Trip Journal - Delhi




Delhi -- 26 October 1998

The lights went on at 6:00, although there weren't any scheduled stops for hours. I hadn't slept very well, (I still had stopped ears and they really hurt as we climbed higher to Delhi), and it showed later. I couldn't get up because the people on the bottom (where it was still relatively dark) were still sleeping. A man came around with thermoses of tea and biscuits twice. We arrived at 10:30, only 40 minutes late. The area where we wanted to stay was just across from the station, but to get there, we had to get through all the porters, travel agents ("Where are you staying, Sir?"), the taxi drivers ("Very cheap, Sir. Where are you going?"), and all the young men on commission from the hotels. If anything, Delhi was even more overwhelming than Bombay. It's much more crowded -- it's the capital after all -- and consequently there are that many more chances to say "no", over and over and over...

The hotel commission guys were especially persistent and cunning. One guy associated with Hotel Downtown actually led us to the Hotel Silver Palace (which Graham had recommended) after we insisted ten or twelve times that that was where we were going, spoke briefly to the guy at reception, then told us it was full. It was technically true, I guess, because people weren't due to be checking out for a half hour. Our tout didn't mention that little detail. We stuck with the Silver Palace, and the guy left in a serious huff, I think after he realized that we didn't intend to tip him. we realized in retrospect that we hadn't thanked him for showing us the way though either. I can only say that we were tired and frazzled. We saw the same guy later on the street and did thank him, but still managed to anger him. Paul believes that what this guy was really looking for was some energy from us, which we'd been withholding because everyone is so in your face. we got one more chance just before we left Delhi for good and we left as friends. Lessons learned... (For some reason, I fought with the guy at the front desk about the price of the room. Again, frazzled nerves are my only excuse. I felt bad about it afterward. After all, he was charging less than half what we were paying in Bombay.)

The hotel was really wild. The hallways were all open at either end and all the rooms had windows that opened onto the hallways (barred). No hot water again, but it was still hot enough not to miss it too badly. We slept for two hours, took cold showers and then headed out into the street near our hotel called Main Bazar, which was well-named, although all the usual puns about Bizarre are also appropriate. The street is very long and narrow, packed with tourist goods, hawkers, cows eating garbage, dogs, beggars, lepers, other people, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, taxis, cars, and of course, tourists. It's insane. Paul responded to everyone who approached us, I thought he must be nuts. But even he got disillusioned, because no one really wanted to get to know us, they just wanted some of our money. (I was quite lucky, in Indian culture, men usually don't address women, especially married women, directly, so I was harassed less.) We decided later that we wanted to learn how to stay open but still be able to say "no". It was exhausting work. I was a zombie and felt like a pinball. Paul took me back to the hotel to hide out and he went back out to explore.

There was no power when I got back. I got out the flashlight in preparation for sunset, then worked on the journals for a while. I heard the generator downstairs turn off, but I still didn't have any lights. In the semi-darkness, I saw a mouse or rat, I couldn't tell which, walk into one of our open packs. The undid me. I gave a shriek and tipped over my Limca all over the floor and then had to clean it up in the dark. Later, I noticed that the rooms across the hall had power and got suspicious. I went into the hall and found the answer, a global power switch for all the lights and outlets in our room and bathroom. We're not totally sure about the whyfores of this particular arrangement, but are guessing that it's so staff can turn out lights left on by guests who have left their rooms (guests usually bring their own padlocks to lock their rooms), and also so that you can turn on the lights from the relatively light area of the hallway when you go in at night, since the light switches were invariably not placed where you expected them, in inconvenient and unlikely corners.

Two minutes after I found the power, Paul arrived, bearing popcorn in newspaper cones and Kitkats, our dinner. It was great. Earlier, Paul had met our neighbors across the hall, a Kashmiri father and son, Jean and David. Jean had been living in Switzerland recently (hence the name? -- his real name was Bashir) and was waiting for documents so that his son could accompany him this time. Jean came to our room and then invited us to his to see his "treasures" and to drink chai. Jean is a dealer of antiques and jewels and he had all kinds of things: Kashmiri jewelry, pearls, ancient coins, a ruby with a diamond set in it, and leather jackets. I don't know if he was hoping we'd buy something; we certainly don't fit his usual customer profile.

Jean was the first "normal" person we'd met in Delhi so far. And he was a Sufi Tibetan Buddhist, or something like that, but seemed to possess a deep stillness. We talked about religion a lot, Jean's writing a book about Sufism and wants to retire soon (he's 70 but doesn't look it) and devote his time to writing. I said I'd be interested in reading his book and he said he'd send me a copy, but who knows? David was very sweet and a little more hot-headed than his father in his opinions about other religions. He thought Protestantism far superior to Catholicism, but Jean soothed him and said that there were many different paths. Later Jean showed us his pictures of Kashmir, the lakes and the houseboats. It looks beautiful. He offered to let us stay with his son there. It seemed like his wife still lived in Kashmir as well. I couldn't figure out all the logistics.

This all while we were sitting cross-legged on their bed drinking chai after chai. We hadn't realized it, but each room has a bell and if you ring it, a small boy runs up the stairs to find out what you desire. They'll bring food, make you chai, go buy you cigarettes, whatever. Jean was very affectionate with the boys, very fatherly. (Affection between the same sex, especially men, is quite common, but PDAs between men and women are frowned on. Later on, in Dharamsala, we saw two soldiers holding hands outside the Dalai Lama's residence. That looked pretty strange to our Western eyes.)

Jean insisted on paying for the chais. Later, he became quite playful, telling me silly jokes, and then, he said he could show us something women could do that men couldn't, and he used me to demonstrate. He had me kneel on the bed, put my elbows at my knees and my hands out straight in front of me. He marked the point where my fingertips were, then had me put my hands behind my back and asked me to touch the spot where my fingertips had been with my nose. I didn't make it the first time, but Paul and David weren't even close. The second time, I surprised myself by quite gracefully managing it.

Delhi -- 27 October 1998

I was still feeling a little leery of the outside world, but much netter than yesterday. We thought we'd try getting breakfast at Connaught Place, where it would be a bit more expensive, but a little bit quieter and easier, or so we thought. On the walk down, past rickshaw and auto-rickshaw drivers, fruit vendors, busses packed to overflowing and with the driver's helper hanging out of the exit door beating his hand against the side to of the bus to warn the driver of hazards, mangy dogs, open air public urinals, and all the people, a travel agent latched onto us and we couldn't shake him. He was very polite, gave us his card, told us all about his business which he runs with his wife, and warned us about all the scams that hustlers run in the park, where there are ear-cleaners, massage boys, and shoe shiners who first dirty your shoes, then try to get you to pay them to clean them. I couldn't figure out why he was so low key and gentle about bringing us around to his sales pitch until he mentioned that he's also an Amway distributor. He must have had western training.

We had trouble finding a place to have breakfast, so we went to the Citibank to get some cash first. Connaught Place has pedestrian tunnels under the roads, with gates that don't seem to lift all the way up, and are filled with touts and lepers, and little girls selling maps and being overseen by men who keep yelling at the girls to hustle, flute sellers, remote control cover vendors (???) and a host of other characters. I don't know why we thought Connaught would be easier - because it's where diplomats and businessmen eat lunch I guess. The touts there are, if anything more cunning and aggressive however. A man came down the street riding an elephant, and when I took out my camera to take a photo, we were immediately besieged by several others demanding that we take their photo (in exchange for a little baksheesh of course) including a man with two monkeys on short, chain leashes and the elephant rider himself, once he got close enough. We have no idea where they came from, they just appeared the moment the camera was exposed to the open air. One second the road was clear, the next it was full of beggars and monkeys.

Finally, after 40 or 50 people had asked us where we were going, we found Don't Pass Me By, a little hole in the wall with cheap food that was recommended in the Let's Go. I had cornflakes with hot milk, which was a bit odd and Paul had Tibetan bread with Jam. Paul said he was feeling a bit tight from all the pressure of the hawkers. For some reason, I was able to "play" with the touts a bit today. I was over feeling like I had to be polite. The touts were really incredibly rude in not taking no for an answer, so I tried out some alternative tactics. After some tout had talked Paul's ear off, following us as we tried to walk away, and Paul had said "no, thank you" three or four times, I'd just turn to the tout and get right in his face and say "We've been very polite and said no, now please go away!" That shocked quite a few of them. I got loud and shrill with one of them, which worked quite well and was fun, but isn't the way you want to go on a long term basis. Some of them were very good at laying on the guilt, saying "Why are you yelling at me? I'm only trying to help." or something like that. One of the realizations for me was that, as a woman, I can and am entitled to respond emotionally if I want to, which usually makes the Indian men back right off. It's a strength, not a weakness.

We went to the G.T.O.I. for a map, and to find out where the FTO was, and then wandered around browsing in bookstores. Both Bombay and Delhi have a great selection of English-language books, both new and used. I picked up a book called Bombay Ice, by Leslie Forbes, a murder mystery set in Bombay which offered great insights into Indian culture. We walked through the park on our way to the FTO and were actually approached by a massage boy! Can you imagine letting someone on the street give you a massage, or for that matter, clean your ears?! Granted the air is extremely polluted, and your ears do get dirty rather fast, but really, isn't that something you really want to do for yourself? By the way, the Amway guy told us the ear-cleaning scam works like this: the guy offers to clean your ears for just a few rupees. You agree, so he sticks the swab in, rubs it around in your ear for a bit, then takes it out and before you see it, he gets some black gunk on it, or maybe there was already black gunk on it before he put it in your ear. Either way, you see it and you go "Oh my god, I had no idea my ears were so filthy!" and he says, "Yes, the pollution here is terrible, but I have something that will help." He sticks the swab back in and out a few times, and on the last time shows you that your ear is now clean and free of black stuff, whereupon he tells you that the "medicine" he used will only cost you a few hundred rupees. If you don't pay he makes a big scene and accuses you a stealing food from the mouths of his children and stuff like that.

We thought we'd seen it all, but little did we know we were about to walk into the best scam of all. Following the directions we got from the nice people at the government tourist office, we walked out from Connaught Place toward the train station, intending to go to the FTO (Foreign Ticket Office) to get tickets for the train to Dharamsala. Along the way, several people pleasantly asked us where we were going, and helpfully pointed us down the road in the direction we were already going. As we approached the station, which is right across the street from the sprawl of Main Bazar, one such helpful person told us that the FTO had been move from the train station to a new office across the road. He seemed quite sincere, and even offered to show us the way there, but when he turned off the main road to head into Pahar Ganj, we began to get suspicious. It seemed a bit strange, so we decided we'd rather go to the train station and have a look first. The man tried hard to tell us we were going the wrong way, but we we separated by a pack of exhaust-spewing auto-rickshaws, and then he disappeared into the crowd.

We crossed the road and started looking around for a sign indicating where the FTO was, and as we walked into the car park in front of the station, another man asked us if we needed help, and when we told him we were looking for the FTO, he told us it had been moved, but then started asking where we were going and trying to convince us that is was much better to go by bus. After struggling with him a bit and being led away from the train station again, we ditched him and headed back to our original course. As we stood right in front of the station, looking for a sign to tell us where to go, another man came up to us and politely inquired if we needed help. After he showed us an inscrutable identification card and said he worked for the train station, we warily told him we were looking for the FTO, and he told us it had been moved. We were not to be swayed so easily this time, and kept looking around us for some sort of notice, so he pointed out a sign posted outside the rail station saying in Hindi and in English that the Advanced Booking office had been moved to another location on the same road. That seemed plausible to us, but the sign was unclear on just where the new location was, so we clung to what little reliable information we had and protested to the man that the guy in the Tourist Office had just that morning told us that it was in the rail station. Our man said, well it has just been moved, because of construction, and pointed out the exposed concrete and rebar standing out on the second floor of the station. We had no answer for that, and after a few moments, he said he'd show us to the new location, but we had to hurry, because he could only take a minute. Well that got us, so we followed him back across the road and into Pahar Ganj to a little office with a sign declaring it to be the International Tourist Center Bureau. The FTO in Bombay was also called the International Tourist Center, so it seemed plausible, so we went in. When we came in, a man at the desk brusquely asked us to have a seat and wait while he helped another person. A woman was sitting waiting also, so we sat down next to her and started musing about whether we were really in the right place. The FTO in Bombay had been huge, with several people behind the counter and a long line of foreigners waiting for tickets. This place was one little cramped room with a small desk and one guy squeezed behind it with his computer. We asked the woman next to us what she thought, and she said she'd just arrived yesterday and she had no idea. The couple being helped at the little desk were just then handing over a big wad of travellers cheques along with their passports and saying "This is OK, right? Because we've had problems before." It was all starting to feel very bad. We bolted out the door and resolved to try the train station one more time, and not to be deterred even if Ghandi himself appeared and said "The office had been moved, please follow me."

We blew past a few "Where are you goings?" and got right into the heart of the station, right in front of the big departure board which shows all the trains and times and stuff. As we stood there looking around, another little Indian man approached us and asked where we were trying to go. We eyed him distrustfully and told him we were trying to find the FTO to get tickets to Dharamsala, and then sat back to see what he would do. He directed our attention to the departure board and pointed out the several trains which we could take to get there, being very helpful, and then turned back to us and said, "Just tell them which train you want, the FTO is just over there, here let me show you." When we hesitated, he pulled out a little ID badge and showed it to us, saying, "Don't worry, I work for the railway." We were quite dubious, but we decided to follow him for a bit to see where he led us, but by no means were we going to leave the station. Then he led us right up where we had been headed anyway, up the stairs and around the corner, where we saw laid out before us huge, snaking queues of Europeans waiting impatiently before at least a dozen overworked Indian clerks crouched behind a half-dozen computers, all framed within a dirty room with filthy windows and a big sign over the door saying "Foreign Ticket Office" Our hearts spilled over with joy and we cried out in unison "We're saved!" We turned around to thank the little man, but he had mysteriously vanished.

We were completely wiped out after our harrowing experience, so we decided to leave the process of actually getting the tickets for another time. We went back to our room and did some laundry in a bucket, then checked the email at a little internet and STD place and phoned the Blue Heaven guest house in Dharamsala to make a reservation. Then we headed back to the FTO, secure in the knowledge of it's precise location. We were still fuming a bit about having been lied to so expertly by our series of con-men, so as we walked up to the train station, we went slowly in hopes another would approach us so we could catch him in the lie and then give him a good talking to (or something, we hadn't really thought it out). They must be able to sense the suckers, because no one came near us.

Back up on the FTO, we ran into the Iranian guy from the train. Apparently his mother had gotten sick and he was going back to Bombay. We'd thought he'd told us he was studying in Delhi, so we didn't know what the real story was. He had also told us that he'd been a prisoner of war during the war with Iraq, and that getting to go study in India was part of the compensation package. He bought us a couple of cokes, which he insisted on paying for, and he and Paul chatted while I kept our place in line (the line for people paying in Rupees, which was much longer than the one for people paying in US Dollars or Pounds Sterling. We finally got our tickets at 4:50, and the office closed at 5:00. What they didn't mention on the sign that stated the hours was that the door gets locked at 4:30, so there were a lot of disappointed people outside when we left.

We went to the New York cafe to get some food. Jean and David were there, so we managed to make them let us stand them some chai, and we had some great spring rolls. A very strung-out French girl and her Kashmiri boyfriend came in and sat next to us. She seemed to be in the process of leaving him forever to go back to France and he seemed to be quite upset about it. Better than TV.

I was beat, so we went back up to the room and I worked on the journal while Paul went and hung out with Jean and David. Jean brought me some chai, which was very sweet (both the gesture and the chai). He never actually gave us the letter he promised that would allow us to stay with his family, but that was just as well, since I had a bad feeling about Kashmir anyway. Besides, we had just heard that Osama Bin Laden had sent a few of his boys in from Pakistan to liven things up, so we figured being an American in Kashmir might not be the healthiest way to go.

Delhi -- 28 October 1998

We had breakfast at the New York Cafe because it was too much trouble to find a new place to go. A guy sitting nearby started talking to us. At the beginning of our conversation, he was a med student visiting his brother, but by degrees, he turned into an annoying travel agent. Paul tried to be decent and accept a business card from the guy's office, but the guy started really pushing trips to Kashmir, and Paul finally said, "Look, we have a train ticket to Dharamsala tonight." The travel agent tout went cold. "Sorry to have wasted your time," he said stiffly. Yeah, I bet you're really sorry you wasted yours.

We are learning that the trick is always knowing what you want. There will be plenty of people offering, cajoling and riding right out there on the very edge of politeness to get you to change your mind. And you think, maybe they know better than I, after all they live here. But really only you can know. All you have to do is go get a Coke and sit down somewhere and be still. The more hectic it is, the more of a hurry the person "showing" you something is, the better an idea it is to go get that Coke and sit down. Then the worst thing that can happen is that two little boys will come over and hang out with you, hoping you'll give them the last sips out of your bottle. But they'll be genuine. Acrobat girls, men with monkeys on leashes, beggars, ascetics, hawkers, travel agents, one-armed girls, massage boys, shoe shiners, ear cleaners, hash offerers, money changers, and even Tibetan Sufi philosophers are all there to help you make sure you know what you want. And believe it or not, you can even have peace and quiet amid all that, if you just sit down and have a Coke.

We relaxed in the afternoon and then went to Cafe Appetite for dinner. We met two women there, from Colorado and the U.K., who'd come in because they couldn't find Hotel Downtown, where they were supposed to meet a friend. They'd just gotten into town and we gave them a rundown on all the scams. The guy behind us added his own tales. He'd had a rickshaw driver who insisted on going to the travel agent where his "friend" worked, several times, before the guy finally got him to go to the G.T.O.I. We showed the two women where our hotel was just in case they needed a place to stay for the night. (I can't imagine where all the Hotel Downtown touts were.) We went to pick up our gear. It was only 6:30 and the guy at the front desk had told us we could leave our stuff in the room until 7:00, but he had someone waiting for the room and very curtly encouraged us to vacate as soon as possible.

As we were leaving our alley, we looked back at our building and saw that there were electrical wires on fire, and no one seemed the least concerned. The power company says that 40% of its electricity is stolen off the pole, and that it has no funds to fix dangerous wires.

We walked to the train station to get a taxi to the Old Delhi train station, from which our train to Pathankot was leaving. We had decided ahead of time that the most we were willing to pay was 100 rp. Then we entered the coliseum and faced the lions. But we had an advantage this time. We were ready to have fun with this. The taxi drivers were an amazingly cohesive group. They told us 250 rp. was fair. We scoffed and turned to walk away. There was a pre-paid taxi stand nearby and I walked around to the back wall to investigate the prices, which were painted there. The drivers tried to tell me the prices were old. Yeah right. Then why did you try so hard to keep me from looking at them? One taxi driver said, "You are probably in a hurry to catch your train?" thinking he had us. I replied that we had all kinds of time, and certainly didn't need to make any hasty, expensive decisions. I offered 100 rp. again, and when we had no takers, Paul went to investigate taking an auto-rickshaw, which the wall said should cost about 40 rp. The taxi drivers really didn't like this and I knew we were almost there. Finally, the lions capitulated. They would take up for 100 rp. Paul got exact change from the pre-paid stand while I reiterated the price to make sure everyone was clear and loaded the gear.

Two other guys besides the driver got in the front seat. We were triumphant, but the victory felt a little hollow after so much energy and effort spent. The whole process had taken well over a half hour. The drive was a long one, but only because traffic was so heavy. So was the pollution. The train station had no benches again, and we sat on our packs on the floor like everyone else, except we were the only ones who could afford Cokes. A woman sat down next to us with an ankle that had once been completely broken and allowed to heal without being set at a 40 degree angle. I don't know how she can put weight on it, but she got along quite well, and ignored our furtive stares by reading the paper.

Our train, the Jammu mail, finally arrived and we climbed into our car. A monk in saffron and maroon robes was sitting cross-legged in one of the berths in our compartment. "Hi," he said, "you must be Johnna and Paul." He could have converted us to Buddhism on the spot we were so surprised. I thought it was divine intervention and a sign from God. But then we realized that he must have gotten our names off the passenger list. Still, this was no ordinary monk. During the course of conversation after we'd settled in, we found out that George was originally from Chicago, had a great sense of humor, had been a monk for 20 years, knew a heck of a lot about computers, retains (or perhaps has recaptured) a child's sense of fun and wonder, and told great stories. This time, we were the ones who stayed up long after all the other lights in the car had gone out. We were nicer about it though. When we saw everyone else was getting ready for bed, we turned off the overhead light and flipped on the reading lamps, and got out books.