I don’t usually wake up at 5 am. I did on Sunday. A friend and I had decided to explore the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary in the outskirts of Delhi. I agreed because the heat has made getting out really difficult and any opportunity to go exploring is welcome. And the only way to make an outing happen in Delhi in May is to wake up at 5 am. Any later and the heat will mute your mind and body beyond all function. The third guy who was supposed to go with us was nursing a Clintonian hangover and made excuses about work meetings from behind closed bedroom doors. So, we took his car and left.
We drove with abandon on deliciously empty roads, following the Google map directions. Until we reached a blue government-installed board saying “Asola Wildlife Sanctuary” with an arrow pointing in a direction that took us away from the Google route.
“That’s a pretty decisive board,” I said to my friend and took the turn.
Very soon, another sign turned us on to a dirt road. The car was just a regular commuter piece with reasonable shocks but no real claim to off road handling.
“Serves him right for flaking out,” said my friend and we continued driving.
The scenery was standard Delhi fare. Drab shops with shutters and piles of debris along the path. A building appeared on the left. Three men stood on the roof with a water hose. They were washing an enormous shiva-lingam. It was made of black tile that had a kind of dull shine and seemed like it would get really hot in the daytime. “Ok,” I thought to myself. Interesting things are starting to happen. We stopped to ask a man who had clearly emerged from a morning ablution how we could get to the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary.
“Yahaan aisa kuch nahin hai.” (There’s no such thing here.)
He seemed groggy, not fully awake. He walked off in daze clutching his water container. There were no other people, which is rare in Delhi. Very rare. We had come out into a sort of housing complex. Most of the houses were new and unoccupied. Built in the yuppie Delhi style construction with flat roofs, sloppy foundations and protruding balconies. Some of them were half finished with the bricks still exposed. Cars were parked willy-nilly. An auto-rickshaw lay abandoned at a slanted angle, the front wheel in a pothole. Its yellow hood peeled off like some lazy person’s bed cover in the morning. There were empty lots between houses. A type of bourgeois ruin waiting to be discovered like a site in Mohenjo-daro thousands of years from now.
We took turns at random sometimes following signs that said simply “ETF.” We speculated somewhat wishfully that this meant “Entrance to Forest.” A woman was taking a morning walk along the dirt path. We rolled down our windows again and asked her how we can get to the sanctuary. She answered in fluent English and gave directions. Relieved, we thanked her and rolled up our windows. The car A/C felt really good. More ETF signs took us to a place from where we could see a gate. By the side of the road, a sikh army man in uniform was packing things in the trunk of a car along with two lackeys. We thought we’ll check one last time. We asked him where the sanctuary was. He laughed. A laugh that clearly said “idiots.” Then he said,
“Yo hi hai!” (This is it, bitches.)
His lackeys didn’t laugh. We laughed but nervously. We asked some follow up questions about the entrance to the park. The armyman told us that it is through the gate up ahead but we wouldn’t be let in because the military controls the forest. We drove into a large field that had patchwork of thorny Aravali-style bushes. I drove through them like in an obstacle course and we came up against the gate. On queue, a groggy army guy came out with another random dude in a kurta-pyjama. I saw my friend make conversation with him through the window. The man was shaking his head in the classic faux-apology that all security personnel in Delhi take unearthly relish in offering when they tell you that you effing can’t get in, now beat it.
Off in the distance, in this field, three aunties were taking a baby for a stroll.
As we drove away and back into ghost town, every few minutes we would burst into absurd peels of laughter. With some accompanying rhetoric.
“What the eff is this place?”
“What is going on?” LOL!
At some point we decided that it might be a good idea to read Google reviews.
“Never visit this place. We got looted at knife point…”
“Worst place ever…our stuffs were taken in the forest.”
It only got more interesting. We lost all the drive to actually get anywhere and switched gears into total exploratory mode. For the most part taking turns at random. At one point, we went so deep into some village, it didn’t seem like the car would ever come out. The number of locals who laughed at us was not funny. In the Bhatti Mines village, a hoard of men and women stood in the town square trying to get into packed RTV’s and small buses to go to work. Never in my entire life in Delhi, did I feel like I needed to get back to Gurgaon to go home. We finally emerged on to the highway that promised via another blue board that it will take us back to Gurgaon. The road back, we saw this guy. At least 50 years old. The fittest guy I’ve seen on the street in a while, including in the States. This guy had a thigh to calf proportion that would melt Arnie to the floor. A huge white moustache. He was wearing Hercules boy shorts and a gray t-shirt and running slowly on asphalt. Barefoot.
When it comes to being interesting, Delhi has got nothing on Haryana. You just have to know how to get lost in the right places. Which sho as hell means you don’t ever read Google reviews prior to leaving.