New Delhi Railway Station
International Tourist Bureau, 1st Floor
India is rough. I am trying not to be such a baby about it, but I thought I could handle it, and it is harder than I thought. There’s such a fine line between feeling okay (and possibly even happy or upbeat) and finding yourself extremely angry and ready to pull a punch at the next person who tries to open their mouth in front of you. When you’re trying to find something important, India just tries to make it hard. Finding a restaurant, a train station, making change… it’s like wading through pudding, every moment.
99 times out of 100, when someone tries to address you and offer advice, they are up to no good. Occasionally, they may be telling the truth, but unless someone in uniform or behind an official counter or desk says the same thing, you shouldn’t believe it. And yet, even knowing this and having been told this twenty seven times, it can be easy to be misled and confused by signs and a group of touts all saying the same thing and working together. They will coax and point and argue and corral you like cattle in the direction they want you to move, promising, lying, and separately corroborating each other. “The ticket office is this way, ma’am. This way.” It is enraging and tiring, and I’ve never been on the receiving end of this treatment in such an intense and thorough way. Scams happen in China all the time, but I don’t get explicitly targeted, and I understand the local language. Here, we are foreigners, doubly, clearly so, with my East Asian features and Steve’s pale skin and blue eyes.
Water off a duck’s back, Steve says. We are good at losing our cool one at a time, so the other can be the voice of reason. I already know that patience, humor, and a heap of common sense is the only way to emerge sane after an extended period of time here. But it can be difficult to put into practice when both of us are a little sick and lightheaded. We may be actually wrestling with a real illness, but our bodies are probably just trying to deal with eating, drinking, and breathing India. I feel like I have a hangover, dehydrated and headachey, my head is clogged with cotton, except we didn’t have a drop to drink last night. I must remind myself actively that when we’re not tired and slightly ill, that I find this country just fascinating and the food excellent.
Thailand we found to be a perfect cultural Disney World, where everything was cultivated for the tourist, neatly outlined in English. Resorts and restaurants played English songs, top 40 and Celine Dion every evening, just like “It’s A Small World.” If Thailand was Disney World, India is like walking in the kitchen at the back of the restaurant, where everything is in mid-preparation, all noise and filth. Public urinals next to delicious-smelling kabob stands, salesmen whose only words are, “Hello, something?” or “Excuse me, ma’am, step into my shop.” Steve and I have started cultivating what we call a dumb or sad look, aimed steadily downwards and emphasized with a pout or a slack jaw, and in my case, cradling my elbows, just to avoid being pestered with offers.
I have to remind myself that India is the hardest part. It is the most challenging part we can go, and after that, everything else will be a breeze. I will be the queen of travel, the viscountess of voyages. Only after you have seen the bottom can you rise to the top. Maybe I need an Oreo, because I am feeling lightheaded. We have been here for almost two hours, waiting for our number (412) to be called. The highest number that flashes in red above us is 371. Patience. Patience.
Postscript (written back at our hostel)
In retrospect, I must thank Steve for being such a rock-solid presence and asking constructive questions when the man behind the counter started by telling us there were none available for Amritsar to Kochi, and we could only book waitlist tickets online.
I must also congratulate myself on not standing up abruptly, shoving back my chair, and yelling a certain four-letter word at the man behind the counter like the couple next to us did, when they didn’t have their passports on them (only a photocopy). In return, the man behind the counter yelled back, “No passport, no booking! Next!!” I couldn’t turn around to see the looks on the faces of the rest of the room, but the other two service people including the man helping us, had both frozen and turned their faces toward the argument. Fortunately, it didn’t escalate past that, and what’s more important, we walked away from this arduous three-hour encounter with real train tickets. We are confirmed for two tickets on the Kerala Express (#12626) from Delhi to Kochi next Tuesday, traveling in style (okay, 2nd tier AC, but it’s not bad) and seeing more of the country.
Now, maybe we’ll splurge on dinner as a reward. I’ll get an extra drink and a dessert, and maybe spend as much as 500 rupees (8 USD) for both of us! I could say I’m not trying to rub it in for everyone back in the US, but I’d be lying: travel this hard has to have some perks!
Next stop, Amritsar!