Fed and caffeinated, the first order of the day was train tickets. We had to be in Calcutta on January 2nd at the latest for the wedding, and so far we had been unable to arrange passage of any kind. The train station was a shortish walk from the Smyle Inn, through a crowd of men, all of whom were kind enough to let us know that they were not only available, but more than willing to take us anywhere we wanted to go. Repeatedly. A security guard at the train station explained that we were at the wrong place to buy tickets and pointed out on our map the correct spot. Kindly and oh so helpful, he left his post to walk us to an auto-rickshaw, which is a green and white, three wheeled cab propelled by a lawn mower engine. At this point I begin to suspect that we may have stepped off the yellow brick road, but we thank the awol security guard and allow the driver to run us out into traffic. There really are no words to describe the 7 minute ride that followed.
Imagine if you will, that every preschooler in New York was given a bicycle, motorcycle, car or riding lawnmower and a bull horn, then pointed at the road told to go for it. If there are traffic laws, enforcing them would be akin to suppressing a medium sized popular revolt. Mel Gibson probably wouldn’t get much play here. No one would be impressed by Road Warrior.
We survive the journey. The rickshaw took us straight to what he and the six men standing around in the street assured us was the official government tourist office. The D.T.T.C.C.F.T.P.D.Q.Z.X.P. The Indians really seem to love their abbreviations. The well-dressed man behind the desk, who insisted on showing us his official, laminated government ID badge, offered to help us with any travel plans we needed to make. Unfortunately we soon learned that all the trains to everywhere were booked. Over booked in fact. So booked that only his personal driver could get us out of Delhi any time in the next half year.
For the low, low cost of 55,000 RS (about $1200 each) he can get us the moon and six pence with a night in the palace for kicks. For another 10,000 RS we can get the Taj Mahal. With a certificate. And he can book it all right now. And if we have a problem, no problem, they have offices in every city. Think now. When was the last time a government official offered to book you a seat in the men’s room, let alone trains, planes and automobiles.
I hit him up for a free map and we take a walk to consider. I’m in favor of buying the Taj Mahal but Lisa vetoes on the grounds that she’ll be the one who has to take care of it.
Say what you will about lonely planet, and by the end of the trip I will have a lot to say about accuracy in matters like price, maps and the definition of the word “oasis” but on this one they did us right. The book says the only government tourist office is the one upstairs near the train station. And at the D.T.T.C.C.F.T.P.D.Q.Z.X.P… no stairs. So we sit in the park across the street and try and figure out the map. Enter the students. All of them. Ranging in age from 7 to 72, all they want to do is practice their English and maybe show us the way to the tourist office, or maybe you want a rickshaw I have nice carpets, sari? No?
Finally, the police! In this country the man with the gun is your friend. Or at least you can rely on the fact hat he has nothing to sell… unless you’re in the market for a gently used musket, with bayonet attachment. Bayonet sold separately. From his brother.
We take our directions and walk on. Down through the highway underpass, past the police station lined with cots and sleeping cops, and up into the street. No mountaineer, no climber, no olympian crossing the finish line has ever tasted triumph like walking up those three stairs into the government office.
Inside we are greeted by a thin, effeminate man in his thirties whose voice is cracking like a Jewish kid at his Bar Mitzvah. He smiling waves us to the desk of a middle-aged woman in western dress. I pull out my map and right away I can tell she’s impressed. “Those are out of print, where did you get that? We don’t even have any.” I am Jack’s awesome travel map.
We tell her about the Taj Mahal. She reaches into her desk and pulls out a stack of papers three inches thick. “This is the list of complaints about that office that you went too. You pay them and maybe you get, maybe you don’t.” Morbid curiosity has us reading the top few complaints. I feel bad for the people who got stuck for five years in Ajmer because their train tickets weren’t valid.
So polite and so helpful. And so not any trains available. So now we’re screwed. We HAVE to be in Calcutta by January 2nd for the wedding. At this rate we’re just going to have to start walking, cause that’s the only way we’re gonna get there. She does recommend a tourism office with a solid rating and government approval. In India, if the government isn’t on your side, pack up and go home.
Incredible !ndia, the travel agent only a few steps from the government office may be our only hope. Apparently the government keeps a certain quota of tickets just for tourists. A necessary evil in a country of a billion people that relies heavily on foreign tourism. Lisa feels the guilt of the decadent, imperialist Westerner. I’m just glad I don’t have to spend 11 hours on a bus with chickens in my lap. Every other day.
We plan an ambitious trip. 9 cities in 3 weeks and our travel guide walks us through options. Incredible !ndia rule #1 - Whatever we want, it can be done. For a given value of done. We discuss. Plans are made and scrapped, routes changed.
I give up seeing my beloved erotic temples in Kajahuro. I should mention that I haven’t been there yet, but if someone took the time to carve orgiastic scenes of gods and men into massive stone temples, pretty much anywhere in the world, I am beloved of them. Sadly it’s just too far and leaves us with too little time in other places. We haggle, we debate and after an hour we have a plan. For $520 each, all our travel, drivers in every city and our hotel accommodations are arranged. He even threw in a driver for a day in Delhi. We’re ecstatic. Over the moon. All our prayers answered and problems solved. We go shopping.