I needed to buy train tickets the other day. So I just got in my car and went down to the station and bought them.
It sounds simple and straightforward. And on that day it was. That day, it was easy; it was almost fun.
It isn’t always like that. In fact, in many respects, that experience was absolutely amazing, and for me, personally, it was incredibly satisfying. It’s hard to explain this to those who don’t know how hard and utterly frustrating it can sometimes be to attempt and accomplish such simple tasks, especially when you live in New Delhi, India.
We have called Delhi home for almost six years now. It is a city that we have grown to love. But that doesn’t mean that living here has been easy. Some of the challenges in adjusting, especially early on in our stay here, were downright difficult, even maddening. However, in general, we would have to say that our appreciation and fascination with this place has triumphed over any frustration.
As I reflect on the simple success of buying train tickets, I recall the countless examples from our years here of how the seemingly most basic of tasks have been horribly delayed or entirely thwarted by a variety of benign obstacles, such as heavy traffic, parking problems, festival commotion, and closed offices. Not to mention that we have also been the victims of a few malicious scams involving creative deception and thievery.
The other day, however, was smooth. Traffic was light; parking was available; the ticket office was open and not crowded; the sun was shining; God was smiling. But there was something else too – I was confident, at least relatively so. And that makes a big difference. The fact is, we’re used to things here. It doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to expect the unexpected, but we go about these sorts of tasks quite differently than we did five years ago. We’ve learned to adapt to most situations and to adjust our expectations accordingly. I still pray and hope and humble myself and give thanks and try to keep a good attitude. But in many ways, we’ve learned how to live here. We’re not going to get any awards for our ability to survive in Delhi, but it is something that we feel a certain sense of accomplishment about.
For example, both my wife and I drive here. That may not sound like a big deal to you, but it is for us. Not many foreigners attempt, or even ever desire, to drive themselves here. They either rely on taxis, or on other public transport, or they hire drivers, which are relatively cheap and can be very convenient. Even a lot of our Indian friends opt for drivers rather than dealing with the craziness of Delhi traffic themselves. For whatever reasons, we chose to drive and we enjoy it and the fun and freedom it gives us.
On that note, I had a funny experience recently when I took a trip down south to attend some meetings with a group of Indian church leaders. I arrived early in the morning into Hyderabad and hired a cab from the airport to the guesthouse where I was meeting the group, most of whom I had met previously. It had been arranged that we would go by car from there to the location where the meetings would take place, roughly an hour’s journey. After briefly becoming reacquainted, five of us approached the car and to my surprise the man who owned the car asked me if I would like to drive. As I looked into his eyes, I could tell that he was serious. I accepted immediately. The invitation was attractive for a few reasons. First, because I was asked, and I took it as an opportunity to serve my Indian brothers. Second, because I love driving, especially in India. Third, I don’t always enjoy it when other people drive. In fact, one of the scariest trips I’ve ever taken in a car was on this exact stretch of road here in South India when our taxi driver was repeatedly falling asleep at the wheel and almost put us in the ditch on several occasions. I was ready to take the wheel in that situation too, but unfortunately I wasn’t invited to do so. Anyway, on my recent trip, I found myself driving down the highway in a small Maruti Suzuki with four Indian men as my passengers. I felt honoured. Along the way, I noticed that a few observers seemed to find humour in seeing a carload of Indians with a white driver. Whether or not they were made to think deep thoughts about colonialism and globalism, I don’t know. My passengers were appreciative, and that’s what mattered most to me. That, and our safe arrival.
During the next three days, I was their driver as we went back and forth daily from the guesthouse to the meeting place. It was my privilege, and my adventure.
But I think I have strayed slightly. Where was I? Oh yes, something about buying train tickets.
We all enjoy adventure, at least in some form. For some people, it involves extreme sports or maybe home renovations. For us, it has involved embracing life in a foreign country. Driving, of course, is only one small aspect of our experience. But aside from that, my wife and I have quite different ideas when it comes to other forms of fun. You can ask her about her favorite risks to take, but I will admit to enjoying tasks that seem utterly unattractive and daunting to her and to others, such as making purposeful visits to places in Delhi like the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Foreigners Regional Registration Office and the New Delhi Railway Station. These places are full of risk and unpredictability. Like airports (also among my all-time favorite places), they are swarming with people under stress, vulnerable people who are easily preyed upon by others. Places like these invigorate me. They make me think and plan and pray. I’ve written elsewhere about recent adventures at the FRRO, but as I walked into the railway station the other day (one of the most notorious places for all manner of theft and deception), I was thinking carefully about how I looked (confident or nervous?), how I walked (briskly or slowly?), what I was holding (nothing in my hands), and where I was going (directly to the tourist ticket office). I was on a mission, and I would not be distracted. I prayed, but I was also prepared. I was lean, focused, unencumbered. I wasn’t keeping anything valuable in my back pockets (far too risky); and I wasn’t drawing attention to the valuables in my front pockets, which included my wallet, my BlackBerry, over 10,000 rupees in cash and about $75,000 USD worth of passports (a conservative estimate on the value of six Canadians on the black market). I’ve been thoroughly hassled and deceived before at this railway station. But not on that day. I walked undisturbed from where I parked my car, across the street, through the parking lot, into the station, past the crowds, and up the stairs to the tourist office. There, I did my business in about 15 minutes, and then I fled, free.
Even then, during those few minutes at the tourist office, deceit and corruption reared their ugly heads. Fortunately, in this case, they only popped up briefly and they were easily avoided at a small cost. But that’s another story.
That whole experience was last week now and there has been a whole new set of adventures since then. It seems that our sensitivities are heightened these days due to the fact that we are thinking about leaving India and moving back to Canada. Details are yet to be finalized, but the grand shift appears to be coming soon. It’s difficult to put a family through this kind of change, but I’m grateful for the unanimous outlook that we have, that we are mostly sad to leave India and mostly happy to return to Canada. We are giving up a lot, and also gaining a lot. These six years have been a gift.
One thing is for sure, I don’t expect Canada to be the daily adventure that India has been. Driving will be relatively boring, and buying train tickets, if I ever need them, will likely be easy, and not as much fun.