Thursday, February 7, 2008

Bizarro India

I was sure I was dreaming.

I had prepared myself for several hours of Indian frustration. I had to mail a letter. And get extra visa pages added to my passport. This would be not be easy -- maybe an all-day affair. I put four newspapers and Madame Bovary in my backpack and set out for the post office down the street.

I started shaking my head angrily before I even opened the post office's doors. I was sure there would be an unruly, haphazard queue inside whose unspoken rules of common courtesy were abided by fewer than half the people waiting.

But there wasn't a queue. There were four postal employees sitting at the counter behind a glass wall. Three of them weren't helping anybody.

Blinking in confusion, I walked up to the counter and addressed a female worker. "I need to send a letter to America," I said, expecting her to tell me that she couldn't do that in this office, but that if I filled out a form in triplicate, provided six copies of my passport photo, waited three days, drove across town, and donated a kidney, I might be able to mail the letter.

"Regular, registered or speed post?" she said.

"What?" I said. She repeated herself.

"Um, can I do registered and speed post?" I asked. She nodded.

"But that's probably really expensive, right?" I wondered, searching for the bummer of a but that's ever-present in India.

"Thirty rupees," she said. About eighty cents.

I mailed the letter. The woman printed off a receipt with a tracking number. A tracking number! I was in awe, and left the post office three minutes after I'd arrived.

Five adorable puppies were playing outside. One looked like a baby Tonka.

"Wow," I said.

I met Aliyah for lunch. Afterward, I steeled myself again for what would certainly be an exasperating experience at the U.S. Embassy.

Upon arrival, I saw a winding line outside -- perhaps 30 deep and three wide -- and I sighed with familiar resignation.

I signed in at a security desk (where the guards asked if I spoke Hindi, I told them I spoke some, and then they immediately proved my claim false by saying something in simple Hindi that I was totally unable to understand), and then got searched. One of the security guards, still chuckling, directed me to a sign that said "Line 5: American Citizen Services."

I went to the end of the outdoor line and stood behind a short Indian man with a silver beard. There were dozens of people in front of me. I stood there for a minute. The man in front of me kept looking at me, confused. Then he stepped to one side and gestured for me to walk passed him. I turned to a uniformed queue monitor and asked with my eyes what I should do.

"Go inside," said the queue monitor.

"B-b-b-ut the queue," I said.

"Not for you. Inside."

Feeling guilty and a little embarrassed, I walked passed a whole load of Indians and went inside. I got searched again. Then I was led to a crowded waiting room packed with about 50 anxious Indians. "Here it is," I thought, and began looking for a chair.

I hadn't even taken Madame Bovary out of my bag when a man in a uniform came up to me. He led me around the pack of waiting Indians and into a small, comfortable office at the end of the hall.

A woman with an American accent was behind the counter. There was no line. She added 24 extra pages to my passport with no hassle and didn't charge me a cent. When I left the embassy, I immediately caught a rickshaw, and the autowallah didn't try to overcharge me (I'm a white guy leaving the American Embassy! Is there an easier target for minor financial exploitation?).

I started feeling really eerie. What the hell was going on?

I'm sure things will be back to normal soon. I'll probably wake up at five-something a.m. tomorrow to the sound of booming fireworks and a fatuous holy man chanting the neighborhood's wake up call while a rat crawls into our bed and monkeys go through our trash outside. Oh, and somewhere in there I'll get tricked into getting naked in front of a male masseuse.

Now that's the India I know.