It’s impossible, really, to sum up my experience here in India in a short blog post. I mean, really: I’m not short on making attempts to generalize, hence the reason why I have a “Social Commentary” category under which this post is appropriately tagged. All I can say is that the north is different from the south, it’s a bit hot around here these days, my friends living here are saviors in plainclothes, and my experience traveling through Agra almost single-handedly made me blow a gasket and make me all the more ready to close this brief intermission of my life and return home soon.
(Note: rant is about to follow.)
The train from Jaipur, one on which I was fortunate to grab a window seat and watch the Rajasthan landscape pass by, arrived at Agra Fort a few minutes behind schedule. While the hostel I booked had a courtesy driver, I appeased one of the hundreds of plainly-dressed auto0rickshaw drivers and agreed upon a reasonable fare to the hostel.
Now, this is probably common knowledge, but….rickshaw drivers are not mere cabbies. They’re shrewd, collaborative businessmen that somehow find ways to bring both temporary joy and impeded rage to any tourist. But this one, Asif, seemed to be bright and relatively unobtrusive. No hassles. Because of this, I felt comfortable giving him my business the next day as I planned to journey to the Taj, Agra Fort, etc., and we agreed that I would pay him for this ride from the station in the morning.
And then things turned sour.
I arrived at my hostel around 11pm after saying farewell to Asif, and immediately after he left, the hotel manager monotonously says, “Sorry, you booked too late and our hotel is full.” This has happened before (see Colombia), but the lack of compassion with which he mentioned this gaffe was slightly unnerving, especially given the time (late) and location (no idea). While he efficiently booked another hotel for me, I realized that Asif wasn’t aware of this change of plans. So, I asked the hotel manager to notify Asif the next morning when he arrived to pick me up.
Grabbing my bags I was ushered to the courtesy driver’s car — still not quite aware of where I was booked. And instead of making small talk, the driver proceeded to begin bartering with me for a taxi service in the morning. While I already mentioned I had a rickshaw for the next day, he refused to back down.
I’ve rarely lost my cool in a foreign country (see Colombia as a counter-example) while traveling, but — something inside me was jolted by this driver’s lack of interest in my current situation, and while I avoided a profanity-laced tirade, I made it clear: take me to my hotel, wherever it is. NOW.
I’ll skip some of the other moments of unnerving frustration that occurred throughout the day, so let’s fast-forward about 24 hours: Asif never arrived at my new hotel the next morning, likely being given the run-around by the hostel that now is rated slightly less on Hostels.com. I have just arrived from Agra back to Delhi about 4 hours late, and I need a taxi to Gurgaon. My friend, Pradeep, tells me via text that I shouldn’t expect to pay more than 600Rs. to get home.
And the bartering, again — it begins. 1200 rupees. 1000 rupees. 800 rupees…and suddenly I’m surrounded by 8 taxi drivers offering rates of various forms. Suddenly, I whip out a hand motion that must have been perceived as me wielding a switchblade or something, because the entire group of men jumps back and silences as I instead reach for my mobile phone.
In that moment — in a dark, smelly, crowded parking area underneath a train station in the ouskirts of Delhi — I reached my wits’ end. Maybe it was the dose of Cipro that gave me a sudden mood swing that made me unable to handle the situation, or maybe it was a backlash against the constant pressure to buy, buy, buy that had hounded me for the previous two days. And as I mentioned to Pradeep, I can’t really say who to blame for such a position: Indians, the tourists that perpetuated this — or myself. It’s probably a combination of the three, and perhaps it was a final, clinching depth charge of many that started dropping as soon as I landed on the Subcontinent. And silently, but vigorously, my mind was convinced that home will be all the more welcoming when the time comes.
So. Farewell, India. Their cities, I’ll certainly hope to visit again, but I hope to God to never, ever, be a tourist in that country a second time around. If you, reader, do decide to visit Agra, heed my advice:
1. Take Cipro. Even your stomach of iron can’t predict when the onslaught will occur, and a day of bed-rest plus this little wonder drug will be your best friend if the situation arises.
2. Learn to be a jerk. If you can’t avoid making eye contact with the tradesmen or staying silent, you’re screwed. Until you say no and walk away, or out of their store, or give them a look like they just kicked your puppy, you will be nothing more than an opportunity to make a buck.
3. Don’t go alone. This isn’t for security reasons — you can be plenty safe by yourself in India. But I reckon that my tolerance level for all that went down would be much higher if I had a travel buddy. When our hostel got overbooked in Colombia, I had three fellow travelers that gave me time to blow off some steam. Oh, if only I had that luxury in Agra. Plus, the stories of ALMOST GETTING KILLED IN THE TAXI RIDE HOME will serve as lasting memories and a good laugh when you’re not busy cursing out your cabbie.