Tuesday, October 24, 2006

National Capital: New Dehli; National Language: Hindi, English; National Sport: Bureaucracy.

I was hoping to show this particular episode rather than tell it. It actually occurred about three weeks ago, at the very beginning of October. However two of the critical locations to the story do not permit video recording because of national security concerns. I think even photography might get me in trouble. So I'll have to rely on text for this.

Here's what happened:

Thanks to friends' advice, my research, and viewer input (thanks again, it was a great help), I had decided that I wanted to go to Kerala for a week. I'd also decided that since India has the biggest rail system in the world, I should experience it first hand.

So, October 3rd, I walked down to a nearby travel agency and asked to buy a train ticket to Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala. I was told they were sold out all the way through the end of the month, and that if I wanted I could put myself on the waiting list (I'd have been 22nd in line). I went back to my hotel and asked for advice from our program assistant. She looked up train tickets for the dates I wanted and found that while the main quota was full, there were two openings in a special reserve quota the government keeps open for foreign tourists. So I went back to the travel agent and informed them. They confirmed this, called the station, chatted for a bit, then told me I had to go to the station itself to buy the tickets.

I was warned that buying tickets at the train station would be a long, laborious and frustrating process, but I figured I was a pretty patient guy and really after the phone episode, it couldn't be that bad...

...could it?

I hailed an autorickshaw to take me to the train station after class the next day. As he pulled up to the parking lot, it started to drizzle. Having no rain gear, I hurried into one of the worn brick buildings dodging stray dogs and touts.

One thing I should explain before I go further is that after this point I “go to” several windows. This is not as simple a process as it might sound. In India, the idea of waiting in line is relatively new and hasn't yet caught on with the mainstream population. So to “go to" a window you have to shove, prod, tackle, and elbow your way to the front of a small mob and get the employee's attention. Also this means that if the person behind the window doesn't understand you, they will ignore you and move onto someone else they understand who has knocked you over and taken your place. After doing this a few times you start to realize why professional wrestling is so popular here.

Anyway, I “went to” my first window and after some effort was told to “go to” a forms window and pick up a foreign tourist quota application. The forms window had no such form. So I “went to” an enquiries window who told me that I had to go to the “DCM Office”. I asked where the office was, they said in another building and pointed in a vague direction. I tried to get more specific directions and was ignored and shoved out of the way.

I walked back into what had gone from a drizzle into a post-monsoon downpour and after a search for an entrance that was chained shut, entered the next closest building in the station. I asked security guards inside for the DCM office and was pointed to, in order, a latrine, a computerized train information window, an on-site barbershop, and finally another ticket office altogether who told me I had to go back to the first building I'd been in.

I jogged back through the rain to the inquiries window who this time told me to fill out a normal “reservation form” from the forms window. I went to that window, argued with someone to refill empty the box with forms, grabbed one, filled it out, and took it to the very first window where I was told that the train I had requested was booked through the end of the month and that if I wanted I could put myself on the waiting list.

I was tired, wet and pissed off. Usually when somebody goes through the ordeal and comes to the point when they say they were tired, wet, and pissed off it means that they are about to have the final blowing up and screaming or breaking down and crying or going nuts and hitting someone event that would finally get results and end the story.

Sorry folks, there's a lot more to go.

I argued for about ten minutes with two different government officials who spoke varying degrees of English who finally convinced me that the way to get a ticket on the foreign tourist quota was to buy a ticket on the waiting list and take it to the “DCM Office”. I filled out more of another form, bought the wait list ticket, and asked once again for directions to the mythical office. They pointed in the same direction and the inquiries window man had, and this time told me the key fact that it was past the train platform.

After another ten-minute search, I found my way onto the platform and walked to the end, passed the cargo area with people loading crates onto carts, and found myself back out into the pouring rain. I picked my way around the rapidly rising lakes in the roadway, walked into a nearby government building and asked for the DCM office. They pointed further down the street. I walked further and walked into the next office, asked again and was told the same thing. I did this four more times before being told that it was not only down the road ten minutes walk but on the other side of the train tracks. I was told to go to the other side of the third platform.

I don't know how I didn't manage to get lost at this point. Maybe I just got lucky, but after making my way through the downpour and flooded streets across the tracks, I just kept walking. After 15 minutes, I got to what looked like an abandoned warehouse. I peeked on the other side and found doorways with signs over them. I stepped into one, asked for directions one last time, and was pointed to the second office from the far end with “CM Off” written on it. The rest had been worn off.

I entered and was pointed to an empty desk. I plopped myself down in front of it and briefly considered taking my shirt off and wringing the water out in spite of cultural taboos, but dismissed the idea. I'd come this far, I wasn't going to get turned back for public indecency.

After five minutes, a beefy, mustached man came down and asked what I wanted. I showed him my (wet) wait list ticket and explained that I wanted a foreign tourist quota spot on the train. He chatted briefly with somebody else in Marathi, reached down and handed me a small form that said “Emergency Quota Application Form.” I said that I had asked for foreign tourist quota, not emergency quota, and he replied that he understood, but that I should use this form and put my passport number in the “emergency reason” field. I filled it out and handed it to him.

He took it, wrote something on it, then told me that if I came back to his office and talked to him after 1:00pm the day of departure, I would have a 99% chance of getting on the train.

I blinked once or twice then asked, “Is there anything I can do to make that 100%?”

He looked at me over his glasses. “Pray to God.”

I left a couple minutes later feeling somewhat less than 99% at ease. I walked back out as the rain slowed to a trickle, and hailed a rickshaw to my hotel.

But, amazingly it worked. 7:45 pm the day of departure, I got on my train. It did involve returning to the DCM office right after class, waiting half an hour, filling out another form, waiting another half an hour, briefly being told by the guy while he was on his cell that I was going to get on the train, waiting a little longer and finally being asked why I was still there, me asking for my ticket, and being told I would get it at the main ticketing window when I boarded the train. But it all worked out in the end.

That's how it all ended and how it all began.

No comments:

Post a Comment