Aah, but it gets better. I thought I left the drunken mobs behind at the Delhi railway station. Not so. More drama was in store for me as my whistlestop tour of northern India continued.
At the Kaziranga National Park in Assam (a state in the northeastern corner of India), I make arrangements with the lodge where I am staying to take a cruise in a small motorboat (below) down the Brahmaputra river to see river dolphins.
Two fellows from the lodge drive me to the launch site in a jeep. We get out of the jeep and make our way to board the motorboat, when a gang of young men intercepts us and begins a heated discussion with my two guys. At first, I don't think much of it. As often happens in India, I don't understand what they are saying, so I tune out. I notice only when voices start to get louder and louder. The next minute, they are swinging punches at each other! Two guys in particular are being very rowdy, shoving around the two guys who are with me, trying to push them down a small cliff, posturing, yelling at them. Others in the group are pulling sticks off nearby trees and thrashing them around as weapons. It's clear that the whole gang has had a bit too much to drink.
I'm standing in the middle of this melee and although they haven't targeted me yet, I start to worry about getting caught in the crossfire. I quietly inch my way back to the safety of the jeep -- such as it is, since the jeep is wide open -- and debate my next move. Should I intervene? Should I help kick some butt? My two guys are skinny fellows, and there is no way they are going to win a fight against these burly, alcohol-powered lunatics. Should I run for shelter into the tiny Shiva temple that stands nearby? Surely no one would hurt me inside a temple...
I still have no clue what they are all yelling about. After a few minutes, the ringleader makes his way to my jeep and starts yelling and posturing at me. "Why are you so angry?" I ask. "What is the problem?" He says something about "going down the river," but his English is very limited, so I understand little of it. I know that the Brahmaputra river is considered sacred by Hindus, and since I keep hearing the word "Hindu," I'm wondering if maybe he's offended that a foreigner was planning on cruising the river.
But it turns out his intention is nowhere near that noble. His gang of rowdy mates was having a picnic party (along with a busload of other revelers), and had decided they wanted to cruise down the river. The only motorboat available was the boat owned and operated by the lodge that I was staying at. It was not a public boat, but they decided they wanted the boat and had tried to bribe the boat operator to take them for a ride. The boat operator refused to take them because of their drunken behavior. This infuriated them further, and I'm guessing they were probably accusing the boat operator of preferential treatment for agreeing to take me but not them. They decided that if they couldn't go, I couldn't go either.
The fight dragged on for what seemed like forever. At some point, one of my guys managed to put a call in to the lodge, which immediately sent a car with two female staff to extract me out of the war zone and whisk me back to the lodge. They also tipped off the police, who must have arrived a few minutes after I left.
Safely back at the lodge, I decide to climb a little hill where a spectacular sunset is in progress. When I make my way back down a few minutes later, I find an entire battalion of armed men waiting for me in front of the lodge. Not one, not two, but at least 25-30 cops, all with various weapons by their side. Seated in front is a man who is introduced to me as the superintendent of police. He invites me to sit down next to him.
"The townspeople are very ashamed of how these troublemakers have treated you. Misbehaving in front of a tourist lady -- that is very, very bad. We welcome and respect visitors in this town. We don't treat them like this. These people are not from here, they are from a neighboring town. We have booked them and they will spend the night in jail. But first, with your permission, I want to bring them out here for a public apology."
Three cops escort the two ringleaders out of the police van and order them to kneel in front of me. It is clear that police lathi sticks have beaten the bravado out of them. (Police in India are not shy about using their sticks to maintain order...) They limp as they walk up, and visibly wince when they kneel down. They are no longer shouting or poking their fingers into my face. Their eyes are down as they kneel in front of me. "Apologize to the lady," Mr. Superintendent orders.
Ye gads. What do I do with them?? The travel guidebooks don't tell you what is the proper etiquette for something like this!! I feel like the pope, being asked to absolve his errant flock. I have no idea what I'm supposed to say to them, so I blurt out something lame: "Why are you so mean to the tourists? We just want to get to know your country...You shouldn't be drinking like this, it just gets you in trouble." They make a quiet apology under the watchful eye of the cops. I nod my head to indicate I accept their apology. By this time, I am almost feeling sorry for the jackasses. I'm quite certain that when they decided to pick a fight with two scrawny guys and an old white lady, they had no clue it would incur the wrath of an entire police battalion.
The superintendent gives them a little lecture, and orders them back into the van. The lodge owner promises me that I'll get my dolphin cruise tomorrow. Not without police protection, I tell him.
One thing's for sure: around here, they take their tourist protection commitment very seriously!
That's me on the dolphin cruise the following day, with the two lodge employees who "rescued" me.