“This flight is cancelled,” the woman at the Air India counter tells me, with all the gravitas of a waiter telling a table that the restaurant is out of fresh pepper.
“What???” I start to panic. “Why?”
“Operational reasons,” she informs me vaguely.
“So… what do I do now? Is there another flight scheduled for today?”
“No, this is the only one.”
“What about tomorrow? Will the same flight run tomorrow, or will it also be cancelled?”
She shrugs nonchalantly. Air India clearly DGAF about my predicament.
“We can provide a taxi.”
“A taxi? Into town?” I assume she means into the Chandigarh city centre, which is about 30 minutes from the Chandigarh airport.
“No, to Manali,” she says.
“Oh… how long will that take?”
“About eight hours.”
I think it over. I actually enjoy long car rides, and it’s only 8:30 am now, meaning that I’d still get into Manali, my destination, around 6 pm.
“Ok, that’s fine,” I agree.
The woman points me to an Indian woman in her mid-twenties, seated about thirty feet from the counter. “She’s your co-passenger, she’ll also be going to Manali.”
I walk over to the woman. She introduces herself as Srigda. She looks annoyed and not at all in the mood for an eight-hour taxi ride. She tells me that she took the train to Chandigarh from New Delhi, an overnight ride of about six hours. She arrived around 3:30 am and took a taxi to the airport. She was told by security that the airport wasn’t yet open (!!!), so she wasn’t even allowed into the compound. The taxi left her on the lawn outside of the airport, where she had to wait until the airport opened at six.
When it was finally open, she walked a good kilometre, with all of her luggage, to get into the airport from the outside lawn. Then, she waited in the seating area by the Air India counter for another hour and a half. Finally, at 7:30 am, the counter opened for check-in. The staff, who had been sitting there the whole time and knew she was waiting for them to open up, only then informed her that the flight was cancelled. Needless to say, she was in a foul mood.
“Operational reasons!” she sneers. “I know what happened – they didn’t get enough people to book this flight, so they just cancelled it to cut down on costs!”
I feel bad for her. I have nowhere to be, but she’ll be missing out on her friend’s wedding, which is today, in Manali.
We take turns watching each other’s stuff while we get food, fill up our water bottles, and go to the bathroom.
An hour later, no taxi has arrived. Srigda is livid. She has been at the airport since 4 am and has been waiting for the arrival of this mysterious taxi since 7:30 am.
She has already gone up to the desk twice to ask where the taxi is, and each time the counter staff has told her it’ll be here “soon.”
“Can you go up and ask them?” she begs me. “Maybe they’ll be more responsive to you, since you’re foreign…”
I go up to the counter. There are about six staff members, laughing and joking around, with nothing to do since their only flight of the day was cancelled.
They all look up when I approach, seemingly surprised that I’m still here.
“When is the taxi going to arrive?”
“Soon… we’re trying to call the driver, but he’s not picking up his phone.”
“But didn’t you order it for Srigda at 7:30? It’s 9:30 now…”
“Yes, but it’s coming from Chandigarh city, and there’s a lot of traffic now…”
I head back to my seat and relay the info to Srigda.
“That’s some bullshit!” she spits furiously. “It doesn’t take that long, even with bad traffic! They probably didn’t call the taxi right away; they were trying to see if they could fill it up with three or four people before ordering it so they wouldn’t have to pay as much!”
We continue waiting. Srigda has gone up to the aimless Air India counter staff twice more. I hear a string of Hindi from her, and then, in English, she snaps, “This is the height of irresponsibility!” before storming off.
I like Srigda. She is proud and sassy, and she cusses people out with a grace and eloquence I wish I possessed.
Now it’s 10:45. I am just about to get another snack, when a man from the counter runs over to tell us the taxi is here.
Srigda packs up her things quickly. “Go and get your snacks before we go,” she orders.
“Oh, that’s okay, I know you’re in a rush! We can just stop off at a convenience store on the way.”
She smiles at me with amusement. “Ah, yes… the convenience store. Very popular in your countries…”
I’m not sure if she means Canada or Thailand, or somewhere else, when she speaks of “my countries.”
“We won’t pass a convenience store,” she informs me. “I know they’re popular in North America, but they’re not really a thing in India yet…”
I run and order some more coffee and snacks for the road, and then we head to our taxi.
The driver stares at me, but only attempts to speak to Srigda. He helps us stack our luggage in the trunk of the car, and we’re off.
About 15 minutes into the ride, he gets a phone call and speaks to the caller in Hindi. A few minutes into the call, Srigda snatches the phone from him. I hear a litany of words in Hindi, and then she screams, “POINT-TO-POINT SERVICE!” in English.
I think I get what happened, but she explains it to me anyways. “They’re trying to drop us off at the Manali airport, since that’s where we would have gone if we’d taken the plane. But I told them they had to drop us each off at our final destinations, at no extra cost, because of all the time they’ve wasted and the inconvenience they’ve caused us!”
I really like this girl.
We stop for lunch at a small roadside diner, called a dhaba. I am starving and order a full lunch set. It comes with the most delicious paneer butter masala I have ever tasted. I dig into it with the vigour of an angry bear post-hibernation.
Srigda watches me attack my plate with amusement. “The Punjabi cuisine is very good, isn’t it? This area is famous for their food.”
I offer her one of the chapatis – delicious, hot Indian flatbread – that I haven’t yet attacked. She shakes her head. “I get car sick, especially on bad roads, so I won’t eat anything until the wedding.”
“But the roads are pretty good,” I say, and it’s true. So far, the roads have been smooth and paved, with only a pothole here and there.
She smiles at my naïveté. “You’ll see…”
Sure enough, shortly after we leave the dhaba, the smooth roads with sporadic potholes give way to unpaved dirt paths, which then transform into giant potholes with a little bit of road around them. As we hit the mountains, the roads also become narrower and narrower. There is barely enough room for two vehicles to pass each other on either side, and whenever a longer vehicle – a bus or a transport truck – comes through, the vehicle on the opposite side has to slowly back up to make enough room for the larger one to pass safely.
Our driver is competent at navigating the endless switchbacks, and at overtaking and moving back for other vehicles. But I’m still terrified. To our right is a vertical rock face. Every once in awhile, I see debris – rocks of all sizes that hit the ground around us and break apart – falling down from it. Even more terrifying, on our left is a drop of at least 300 metres, with no protective guardrails in place. One wrong move, one error or lapse in judgment, and we would certainly go over the edge. There would be no survivors.
Srigda tells me that we’ll be on this road for the next few hours. She looks like she’s about to be sick.
I check for the twentieth time that my seatbelt is properly clicked in, and I try not to look out the window to my left.
Off we go…
To be continued…
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