Friday, 29 April 2016
Night Train to Jaisalmer
Our guide's name was Sunil, but he insisted we call him Sunny ("like the movie"). His English was very good but his accent so thick I had to lean forward and close my eyes to understand him. He told us to ask questions but when I did, he seemed a bit annoyed and said I should listen more carefully.
The subway was very cheap: only 17 rupees which was about 25 cents. I expected something very crowded but it was perfectly normal except that we had to pass through security loading our bags into the ex-ray trays. This procedure made me nervous especially since people in front of me were being body searched just as I saw my bag exit the tunnel. Honestly, anyone could have taken it at any minute and I doubt I would have got it back. We rode in the "women's car" at the front of the train.
Our first stop was a temple in full celebration. I bought a marigold chain and left it at the door as I didn't want to lose the group by going in. Shortly after, we went to a Sikh temple and this one had a very different feel to it. First of all, bags were left at the office, as were our shoes. We had to walk 100 metres up the filthy (it really was) street in our bare feet and then "cleanse" them by stepping in a trough of already pretty dirty water. I had a couple of nicks on one foot from the pedicure and was a bit concerned about it, but ...
When in Rome.
At the top of the steps there were about 20 people shelling peas. Now the very act of pea shelling just happens to be one of my favourite activities ("Mine too," said Roberta from Scotland). I was very tempted just to sit down beside them and shell a few myself when Sunny said: "People come here every day to help prepare the meal. There may be hundreds coming to eat later. Anyone can come - even the richest man in Delhi". Inside, the prayers were being offered and shared on sizable video screens, in Hindi, Punjabi and English. I was to see this on a grand scale a month later in Amritsar.
Back through the dirty water - "You don't have to do it on the way out," said Sunny, stepping deftly around the trough.
The spice market was close by and Tina, who by now had elected herself Sunny's deputy, said she would show us where as she had already been there the day before. I suppose I should have seen a pattern emerging, but I blew it away, only too happy to have someone with us with a sense of adventure. The market, however, was just one long street with stall after stall, and after a while it made Diane, our only English member, sneeze. She seemed to me rather an ingenue, frail almost, perfectly worn blonde hair without a kink in it, and I was amazed when she told me she was on a year-long round the world tour. Amazed and not a bit jealous may I add. One should not judge on first impressions!
Walking back to the subway station we passed a number of people who had set up camp beside the road. Not only was the garbage excessive here, but so were the smells, the origin of one I am sorry to say I could trace immediately. Children in shredded kurtas and torn trousers were playing "ball" with a plastic container, and in their bare feet they were oblivious to the squalor and rubbish piled up around them. Women bent double were cooking rice over tiny fires. They could have been any age as they held their sari out of harnms way by gripping it with their teeth. This was the India I expected, yet oddly I never saw anything to equal it again even though I did see some slum dwellings. This pile of humanity was chaotic, where a trace of organisation, even sharing of what little resources they had, might have made a difference. I thought of my own grandchildren and thanked whatever god was listening that their karma had presumably been better from their previous lives. Mine too.
Last chai at the Hotel Perfect, and the sixteen of us split up between four taxis. I ended up with Diane and Tina. We didn't get too far though: we found ourselves hopeless ensnarled in the traffic jam to end all snarl-ups. We were on our way to the train station and we were late. New Delhi has a unique way of moving from one direction to the other, banned in most countries: you do a U-turn, in mid-flow, only in this case our manoueuvre was effectively blocked by a large white cow pulling a cart and I found myself face to face with a huge pair of nostrils and a tongue to match. The situation was so droll that Diane, in the back with me and only slightly farther away from this unexpected sight, started to laugh hysterically when I said: "I wonder how you say 'what's your cow's name' in Hindi?" "Diane's having an opo," explained Tina in perfect strine to the bunch in the taxi stuck beside us.
I knew that this tour was Intrepid's Basic package, so I wasn't surprised when we located our berths and they were piled three high: 3AC. (I thought this had to be the lowest class until I went for a walk later. In Sleeper Class people were piled high some on bunks but most on top of their baggage or on the floor. There were heavy bars on the windows but no glass. I went back to my bunk feeling quite rich.) There were sheets, blankets and a pillow on each of these, freshly laundered but I wasn't yet at a stage to trust them so I rolled out my sleeping bag instead. We were somewhat spread out over two carriages and just as we were about to leave, a family came on and blocked every bit of floor space with boxes and luggage. Sunny was summoned by one of us, and between him and one of the many guards, the boxes were picked up and removed as quickly as they came with much muttering by the older man with the group. This left us cramped but at least not prisoners of Indian Railways. Out came chocolate bars, bags of chips and something called Masala Munch which I became steadily addicted too. Gradually the excited conversation died down to a few muffled "Good night"s and we all fell happily asleep rocked by the gentle movement of the train.
Except me. I was too excited to even close my eyes...
Next: Desert Post