. . .The travel agent in Rishikesh had more than likely taken advantage of the 3 tourists looking for a ride back to New Delhi. He had sold us train tickets at almost 3 times what we might have paid on our own. We had no complaints though, as we stretched our legs and reclined the seats in our air-conditioned train car, as we were lavished with food practically on the hour during the 5 hour trek. Considering the adventurous (aka, horrifying) stories to be heard about Indian train travel, we were more than happy to have paid the 1300 rupees in Rishikesh, around $20.
Upon our arrival in New Delhi this luxury dream abruptly ended and shit, as they say, got real. Mila and I waited outside the station with Sammie and together scoured the sea of vehicles for her Uber driver. Honestly, Uber in New Delhi is like the ultimate practical joke. It is “Where’s Waldo” live. But, that is another story. It took most of an hour, but Sammie was finally united with her Uber chaperone and Mila and I flagged down the next tuk-tuk that we saw. Unless you are headed to the airport or being driven by a hotel’s paid driver to said hotel, the stating of the address at the beginning of a trip is mere formality. Do not be fooled when the driver nods his head confidently and you won’t be disillusioned in 10 minutes when he starts asking any passing pedestrian for directions. That is simply the way. Of course, after a month in India, neither of us was fazed by this. Interrupting a back alley cricket game to ask for directions to an obscure hotel down another back alley had become normal. The real fun started when we actually arrived at the hotel.
I saw it coming. I had thought of it days ago. The first very real obstacle to my plan to exit India would be during check-in at my New Delhi hotel. Mila and I walked in, around midnight and asked to check in, “we have a reservation.” The desk clerk was likely in his forties, although he looked closer to 60, thin, tired, grumpy. He slowly. He looked at us as if we were causing him a great inconvenience and opened the huge hotel register, an enormous notebook of lined paper. He asked for our passports, standard operating procedure in every place I’ve been outside of the U.S. Mila handed over her Kyrgyz passport and the clerk copied down all the relevant info in one line that spanned both huge pages. I handed over my passport and he began the same process from the far left. It was about the 4th box from the left that the man stopped writing and looked at me severely, not quite angrily. “Your visa is expired.”
I wasn’t surprised, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I was prepared. There were 2 ways I could play this: ignorant tourist, or unfazed traveler. As my heart pounded I made my choice.
“What?! What do you mean?” I said, my eyes wide, concerned.
Completely unmoved, he repeated: “your visa is expired.”
“OK,” I said…”and…”
“You can’t stay here.”
I switched strategies. “OK, look. I know. I have an appointment tomorrow at the FRRO to take care of this. I leave tomorrow night.”
“But your visa is expired. You can’t stay here.”
“No. What are you talking about? That’s ridiculous! It is after midnight. Where will she sleep?” This was Mila, my badass Kyrgyz classmate who had had about enough of my ‘strategies’ and decided to step in, her Russian accent cutting through all of this bullshit, real quick. The expression of the desk clerk changed from tired and matter-of-fact, to almost panicked. “The visa is expired. I can’t. The register.”
He walked out from behind the desk, to a mysterious door off the lobby, and knocked. The man that opened it was younger and received the story without much reaction. He came out to me and summarized the situation for clarity. He dialed a number on his cell phone and after an exchange in Hindi handed the phone to me. The voice on the other end said to me “You must go first thing tomorrow to the FRRO office.”
“Yes, I know. That is my plan.”
“You must go there. First thing. When is your flight?”
“Tomorrow night, 5am.”
“Good. Because you must come back to the hotel and give them your number.”
“Once you receive exit papers from the FRRO, you must come back to the hotel so they can record the number.”
I realized that the hotel was going to allow me to stay, putting themselves at risk in the meantime by harboring a foreigner with an expired visa. I needed to bring back my exit permit in order to legitimize their books.
“OK,” I replied.
“If you have any problems, let me know.”
Relief! I had someone on my side. Someone who knew more than I did. Someone to advise me, to help if things went wrong! I asked the hotel staff for the name and phone number of my mentor. They obliged. “Who is he?” I asked, happy that one of them had a friend in the police or some other official post.
“Mr. H from the White Lotus hotel.”
My face and my heart dropped. Seriously? My mystery guardian angel, hero of official foreigner business in India, just became ‘an older guy at another hotel, more experienced in dealing with stupid foreigners.’
The mistake was mine, of course. We all know what happens when we assume. He did know what he was talking about, and I did owe him some gratitude for convincing my hotel to take me in. However, my fantasy of a guardian angel to call when things inevitably went wrong evaporated. I was on my own. Deep breath. Get some sleep. Yeah right.
. . .
The next morning I was up early, and despite the pit in my stomach I was surprisingly calm. A month of yoga and breathing practice had served me well. I got dressed, said goodbye to Mila hoping I would catch up with her later in the day, and set out. I had planned to be standing outside the door of the FRRO building at 8am, but my new mentor from the night before had told me they open at 9. Armed with the address and only a rough idea of how I would get there, I set out toward the station. I strolled through the crowded streets, completely at ease as cars, bikes, and tuk tuks sped past me; merchants called to me offering their best price, and tour guides or hotel boys approached me with their best offers.
A month before (34 days actually, an important distinction) I had sat in the safety of Marije’s car on the way to Schiphol airport and I was nervous. My friend had never seen me like that. I use ‘nervous’ now, but I was bordering on panicked.
“Do you think anyone who flies to India for the first time is comfortable about it?” I asked her. “I am UNcomfortable.”
‘Uncomfortable’ was, of course, an understatement. I was scared. Scared of the unknown–the wild, crowded, smelly New Delhi of movies and stories. Now I was there…after 34 days in this wild country, I strolled through the streets, completely at ease. I knew how it worked now and I could become a part of it. One of the greatest feelings in the world is actually feeling your comfort zone expand. When I think about the girl in the car on the way to the airport in Amsterdam on March 4th, and the girl wearing the kurti and harem pants who left her illegal hotel on the morning of April 6th, I realize just how much that comfort zone expanded in a short time. Little did I know just how much more it would need to expand over the next 8 hours…
Across the street from the station, I passed a street food vendor and stopped to pay 10 rupees (a negligible amount in dollars) for the breakfast that would fuel my day and that I wouldn’t have minded eating for the rest of the year. What I know is that there were chickpeas (channa) and hot pepper in there. What I do not know is what other miracle combination of herbs, spices and love were combined in that wok (karahi) or how long they had been simmering together to create the heaven that I now shoveled into my mouth with the help of the fluffy, greasy pitas served to me in newspaper. Completely satisfied and unusually calm, I wandered the rest of the way to the station and caught the subway.
I needed to catch a tuk tuk from the subway station to the FRRO office. You’ll remember the earlier discussion of the method of the tuk tuk driver: “yes, yes. I know exactly where that is. Get in!” Followed by frequent “stop-and-asks” of anyone willing to point out a direction. An alarm went off for me when the first TWO drivers that I showed the address to looked at me like I was crazy and told me, “no”. The third driver gave me the same look, but was a little more adventurous–or desperate, or both–because he told me to get in. We set off in a direction and did not get far before we ran into New Delhi traffic, which relegated us to a snail’s pace.
Once past traffic we began a now familiar routine of waving down passersby to show them the wrinkled piece of paper that I clung to with the address on it. A series of confused looks and some overconfident pointing followed, along with countless u-turns. Finally, I looked up and saw a big sign with FRRO printed on it, inside the wall of a large compound. I yelled out and pointed and was delivered to the entrance. I tossed the required rupees at the driver and headed toward the sign, noticeably less calm than when I had casually stopped for breakfast an hour before.
The sign featured an arrow, and I turned right as indicated. When I came around that corner my heart sank. The reality and gravity of my situation landed on my chest like bricks as I saw a mass of people–hundreds–and no discernible order to any of it. As I approached, my mind tried to find some sense in the madness. There was no sign, no line. I noticed a man who noticed me. It wasn’t completely creepy and he appeared to be comfortable here. Comfortable in an ‘I’ve been here for days on end and know the routine’ sort of way. He was my best bet so I walked over and asked him if he knew where I should be.
“What do you need?”
“I need a permission to exit.”
“Do you have your papers?”
uhhh… “I have my VISA and my plane ticket.”
[*sidebar: if you’re thinking that this sounds absolutely ludicrous on my part, or wondering how I could possibly think this was ok, you are better suited for world travel than I.*] My new advisor seemed to be thinking some version of that. He raised his eyebrows again in a mixture of disbelief, pity, and awe then pointed me to two uniformed officials standing further to the front, who I had not yet seen.
“Go ask them.”
The officials pointed me to a folding table at the front of the mass of people. When you spend some time visiting and living in different cultures, you learn to follow the rules of the place you are in. There is a line, of course, and every person needs to find their own; but clinging to your own definition of manners or etiquette in a place with different rules for both can sometimes get you in trouble and will often get you left behind. Example: if you politely wait your turn to order coffee at the bar of a crowded Italian cafe, the likelihood of ever receiving said coffee is astonishingly (to a foreigner) small. With this in mind, I scanned the crowd, not for signs of a line, but for my best chance at an opening. I found one a few feet from the table and plunged in, elbows and hips working to part the crowd and steer me toward the promised land that was the folding table.
The trek was surprisingly easy and no one so much as glared at me. Turns out the table was a screening. Once you declared what you were doing here and showed the appropriate papers, a number was scribbled onto a ripped piece of paper and you were given permission to actually enter the building. This fact I know in hindsight. I would not land one of these sacred scraps until several hours later. For now, a uniformed man, serious but not overly intimidating addressed me. I told him that I needed an exit permit and that my plane left today. He looked through my pathetic pile of papers, pulled out a blank one of his own, and began writing. He made a list of about 6 documents that I needed to obtain and bring back here in order to enter the building and request my permit. As he wrote them, I thought about how I would get them. Everything he wrote down seemed manageable. A couple I already had, a few more I was sure I could get a hold of if I could find an internet cafe or a friendly local with a computer and a printer. It was not until the last document on my shopping list that I felt the first real pangs of panic.
“C-form?” I asked.
“C-form. From your hotel.”
Wait, whaaaat?! I needed a form from the hotel!? It would have been really convenient for my mystery caller to have mentioned that the night before! It had taken me over an hour and 3 different modes of transportation to get here. Now I would have to repeat the trek 2 more times in order to get back to the hotel and then back here in time to apply for the permit.
The uniform looked up from his writing and said “tomorrow.”
“No,” I said, “my flight is tonight.”
More raised eyebrows, a matter of fact look, an almost imperceptible shake of the head.
“Tomorrow,” he repeated. “
“No, no. Today,” my indignant response as I waved my flight itinerary at him.
Now he shrugged and slid the paper toward me as if he were the host of a reality show and this was my impossible mission. His expression was not angry or annoyed. It seemed to convey “good luck, chick.”
I took the paper and the challenge. In that moment I made a decision. For the rest of the day, until I had an official exit permit in my hands, if I was moving under my own power, I needed to be running. I put all papers into my red sling bag, gathered it up to limit drag and took off toward the road as fast as my flip flops would take me.
I am a woman. I was traveling alone. I am 6 feet tall and I am white. Any one of these things gets you noticed in India. Put them all together and staring becomes commonplace. Now the tall, white, solo woman was sprinting through city streets as if being chased by an invisible pack of rabid dogs: the White Giant was born.