Sunday, July 10, 2011

Venice, the Metro Station

Barely two days of travelling on non-airconditioned, Rajasthan Roadways buses reminded me of how privileged I really am. The only other time I’ve travelled in sleeper class in a train was five years ago, when I went for a summer camp. And that, too, was not by choice – sleeper class was what the camp had booked for us.

Now, I’ve spent three weeks living and travelling among villages in Rajasthan. I’ve travelled in sleeper class, both with and without confirmed bookings, taken four different government provided Rajasthan Roadways buses to get from one village to another, hitched rides on everything from an overstuffed auto to overloaded tractors. And though I wasn’t so okay with the situation at the time, I do appreciate the experience and understanding afforded to me by the travels.

Sitting in an unusually undercrowded bus, enjoying the luxury of personal space (having just finished a seven hour journey in a sweltering bus carrying at least twice the number of people as there were seats), I was oddly reminded of a guy I met in metro station in Washington DC. I’d been using my debit card to buy a ticket at the machine when a guy of around my age, carrying a guitar and a bag, approached me. “I’m trying to get to Venice, ma’am”, he started, which immediately confused me. It took me a minute to realise that he was talking about a stop on the metro line, not the city in Italy. “Could you buy me a ticket?” he asked simply.

I didn’t immediately understand his request – I still hadn’t figured out that Venice was a metro station. When my mind cleared, I pointed out that the fare was more than $6, more than double of what I was paying for my own ticket. He responded by saying that that was the fare for the peak hour, but he just wanted me to buy him a reduce fare ticket. “Let me worry about getting out of the station at Venice,” he said.
By now, I was even more confused. I’d used the metro system in DC just once, I didn’t understand that I could buy him a reduced fare ticket for $2, and he could wait at the Venice station for the “reduced fare hour” before exiting.

I refused to buy him the ticket. That one decision has bothered me several times since that day, mainly because the reason I refused was that the whole situation was very awkward for me. I didn’t immediately understand him, and it took me a while to see what he meant when he asked for the reduced fare ticket. Rather than prolong an already awkward meeting, I politely asked him to ask someone else. He thanked me before turning back to his original position, observing the other metro riders.

It was a stupid decision, not just because I turned down a civil request from a guy to whom the request was clearly costing a lot of pride, but because the reasoning behind the denial was so utterly stupid. Out of all the times I’ve refused a request for money, out of all the times I’ve shaken my head at beggar children knocking on my car window, all the times I’ve waved away the one-legged man or the young girl clutching an infant on the road, this one incident is one of the few denials I vividly remember and regret.

All I can say is, I hope the man and his guitar made it safely to Venice.

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