[This story is the 3rd of a 4-part series about my epic overland journey from Kathmandu, Nepal to New Delhi, India.]
As hour 34 passed on the bus enroute from Kathmandu to New Delhi, the 42 Nepalese men, the monk and this lone tourist, began to realize our bus wasn’t going to make our destination in the prescribed 34 hour time frame—in fact, we wouldn’t get there for another half day. After a New Delhi sign whizzed passed my window and as the bus crept into an empty dirt parking lot, I realized that I had no idea where in the outskirts of this city of 20 million I was about to exit the bus seat that had been my home for the past 49 hours.
The extra time on the journey had allowed me a chance to make friends with some of the men on the bus, not using language (as we didn’t have much of a common language) but instead using magic tricks and bananas to break the ice. By the end of the trip, a few of the men and I had establish hand signs for “food,” “bathroom” and a few other things, and they had pointed me to restrooms (typically a bit of grass on the side of the road) and even managed to teach me a few words in Hindi (including a few that got me some fresh rotis in a roadside stand that came complete with authentic live rats that ran over your feet underneath the table as you dined).
As I grabbed my pack and exited the bus, I was inundated by rickshaw drivers looking for a fare, and because I was the only non-Nepalese/Indian on the bus, I was descended upon like rats on bread.
Grabbing me by the arm, the man in the polished shoes, who had been sitting next to me for the past two days, brushed off the touts and said in his heavy, simplified English, “together room?” At this point I was completely unsure of where I was, had no idea how many people in New Delhi spoke English, had very little money on me, and the man in the polished shoes was literally the only person I knew in this country of 850 million. I decided, we’d be better together than on our own.
I followed the man with the polished shoes into a catacomb of narrow streets going from guesthouse to guesthouse in search of a room. Turned away at nearly every door for over an hour, we eventually found a place and I was led up a narrow flight of stairs to a room with two single beds. The man with the polished shoes dropped his simple bag in the corner and excused himself to the shower. Padlocking my bag to the bed, I decided to head out in search of an ATM.
As I pulled the room door closed behind me and turned, I ran almost directly into the man who had checked us in, presumably the guesthouse owner, a towering, old Tibetan man, with a bald head and a white beard, who was dressed in a flowing starch white sleeping robe and simple slippers. His dress and demeanor gave him a sort of Jesus Christ appearance, which led credibility to the sternness of his fatherly voice that carried the authority of a divine-like proclamation. “This is your first time in India?” his voice boomed, “Do not trust anyone. Everyone in India will trick you. Be careful with your money. India is not safe.”
I nodded politely, introduced myself quickly and, diverting my eyes to the ground, slipped by him and out the front door. His height, dress, miraculous appearance and draconian assessment of India had me questioning whether he had in fact been real, or was just a creation of my over imaginative mind that had been running excessively in a cautiously high gear for the last two days, since I had boarded the bus in Nepal convinced I was entangled in a well-orchestrated scam of some kind.
The night before as the bus slip through the darkness of the Indian night, I had begun having short, simplified conversations with the man in the polished shoes sitting next to me. I first asked him where he was going and he named a city I had never heard of, a city I presumed to be in India. I had piece together that he needed to get to a travel agent to buy a ticket to get to his final destination from New Delhi. When I asked him why he was traveling, he gave a confusing, awkward answer that I didn’t quite understand. At one point, he pointed to my rain jacket tied to my bag and while inspecting the stitching, he asked me where I bought it. It was obvious, I thought to myself, he wanted my jacket.
After I located an ATM, I returned to the room to find the man in the polished shoes, having finished his shower was, in fact, shining his shoes.
“Travel agent?” I said, “Go buy ticket? I go with you?” He nodded and we headed out into the street. We were an odd pair, and we didn’t really talk much while visiting a few different agencies. Each time he was quoted a price on a ticket out of New Delhi, he’d tell me, “Too much.” After a two hour search through the narrow streets, the man in the polished shoes, looking quite dejected, pointed to a cafe, where we sat and had a cup of chai.
“What will you do?” I asked him, to which he shrugged and shook his head staring out into the cluttered streets beyond the cafe’s curtain door. He clearly didn’t have enough money, and because I was well aware of my position as a “rich foreigner” and heeding the warning of the pseudo Jesus Christ, I was thinking I had to determine where and why he was traveling before I consider offering any money.
Miraculously, the man in the polished shoes spotted a tall man on a mobile phone across the street, exchanged waves and I came to realize he had spotted a friend. The friend with the mobile phone approached with a smile, introduced himself in English and the two proceeded to chat for ten minutes as I sipped my chai quietly in the corner. They were old friends from school in Nepal and the tall man with the mobile phone was now working in New Delhi—this encounter quite a chance meeting in a city of 20 million I thought, as my suspicion of the pair grew. The tall man with the mobile phone insisted that he knew another travel agent that could get the man in the polished shoes a cheaper ticket, and we agreed they’d check it out. I’d meet them back at the guesthouse.
Two hours later, as I sat in the room, the door knob turned and in came the man in the polished shoes, looking more dejected then before. The cheaper ticket was still, it turns out, 1000 rupees too expensive ($25USD). Without asking directly, I could tell the man in the polished shoes had considered the fact that I might be able to give him the money. This, I was convinced was the heart of the scam. When I asked his tall friend (who spoke much better English), why the man in the polished shoes was heading to the place he was, his response in English was awkward and a bit strange, which only led me to believe, I was in fact in the midst of tricky business.
“What will you do now?” I asked the man with the polished shoes?
“He does not have enough money,” his tall friend interrupted, “He can only buy a bus ticket back home.”
“And go 49 hours back to Nepal!?” I questioned.
He nodded, as his eyes looked sadly downward towards his polished shoes, now gathering dust.
My heart tightened a bit, although I was still concerned this situation seemed a bit too convenient to not be a swindle.
After a few awkward minutes in silence, the tall man made a phone call in Hindi, then shook my hand and excused himself from the room. The man with the polished shoes, with his head lowered and his eyes saddened, said, ‘I go get bus ticket home.”
I hesitated a moment, then said, “I’ll go with you.”
We walked through the narrow dusty streets, as the setting Indian sun cast long shadows across our path. Turning left we entered a shop with a large sign that advertised, “Buses to Nepal.” The man reached deep into his pocket for his money and asked the woman behind the desk for a ticket to take him the 49 hours back to Kathmandu. I grabbed his arm and said, “I’ll give you 1000 rupees, my friend, but that is all I can give you.” He looked at me as if he did not understand, and I repeated myself. He nodded politely as if he was expecting the offer, and though I had waited until the absolute last moment to offer my assistance, his unenthusiastic response told me that I had just bought his con job—-bait, hook, line and sinker.
Using a phone in the travel agency, the man in the polished shoes called his tall friend, who met us back in our room as I was handing the man in the polished shoes the 1000 rupees ($25) as promised. For the very briefest of moments, I imagined them locking the door and robbing me for all the cash I had, while Jesus laughed a big ‘I told you so’ in the hallway outside.
After the exchange of money, the two headed out the door towards, what they said, was the travel agent, to secure a ticket for the man in the polished shoes to a town whose name I still didn’t know. As the door slipped shut, leaving me all alone in the stark white-walled room, I thought to myself, “One day in India and I’d already been suckered.” I sat in the room sulking for the next hour, waiting for the man in the polished shoes to return, not angry that I’d been tricked out of $25, but angry because I had let myself be tricked.
[Continued in Taken For A Ride - Part 4]
What you can do now:
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- Go back and read Part 1 or Part 2 of the story.
- Finish reading the story in Taken For A Ride Part 4.
- Another bus story: 1 Bus, 2 Motorbikes, 8 Cambodian Drug Dealers and A Run For The Border
[Rupee photo courtesy of clappstar via Creative Commons license.]