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Published: March 16th 2018
Sweet Sticky Chai
One of the best parts of India
Odd to say, but my favourite part about India was the Chaiwallas.
My ears would perk up immediately when I'd hear their weary call, somewhere off in the distance. Chai... Chai... Chai... Chai...Chai...
A man carrying a shiny, chandelier-like thermos would magically appear. Whether it be on a local bus, in a traffic circle, on a train carriage, or in a street market, there he was, the Chaiwalla.
Like a miner carrying his coal lantern while navigating this dirty insanity they call India. Chai... Chai... Chai... Chai...Chai...
His mono-tone pleas are somewhat satirical as he winds his way through a packed & sweaty crowd with the constitution of a condemned man. Chai... Chai... Chai... Chai...Chai...
I never had to flag him down, he'd just know
by my glance that I was a potential customer. Once the price was agreed upon, he'd whip out a skein of tiny paper cups, those meant for a rinse at the dentist’s office, and do this circus long-pour right in front of me. The creamy, sweet tea was heavenly, and I later learnt that frothiness suggested superiority.
After dolling out my 10 rupees onto the Chaiwalla’s stained
My first experience dealing with pesky beach cows that would beg for food all day amongst the sunbathing crowds.
palm, he would then dissipate into the crowd leaving me to do the hot potato
, attempting to hold the cup by the rim while blowing frantically on it.
It soothed my pollution-clogged head many, many times. Not to be dramatic, but I think it actually saved my life.
Our Rajasthani itinerary was secretly detoured and because of it, we missed out on the blue city of Jodhpur. To make a long story short, our fledgling tour leader I nicknamed Maada Murgee
(mother chicken) may have forgot to book us train tickets to Mumbai on the sleeper express, which is what we paid for. Her body language and frantic phone calls while we were in Udaipur indicated to me something had gone wrong. I was able to work out that there might not be any more tickets for sale on any express trains with sleeper berths. I'm guessing some bigwig from company headquarters told her to cut our tour short, throw all of us on a private bus, and drive around in circles for five hours while they figured out what to do.
None of our group seemed to notice this blunder, and I probably wouldn't have either
Elmer enjoyed his Mumbai taxi ride through the streets
had my stellar navigational senses not been on fire. I swore I saw the same mountain ranges and scenic landmarks go by at least twice. We sure as hell weren't heading for Jodhpur.
The promise of a hike in a national park dissipated along with a visit to an elephant sanctuary, we just kept on driving. We'd be heading due south for over an hour, only to be heading due north the following hour. Murgee could see I was starting to catch on, so she avoided my furrowed gaze by curling up into a ball like a cat to have a siesta.
No concessions were made that 16 people might need a bathroom stop, or a meal.
Our crowd was becoming fidgety, so the driver reluctantly stops to negotiate with a hotel for their facilities. I found it amusing how the manager wouldn't turn on the lights or water for us "freeloaders". Hunger and thirst crept up. I dive into my snack horde to dole out biscuits and mixed nuts, while Murgee finally purchases water and some roadside eats to placate us, all the while evading mounting questions regarding our itinerary. She had excuses for everything. Elephant died,
Something to witness once in your life.
national park had rabid monkeys. I pull out my earbuds just in time to catch her telling the Swiss couple we aren't going to Jodhpur because the road is washed out. I'm like, it’s dry season
. I stick my earbuds back in. If I were to reveal my suspicions to the group now, it would no doubt spark an annoying mutiny. Besides, my personality has always been glass half full, with a hint of playful sarcasm. I came to India to experience it in all its glory.
In retro, I think I handled it right.
Our five hour odyssey ends with Murgee's phone ringing, and after swift instructions are relayed to the driver, he veers off and drives like a lunatic towards a small village I swear we've passed through three times already. We and our belongings are unceremoniously kicked off the bus in the middle of nowhere. Actually, nowhere did have a name.
Falna. Where tourists are still a novelty.
The whole village came out to have a look at us. Murgee goes off to find us valid paper tickets as we arrange ourselves into a nice little pile in the middle of
Lovely little prayer alters where ever you went in India
the platform, to wait. No one on our crew seems the wiser yet, they are just tired, dusty, hungry, and whiny.
I smirk a little as Murgee rushes about trying to appease their onset of misery. Time to earn your keep, mother chicken
The first 4 hours flew by. But then the balloon-toy vendor and the constant string of announcements in high pitched Rajasthani began to grate at my nerves so I take a wander with my tour mates I call Sylvania and Frenchie. We find a store proprietor who speaks English and after some lovely chatting, he was willing to boil a pot of chai masala while his wife cooks us up something that looks like a stuffed paratha. I beg her not to make it too spicy. Too late. Murgee keeps disappearing and each time she reappears, she tells us the train is late by another hour.
Because I work in a jail, I can do dead time
standing on my head. My companions aka travel neophytes however, are on the verge of going buggy. I happily dig out my paperback and go prop myself up against a wall. Our younger member's electronics
Train Jungle Gym
The kids were fed sweets and then let loose in the train carriages as we sped along
are becoming extremely low on batteries and there is only one electric outlet in the whole train station. I sense a crisis brewing.
The elder members of our group stare down the tracks, their Kindles long extinguished, willing the train to come.
Seven hours later, no train. The millennials are at a new level of bored I've not witnessed before. Two of them are rolling around on the filthy cement babbling incoherently, reenacting episodes of the Walking Dead. Farm workers fresh from their fields have started to gather on the platform to chew and spit red while they watch Frenchie and I challenge the 3 German boys to a game of hidden rupees in palms, as the crowd goes bananas with each reveal.
At some point, I corner Murgee and blackmail her with my knowledge of the Jodhpur fuckup into telling me why she was trying to hide a gigantic bruise across the bridge of her nose under thick makeup. She sheepishly explained how she'd been waving around a lit firework during Diwali and the thing blew up in her face. And here I thought I'd get an abusive boyfriend story.
She laughed nervously as she told how
Train Review. Bad.
Not what we expected after we boarded but me, the Canadian and Squeak had wine, and nothing can go wrong when you have wine.
she was temporarily blinded and had to depend on her elderly clients to usher her to a local hospital. At least she was telling the truth because sometime later I read feedback on the company's website which collaborated the story from a pissed off patron.
I sat side by side with her on the cement platform dumbfounded. Our tour hadn't gone very smoothly, and her lack of experience and immaturity made me uneasy, especially after a story like that. Murgee further confessed about the tickets but then stated that if a complaint was lodged by any of us about Jodhpur, her wages would surely be docked. She might even lose her job.
I smiled and let it go. I wasn’t born yesterday, and she had just made the critical error of mistaking my kindness for weakness. Silly girl thinks she’s outwitted me. I now have her number.
After the sun had long set, I finally noticed the bright glowing lights of something heavy speeding down the track towards us. Train!
We are all given our papers in a frenzy and sent off in all different directions to meet our assigned carriages. We have 2
Very artistic were the displays of fruit, veg and flowers throughout India
minutes to get on.
The blue train that screamed into the station with a waft of stale dust was a certified death trap. All the windows had been welded shut with re-bar, packed to the rafters with people and their stuff, no fire code regulations here. My spidey senses were screaming at me not to get on, but I had to. Obviously, the maximum occupant capacity for this carriage, not adhered to either.
No one came by to check my ticket, but I assumed the cabin attendant was well aware of me, sticking out within this sea of nationals. The berth smelled of urine and rust with a subtle waft of sweaty, rotten feet. On the positive, the air conditioning was on full blast.
My bunk was located in one of the sleeper compartments, myself with 7 curious Indian men. Our first formal introductions had me gesticulating for them to move all their bales of luggage they had stacked high in the aisles, so I could put my belongings and backpack down. Then I had to indicate for them to remove the buffet restaurant they had set up on my assigned bed. I also started looking for
The Long Pour
Chaiwalla doing his magic froth pour, impressive.
my issued sheet with blanket and pillow, it had been claimed on someone else's bed.
I can be a looming presence when I switch on my prison guard persona, necessary sometimes to establish I’m not to be messed with. I smiled friendly though and they would just awkwardly stare back at me and sneak the odd selfie. Even some of their friends from other parts of the train came to have a look at me.
After I got myself settled I turned my attention towards our flock. Surely Murgee had done a head count?
The first ones I find are the Aussie couple who confirmed they saw Murgee sitting on her bunk playing with her phone. No head count. So, I did one. We were all spread thinly throughout the train, no one ticketed together. In the Delevingne’s carriage, the girls immediately crawled up into their top bunk, plugged into a wall circuit, and pulled a sheet up over their heads. I think they watched Netflix for the entire trip. I cruised by their carriage during the night to ask if they needed an escort to the washrooms, they both said in unison, no.
Cow Patty Beach
Our last night together we all went for a stroll at sunset along the beach in Mumbai
of the younger women reported they were feeling a bit terrified to stay alone because the men in their sleepers were aggressively flirtatious and kept trying to touch them. I suggested we group up into threes and take over empty bunks in the same berth to alleviate this. It worked.
The American with the cartoon voice I nicknamed Squeak came to sit with me. She brought one of the Canadians. Us three girls squished onto my bunk and with a sneaky bottle of wine, wasting a good hour watching everyone stare at us.
Several families boarded over the next few stops which upping the overall safety feel, and brought the ambiance to a carnival level. Squeak pointed out that it appeared the children were being fed sweets by their grandparents, and I was like "oh holy God no."
Within minutes the whole carriage became a jungle gym complete with high pitched shrieks each time a kid did a face plant into a metal ladder or got kicked in the balls by a sibling. They ran up and down the aisle like they were trying out for track and field.
A few of the children spoke English, so
...and then there is millennial bored.
they delighted us with questions about our age, how much money we have, the location of our husbands, how many kilos we weighed.
After the wine was gone, the girls reluctantly went back to their bunks. I kept my nose in a book until the overhead lights were switched off. It felt like a remand center with people all around me snoring, eating, farting, belching, babbling incoherently. I stared out the sooty windows in an effort to ignore the waves of cockroaches darting around on the floor.
There were marauding gangs of shady-looking men coming through the compartment doors at regular intervals. I tried to sleep, but my hyper vigilance wouldn't allow for it. I wouldn't have been able to sleep anyways, the bunk pad was wafer thin, and the air conditioning I had been so excited about earlier was now stuck on Antarctica. It belched a polluted air down on me, forcing me to use the lice infested wool blanket to block it out until I was finally able to identify who the carriage attendant was. After some pestering, he promised to turn it down with a dismissive head wobble.
The train stopped constantly throughout the
night, every twelve minutes to be exact. Since I was the only one awake, I'd amuse myself by counting how many rats I could see skittering over the rails at each station before we would jolt off again.
Back home, some of my Sikh friends freaked out when I told them I was going overland by train. “Oh. My. God.” Said one Bollywood princess. “No one takes the trains in India. Are you crazy? Why are you not flying?”
“Because I want to experience the real India,” I justified.
And that was true. Despite all my “unbewevable” observations, I was really enjoying myself. Then there was the constant reminder about how charmed my life was each time we approached a station and I peered out the window to see extremely poor families laying on cardboard all huddled around a garbage fire, near the rails, desolate and stuck. At least I was going somewhere, albeit hell.
The horizon turned a lighter blue signaling the sunrise as immanent. Another glorious day in India. A dewy smog hugged the windows as a rushing landscape turned from dry, dusty wasteland to a lush green jungle. The carriage was peaceful for
Goa's sleepy beach town of candolim, nice for an evening stroll.
an hour or so before babies started to wail, and patrons started to stir. I did some meditations and gave thanks for my wonderful eye-opening experience thus far.
Right on cue, my beloved Chaiwalla made his way down the overstuffed aisles. Chai... Chai… Chai… Chai… Chai…
After drinking a few cups of the sweet tea, the unenviable occurs. I gotta pee.
I gingerly make my way to the toilets. I should have brought my hip waders
. There is over an inch of dark liquid sloshing around the floor trying to find the hole to the tracks below. It was like an artist tried to duplicate a Jackson Pollock in diarrhea
I seriously can’t even.
The train continued its hypnotic journey, and as they day progressed to afternoon, most of our group had visited my bunk to pass along tidbits of Intel or to relay their previous night's horror stories. The Swiss couple stumbled by and in broken English inquired if we’d be getting off in Jodhpur soon. Lost in translation for most of our trip, they struggle to comprehend what I’m about to tell them.
I'll just hang out here
Ah a little beach time in Goa. Can't complain
truth circulates amongst the ranks quickly, but other than a few verbal outbursts, no one has any fight left in them anymore.
We rattle into to Mumbai around two o'clock and I am more than ready to get off this bloody hotbox, the air conditioning had crapped out four hours earlier. Aisles are all heavily blocked by locals with their massive bundles and parcels of goods. I'm worried because I know it will take longer than two minutes just to swim over the masses towards the exits. Plus, we are missing a crucial bit of information. What is the name of the terminal we are to disembark?
None of us have seen Murgee for over 17 hours. So, I go looking for her. She is no longer where I left her, occupying a bunk just a few carriages ahead. Has she left the train without us?
Seems plausible at this point.
As I wade further forward, I discover that, overnight, Murgee had been upgraded to a private room with its own bathroom and fluffy bed. Her concierge looks panicked when I demand he wake her up. She is buried deep and cozy in what looks
Smoggy Skyline of Bombay
Building like crazy, I don't think it will ever stop
like a down duvet with matching pillows. A tea service rattles upon a white clothed table where some half-eaten dinner remains. He touches her painted toe and says something, she yawns and stretches it out without a care in the world. “Oh for Christssakes Murgee! Really?!”
I yell in frustration, scaring her wide awake.
She sheepishly rubs her eyes before she stutters the name of our stop. I turn on my heel and stomp my way back through endless carriages to my bunk in steerage cursing under my breath, I am so done with her. She shyly returns to her original bunk. The jig is up, and she knows it.
Sixteen of us very weary train conquerors disembark from the blue death trap and drag our luggage through the blizzard of people in the station's hustle bustle, with a well-rested, chipper Murgee leading the charge. We surface into a glaring sunshine. Welcome to Mumbai.
Well, Mumbai was exactly how I pictured it. Sticky hot with that thick humidity that hangs in a chalky smog. We scrum into a taxi mosh pit and get pulled and yelled at until we pick one and pile our stuff in.
Laundry section of the slum
From the backseat of the classic bumblebee cab, I could just barely make out the apocalyptic skyline of Mumbai crossing a bridge span that take us into the old city and right into a traffic jam of biblical proportion.
Our obscure little hotel is under construction and hidden in an alleyway but perfectly located, so while most took a nap, I took the opportunity to stroll through the old architecture, passing a gated field of kids playing cricket, and ended up on Chaupati beach to take in the evening entertainment as the sun set blazed red over the ocean.
I discovered a kulfi and plopped down in the sand to watch the crowds, while my Chaiwallas drone by.
Mumbai was a hectic but almost mystical. Difficult to take it all in. We’d take purposeful walks each day only to be sidetracked by the fast-paced commuter vibe. The dabbawallas would hustle by on bikes with their lunch containers piled high, we'd be caught up in the ambiance as we enjoyed a few of the cafes and perused some of the shops near Kala Ghoda.
In the evenings, we found rooftop eateries and busy
Murgee looking rested and sitting pretty on a bunk in steerage after her luxurious night in a private suite
little pubs. Frenchie and I tried some of the street foods on offer such as panipuri, pav bhaji, vada paav, and dosas. Loved it all. I'm not sure what I liked the most about this new Bombay, but it charmed the pants off of me. There is this air of civilization to it.
A few of our crew met at the gateway of India monument and took a little boat ride that lurked out into harbor, giving a great glowing perspective of the looming skyline.
We crammed quite a bit into 3 days. Went out to Elephanta island. No elephants. I saw the slums featured in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and visited some of the old colonial heritage buildings, the contrast seems so bizarre. The motor rickshaws and holy cows that had been so prevalent in Delhi, seemed curtailed here. After our final dinner, we all said our goodbyes and headed off in different directions.
Three of the original girls and I were all continuing in India, going south. Frenchie was headed for Kerala. Squeak to Candolim beach like me, and the Canadian wanted to join us. The Aussie couple also tagged along at
Cow helps make a drink selection
Russian patrons appreciated all the sacred cow help while they lounged.
last minute. I made it clear there was no way in HELL I was going to do another overnight sleeper train to get to Goa. So instead, I booked a cheap flight online and convinced them all to do the same, we all headed for the airport.
As this being my first introduction to India, Goa was a nice little place to have as a finishing point.
However, having spent time in Sri Lanka and the Maldives first, I already knew no beach in India was going to measure up. I was right. Candolim was a dirty little backwater with a long golden shoreline littered with party shacks with those wooden lounger chairs. I didn't care. I purposely got lost amongst the happy hour drink specials and seafood dinners.
The water was tinted green from years of pollution and algae but still super warm to frolic in and there were holy cows and shit everywhere. The night scene was crawling with drink confident Russians, not that I needed proof because most of the signage around town was in Cyrillic. I stayed in a hostel owned by a Sikh Canadian who made his fortune there and came back
Loved some of the old buildings in Bombay. Fascinating place
to run his family business. It was hysterical because he had developed Canadian standards and expectations, but was dealing with Indian infrastructure and budget. He was always apologizing.
I just stayed on the beach and bummed.
After a week, the Aussie couple got dysentery, Squeak had her bank cards eaten by a machine, the Canadian came down with pneumonia, and I caught ringworm.
My “unbewevable” experience in India came to a bittersweet end, and waiting for me back home in Canada, snow.
But I think I have time for one more cup of that lovely Chai. Chaiwalla man, where are you?
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