What India Taught Me, Part 1: A Taxi Nightmare and Where Lost Baggage Goes to Die

To say that you’ve seen the world before seeing India is like saying you know yourself before taking a good long look at your naked body in the mirror.

Author’s Note: As we begin to write about our last visit to India in greater depth, I’m reminded of my first trip there — also my first trip abroad that I took solo in 1997. Those were the days of traveler’s checks, thick stapled wads of Indian rupees, and exorbitantly priced, poor quality phone calls booked from telephone wallahs on the street. The ATM machines, internet cafes and easy-to-purchase mobile phone SIM cards of today’s India seemed only a pipe dream back then.

This is the first of a multi-part series chronicling the bizarre experiences and lessons – about India, travel and me – that first visit imparted. No other trip since has affected me in quite the same way.

Lesson 1: Never Let Them See You Sweat

December, 1997

1:00 AM: Delhi Airport. I willed my backpack to appear on the conveyor belt, an empty endless loop. It never did. A few money changers and rifle-toting guards still lingered, but I was the last passenger out of the airport that night.

I prepaid a small amount for a taxi (around fifty cents) and fully expected to find my driver on the other side of the exit waiting patiently for me in the peace of the early morning. That was what my American upbringing had taught me would happen.

Bus Talk in Kolkata, India
An Indian warning?

Instead, I was besieged by no fewer than 200,000 of Delhi’s taxi wallahs.

Hello my friend. You come with me. My taxi. Yes, my taxi. Yes, my friend. Hello my friend. Come with me, my friend.”

A cloud of humanity grew around me; all I could see in the darkness were the whites of eyes and teeth. I was demoralized, exhausted and more than a little bit frightened. This was not how my “trip of a lifetime” was supposed to begin.

Aside: This “trip of a lifetime” was a long time in the making. I had been working for a consulting company whose vacation policy afforded me a whopping 10 days of vacation a year (and that included sick days). Taking two months off to travel was anathema and was regarded as freakish. Out of frustration and arrogance, I suggested that I needed the time off or I would quit. My employers opted for the “time off” option and I took my trip to India and Australia.

My taxi reservation chit featured some numbers scrawled at the top. A license plate number perhaps, but they could just as well been last week’s lottery numbers. Paper in hand, I searched frantically to find my ride, lurching hither and fro in a parking lot full of taxi clones.

Needle-in-a-haystack hopelessness. The clock ticked.

To move forward and escape the mob, I randomly chose two young men and quickly hopped in the back seat of their Ambassador (the ubiquitous Indian taxi). In moments we were on what looked like a highway, a few weak lights from truck stop dhabas punctuating a dust-filled Delhi night.

I offered the driver the name and address of the guest house where I was headed: “La Jacaranda, Greater Kailash, GK1. M Block.”

“Oh, so sorry sir. You see, it is closed,” the driver offered with a head waggle.

“No, I spoke with them two days ago. They are open.”

“Sorry sir, they are full.”

“Hmmm. How do you know that?”

“La Jacaranda, you say. Yes, full. I know better place.”

“Take me there anyway.”

“But sir, I know better place.”

“I don’t want better place.”

We repeated this routine a half dozen more times, my irritation and fear growing with each exchange.

After one of our impasses, the driver stopped. He pulled off the road and into what looked like a jungle, engulfing us in almost complete darkness.

His sidekick turned around, with a hint of a smile: “You have money.”

I was frightened. It was dark and I had absolutely no idea where we were. In the middle of nowhere, I was with two men who clearly did not have my best interests in mind. What the hell had I gotten myself into?

This sucked.

I surreptitiously peeled away 100 rupees from my stash and handed it over the seat in hopes this would appease him so that we might continue.

Instead, the driver exited the car and lit a cigarette.

His sidekick got out and began urinating into the night. The Ambassador’s dim headlights caught him as he jumped and laughed, gyrating and arcing his prodigious stream of urine in every direction in front of the cab.

They were having fun at the expense of my sanity and a dwindling night of sleep I would never reclaim. I realize now that I must have looked like such fresh meat to them. I showed my fear on my sleeve. Fresh meat and fear: fuel to the fire of opportunists – be they taxi drivers or garden-variety shysters — around the world.

Another 100 rupees to start the car.

Two-and-a-half hours and a couple hundred rupees later, it was 3:30 AM and we pulled up to a private home, apparently La Jacaranda.

Awareness is productive, but fear yields absolutely no advantage. In fact, it tends to self-fulfill.

I rang the bell. The man of the house, half asleep, shot a dirty look at the taxi drivers and looked at me as if to say, “Where the hell have you been, my boy?”

I was thankful to be alive; I clung to what few possessions I had.

Then I collapsed.

Awareness is productive, but fear yields absolutely no advantage. In fact, it tends to self-fulfill. But fortunately, like most cheats in India, these guys never meant any physical harm or violence. They simply wanted to mess with my mind and separate me from a few of my rupees. And guess what? It worked.

Lesson 2: India, Land of Coincidence

After suffering a fitful jetlagged four-hour sleep, I took breakfast in the kitchen-cum-dining room of La Jacaranda. As I tucked into my breakfast of Indian pickle and paratha (stuffed flat bread), a man emerged from another guest room.

Oh my God, I know this guy. I cleared the sleep from my eyes. Perhaps I was seeing things.

“William?” I said.

William, as in the ex-husband of my next door neighbor in San Francisco. In no guide book does it say: “Go to Delhi to bump into your neighbor’s ex.” This trip was beginning to blow my mind.

Sweet Kids - Madurai, India
What do these kids have to do with William? Nothing. They just blow my mind.

“Oh, hi.” He was unfazed by our chance meeting.

The full impact of this astounding coincidence was lost on me at the time. My focus was squarely on the problem at hand: I did not have a spare pair of underwear. Nor did I have any idea if or when my backpack would resurface. And those were the days I could not conceive of wearing a pair of underwear more than one day. (I will not share with you how long some pairs last these days.)

I asked William for help and after breakfast he guided me to M-block market for underwear, a t-shirt and other provisions. Over lunch he entertained me with stories of his journey from Lucknow for a kidney operation of the sort that he could only get in Delhi.

I still couldn’t believe it. I was new to India, new to the world of travel, and new to the coincidence that visited both frequently.

William didn’t seem to find our encounter odd. He knew India well.

Lesson 3: Seeing Is Believing

Two days later, Air India called La Jacaranda guest house and left a message: “It’s ‘quite possible’ that Mr. Noll’s bag was recovered. If he would like it today, he must come to Delhi airport to retrieve it.”

“Quite possible?” What on Earth did that mean?

As my taxi wound it’s way to the airport, I realized how different and how much less frightening the fringes of Delhi appeared during the day. Just as dusty but oddly rural with pockets of industry for good economic measure.

Along the highway we were forced to stop for a few minutes to allow a vast herd of sheep to clear. The scene was surreal, exotic. I was simultaneously mesmerized by a cloud of moving wool and the shape of my Sikh cab driver’s beard.

Typical Street Scene, Cow and All: Varanasi, India
Typical Indian street scene.

After arriving at the airport I asked around for the lost baggage office in a fit of enunciated American English and charades. I was once one of those people who believed that speaking clearly and raising one’s voice helped bridge the language divide.

I was directed to the rear of the building. There were no signs, just a decrepit little staircase leading somewhere dark.

Retrieving luggage from lost baggage claim should not amount to a Herculean task. But as in all things Indian in 1997, it did. In the war of underemployment and itinerant souls, the Indian bureaucracy had won the battle by giving jobs to leagues more people than the tasks demanded.

“I received a call. My bag is here. I would like to claim it.”

From behind a randomly placed wooden desk, an attendant waggled his head in acknowledgment, grabbed my piece of paper, tore a notch into it and directed me to another man further back sitting behind yet another randomly-placed wooden desk.

Man #2 waggled his head, grabbed my piece of paper, tore another notch into it and gave me another piece of paper. It had a stamp.

Stamps are good. Official, I figured.

He pointed further back to another series of desks. The two men there took my original baggage claim check and the official looking piece of paper, fumbled with those and gave me yet another piece of paper that looked vaguely like currency dating from the British colonial empire.

With head nods, they pointed me further back into their lost luggage labyrinth.

Another man stood in front of a doorway. I explained to him my situation and showed him my papers.

Sir, it is lunch time. You must return later.”

It was 11:00.

“No fu**ing way!” The few remaining shreds of my cultural sensitivity and patience evaporated. “What do I need to convince you to postpone your lunch a few minutes so I can get my bag?”

“It is simply our lunch break. You must come back later.”

Perhaps a few rupees could have flexed this man’s rigid plans for lunch. Instead, I found a chair in the shadows, pulled up and waited.

After about 20 minutes (during which no lunch was consumed), the man capitulated. He approached me, took my piece of paper, ripped it and gave me another piece of paper and directed me to the doorway behind him.

This was the final stop: the lost baggage window. The air was stale and thick. Expectations were high. I gave the little man tending the window my pitch, which by now I had memorized. He held out his hand, head-waggled, and snatched the last bits of evidence that someone owed me my backpack.

At first glance, the Delhi lost baggage office appeared to house a few hundred bags. A surprising amount, I thought. The man then turned around and headed to a black steel door twice his height.

He opened it and beckoned me just inside. With a hand motion, he asked me to stay put while he conducted his search.

“There’s more?” I craned my neck to get a look at the crypt.

What I saw astounded me: a veritable warehouse, over a football field long, and at least two or three stories high full of shelves filled with bags. In my wildest of travel hallucinations, I could never have imagined there was this much lost baggage on the planet, let alone in the Delhi airport. Dust and oil gathered on suitcases, multi-colored Chinese market bags, strapped boxes, backpacks, body bags.

The man vanished into the darkness. And I waited.

After no more than three minutes, he re-appeared. And there was my bag.

There’s an intricate system at work in India. It’s just that the casual visitor cannot see it through the dust and din.

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Comments

  1. says

    My family is Indian and we go back to India fairly frequently. In the early 1980s, my mom took her first trip from the U.S. to India with 6-year old me and my 2-year old brother. She landed in the Calcutta airport and the customs official refused to let her pass, claiming that she didn’t have the proper information to get into India. Finally, her brother (my uncle) who was waiting outside the gates, grew worried and somehow bribed his way into the customs area and ended up giving the customs official a 100 Rs bribe to get my mom and us into India. Though she had lived in India nearly her entire life, had an Indian passport, spoke fluent Bengali and Hindi, they marked her out as an easy target to harass. So, I don’t know that they marked you out because you were “fresh meat” or even because of your backpack. Somehow, con men can find the honest people in every country.

  2. says

    I love this post. We are flying to India in November. Our first time there. I am looking forward to this series as I am sure I will learn a lot from you.
    It is true, travel has changed so much since the 90’s and so quickly. things are so much easier now. We have put off seeing India for years and it is about time we see this land for ourselves.

  3. says

    Fantastically written, you put me right there. I had expected it to turn into a unrequited love story between yourself and William (forgive me – it was twelve years ago, and I know nothing of the longevity of yours and Daniels relationship!).

    But then I was twisted into that cavernous hall of lost baggage to be reminded of my own time in India, battling with a stream of crumpled chits, and chats.

  4. YellowFlower says

    OMG!! I cannot wait for the next part…. this is what we need to know, the raw unedited version that the guide books don’t tell us…… now that is a glimpse into real India! I’ll be sharing this post with some friends who I know will be more than amused!
    I am staying tuned for the next part…….

  5. says

    Just realised my error! Daniel wrote this, not Audrey (got confused by the panoramic picture credit!) – my bad, scrap the opening of my last comment.

  6. says

    I’ve seen many scams like this in India, not to say that it’s a bad place. I think that India is a place where many travelers lower their guard for some reason.

  7. says

    @Akila: Although 100 Rs is fairly insignificant, it’s unfortunate your mother had to go through all that. Opportunists will find the angle and seize the opportunity whenever and wherever they can, I suppose. Based on our recent visit, it appears that, generally speaking, the situation has improved.
    @Moign: Thanks. I’ll try not to, but finding time to properly publish what is already written while trying to find the physical and mental space to write anew is a challenge when one is trundling on buses high in the Peruvian Andes. Will do my best.
    @Dave and Deb: Have a great time. I’m certain you will.
    @Ant: Your entries gave us a good laugh. Thanks. Chits and chats…like that, too.
    @Yellow Flower: Thanks for your compliments…and your patience for the next installment.
    @Chris: It has. And I will. Whether I’m able to deliver “soon” is a matter of perspective.
    @Anil: This is not to say India is a bad place. Not only do we have too many friends there to refute that, but one must embrace the challenge in order to fully appreciate the joy. My guard wasn’t so much lowered during that first visit…it was more a matter of lack of experience on my part.

  8. sharon says

    Loved the piece…….and its all only sooooo real….Just a question…..How did you find about the La Jacaranda Guesthouse? Do they have a website? I’m quite keen on staying there later this year however have no contact or do they have a website? w
    Would appreciate any help. Thanks

  9. says

    @sharon: I did a little bit of cursory research and could not find any online reference to La Jacaranda when I wrote this piece, unfortunately. Too bad, because I remember it being a peaceful place. It’s possible that it’s still open, but perhaps under a different name. Unfortunately, my notes as to the specific location (other than the neighborhood details mentioned above) are buried in storage. If you happen to find La Jacaranda in your research, please let us know. Good luck and enjoy your trip. We will continue to write about our experiences throughout India in the coming weeks and months. A fascinating country.

  10. srl says

    I am sorry that you had to go through such nightmare. I had same experince as Akila mom when I visited India back in mid 90s alone with my young children, I had to deal with custom officials who were fussing over trivial issues for real long time, took our passports and greencard away for good couple hours, till I lost my cool. I yelled at them back That I could not believe the treatment I getting in “my own country” and threaten to contact the influential peopleand such! Surprisingly, they let me go! But, more recently the experience was much much better

  11. says

    @srl: Sorry to hear about your experience. I’m glad that to hear that your return visit was better. So was mine. All that said, I wouldn’t give up my first visit to India for anything. And as you will read in future segments of this series…it gets worse, before it gets better.

  12. marylouise says

    I just had the BEST GIGGLE while reading about your India first time adventure. I have been to India 6 times during 20 years, the last trip in 2008. Its always FULL OF SURPRISES THAT WHILE OCCURING ARE NOT TOO FUNNY….BUT REMEMBERING THE EPISODES ARE ALWAYS FUN.There have been changes in the 20 years but the oddball events, not covered in guide books are the charm of India! The fun part of it all is that these events can happen on a daily basis……may India never change!

  13. says

    @marylouise: Wow…you’ve said it all about India. Glad you enjoyed the piece and got a laugh out of it. This is just the beginning actually (I’ve been promising that for a while); I’m planning about 2 or 3 other installments.

    I agree with you: India is always full of surprises. And as we edit our photos from our last trip (you can see them: http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/sets/page1/), we are continually convinced that it is one of the most visually dazzling and amazing places on the planet.

    Reminiscing about India is an experience in itself. Indeed, may that facet of India never change.

  14. promise a. says

    i am looking for a cool trip in india,but i must go in july.i am looking for a trip to celebrate my daughter’s highschool graduation .where should we go? … i want to combine city and country, old and new.

  15. says

    @promise: It really depends on how much time you have. Without knowing that, a little bit of southern India and a little bit of northern India would be my recommendation. Keep in mind, most people do a tourist circuit in the north that includes Delhi-Jaipur-Agra-Varanasi. I’d recommend something a bit different if your budget and timing can handle it:
    Kerala (and the backwaters specifically):
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/set/72157623280461029/page1/
    Madras / Chennai:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/set/72157623280803417/page1/
    Fort Cochin / Kochin:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/set/72157623405052678/page1/
    In the north, I’d go to Udaipur instead of Jaipur (Udaipur was great…we actually haven’t finished putting up all of our photos from our trip there):
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/tag/Udaipur/page1/
    And I think Varanasi is not to be missed.
    And if you must, the Taj Mahal. I was there on my first visit to India, but skipped it this time around (my second visit and Audrey’s first visit as an adult) and we had a terrific time anyhow.

  16. says

    @promise: if it has to be July, you should know that it will be very hot and very rainy in virtually all of India. The obvious exception is Ladakh, in the northernmost part of the country. That will cover old very nicely, but will not be very ‘India,’ and definitely not be very ‘city.’ Lots of old Buddhist monasteries and some very traditional farming villages, plus very very friendly people, and mountain-climbing type adventures if youre looking for that.

  17. says

    @Chris: Excellent points. Even in May, places like Varanasi and Calcutta were 100-105+ degrees F (~40 C). Although we have not yet been to Ladakh, a summer trip there sounds like an excellent idea to us.

  18. marylouise sillman says

    Namaste! I return to your India site from time to time with the hope of additional marvelous stories on your India adventures………seems as though there was a promise of 2 or 3 more to be written????

  19. says

    Great recap of the craziness and chaos and seeming backwardness that is India. We were there for the first time a little over a year ago, and the story of trying to retrieve your bag sounds earily similar to our attempt to buy bus tickets in Jodhpur. It seemed as though we were getting a massive run-around that made no sense at all, but eventually, it just worked, much like everything in India. I don’t know how it works, but it just does. I can’t even imagine dealing with India 13 years ago with the lack of technology that is there today, much less on a first big trip.

    India is just a place you really have to experience yourself to truly understand it, but you do a fantastic job of describing it. I look forward to more!

  20. says

    @marylouise: Namaste! There was a promise. Then there was a case of multiple failed hard drives that took a few well-intentioned drafts with it. Thus the grueling delay.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and do something that my mother told me never to do: make a promise. Part II of this series will come later this month. A delayed holiday gift to our readers…and myself.

    @Adam: Great to see you here and thank you for your comment. I’m not sure I’d characterize India as backward — particularly these days. For sure, its ways are unique. Maybe I’d use the word circuitous. But I get what you are saying. The place is perplexing…in a vaguely addictive sort of way.

    Your experience of buying bus tickets in Jodhpur reminds me of buying train tickets in India 13 years ago, a process that was a far cry from today’s ease of purchasing train tickets online. There was never any clarity, even once the tickets were purchased and money exchanged hands.

    In any event, things do have a way of working in India, in their own way.

  21. says

    Hi guys,
    Lovely read …

    What s/w are you using for the 360deg view of the Ghat?
    It is fabulous.

    India can drive a sane person up the wall … :)

    Anyways … I am glad I found your website … Lots of info …

    Cheers!

  22. says

    @Madhu: Yes, India is a unique place. One that we enjoy. Glad you like the 360 panorama of the ghat in Udaipur. The software we use for spherical panoramas is Autopano Giga and Tour.

    And we are glad that you found our website. More on India soon (I know I’ve been promising the next in the series of this piece forever.) We literally just finished our India photos (from our visit 2 years ago). Like a good tea, India experiences take time to steep.

Trackbacks

  1. […] for a creative sabbatical and have yet to come home.  Within their adventures they’ve found where lost baggage goes to die, food they’ll never eat again, and how to get outside their comfort […]

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