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Published: December 30th 2008
India. A nation of contrasts. The Haves and the Have-nots. The stinking rich to the stinking poor. Sending men into space for exploration at the same time as sending men to their graves from starvation. The Darkness and the light. (Ok, that last one might be taken from the novel White Tiger- you should read it, it’s a good book.)
And now me. I have spent the first half of my monthly budget counting every Paise so that I can spend a few days living like a king. Here is something I wrote when I was hardcore budgeting on my journey from Bhopal to Mumbai-
Back on the road, or the rails as it were. Destination: World Heritage Sites, namely Ajanta and Ellora Caves. I pretty much became nocturnal at Bhopal as the dead of night was when I could be sure Sathyu was not around to whiten my face and clam my palms (clam as in clammy, not as in shellfish.) But I was still quite tired staying up for the train that promised to leave at 03:20. Unfortunately, Indian Railways are often dishonest. The train was not going to come until 04:30. I curled up against a betel juice stained wall in the station corner, where I hoped I would attract the fewest stares and beggars, and where I could see the train board. My train was curiously lacking from the board- my e-ticket looking like it had plucked a train number from thin air. The 04:30 went onto 05:00… 05:30… all information I got from a number of kind gentlemen at the enquiry desk. All, like the e-ticket had the master of National Rail to answer to. All were therefore lying and in on it together to mess me around. How had I not realized!
I hope what followed can be justified by my semi-wakefulness, where accusations of dishonesty against inanimate objects such as train tickets and its collaboration with railway officials to “screw me over” at the time seemed perfectly plausible. After running up and down the entire length of a train which Indian rail officials said was supposedly the one on my ticket, I realized there was no “carriage S10”. I also discovered it was heading to Gorakphur (where I was back in November on my way into Nepal). Matters quite clearly had to be taken into my own hands. In a moment of spontaneity (which I like to think I am quite partial to), I sighted a train puling out of Platform 1, with a wag of the head from a passenger to confirm the train was heading South I threw myself at an open door packed to the edge with Indian school-kids, and was away.
All other passengers rammed in the corridors were slyly finding space to sit down and spread out. I on the other hand was to busy staring at my Lonely Planet map of India and remembering that South India was a rather large place, and the station I intended on reaching was a particularly small dot in the grand scheme of things. With all the space having been taken up and my ticket not being valid on this random train I caught on-the-whim, I did not have the greatest range of options to nestle on down. The real low came when, surrounded by an engulfing cloud of shite billowing from the lavatories in front of me, with a lovely puddle of piss leaking on out to underneath me, and a biting cold draught driving itself through the train door into the side of me, I realized that the nearest stop to Jalgaon, my intended destination is a good thumb-print away. Around 300 kilometres away. Briliant. What is worse is a niggling part of me kept pointing out that I love spontaneity, I love adventure, I love the unknown of what lies ahead!
When I thought my body could not take any more of the gangly contortion I had been forced into, the kindness of the Indians shone through and someone, for nothing in return (apart from the standard: photo-with-random-white-man-sporting-stupid-grin) gave up his whole sleeper bed for me. I was out like a light until I was gently awoken at my stop, or new stop, of Nagpur.
Nagpur, I delved into my Bible (Lonely Planet- I might start calling it LP as well, which is bound to catch on!) and hunted out a rather short section on Nagpur. Not the greatest choice of city to visit it seems. The extra 8 hours I have unnecessarily added to my journey cannot be justified. That is until I buy some oranges, not just any oranges, but oranges from, to quote LP “The orange growing capital of India”. Oh yeah. And what’s that? Nagpur (pop 2.1 million) is also the geographical centre of India. Pow. On another merry, general-ticketed, no reservation train, I head to Jalgaon. After being booted off a top bunk by the conductor (after catching up on a few hours sleep-for free mwahahaha) I find a similar doorway, but with less sewage, a welcoming breeze, and some interested Indians, it makes out for a much nicer journey. Being in such a budget mindset, I am delighted when my Indian bezzie mates unroll there packed dinner from a scabby old page from The Times of India and insist on me gorging myself on chapatti and some unidentifiable pallak-like accompliment. A major thing I wanted to improve on by travelling solo is taking on the whole responsibility of getting from A to C (B being where I inevitably go wrong). However I have managed without fail to shift the responsibility of when to get off an Indian train, onto any pasenger that happens to be nearby me and understand my loud and slow English. I owe a debt to the travelling population of India, not just for "their generous welcome and hospitality of me as a guest in their beautiful country" (a great line to twist and try and make touts feel guilty for hassling you- often surprisingly effective) but also for the endless platforms I would just snore on past if I wasn't gently awoken at.
Jalgaon was a pit stop with a (rare) comfy bed before I bused it onto Ajanta caves for Christmas day! The caves were fascinating, although I felt the true artistic talent was lost on me. Apparently it was the beauty of human expression that the Buddhist paintings exceled in rather than the colours or details which Florentian and Venetian artwork can outdo. (something I have tried to regurgitate from a guide I slyly eavesdropped on but was to stingy to pay for one out right.) It was an interesting Christmas in Buddhist caves, made more unconventional by having lunch with a honeymooning Canadian couple who were in fact Jewish and were rather disinterested in the 25th.
Aurangabad was the next destination in a rammed local bus which I had to squat in the ailse in, being unable to fit my freakish western legs into the normal seats. I was over the moon when, with the first and likely sole use of my ISIC (student) Card, I managed to shave 20 rupees off a dorm bed in a youth hostel, getting it down to my world-record cheapest room price of 40rupees a night. Bam, I am sure you can feel my excitement.
Ellora caves consisted of rather fancy, sometimes 3 story, caverns hacked out the rockface for Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples. I have to say though, that despite my love for Buddhism, I have to be disloyal and admit the mighty Shiva Hindu temples kicked the simplistic Buddhist monastries and prayer rooms ass. Where Ajanta had beautifully preserved ancient paintings, the sheer magnitude of the Kailash temple (something like the biggest monolithic structure in the world, maybe 200,000 tonnes of rock removed and being 1.5 times larger than The Pathenon- few facts for you) really topped the work of a paintbrush.
My delights of the prospect of another 40 rupee night were ruined when the Queen's English spoken mananger told me he was not willing to open the doors for me at 04:30 in the morning and I would just have to rough it out at the station. With the "retiring rooms" being full I hunted and hunted for a nice little non-filthy Jack-sized corner to curl up in but had little luck. That is until I snuck up through the railway building and had a rather surreal nights sleep under the stars, curled up amongst some giant plastic bears. On closer inspection, when I was reducing the number of shards of glass I was about to stretch my blanky out on, I realised these huge bears in human clothing (kind of Paddington impersonators) were old platform rubbish-bins that must have been dumped up on the roof after being judged terrorist targets in their perfect ability to conceal a bomb. I was pleased to say they concealed me very well. As after I drifted into a happy sleep having got to speak to my family and cousins on the phone (kind of delayed Xmas hello), upon waking I saw the patch of fresh urine where one of the staff must have come within 10 feet of me for a quick leak. Lovely.
The luxury of MUmbai will be with you shortly in my next blog, which will be somewhat contrasting considering my budget has increased a few (ahem 6) fold.
Happy New Year if I don't write soner. xxx
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