White Giant, My Last Day in New Delhi (part III) Escape from India

. . .I ran toward the busy road where I had initially seen the FRRO sign and scanned for a tuk tuk. Even though the FRRO was the office for foreigner problems, this was not a touristy area in the usual sense and tuk tuks were harder to come by. The ones I did see were driving in the opposite direction on the other side of a barrier. Just as I would never consider elbowing my way through a crowd of people in the States, running across traffic and jumping a road divider would simply not be done. It may even land a person in jail. In India, the rules are different. So, into the road and over the barrier I went, harem pants flowing and arms waving. It wasn’t long until I jumped into my second tuk-tuk of the day to reverse my morning commute.

After an uneventful subway ride, I found myself back at the central station in New Delhi. Up to this point in the day I might have been found guilty of making 2 mistakes: 1. taking the word of a stranger on the opening hours of the FRRO office and 2. strolling there. It can be said that both of these were made as a result of being too calm, too at ease. The mistake I made as once I arrived back to New Delhi central, was made for the opposite reason. Now I was rushed, bordering on frantic. As I burst out of the station, I barely looked and didn’t think as I ran toward the first vehicle that I saw that may accept a rider. I hopped in and yelled the address at the ‘driver’. Before I realized my mistake, the gaunt man hoisted up the jerked the handlebars of the petty cab, lifted his butt off the seat to get some leverage and started PEDALING us out of the station.

No exaggeration is needed here; I outweighed this man by 70 pounds, easily. And he was at least 30 years my senior. My emotions were mixed as I watched him labor to move my weight from point A to point B. I felt guilty and self-conscious. The rich, entitled western tourist taking advantage of the hard-working poor local; the cost of the fare negligible to me, but potentially a day’s worth of meals for he and his family. That alone made me want to jump out and look for an actual motor vehicle to continue this leg of the trip. But when I realized that we were headed for an overpass–with a significant uphill approach–my much more selfish, much less socially conscious side cried out. I could literally jog faster than our current pace. I seriously considered tossing some rupees up front and making a run for it. Unsure of the level of disrespect of such a move and not totally sure that I could not find the hotel on my own, I remained, checking on my driver often. I was more than a little concerned that he may not last until the hotel.

The rush of relief was mutual as we crested the overpass and headed down the other side. As one hurdle faded behind us, we were immediately faced with the next one: the maze of alleys that was the neighborhood of my hotel. Completely unrecognizable to me from the night before, I had nothing but the address to go on. And although the area was heavily populated with tourists and dive hotels, my ‘driver’ seemed equally as helpless. After no less than 10 inquiries of people on the street, I arrived back where I had started. After paying twice my fare and a bottle of water to ease my guilt, I strode into the hotel and urgently explained to the desk clerk from the night before what I needed. In addition to the C-form and the laundry list of documents that I was to bring with me, I needed to make an appointment online. The desk clerk appeared stunned so I took over.

“Go find the C-form and I will make the appointment,” I said as I marched behind the desk and sat down at the computer.

Knowing that the hotel had an incentive to help me in the form of their illegal books, he went. I found my way to the FRRO website. I needed to make an appointment and to apply for my permission to exit online. In this day and age that sounds like a simple task, but then ‘simple’ does not make for good stories. As I clicked through the application, everything did seem simple enough, until it asked me to upload my picture. Ugh! More obstacles! With no time to feel sorry for myself I opened the ‘selfies’ album on my phone and emailed a recent head shot to myself to be opened on the computer. I downloaded it to the hotel’s computer and then browsed for the file from the application website. We’ve all been through the process. Tedious and time-consuming, yes. A little annoying, sure. But considering the mission, this should have been the least of my worries at this point. And it was, until I saw the dreaded pop-up box: “File could not be attached. File size is too large.”

Still, no need for panic; just make the file smaller…easier said than done. I sent the picture again, this time choosing the “small” option on my iPhone. Same result. I cropped it. No dice. I took a new picture–of my passport photo this time–from a distance. “File size is too large.” My forced partner in crime, the elderly-appearing desk clerk, had managed to find the C-form but when it came to the computer he was unhelpful; in fact, he was useless. It was at this point that I almost broke. Until now I had not allowed self-pity or thoughts of failure. I didn’t have time to complain about how ridiculous it was that I needed permission to LEAVE the country or to explain to the hotel my thoughts about their leaving out this detail of the C-form. The mission was all that mattered and any self-indulgence of the lunacy of the mission would lower my chances of completing it.

Now, I faced the possibility of the whole mission going up in flames over a digital picture and my total incompetence about pixels and how to manipulate them. I had exhausted my computer savvy and did not have another idea of how to make this picture small enough to attach to the application. The tears welled up and the meltdown was imminent. I didn’t know what to do except try again. So, I did. I don’t know why and I don’t know how; I don’t know what I did differently that time, but, by some grace of Krishna, that photo uploaded and the mission was saved. Photo attached, C-form attached, I clicked on to the final screen: “Make Appointment”. Everything appeared in order, except… Except that, this being 12 noon, my appointment was scheduled for the next day. With no time to worry about that, I printed the paperwork and rushed out again. Foregoing the pettycab this time, I hailed a vehicle with a motor to take me back to the station. I knew I would have a subway trip to think about how to convince the FRRO to let me in a day early.

Now the middle of the day, New Delhi traffic was in full swing. I quickly found myself in a deadlocked tangle of cars and tuk-tuks with scooters and motorcycles doing their best to navigate the maze. I found myself wondering for the second time in a day if I wouldn’t be better on foot. This time, I made the call. I checked with the driver to confirm that the station was “just up there”, I tossed him a few rupees, and I jumped out to take my chances. As per my ‘no-walking-without-exit-permit-in-hand’ rule, I ran. That is I ran as fast as I could while also zig-zagging through cars and dodging scooters doing the same. I made the right call. That tangle had barely moved by the time I made it to the station entrance.

By now the subway was easy. I breezed through the station and hopped my train. This time I was more insistent with the tuk-tuks and ensured the first one that I knew where to go. Back at the FRRO I saw the same crush of bodies, except this time something was missing: any conceivable authority figure. No longer shy about the lack of a line, I shoved through to the front table and found the reason. A loose leaf piece of paper taped to a pole told me that this was lunch time. How convenient. With no one in sight I took a seat and glanced through my stack of papers, keeping a vigilant eye on the front table.

Shockingly, 2 guards appeared at the time shown on the loose leaf lunch announcement. Predictably, the crowd came to life and lurched forward. At the guards’ insistence some sat down. Since these were my gatekeepers to the next step of the mission, I decided to forego demanding, in-your-face persistence–a technique that certainly had its place on a day like this one–and do what the men said. I kept a close eye and when one came near my row I thrust my paperwork toward him and smiled to show some semblance of humanity. He glanced up and offered a curt “what do you need?”

“I need a permission to exit, I’m flying tonight.”
“You need copies of these.”
*Heart Sinks*
“Is there a copy machine here that I can use?”
“Out there. Take a right…Wait. Your appointment isn’t until tomorrow.”
He pointed to the top left corner of my application to prove it.
“I know. But my flight is tonight.”

I pointed to my flight itinerary to solidify my point and now did my best to strike a balance between the aforementioned determination/persistence and a humility that might woo the gatekeeper to break this rule in the midst of hundreds of others who had appointments today.
“Go make the copies and come back.”

With no time to argue, wonder or worry, I went. When I came back with the copies I made my way through the crowd for the third time in the day. As I handed my papers across the table to a new person, I heard a familiar objection, “your appointment is tomorrow.” I responded with old faithful, my flight ticket and itinerary. There was a brief and muffled discussion among colleagues, some eye-rolling and, finally, my golden ticket. One of the guards tore a piece of paper out of a notebook, wrote my name on it and wrote a number under that, which coincided with a list he was keeping in a second notebook. Handing it to me, he pointed toward the door of the actual building. This is what hundreds of us had arrived for today and what many had failed to secure. This literal scrap of paper was my key to the next step of my escape from India.

I almost didn’t believe it when I handed my scrap over to the guard at the building entrance and he didn’t laugh in my face and turn me away. Instead, he stepped aside and motioned me in as if that piece of paper were a press credential. I turned left at the end of the hallway and felt as if I had walked right back into America. The DMV, to be exact. There were rows of folding chairs filled with anxious and impatient people; a counter that wrapped around the perimeter and a neon counter that presided over the entire scene, deciding who’s turn it was to approach. Trading my scrap paper for a new number, I sat down and waited. With ‘only’ about 20 numbers between the current glowing number and the one I had just pulled, I was optimistic.

A man in the row in front of mine wore orange robes. I wondered what had landed him here and what transgression he was righting or permission he was requesting. Seeing him also reminded me why I was in India in the first place and I took this anxiety-filled down time as an opportunity to practice the breathing that I had learned over the past month. To relax. To notice and enjoy the moment. To accept my situation just as it was. And in that moment lies the greater riddle. The clash between ‘to be’ and ‘to become.’ If I simply accept myself, my situation, my life as it is, then how will I ever accomplish anything? Would I have any drive? On the other hand, if I only accomplish and never take the time to ‘be’ and to accept what is, how will I ever be fulfilled? How will I ever be peaceful? I guess this is the difference between sitting at the DMV in America and sitting at the “DMV” in Delhi. I had never before contemplated inner peace while in line for a new license or a driver’s abstract.

I contemplated life’s riddles and practiced my deep breathing while the numbers on the screen slowly clicked up. Finally, I was called to the window for what seemed to be a screening. “What do you need?” “Do you have these papers?” etc… No alarm bells seemed to go off about my appointment time. Instead, the woman motioned ‘over there’ and I took a seat in another section of the room to wait.

Eventually I was called to a second window and a second government employee. He held out his hand and I handed over the stack of papers that indicated why I was here. “Passport!” he demanded. I obliged. He jotted some notes and began to explain to me that I would have to pay a fine, as well as the required per day cost of my extra days in India. This sounded promising! No head shaking, no finger wagging, no ‘that’s impossible’. It looked like I was going to pull this off!

“But…” Never celebrate too early…

“Your appointment is not until tomorrow.” My old friend was back. “You need to go over there and ask for permission to have your appointment today.” As he pointed to the side of the room, at a woman sitting in an office with the door open, I thought to myself, “AM I NOT ALREADY HAVING THE APPOINTMENT?!!” Breathe. Collect yourself. Do what he says. I smiled and replied “Ok, of course. Right now? Just walk in?”

“Go.” He had a sarcastic and slightly condescending air about him. I liked him.

I reached for my passport, not wanting it to be out of my sight. He snickered at this overzealous and overanxious American tourist, but handed it over. I strode across the room and waited to be invited into the office. Once inside, I explained my situation yet again and pled my case to be let out of India. I don’t remember the woman even speaking to me. She glanced through my papers, gave me little more than a once over and stamped the appointment sheet. Permission granted! Here’s to small victories. I still had the real permit to secure, but that seemed like little more than a formality now.

I headed back to the sarcastic counter and was not shocked to find someone else in my place. Having no confidence that I would be called on if I waited politely, I stood awkwardly at the fringe of their personal bubble to be sure I was recognized and could jump in the moment they paused. As soon as there was an opening I shoved my papers through the break in the fiberglass separating judge from jury. He rolled his eyes, but accepted my papers. Glancing over them he stopped briefly to confirm my occupation and my father’s name. As an unmarried woman, I had to include my father on this official application. This was 2015. I was 33 and had been living on my own, working and traveling the world for years. Still, in the eyes of the Indian government, I had to be connected to a man, either a husband or my father. While I had dealt with major comfort zone expansion when I arrived, this fact made me feel uncomfortable in a different way. In the grand scheme, it was minor–I only had to list my father’s name. He could’ve been dead or completely made up for all they knew. The question was nothing more than a cultural quirk, leftover from a more traditional time in a country that was evolving more slowly than mine as far as a woman’s role in society. And yet…the feeling that I was not enough on my own; that I needed a man’s name on the paper in order to be recognized, stood out to me and gave me pause.

I couldn’t pause for too long because my condescending judge was handing down his sentence. I would need to pay 800 rupees per day that I had illegally extended my visa, plus a penalty of 1,800 rupees for overstaying. I had stayed 3 days past my visa bringing my total punishment to a whopping 4,200 rupees. When converted to dollars my fine came to a very manageable $65. I was in the clear. As I reached into my wallet, my heart sank. I had spent the day so focused on collecting paperwork that I never thought to check how much cash I had left.  A day of traversing New Delhi, paying for subways, tuk-tuks and human cabs had left me 1,400 rupees short of my penalty. By this point you won’t be shocked to learn that the FRRO did not take credit. I looked up from my wallet at the gatekeeper to my freedom and admitted, “I only have 2,800.”

Unfazed: “So, what are you going to do?”

Were there options I hadn’t thought of? Perhaps I could stay here and work for you…
Defiantly: “Is there an ATM nearby?”
“Just outside, around the corner, 50 yards.”
YESSSSS!!! I was going to make it after all.

I turned on a heel and sprinted away from the counter and out the door, this time leaving my passport with the man who I now felt a deep connection with. By now, we went way back. Out of the compound, around the corner, no more than 50 yards away stood the most beautiful ATM vestibule I had ever seen. I rushed in, inserted my card as I had in Rishikesh and typed in my password. I requested more than I needed and waited for the machine to dispense my freedom cash. After a few seconds, instead of the hum of a machine counting currency, I was presented with a new message on the screen.

“ATM IS CURRENTLY OUT OF CASH. APOLOGIES FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.”

I re-read the message several times before coming to the only logical conclusion: I was living a bad dream. One of those where you are stuck and can’t get out. You spend all night racing around, expending great effort, thinking of solutions, trying harder-only to be undone, just before dawn, by the smallest glitch that you never saw coming. You wake up scared, exhausted and wondering, “what the hell was that?” Upon realizing that I wasn’t stuck in India, but in my own subconscious nightmare, I craved that horrible feeling of waking in the post-dream state. Even that would be better than how I felt in this moment, staring at a screen as unforgiving as the government employee who currently held my passport.

As appealing as the thought was to curl up on the floor of the ATM booth and live out the rest of my days in the fetal position, I somehow managed to bring myself back to my current reality and make a new plan. My options were: fetal position in ATM booth or find another ATM. I retrieved my card from the useless machine and set off on a new, unwelcome adventure. I asked someone for an ATM and received a new set of directions. I set off, weaving through cars as I crossed the 4 lanes and hopped the concrete divider outside of the FRRO compound. The directions led me right into a row of street side produce stands and confused looks when I asked where the ATM was. A new set of directions had me crossing traffic again, further up the road from the FRRO and my passport. I followed the dirt road as instructed until I saw the white tents of an outdoor market. I approached, hopefully and skeptically looking for the bank that was promised to be there. I saw the sign for the bank and headed towards it. As I approached, I noticed a man holding a long gun standing in front of a pull-down security door hiding the ATM. The door hung open with about a foot of space between it and the ground. The man displayed no signs of being a security guard, despite the impressive firearm. He wasn’t menacing. In fact, he was laid back, an older man. He reminded me of a Walmart greeter, except solemn and armed.

He didn’t strike me as approachable, so I put my hopes in a market vendor nearby. I asked him what was up and was told that, “This happens a lot at the beginning of the month. The ATMs don’t have cash. A truck is on its way to fill the machine.” I silently judged the entire country for having ‘beginning of the month’ ATM cash issues on the 6th day of said month. “Get your shit together, India!!” Instead of screaming my thought out loud, I ordered lunch. I had seen someone refill an ATM machine in Rishikesh and I had used that machine directly afterward with no issue. With firsthand experience that supported the vendor’s story and no idea where the next closest ATM might be, I decided to have some food and wait. I ordered a serving of whatever he was making and was told simply, “no.”

“Uhh…what? Why not?”
“This is too hot for you.”
Just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised anymore. . .
“I can handle hot food. I’ve been here a month.”
“I’ll make you something else.”
Was it racism? Cultural insensitivity? Kindness? At that point, who the hell cared? He handed me a paper plate of rice and other things and I ate it.

As I finished, an armored car pulled up and a man wearing a grey uniform got out. The man walked past the security detail and shimmied under the door. A good sign, to be sure! 2 more people now stood waiting for the ATM and I took this as another sign that the ATM would soon be fixed and I would escape my nightmare. As 5 minutes stretched to 10, then 10 to 20, my hope waned. I was on a deadline, and it was pushing 3:00. The FRRO would close at 5:00 and there was simply no way I had come this far to fail at the hands of an ‘out-of-order’ ATM. 30 minutes had passed since the uniformed man had slid under the door when I asked for the fourth time that day for directions to the nearest ATM. The response was the most obscure yet:

“Head that way, straight through the market. After the market will be an open field. Keep going. On the left you will see a gate. It might be open, but if it’s closed you’ll have to jump the fence. Go to the right and follow the road 100 yards. Then turn left down a dirt road into the neighborhood. Turn right and follow the curve around to the left. You’ll see the ATM there.”

My head was spinning. Panic was rising. For all of the traveling I’ve done and places I’ve navigated, my sense of direction is the worst of anyone I know. It is not uncommon for me to come out of a store in the mall and naturally walk in the direction from which I came, rather than in the direction that I had been going, with no idea of the difference until I start noticing stores that I’ve already visited. GPS was not an option as I had no access to data without WiFi. It was a pivotal moment; the proverbial fork in the road: stay here, relatively safe, near the FRRO and sure of how to get back, waiting and praying that this ATM is fixed in time; or set off into the unknown, sure to get lost, unsure that the goal even existed. I was off again, sprinting through the market and keeping my eyes peeled for the gate, my next landmark.

The gate was open!! I ran through and turned right. I followed my directions all the way into the neighborhood with no problem. Once I got there, however, I felt out of place for the first time all day. In downtown Delhi; on the subway; in the FRRO office surrounded by foreigners from every corner of the globe, I may not have exactly fit in at 6 feet tall, white and a single female, but walking through this neighborhood-only slightly removed from the bustle of the main street I had driven and crossed on foot all day-the impact of my otherness was suffocating. In India, I stood out; in this neighborhood I was intruding. I felt uneasy, embarrassed. Against all travel advice, I asked two kids if they knew where an ATM was. As I followed them I felt sure that they would lead me astray, make a joke of the peculiar intruder. The boys turned down a narrow street and, to my relief, I saw the ATM only a few doors down. Assuming the ATM actually dispensed any money, I would gladly have offered my 2 escorts a tip. I was shocked when they walked off, accepting my ‘thank yous’ without any mention of payment.

This ATM was a walk-in, and someone was already inside, typing on the keypad. I stood in the street and held my breath. I imagined the customer in front of me draining the machine of all its cash and walking out satisfied as I rushed in to my eternal disappointment and doom. Thankfully, that scenario remained in my imagination. I got inside, slid my card in and requested the money. This time, finally, I heard the sorting machine inside the ATM counting out my cash rupees. Never before had I imagined that that sound could be so comforting. It took all of my self-control not to shout out in victory as I folded the cash safely into my wallet and tucked it in my bag. I walked back out into the narrow street, feeling light, relieved, almost invincible.

I walked in a direction, casually looking for a tuk-tuk. While I had tried to remain aware enough of where I was going to find my way back to the FRRO, I also knew that tuk-tuks were everywhere and, even if we had to stop and ask 20 times, I would make it back with the help of a tuk-tuk driver. But now, as I walked through this small neighborhood, I realized…I was the only tourist I had seen here. Tuk-tuks serve tourists. The feeling of joy that led me from the ATM was quickly replaced by the all too familiar nervousness and fear as I realized that I had no idea where I was, where the FRRO was or how I would find my way back. As my nerves twisted in my stomach I noticed that I had company. A small crowd of 7 or 8 boys had gathered and was following me at a distance. They did not appear dangerous, but curious and possibly mischievous. Still, nothing I wanted to deal with at this point. I kept my cool, kept my pace steady. I turned a corner and saw a tuk-tuk! Without a driver. Could anything be easy today?!!?! This tuk-tuk felt like my only hope and I knew the driver must be close, so I loitered, looking around, trying to be conspicuous. “Please take my money and bring me to the FRRO!”

As I waited for the driver to appear, the group of boys caught up and started talking to me, asking questions, showing off their English. A couple of them asked me to come with them, which I politely declined. Fascinated with such an anomaly, the boys did not tire or seem to get bored of me. They stayed, continued to speak in broken sentences and attempted to entice me away with them. Just as I was considering giving up on the only tuk-tuk I had seen in a mile, my savior arrived, seemingly out of nowhere. He looked at the strange scene surrounding his vehicle and I stepped up and handed him the address of the FRRO and asked him to take me. He squinted at it, clearly not knowing where it was. Still, I climbed in and we set off. He stopped 3 or 4 times to ask directions, just to get out of the neighborhood. Once we found our way to a larger street, I realized just how close I had been to the area that I knew. I heard the traffic on the main street and I relaxed as we drove towards it. In a few short minutes I was running back through the government compound that now felt like home. I skipped the lines and headed toward my favorite employee. He raised an eyebrow at me, collected my money and started stamping–my permission to exit papers, my passport, a paper I hadn’t seen before. He slid them across the counter and held up the new one as, telling me that I would need this one at the airport. I collected them, thanked him, and rushed out of the office before he could change his mind or a new obstacle to my freedom could pop up.

Once outside, I released myself from the obligation to sprint everywhere and returned to my preferred stroll pace. I crossed the main street again, this time without the urgency to run in front of moving cars. I found a tuk-tuk driver parked next to a street vendor and bought us both a portion of whatever was on offer before we set off toward the subway station, my 4th trip there of the day. I returned to my hotel like a weary but victorious warrior, except without any celebration or fanfare. I set their log straight by writing in my permission to exit number and then waited for Mila, my Krgish friend whose attitude had saved me from sleeping on the street a night before. Before long she turned up and filled me in on her day, namely the spice merchant that she had met and who had invited us to join him for dinner that evening.

My last day in New Delhi was a frantic crisscrossing of the city in a rushed state of panic. My last night in New Delhi was spent reclining on pillows at a rooftop hotel restaurant with the bustle of downtown Delhi barely within earshot. Mila and I joined Amit, The Spice Man, his brother and several friends for one of the best meals I ate in my time there. My flight out was at 3am, which allowed us to take our time. We drank, ate, chatted and laughed until Amit’s personal driver pulled up to take me to the airport.

At the airport, it wasn’t long into the check-in process when I was relieved that I had not taken the advice of one of my yoga classmates who had told me to “Just bring a lot of rupees to the airport with you. That’s how it works in these countries.” The agent at check-in greeted me politely and held out a hand for my passport. As he flipped through the pages I saw his face fall and an angry cloud gather over his brow. “You’re VISA is not valid.” He glared at me. I thrust my permission to exit paper at him as explanation. He read it over carefully as if he was looking for a reason to keep me in the country. Satisfied, he finished my check-in and handed back my documents along with my boarding pass. I breathed a long sigh of relief and headed toward the gate.

I did it. I pulled off the impossible. I flashed back to the first man at the FRRO. The officer who had told me, “tomorrow.” He never argued when I said, “No, today.” But his face and body language said clearly, “Impossible.” The difference maker, the reason I was now standing in an airport security line, rather than searching for new flights from a New Delhi hotel, was a decision–a mindset. I had decided that I was flying out today. I allowed myself no option for failure. That commitment brought me through, over and around every obstacle that I faced on this absurd day. Without that mindset, giving up would have been an easy choice, maybe even the more logical choice.  Impossible, then, is not ‘Nothing,’ as Adidas claims, but a decision. Impossible is a mindset. Impossible is a choice.

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2 responses to “White Giant, My Last Day in New Delhi (part III) Escape from India

  1. I love your positive attitude… Nothing I’d impossible. Keep up the great writing it makes me smile.

    Aunt Nancy

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