Disclaimer: This story takes place in India, a country often portrayed as dangerous, unruly, and in a generally negative light. This was just one experience I had during my five months there, and the only time I really felt I could be in danger. I know it feeds into the stereotype, but overall that stereotype was not at all my experience.
John Legend’s “Number One” chorused from my phone alarm, my eyes opening to my dark room in the small hostel we stayed at barely overnight in New Delhi, India. We had gotten in around midnight, just five hours ago; our train to Jaipur left in an hour from the Old Delhi station down the road. My friend, Emma, and I sleepily shoved our things back into our backpacks, brushed our teeth, and headed out the door.
The nine of us traveling around the North together met in the cramped lobby to make our way to the station. Two of my friends and I, feeling lazy, opted to jump in a rickshaw to go down the road—it only cost 60 rupees (1 USD) so we didn’t mind paying the cost of indulging in this small bit of luxury.
We paused as we entered the station, looking around for our six companions and trying to get our bearings. We figured our group would be fairly easy to find—we were pretty much the only white people we ever saw, even in our relatively busy city of Hyderabad, the split capitol of the Southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana, India’s up-and-coming silicon valley.
A man approached the three of us and asked to see our tickets. We half-skeptically showed them to him, and he informed us that our sheets of paper were merely reservations, and that we would have to go upstairs to the international office to get our tickets printed out. Because this is how the airports worked in India, we let him lead us to the staircase in the back of the station.
My eye caught a sign right before we were about to walk upstairs that put me on guard. It said something to the effect of “Beware tourists, this office is only open from the hours of 8AM to 8PM. Do not be fooled by people saying it’s open outside of these hours.” So I knew the office was closed as we followed this man up.
A second man was standing on the landing outside the office. As we approached him he informed us that the office was currently closed. Good sign. After looking at our tickets for a moment he then told us that our train was actually canceled, but there was another train to Jaipur leaving from the New Delhi station at 7AM, and that it was about 8km to that station and a taxi could easily take us. We thanked him, our first thought being that we had to tell the rest of our group about our canceled train.
However, just as we were about to head back downstairs, a shriveled old woman passed us on the stairs, and, once she was behind the two men who were assisting us, she turned around and urgently, but silently, wagged a cautionary finger at us. Her message was simple: do not believe what these men are telling you. In our CIEE program orientation the directors had told us not to take directions from men, and to only ask women and families for help. The lesson from our program staff combined with the ominous warning from this stranger put us on guard, and we quickly thanked the men, grabbed our tickets from their hands, and rushed back down to the main lobby.
“Yo fuck that,” I said as we got out of earshot of the men, “did you see that lady? Let’s ask someone who works here, or a police officer or something. We shouldn’t believe what they just told us. And let’s find our friends.”
Assuming our friends were already inside the loading areas, we headed toward the platform entrance. A man who appeared to be checking tickets stopped us as we headed past him, and, surprisingly, relayed to us the same information the man outside of the office had: our train was canceled, but there was another one leaving from the New Delhi station, about 8km away, at 7AM. He ushered us over to the taxi stand to help us get a ride to the other station.
At this point we were extremely wary of what was going on around us. As we approached the group of cabbies, each of us pulled our little Nokia brick phones.
“Wait,” Emma said as the cab drivers attempted to load our bags into the trunk, “we have to call our friends.”
Here another red flag was raised. The cabby started rushing to try to get our luggage off our backs and us into the car as soon as he heard we were part of a group, and not just three white girls traveling alone.
Seconds later, my roommate walked over to us and asked what we were doing. We explained the situation to her, starting to move away from the swarm of cabbies and the second ticket man, but still amongst them.
“Our train isn’t cancelled,” my roommate said. “It just went up on the board, it’s leaving from platform two. I think everyone else is already over there.”
We turned to the cabby and told him we were just going to get our friends, and rushed off. Needless to say, we didn’t come back, but instead headed to platform two, found our friends, and were on our way to Jaipur within fifteen minutes.
As our train pulled away from the station, the three of us speculated over what could’ve happened if we went with those guys. We were delirious from a combination of sleep-deprivation and adrenaline. At best, we surmised, we would’ve missed our train and been ripped off by these cab drivers; we probably would’ve had to pay them a lot of money for transportation. At worst, we could’ve been mugged, kidnapped, countless other horrible things. But, as it turned out, we were totally fine, and because we trusted our instincts, and kept in mind the warnings and advice we were given early on, nothing bad happened to us.
Even so, I didn’t tell my parents this story until I was sitting with them in the car on the way back from the airport in America. I think they were grateful for that.