We arrived in Delhi and spent the first full day recovering from jet lag. When we were finally ready to brave the world outside our hotel, we had a single mission: to buy train tickets to Jaisalmer. It sounds like a simple task, doesn’t it. Here’s what happened instead:
1. While sipping chai in a rather touristy market district David struck up conversation with a man nearby, San, a purveyor of Italian leather shoes. We talked about nothing in particular and got a good feeling from San. He advised us that we would be better received if we dressed in traditional Indian clothes and recommended a good shop in the city center where many locals get their clothes made at good prices. He also advised us to visit the government tourism information office, where we could buy our train tickets and get a map of the city.
2. San hailed us a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled, open sided auto rickshaw that sounds like a lawn mower and functions like a taxi) and helped us get a good price (supposedly, though it’s not as if we had any clue) to the city center and back. Our smiley driver even agreed to wait for us at each of our various destinations, so we could hop-on, hop-off while he shuttled us around the city.
3. Our first stop was to San’s recommended clothing shop even though we don’t much care for shopping and generally tend not to buy stuff. But Austin had been interested in getting some traditional clothing made so we gave it a try. Upon entering the place it was immediately clear that this was not a place where any local person shopped. Despite feeling that we had been duped we entered the shop and Austin politely went through the shopping motions for a full ten minutes before we got out of that overpriced emporium of textiles.
4. Our smiley tuk-tuk driver was indeed waiting for us outside the shop and we told him we were done with shopping and would he please take us directly to the government tourism information office so we could buy our train tickets. He zoomed us through the teeming streets, swerving, honking, cutting off and squeezing through.
5. He dropped us off outside the tourist information office and we were greeted inside by two overly-friendly men who sat us down at a desk and promptly tried to sell us tours we didn’t want. After finally managing to get the message across that we only wanted to buy train tickets, the helpful man behind the desk became only slightly less friendly and then found us the last two available seats for the equivalent of a whopping $130 USD (which did include his “modest booking fee”). David knew this was a giant load of Hindu cow shit so we thanked the man for his time and walked out of his office. Certainly this was not the government office we had been seeking. In all likelihood this place probably wasn’t even dispensing legitimate tickets.
6. Now skeptical we asked our smiley driver to take us directly to the train station so we could book our tickets ourselves at the ticketing window. We didn’t want anymore of this nonsense and we had been told it was possible to book at the special tourist booking window on the first floor (which is actually what we call the second floor in the USA). He drove us to the station and then past it all along the length of it, pointing out how big and intimidating the station was and how difficult it would be to buy tickets there. Sure that he had convinced us of the impossibility of booking a ticket ourselves he pulled a U-turn and started taking us back to the phony tourist office.
7. No way! We made him pull another U-turn to take us back to the station. He let us out at what seemed like a small outbuilding near the station. We walked in and saw a long row of ticket windows. We were getting close! Now we just had to find the stairs to take us up to the first (second) floor to the tourist ticket windows.
8. While making our way toward the stairs a friendly man intercepted us, asking us where we were traveling to. When we told him our destination he informed us that we could not buy those tickets at this station. He turned us around and walked with us outside, explaining that it would be best if we bought our tickets at the government tourism information office. But, he warned us, be aware that there is only one legitimate government tourism office. We pulled out our city map and he indicated the office on Janpath Street. Then he spoke to our smiley driver and told him to take us only to this one. Smiley nodded and said he would take us.
9. A few minutes later we arrived outside a big tourist information office. Was this the real one? Yes, yes, Smiley assured us as he hurried us out of the tuk-tuk and into the office. David inquired if the street outside was Janpath. The information guy nodded but averted his eyes and directed us to sit at his desk, warning us of all the awful scammers out there. The train was sold out but he made a call to see if he could pull some strings. Five minutes later his phone rang. He quoted us a price even higher than the price we got at the first place and pressured us to make our decision immediately while he had whoever it was on the line. He told us we had to buy our tickets in that moment or we’d be stuck in Delhi for five more days. Desperate to get out of Delhi Austin was tempted but David knew it was bologna. We declined and left.
10. As we were getting back into the tuk-tuk feeling somewhat defeated, a nice man from the sidewalk approached us and informed us that we were not at the government tourism office. This was a phony one, and he pointed to the map showing us our current location and then the location of the real office. He directed our tuk-tuk driver and then described the exterior of the building to us so we could be sure when we arrived at the right place.
11. Smiley dropped us at what we suspected was another phony office. We paid him 50 rupees (about 85 cents) and abandoned our smiley but clearly unhelpful and deceptive driver.
12. Seeking solace in the inherently efficient and direct nature of ze Germans, we asked for directions at a nearby Deutsche Bank. Even though it was operated by Indians, Austin felt hopeful. The doorman directed us to the government tourism information office on nearby Janpath Street.
13. We found the office! It sure looked official but there was another official-looking place with the same name halfway down the block. How could we be sure? Austin stopped a young woman walking by and asked her if this was the real government tourism office. She told us she believed it was, and even offered to wait outside for us while we went inside to assess.
14. We entered and asked the lady behind the desk to help us reserve train tickets. She looked at us quizzically and told us she could do no such thing. “We are only an information office. We can not sell tickets.” Oh. And that was how we knew we had found the real office.
15. Sweaty and tired we finally made it back to our hotel, many hours since our departure that morning. We did not get any train tickets. We did have a pretty great day.
Postscript: The next day we decided we would get our tickets at the station, no matter what. Avoiding another tuk-tuk adventure we took the metro to the train station and found our way to the first (second) floor. But not before being confronted, distracted, dissuaded and redirected by some guy in the station who so badly wanted to “help” us, claiming that we could not buy our tickets at this station. We declined his relentless offers of assistance but he still wouldn’t go away. Ignoring him wasn’t working either. We were so close to getting our tickets and getting out of the madness of Delhi – we were next in line – but this jerk was trying to stand in our way. Not today, sir. We may be white but we are smarter today than we were yesterday. Suddenly David morphed into rage personified. There was shouting. There was finger pointing. And then David dropped the F-bomb right in this guy’s face. Austin was impressed, amused and only mildly concerned that David might blow a fuse. She stepped in front of the jerk and told him to leave. For some reason he did. And then we bought our tickets (for about $30) and high fived over our success.
Jaisalmer, here we come.