Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Near Calamitous Journey to Jodhpur

My journey from McLeod Ganj to Jodhpur, Rajasthan proved a bit harrowing. Almost an entire day has passed since I arrived here, in Jodhpur, and I'm still thanking my lucky stars that I actually arrived and did not wind up about six hours west of here in the middle of the desert. Instead of a lukewarm internet cafe, I could be lying passed out from the heat in a tent in Jaisalmer surrounded by nothing but sand and camels. I know what you're thinking. It does sound kind of interesting. And, if I had more time I probably would have gone on a camel trip through the desert. However, I'm down to 8 days and my sites are now fixed firmly on Goa. I'm going to spend my last few days of freedom on the beach in a bungalow with nothing to do but drink rum punches and stare at the sea.

That's the plan anyway. I still have to get from Jodhpur to Udaipur, to Mumbai, to Goa, and as I was reminded of this morning, traveling in India can be a bit dicey at times. Which brings me back to the somewhat harrowing tale of my journey from McLeod Ganj. It started off quite nicely with a relaxing 3 hour trip via air conditioned car from up in the mountains to the airport at Pathankot. The flight from Pathankot to Delhi also proved uneventful. I met a woman from Croatia and enjoyed a pleasant conversation during the flight.

The problems started in Delhi after I purchased a pre paid taxi ride for 250 rupees from the Delhi airport to the Old Delhi train station. Usually the pre paid taxis are the way to go. They are supposed to eliminate the hassle of bargaining and ensure that travelers pay a fair price for their rides. In my case, I had gotten into the taxi (which was an old beat up black mini van) after showing the driver my pre paid form and confirming with him - to the extent possible since he did not or feigned not to know English - that I wished to go to the Old Delhi train station. This is to be distinguished from the New Delhi train station which is across town.

As we were pulling away from the airport my driver, a short, skinny Indian boy, glanced back at me and said, "Train station 200 rupees." (Which is almost 100% of the price I had already paid for the ride). At the same time another short, skinny boy jumped into the front passenger seat. This happens throughout India and in most cases the taxi driver tells you the other person is his brother. This is a lie and should not be trusted. Usually I demand that the other person gets out, but in this case we were already pulling away from the airport and I was distracted by the demand for more money.

I was immediately pissed because I knew as well as he did that I had already paid my fare in full and his attempt to get more money was pure extortion. I told him no and that I had already paid, and waved my receipt towards him. He again demanded 200 rupees. He did this several times while I continued to say no and to remind him that I had already paid, getting more heated each time. Finally, I slid the door of the mini van open, as we were driving on the highway, and said firmly and rather angrily, "Old Delhi train station. Already paid. Right?" I did not close the door until he nodded his head and said, "Right." He seemed somewhat shocked that I had opened the door and for the next 20 minutes didn't make any further demands for additional money. As we drove, I had my Lonely Planet opened to the map of Delhi and was tracing our progress through the city, making sure that he and his friend weren't going to try another way of taking money from me.

When we were 2/3rds of the way there my taxi driver tried another tact. Pretending to not know where he was going he asked, "Address?" Now I was really getting pissed. I pointed at the words "Old Delhi train station" on my receipt and said "You know?" and he shook his head and feigned ignorance. He again asked for the address and then I started raising my voice, repeating "Old Delhi train station." At one point we stopped at a traffic light and I got the attention of a man on a motorcycle and confirmed with him that we were headed in the right direction. Then I told motorcycle man that the taxi driver was trying to cheat me, that he was pretending to not know where I was going, and that he was demanding more money even though I had already paid the fare in full. The motorcycle man talked briefly with the taxi driver and confirmed that the driver knew where the train station was. Ah, to know Hindi... Then the motorcycle man told me to go to the tourist police if I had a problem. This might have been helpful except that I was having a problem, I was far away from the tourist police, and I was rushing to make my train - a 12-hour night train to Johdpur.

Luckily, after the traffic light I started seeing signs for the train station. At each sign I pointed them out to my driver and ordered him to go in the direction that they said. He then started to demand "50 rupee driver tip," and threatening not to go to the train station. I just kept insisting, rather loudly, that he needed to take me to the train station, complete with sharp hand gestures and admonishments to cut it out. I think I convinced him that I meant business because after another 10 minutes or so, which seemed to go on for ever, we pulled into the train station. I opened the van door while it was still rolling and started taking out my belongings. When he came around to my side of the van he held out his hand and asked for the paper. I gave him the paper, glared at him, and then stalked off. He didn't ask for money - I suspect because he realized how angry I was that he had tried to rip me off, and had threatened me. All of the other taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers just stared at us.

I was shaking because I was angry, but also because I had been scared. Almost everywhere in India it's been a hassle dealing with the taxi drivers. This was the only ride during which I felt a little frightened - because the driver was clearly intent upon getting more money from me - and it was the only time (so far) that I had to yell at the driver to make him take me to my destination. I basically had to show him that I was going to put up a fight if he tried anything sketchy, and if I had not been so vigilant with the map, and if I had not been up in his face demanding that he cut out the b.s. and take me to the train station I think there's a risk he would have taken me somewhere else and probably tried something stupid.

At the Old Delhi train station, I was greeted by the same masses of people lying about on the floor, begger children, unintelligible signs, and lack of any helpful official person that I had experienced in the Kolkata and New Delhi train stations. India, seriously, you have to do something about your train stations. They are nightmares. I picked my way over the bodies of people sprawled out on the pavement and tried to find my train number on the board. No luck. Then I wandered to the platforms looking for any signs or railway official. No luck. A man selling juice pointed me towards platform 17 and I crossed over the hanging walkway to that platform. There another man - this one dressed in army fatigues - told me the same thing, that the train to Johdpur was going to leave from platform 17.

It was 4:30 pm and I had over an hour before my train was to leave at 5:45 pm. Looking down the length of platform 17, most of it was deserted except for a small, beat-up, blue train way down at the other end. The train did not look like it would have any 2nd class A.C. sleeper compartments on it, which is what I had booked. Thinking there was no way that train was my train, I walked down and checked just to be on the safe side. Again, there were no officials to be found so I asked another man selling juice whether the train was going to Jodhpur. He shook his head and I walked off to sit on a bench to await my train. I waited for about 20 minutes. All around me the men on the platform stared at me, and I carefully refrained from making eye contact and pretended to ignore them. A few beggar children approached me and asked for money. As the minutes ticked by, I kept staring at the beat-up old blue train. Something told me to investigate a little further.

On the bench next to mine was a nicely dressed Indian man reading the paper whom I decided was a safe bet to ask for directions. I've become classist since arriving in India. The Indian man asked a few people nearby, and when they didn't know, he told me to wait a minute and went off down the platform, leaving me to watch his belongings. I decided then that he definitely was a good bet to ask for directions - anyone that trusting was definitely trustworthy. A few minutes later he returned and told me that my train, the one I needed to take to get to Jodhpur, was in fact the beat-up old blue train, which was bound for Jailsamer, a town on the edge of the desert several hours west of Jodhpur. It would have been nice if there had been signs to that effect.

After identifying the train, I had to locate my car, and then my berth. All of that proved slightly nerve-wracking as well. Initially, I wasn't allowed to get on the car because, I think, someone was straitening up the car. At one point, the train started rolling down the platform and I ran up to the car and started slamming on the door. A man poked out this head and told me to wait 5 more minutes as the train slowed to a stop. When I was finally allowed on I found to my great dismay that I had been given a top bunk in an area of the train that had basically no privacy whatsoever except for a small blue curtain. Worse yet, there was a fluorescent lamp on the ceiling of the train right next to my bunk, which was to stay on for the whole night.

I did the best I could to organize myself, piling my backpacks up on one end of my bunk and chaining them to the bed rail, and then using them as a rest to recline against. In that position, it was impossible to stretch out my legs unless I propped them up diagonally against the ceiling, which I did at various points of the night. I had my money belt clipped around my waist and my camera wedged between my body and the wall in a bag that I had looped over my shoulder. Needless to say, the journey was not the most comfortable train ride. I couldn't get to sleep for several hours. When I finally slept, I dozed fitfully, waking up every hour or so, each time checking my travel clock to see what time it was. The conductor who had come by to get my ticket - the first official person I had seen since arriving at the train station - had told me that the train would arrive in Jodhpur at 6 am.

At around 4 am, I fell into a deep sleep. I remember dreaming about finding a hidden bar in New York, a place that you couldn't see from the street. In the dream, you had to push a large red lever to make a bay window swing open and reveal a seat - a seat like you would find on a carnival ride, complete with a metal rod that snapped in place to keep you safely in your seat. I jumped into the seat and ended up talking to a couple who told me that they come to the bar all the time. The place had a speak easy feel to it and I was by turns impressed with myself for finding it and chagrined for not having discovered it earlier. Mostly I was happy to be there though.

Suddenly I woke up and looked around my bunk in confusion. My back hurt from where my bags had been digging in to it and my legs were stiff and cramping. There was no cool New York bar. Only the tiny little space, the itchy wool blanket, and the blue curtain lit up by the florescent light. It took me a minute to realize that the train wasn't moving, and I rummaged through my bag to get out my travel clock. It was 8 o'clock!

I whipped open the curtain, my gaze fastening on an Indian girl passing below my bunk. Urgently I asked her where we where. My heart was in my throat, and I was already mentally preparing myself to hear the worst - that we had passed Jodhpur and were somewhere out in the desert. How could I have missed Jodhpur?? She said, "Jodhpur," and I was so stunned that I had to ask her again just to make sure. She must have sensed the near panic I was in because she asked if I was getting off at Jodhpur and when I nodded affirmatively she said, "Only stop 15 minutes. Have already stopped 10 minutes." Holy crap!

I moved like I was on fire. I unlocked the chain around my bags, threw my books into one of them, checked my money belt and my bag for my camera, swiftly felt through the blankets and sheets for any of my belongings that might have become misplaced during the night, and then tossed everything down to the bunk below. I grabbed my hiking shoes which I had taken off during the night, felt through my blankets one last time, and then ran down the length of the train in bare feet, my bags flung across my back. I leapt off the train, landing ungracefully on the train platform, breathing heavily at the near miss, and dumped everything onto the ground next to a metal post. People stared but I ignored them. I must have looked like a disaster. My clothes were a wrinkled mass, my feet were bare and dirty, and my hair was a mess. I sat down on the ground next to my things and tried to calm down. I had some crackers, and slowly put myself together piece by piece.

Ten minutes later, I had my shoes and socks on and the train was still there. I was feeling a little silly after leaping out of the train, and I was also thinking that I should probably double check my bunk area. I picked up my backpacks and boarded the train a second time to check my bunk. On the way to my bunk I saw the Indian girl who had helped me earlier and thanked her profusely for her help. I checked through the blankets again and couldn't find anything, so I left the train. Somehow I had lost a wool sock, but it was nowhere to be found. To my knowledge, I got everything else. Then, for the second time this morning I stepped out onto the platform in Jodhpur. The second time I was far more graceful.

Exciting as last night's journey was, I've decided not to take any more trains for the remainder of my time in India. I'll be traveling to Udaipur via air conditioned car, and if all goes well, I will be travelling to and from Goa via plane.

I've been tagged by Artemis for a poetry meme, the rules of which are that the poem of your creation must start with "Roses are red." So here goes ("Blue" refers to the houses in Jodhpur which are painted an indigo blue color believed to have a cooling effect and to repel insects):

Roses are Red,
Jodhpur is Blue,
Goa is Paradise,
I'll be there soon.

By the way, according to two French tourists that I met while touring around the fort at Jodhpur, it was 45 degrees Celsius in the shade today in Jodhpur and over 50 degrees Celsius in the sun. For those of you Celsius-challenged like myself, that's 113 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and 122 in the sun. It is freakin' HOT in Rajasthan.


Prue said...

Holy crap. What a story! I am so glad you got where you were trying to go. Keep posting. This is really fun to read.

Buttercup said...

Prue - I literally just typed this and then saw your comment. I'm still checking email at this computer. How fun to be on at the same time! Hope things are well in TX. Miss you!

Starshine said...

Oh, Buttercup! How CRAZY! I hope you are well, and that you get to the cool beaches soon. . . . As glad as I am that you have realized your dream of travelling in India, I have a feeling that coming home will never have felt so good!

bug said...