bamboo scaffolding. Our guide would gather us together by saying, “My dear friends, my very dear friends…” and would end his little lectures with a cryptic piece of encouragement: “Come, come, my friends: finally, you will be happy…”
Another heart-thudding rickshaw ride to the spice market, where we coughed our way through narrow aisles packed with nuts and raisins, dried chilis, cinnamon sticks, rose petals. There was enough chili powder in the air to set just about everyone coughing, even the vendors. We climbed up a narrow stair as the evening call to prayer sounded from a nearby Muslim mosque, and stepped out onto a rooftop from which the whole of Delhi stretched away from us. Kids flew kites from the neighboring roofs, and these mixed in with clouds of pigeons, parakeets, and black kites—not the toy, but the bird of prey, which circles the city in huge numbers all winter long. It was a wonderful place to end the day—high up above the thronged streets, from which a chorus of honks drifted up to us from all directions—less angrily than when we’d been down among them, more manageable—welcoming, even.
Tomorrow, an early-morning train ride north to Chandigarh, and from there by van to the school in Chakouri. Until then…