Daily Archives: May 29, 2009

The Great Railway Bizarre Part 4

The train ride to Agra lasted 5 hours, and we alternated turns sleeping to keep a watch for our stop, lest we miss it. The train ran through the night. Only the headlights of cars hauling cattle on parallel highway and the father’s snores punctuated the dark cabin. The night passed quickly and without consequence.

We departed the train at the Raji-Ki-Mandi station at approximately 5:00 am. The train had stopped near rough-looking platforms, but multiple people told us this was Agra, so we grabbed our belongings and rushed off the train with the same bustle in which we had boarded. A ways down we found the small station, and we passed the haggard men sleeping on bench to sit in the waiting area. Multiple rickshaw drivers had come to solicit to us, but we knew the place we were staying in Agra would sent a driver to us.

When we called, however, the hotel employee said they had sent their only driver to the Agra Cantt station to meet us, which we were actually supposed to get off on after this station. We had thought this was the Agra Cantt station, and related our mistake and frustration and mostly abandonment of the last 24 hours to him as best as we could. After two pushy, angry calls, we got him to send the driver, so we went outside to wait. In the half-hour since we had arrive, the misty, rough station had transformed into a hub of activity and the sun shone brightly already.

We waited on the steps until our half-closed eyes saw, like an enchanting dream, a rickshaw driver distinguished himself from the pack of those circling the exit. A tall, handsome, well-dressed, but very thin man, he was holding up a paper with ANNETTE written in big sharpie letters. I cannot describe how comforting it was to see one of our names affirmed in English, correctly written and pronounced, among the current and very recent madness. For once, our fate had a direction, a little steering wheel, and a bright yellow top.

We nearly hugged the man as he shoved our backpacks in the rickshaw.

“Your train was grand late,” he observed.

“I know it,” we exclaimed nearly in unison.

autorickshaw

The last twenty-four hours obliterated, and our sense of time seemed to reset as we sped through Agra. People and animals roamed the town already before 6. As if from a fairy tale, camels tugged carts through the streets and monkeys stared back at us with their stout grey faces as they played along the tops of the walls.

Soon we reached our hotel. Having fallen head over heels with dizzying frustration after an entire day of little to no help, when the man at the front desk offered to show us the room first before paying and told us that we had free internet, running water, a generator to back up during power outages, we feel head over heels in love right then and there with Agra.

here!

He led us through a gardened, quiet courtyard, cloistered from the street noise, and up a white tiled staircase to our room. When we were stranded in Delhi, I thought I would never see a mattress again. Although the hotel is about as standard as a Motel 6 in America, we felt like we had uncovered a treasure chest of comfort and we nearly etherized ourselves onto the beds right then and there. I have never been so happy to see cracked, white-wash walls, and a toilet seat with a seal reading, “This toilet has been disinfected for your protection.” For our sanity, really.

P1060071 Agra

hotel FOOD

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The Great Railway Bizarre Part 3

Although the time approached 10 pm, the station still bustled as it had when we arrived at 1 pm. However, the stares increased with the night, and stray dogs circled our bags. We were not unsafe, I knew, with so many people around, but we just wanted some answers and literally no one was left to give them to us. Of course, why should anyone concern themselves with our troubles when we ignored beggars in the middle of it? And of all the times I had given uncertain directions to foreigners in America, I couldn’t blame anyone except my own language barrier.

We decided to go into the Ladies Waiting Room, which was near the entrance. We had written if off before because of its location, and seemingly decrepit condition. However, when we poked our heads in, we found a plasma TV screen with all the information on any train that we could have used all day. We wearily sat down, and tried to decide what we should do for the night. Our train’s arrival time kept bumping back by the half hour ever half hour. We determined staying overnight in the train station would be foolish and dangerous and made a string of calls to local hotels to get a cab to pick us up and stay in this mad town for another night.

I was sitting in the waiting room with all of our baggage after Annette and Anne had left to make some more calls down the platform at the STD phone (STD stands for Standard Trunk Dialing, but it is still strange to say). I casually glanced up at the tv screen, and saw the 1450. For the last hour, it had read Status: Delayed Arrival. I didn’t process the truncated version at first then, when it the screen displayed 1450: Arriving.

Arriving!

After 10 hours, the train would of course arrive at the exact and only moment we really separated. I started in fits, looking confused and frantic at our luggage. The British voice announced it too, but I knew Anne and Annette were too occupied and resigned to be listening. I looked down the hallway to see if they were rushing back, but I knew I would have to come to them.

I started cursing, quietly by desperately, while attempting to pack our three backpacks, one duffel bag, a camera case, and a purse onto my one person.  Of all times! I couldn’t do it myself. Two young Indian women had been chatting across from me, and I turned to them with my crazy eyes and exhauled, “Do you speak English??” Yes, a nodded, for the third time all day. I explained that I had been waiting for my train for 10 hours and my friends just left, and could one of them maybe help me carry a backpack down to the phone?

One of them immediately jumped up and grabbed a backpack. She also grabbed at the water bottles and chips that I had intended to abandon for the sake of occupied hands. I bolted off, and she followed after offering to take another backpack. “I am so sorry, they are so heavy. Thank you, thank you, I am so glad you speak English! You are the most wonderful human being,” I shouted back as I ran as fast as I could.

I shouted “It’s coming! It’s here!” at Anne and Annettes small forms in the distance, while bobbing up and down with the weight of the luggage. Anne apparently turned to Annette, saying “That looks a lot like your backpack…” after just relating between each other their utter frustration. Anne then recognized me and ran to greet my shouts, and Annette followed shortly after. The man at the STD boothm, having witnessed our plight via telephone for the last hour, gave her a thumbs up as we rushed up the stairs.

“But we don’t even know if it is departing!” shouted Annette to me, sensibly.

“I don’t care! I just want to see it! I just want to know it exists!” I yelled, pushing through the ever constant throng of people.

We reached Platform 7 and rushed down the stairs. There was no train. We stopped for a moment, and I looked right. Farther down the tracks, I saw a line of green cars.

“There!” I shouted, and we were off again. Anne managed to get a few yards ahead, where I couldn’t see her. Annette lagged behind, burdened by the duffel bag. “I am not running,” she said, flatly. I mediated between the two, screaming madly, “Anne! Anne! Wait!” certainly to the amusement of every Indian waiting on the platform.

Somehow, we all caught up to each other, and Anne was already accosting a train employee. “1450? Agra?”

“Yes, yes.”

She pulled out our ticket, which by now was ripped and tattered from all the folding and pointing and running.

“Sorry…it is kind of sweaty. You were supposed to be here at 2:15?”

“Yes,” the man said, trying to suppress his weariness, too.

“B2?”

“That way.

At 11:00, we board our train, after verifying in all possible ways that we were on the correct train to the correct city, and we wouldn’t be thrown off halfway to Agra.

Somehow in the rush, we found our berth. As soon as we sat down, I started laughing uncontrollably. “It exists! It exists!” I cried. I knew whatever little thread of information we had clung onto for the last 10 ½ hours could not have gone to waste.

on the train

We were sharing our berth, which included 8 seats, with a small Indian family – mother, father, and daughter. The girl could not have been more than 3, and she smiled to us constantly but would not even shyly say hello. Their timidity counterbalanced our commotion. After literally throwing our bags down, we relived the experience in quick, exasperated, amused breaths to my voice recorder. When the ticket counter came around, the father helped us certify our places, and we gushed at him for his kindness. Even though I doubt he understood our words, our sweaty, relieved faces spoke it better.

We got settled into our mattresses, which jut out of the sides of the compartment like shelves, three high.

“Is that smell your handkerchief?” asked Anne to Annette.

“No…its my feet,” she observed.

“Who votes we keep our shoes on?” Anne said. We all raised our hands, and if the family could have really heard us, they would have too.

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The Great Railway Bizarre Part 2

In the by and by, 5 hours passed. We kept moving our stuff into the shade and huddling behind a large pole as the sun crept up from the hot, dusty tracks onto the platform. Everyone stared at us as they exited the walkways or trains, but no one approached. Annette had managed to obtain an Indian Cosmo, and between quizzing each other on “How Passionate Are You?” and surrounding ourselves with six bags of chips and multiple water bottles, we must have reaffirmed any typecast of greedy, loose Americans that already colored and intensified their glances.

Crowded platform

Crowded platform

Carts of luggage below the walkway on the platform at the New Delhi Train Station

Carts of luggage below the walkway on the platform at the New Delhi Train Station

Around that time, we discovered that a crackling loud male voice shouting of Hindi came from some hidden PA system, and a soothing automatic Indian woman followed with announcements of trains in English in a British accent. We perked up when our train was called. But it was delayed still! We came to hate that voice, especially when we could understand “Agra” among the fast Hindi but never know if it indicated our train.

If only Annette knew we were going to be here for another 6 hours.

If only Annette knew we were going to be here for another 6 hours.

Tired of sitting on the platform, we relocated to the walkway. Soon, however, we attracted a steady stream of beggars. One quite intoxicated woman sat close to Annette that when she started talking to her, a man waiting nearby us shooed her away when he realized the situation. He and another man pointed to Annette’s bag and ran after the woman as she stumbled slowly away, grabbing at her arm and starting to pad her down, fearing the woman had stolen something from Annette. The hustle continued down the platform until they disappear in the jostle of people. Annette’s stuff was locked and nothing had been taken, and we profusely thanked the man for it. In a sea of curious strangers, the unsolicited help seemed the most foreign and most relieving.

Eventually, we migrated back to the International Tourist Office, where loitered wasn’t allowed, but we didn’t care. The place, although cool, received the best analog to a DMV office. The dingy lights cast a florescent grey sunburn onto everything and everyone. People slump in chairs waiting to hear information that is rarely good in content or usefulness. Employees talk in hushed, unhurried tones of Hindi onto the large cord phones. However, we kept ourselves occupied talking to other dejected travelers, some enduring worse waits than ours. But, the office closed at 8. By this time we had no other choice but to return this time to platform 7, in the dark. As we walked outside back to the platforms, a low crescent moon slit the polluted haze with mustard tones.

“This is not where you come to meet someone you love,” said Annette. “This is where you go to die.”

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The Great Railway Bizarre Part 1

By the third day, we were all more than ready to leave New Delhi for Agra. My lungs felt just like a chimney after Suman drove us home from the city tour, and the heat and central location of our hotel made our room an air-conditioned enclave. The pollution still managed to creep through our windows, but the lurking employees knocking at our door at strange intervals to ask, “Everything alright Madame? Some chai or coffee now?” necessitated confinement had the naps of exhaustion not.

We woke up early on the day of our departure to run “tourist errands” – breakfast, souvenir and clothing shopping, and to order a cab to take us to the New Delhi Railway Station. We all bought lighter, flowing pants for about 150 rupees ($3), and some handmade leather shoes. The best find was a shop full entirely of ribbons, floor to ceiling. I bought a few yards of different colors and patterns, intended for embroidery, but I am using them as headbands to restrict my curls in the heat.

We ate a quick lunch at the rooftop dinner, literally shoving pizza, which was the best I may have ever eaten, into our mouths as we hurried downstairs to catch our cab. The station was not far from our hotel, but our backpacks would have encumbered and exposed us in the crowded street.

Before we had even removed our backpacks from the trunk, we were immediately assaulted by hecklers. In the dense crush of cars and people and luggage, it is difficult to know where to go or where to find information. The station has about three entrances, one directly leading the platforms, one leading into a giant, open-air foyer with three giant marquees displaying train arrivals and departures, and one leading onto the first floor platforms, newsstands, and food vendors. We had our tickets reserved online, but we didn’t know if we should confirm our simple, one-page print out or from which of the 16 platforms our train might leave from. It was set to leave in an hour, too. We had not expected this type of chaos. Our faces displayed not only our whiteness but our bewilderment, and at any moment someone appears at your elbow waiting to direct you, and generally their intentions are impure. We made the mistake of approaching a man wearing a whistle, blowing it as passersby for the purpose of directing them to one side of the walkway or the other, but his method was neither discrepant nor systematic. His clearly didn’t speak English, but as soon as we pulled our paper, a crowd of about 6 men had gathered, all telling us, “I don’t want anything I just want to tell you what is going on. Your train, this train, has already come today. You must go confirm your tickets.” These men don’t look haggard or unofficial, either, and had we not been warned by both our guidebook and our cab driver on the way over of this scam, we would have gone to “confirm” our tickets with an “official” office across the street. We have enjoyed the lucky quirk of obtaining safe, helpful, and generally protective drivers in our trip so far. The most saving acts of kindness and advice have come from them beyond their basic requirement of not killing us in transit.

Somehow, we managed to shake lose our followers, and we found our way to the International Tourist Booking Office, which was up a dark stairwell on the second floor around a corner. It is haven of air-conditioning and English language. The other lost and dejected foreigners alleviate your own confusion. At least you are not the only dumb American who can’t figure out the system that every other single Indian breezes through. We verified that we didn’t need to reconfirm our tickets; we could get on the train with our one little page of information. So, back into the fray.

We ran from platform to platform, lugging our giant backpacks up stairs and shoving through the throng, in search of anyone who might know anything about our train. It is difficult to explain the magnitude of the place and how poorly streamlined information is throughout. The marquees in the front constantly scroll through arriving trains and future trains. We had found ours – train 1450 arriving at 2:15 pm on platform 7. However, on the walkways leading to the platforms, small digitized marquees announce the next train arriving at a given platform. It is difficult to know this, however, and we kept looking for our train, but only seeing 2104, MG185, and 4002. The International Tourist Office, with its black and green 1980 computer screens, could only tell us train availability. “You must go down to the marquee,” they said, to find the platform. In our frantic sprints, we managed to track down a cop, who even used a walkie-talkie to inquiry with some unknown but seemingly knowledge entity. “Platform 6,” he said. A group of young men, about the only Indian travelers we found who spoke English, had told us “Platform 10.” At one point Annette ran all the way to the enquiry booth, which can only be reached by shoving through a messy “line” of people, shouting into a fuzzy microphone and attempting to discern the thick-accented reply. Apparently the woman had told her our train way delayed, and would come at 3:30 on Platform 10.  The system’s seams are loose indeed.

The most maddening component of our dash was having all the necessary information, but not trusting the any of its validity. Some people wouldn’t help, some people did but were probably wrong, and some, like many of the Indian families waiting too, wanted to help and could have helped had they spoken English. I feared most that we might be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and no one could tell us with certainty what we should be doing or where we could go. So we sat down on platform 10 to the stares of an entire bench of men and families, entirely lost in a very specific location of Delhi with no discernable escape.

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Serendipity

While eating dinner at the rooftop café of our hotel, Anne related to me that she was living by the principles of  The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. She and her mother had discussed the book some time back. The general notion of the book is that things will come to fruition if you simply put them into the universe through verbal affirmation. The night before we thought we may have been scammed buying our plane tickets, riots in Punjab almost threatened our trip, and Anne needed to call home but the time difference increased the anxiety. However, by that time, all the false starts had worked themselves into placidity, and Anne attributed it to her constant repetition that things would be alright.

The next evening our driver, Suman, was jolting through the Old Delhi traffic to take us home after a long day of sight-seeing. We had the windows rolled down for a/c, and at one of the many stops, a man selling books approached our open window. He shoved The White Tiger into the window, touting it as proudly as he should have. The book won the 2009 Booker Prize; and it is quite good. “I have already read that,” I said off-handed, hoping he would leave but he just took this as encouragement to grab another from the stack in his arms towering above his head.

“This one, Madame.” I lazily looked over through my sunglasses.

It was, “The Secret.”

We had put it out there and surely, it came.

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Delhi

Although I was in New/Old Delhi for only 2 days, I could fill an entire blog with our experiences, stresses, and elations. The photos, hopefully, will explain some. I have also been recording our sounds and reflections with my voice recorder and journaling of course. This sample of pictures of Delhi is about as small as ours was itself (click for captions and a larger view) :

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Arrival

A few weeks before I left, someone asked me of my trip, “What do you fear most?”

I gave him a general answer of health problems, language barrier, etc, but what I said to myself was the concern that the time would move so fast that the trip might be over before I could remember any moment. Although I have been in India for five days, it feels as if weeks have passed, and even days seem distant from their predecessor even as the hours melt away, together. I have been writing as much as possible to grab at whatever memories I can. Dealing with the necessities of surviving in Delhi has filtered out a great deal of the shocking sights and occurrences, and only in reflection does the strange method of this place appall and amaze.

Time turned in strange angles and reflections from the moment of departure. We left Newark and night and arrived in Delhi at night. We had little trouble at the airport, and after gathering our backpacks and changing our money into rupees, we hired a prepaid, government certified taxi to take us to our hotel, which was about half an hour away.

As we went outside to meet our cab driver, the smell of heat and human compression met us for the first time. After some general confusion, the driver took our backpacks from us and put them in the trunk. Well, except for mine, which he hoisted onto the roof into a small luggage box with two sides and two bars and no straps.

“Uh, can we put that in the back?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about that,” he explained.

“But, I am a little worried about it.”

“As you like.” But he didn’t move it. I knew my pack weighed about as much as a baby elephant, so I wasn’t concerned enough to push the issue, but I did keep a close watch on the back of the car in case it fell off as we went whizzing through Delhi at night. We couldn’t see much, except the narrow misses of other vehicles.

We entered the spurts of traffic, which is exactly how you might imagine from TV or photos. Rickshaws, bicycles, cars, and buses all jumble together, honking to announce their approach, to tell a pedestrian to move, to tell another car they are about to hit them, to signal their departure, and to fill the silence between their honks. When we were driving through Delhi later in the week by day, our day cab driver, Suman, said Indian traffic was a mix of vehicles, not separated by lanes. “It’s vegetarian,” he stated.

The jumble really isn’t too frightening because we are rarely going fast enough to cause major damage, and someone prescribed round-abouts in the major part of the city, which just condenses the traffic even more. Mostly, the mad routes of cars and auto rickshaws, the depleted cattle, and high-pitched honking and interceptions by pedestrians attempting to micromanage near collisions and wrong turns seem hilariously misguided.

Our hearts raced, however when our first driver turned off of the main highway onto a completely pitch-dark road. We saw two small trash can fires around which a mass of people were huddled. We were completely at the driver’s mercy. Luckily, the street opened up into a lighted throng, and a herd of cattle appeared before our cab. We skirted around the corner of the Main Bazaar, where our car abruptly stopped and deposited us safely in front of the Vivek Hotel, its bright lights blending in with the rest of the street’s neon divas.

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