An early introduction to India

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March 10th 1974
Published: September 8th 2021
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I had a remarkably good final night’s sleep at the Rangoon YMCA, given that I was assigned the rock-hard Ping-Pong table for the night. We spent the morning sending the last of our Burma postcards and visiting the markets. I missed out on sending a birthday telegram to Dad – they wanted 25 Kyat for that pleasure, which was over budget. Sorry, Dad! We had some minor hassles getting to the airport, but at least when we got there, there were no problems with the currency declaration. Helen was not so lucky, and got stuck with a counterfeit 20 Kyat note, which they refused to change. I bought another bottle of Scotch and some ciggies at Rangoon Airport for USD4.15 for future onselling.

The flight to Calcutta was relatively uneventful. We got a free beer, and a meal of satay sticks and fruit. The trip took 80 minutes, with clocks being put back an hour on arrival, so almost nil net time was lost. Dum Dum Airport (sic) customs and immigration was free of hassles. We picked up a taxi to the Salvation Army Hostel in Sudder Street, paying only 15 of the meter’s 19Rp fare after Bob sprung the driver for taking us via a longer route. We even found an Indian cop to back us up in our argument. I’m sure this wasn’t the first (or likely the last) time we have been ripped off on tour but the first time we have challenged it.

Calcutta was more or less as we expected. Driving is a fiasco, with a return to the Indonesian style of honking every minute, except there are a greater number of people and holes in the road to avoid. We saw a myriad of beggars and lots of poverty but suspect there may still be worse to come. The SA Hostel gave us a room with a common bathroom - clean sheets, a security locker and a convenient location. We had dinner at the Kwality Restaurant in Park Street, comprising Steak, Noodles, Fruit Salad and Banana Shake, all washed down with a Black Label beer – good value for 20Rp (3 bucks).

Next morning resulted in an early rise for a good breakfast (porridge even!) and to catch up on some much needed washing. We got into the selling game at the New Market early, getting rid of the Scotch and a striped T-shirt for 100Rp (13 bucks – another good profit!), and my Minolta camera for 325Rp. In their place, I ordered some new sandals, and bought tailor made linen shirt, shorts and longs for 75Rp to add to my previously very limited wardrobe.

The afternoon gave us our first taste of the really bogged down system of Indian paperwork, which they all claim is a throwback to the British Colonial days. It took us about 2 hours to get a student concession form for the trains, along with another 90 minutes haggling over tickets. In total frustration, we ended up booking a first-class sleeper from Howrah (Calcutta) to Raxaul tomorrow for 72Rp. Third class, at only 12Rp, was booked out till Friday and would have required further paperwork. Their system is a mass of forms in triplicate, signatures, counter-signatures, stamps, counter-stamps – you name it ... Interestingly, if you looked at the back of the railway booking office, you could see mountains of bound bundles of bookings paperwork. I wonder if our applications of 1974 are still sitting in a cupboard there somewhere!

Calcutta has probably not been as bad thus far as we had first imagined. Sure, there is overcrowding and lots of beggars (some pretty disfigured too), but never have we felt in any real personal danger. On our way to dinner, we got waylaid by a gentleman who not only bought Bob’s bottle of Scotch but gave us a couple of shots of it. By the time we’d finished dinner, and a couple of Golden Eagle beers, the boys slept well.

The following morning ended up as one of those that from time to time on tour you just waste. We took a very early morning walk over to Howrah Bridge, just near the main Calcutta Railway Station, to check out the seamier side of town but didn’t proceed very far. We saw enough squalor to get a feel for the place, and I’m happy to let my imagination tell me the rest. We even had an offer from a local ‘guide’ who offered to show us “genuine rotting bodies”, but somehow managed to pass on his kind offer. Calcutta was definitely a problem city. There seemed to be no semblance of organisation at all, and even the taxis (all Ambassador Mark IIs) drove by Rafferty’s Rules. People seemed to sleep, eat, urinate and wash in the streets, and animals wandered freely, so it was a pretty depressing sight. We were even told the story, I don’t know if it’s true or not, that there are some Indian kids that are born on Howrah Station, live their total lives there and finally die there, without ever having moved off the station. Even if not entirely true, it is a pretty depressing supposition.

Our planned visit to the Botanical Gardens was a failure. After 2 buses and a taxi, we found ourselves back at Dalhousie Square, which was exactly where we had started! We gave up in discouragement and went to the Jain Temple instead. This was okay, but hardly worth the return cab fare. I picked up some new sandals, and quietly purchased some black-market cash, but failed to flog off my transistor radio for my asking price of 200Rs.

Given we were going to return to India after we had joined out planned Asia overland bus tour in Kathmandu, we didn’t see much point in hanging around Calcutta any longer, so we made it down to Howrah station early next morning for our train. The objective then had been to get ourselves to Kathmandu as quickly as possible to spend some time tripping around Nepal before our bus trip started in late March.

It was incredibly crowded, but we managed to find the right platform okay. We caught the Bihar Express (21 up) at 4.30pm for a destination and arrival time unknown. We found ourselves in a compartment with two Indian families – one with a sweet daughter, and the other with 4 young ones. Not much conversation, but not unpleasant company. We were served a ‘hot’ meal at night and were very glad we had brought along our own supply of roti, mandarins and bananas.

We ended up having a remarkably good night’s sleep in the circumstances. India’s countryside in this part of the country is generally flat, dry and uninteresting, with the people and standard of living not unlike what we had witnessed earlier in Calcutta. We reached a place called Samastipur Junction at 8.30am next morning, to find we had missed our 7.40am connection to Raxaul. Given that the next train was not due to leave until 5.30pm that afternoon, we had no choice but to take a most unwelcome 8-hour stopover in Samastipur, which at best would be described as a very ordinary Indian town. Added to this it was hot as hell, so the boys had little inclination to stroll around, and instead we booked a hotel room for the day, along with a couple of English lads caught in the same situation as us, where we spent the day reading and napping.

The train finally left at 5.45pm and we reached Darbangha Junction around 8pm. We switched trains again, leaving at 9pm, reaching Raxaul, the border town with Nepal, around 4am next morning. On both trains, we were fortunate enough to get into first-class carriages, although it was hardly the comfort of the initial train out of Calcutta. It seems that the only real difference between first and third-class is that the former has you jam-packed with a better class of Indian! We managed to get some shut eye lying up in the luggage racks, and this time without drawing the wrath from Buddha and his disciples.

India definitely has a train problem. Trains reach the respective station up to an hour before the scheduled departure time, and the third-class compartments are generally full before the train has even finished shunting into the platform. No wonder people are forced to travel on the rooves and out the windows. In hindsight, I think we were fairly lucky with our travel, but I doubt I’ll travel by Indian trains again!

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20th September 2021
Hello mister!

Nice photo
The locals make it so much better. Cute kids.

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