Running Tired and Amuck in New Delhi


Crowded street scene in Delhi.

In spite of all my preparations, arriving in New Delhi still presented a challenge.

We posed no threat when we landed about midnight.  I had carefully hired a guide, driver, and air-conditioned car to pick us up at the airport.  My instructions were clear:  “I want the guide to be standing right outside the arrivals area with a sign about the size of a sofa that plainly states in big letters ‘John McCutcheon.”  Anything less I will not be happy.”

The guide had heeded my instructions to a fault.

It was embarrassing.

Afraid people would think we were official dignitaries, ripe for assassination, I sidled up to the guide and whispered, “We’re the McCutcheons.  Put the sign down.”

He carefully started multi-folding the sign to a size that would fit into a garbage can.

Then I said, “Wait here.  Don’t make a move.  We’ve got to exchange some money.  I don’t want to walk back to this spot in a few minutes and you not be here.  I have this spot marked.  You’re right under this sign I can’t read.”

John and I vascillated about the amount of money we should exchange.  Finally we nailed it.  We would be in India for three weeks.  Six hundred U.S. dollars should be enough for a start.  I told the clerk, “We’ll need some small change.”  I figured we’d need to tip the driver and guide when we got to the hotel.

The clerk’s eyes bugged out; he took our six hundred U.S. dollars and disappeared.  

We waited.  And waited.

Then we began to worry.  He probably thinks we’re rich Americans.  Wonder if he saw us with the guide and big sign?  Why is he taking so long?  Maybe it’s enough money for him to escape India.

We stood forever.  I began to take short rests on the luggage.

We were seriously worried.  What if the guide left?  It was now after 1 a.m.

Finally about 2 a.m. the clerk huffed in with the money. 

Holy rupee!  It looked like $200,000 in ones.  It wouldn’t have fit in a big shoe box if we’d had one. 

Back then we each traveled with two big suitcases, each half full.  We started trying to pull rupees from the stapled packages.  No way would even one bill budge.  Wide, long industrial staples ran all the way through the packages and folded toward each other on the bottom side.

All right.  The guide and driver would have to settle for U.S. dollars.  We loaded the packages into one of the suitcases and dragged our luggage over to the guide who, true to my word, was patiently waiting under the unreadable sign.

The next morning we broke my fingernail file trying to dislodge a staple.  After breakfast, armed with a table knife, we wallowed rupee packages all over the hotel room floor.  I broke a fingernail.  The knife bent.  Finally John reloaded a suitcase and headed to the hotel kitchen.  Somehow the kitchen staff found a tool to dig out the industrial staples.

We were ready for New Delhi.  So we thought.  We soon realized we had too many rupees.  Then we began lavish tipping in Agra.  By Jaipur we were donating generously to the few charities we visited.

A Pakistani cab driver we had hired to take us sightseeing came into India several months at a time to earn money for his family.  He wanted to take us into disputed territory and on into Pakistan to meet his family.  I wanted to go, but I was afraid we’d get trapped there.  Ironically, we were in India in May of 2001.  We didn’t know the horror that awaited.

Part II: Departing India next Friday.

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