“Russia? America? France? Germany? …England? Hello?”
Shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers make a habit of blurting out random country names to passing tourists down Paharganj, New Delhi. I am rarely perceived as English here, a mistake which locals and tourists both make. It hardly matters. No amount of celtic blood or fair skin will change these initial misconceptions.
Outside New Delhi train station, the porter looks at me blankly. Despite booking a train 2 months before leaving, I am still ‘Wait Listed 3’ and under no circumstances can board tomorrow. I am stuck in a rickshaw and directed to the nearest international tourist bureau. “Go to the second floor” the driver shouts out, after depositing me in front of a small travel agent. A smiley assistant somehow clocks my “first time in India” persona and blocks the stairway. Dismissing my protestations with the excuse that they are having lunch upstairs, he tells me I can only speak with the agent on the ground floor. There seems to be little much choice in the matter.
“Ah Germany, sit down.” An equally smiley but rounder business man props himself up on his desk and shakes my hand. I hand him my ticket and explain. “From England!” he chimes, “Where?”
“First time in India?”
I have been told the worst thing you can tell a local is that it is your first time in their country. Still smiling, he tells me what I already know- “this ticket- not valid.”
“I booked this train two months ago, how is that possible?”
“My friend, you book under general quota, but you tourist. Your have foreign name. You should book under foreign quota”.
“There was no quota on the website.”
“That’s why you don’t book in advance!”
“But don’t they sell out otherwise?”
“So you do have to book in advance?”
“Well, how do I get a ticket then?”
His smile fades. He picks up my ticket and analyses it again for a few more minutes before shoving it aside. “Forget this train. They refund you automatically. We find other way.”
“Are there seats available on any train to Pathankot tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?!” He pauses in disbelief. “No, no, not tomorrow.”
“I have a Yoga course in Dharamsala”
“They will wait,” he beams.
“It starts on Sunday?”
“Few days, they will wait.”
“No they won’t wait. It’s already organised. We’re a big group.”
“Why you have to do that course?”
“Look, I just have to be there on Sunday. OK?”
Slowly, he rolls his chair to face the computer. A look of dread flickers across his face. Trailing the mouse around on the mat like a child who has been dared to move a gearstick on a dormant vehicle, he attempts to navigate the train booking website. Half an hour later he reaches the same conclusion- “not possible”.
That leaves road transport.
“You still lucky though” explains the once again smiley agent after a brief phone call, “We have seats for private car, only 15,000 rupees”
“Oh. How much is that in pounds?
He fiddles with a calculator. “Only £150”
“WHAT? My train ticket cost £8!”
Seeing my horror he changes his pitch, offering a 4,500 rupee (£45) bus ticket with hotel. When this is unsuccessful, be begins exacerbating online news images of crowds protesting in the streets of Delhi, suggesting that the whole city is in post-election turmoil and I am in grave danger. But it is too late, the shifty agency has now lowered itself beyond repair with these scheming fear tactics. Promptly walking out, I locate another tourist bureau (also government approved) and manage to get a bus for £16.
Despite the lack of bins and intrusive community of hagglers, there is a certain charm to Paharganj’s madness. Not everyone is out to con a traveller. There are plenty of trustworthy locals that are keen to guide you around the area and refuse to accept your money, even if you try. An enthusiastic chap who works at a tea plantation, takes me to see the nearby Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, (a Hindu temple, very close to Gole Market in New Delhi). It is a little awkward when I go for a blessing and quickly realise I have no coins for a donation (though he did not seem to think it mattered.) I buy us a couple of bananas to share on the curb before venturing towards the shops.
As the heat subsides in the early evening, the bazaars grow busier with other travelers. I bump into a young guy from Russia called Dimitri who is about to meet his “Papa” or “Baba”, which he tells me means “Father in Karma”. Baba, a fairly large, Indian man loitering in a nearby car, proclaims himself a very holy person. Apparently the Dalai Lama once commented on his strong energy and met with him personally. He also boasts of friendship with Amma (the hugging mother). The three of us sit in a local cafe and Baba proceeds to absorb my energies through various hand gestures. “You have pain here?” he says pointing to my neck. It is true that I slept badly a week ago on that side of my neck and still find it difficult to turn left. “Someone give you bad Karma. Is black. I take it from you” says Baba, putting our palms together and closing his eyes, all the while muttering incantations. Mildly uncomfortable, I look up at Dimitri for moral support. But he is too busy flicking through his iPad, occasionally stopping to smile and stare, a little too manically, at the ongoing demonstration. After twenty minutes, all I can do is awkwardly laugh and quietly hope that these impromptu meditations in the middle of a local diner will soon come to an end.
I decline their invitation to visit the gardens at 11pm and make my way back to the hotel room, suspiciously wondering how Dmitri ever met his Baba and what their relationship is exactly.