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That's not our train. Is it?

INDIA | Tuesday, 28 July 2009 | Views [2688]

It was an auspicious start to the day. As I ate breakfast there was a beautiful hindu song on the radio with a hypnotic, repetitive mantra. I had been reading “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert.  The author had been struggling to concentrate during the mantras chanted during her stay at an Indian ashram. I asked the manager what was the name of the song. It was the very same mantra that yer wan had been having trouble with! I took it to be a positive omen for the comfort, speed and ultimate success of another battle against India to get somewhere.

It started well enough. We were on a direct bus to Indore for a start, and it left on time at 9am. But after two inexplicable 30 minute waits in downtrodden market towns and another shower we found ourselves back in Dhar. Rain or shine, night or day, Dhar bus stand is identically unattractive.

Five hours in the rickety bus, listening to the deafening horns of ever increasing complexity. Why is it necessary to beep a 30 second long 120 decibel off-key melody when there is nothing, not even a lizard, around?? I had lost the optimism of earlier in the day, becoming hard and determined – it was time to return to the train system.

As soon as we arrived Giles saw a new side to my character, which most of my colleagues and certainly Claire, over the course of the trip, would recognise. Highly-motivated-no-time-for-fanny-arsing-around-Eoghan. He tends to get things done. We got a rickshaw to the station. The rickshaw-wallah took us to the bus stand rather than the railway, despite my protestations. I directed him back around and left him no doubt in his mind that he would not be getting an extra 20 Rupees for getting us to the right place on second attempt. Chancer.

In the station the information desk was manned by a blind man who seemed to be giving some sort of stand up comedy performance to a group of grinning locals. So not much information. When we found what looked like a queue (the word does not really do the reality justice) Giles, graciously recognising my humour, offered to mind the bags and let me sort things out. After 30 minutes of fending off queue jumpers I reached the top, only to be informed that I had to go to another building across the street (the ticket office, sensibly enough) in order to get the ticket to Kota and then the transfer to Udaipur.

I strided across the road, Indian style - heedless of the cows, beeps and traffic. I had a large rucksack covered in a bright holy dirty saffron cover – they could see me so they could bloody well stop for me for a change. We got a waitlisted ticket from Kota to Udaipur but ... it was too late to reserve to train to Kota so we had to go back to the station to get an unreserved ticket. Finally we had gotten all the tickets, asked people which platform, gotten snacks, water and a guide to India's train system and were sitting on the platform one whole hour before the departure time. With a rocket in the right place you can get a lot done in an hour or two.

I started to relax again. I leafed through the train book – I had been expecting a sort of pocket size book with a few maps and timetables but the train system is way too complicated for that. It's about the size of a secondary school science book and is a masterpiece in complication. It reminds me a bit of la Guia 'T', Buenos Aires' indisepnsible bus guide but on a far far far grander scale.

The 2nd class unreserved tickets for the 7 hour journey from Indore to Kota had cost all of 90 rupees each – about a pound. Neither if us had been in unreserved, so we would see what that meant on the train. One was at the platform already. Giles asked a few people if this was the right train and they all said no.. wait for next one. So we did.

There were a lot more characters this end of the train – the usual “which country sir?” merchants but also some pilgrims of some sect or another, complete with a handpowered wheel chair of the like I had not seen for a few weeks at least. They told Giles off for smoking on the platform.

Over chai, we chatted and finally watched the train pull out of the station at 16.20. Our departure time. You can see where this is going. It was our train. We had taken the word of random strangers of good solid platform information. I rifled through the portly Indian Railways at a Glance and confirmed that we had indeed been stupid enough to watch our train and only hope of getting to Udaipur, chuff slowly out of the platform. I was livid with myself, but there was no point crying over spilt milk so we left the platform and made our way back to the ticket office. I admit there was a little less spring in my step this time. On the upside, we found a decent enough hotel not too far away and managed to get reserved tickets for the same journey the next day. This side of Indore was better than we had seen and had more facilities. I never thought this was something there was demand for but I stand illuminated:


I got some spare ear drops and antibiotics (you never know) and found an internet cafe and a place that sold pizza and milkshake, ending up the hotel for a few philosophical beers with Giles. A decent lie-in and after breakfast I did some blogging. Giles found a place to finally cash his traveller's cheques. I arranged some rooms in a hotel in Udaipur. Sharing was fine but sometimes you need your own space. All in all it had been a pleasant and useful stay and we were ready for the trip to Udaipur now. Plus we would avoid the scary mystery of second class unreserved with our shiny sleeper tickets. Helpfully, they now had the train number and name on it and the carriage our names and berths in English and Hindi, making getting on the train foolproof.

Sleeper class is a three tier bunk bed with room for 6 to sit on the lower berth (which is why is good to get upper). A young family going to Kota and an elderly couple doing a pilgrimage joined us. They were friendly and considerate in direct contrast to the family of about 20 who spilled from their berth into our own, their own screaming kids competing with the tinny bhangra music coming out of their shiny mobile phones. I opened my laptop, started typing ignored as best I could the noisy family and the constant stream of urchins cleaning the floor with rags and begging for coins. At one point a one man band came in and gave a great busker show. Many people seem to live on the train going up and down the carriages selling food, water, newspapers, hot meals, anything. It would be quite feasible to spend weeks on a train and not need to get off for anything. Feasible, but not perhaps totally enjoyable the whole time.

After a while things settled down and people started to sleep but I read. I was too paranoid  about falling asleep and missing the stop. We pulled into Kota station after midnight and the train to Udaipur was due in an hour. Indian train stations usually smell distinctly badly of shit, despite the constant requests, aural and visual, for patrons not to use the toilets in the station. They also tend to house many of the homeless so the platforms are scattered with rags and the few possessions of skin and bone people who seem to sleep all the time.

A trustafarian from Oregon, the first westerner we'd seen in a long while, came up to us. He had an unreserved ticket to Delhi but wasn't sure of the platform. Giles and I nodded  wisely, recounted our tale and told him to make sure he knew the train number so he could make sure to be on it. Giles chatted away to him while I read. He didn't heed our advice though and his train left with him looking on, as we had one day before. Ours however was only a half an hour late. We had a better class thus time, back to 2AC. It was silent, dark and cool in the carriage and not long after putting my torch out I was out for a surprisingly good sleep. Barring catastrophe I would be in Udaipur in the morning, and hopefully out of the Monsoon!

Tags: stupid, train


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