Monday, April 28, 2008

Greetings from: Delhi Train Station

I consider myself to be relatively adaptable; given a situation, I can generally figure out how things work and adjust accordingly. When given over to the Delhi Train Station by my auto-rickshaw driver, however, for the first time, I felt completely out of my element. I’ve read that deadly stampedes occur with some regularity at Indian train stations, and now I see why. First, the crush of vehicles is almost incomprehensible; the auto-rickshaws and cars and cycle rickshaws compete for every inch of available road space, and pedestrians pick between them, deaf to horns, exhaust blowing at their ankles. Second, at the ticket counter itself, a huge mass of people, organized only roughly by lines. Women with their luggage lean against columns, unmovable. People don’t cut in line as much as they simply jut in before you, right at the ticket counter. Whoever gets his money into the ticket slot first wins. When I finally made my move, I kept my elbow firmly against the ribs of the man formerly behind me, now adjacent to me. Tickets to my destination -- Shimla -- were sold out, however. But I think that’s probably for the best, as I wasn’t able to communicate that I wanted an advance ticket for Monday. Somewhat defeated, I made my way back to the hotel. On my way, I passed a car polka-dotted with flattened cow patties, drying to be used as fuel later.

Lonely Planet says that there’s an International Tourist Bureau at the train station, but I was unable to locate it. It said that main building, but I didn’t see anything that looked anything resembling main, and I was too flustered to ask. Therein lies my traveling weakness: I believe that I can figure it out, when I probably can’t. I’ll try again later.

Round 2: I discovered the problem: there are two entrances to the train station, the east and the west. I approached from the east, which means that I was on the other side. The travel guides warn about ticket touts who’ll sidetrack you and send you to your doom, but I was surprised that I hadn’t been accosted by any earlier. Now I know why: they’re also on the west side.

As soon as I came upon the right area, helpful faces came up to me: You looking for tourist bureau? I was handed papers and pens, told to get into an auto-rickshaw and pay no more than 10 Rs. for the ride, go now or office will close! Being Asian gave me a buffer, since I could pretend that I didn’t understand English. After being diverted the first time, I re-entered the building, whereupon a man grabbed my arm and insisted that I couldn’t enter without a ticket. He instructed me to go to Connaught Place, since the tourist office had shut down because of the Metro construction. Pay no more than 10 Rs. for the rickshaw, he told me. It’s because I’m not Indian that people will try to rip me off. You don’t say.

I found the International Tourist Bureau. I can see how people get sidetracked -- the staircase to the 2nd floor is difficult to see, especially with entire families spread across the floor. The bright saris and their colorful, playful stitching are a diversion, an opening to get swindled. As it turns out, although regular seats for Shimla are likely sold out, for monied tourists, there is always availability.

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