24 Hours on an Indian train - Letter 2

Day 3 The train journey

Actually I'm writing this from Delhi airport, is it a week later already... god can't be. Just about to board our Jet Airways flight to Singapore.

On a Boeing 737 now. Where to begin – at the train station a week ago – its 6:30 a.m. We hear on the tannoy in Hindi first then English – a sort of Heathrow posh woman's voice, that the train is delayed by 4 hours. They don't say why. The platform is crowded with people. There is no where to sit, we have two heavy bags with us and two more portable smaller rucksacs. We sit on a small metal girder attached to something, there is water gurgling out behind us, pouring across the platform and on to the rails. No one notices but us. The crowds of Indians mill about, most dressed in rougher garb, grey blankets wrapped around – it's quite cool temperatures c. 8-10 C, head cloths wrapped round their heads and under the chin, manual workers, a few women in bright coloured saris. We appear to be the only Europeans – we too are wrapped up well against the cold in khaki trousers and layers on top, vests, T-shirts, jumpers, fleece gilets.

I get out the ticket again – we need a train with a certain number printed on the side, then we must get on at carriage 1A. We feel despondent, what are we going to do for 4 hours... we'd got up at 5 a.m and the taxi had dropped us at 6 a.m. A porter had grabbed our bags and we'd run after him up metal steps, down corridors, down steps and we'd arrived at Platform 3 where he'd deposited us, taken several hundred rupees (£2-3) a lot by most standards here and then disappeared off. Our bags were too heavy to carry up the steps and back, so we sat, there was nothing else to do, watching the mayhem around us.

At 8:30 a train pulled in to our platform and the number on the side is the number on our ticket, we check with someone, yes its the train to Bodh Gaya, our train has arrived. I had asked our Triratna buddhist tour agent to book us on Upper second class, which is usually cheapish but OK. But on the ticket it seems to say 3rd... this cant be right? We get in a sleeper carriage which has 6 bunks, check out the nearest toilets – holes in the floor type with metal foot rests at the side, inside the cubicle everything is grey with grime, there's a dirty tap handle for sluicing the hole..... Julia my hygiene fanatic friend has hysteriics then a panic attack.. The carriage is very dirty. I get out our anti-bacterial wet wipes (we had brought loads) and we clean every surface in the carriage.We're going to be here for 14 hours after all. Each wipe becomes quickly black, from the small table in the middle, to the bunks on either side. Two young men have got on, and they watch incredulously as we clean, they chat to each other in Hindi and laugh surrepticiously at these mad Westerners. They climb on their bunks opposite us and roll up in the grubby sheet we have each got by now and doze quickly off.

We sit on the bottom bunks which are empty ( our booking seems to be for a top and middle bunk) and make ourselves relatively comfortable facing the windows and dozing for a few hours. A chai wallah comes down the corridor calling 'chai, chai' every now and again. I get some in my metal cup every couple of hours, hot sickly sweet, milky tea, costing a few pence. Julia sticks to the water bottles from the hotel. Using the loo is a trial for both of us though – I have to hold on to the grimy tap to lower myself into position,I have bad knees. Then hand washing in the grimy sink, then anti-bacterial gel – we do not want any stomach bugs and mostly manage to keep them at bay due to strict hygiene prrecautions throughout our journey. We are beginning to cope and think ok we can manage when we stop at about the fourth station along. Outside our window (which by now I have cleaned – on both sides – so we can see out, there is an older woman with a large trolley covered in bags. I look at her with mild curiosity, pitying the poor buggers in whose carriage she will deposit herself. A few minutes later our curtains are swept back and there she is – we are the poor buggers. Our carriage arrangements are completey swept aside by the man who is with her, portly, bearded, grey hair, she is large and saried. Our cases are pulled out from under the bottom bunks her mountain of goods must go there, Julia's bag ends up on her bunk. Our world for the rest of the journey becomes the cramped confines of our bunks... food is brought for the inmates of our tiny cells from the grubby kitchens in the next carriage –veg curry and rice,with parathas(Indian bread) c. 60 pence for me in small cartons, v little for Jules who has lost her appetite due to a delicate stomach. In the night I wake to the train having stopped in the middle of nowhere and not moving for hours.

Fog has by now descended on everything, a kind of blanketing dry dusty fog so you can't see far out of the window. This fog is to come and go during our entire time in India. Is it due to weather or pollution, some Indian cities are apparently the most polluted in the world and everywhere we go there are gridlocked traffic jams.

Let's skip now to the end of our tortuous journey. It is now 22 hours since we arrived on that platform, 20 hours since we climbed on the train. We feel like prisoners on cell block H by now, we have learnt to survive in the awful conditions in which we find ourselves. We think we have faced the worst but little do we know what is going to happen next, just as we thought the torture of the journey was near its end.


End of the train journey, Bodh Gaya - letter 3

Day 4, Fri 18th
The end of the train journey, reaching Bodh Gaya

By now I have managed to secure us a bunk on the ground level in the top of the T facing the two bunks. This had involved an 'argument' with one of the guards who had said this one was for them to bed down in as it's near the cook's carriage. I emphasise our age, or ailments etc and then pretend not to understand further arguments. They give up and we both sit and curl up on opposite ends of this bunk. We can look out the window, go to the loo, sit upright without bending our necks etc. Perhaps what happens next is revenge although I'm inclined to think it was just a stupid mistake.

I am now asking every time we stop, how many stops to our disembarkation point, Bodh Gaya. I say Gaya each time, he understands and says Gaya back to me, until he comes to tell us, by sign language that Gaya is the next stop.
It is c 5 a.m and pitch dark outside. The train stops again in the middle of darkness for ages and we doze off – only to be woken abruptly by him – we are here, its Gaya, we must get off quickly, the train will not stop for long. We throw off sleep as he drags our bags and we grab our bits and suddenly we are on the platform and the train is pulling off.  

It is then we realise that we are standing in pitch dark next to our pile of bags and there is no one about, we are totally alone. Near us at the end of the platform is a wrought iron steep staircase leading to a bridge over the track and on the other side there seems to be a low square building (station?) and a few figures, dark shapes. Julia goes into panic mode again, 'OMG this is dangerous, we're on our own, we're going to be raped etc... I shout at her to shut up and stop being overdramatic. What we must do, I say, is call (on our expensive UK phone chips) Mani our so-called tour operator. I wake him up, he says isn't Anu there to meet us, we look around – no one is there. He says not to panic Anu is there somewhere, he will find us. Meanwhile a man with a rifle appears. He indicates that we must move over to the platform opposite – we explain we can't carry our heavy bags up the stairs. Eventually he and another guy help hump them across the rail tracks over to the other side. He deposits us in a kind of large concrete, bleak 'rest room'. Several men are rolled up in blankets on the floor. After a further back and forth with Manidharma about Anu looking for us, something dawns on me and I call the guard over again 'Is this station Gaya', No it isn't that's the next station along. I call M back and give him the good news. He freaks and tells us the station we are at is extremely dangerous, bandit country, we must get ourselves in to the station master at once. I say nothing to Julia or she will faint with horror. I merely gather our bags and tell her we're going to the station masters office, we have to find out how to get the next train. We are both sleep walking with exhaustion by now.
The station master turns out to be a neat man in his late 40s, his black hair is oiled and carefully parted and swept back at the sides. He has a neat clipped moustache. His clothes look ironed. He is a complete gentleman, he phones various stations back along the route and finds that a train is due in 20 mins which should take us to Bodh Gaya. We sit on a side bench in his office and he comes over to talk to us - first about the English cricket team, here in India – a TV is on low, high up on the wall, England are playing. He tells us about his children, that they are at college and that he has managed this station for many years and a little about the history of the railway line.
He keeps reassuring us that he will know when the train is coming and he will call a 'coolie' (his word) to carry our bags back across to the other side a few minutes in advance. He will ensure we get on the train. Julia keeps checking with him. I feel complete confidence in him, he is totally British raj. He asks to explain how we got off on his station platform in detail and shakes his head. He is convinced the guy must have made a mistake as that train rarely stops at his station. He asks for a description of the guy who put us off.
After a while we hear the hoot of a train in the distance and suddenly there is a flurry of activity. The 'coolie' appears and our bags are carried on his head across the track. We too jump down onto the track and scramble up onto the platform on the other side and the station master follows us. The station master ensures we get on the train, opening the door, explaining our situation to the guard who appears and depositing us on a bench inside the door. A man is shaving at a sink in his vest, another emerges from the toilet. We sit down on the bench with our bags underneath. After shaking hands all round with our saviour, the door is shut, the train moves off. I see there is a toilet labeled 'Western style' and get excited until I go in, then emerge quickly telling Jules it's full of shit. I text Mani that we'll be at Gaya in 45 mins. We will arrive almost exactly 24 hours from when we'd first got on at Delhi.
Bodh Gaya station is totally what I had been expecting – lots of people busily moving about on the platform. A porter in red appears and soon he and another guy have our large bags on their heads and we are trotting behind. Mani tells us to meet Anu at the main entrance. As we emerge from the station it quickly becomes clear we cannot wait there – it is manic and the touts descend on us like flies on rotting fruit. We retreat back inside and in a large hall we see a fresh faced boy walking towards us – it is Anu. He is about 5' 4” , has short neat hair and looks to me about age 12 (but is in fact 25). He is very relieved to find us, he says, Manidharma was very worried, he thought we'd get robbed or murdered. There's a taxi outside and he will drive us to our lodgings. As we emerge again from the station, a noise and cacophony greats us of traffic and car horns and more touts again, that our guide bats off. We keep our eyes lowered and follow him closely.
So this is Bodh Gaya – where the Buddha gained enlightenment, we look out at traffic and people around, it's 7.30 in the morning. We get to the 'hotel' and hump our bags up some stairs and down a long corridor – the room seems to overlook a building site, it is cold, the sheets are cold and slightly damp but we are exhausted and fall on the beds. I fall into a deep sleep and according to Jules, snore (rubbish)! We have arranged to meet up with Anu in the foyer at 1 pm for some site seeing.


India to Indonesia 2013 journey - Letter 1

India to Indonesia 2013 January

Day one

Well the trip has got off to a good start. The plane was delayed leaving Heathrow for an hour and a half – the first leg to Paris. It means unless our connection is also delayed – there is snow and ice in Paris causing the delays – will our connection to Delhi also be delayed? Will we have to run when we land in Paris? Landing has just been announced so am sucking a Werthers to counteract my ears popping and keeping my fingers crossed.

2 days later

Am now in the hotel in Delhi. When we got off the plane from Heathrow in Paris we ran down long corridors, it was chaos – there was so many people dashing about trying to find if their connections had been missed. Eventually we discovered that our flight had left 10 minutes before we finally landed. We joined a long queue of people, all had lost their flight connections. The man in front was en route to Cuba. Another had been on his way to Salt Lake city, Utah – for skiing! Another couple was going to Thailand. I texted my daughter while standing in queue to check if Air France had any other flights going to Delhi that day, but she only came up with one for the next day. She said there was an Air Asia going that eve about 9 pm. Which was just as well she did, becase when we got to the desk the smartly uniformed \air \france girl tried to put us on 'the only flight a available where you would fly to Russia (wrong direction) that night and then take a connection ot of \russia later the following day. I refused that one point blank and said what about the Air Asia one and she said (meekly) that we could join that one and booked us on it. Now it was only 12 noon and we had 9 hours to wait. She had told us we had to go to Terminal 3 in another building a good long walk to get too.

Anyway the day dragged on, the long walk to Terminal 3 ended with us being sent back to Termnal 2 as the girl had made a mistake. Julia said the day was highlighted for her by me making a huge fuss with an Air France manager. When we got back to Terminal 2 they wanted to keep us out of the departure lounge until 3 hours before take off. The outer area was cold and depressing. I went mental, demanded a manage, highlighted and over emphasized my age, health problems and everything I could think of and said their customer service was rubbish and I would never use Air France again. Ever. When the manager came (o you do have to make a lot of noise to get a manager – the other operative told me the same old.. same old … the manager will only say the same, no different to what I'm telling you, we can't help etc. Well in my experience manager's are more flexible and more likely to solve the problem efficiently. This one was kind, considerate and helpful – she checked us in herself so that we had our boarding pass 6 hours before take off. Now at least we could go to the Departure Lounge.

The departure lounge was like they all are. There was nothing to do but look in designer shops like Praada, Gucchi, Jimmy Shoo – it's OK for about half an hour max, then they get very boring -, over priced, irrelevant to ur lives. There was a couple of fancy cafes – 4 Euros for a bad cappucino in a v small plastic cup. They had some baguettes, but have les frogs heard of vegetarians? Mais No. Ah …. sorree medame, rien sans viande (nothing without meat), I gave in and had tuna. By the time we got on the plane, we were tired, bored and hungry. On the plus side I got to practice my bad French all day and by the time I got on the plane, tired, bored and hungry I was able to have short conversations with the couple next to me who spoke no English at all. They were my generation, v pleasant, Bob Marley fans who were carrying on from Delhi to Bangkok.

I'll skip the plane journey – didn't sleep much, watched a Liam Neeson thriller – not v good, 7-8 hours flight, by the time we touched down I was v grumpy. ..especially as Jules had 3 seats to herself and I only had one....

My first view of Delhi – looking out the window of the plane – fog, thick thick fog and as we disembarked you could smell the air heavy with it. This was not a cool mist but a warm fog full of pollutant, made you cough. On the plane I read an article that Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world, second only to one in China. It has a population of c 28 million I think... the drive from the airport involved sitting in long dual carriageways of gridlocked traffic, of course with the usual mad driving, horn ublowing near missing tuk tuks, vans lorries, cars, bicycles and scooter – all squeezing past each other through impossibly tiny gaps and as we got closer to the centre, mad suicidal pedestrians jumping out of the way at the last minute. The dust and fog around the hotel is choking and indeed I could not open my hotel window for long becase of it. Rather grubby blinds, when opened I shut again quickly – the view is of the side of another grubby building and concrete rubble on the street below..
My room (large double bed, small bathroom) is on the second floor of a building across the street from the main building. The young man who proudly showed me the room - large with beige marble floors -  with lots of Indian head nodding announced that there was constant running hot water in the showers etc. This should have alerted me – I went to have a shower and after 30 secs the water, hot and cold stopped all together. It was back to the old tried and tested large bucket, (yes madam we can bring hot water to your room) I washed in tepid water from the bucket and scoop.
Julia later, in her room had a sudden panic attack of homesickness, after our short walk out in the dust and chaos. Then our tour organiser Manidharma rang and we discovered that the train journey tomorrow, starting at 6 am lasts to 9 pm before we reach our first site ie Bodh gaya, where the Buddha gained enlightenment. ie. 14 hours on the train.  Julia went white. I keep reminding her that the journey is part of the adventure, but she doesn't look convinced. Perhaps a 5 star hotel by the beach would suit better? Don't answer that Jules.  This is well out of her comfort zone and I have reminded her (sternly) that the journey is part of the adventure.   I've promised to do some meditation with her on the train, to 'calm her'.
Going to crash now for my 5 hours sleep before the next leg of our adventure....