Bakshesh, Bribes and Old Fashioned Corruption (Jodpur)
A journey may involve spontaneous expenses in the form of bribes. Corruption is commonplace in India, and it can drain your budget quickly. This story looks at the time that I refused to pay a bribe to a government official, and the resulting night in which I was forced to wander aimlessly around a strange city because I could not find an opened place to sleep.
I should have noticed the omens. Buying train tickets is usually an easy process. I queued up for the standard 1-2 hour wait in the “passport holders only” line. The sign on the front counter also announced that it was the line for “freedom fighters”. Having fought to remain free, I felt I was exactly where I needed to be. The line for Indian citizens is always twice as long, as if domestic citizens have natural propensities to withstand long waits. I have been told by other tourists, but have not verified, that this is because foreigners must pay a special rate, much higher than locals must. Although this is true of some tourist sites such as the Taj Mahal and many private ticket agencies, I have never confirmed the popular tourist belief that the Indian government’s train system maintains a double standard for foreigners.
Regardless, the majority of westerners are apt to pay a larger fee to avoid the enormous lines for public transportation (and tourists do have more money to spend). However, this time I wanted to wait to purchase a sleeper car ticket for my ride across Rajastan. I was hoping to cut down on service charges and travel at a reduced budget.
At the Jaipur depot something evil was brewing in the air. One capitalizing ticket agency had developed a technique for generating profits. They would form tag teams as a way of stockpiling tickets to be sold later at a higher price. The Indian rail system has a rule that one person can only buy six tickets at a time. The way around this was by relaying workers from one line to the next, as one of them held the place in front. Ticket agencies could charge tourists higher commissions once seats were sold out, and even some Indian citizens might have to pay extra for tickets in high demand. The problem is that the many individuals who wanted to buy just a few personal tickets had to suffer extended waits in a room hot with body heat and humid desert air. The station became tense.
It exploded when a competing agency’s employees, dressed in blue and white shirts, tried to break up the monopoly of the tag team dressed in red and yellow uniforms. A multi-participant fistfight broke out and it sent soon-to-be passengers scattering out of place. In consequence, everybody rushed to fill the void of disrupted lines. Police rushed in to contain the chaos. To my interest, the police escorted the competing agency out of the station and did nothing to punish the red and white uniformed agency that started the confrontation. Later, individuals in line started to complain once the agency resumed its former trick. The Indian citizens pleaded with the window clerks to allow them access. They pointed out that the officials obviously knew the score and implied that the officials received kickbacks (baksheesh). However, the window clerks openly laughed among themselves and continued selling tickets to the tag team.
Eventually, two men’s anger manifested itself physically. A different fight broke out. Being outnumbered the two new protesters shoved agency members around until they, too, had been escorted out by police. The window clerks again conducted business with the same tag team that triggered both confrontations. This time everyone remained silent. In this entire ordeal nobody made any attempt to obstruct the line for foreign passport holder. The tornado of frustrated passengers whirled around us and we were left untouched.
This was my first experience of classic corruption in India and it was soon to be followed by another. I fully paid for a ticket from Jaipur to Jaisalmer. However, this route required that I make a midnight transfer in Jodhpur. At the transfer station I got caught in a Ping-Pong effect. The conductor refused to allow me on the next train. The reason was that I had been waitlisted and had to wait for seats to open up. Despite this, passengers who were placed higher upon the list were admitted before me. The conductor demanded that I get a refund from the bus station terminal. The counter clerk at the terminal window insisted that I must persuade the conductor to allow me to board somehow. Six times I ran up a flight up stairs between the track and the terminal. Each time I was refused.
The counter clerk would not provide a refund and the conductor continued to pull me off the train (after different officials permitted me to board). Many Indian passengers offered to help. One woman apologized for the Indian system that governed such affairs. Finally, when we were alone, the conductor placed out his hand in a palm up gesture that implied I should place money in it. When I didn’t stoke it with baksheesh the conductor declared that I should watch my backpack since its real dangerous outside. Still I couldn’t allow myself to pay a baksheesh reward for dishonesty and bureaucratic inefficiency, so when the train left I wasn’t on it.
Despite paying for my ticket in full I was not allowed to board nor was I allowed a refund. The counter clerk explained: since I already boarded the first half of my ride I could not be refunded for the continued journey, and due to rules I couldn’t exchange my ticket for a later train. Having a paid for, but voided, ticket with no opportunity of exchange, I had to accept the reality that I was stranded in a desert city at night with no place to stay. The unlit street was very black, it was past 1:00 am, and I anticipated an adventure that I did not want.
Jodhpur at night is a dead city. Everything is closed and almost all the artificial lighting is extinguished. The majority of hotels are closed down for the evening and even the cows go to sleep early. As I wandered and looked for a place to stay I was overcome by the magnitude of people sleeping in the streets. For those who could afford them, hundreds of beds were perched in the street. At night the mattresses looked like the squares of gray concrete sidewalk back home. Almost every bed outside was full. The bedless peppered doorways, staircases, and the bare cement of the street. Hundreds of men, women, and children slept in scattered nooks and crannies around the city.
As I walked in bewilderment a male voice called to me. He offered me an empty street bed explaining, “This is your problem: there is nothing open and no place for you to go”. In full agreement I declined the offer. Being a tourist with a significant amount of money on me, I felt an open-air bed wasn’t a safe choice for me (heeding the conductor’s words). Eventually, I did find a few open hotels that somehow doubled their prices once I inquired about a room. Even corner markets doubled their prices for cold drinks. My normal strategy for this situation is to find an all night diner and to drink coffee until the sun rises. However, this luxury was not available. There were a few Punjabi truck stops open but they had no place for me to sit inside and hide out. At these early hours, for some reason I never figured out, the Punjabi truck shops only offered warm milk to drink and nothing to keep me from falling to sleep outside.
I continued to walk and was stopped by police, who wondered what a lone foreigner was doing out so late. I lied to the officials and told them that I was just out for a night walk because I couldn’t sleep. Having recently experienced a corrupt railroad official I was unfairly reluctant to trust police officers. Unfortunately, this is an example of how one corrupt official can destroy beneficial trust with others. I began to suspect any official of being corrupt. The police who stopped me were friendly. They checked my passport and allowed me to continue walking.
I have had many travel disasters in the past and some, like my robbery in Thailand during Christmas, actually turned into a positive experience, but this one increasingly became a horrible situation. It was dangerous in a way that couldn’t be enjoyed like bungee jumping. The one silver lining was a Hindi temple that I stumbled on. A band of ten musicians were playing instruments and singing to an audience of docile cows and sleeping men. It was the most passionate and heartfelt vocals I have ever heard. I listened to them for a half-hour until they stopped. The music soothed me so that I forgot about my suffering. In retrospect, the temple would have perhaps been the best place to sleep, however all the good spots were taken and I would have had to sleep sitting up. It would have been safe enough to sleep near the temple but I stubbornly persisted to find a budget hotel.
I continued walking until all corner markets had been closed and nothing stirred except for a few feral dogs. It must have been around 4:00 am and I could no longer find my way back to the temple. My worry evolved into fear. I couldn’t detach myself from the knowledge of how dismal my situation actually had become. Finally, a policeman stopped me. He recognized me and this time I was directed to a closed hotel. He banged on the hotel’s metal doors until the night clerk opened them for my behalf. He reiterated that I shouldn’t seek the option of sleeping in the streets. The hotel was nothing fancy but suited my exhausted need to sleep. The policeman left without baksheesh and the hotel gave me the standard rate.
In the afternoon I woke in a good mood. What a difference it makes to be served something so priceless as sunlight for breakfast. The streets below had undergone a transformation during the night. They were packed with people, shops, motor vehicles, rickshaws, and roving cows. The empty streets that I had witnessed earlier were in fact the city’s busiest streets by day. The sunlight felt so good that I no longer cursed the corrupt official who placed me into the situation. I had to laugh at my Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde attitude as the city unfolded itself in morning light.