Wednesday, February 13, 2008

My first train trip in India

We took a bus from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, to a train station in West Bengal. The trip took four hours but the time flew by because of the scenery. I believe I passed through the most picturesque I have ever seen. The road stayed about halfway up the steep mountains, giving us a perfect view of the wide sapphire blue river flowing beneath. Monkeys played by the side of the road in of bamboo and old growth trees (Fact Time, hit it girls: New shoots of bamboo can grow up to 1 meter a day). Luscious.

We took a tuk-tuk from the bus station to the train station. We had half an hour and this should be a ten minute ride. However, our driver picked up three more guys who climbed into his tiny front seat with him. The weakly powered giant cockroach could barely move with all the weight. Then he started taking a direction that didn't seem right to me until we found ourselves in tiny back alleys. I start yelling because I told him we needed to get there and he's fooling around. He keeps apologizing and I get more angry as the time approaches for our train.

We pull up to the station exactly as the train should arrive. We run over a long covered walkway and down to the only train on the tracks. I ask a half dozen people if this is the right train and where should we go. The tickets had different markings than normal and I had no idea what they meant. Whenever I pointed at the train number on the ticket and said is it this train, everyone said yes. But they were lying.

My friend just told me a good rule. For getting directions in India, ask five people and then go with the majority opinion. As an added precaution, I have begun to point in a direction I know to be wrong and ask if it is that way. If they say yes, they don't count as as my five. Luckily, the sixth person finally set us right. We checked with the station master and he told we had a four hour wait until our train came in. Rush rush rush to wait wait wait.

We waited at an empty restaurant by the station with pictures of Britney Spears on one side and victorian paintings of women on the other. They served us the beers (do they have gold inside? yes.) we requested but then told us we couldn't drink them there. Turns out they had no license for beer. We finally compromised by keeping the beer bottles on the floor and discreetly filling up our metal cups with the warm brew. They got really annoying and kept trying to take away the bottles before we finished them. Actually, I was drinking on my own after the girls declared the beer to warm and gross for them. It seems that the owners really feared the cops coming in and catching them.

As I complained to the girls about the owner's scaredy cat attitude and said the chances of police coming through now must be so low, three cops came in for dinner. The owner kept walking by and making googely eyes at me. We just hid the beer behind our legs and nobody ever noticed. However, I made a vow to never doubt the locals on such things again. I broke it promptly.

We received bad news as we waited there playing cards.We were taking this train to get to a television shoot in Assam that would have been a good chunk of money. We planned to travel in the northeast for a week before the shoot started. The owner texted us to say the shoot got canceled. I had to restrain Tessa from a nasty reply SMS. I probably should have let her. This woman has canceled on us last minute before and has a bad rep for taking more money than she deserves.

After a few minutes of ranting, we settled down to asses the situation. Tessa wanted to start working again soon but would travel for a little bit. Astrid and I had more flexibility. We decided to hit Calcutta because it was on the way home anyway. I went back to the train station and had no trouble refunding our tickets. However, I'd have to wait until tomorrow to get a reserved bed for the 12 hour trip to Calcutta. I did not want to wait in this crappy little town overnight so I got us unreserved tickets that left in an hour.

I called this my first trip by train in India because I realized it was my first true Indian railway experience. I had always traveled in a reserved class where you get a bed to yourself. It's pretty comfortable as long as you don't mind no blankets and a good number of cockroaches. In unreserved, they sell as many tickets as there are buyers. You simply cram yourself on the train and try to find a spot. I saw the true Indian heart that overnight journey.

We got on the train and the guys immediately made room on the top bench for Tessa and Astrid. Most seats had four to five people sitting and laying all over each other. People covered the floor and walking the length of the car took several minutes to ensure not stepping on anyone. One smart guy made a bed for himself on the luggage rack near the ceiling. Strangers played cards on a blanket set on their knees. Whenever a problem arose, everyone in the car threw in their advice about the situation in true Indian fashion.

None of us could sleep sitting up so they gave the girls a position of honor: laying on the floor underneath the benches. They cuddled under there behind a sea of brown legs. Astrid said that whenever she felt claustrophobic and tried to stick her head out, somebody's leg or hand gently pushed her back beneath the bench to keep her safe(?). In the morning, after a good number of new faces joined our bench, Tessa emerged from underneath the bench to surprise the newcomers. They didn't know they had a blonde under them this entire time. Watching their faces: priceless.

I couldn't sleep sitting up either so I just never slept. I'm glad I didn't. I got to observe the rhythm of the people. 1AM, people tended to all sleep for an hour with heads laying on stranger's laps and bodies intertwined on the floor. Then something small would wake a few people and the rest would soon awake too. More cards, more talk and then, after an hour, people slowly drifting off to sleep. In spite of the cramped conditions, everybody got along swimmingly and seemed to enjoy the trip. One more example of the lovely Indian heart.

Calcutta in snippets:

  • The worst part about being in West Bengal right now: bird flu means no chicken or eggs. Normally, I can walk into a रेस्तौरांत and point to any non-veg indian dish on the menu and know that I will like it. Now, there's no chicken and almost every non-veg dish has chicken. There's nothing to eat.
  • This led to the friendliest dining experience of my life. We went to KFC for a little western style food. We walked into a room full of employees smiling so wide that it looks they held their cheeks back with toothpicks. They had to be friendly because they had nothing else to get people into their store. Their total food offerings: two crappy looking veg sandwiches, fries and cheap ice cream. We got fries and ice cream. Then the place got down right creepy. It felt like disney world with extra sugar. You couldn't get away from the giant smiles and helpful people. They gave us dining surveys with a question asking "what would you like us to have". All three of us smart asses independently wrote chicken.
  • I got a snack of momos on the street and the woman got the girls to make some too. We all laughed at their wretched creations. Life lesson: It's easier to laugh at others than to try anything for yourself
  • We visited the supermarket from 1984. A man on the loudspeaker continuously yelled about the wild sales around the store. "Tissue paper on sale. Seventy percent off. That's seven zero."
Next post: an excellent birthday

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