detailing inside a tuk-tuk…like our own personal fortune for the ride
All is well.
The head chef/driver took me to Varanasi Railway Station last Sunday afternoon. It had been raining; not only was there no electricity in the station, or in the trains, but the station was flooded. I followed him through the dark, through the crowds, through ankle deep water into the waiting room.
He doesn’t speak enough English for us to talk, so he just sat with me, in silent solidarity, while we waited for my train. I am finishing _Anne of Green Gables_ on my Nook/iPhone, which I probably haven’t read in twenty years. As I sat next to him in the crazy waiting room, uncertain what the next day–trip to Delhi to try and get a new passport and visa–would hold, I read the part where Matthew dies. He has been so good to Anne, and done the best he could in his taciturn way.
I was struck by this man, a near-stranger to me, and the fact that he prepares all of our food. Every morning, he comes up to the rooms and says, “Breakfast,” to wake us up. He is proud to show us when there are special treats, or sweet. He sat with me for more than an hour. I felt tears come to my eye and I couldn’t tell if it was from the book, or from being helped.
When my train came, he used his phone as a flashlight on the dark train, taking me through the cars to my seat. He gave me his phone number, and tried to explain that he would pick me up on Tuesday morning. We said good-bye. I was in an un-AC car, so my window was open. A few minutes later, his face appeared in the window. He stayed until my train departed.
In Delhi the following morning, I was met by Prof. Rahul, who also made himself known by appearing in my window. I guess they just walk down the length of the train cars until they see my white, blonde head. Rahul took me to the Embassy, and then worried when they wouldn’t let him in. I told him I would be fine.
The Embassy was a marvelous place, full of American accents, strong AC, peanut M&Ms, and kind helpfulness. I actually had a new passport (an “emergency passport”) within the hour.
The Indian Foreigners’ Registry Office as trickier. Much more chaotic, fewer computers (I saw none), and many more desks heaped with paper files. I had little hope that I’d have a new visa before my night train back to Varanasi left.
And yet– everyone was kind, helpful. I had to get a new passport-sized photo for the visa application, and found a pack of school boys running a soda and tobacco stand with a sign that said “photo stat.” I had no idea how they were going to take a passport photo; even when they whipped out the digital camera I doubted. They had me climb over the stone wall into their hole-in-the-wall shop, and sit in front of the soda cooler. Then they produced a white piece of board, and placed it behind me. Voila! I laughed, and primped and tossed my hair for the photo, and gathered quite a crowd of children. They used a small digital printer, and four four rupees, I had four small photos.
My number one travel tip is to have a copy of your passport and visa– that battered photocopy of my original visa was like gold; it proved that I had had a valid visa, and gave the IFRO a starting place to trace me back to the airline, and verify I was legal.
After four hours, and many vague reassurances, I finally got called back to the official desk. The gentleman stamped once, stamped twice, filled in the stamped squares, and used a tiny piece of string to “staple” my papers together. Then he handed my my stamped passport. I said, “My visa? I have? I can leave okay?” He said, “yes, yes, this is your new visa. You are okay.”
I was so surprised, and so grateful, that my eyes filled up. I hope and pray that government offices in my homeland treat foreigners as well as I was treated. I did the traditional show of respect I’ve seen Jain and Hindu scholars and supplicants do for their gurus and teachers– I kissed my fingers and touched the ground in front of their desk. They laughed and clapped their hands in their surprise.
I said, “Thank you so much! I wish I could back you a cake.” The head gentleman said, “Your affection and gratitude are thanks enough.”
I paid $135 for the new passport, the visa was free, and my train tickets were bought by another professor here because I had no debit cards at the time.
Rahul was catching the same train back up to Varanasi, and so made sure I was settled in my car before we departed. An elderly Indian, retired from British airlines, told me about the books he is writing–on the eight wonders of the world he’s seen, and on India threw his own eyes–during the first part of the train ride. Then, I climbed up into the top berth, right underneath the AC, under a clean sheet and wool blanket laundered by hands I’ll never see, my new passport safely in my backpack under my head, and fell deeply asleep.
The next morning, the chef/driver picked us up (in the car! what a treat!) and drove us back to PV. When we parked on campus, he turned to me and said, “Breakfast?” He was not satisfied with my only taking tea, and insisted I take two bananas.
Today, we had our last day. Yesterday I finished my paper (really a four-week curriculum and full teachers’ guide, with resources) on a Jain-based–emphasizing compassion and perspective-taking–for secondary school students.) Today I presented my project, and we had our last lunch. Our last mangoes! We’re about to venture out onto the ghats… tomorrow my classmates will leave. I’ve planned another “open mic” for tonight on the roof, a chance to share moments that have struck and stayed with us at some point during the trip. I can’t wait to hear what we’ve all found.