October 28, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger
This week, for the first time since our arrival, Scott (a fellow student at the institute) and I took a trip outside of Lucknow’s (comparatively) quaint provincial cityscape to North India’s largest and most cosmopolitan metropolis – Delhi.
The planning of the trip itself was something of an adventure. Seeing as the journey was not terribly long and it was by far the cheaper option, two weeks ago we made the decision to take the train. India’s railway system may be impressive in terms of its extent and relative affordability, but it is certainly not the most convenient system from which to buy tickets. At least not if you’re looking for them anywhere close to the departure date.
I expect that some more seasoned travelers will debate me on this point. They may present some personal anecdote demonstrating that it is perfectly possible to buy train tickets in India mere hours before a train leaves. Before this happens, I would like to note that I am not saying it is impossible. Depending on the train, it may even be pretty easy. In our experience, however, it was difficult. Humorously difficult for something as simple as some train tickets.
It is normally possible to buy train tickets from several different websites, generally up to a week or so before your train leaves. For those that like to wait until the last minute, it is possible to purchase tickets two days in advance via the tat kal scheme for a small premium. In our case, however, neither option proved possible. A banner at the top of the only website offering the tat kal service announced, regretfully, that the service had temporarily been disabled. Thus, getting the tickets would mean standing (translation: shoving) in line at 8am. Classes eliminated this unpleasant option for us. When I attempted to purchase tickets for our train about a week and a half ahead of time online, I was ecstatic to find that seats appeared to be available.
“Awesome!” I thought. “We got lucky.”
I proceeded to select our seats in the 2AC section (Indian train classes should, and may one day be, the topic of an entire blog entry), entered my credit card information, address and phone number annnnnd…
This is a direct quote of the message I received: “Oooooops! That train is no longer available! Its annoying, but it happens.”
Yeah. It is.
Ibrahim, who unfortunately wound up not being able to join us for the trip, and I decided that the best thing to do would be to go directly to the Charbagh train station and try and purchase tickets directly. Charbagh is too far from our house for a pedal rickshaw to go, and auto rickshaws are a rare site on our quiet street, so getting to the station required a 15 minute pedal rickshaw ride to the main intersection at Hazrat Ganj, about 5 minutes of arguing with auto rickshaw drivers, and then another 10 minute ride to the station by auto.
Auto rickshaws, again, are deserving of an entire entry to themselves. An entire blog really. Now, though, I would just like to say one thing about them briefly that I think sheds a little light not only on rickshaw drivers themselves, but perhaps on some larger cultural differences between India and the West/US. The first few times I attempted to negotiate with a rickshaw walla, I wound up getting hosed. Its kind of inevitable when you don’t know what an appropriate rate is to begin with. After a while, though, I came up with a quintessentially American plan to turn them against one another and leave me with a cheaper fare. Step 1: I would come up with a maximum price I was willing to pay for a ride in my head. (Thanks, Getting to Yes) Step 2: I would go to a large group of drivers and present a low-ball price for my destination. Step 3: When it was immediately rejected for an astronomically high counteroffer, I would explain to the drivers that I lived here, knew better, and would again offer a more reasonable price. Step 4: The process would repeat, as haggling does, until it approached my maximum offer. Step 5: When we got close, I would turn to the other drivers and ask them who would be willing to take me for the lowest price. This way, having come to a collective understanding of what a reasonable rate would be, all I would have to do was let the market work on its own. Capitalism. America.
To my bewilderment, this went utterly nowhere. “60 rupees. Fixed rate.” A driver told me after several minutes of negotiating. “I know this is not a fixed rate,” I replied incredulously, smiling and shaking my head at the other drivers, hoping they would take the hint.
No dice. “60 rupees. Fixed rate.” they all echoed.
Now I know 60 rupees is considerably more than what an Indian would pay, so this was clearly not a matter of reaching some minimal profit margin, but even as I walked away, offering a fare to anyone who would take me where I wanted to go for 50, they all refused. Nobody caved. It was not until I reached a group who had not seen the episode unfold that I was able to get a ride at my previously-decided maximum price. Try finding a cab driver in the states that will turn down an (inflated!) fare in the name of solidarity. Good luck.
But back to the train. Upon reaching Charbagh station we spent about 20 minutes just trying to locate the ticket counter, which wound up being in another building across the street. The area labeled “ticket counter” in the actual station, for future reference, is a post office. (I later learned that “ticket” is another word for postage stamp here. Go figure.) At the front of the ticket office, a well-worn teal room with about 16 associates seated behind cloudy glass panels, was a large train schedule. Fortunately, as I am unable to read Hindi script, almost all signs in Lucknow are written in English. Unfortunately, one of the rare exceptions is the Charbagh train schedule.
What proceeded was about 2 ½ hours of line-shoving, interspersed by rushed and muffled conversations with stone-faced Indian Railway employees who would inevitably give us ¼ – ½ of the information we needed and tell us to go wait in another line to get the rest.
~15 minutes of line-shoving~
Me/Ibrahim: “What trains are running from Lucknow/New Delhi on October 24?”
Attendant 1: [types some numbers into her computer with one hand. Other hand is being used to rest her head on. Lists trains.]
Me/Ibrahim: “Ok. What seats are available?”
Attendant 1: “I don’t know. You have to go to counter 118 for that.”
~15 minutes of line-shoving~
Me/Ibrahim: “Can you tell us what seats are available for these trains going to New Delhi?”
Attendant 2: [types some information into computer] “Nothing.”
Me/Ibrahim: “What about reserved tourist tickets?”
Attendant 2: “You have to go to counter 125 for that.”
~15 minutes of line-shoving~
Me/Ibrahim: “Can you tell us if there are any tourist reserved seats on these trains to New Delhi?”
Attendant 3: “Yes. In Coach A/C.”
Me/Ibrahim: “Great! We’ll take them! What about on the return trips?”
Attendant 3: “No tourist reserved. Maybe regular.”
Me/Ibrahim: “Let me guess…”
Attendant 3: “Counter 118.”
~15 minutes of line-shoving~
Me/Ibrahim: “Can you tell us if there are any tickets available for return trips.”
Attendant 2 (again): [Types for a little while. Does not look hopeful. Things aren’t looking good. Suddenly perks up.] “Yes. In 2 A/C.”
Me/Ibrahim: “Sounds good. We’ll-”
Attendant 2: “Counter 112.”
I wish I was exaggerating when I tell you that this, in fact, continued. For a while. After purchasing our tickets we still needed to present our passports at a separate window where we were told that since Scott was not with us we would have to return with all of our passports together at a later date and that no, photos of his passport sent to Ibrahim’s phone would not work.
Here’s the kicker: when Scott and I came back to the station a few days later with all of our passports we were told that the tickets had been confirmed and that there had been no need for us to come back in the first place.
Frustrating bureaucratic tangos aside, our trip to Delhi was very enjoyable. The train ride in A/C Coach was pretty comparable to Amtrak, at least in terms of leg room. I was amazed at the amount of food we received (delivered to our seats!) over the course of the 7-hour ride, but less amazed at the considerable nausea I suffered from the next morning. I’ll spare you all the details.
I will have much more time to discuss Delhi when I move there in January, so I will only briefly touch on a few of the things Scott and I did and saw.
Our hotel was about what you would expect a 500 Rupee (about $9.25) per night Indian hotel to be. Pretty rough around the edges, but passable. No bed bugs, and I don’t have lice yet. Truth-be-told, I’ve stayed in worse places in the States. The area around it was another story. While located all-too-conveniently close to the New Delhi train station, I would advise any would-be tourists to avoid Paharganj unless they happen enjoy spending time with armies of relentless trinket-hawkers and white guys with dreadlocks.
A few notes about Delhi: The metro system is quite remarkable for any city, let alone one still very much in the process of developing as Delhi is. It is clean (that, in and of itself, is amazing), efficient, smooth, extensive, and quite cheap (when compared to metro systems in the west). A ride of an average distance will cost you around 15 rupees (about 25 cents).
The Red Fort (Lal Qila) a massive enclosed compound built to house the Mughal Emperors, while second perhaps only to the Taj Mahal in terms of touristy-ness, is nonetheless certainly worth seeing. While water is not currently flowing through its many channels and elaborate fountains, and some sections show the wear of nearly 400 years, it takes very little imagination to see why so many have described this place as a paradise on earth. Just take away the throngs of tourists, and, with its beautiful inlaid buildings strategically oriented amongst its elaborate gardens, it still very much is.
Our trip to Urdu Bazaar was also quite productive. We visited one of the best-known Urdu booksellers in the country and Scott was able to stock up on some classics. On the way there we trudged our way below the beautifully imposing Jama Masjid, built by Shah Jahan in 1656, through throngs of goats unwittingly awaiting their doom the next day on Bakr Eid.
We also paid a visit to India Gate, erected during the 30’s as a tribute to those in the British Indian Army who lost their lives during World War I and the British Afghan Wars and modeled on Paris’ Arche de Triumphe. The massive structure now serves as a memorial to all Indians who lost their lives in service of their country and includes an eternal flame as well as the Tomb of the Unknowno Soldier.
On our last evening we met up with a friend of mine that I had met this past summer in Wisconsin in Haus Khas Village, a small enclave in South Delhi filled with trendy restaurants, bars, and coffee shops catering to the city’s growing population of wealthy, style-minded 20-somethings. As we sat sipping our imported beers on the restaurant’s rooftop porch, listening to soft jazz and watching planes drifting through the night sky toward Indira Gandhi International Airport, we seemed a million miles away from the dusty, dog-filled streets and open sewers of Lucknow, from the chaotic jostle and filth of Paharganj, and from Delhi’s massive slums just a few more miles to the west and east.
From what I have observed over the past few months as well as heard and read elsewhere, it seems that this is precisely how many of the wealthy in this country live. Apart. In walled-in houses and upscale neighborhoods. They work in private office compounds, send their children to exclusive schools and socialize at country clubs and private parties. They shop at malls filled with pricey western goods, and dine at peaceful rooftop restaurants, sipping on French wine. It is, simply put, another world.
Come to think of it, maybe we have more in common than I thought.