Twenty-four hours across fog-bound Uttar Pradesh

Richard Sproat

December 2004

[See here for a Czech translation by Andrey Fomin.]

Getting between Delhi and Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh, India) is rarely convenient. Allahabad is served by three flights a week, and if you are lucky enough to be coming in on a day when the flight is available, the roughly one-and-a-half hour flight from Delhi is quite pleasant. Failing that, the alternative is the train which, on a good day, takes about 10 hours. In late December in Uttar Pradesh, good days are even less guaranteed than they normally are: at that time of year, thick fog can blanket much of the area between Allahabad and Delhi. Under such conditions trains can be delayed by eight hours. This is bad if one needs to take the night train to catch a morning flight from Delhi. This was the situation several of us at the International Conference on Cognitive Science were in when we decided to forgo the train for what turned out to be a pessimal solution to a difficult problem.

We were scheduled on the 8:10PM Brahmputra Mail from Allahabad, due to arrive in Delhi at about 6:00 in the morning. A couple of us, myself included, had a flight from Delhi to Bangalore at 9:50 the next morning and while an hour or so's delay in the train would have been no problem, a delay of five or more hours would have meant missing our flight. Since there had been some fog at Delhi the night before, my colleague, who was also traveling with me was starting to get worried that the train would be significantly delayed. So he came up with another solution: we would hire a taxi to drive us the 650 km to Delhi Airport. This plan was approved by the locals, who said that it should take about 10 hours to get to Delhi by that route; the taxi drivers said 12 hours, but in any case this would be fine since leaving at 7:00PM from Allahabad, we'd arrive in Delhi at about 7:00AM, in plenty of time for our flight. So we hired the taxi, a four-wheel drive van, for an agreed-upon price of 5,000 rupees (about $115), and four of us, plus two drivers, headed off. With all of the luggage it was a bit cramped, and one of us had to sit in the fold-down seat in the back surrounded by bags.

We left the town of Allahabad at about 7:30PM and headed off into the country. By 8:30 the fog had descended and the foolishness of this exercise, and what should have in hindsight been obvious, had became apparent: if fog slows down trains, then a fortiori it slows down taxis, especially when they are traveling on poor unlighted roads, surrounded by trucks heading in both directions.

In fact, "poor" does not even begin to describe the condition of the roads. They are abysmal. The highway connecting Delhi and Allahabad is actually a major highway, and because of that they are gradually in the process of converting at least portions of it from a two-lane road into a dual carriageway with two lanes in each direction. Some portions, nearer Delhi, are already dual carriageways. Near Allahabad the work is still very much in progress. Now normally when a road is converted from two lanes into four lanes, one keeps the old two-lane highway open and builds an additional two lanes next to the original highway. Then, once the two new lanes are finished, one reconfigures the signage on the old highway to reflect the fact that both of those lanes will now be going in one direction, and opens up the new section.

As near as I could tell, this is not the way things were done here. Instead, in passing through such a construction area one follows a zigzag course, occasionally being shunted onto the new portion, then coming up against a barrier, often little more than a wall of dirt, that indicates that one should cross over to the other side. What confuses the issue further is that it is a common sight in India to see a dual carriageway full of traffic moving in each direction according to the side of the road it's on; plus a handful of vehicles that for whatever reason are moving in the opposite direction from the traffic on their side of the median. At one portion early in our journey we were moving behind a painfully slow truck on the righthand portion of the highway. Then, all of a sudden, the viability of the lefthand portion of the highway revealed itself in the form of a whole convoy of trucks going in our direction and passing to our left on the other side of the road. Thus we were on the wrong side of the highway and had to cross over.

The number of trucks passing along the roads, even into the early hours of the morning must be seen to be believed. There are trucks everywhere, clogging the road, parked in rows along the roadside, sometimes just parked in the road itself. Virtually all of them have either "blow horn" (or as one word "blowhorn") or "horn please", emblazoned across the back, along with the (to me) uninterpretable "wait for side".

For a while it seemed as if the fog was not that bad. It was patchy: the view was obscured beyond a few yards for a while, but then cleared up. The fog layer was not very deep: looking up, one could clearly see the half moon shining above. After a while, the fog seemed as if it was starting to dissipate. But this first fog turned out only to be a preliminary to the real thing. Within half an hour or so we were completely blanketed in a fog so thick that for much of the time one could not see more than about six feet in front of the car. When we were alone, we would inch forward, the driver who was not driving looking out the window to tell the driver who was driving how close he was to the edge of the road. When lines of trucks were around, things became more interesting.

Often the lines of trucks would simply stop. At one place we were stuck for about twenty minutes with trucks stopped in both directions. But stopping was often a ploy to get the column moving again. Here was the trick: nobody wanted to go first since to go first meant effectively having to blaze a trail without driving oneself off the road. So if you were in the front of a column, you would stop. At some point, some other driver in the column would become impatient, pass all the stopped vehicles and forge ahead. At this point everyone else would start their engines and follow the new leader. Our taxi drivers did this several times during the night. On at least one occasion there were no vehicles anywhere around and the fog was too thick for it to be safe to proceed. So they waited with their flashers on until a truck came along, and when it passed they started the engine and followed.

The roadside was littered with stands selling tea, snacks and other items for drivers. Our drivers stopped at these several times during the night to take tea or food. The first time was for perhaps half an hour, while we all dutifully waited in the car. All of my fellow travelers were Indian, though one of them was now a US citizen living in New York. But at least for me, it would not have been safe to eat any of the food served at these stalls: of course it was no certainty that I would have become sick, but everyone I asked had advised me strongly against it. Anyway, it was clear by now that our drivers were not overly concerned about making a deadline, but at the same time we had to allow for the fact that the drive so far had been very difficult and they surely needed a rest.

At Kanpur they took a wrong turn: it had become obvious that they really did not know the Allahabad-Delhi road very well. At another roadside stand they stopped for perhaps fifteen minutes, and returned with a worker carrying a shovel who crammed into the front seat with the two drivers, holding his shovel outside through the open window. (One of our suitcases was also up front, so it was a tight fit indeed.) The worker directed us through the town, a roughly twenty minute drive, back to the Delhi road. The drivers gave the worker some money, he alighted with his shovel, and we were off.

On a particularly foggy stretch of highway we stopped and waited for another vehicle to pass. This time, as luck would have it, it was a bus with "Kanpur-Delhi" written on the back in Devanagari script. The next few hours until daybreak were involved in staying within sight of that bus, which meant that there would be no more stops for a while.

At one of the roadside stands the drivers had purchased some packets, the contents of which they were chewing, and then occasionally spitting out the window. I had a pretty good idea of what this was. During one of these expectorations, I felt a few drops of spray land on the sleeve of my jacket. Sure enough, in the morning there was a bright red streak on the sleeve and in a couple of other places. I few drops of my own saliva and I was able to get the betel-spittle combination mostly off. (Fortunately, modern detergents were later able to remove the rest.)

At daybreak, which is to say about eleven hours from our start, we were about 300 kilometers out, or slightly less than half way. We stopped for some tea. This was safe enough, and I needed some refreshment. I also needed a toilet, and there being none, I took advantage of a tree by the side of the road.

At 8:10 we stopped to make phone calls to the airline to tell them that we would not be in Delhi for the 9:50 flight and to see if other flights were available. They were unable to confirm seat availability but said that there may be possibilities on the 4:30 or 7:40 flights. We were still about 300 kilometers away and it was not likely we'd make the 4:30, but it was just barely possible we'd make the 7:40. The village we had stopped in was little more than a row of buildings along both sides of the highway. Next to the phone stand there was a tree that evidently had some sacred significance: at one point during the wait (and we were there for about an hour), a young man came up with a small vase containing some substance, left his sandals on the side of the road and crossed the small roadside ditch barefoot to pour the contents of the jar onto the base of the tree.

I had expected the fog to lift by about 8:00 or 9:00. In fact, we were well along the way to Delhi and it was almost noon before it finally lifted completely. We stopped at another town to make a phone call to the airline: on our first call in the morning they had told us to call back later in the day to check on availability. There were no updates. At this town I had a small packet of spiced roasted mung beans, my only food for the entire trip.

At this point it was warm and sunny: we were perhaps 150 kilometers from Delhi, and the current weather, plus the fact that, according to the airline, the flights were running mostly on time led me to believe that there had been essentially no fog at Delhi the night before.

At Aligarh we got lost again and had to ask the locals. Several times, when we saw a bunch of people on the side of the road, we'd pull over and the same comic exchange would take place: the driver sitting in the passenger seat would roll down the window, beckon to one of the locals and mumble "Dilli, Dilli". The local would shake his head, indicating that he didn't hear what the driver had said, and would come a little closer. The driver would then mumble "Dilli, Dilli" again, which still would not be understood. By the third time they usually understood what he was asking and would gesture in a somewhat desultory fashion in the direction we were to go.

The drive had by now became somewhat pleasant, though this pleasantness was offset by the fact that we were all dog tired, and by the fact that the traffic did not in any way ease up, and we were repeatedly grinding almost to a halt behind a tractor, or a horse or buffalo cart. But there were picturesque scenes of buffalo by the side of the road, flocks of goats, and a rather large troupe of rhesus monkeys.

The sun was starting to get low in the sky: it was about 4:45, and we still had, by our estimation, at least two hours to go. It probably would have been possible to do the remainder of the trip in two hours -- it was less than 100 kilometers at this point -- but then we got tied up for half an hour in a horrendous traffic jam at the main intersection in Bulandshahr. Hundreds of vehicles in all four directions -- cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, three-wheeled rickshaws, motorized tricycles, bicycles, buffalo carts and horse carts -- were all trying to get through the intersection, while a policeman somewhat ineffectually directed traffic. Our driver finally showed some initiative by driving on the lefthand shoulder around a lot of traffic, and managed to nose his way near to the front of the morasse. But it was still a good fifteen minutes before we were able to move.

At about 6:00PM we got to Ghaziabad, and turned left off towards the airport. We were still not close, since we had to follow the ring road (fortunately a fairly major highway) around Delhi, and then weave our way through city traffic. At one point we asked a motorcyclist how to get to the airport: there were no signs marking where to go. He directed us, and when he said that it would take about an hour to get to the airport our hearts sank: obviously we were not going to make it for the last flight that evening. Since all was lost it hardly mattered when our driver insisted he had to stop for gas: but it was still annoying that he was unconcerned about the fact that we were running up against a deadline. Probably he did not absolutely need to fill up at this point, but was just being difficult.

We finally arrived at Delhi airport at 7:30PM, a little over twenty four hours after we left Allahabad. By some amazing stroke of luck the flight was delayed by over an hour. Initially this didn't help us much since we were told at the customer service counter that all seats were filled. That meant that the only one of the four of us who was going on the plane was the one who had, earlier in the afternoon, upgraded to a business-class seat on that flight. But then, much to Indian Airlines' credit, "no seats" turned within a matter of minutes to "here are your boarding passes". Evidently they had linked us up to the people who had been phoning them all day and must have had some seats in reserve (the plane was indeed quite full). We were on the plane to Bangalore, and the twenty-four hour nightmare was over.

In the airport we met another conference attendee who was taking the same flight, but who had got to Delhi by train. The train had indeed been delayed due to fog: it had arrived in Delhi at 2:00PM.

The bulk of this was written before I left India, which is to say before the tsunami struck in (among other places) Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and in the Indian state of Tamilnadu: the day of the tsunami was the day I flew home. I was never close to the affected regions: the closest I got was Mysore in Karnataka, several hundred kilometers from the coast of Tamilnadu. But I still find it somewhat poignant that I was in that general part of the world when the calamity happened. (It was similarly poignant that we were in Beijing on June 4, 1989.)

I hope you will give generously to aid the millions of victims of this natural disaster. There are many relief agencies that are accepting donations.

I would also encourage you to reflect on one question that this disaster should raise for all of us. Nature is perfectly capable of dealing out deadly violence: Why then do we feel the need to commit our own violence?