Archive for March, 2010

Pre-dawn Delhi

Delhi, 19th March, 2010.


Having come from Abu Dhabi, with its highly polished, if dusty infrastructure, I expected stark contrast once I stepped out into New Delhi. I did not, however, expect it to be so apparent as soon as I stepped inside the airport. It was not merely shabby, old and run down, but it was also very small and poorly designed. There were insufficient toilets, which were overrun and not especially clean, and two ATM machines, of which only one was functional, and both of which were hopelessly antiquated. There was no tourist information desk and only one café. I have seen regional airports in small cities in Italy which were far superior.

India is a vast and very poor country and one must take this into account in one’s expectations. Yet, having heard of the extraordinarily rapid economic growth rate of the last ten years, the widespread and rapid swelling of the middle class, and the increased investment in infrastructure, I had expected a modern airport and not a 1970s bus-shed. That this is the only major international airport in the city which is to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games is not encouraging.

I went to the pre-paid taxi desk and ordered a taxi for New Delhi train-station. I had booked a hotel in Agra and planned to take the 0615 express train there that morning and get straight out of Delhi. It was, undoubtedly, stupid and naïve of me not to have booked a ticket in advance, yet I have never in my life booked a train ticket in advance and never been inconvenienced by not doing so.

I stepped outside. There was a great crowd of people milling about. Old men with long, full white beards, children sleeping on the floor, families sitting on bags. It was, in essence, not unlike any other airport scene, except that it was much darker, dirtier and unwelcoming. Around the car-park before me, the air was a thick and hazy orange; smog.

A man approached me immediately. “Prepaid taxi, sir?”

“Yes.” I waved  my ticket.

“This way, sir. This way.”

He asked me where I was from and I told him New Zealand. After a spate of recent attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and the ensuing anger about it in India, I decided not to disclose my true nationality unless absolutely necessary.

We talked about cricket as he led me to a taxi; I enjoyed making fun of my supposed national team. Here I met the driver, a short, bearded young man who seemed pleasant enough. Fortunately he did not ask me where I was from until I was inside the taxi and out of earshot of the other man. I decided to tell him I was Australian, as, not having slept after a long day of walking in the sun with my pack on, sitting around an airport for five hours, with a three hour flight for dessert, I was too tired to sustain a complicated lie. Again we talked about cricket. This time, the IPL. I’m a Rajasthan Royals man, whilst he supports the Mumbai team. He asked me where I was going. Did I have a train ticket? No, I told him, I did not.

I had read about many of the more common scams in India. They are, to a degree universal in poorer countries. The gem scam, where tourists are tricked into paying to carry worthless “gems” back home to be sold to an agent for a large fee, when of course, the agent does not exist, is a true classic. Most taxi drivers receive some sort of commission for bringing people to hotels or shops, so they will do everything possible to get you to a place that will pay them said commission. This is often backed up by some very brazen lies. The hotel the tourist wants to go to has burned down; there are riots; the road is blocked and there is no other route; a recent earthquake caused major damage; the hotel was closed for health reasons; it is a bad hotel, where customers have been drugged and robbed etc. They will do anything to divert you from your purpose.

The same applies for travel arrangements. If you do not have a ticket, they will ensure that you obtain the ticket or other means of transport through their preferred agent. This agent will usually pose as an official of the national tourist board or some such organization, even going so far as to have fake official-looking signs complete with appropriate acronym made and placed on the wall behind their desk. That said, they are often able to provide the service one desires, albeit it at an increased cost. It was to one such place that I was about to be taken.

The driver made a phone call, conducted in Hindi, then we continued our conversation. The road was heaving with trucks, which are only allowed to use the roads at night. They swung across our bow and stern with great noise and bustle, and we swept through them like a small fish amongst whales. All around, horns sounded and engines groaned.

I had no means of determining where I was and hence had little choice but to trust the driver. Soon we stopped in a dark street with a few lit shop entrances, and he said “come with me.”

Warily, I stepped out into the warm night. I had fallen quiet for a while and was not thinking as clearly as I ought. He had not told me where we were going, but I suspected he was going to get a friend to arrange my ticket. I rather liked the idea and figured that paying a slightly inflated price would be worth avoiding the hustle of the train station.

The driver led me into what purported to be an office of the INTB, the so-called Indian National Tourist Board. I was immediately on my guard, and determined not to be won over to something about which I was doubtful. The word “official” appeared too many times on the signage to be trustworthy. It was clearly buttressing a lie.

The gentleman behind the desk greeted me. He spoke well-educated English and seemed genuinely affable. He was clearly a northerner, and looked more Pakistani than Indian. I wanted to trust him, but could not bring myself to do so.

“You want to go to Agra?” he asked, and I told him yes, I did.

He searched online for train tickets, then, shaking his head, turned the screen towards me. What he showed me was, allegedly, the ticket availability from the official website of the India railways. The trains for Agra were booked out for the next seven days, both at 0615 and 1130. That much I could see. I looked at the web address, but was not wearing my glasses and, sadly, could not read the URL. I felt little inclined to trust him. Partly because I had been warned of just how elaborate some ruses could be, but mostly because he now attempted to steer me towards his preferred suggestion: that I hire a taxi for twelve days to travel around Rajasthan, which is where I intended to go next. It would cost around 700 hundred US, all expenses included, and be far more comfortable and flexible.

I was tempted by the offer; it struck me as quite an affordable and sensible option. Yet, I did not trust the man. I was sure he had lied to me about the trains and didn’t want him to be rewarded for being a con-man. If I could arrange such a deal with him, I could likely arrange it with someone else; someone else who had not tried to trick me into accepting it. I stood my ground through all his friendly explanations and cajoling, through his lengthy sermon on the difficulty of travelling through Rajasthan by train and bus, saying that I appreciated the suggestion, but was too tired to make a decision. My plan was simply to get to Agra, and if a train could not be had, then I would find a bus or somesuch to get me there.

I now grew tired of sitting there and wanted to be away. I changed the tone of my voice.

“Look, I want the taxi driver to take me to the train station and I will see what can be done from there.”

He tried once again to convince me that this would result in nothing, the taxi driver now chiming in to reiterate this. Again, I refused to believe them.

“I paid for a taxi to the train station and that is where I wish to be taken.”

And so, my driver now with a rather hangdog expression, reluctantly led me back to his taxi. This was not, however, the end of the scam. First he tried further to convince me to accept the deal. Then, as we drove to the station entrance, he assured me that I would not be able to get inside without a ticket, and that the ticket office was closed.

“There was a recent bomb-blast and no one is allowed near the station without a ticket.”

This sounded like precisely the sort of horse-shit I had been warned to be wary of, and told him I wanted to go anyway. He drove me to a closed gate with a big neon sign above it. It was clearly genuine, and was in fact an official body involved in train-tickets, and it was indeed closed and locked.

“See,” he said, “you can’t go inside.”

“Where is the front entrance to the train station?” I said.

“That is it, it is locked.” I did not believe him. It was clearly not the front entrance to a train station. For one, the street was deserted, and I knew from long experience of train stations the world over that there were always people around and outside them through the whole night.

“Take me to the entrance of the train station,” I insisted.

“That is it, sir. It is locked.”

Though I did not believe him, I did not know exactly how I could prove him wrong. Tiredness was catching up with me. I started to feel despair.

“So, what are you going to do?” he asked.

“Look,” I said. “I am going to Agra, and I am going to get there by my own means. If you won’t take me to the train station, then I shall go by bus. If I have to fly, I will fly. If I have to go by taxi, I will take a taxi.”

“I can drive you there, sir. I can drive you.”

He pulled away from the closed gate and began to drive, I knew not where. I did not know how to counter him. It was all very well not to trust or believe him, yet what did I know about Delhi?

We entered an open public square, and I saw a wide, marble neo-classical façade.

“What is this?” I asked. “Where are we?”

I feared I was sounding desperate, and his response held a tone of disrespect, as though I were some madman in his vehicle.

“It is the centre of Delhi, sir. Where do you want to go?”

“I want to get to Agra. How much for you to drive me?”

I had reached a new low. The tiredness was like a drug, though I did not feel sleepy. I felt edgy, anxious, fatigued, strung out.

He picked up his phone and made a call, presumably to his boss.

After some negotiation, he turned to me.

“To go to Agra will cost 5690 rupees.”

I thought for a moment, it was roughly 42 to the dollar. Should I just say yes to solve this problem and be on my way? I did not want to pay so much, but it would make life so much easier.

“No,” I said. “It is too much.”

“But, sir, it is a fair price.”

“It might be a fair price, but it is too much for me. I don’t wish to pay so much.”

“But you can afford it, sir, surely?”

“No, truth is, I can’t. I am travelling for a month or two, I will have many expenses.”

I wondered why on earth I was explaining this to him at all. He was, after all, the taxi driver I had paid to take to the train station, and he still hadn’t taken me to the damned train station! I grew angry now, flooded with a new and bitter resolve.

“Look, I don’t care. I’m not paying that much money to go to Agra. You won’t take me to the train station, so you can take me to the bus station. I don’t care, no more arguments. Take me to a bus station and I will find a bus for Agra. I know there are many.”

He groaned and protested, but he started driving.

“To the bus station!” I said. I just wanted out of his damned, infernal taxi.

“But nothing is open, sir, it is too early. You are tired. Don’t you want a hotel?”

Christ, did I ever want a hotel. But not here, not in Delhi, and not from him.

“No, no, no. How many times do I have to tell you. My plan is to go to Agra, I don’t care about anything else, I am going to Agra, and you will take me to the bus station now.”

At this, his shoulders slumped. He could see at last that I was not going to do as he wanted. I was considerably larger and more physical than he, and without back up, he had not other recourse to extract money from me. The game was up, and, thus defeated, he drove me a couple of blocks from where we were, en route, I hoped, for the bus station.

Suddenly, all about were people, lights, offices, shops, life. It was filthy – open sewers, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, cows, rubble, dung, horses, naked children, smoke from fires and hundreds and hundreds of poor, dirty people. I knew at last that I was where I needed to be.

“This is the bus station,” he said.

I opened the door as soon as the car stopped, and stepped out of the taxi.

He too stepped out.

“Here,” he said. “But you must not trust anyone. That man before, he was an honest man. You should have listened to him. Here people will lie to you. You are tired, you are not thinking.”

“I am thinking,” I said. “I am thinking many things. I am thinking I should trust no one. I am thinking I should not accept a deal from someone at five in the morning who tells me I have no other choice.”

“But you must be careful,” he said. “Many people will tell lies.”

“I know,” I laughed.

“Use your eyes,” he said. “Be careful. Use your eyes.”

Then, he seemed deeply sad of a sudden. He had not only lost a chance of commission, but had lost the chance of earning over one hundred dollars. So much for his hour and a half-long detour. He put his head down and moved back to his car, beaten. I wondered if he felt ashamed, that I was soon to discover what a liar he was.

“Goodbye then,” he said.

“Hey,” I called. “Here, I will give you something.”

I pulled out some small change and handed it to him. He might be a liar and a cheat, but either way, he was clearly quite poor and I felt sorry for him. I also felt I had won quite a complicated battle, and was inclined to generous in my moment of glory.

“Thankyou,” he said, without much conviction. I turned my back on him and walked away.

I walked alongside the sewer, past pissing men and pooing children. Faces loomed out of the dim orange smog light. To my left, on the other side of the road, stretched a row of shabby offices and shops. So nothing was open, huh! I walked between two cows, tiptoed across puddles, and came to a huge set of swinging iron gates. I felt scared, but hopeful. Perhaps I would meet an honest man here. I looked across the crowded space to the illuminated building at the back of the square. Imagine my surprise when I realised that before me was the once-grand façade of the New Delhi train station.

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