Departure from Pathankot Junction | India | Living in Mexico

Departure from Pathankot Junction

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One of the best ways to tour India is by train. By air, you really can't see anything, and trains will often get you to your destination as fast as India's hub-and-spoke air traffic system where, if you want to go between any two cities, you usually have to connect through Delhi.

We wanted to travel from Dharamsala to Jodhpur, fifteen hours away. We decided to book a sleeper train, saving a night's stay in a hotel, and enjoying a few hours looking out at the Indian countryside. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Our first step was to secure reservations and tickets. We bought ours through a travel agent in Dharamsala who managed to make errors in our tickets. Examining the tickets he gave us, we found we had not been given the seat assignments we had asked for. Would he fix the problem? He told us this was not possible. We would have to present our tickets in person at the railway booking office to straighten things out. For us, this meant an encounter with Indian bureaucracy. Not good.

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We arrived at the Computerised Railway Reservation Centre/Center/Centrr and explained out problem. Could the agent help us?

"No."

(This is as good a time as any to introduce a precept of Indian public service: The proper response to any request is "no." The task of the supplicant then is to find some way to turn "no into "yes." You must learn how to play this game or you'll get nowhere in India.)

"Why not?"

"The computer is down."

"What's the problem? Is the power out?"

"Yes. We don't know when it will resume. Come back later."

(Note how we skillfully managed to get a "yes" out of the ticket agent. This is how to make progress. Now that the agent had been introduced to the idea of saying "yes," there was a chance he would eventually resolve our problem.)

"But it's 1:30. In an hour, your office will be closed."

"Yes. (another score!) You must come back at ten minutes before two. Otherwise the office will be closed."

At 1:50 we returned. Computer screens were glowing. We explained the error in our seat assignments. Could he change them for us?

"No."

"What's the problem?"

"You must present proper forms. Three of them. One to cancel your previous tickets with the seat assignments you no longer want, and one for each of you to purchase new tickets with the seat assignments you now want."

"Can't you just move us?"

"This is not possible. Completely new tickets are required. Here. Fill these out."

He provided us with three lengthy and obscure forms. We began to fill them out. Passport number. Indian visa number. Origin address. Destination address. Permanent address. Date of birth. Marital status. Number of convictions for crimes committed in India...

The clock was ticking. At two, we returned to the window with semi-completed forms. At that point, two Korean Buddhist nuns shoved in front of us. The agent addressed their needs. We could see our precious ten-minute window before closing time disappearing.

(Days later, we learned one of the rules of Indian queue discipline: Any unaccompanied woman may push her way into the head of the line with impunity. This rule exists to offset the shabby way Indian women are treated in all other aspects of their lives.)

Mercifully, the ticket agent dealt quickly with the nuns, and, inconveniencing himself, continued to help us after two o'clock, a true mercy. Our forms were painstakingly checked. Computers were consulted. Brows furrowed. The agent discovered that our new tickets would cost marginally less than the old ones. This meant yet another form would be required to make a refund.

Could we skip the refund? "No." More scribbling. More checking. Money grudgingly returned. Finally we were handed our new tickets. We examined them closely. They appeared to be correct.

Turns out they weren't, as we shall see.

The next day, we hired a driver for the three-hour car ride to the railroad station closest to Dharamsala: Pathankot Junction. We arrived on time, only to find that the train was late. Nobody knew why.

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Masses of people sat resignedly on benches or on their capacious luggage, waiting. No one seemed surprised or concerned about the delay.

So we had time to look around the station. We saw Sikh soldiers providing security. India is on high alert after extremists burned a train full of religious pilgrims. We had become accustomed to the heavy presence of the Transportation Security Administration at US airports, but the mood in India is much more serious. This is a country that could go to war over a simple misunderstanding.

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The stationmaster at Pathankot provided another glimpse into the officious world of Indian bureaucracy.

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Among the minimum essential aminities (sic) we found there is a deficiency in latrine seats. Tough on the ladies, but then that's true of most things in India. On a positive note the station boasts one more urinal than required. Of course.

Another bureaucrat, one P. Shankar, the Central Vigilance Commissioner, had horned in on the stationmasters turf, asking passengers to tattle on station personnel if they ask for bribes. Yeah, right. Do that. If you never want to go to Jodhpur again.

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A yellow kiosk sat on the platform. The lettering on it spelled no words; only abbreviations. Indian bureaucracy seems to have a special affinity for abbreviations. I stared uncomprehending at the kiosk. Finally I noticed a stylized telephone icon at the upper left. The place was a public phone both. A manned one. The Hindu standing in front of it is filling out a form, apparently required if you want to make a phone call.

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Several trains were visible when I peered down the track, but none were ours. An hour went by. Then another.

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Finally I heard an insistent blare from the horn of a diesel locomotive. (Yes, engineers here drive with their horns, just as motorists do.) Our train had arrived. We found our car and boarded it. We went to our seats and sat in them. Suddenly an Indian man wearing a canary yellow shirt came up and yelled at us. We were in his seat! We had to move!

We showed him our ticket, which matched the seats we were sitting in. "No Good!" he yelled. "These are not your seats!" He showed us his ticket. His printed seat assignments had been crossed out, replaced with new ones written in shaky handwriting. "You have to see the conductor," he shouted. "All seats have been reassigned."

Seeing that we didn't believe him, and that we wouldn't know what to do if we did believe him, and that yelling was getting him nowhere anyway, he calmed down and helped us find the conductor. A half hour of arguing and we were moved to a different compartment that at least had suitable seats. Without help from the yellow shirted man, we would have been assigned separate compartments, if not separate cars.

So much for our efforts at the Computerised Railway Reservation Centre/Center/Centrr.

The delays, bureaucracy and confusion hardly dampened my enthusiasm. The last time I had ridden a long distance train was during the Second World War. My father had somehow obtained a compartment on a Pennslyvania Railroad train from Philadelphia to Minneapolis despite wartime restriction on passenger travel. At only four years of age, I went to visit my grandma halfway across the country. I barely remember red plush bunks and white coated porters making up our sleeper compartment. That was a great adventure, and I expected the overnight train to Jodhpur to be one too.

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