Our journey to Delhi begins badly. Up before dawn to catch a bus leaving at 5:40 am, we arrive at the stop to see it pulling away. The timetable we consulted is for winter and the brand-new one for spring has moved the departure time to 5:20am! On the positive side, this allows us to return to the pension and have one more delicious breakfast of honeyed yoghurt, and delicious sour orange marmalade on fresh home-made bread.
We are in good time for the next bus at 9:20am, buying our tickets from the minimalist kiosk and retreating from the now-bright sun into the bare concrete waiting area behind.
Now wise in the ways of bus travel, we anticipate the arrival of our bus and are at the roadside ready to jostle with others to board the lumbering old behemoth when it pulls up. With two seats on the near side and another three across the aisle, it feels as wide as an airplane.
Away we go through the wakening town, past children in neat uniforms heading for school and donkey carts heading for market.
For most of the 7-hour journey the roads are relatively good, and we are entertained by the assortment of people boarding and leaving the bus at numerous small towns along the way.
Close to Delhi, at a toll booth, a young man leaps aboard with a bag of plastic tablecloths in cellophane wrappers, and entertains us with his spiel. First he slams a packaged cloth against the roof a few times to gain our attention.Talking all the time in Hindi, he whips it out of the cellophane and, with a couple of sharp snaps of the wrists, flicks it open to reveal a lurid floral pattern. He runs a hand over each side, scrunches it up in a ball, wrings it out, cracks it in the air again and (clearly) asks us to admire how smoothly it unfurls. When he offers an array of patterns, someone at the back goes for the flowered one, and a man up at the front opts for a map of the world in neon pink, blue and yellow. The salesman then packs up his wares and calmly seats himself for the rest of the ride into the city.
We are going to a pension near the airport and, with the help of a university student who is sitting across the aisle, manage to leap off at a median strip on the Delhi ring road while the bus heads on towards the station on the other side of town.
Hailing an auto-rickshaw, we all three pile in the back. After we drop off our friend en route, we manage to miss the turn-off to our destination. Nothing daunted, our driver turns back directly into several lanes of oncoming traffic to retrace his route. Fortunately, it's only about 50 metres back!
Chhoti Haveli is up a flight of steps in one of New Delhi's many gated complexes. Its three suites are simply but nicely furnished, with soft towels and American fixtures in the bathroom. Surinder, the owner, is a beautiful woman who has spent 20 years working in the U.S. with her husband. When they returned to India, she gave up her job as an engineer to run this B and B.
In the early evening, we set out for Dili Haat, the government-run crafts complex, where we plan to have dinner and where I want to buy a couple of pashmina shawls to take home. Though sorely tempted by a true Kasmiri pashmina made only from the throat hair of the goat, I settle for two silk and wool ones in shimmering blue and deep red.
The following morning, as we set out for the airport in a car deftly organised by our hostess, we appreciate a parting message on the rear window of the vehicle in front.
We have had a crowded, dusty, aromatic two weeks of travelling through this vigorous country inhabited by cheerful, curious, endlessly patient and courteous, beautiful people. Would we go back for more? Absolutely!