We’ve got a plan. Dehli is such big a city, and hardly a way to ease ourselves into India. What we’re going to do is leave Dehli as soon as we arrive. All we’ll have to do after traveling for 18 hours on three planes, including a five-hour layover somewhere near Transylvania, is get to the train station. Well, actually, we’ll have to change money, buy a train ticket, select a bus, figure out where the train station is and which track our train is on, and then we’re on our way to Bikanir and the Shri Karni Mata, the famous rat temple! That’s all we’ve got to do! No problem.
Changing money requires a judgment call. We know that the airport rates aren’t going to be the best, but we also know that there is going to be a fixed charge for each exchange, so we don’t want to have change money too often. We settle on an amount, sign a few traveler’s checks over, and receive a bundle of Rupees that’s over four inches tall and tied together with twine punched right through the center of the stack. It’s enough bills to make you feel like you’ve just robbed a bank or completed a clandestine deal with a suitcase of cash. It’s so much money that we divide up the worn bills into bulging pockets, neck pouches and even our packs. Pockets bulging, we make our way to the convenient ticket counters to get bus and train tickets. It’s nice. The airport is air-conditioned and most everyone seems to speak English. No one is bothering us with offers for taxis or hotels. It’s the calm before the storm.
Through the doors of the airport terminal, the real India awaits. “Taxi!” “Taxi!” “Taxi!” It’s hot. It’s dusty. There are people milling about everywhere, in every direction. Still, the bus to town isn’t so bad, or at least what I remember of it, because we’re both dozing off from lack of sleep. In another post, I’ll write about how a German traveler decided to ‘help’ some of the beggars who tap on the windows nearly every time the bus stops. When we arrive at the bus terminal, the usual touts gather round us, offering trips to hotels and sites and even right back to the airport. We must select a tuc tuc, the three-wheeled motorbike taxis with room for two fussy tourists or ten frugal locals. The tuc tucs are named after the “tuc tuc tuc tuc tuc tuc” sound the two-stroke motors make as they speed through the traffic. (By the way, if the seats are behind the driver, most folks call that a tuc tuc. If the seats are in front of the driver, most call that a motor-rickshaw–just so you know, because it’s not like anybody actually cares.) I’m already an “experienced” vagabond, so I’ve seen touts and tuc tucs before. I firmly select one, which means, of course, I make eye contact with one. I inquire how much it will cost to get to the train station.
“No problem, where you going?” “To the train station. How much?” “No problem, get in. Why are you taking the train, where you going?” “How much to the train station?” “No problem, 50 rupees.” So we finally get in and he starts driving, and weaving and honking his tiny little horn. He asks again where we’re going and we repeat that we’re going to the train station, which he now announces is closed! But we’ve already got tickets for today, so we can’t really see how this is possible. He says it’s a holiday. I smell a scam and demand he drop us off at the train station anyway. He drives around a few more blocks and deposits us on a sidewalk in the middle of town–somewhere.
It looks like we might be at the train station. There’s a big wall and we can’t see behind it, but there’s definitely no place to enter it. Cars, busses, cows, people are all passing by, all honking, talking, mooing. We try asking people and they point, and the tuc tuc drivers start collecting around us and offering to take us there. We’re confused and steamed now, because the last guy has obviously not brought us to the train station. Or maybe he has and we’re too bewildered to find it. We find ourselves in another tuc tuc, speeding around town, hearing the same questions we heard before, and giving the same answers we did before. After a short ride, the driver drops us off and points across the road. But across the road is obviously not a train station, it’s a private tourist office. He’s helping us across the street into the tourist office, and everyone is extremely helpful and telling us they can get us to Bikanir, no problem. The train is not running today, he explains, but no problem, they can help us.
I am not enthusiastic about this. I don’t really see why I can trust these people who won’t even take me to the train station. We listen to the pitch by one of them for just a minute, but I want to see for myself that the damn train station is closed! That’s it! I walk away and I choose another tuc tuc driver based on the promise that he will, indeed, take us to the train station. He’s been hanging out with all the other tuc tuc drivers, though, so he’s obviously in on the conspiracy and anyway he seems only to understand, or pretend effectively that he understands, but barely speaks, English. He repeats the story that the train, for which we have tickets already, is not running today, but he’ll take us there.
A few moments later, he slows down and picks up a friend, who hangs onto the outside of the tuc tuc to talk to us. Hanging on is precarious at best while careening through the streets of Dehli, but it doesn’t break his concentration. He’s well dressed and speaks much better English, and he is trying to clarify that the train station is closed anyway but, naturally, he can help us. We show him the tickets and he tells us that these tickets are no good, but he’s looking at them almost as if he’s never seen a train ticket before. I have the urge to take them from his hands and turn them right-side up for him. He insists the train station is closed, but he’s noticing that I am not happy anymore. He asks if he can take us to his tourist office. He shows us the professional and very official business card, and says this tourist office is different than the others because it’s not a private tourist office, which it is, of course. If they can’t help us, he promises, very sincerely, to bring us to the train station, except that it’s closed today.
They’re starting to win. I can feel my chin nodding slowly in affirmation and it doesn’t matter anyway, because we’re driving to a quieter part of town and I don’t see any buildings that look like they could even be the train station. Next thing, we’re sitting at a desk, and another man is extracting information about what we plan to visit in India, and punching away at his calculator and showing us numbers. He’s offering us a car and driver who will take us to all of these cities, and figuring out how much it will be per day. Our chauffeur will take us to each city on the itinerary and to all the sites we wish in each city. India is very cheap, and the numbers he’s showing us seem positively first-world. He keeps telling us there is nothing to see down in Khajaraho, but it seems more like he doesn’t like how far off-route that is. We’re both getting positively lightheaded now. Bouncing around in tuc tucs and busses hasn’t stopped since we left the airport doors, and time is running out because we’re not even going to make the train even if the station isn’t closed.
My companion finally whispers to me that we should consider his offer. It’s so much more money than we intended to spend, but in truth, if everything he’s promised is true, it’s at least fair. I am so resistant because this just isn’t the way decisions like this are made, and we already have train tickets. But I get the message that my partner has had it and he’s convincing her, and I am broken as well, so I switch from “no” to “that’s too much.” I am not sure if the man selling us on this package has noticed or not, but the prices start to come down, and the offer starts to get better. We’re deep in the haggle. He’s saying that I’m crazy and that my offer won’t even cover fuel. And I am saying I have no way of knowing who this driver is and how good the car looks and he needs to at least cover the cost of these train tickets. Back and forth; my arms are crossed, his brow is furrowed, but we both know I’ll be saying yes and handing over enough traveler’s checks to buy at least 12 inches of Rupees.
He shows us to our car–a cute, white, tourist taxi–and introduces us to a man who will be our driver, Mukeesh. We’ll see dozens of tourist taxis on the rest of our journey, each with a one, two or three tourists sitting on the hard bench seat in the back or, some, as we did, occasionally sharing the passenger seat next to the driver up front. Mukeesh is a small, gentle looking man who speaks pretty good English. It looks like he and the other drivers wait in the garage with their taxis until tourists arrive, and then they drop everything and drive away with them for two weeks at a time. He asks politely if we wouldn’t mind if he stopped home before we embark on our journey. Uh, sure? Remember, we’re drowsy, and don’t really know what’s going on. We think we’ve just hired a driver, but it’s not altogether obvious how this works. Is this guy it? When do we leave?
We get in the cab, and off he goes through narrower and narrower streets in Dehli. He starts honking his horn to urge anything smaller than him out of the way, and he jerks the wheel right and left rapidly when he is approached by anything larger. We stop on a tiny, busy, street and he asks us to wait. “This is where his gang beats us up and takes our stuff,” I whisper. After about 15 minutes, he returns with a duffel even smaller than the one we brought (and I travel light) and we start driving.
We literally ride off into the sunset. We pass a huge statue of Shiva and continue on a horrible road that has become a beautiful mosaic of reflecting pools made from rain-filled potholes, which Mukeesh deftly dodges at the breakneck speed of around 80 km/hr–about as fast as any grand prix driver would be willing to go on these roads. Mukeesh is amused that we want to go Bikanir at all, especially when we explain that we want to see the Rat Temple, where there are some 20,000 holy vermin crawling around. (Check out Vermin Brewing for more info on the rat temple) It’s pitch black when we get to town, and he brings us to a hotel which I’ve requested be “rather cheap.” Only when I crash onto my bed, completely exhausted, do I realize that it’s really only a piece of plywood with a threadbare sheet on it. Considering the squalor of the en suite bathroom, I’m actually happy that the bed isn’t made of a material in which little critters could live.
The next morning, we’re both wondering if he’ll even be there. We’ve already paid for the next two weeks; so that’s an easy scam. Bring the tourists to their first destination and they’ll be lucky to make their way back to Dehli, let alone find the shifty travel agent. In fact, Mukeesh is waiting for us in his white dress shirt, and he’s ready to bring us to our first attraction. “How was the hotel?” “Um, actually, maybe not so cheap next time.” For two weeks, he’ll bring us to hotel after hotel, city after city, and sight after sight, and drive more than 2000 miles. (He’ll honk his horn about 2 million times, and we’ll even have to stop and get it repaired when it fails during the trip. There’s nothing more sad and impotent than an Indian tourist taxi driver without his horn.) He’ll explain language and Indian culture, and he’ll run interference for us with the mobs of touts that we’ll encounter. He’s more than a chauffeur; he’s a guide, travel agent, body guard, and he ends up being a friend. Mukeesh works this job for the tip, and he earned a big one from us.
Exhausted and confused, we had completely changed our plans for India. We more than doubled how much we intended on spending, and risked being robbed or worse. We also got an inside look into a country, made a friend and had an unexpectedly easy time traveling in an amazing country. And I have enough stories from that trip alone to keep this blog going for at least another month or two! Having your own driver during a tour of India wasn’t even mentioned in guidebooks. It sounds so luxurious and, indeed, it is more expensive than taking the train, but, in spite of the sleepy circumstances under which we chose this route, I can now recommend it while wide awake.
Trusting people in a foreign environment can be frightening. During that trip, we met up with a Sikh teacher who described life (and in his case spirituality) like a river. You can swim upstream if you wish, struggling against the current and trying not to drown. Or you can go with the current, and you’ll get a lot further and gulp a lot less water. The river doesn’t care either way. India doesn’t, either.