I landed in New Delhi after a week in China with some trepidation. Of all the countries I had been to, India had thrown up the most warnings about tricks and scams in my research, so I knew that I was going to have to be alert. Getting to my hotel should be easy – I’d arrive, get a Visa on arrival and some cash from the ATM at the airport, have plenty of time to get a metro to the central station and then either catch a tuk-tuk or else walk to my hotel. I could almost hear Reality chortling to itself.
So! Landed, no luggage to collect (carry-on only), moving with purpose through the airport. Manage to get some cash from the ATM, and see the sign pointing behind the stairs for the Visa on arrival office. Upon entering the room my jaw drops. OMG. There are no queues, just a mass of people at a counter with two very bored looking over-weight middle-aged men wandering between the counter and their desks behind, occasionally thrusting pieces of paper at the tourists with a sneer.
It takes me a second to figure out the system. You somehow get a form, fill it in and then return it with your passport, a fee and a photograph to the cheery agents who then return to their desks, make the necessary additions to your passport and then return everything to you for you to depart.
Right! So I wait behind maybe ten Asian tourists before I’m joined by a collection of Canadian and fellow New Zealand middle-aged women on some sort of organised tour. One of the Immigration officers waddles over to the counter and flips a passport at one of the Asian tourists then looks at me expectantly.
“Uh…could I get a couple of forms please” I manage before anyone realises that I wasn’t next. He asks how many I need and I say six and distribute them to the women behind me at random. I don’t bother asking about why they don’t have the forms on this side of the counter where anyone could help themselves, I’m too busy calculating in my head how slowly they’re getting through the waiting tourists who have already filled in their forms and are leaning over the counter clamouring for their attention, and whether I would be able to make the last metro trip into town.
I fill in my form quickly but clearly – I don’t want bad penmanship delaying the processing! and then look up. Some of the Asian tourists remain, and a couple of the Canadian/Kiwi women have beaten me to completing the form, so I’m still standing right at the counter but by any objective viewing of the situation I am maybe 4th or 6th “in line”.
The moustached Immigration Officer brings another passport over to one of the Asian ladies, placing it down in front of her and explaining how she needs to fill in the form again as she got something wrong. I think it was the flight number. The lady has the hysterical air of someone who has travelled overnight and is in no mood for bureaucracy but she leaves the counter with her partner to have another attempt, looking very upset.
He then nods at me and so I pass over my forms and money, looking guiltily around me but nobody raises a fuss. I realise that I am being complicit with his overt sexism and racism, and the only consolation is that I might just make the last metro because of it. I tell myself that if I didn’t have a pressing time constraint that I would have indicated for him to take one of the ladies in front of me’s forms. I don’t know how convincing I am. It’s been said that the English invented bureaucracy but it took the Indians to perfect it.
I wait and try not to be too obvious about checking my watch lest it be seen as a slight on their turn-around times. Finally I receive my passport and I escape the airport for the Metro, managing to grab the last one and heading into New Delhi on an eerily empty but very new and clean train.
I leave the metro station and look around. It’s dark. Like really dark. there is none of the typical feeling of being surrounded by high rose buildings emblazoned with neon which flood the pavements and roads with illumination – instead it’s like being in a country town where once you are away from the shops there is nothing but mystery hiding in the darkness. I’m hailed by a tuk-tuk driver who asks if I need a ride. Immediately going on the defensive, I tell him I’m fine and cross an enormous car park towards the train station.
If my research is accurate, a half hour walk beyond the train station will take me to my hotel through the centre of New Delhi. I was assuming that the centre of town would be like the cities of the West – or even like any of the Chinese cities I’d just been to – well lit, but now I realised that I really wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
The tarmac gives off an oppressive heat like it has underfloor heating and a swarm of tuk-tuks buzz around the entrance to the station. I weigh up my choices. I can’t see any sort of over pass to get over the rail lines, so to walk to my hotel I would have to head up or down the lines and find a bridge or tunnel. With the distinct lack of street lights and the general lateness of the hour, the appeal of that plan is evaporating quickly.
I find a couple of policemen and walk up to them. They pause their conversation and I ask them if there is any way over the train lines, as I want to walk to my hotel. They look at me like I’m insane and politely suggest I take a tuk-tuk, before turning away and continuing their conversation.
I look around and think they might be right, so walk up to the first tuk-tuk I see. “Le Meridien?” I ask “How much?”. He gave me a huge grin and said “20 Rupees”. The Rupee vs Pound was running about 100 to 1, so even if that was twice as much as it should have been, it was only £0.20 so I agreed and jumped into the tuk-tuk. It wasn’t even five minutes before we were pulling up outside a nondescript set of shops and my driver indicated that I should enter a “Tourism Office”. Aha! I knew this one from my research! My first scam!!
With a grin I grabbed my suitcase and entered the shop. I hadn’t paid the driver so it was obvious that he would wait at the door. I entered and was welcomed by a middle-aged man who indicated that I should sit in a very comfortable leather chair with a high back. I told him I was fine to stand and he explained that the driver had brought me here because there had been a political parade during the day and that the road may still be blocked. He would be happy to ring the hotel to find out for me.
I raised an eyebrow and smirked before asking what the political parade was, to which he answered that it was for the upcoming elections. I then asked him which part of the government he belonged to because I couldn’t see any signs of ministerial crests or anything. At this point he asked me for the phone number of my hotel and made a point of writing it down in front of himself so I could see him dialling that number.
He chatted on the phone for a few seconds and then smiled and said that there would be no problem and the roads would be clear. I nodded in agreement and lack of surprise as we headed back out to my tuk-tuk driver. The tuk-tuk driver looked up expectantly and a look of disappointment crossed it as the Tourism Office official confirmed that he was to take me to the Le Meridien.
The scams are many but basically all tuk-tuk drivers know that if they take you to your hotel they will get the fare and that’s it. If they take you to the Tourism Office, if the guy behind the desk can persuade you that there is an issue with your hotel, or the roads between here and there, then the tuk-tuk driver will get a cut of the overpriced new hotel stay.
So off we drove to the hotel, and I was amazed at the lack of street lights and the lack of high rise buildings. We must have arrived at the hotel about 1am and I paid the driver and walked into the hotel, feeling pretty good about the way I dodged the scam.
The lady behind the counter found my reservation and asked for my passport. She frowned at my Visa on Arrival and I asked what was wrong. She explained that the date on the Visa had the previous month for the ending date. I pointed out that the starting date was in the correct month so it was obviously an error. She said that I’d have to go back to the airport and get them to sort it out.
I told her I wasn’t going to do that at this time of the night because the chances were the office would be closed and anyway I was on a train first thing in the morning so it wasn’t going to be possible to fix it. She bit her lip as she thought about it for a few seconds and then decided that if they faxed through the visa after I left then it would be ok for me to stay tonight. I thanked her and went to my room to get some well deserved sleep.
I have a mid-afternoon train to Agra, so head off early to have a look around New Delhi. I start off with Jantar Mantar which is a collection of astronomical observance buildings from the 18th Century. It’s kind of fascinating how scientific observations were made in the past given what we think science is now – lab coats and microscopes, not buildings and star positions.
After exhausting Jantar Mantar, I head off to seek a bank where I can split some of my larger bills and maybe grab something to eat for breakfast. As I’m walking a young local chats with me as we happen to be walking in the same direction. I explain I’m looking for a bank to change some money and he suggests that he knows someone who sells tours and who would be happy to split my larger bills for me.
Sure, I say, lead on. It’s the middle of the day and I feel safe enough with my new friend. We head down the main road and then my new friend abruptly takes me down a side street to the right and then left, so we’re now travelling parallel with the main street.
I find this interesting but say nothing and we arrive at his friend’s shop. I expect him to hang around to get whatever “finders fee” will be coming his way but he wanders off pretty quickly. The guy in the shop is happy enough to break one of my big bills and the notes he gives me seem legit. He asks if I need transportation anywhere and I tell him, no, I’m all sorted there thanks.
So I leave and head back to the main road. As I leave the side street I realise why my friend had introduced the detour – a cluster of banks huddles together not 5 metres away. An older gentleman with a bushy white beard sits on a stool outside one of them, a very large and very old looking gun of some description resting on his lap. I’m used to security being subtle and usually not gun-related, so such an blatant show of security makes me wonder if armed crime is an issue here – in downtown New Delhi. I find a street vendor and buy a couple of bananas before heading off towards the India Gate.
India Gate is at one end of a long road called the RajPath. At the other end is the Indian Parliament. The sun is beginning to get really hot, but there is a welcome breeze which takes the edge off. I have a wander around the monument and see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the inscriptions on the India Gate. I weigh up having a look at the Parliament buildings, but time is against me and so I flag down a tuk-tuk and head back to the hotel to check out and on to the Train Station.
India will soon overtake China as being the most populous country and it feels like all 1.2 billion of them are at the New Delhi Train Station. I arrive early for my train not because I think it will be on time, but merely because I’m aware that there are scams and I need to find the correct platform. I’m glad I did because with the size of the crowd it takes a while for me to get through the security check, have my ticket checked (I bought online and printed it off) and then make my way past pilgrims, holy men, goats and assorted locals dressed in a bewildering array of clothing. I eventually negotiate my way to the correct platform and settle in for the inevitable wait.
Why the train? I asked myself that very question at various times during my trip. I happened to be telling my brother about my plans for India a few months before arriving and he mentioned that an acquaintance of his had made a trip to India and had been adamant about travelling by train in the lowest class possible to “really get a feel for how the locals live and travel”. You know the type – everything has to be “authentic” and you “have” to eat at street stalls because travel has to be about going somewhere and then living as the locals live.
I asked how that train trip had gone and he said that the acquaintance had ended up getting really bad worms and spending a month in hospital on their return. I’m travelling in the second highest class available on the train so hope that doesn’t happen to me, but the real reason for me to travel via train is that I have seen footage of trains festooned with people travelling on the roof and I guess I am curious about how the locals travel long distances.
I find a spot in the shade on the platform and settle in to wait. My train was scheduled to leave at 1pm. Initially it shows up as delayed and then an hour later the signage changes to say its expected at 3pm. As that approaches it finally switches over to 3:30pm. About 2pm I see a white couple making their way along the platform. It’s inevitable that they make their way to standing beside me and we start chatting.
They’re from Montreal and I figure that they’ve been in India a while if they feel confident enough to rock up for a train an hour after its scheduled departure time. My new friends grimace when I make that suggestion. “We got caught up in traffic and have been panicking about missing the train. We’re lucky it’s delayed, to tell the truth”. We chat some more to fill the time and eventually our train pulls in. It’s got a different number on the front of it which confuses us for a while.
So it is with some relief that I see my name on the manifest posted on the train door.
The berth is not exactly built for 193cm of westerner but I try to fold myself into as comfortable a pretzel as I can make while periodically stretching a limb to fight off cramp. My new friends are in the berths near me and the girl makes friends with the locals. It’s immediately obvious that we won’t be able to see out the windows at any station signs and there is some shared concern that us westerners won’t know when we’ve arrived at Agra.
The locals smile and say that they will let us know when we arrive at Agra that it’s three stations along – I suggest that would make it three stops from Delhi and they find that very funny. Oh there will be many more stops than that – but only three stations! It’s not a malicious laugh so I figure frequent inter-station stopping is common. Which unfortunately is true. I’m not sure if it’s because of cows on the track or roof-travellers falling off, but there are very frequent halts.
I’m very happy we are on good terms with the locals as they let us know when we get to Agra. It’s pitch black outside by that time and I can’t see anything from my seat so if I had been alone I don’t know what I would have done. I say farewell to my Montreal friends and grab a tuk-tuk to my hotel.
- Agra & the Taj Mahal
- To Ranthambor: Fatehpur Sikri
- To Ranthambor: Chand Baori
- Tiger Safari in Ranthambor National Park
- Exploring Jaipur
New Delhi is the starting and ending point of my trip. I have an overnight stay booked at the Four Points which is a hotel out near the airport. At every hotel the dates on my visa have caused concern. With the exception of the first night, I have had the excuse that to fix it I would have to return to New Delhi which is obviously not possible since I’m here.
So I check in to the Four Points not expecting any issues and make it to my room, and let out a sigh after a long week in India. Then the phone goes. It’s reception. I won’t be able to stay here because of the visa. I ask what my options are and they say if I can go to the airport now and get it fixed, then they will honour the booking, but otherwise they are liable and face a large fine if I stay.
Realising that any other hotel will face the same situation, I wearily get to my feet and head out to catch a tuk-tuk to the airport. I try not to think about how I will get into the airport the wrong way in order to get to the Visa on arrival desk. It’s about 5pm at this point.
I arrive at the airport and head towards Arrivals. I figure there’s zero chance of getting through Departures – any chance of getting to the Visa desk will be from here. There are soldiers on the doors and they stop anyone from going into the Arrivals lobby. They’re not interested in my sob story of the Visa and point over my shoulder. I look around and there is a booth selling tickets to the Arrivals hall for 100 Rupees.
Rolling my eyes heavenwards, I stomp up to the booth and buy a ticket. Entering the Arrivals lobby I find the door where all the people arriving are coming out. A security guard on the other side of the door takes an interest in me as I approach the door. I explain the situation and ask what they think I should do. They say that periodically the people from the Visa desk come out for a smoke, and that I should wait at that door over there until that happens and then have a chat with them and ask if they can fix the Visa.
I look incredulously at them and ask how I could possibly know what the Visa people look like and they give a little “not my problem” shrug. At that point another security guard appears on the outside of the door so I abandon my less than helpful officer and rock up to the new guy. Again, I explain the situation.
This time he pulls out a walkie talkie and has a chat with someone on the other end. Then he says that someone from the Visa office will come out and that could I please take a seat over there. I’m much more happy with that than waiting for an unknown person to come out for a possible smoking break so take a seat and settle in. I don’t know how long it will take, but at this stage time is my friend. I’ve seen forts, palaces, monuments and tigers – now I guess I’m seeing the essence of India – bureaucracy.
The security guard periodically comes over to let me know that someone from the Visa office is definitely on their way, which I think is just so that I don’t get it into my head that I need to go against the flow of arriving tourists like a salmon, and after twenty minutes, lo and behold a younger, slimmer Visa person comes out to the door.
I explain the situation and he says that he would need to take my passport to the Visa office so that the adjustment could be made. I like my passport. I like that it opens doors and allows me to travel and visit many countries. The thought of allowing it out of my possession in a foreign land when I would need it the following day to go home triggers no end of alarms in my brain.
I calm myself by realising that everyone looks official, there is obviously going to be video surveillance of the Arrivals Hall so provide proof of my side of the story should anything untoward happen. Reluctantly I surrender the passport and watch as it leaves into the bowels of the airport. I head back to my seat and wait maybe ten minutes before the same young man returns and presents me with my passport.
I turn to the visa page and someone has merely crossed out the incorrect month and written the correct one alongside. The visa guy has the good grace to say that the Visa officer apologises for the inconvenience caused. I smile at everyone and thank them for their help and head off to find a tuk-tuk to the hotel. On the way I notice a guy standing near the booth selling the 100 rupee tickets to the Arrival Hall and give him mine. I don’t know if that gives him an advantage for his taxi or if he can resell the ticket but he gives me a huge grin and thanks me.
I head back to the hotel and start thinking of whether I could have avoided the inconvenience. The obvious thing to do would have been to check the visa at the time I got it. But truth be told it was such an odious office all I wanted to do was to get out. And I was trying to catch the last train. So couldn’t really kick myself too much for that.
Should I have gotten it fixed the first day? Hmmm… maybe. I would have missed out on Jantar Mantar and India Gate – but I might have missed my train. How about making the change myself? Surely they wouldn’t have known? Now that would have been dangerous. See, I think they fax the visa page to some central office somewhere. If they collated all of my visa page faxes, they would have seen the change that I made and when, and then I might be doing five years in jail for doctoring official documents.
So I guess the only thing I really lost was a few hours on the last day in which I could have been relaxing – and 100 rupees plus two tuk-tuk journeys only one of which I paid for (the hotel paid to get me to the airport). I’d done my research on scams but hadn’t considered the dangers of human error.
Would I go back?
India is a hugely diverse country – more a federal collection of nations really. I have just scratched the surface with my trip to Rajastan, so would certainly go back to explore some other parts, but feel like I’d seen what I wanted to in Delhi.