Booking a car – how hard can it be?
Our India travel plans included a wonderfully convoluted train ride up the mountain to Shimla on the splendid Himalyan Queen. At 5 and a bit hours, you can travel more quickly, but that’s hardly the point. Also it’s world-famous, iconic, written about.
Bu what of getting out-of-town?
From the UK it was a head scratcher trying to link up the travel arrangements between Shimla and Jaipur. Eventually we opted to book a direct train from the nearest railhead: the state capital Chandigarth. The bit in between Shimla and there we’d source on site. How hard can it be? In answer to that seemingly rhetorical question, what follows is firstly the answer but secondly, quite by accident, a blow-by-blow account of how India, um, happens. (You’re here now, relax, get a cuppa, read on. I’ll wait.)
Step one: need established, find a suitable supplier. The desk at our hotel were laughably uncommunicative. With sketchy wi-fi and dodgy shop fronts to choose from we are at a loss. A coffee stop – behold the interwebs: with wifi! – sees us settle on a highly rated vendor. Google maps says they are less than 6 minutes walk away. I can even eyeball their building as indicated on my phone: it’s in direct line of sight.
Step two: make contact. We use their web form to contact them because a mobile connection is not so easy. They respond! Perfect. We say we’ll be there “toot sweet” and drain our drinks.
Step three: find the office. Have you seen Shimla?
After walking back and forth we twig that their Google Maps location is akin to saying 1 The Mall in London. Because for the uninitiated it looks neat and has cache. (Shimla, with its layers of British Raj history has “The Mall” as its main street don’tchaknow.)
Imagine traipsing up to Buckingham Palace and expecting to find a travel desk. Exactly.
[Aside: will Amazon et al ever crack India? Because it’s OMfG difficult to find places even when you have an address and can apparently eyeball the building.]
Step four: call them. After exchanging eMails we make wholly unsatisfactory telephone contact like this.
[Click] repeat X4 or so.
Step five: get directions. Now I get some people aren’t gifted in the explaining where they are and how to reach them department. But then, they wouldn’t choose to run a travel agency, right? Wrong.
We have graduated to using an Indian mobile now and – when finally we speak – are instructed really, really vaguely until I reach way point. Call – another way point. Call… until we are outside a very, very shabby shack. You have probably seen it perched on the hillside in the above piccy. The banner outside has a close-enough travel company name, with the correct office address: 202. We go in. There’s a suitably marked, filthy office door: 202. I push on in with a cheery smile.
Step six: contact. The two bewildered ladies in the ante office respond to my hopeful “hi, we just spoke?” with a nonchalant shrug and a point to the boss man next door. In these parts hierarchy/sexism/jobsworthiness/don’t ask me – delete as appropriate – is still a thing and I simply carry on. Himself smiles warmly, invites our party to sit in his dingy den and listens patiently as I explain our need (duplicating the eMails. After all, you can’t over communicate, right?).
Step seven: establish trust. Although the surroundings look dubious, he immediately corrects me about our Chandigarth loco’ departure time. The train has been brought forward by 70 minutes to 19.40! Gadzooks: so lucky we found you sir. (Both Indian rail booking apps I use show my 20.50 booking as current and correct. Try to make a fresh booking howevs’ and the “confirmed” train time doesn’t exist. IE: We’d have definitely missed that train had we not met this fella. I check later and our booking is still valid: it’s just the train time that’s changed… It is also the LAST train of the day anywhere.) He seems cool with our car requirements which are, in short, thusly: a chunky, well maintained whip with a well schooled driver that we are definitely not going to die in.
Step eight: get the right deal. We anti-haggle. IE: Caving quickly and weedily agreeing on 4,000IRP for the 120k (4 hour) journey. (It was 2500IRP for a wee car. But there’s 4 of us. And we’re, ahem, grown ups. With luggage. A seventeen year old Suzuki Alto is not going to cut it. We’re not in Borneo now.)
Step nine: sort the paperwork. He fills out a totally normal – yet to us olde worlde – 3ply carbon copy chit. Longhand. We both sign it.
All the while my mobile phone keeps ringing with an unknown Indian number and I dismiss each call. How annoying! I even answer one call: “hello?” “Hello?”
Step ten: shake on it. We pay 1000IRP deposit, shake hands all round and cheerily wave goodbye. Palpable relief all round on our side. Good work team, a job well done.
Step eleven: WTaF?! On the doorstep, meet the original travel agent who you were on the phone to in the first place. As I emerge last, a young lady and her oppo are already talking to Lucy. Turns out they were the travel people we’d been eMailing and talking to all along and had come to find us (too bloody late). They’d beeen phoning and phoning and phon…
We’ve just walked into a random travel agency in a shack and booked a totally providence free cab in a case of surreal mistaken identity.
Step twelve: hastily apologise to original ‘agent and move on abashed.
Step thirteen: find bar, buy beer and try to figure out how that all happened.
- Phone and eMail lady really didn’t communicate effectively – dammit use your company name instead of just repeatedly saying “hello?” Fail.
- The travel office we booked at shared the same address as on Google,
- Dude in travel office didn’t bat an eyelid, was super helpful and corrected our mistaken train departure time,
- Why the hell didn’t she just meet us in the first place and…
- er, at least we have a ride, right?
Step fourteen: karma. Later on we are nipping into a bar for that cheeky sundowner when we bump into the same travel guy! His main office is mere steps in the other direction from the cafe we first set off from on the taxi odessey. Okay, okay it’s a small town but still…
Step fifteen: take the journey. Will let you know how that works out?! What could possibly go wrong on a 4 hour trip down a mountain road that’s partially under construction and suffered terribly from landslides in the recent monsoon in a country where driving is – at best – hair raising.
Spolier alert: we made it.
In next weeks episode: the saga of buying four stamps and a postcard. No, am not kidding…
PS: 4000IRP is about forty quid.