ESSAY

Alone in India -- But Not for Long

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By Kate Crawford
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 20, 2005

The New Delhi train station seemed like a cross between a medieval army bivouac and a state park campground. It was after midnight. Family bands crouched around cooking fires or, curled in wool shawls, slept against mounds of luggage. People ate, bathed, brushed their teeth.

Traveling alone, I attracted a small band of followers as soon as I arrived at the station. The first enlistees, two red-smocked, officially badged suitcase wallahs, boarded my train before it stopped moving. Completely unbidden, one grabbed my suitcase, the other my tote. To carry the bags, they balanced them on their turban-wrapped heads like wacky hats.

"Where to?" one of the two, a slick dude, asked in TV English as he and several young followers fell in beside me. My hotel had told me to meet its driver at the train station's restaurant. So, like a savvy sahib, I commanded, "To the restaurant."

"Wimpy's?" asked the dude.

Wimpy's didn't seem enough like a restaurant, so I suggested one where people sat down. Our band of six embarked on a 10-minute march through the station's cavernous overpasses and out-of-the-way corridors. I wasn't worried, because my attention was fixed on the rapid growth of my retinue. Next, four rogue taxi wallahs, to whom I explained I already had a ride, joined our ranks. Each was followed by more tag-along boys -- a touts-in-training program, I guessed.

When the slick dude began to tell me how old my hotel was, I caught on. He was a go-to-another-hotel-where-he-collects-a-commission wallah.

My ride was not at the restaurant. Back we went to our starting point, where a long wait at the booking service elicited only a "Sorry, Madame."

Call me crazy, but I was having a great time. I figured this was the closest I would ever come to having my own entourage. Seven days into my three-week India trip had passed, and so far, exemplary ground arrangements by my tour operator had deprived me of this quintessential Indian travel experience.

A handsome, turbaned Sikh guide had met me at the airport. We'd eased down New Delhi's wide avenues, enjoying the lemon trees and sweet peas flowering in the roundabouts. Then an uneventful van ride on a smooth toll road had led me to Jaipur, from where I'd just returned.

Very nice, but this was India, land of the epic journey. India, where a 78-part TV series enacting the Ramayan -- which, along with the Mahabharat, is the Hindi Iliad and Odyssey -- drew 40 million viewers in the late 1980s. The India of the Mughal sultan's mobile palaces: dozens of tents, with silk-embroidered walls and Persian rugs, powered by hundreds of men, elephants and camels. Then there was Mahatma Gandhi's epic political journey, in which he walked 240 miles to collect sea salt to avoid paying the British tax.

Now, at the train station, my journey was about to attain epic quality. I was no longer taking it; it was taking me. My people -- I'd come to think of them that way -- decided I must call my hotel. We deployed to the fire-engine-red booth staffed by people who make calls for you, the public call office (PCO). My suitcase wallahs, however, nixed the PCO in favor of a cheaper pay phone nearby. I did not have the correct change, so my people enlisted a tag-along boy who disappeared with my 10-rupee note. When he returned with the change, I realized I had lost my hotel's phone number.

We returned to the PCO, where I shouted my hotel's name at the official telephoner. It was hard to be heard over the other shrieking telephone users. He put through a call and handed me the phone, but after a half-understood conversation, I gathered that whomever I was speaking to was not at the hotel. I wrote out the hotel's name. The telephoner recognized it right off and gave me one of those pity-the-verbally-challenged looks.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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