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.
I was having trouble with English. The elegant, lyrical English spoken by many Indians bears little resemblance to my Midwestern twang. My last name, Crawford, is quite common, but at each hotel, the desk clerk would look at his reservations book with puzzlement and say, "Sorry, Madame." I'd point to my name and repeat, "Crawford." "Ah, Crawford," they would say. I started saying, "Crawford, as in Cindy, only shorter." In India, everyone knows Cindy Crawford.
Finally, I connected with my hotel. The driver, who had been waiting at Wimpy's, was coming back to the train station for me. PCO telephoner paid, suitcases aloft and ranks reduced by one hotel tout and his followers, we returned to where we had begun. When more calls, waiting and trekking didn't hook me up with the driver, I decided, hotel name written down, to grab a cab. A feeding frenzy began among the so-far-well-behaved rogue taxi wallahs. I headed for the prepaid taxi kiosk across from Wimpy's to purchase a set-fee voucher for a legal cab.
The rogues blocked my path, shouting, "I give you better price," "It's only for taxis to distant places like Agra" and the oh-so-Indian, "It's not working." Stunned, I froze. Then a man in a three-piece suit and matching turban broke through the swarm. He took my money, bought a taxi voucher, saw me into my cab and admonished me not to give the suitcase wallahs 200 rupees (about $4.50.) He said 50 rupees was sufficient. I gave them 200 anyway; I'd promised it to them. Later, however, I realized that holding up two fingers meant they wanted to bum a cigarette, not negotiate a price.
Fearing I might not be ready for Delhi, I took inspiration from what I'd learned of India's women. They suffer everything from virtual slave labor to dowry deaths -- the killing of a bride because her dowry was not large enough. But India also has a long tradition of powerful female figures -- women endowed with Shakti, feminine power.
Mythically, the warrior goddess, Durga, embodied Shakti. Historically, Queen Lakshmibai, the Warrior Queen of Jhansi, who died in 1858 leading her troops against the British, had it. More recently, Indira Gandhi twice led India's unruly republic, and in 2004 her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, carried the National Congress Party back to power.
Earlier on my trip, I'd met some not-so-famous female powerhouses. They exuded grace, smarts and serious authority. They wrapped their gorgeous power saris, hand-loomed cloth in muted colors, in the modern fashion. Unlike other women, they used few or no pins to keep the long swaths in place, thereby demonstrating their effortless mastery over every situation. Surely, I reasoned, emulating such women might help.
Lacking a power sari and the skills to wear it, I tried to dress for success in Delhi in an ankle-length khaki skirt, a long-sleeved blouse and a floral silk scarf swept over my shoulder. I used the woman-alone street smarts I'd been taught by an Indian woman: Walk quickly with firm purpose, look straight ahead, make no eye contact with touts or beggars and, most important, don't say anything. In India, even a firm "No!" is considered an encouraging word.
My next expedition, crossing Delhi's main Janpath Road, may not seem epic, but as I stood on its curb with traffic flowing in six lanes like the Ganges in flood, the other side seemed unreachable. Every lane had at least one bus, one truck or two cars. All remaining square centimeters were filled with bikes, scooters, auto-rickshaws and motorized carts. From the slowest bicycle with three passengers to the fastest Mercedes with just one, every vehicle moved as fast as it could whenever it could. Traffic slowed for cows, not people.
My plan was to cross from the luxe hotel where I'd lunched to the government-run crafts store. In hindsight, asking the hotel guard to point out the store was my first mistake. Whammo -- bring on the touts. As drivers bid against each other, the price of a cycle rickshaw fell from 50 rupees to 5 -- to be augmented by commissions from the stores where they would take me.
Then I made my second mistake. I said, "I'll walk." This elicited shouts: "There are better government stores," "It's a holiday -- the store is closed" and, closest to the truth, "It's not safe." Striding to the nearest intersection, I lost all but one tout, who continued to yell that I'd die crossing the road.
I spotted a woman in a power sari on the curb and positioned myself next to her. When she stepped off the curb, I stepped off the curb. When she slowed, I slowed. When she sprinted, I sprinted. And when she made it across, so did I. Encountering more touts on the other side, I remained tight-lipped and plunged on -- right into someone's private office. It belonged to a kind gentleman who directed me to the store next door.
Two days later, at 5 a.m., I was back at the train station. Fewer people slept and more washed as commuter hordes stampeded for jammed trains. This time, I'd managed to hire just one suitcase wallah and felt confident that he would get me to the right track, on the right train and into my assigned seat.
Imitating other women on the platform, I sat on my suitcase to wait. Even though I was covered like a nun, a dozen men stood around staring at me. This, I knew, would not be happening to a genuine powerhouse.
So, using a different approach, I pulled my scarf over my head and looked down at my right shoulder. The pose constricted my view, but I could still see the men's shoes turn and walk away. All except one. Curious about this persistent fellow, I inched up my head and recognized my loyal suitcase wallah.
Meek women might not inherit the earth, but I found out that if they play their scarves right, they can at least lay claim to a small portion of an Indian railway platform.
Kate Crawford is a freelance writer in Sebastopol, Calif.