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A SURPRISING PROVIDENCE

August 19, 2011

My wife and I are missionaries, as I am engaged in the work of training indigenous pastors. In that context, we were invited to visit Birmingham, England, and, subsequently, in the city of Gurgaon, India, just outside of New Delhi. We were to spend our time in these countries both observing and serving in Christian rehabilitation communities which minister to the most challenging of demographics: addicts, criminals, prostitutes, and all those otherwise invisible to the social consciousness.  Understanding that this presented us with a unique opportunity to witness the transformational power of the Gospel, we had readily accepted the invitation.

I am writing elsewhere of the work that we witnessed during our time in the communities. Those visits presented repeated demonstrations of the grace of God to my wife and me in ways that we had never before imagined and left a profound and indelible mark on our lives. I wish here, however, to relate the story that follows that one. While this is not the substantive narrative of redemption and restoration that the other article will be, it was nevertheless a remarkable display of God’s providential provision – in the most unexpected of circumstances – and ought, therefore, to be shared. This story begins two days before we were scheduled to fly back to the United States.

As our trip neared its end, we planned to take a short trip to the town of Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, as our trip coincided with our wedding anniversary. To get to Agra, we would have to take a train for the roughly 190 kilometer journey. A resident of the rehabilitation center in Gurgaon where we had been staying dropped us off at the local rail station and, with our tickets in hand, we proceeded to the point of entry.

As we approached the security checkpoint where luggage was screened, I witnessed a man examining the papers of each passenger. He would take a quick look and mark their tickets with a stroke of his pen. As my wife and I drew closer, I presented the tickets I had printed after having purchased them on the Indian Railway website. The man took our tickets and informed us that we needed to get boarding passes before we could proceed. Even though the tickets indicated on their face that they were sufficient to gain entry to the train, the idea of required boarding passes was hardly foreign to us, particularly as we had just needed such on our flights from the United States and from England. I asked the man where and how we could get boarding passes.

He led us to a kiosk, where he examined our passports and entered our information on the computer screen. While awaiting the system’s response, he glanced at my wife, who is Malaysian, far more attractive than I deserve, and a dozen years younger than me, as well. He asked about our relationship and, upon learning that she was my wife, he congratulated me for my good fortune and, in that sense of good humor, turned to the screen.

“Your tickets are not valid,” he declared in heavily-accented English. “The railway stopped taking these e-tickets a year ago.”  He went on to say that if we attempted to board, we would be assessed a penalty as unticketed passengers which could easily cost several thousand rupees. Before I could raise much of a protest, he quickly assured me that all would be fine.

“Don’t worry,” he offered; “All you have to do is go……” What followed was an impossibly complex series of directions intended to guide us to the tourism office where, we were assured, the problem could easily be resolved. I asked for clarification, then I asked again; all to no avail. We really had no idea where we even were, and, as anyone who has been to New Delhi can attest, the city is a veritable quagmire of tangled streets with virtually no meaningful directional signs and wildly erratic and quite frightening traffic. Once again, however, our new friend (who had by now identified himself as a police officer) sought to quell our concerns and offered to accompany us in a taxi to the tourism office.

He hurriedly led us out to the car park, where he headed straight for a cab parked near the back. He rattled off the details of our problem to the driver and inquired about the rate to take us to our destination. The cab driver quoted a rate of 500 rupees.

“No, no!” he objected. “These are my friends!”

This seemed to impress the driver somewhat and the rate was reduced to 350 rupees, about $8.00 at the prevailing exchange rate. Consequently, my wife and I – together with our newfound champion – piled into the tiny cab and sped off down twisting alleys and side streets.

“He is taking a short cut,” the officer said, turning around in his seat. “This will get us there much more quickly so that we can be sure to get you back in time for the departure of your train.” That departure was scheduled for 45 minutes later.

In about five minutes, we arrived at a well-lit but smallish office, with a prominent neon sign over the door declaring that this was an official India Tourism Ministry location. The three of us rushed in and the officer led to the desk near the back where a young man – the only person in view – sat before a computer. The officer quickly explained our dilemma and presented the tourism agent with our e-tickets. The agent typed our information into the computer and, agreeing with the officer, informed us that our tickets were invalid and worse: there were in fact no longer any seats available on the train we were planning to board!

“But,” I rebutted, “The tickets say on their face that our seats are confirmed!”

The agent acknowledged that to be true; however, he noted that simply because a website accepted our credit card information (and, thus, our money) did not necessarily mean that the railway would accept the ticket. Sadly, he reminded us that there are lots of scams on the Internet.

“Okay. What are our options?” I asked, resigning myself to the reality of our plight.

He looked online at several trains, only to find that they were all full or, if not, the only seats available were in coach class which, in India, scarcely differs from cattle cars, with passengers sitting on wooden benches in crowded cars. I was not prepared to subject my wife and myself to such conditions for what was supposed to be a short vacation of sorts. Like a ray of light, however, he then thought of a more viable option.

“I can arrange for a car and driver to take you to Agra! You would be there in no time.”

He then offered even more help, as he asked for our return tickets. Obviously, if the tickets I had purchased to go to Agra were invalid, it only followed that the tickets I had purchased for our return to New Delhi the next day were likewise invalid. This was of even greater importance, as our return was timed to coincide with our flight from New Delhi to the U.S. He pulled up the rail schedules.

“This ticket is invalid, as well; also, if you plan to spend the night in Agra, you do not want to be on this train anyway.”

Seeing my confusion, he explained that the train on which I had purchased tickets was scheduled to leave Agra at 3:53 – in the morning. Not being accustomed to using the 24-hour clock, I had failed to realize that the afternoon train I was wanting would have departed around 16:00, not 04:00. Still, as he noted, it was a moot point, as that train was also not reporting any available seats and neither were any of the other trains from Agra to New Delhi the next day.

This was all quite depressing for my wife and me, as we had truly hoped to spend a brief time together on holiday. Also, this was a unique opportunity to do so, as the cost had been very inexpensive. In fact, for both of us to travel to Agra by train roundtrip had only cost $60 (or so I thought) and the hotel was reasonably priced, as well. The agent said that he could arrange a car and driver for the trip to and from Agra, and could even have the fare we had already paid applied to the cost of the car. This indeed sounded promising.

He picked up the phone, dialed a number, and spoke rapidly in Hindi. After listening for a moment, he hung up the phone and said that we could travel by car for only $390! Of course, this was simply not in our budget, and I told him so.

What followed was a series of barters and negotiations, with the agent eventually reproving us for thinking that travel in India was inexpensive. That was precisely what we had thought, and we were determined not to spend a great deal more than we had planned. All the while, the officer was showing us copies of receipts and passport photos and tickets of other passengers who had been in the same position in which we found ourselves and had either been assessed the penalty or, alternatively, had agreed to hire the car.

It was at this point that what had been merely a hint of a concern began to blossom into a full-blown suspicion that all was not as it seemed. In my mind, I began to rehearse the events of the morning. The “officer,” while he was in fact checking everyone’s ticket, was not wearing the pervasive paramilitary uniform so common to Indian airports, streets, and, presumably, train stations. Further, in taking us to the cab, he had bypassed a number of other cabs that were situated much closer to where we had been standing when he delivered his bad news. Also, the very notion that train travel in India was not inexpensive went against everything we had heard from friends and other missionaries who had reported that it was. Finally, and most significantly, I knew that the tickets I had purchased had been issued by the official government site of Indian Railways. The thought that they could have changed their policy regarding online ticket sales was not inconceivable, but the thought that the site would not have been updated for a year, as the officer and agent claimed, was rather difficult to accept.

It was obvious that my wife and I were both having similar thoughts, and, largely through eye contact, we both understood that we were not going to be hiring a car – or making any financial transactions – with these men. Rising from my seat, I told them as much, saying that we would simply forego our trip to Agra and remain in New Delhi until our flight the next evening. Now, any effort at pretense fell away. The agent began almost frantically offering lower and lower prices, seemingly desperate to make the sale. Against his protests, I led my wife to the waiting cab. The officer climbed into the front seat with the driver and, incredibly, began to hatch another scam, saying that he knew the conductor of this particular train and could probably get us on with a substantial reduction of the aforementioned penalty. As we arrived at the station, my wife wisely advised that we disengage ourselves from him. Though he kept following us, shouting after us to come with him, we continued in a different direction.

A few minutes later, we approached the same kiosk where our ordeal had begun. I entered our information, and the system verified that we were, in fact, confirmed for that train. We decided to attempt to board the train using the tickets we had printed. As we approached the security check, I was relieved to see the “officer” standing to the side with a group of travelers. We passed quickly through the gate without incident and made our way to the platform. A few minutes later, the train arrived. We climbed on board and took the seats our tickets declared to be ours. Throughout the entire journey, no one even asked to see our tickets! In fact, as we looked around at other passengers, we saw that many of them held e-tickets in their hands, as well.

Our trip toward Agra was largely composed of my wife and I dissecting the events of our crazy morning adventure. We wondered whether the man at the center of what was obviously a scam was a real police officer and corrupt, or whether he was merely impersonating an officer. We thought the same about the tourism agent (though the signs, sheaves of travel receipts, and passport data would indicate that it was a legitimate – if crooked – enterprise).  We marveled at the ease with which we were drawn into their deception, though we admitted that this is not difficult in a wholly foreign culture where language and standard procedures are unknown. We praised God that we had not fallen further into the labyrinth and lost substantial amounts of money.  We lamented that they were so well-organized that there was nothing we could do to expose their scam. The officer – if indeed he was one – could simply deny our charge, and the taxi’s furious and circuitous route, coupled with the darkness of the predawn morning, rendered hopeless any change of identifying the tourism agent.

My wife did note that we lost the cab fare of 350 rupees. I reminded her, however, that $8 was a small price to pay for the blessing we had received. What blessing? Well, had this ordeal not taken place, we would not have learned that I had purchased a return ticket for a train that ran in the middle of the night! Likely, we would have arrived at the train station shortly before four in the afternoon, only then to learn of the error. The agent was correct in saying that there were no seats available on any other trains that afternoon. Thus, we would have found ourselves in quite a tenuous position, stuck in a city nearly two hundred kilometers from where our flight home was to depart a scant few hours later. All this, of course, would have taken place in an utterly foreign environment as I would have struggled to find a taxi or hire a car to get us to the airport on time. Doubtless, also, the expense – both in dollars and in stress – would have far exceeded the eight dollars spent on the morning cab ride.

Before we had arrived in Agra, my wife and I had concluded that this was simply yet another demonstration of the sovereign providence of God. As Joseph reminded his brothers who had thought to do him ill, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Likewise, the men involved in this attempt to defraud us obviously had sinful and evil intent. Yet we trust in a God Who works all things according to the counsels of His will (Ephesians 1:11) and Who promises that all things work together for those who love God and are called according to His purposes (Romans 8:28). In the end, we gained a fresh insight into the providence of God, while experiencing an adventure that – though nerve-wracking at the time – gave us a great story to tell and made our trip to Agra an even more memorable affair!

 

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From → Missions, Theology

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