Talking Indian traveller blues

11.23pm, train leaving Mughal Sarai Junction.

The start of a 13 hour train journey that departed five hours late. Five hours of sitting nervously at the platform, not sure of where we were supposed to be until the last moment when we discovered the train was about to leave and we were on the wrong platform.

We tried asking earlier where we were supposed to be, where the train was leaving from, how late it was but all we got was ambivalent head waggles and ambiguous instructions to ask elsewhere. All the platform announcements were in Hindi. We tried the superintendant’s office – a room with a dozen phones ringing non-stop and two very angry men yelling simulaneously into numerous receivers and the station intercom.

“What are you doing here?” yelled the angrier of the two, “this is not a waiting room.”

The other less angry man explained that they were having “a hellish day at work.” Apparently a lot of the trains were late.

We sat down to wait. And wait. And wait. We tried to read but kept getting put off by men looming over our shoulders watching us. We chatted, but were interrupted by inquisitive Indian travellers, or persistent beggars. Then we sat in silence.

Then, finally, a man asked us, “you catch North Eastern yes? Leaving now, platform one. You hurry.”

We on our feet instantly, shouldering packs, thanking our good samaritan as we ran off. We found the train and then ran its length looking for our carriage. Naturally ours was near the end.

In the carriage we located our berths. Two bodies lay in them already, slumbering.

We tapped their legs to wake them. They tried ignoring us, but we were were persistent; shining our headtorches in their eyes, showing our tickets, our fuses getting ever shorter and shorter. They then told us to go somewhere else but there was nowhere else to go; the train was full. Finally, grumbling, they started slowly packing up their things and got out of our bunks, taking their time. It took them at least five minutes while we stood there red-faced in the aisle of the train. I locked my big bag under the lower seat, put my daypack on my bunk and then got down again to pee. The man who had just vacated my bunk grumbled some more, probably about why I had rushed him only to get down again. He looked like he wanted to climb back up.

Finally I was in my bunk. I lay on my sleeping bag liner, drenched in sweat with my arm sticking to the wall. I popped a diazepam, put my head phones in and Off With Their Heads on my iPod. It had been a long day.

All we had managed to accomplish before leaving was packing, eating and pilfering a little wifi from a guesthouse we weren’t staying at. I also had to rush to the bog half a dozen times. I guessed that the antibiotics I was taking for my ear infection (trisul) weren’t effective for gastro so switched to ciprofloxacin. I had already taken two courses of tinidazole. After two weeks of illness I felt lightheaded climbing stairs or carrying my pack any distance. Not the best preparation for the mountaineering course we were about to start.

We memorised the directions through the narrow alleys from our guesthouse to a road with autorickshaws and departed under the weight of our kit.

“Turn right out of the hostel, take the first right, then the second left and continue straight on past the policeman,” the guy behind the desk told us.

No problem.

“Sixty or seventy rupees maximum for the rickshaw,” he warned as we walked out the door.

“Yeah we know.”

Arriving, we had seen our guy from the guesthouse who picked us up from the station pay the driver 70.

Seventy rupees was not an achievable price for a westerner.

“No, 70 not possible. You pay 100.”

Two auto-rickshaw drivers would rather not drive us for that price and we preferred to walk off down the street under the pounding sun rather than relent and pay the extra tourist tax, even once they had dropped their price to 80 rupees. The difference was 10 rupees. Twenty five cents at home, two samosas here; a completely trivial amount. But it’s the principle that counts! No, it’s never the principle that counts – it just doesn’t, it’s not worth the effort. Not in India. Why not just buy yourself a little peace of mind? If you thought about it rationally you’d rather pay 25 cents than have an argument with a stranger and then storm off down a shit strewn street under a 30 kg load while you worry about whether you can make it to a toilet in time if the urge comes on. But you get stubborn and pissed off and tell yourself that you’re making a stand. An act of complete futility.

We finally relented and agreed to 80 rupees for a ride to the station. The driver picked up two extra passengers en route who both paid him. Both times I asked for a discount, half joking, half pissed off.

At the train station we were early so I got in a line to withdraw money from an ATM. There were four different ATMs within sight but only one was working. In place of a queue there was a scrum outside the door to the booth. The British may have left a legacy in India but queueing was not part of it. I couldn’t understand why it was taking so long and finally asked a man coming out whether the machine was working. He said it was so I joined the scrum, gradually pushing my way inside. Inside was worse, much worse. There was no AC and the air was hot and stagnant. There were more than 10 men in the tiny cubicle clustered around the one ATM. Most of them didn’t know how to use the machine and it took them multiple attempts to withdraw money, even with the onlookers shouting directions. Idiots I thought, why do they keep pressing the same buttons and then get the same invalid transaction messages? Eventually after four or five attempts they would get pushed away from the machine. Rather than leave they would then go to the back of the huddle around the machine and wait their turn again while the crowd outside got larger. I felt lightheaded and leaned against the wall. Eventually I pushed a man aside after his fourth try and put my own card in. This should be quick now I thought. I plugged in my pin with my fingers dancing over the keys, obscuring the combination from the men hovering over me.

The maximum withdrawal was 10,000 rupees. Enough for 10 days travel. The transaction would cost 200 rupees at this end, $5 back in New Zealand plus an undisclosed currency conversion fee. Extortionate maybe but what can you do? I selected cash withdrawal. I selected credit account. The machine then showed a balance screen and said my transaciton was complete. I did this three times. I was now one of those idiots. Furious at the machine, furious with India, I snatched my worthless receipt and stormed out into the street where Sam had been waiting with the bags.

At the station e stood under the timetable trying to figure out which platform we were leaving from. The first leg was only 17 kilometres and was supposed to take an hour. It cost 264 rupees for two of us. The next leg was over 600 kilometres and cost us 768 rupees all, travelling in the same class as the first leg. The disparity in price was a mystery to us.

We had left an hour’s grace period for our changeover – plenty of time. The first train was late. We waited. We started talking about taking a taxi to the next station – only 17 kilometres away, it might be better off to try that. We’d leave it until 5.30pm, an hour before our next train was due to depart. It would leave just enough time. At 5.25pm the train arrived – on a different platform from the one originally announced. It then didn’t leave until 5.35pm; we might be cutting it fine.

We needn’t have worried. After wondering around for a while trying to figure out when and from where our next train might be leaving we eventually gave up and sat down to wait.

A little beggar kid came up and prostrated himself at our feet, imploring us for money or food. Twenty minutes later he was still there, his very presence stilting any conversation between Sam and I. Eventually the Indian man sitting next to me handed me a rupee to give to the kid to make him go away. I felt like an idiot. Not for being such a selfish wealthy westerner, but for being so stupid. FFS, just give him a couple of cents and your problem disappears. Who gives a fuck if that money goes to some beggar pimp who mutilates children to increase revenue? You can’t do shit about it; if you don’t give anything to any of those destitute souls they will all still be there, still harassing you, lying at your feet, making you ashamed of your fantastically undeserved good fortune in life.

I guess that’s how India makes you feel sometimes and you start to understand the enormity, if not futility, of trying to make a positive change in such a place. You start to understand the mentality of accepting fate and believing in reincarnation. Maybe if you’re unlucky in this life but live your lot acceptably you’ll be reborn better off in the next. Changing things for the better in a place like this seems like something only saints attempt. At least, that’s how it appeared to the ignorant eyes of an itinerant westerner sitting exhausted on an Indian train platform.

To be fair, I hadn’t had the best day so wasn’t in the best frame of mind. Diahhroea, nausea, lethargy. Sweating from before waking until after finally dropping into a dreamless sleep. I was tired of the endless greetings in the street; ninety percent of them from touts who wanted to sell something – for as much as they could get for it – regardless of whether you wanted it or not. Ignoring you when you tried to explain, politely, that you have no need for silk textiles, opium, or postcards. Furiously ignoring you, an endless one way stream of babble in which there is no dialogue, no listening, only imploring. Then there were the other ten percent who said hello, genuinely good people, intrigued to see a westerner, wanting to practise their English and ask about our country. These were the ones I seemed to ignore or snap at most often, offending them unjustifiably. Perhaps it is because they were less practised at approaching westerners and talking to them than the touts. Either way I ended up feeling annoyed or guilty.

That was India on one of my bad days.

TL;DR had a shit day in India that was largely due to feeling sick from food poisoning.

Photos TK


3 Comments on “Talking Indian traveller blues”

  1. Charliemon says:

    Jeez buddy you’re not having the best time of it! Character building it may be (or character destroying too!) but providing plenty of material for your writing it DEFINITELY is! Keep up the good work and hope you shake those bugs soon x

  2. Chris says:

    Certainly a tough day in India but these are these days of travel that make for the best stories.

  3. […] I know how you feel. I think I blogged about it here. […]

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