Yesterday, we made an absurd five-hour journey, a calculated retreat from the mass of humanity that was Delhi, in hopes of finding a slightly better environment. What we found rather was India’s penchant for bureaucracy, lies, and general inefficiency. I want to write about it because I feel like it was so typically India, but it must be noted that nothing catastrophic happened: we didn’t lose our luggage or passports, get ripped off for a large amount of money, or cry and curse at the officials. It was simply just travel in India: death by a thousand micro-aggressions.
After checking out of our hostel, we walked through the dusty halls and elevated walkways of the New Delhi Railway Station, and upon arriving at the Airport Express Link, requested two tokens for the airport. The man behind the counter asked us where we were going (Amritsar) and the name of our airline (SpiceJet, a low-budget domestic airline), and directed us to get off a stop earlier, at Delhi Aerocity, instead of the Airport station for our domestic flight. The international terminal we arrived in initially led directly into the Airport station, so when we emerged from the Delhi Aerocity stop, we were dismayed to find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, bound by empty stretches of roads on each side. Most passengers from our ride were getting on a shuttle bus for 30 rupees each ($0.50 USD), and it seemed like our only option, but we were reluctant. In India, you’re never sure if you’re being led in the correct (and cheap or free) direction or if you’re being taken for a ride. However, there were positive signs, since the cost was relatively low and other Indians were on board, so we gave in, half-expecting that we might be taken to the wrong terminal and have to get on another shuttle. Here, nothing’s simple.
Fortunately, we arrived at the correct domestic airline terminal just fifteen minutes later, and breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Too soon. People were lined up at several entries to the terminal, and gruff-looking soldiers, who were all carrying long rifles, were checking for passports as well as printouts of flight itineraries. (After some research, Steve determined that they were likely carrying the INSAS.) We’d gotten by just fine in every other country we’d visited by simply presenting our passports at the check-in counter, but India has its own ideas, as we’re finding time and time again. At the ticketing counter around the corner, we gave the agent our passports to get our itinerary, but he seemed to want to refuse our request without our PNR or reservation number, which was in our email. Steve and I looked at each other, utterly bemused, and Steve said “Seriously?” The agent muttered something, asked where we were going, and then busied himself typing into the terminal. Our minor victory was marred by the 100 rupees we had to pay for said printout, but I’m already resigned to just having to pay for every little thing here. After all that trouble, our documents received only a cursory glance from the soldier at the terminal entrance, who could barely find Steve’s Indian visa in his passport. Really stringent security standards, guys. Here, it really is just about checking off a box.
Security took the longest I’ve ever had in any airport, and we must have shown our boarding passes and passports to no fewer than five people on our way through the airport. All carry-on bags also received a tag that was stamped after it went through security, which was checked several times because, you know, you can’t switch a tag on a bag to anything else. A few airheaded women in front of me held up the screening process because they had forgotten (conveniently) to put their purses through the x-ray, and the security detail didn’t see any urgency in rushing them along. These guys could teach TSA agents how to look more apathetic. We boarded a tiny plane, a Bombadier, and touched down in Amritsar after an hour. The flight was the smoothest thing about yesterday’s journey, despite the fact that we started by simply sitting on the tarmac for half an hour.
When we left the airport, we noted a few signs for a Pre-Paid Taxi, but dismissed them and went outside immediately. The crowd had its share of enthusiastic drivers who immediately came up to us to see if we wanted a taxi, but we waved them off. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like Amritsar had an official taxi stand of sorts or a continuous flow of auto rickshaws by the arrivals entrance, so we simply stood around for a bit, perplexed by the lack of options. It set me on edge to have to stand out there, angling my neck and looking out for a taxi, trying to avoid the looks of the touts who were sizing us up, figuring out how high of a price they could set. When we finally began talking to a driver, he opened with a bid of 550 rupees per person. Having done my research, I knew it was no more than a 15-20 minute drive, and countered with 200 rupees instead. We did the dance of bargaining, which involves shaking your head, walking away, and back and forth until you come to a satisfactory price for both, but the lowest he would go was 400, which made me outrageously frustrated, just knowing it was excessively more than what it cost them to drive to and from.
Thinking of the pre-paid taxi sign in the airport, I told Steve to wait and tried to get back inside the terminal, but the guard was not having it, because of the language barrier or whatever, and kept asking me where I was going. I tried to point to the pre-paid taxi stand, which was just a hundred feet away, and insist I was not going to board a plane or do anything else, but just try to talk to them and get a taxi. Despite the fact that I looked like a completely unthreatening foreigner and the antithesis of a security risk, he refused to let me in until I figured out what he wanted was to see the boarding pass for the flight I had just taken. Which was with Steve and our bags, so swallowing my protests, I headed back the other way for the piece of paper that would prove I was harmless.
At this point, we were the only visibly foreign visitors still left from this flight. For better or for worse, one of the taxi drivers who had been tracking our progress broke and offered 300 rupees. After making sure he meant for both of us, we slung the bags in back and headed for the city with a sigh. Amritsar is a much smaller place than New Delhi, barely hours from the Pakistani border. I was only mildly surprised when we were unceremoniously left at an intersection close to the Golden Temple, Amritsar’s holy site, and told that taxis couldn’t go further. Doubtlessly this was backed up by some law, but we’ve since seen quite a few cars go through the mainly pedestrian and scooter-rickshaw populated streets.
At first, we looked at the ten minute walk in front of us with some trepidation, but after our first cycle rickshaw driver tried to convince us to go to another hotel, Steve and I turned as one and headed wordlessly down the street. He cycled along us for another two blocks, plying us with entreaties, but we were both done with it. At least we knew our feet could get us there. And so we finished our five-hour trip from Delhi and Amritsar with five different methods of transportation (subway, shuttle bus, airplane, car, and walking). It feels impossible, but we have to do this all over again on Monday when we fly back to Delhi, and then board a train on Tuesday, which I’m beginning to suspect is going to be more than we bargained for. At least we’ll have the stories!