Out of India (1987)
Updated: Jan 20
Following our adventures in Nepal, we head across the terrai to India: the best and the worst of everything for the adventurous traveller.
Moving time again, another in a tiresome series of extended independent public transport journeys through Asia. Departing Chitwan, Nepal, we hopped aboard a covered wagon pulled by a brahma bull to get to the main highway. Our driver steered the bull by its tail, but this one seemed to have giardia, as it crapped the entire way.
The early morning light over the terrai was crystal clear with an unimpeded view of the breathtaking Annapurnas and Muchupuchharre mountains.
Life in this region remained fairly unaffected by travellers, but once backpackers return to their native lands to tell fellow adventurers about it, the word spreads (particularly in later years with the advent of social media Instagramers and YouTubers). As we progressed down the narrow track, we saw villagers doing their thing: bathing in streams, sifting rice and corn, ploughing fields with bullocks, gathering sweetgrass on elephant back. We crave unspoiled peaceful paradise, yet our very presence leads to changes that we bitch about later.
We were forced to travel once more via Third World bus; the nearest train station was across the border in India at Garakphur. For now, we had to deal with the stark reality of a Nepali bus. We hopped on the roof for the short ride to the Kathmandu Junction, then transferred to an "express" to Sonauli. Knees crunched against the seat in front, broken seats with metal pieces jabbing into the small of one's back, crying babies, clucking chickens.
Yes, independent travel can be very glamorous!
We made good time to the border, as we were travelling below the majestic Himalayas on the pancake flat terrai. The locals were much darker in complexion than the Nepali—more Indian than Gurkha. At the border there was typical bedlam and confusion: touts trying to con us into changing currencies illegally, long lines of people waiting for buses, fruit and food stalls everywhere.
Once across the Indian side of the border, we were re-aquainted with the dreaded Indian bureaucratic system as we were stuck in a very slowly moving line. Finally, an immigration officer said:
"Please sit down sir, it is not proper decorum of the office to stand."
I looked around the immigration office, doorless and wide open to the street, heat and dust blowing in every direction, covering the desk and paperwork with a layer of fine powder. I sat; after all, who was I to argue with decorum? As the old saying goes, the British taught the Indians bureaucracy, and they took to it like ducks to water!
I managed to wrangle two seats on the next bus to Gorakphur. Two Danish girls travelling with us noted there was an 8 pm train to Delhi, as they'd purchased advance tickets in Pokhara. We'd vetoed buying advance tickets after numerous debacles including Darjeeling-Kathmandu, Kathmandu-Pokhara and Pokhara-Chitwan, all advance purchases and having no clue what the transportation would actually be like. After three bad trips, it was insane to make it four in a row!
Three pm: the bus ride was scheduled for three hours; this sounded like no problem. For reasons we never ascertained, there was a threat of violence against the Sikh driver by some faction (take your pick in India!). Soldiers boarded several times to search for weapons and bombs, slowing our progress considerably.
"Great...all we need is for the bloody bus to blow up," I grumbled.
"Well, you know we've been reading about the violence in India," Elaine replied, "Most of it's in the Punjab region. But this country is literally explosive, anything can happen anytime."
The Danish girls were in a panic; they were sure they'd miss their train. At five minutes before eight, the bus lumbered into the train station. The Danish girls bolted like lightning; we didn't have the same sense of urgency.
The Gonti Mail To Delhi
We decided to book first cabin going forward in India; unfortunately, on the next train, first class tickets were sold out. As we watched the Delhi Express pull out of the station, we couldn't believe how many people were jammed into 2nd class unreserved. As they say in Oz, "she was chock-a-block, mate!"
Indians dived through the windows for seats, but when the seats were filled they squashed themselves at the door, maintaining only an emotional contact with the railway car. They were suspended from the ceiling on straps, stacked against the wall like cordwood, heaped on the benches holding their knees together and...they clung to the fittings with such agility, they seemed magnetized. Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar
We purchased two first-class tickets to Lucknow, departing at 10 pm, arriving at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am. To secure a sleeping berth, we were diverted to several different counters, in a typical Indian run-around ("Very sorry, sir, but you are wanting the tourist quota...").
While waiting to leave, we enjoyed a late evening vegetarian dinner in the station's restaurant, very filling, incredibly cheap. Indian train stations are a delight; Gorakphur Station offered a wide range of luxuries: sleeping rooms, two restaurants, second class waiting rooms, and for us, a quiet first-class waiting lounge with comfortable chairs and shower facilities, so we were thrilled to take advantage on all these luxuries.
Our train arrived and we boarded, but were a bit dismayed to discover first class sleepers paled in comparison to second-class in Thailand: no sheets, blankets, no pillows. Oh well, at least we had our own compartment, (or so we thought), a luxury of space in a country where privacy is an unknown commodity for travellers moving on the cheap.
When the conductor arrived to collect our tickets, he was accompanied by a stout, middle-aged Indian who had weaseled his way into our compartment by sliding the conductor some baksheesh. We were unimpressed by his arrival, but his girth, an obvious indicator of his status and wealth, was definitely impressive. To our slight shock, he immediately began removing his shirt and then lifted his undershirt to expose an enormous beach ball belly. I imagine we were supposed to be impressed.
"I have been wanting to move to Canada for some time," he announced. "I have many friends in Vancouver and Toronto. Perhaps you could give me your card so I can have a visit with you in Canada."
"Sorry, we don't have a fixed address in Canada right now, so there is no way you could find us," I replied, thinking fast.
This response shifted his train of thought: "Well, perhaps you could help me with embassy officials to get my visa. It is much easier to do so with a Canadian sponsor."
We realized he was fantasizing, but nevertheless convinced him our powers with embassy officials were minimal. Eventually, he drifted off to sleep and we did likewise, although Elaine had a fitful rest, worrying about our gear, the fat Indian, and the noisy train.And I kept waking up, thinking it had to be 4 am by now, and trying to peer at my counterfeit Piaget watch that I'd bought in Bangkok.
Eventually, we arrived at the station in Lucknow and of course were sound asleep. We were woken up by a frantic porter: "Sir, madam, you must wake up ... Lucknow, Lucknow!!!"
We quickly collected our gear, as the rotund Indian rolled over and went back to sleep. We had less than an hour to secure seats on the Gonti Express to Delhi, but naturally, the ticket office was across the street at another station.
Outdoors, bodies were fast asleep on the ground, squeezed together as if packed into a can of sardines, covered only in a light Madras. In the din of pre-dawn, coupled with the fantastic Moghul designed train station, it seemed like we were actually the ones sound asleep and having a fantastic dream.
I thought of my favourite travel book written Mark Twain in 1896, "Following The Equator", in which he describes sleeping bodies in Bombay ... the words rang true almost 100 years later:
Everywhere on the ground lay sleeping natives—hundreds and hundreds. They lay stretched at full length and tightly wrapped in blankets, heads and all. Their attitude and rigidity counterfeited death.
Leaving the sleeping ones behind, we then experienced the usual run-around for tickets. After waiting in a queue for 20 minutes, we discovered women received preferential treatment to purchase seats. Elaine squeezed her way through the queue and grabbed us two tickets, To our dismay, we discovered they were second class unreserved: our worst nightmare that we had vowed to avoid at all cost.
As travelling second class unreserved was out of the question, we approached a conductor to determine if there might be a way to score better seats. He directed us to a second class reserved car with empty seats, and we were surprised to find them very comfortable, but we kept thinking we'd get bounced to the back. Eventually, after three hours of worry, the conductor came along, converting our tickets for a small fee.
It was a long train ride to Delhi, across flat parched plains. As in Java, it seemed like a movie running in a loop, the scene repeating itself ad nauseam: small villages, dung heaps piled next to small huts, women forming the shit into discs to serve as fuel for cooking, buffalo wading in fetid creeks, camels racing along the parched landscape which was near the end of the dry season, and flashes of bright saris.
India is seldom dull, even if repetitious.
The train was quite crowded, yet to our delight served delicious cheap food; we ate to pass the time: cardboard boxes revealing treats of rice, eggs, curries, breads and sweets. The seat opposite us housed four Indians where two should've been sitting; they spent the time staring at us like we were a TV show. Every time I reached into my pack for something or pointed out the window, it received the undivided attention of half the car. Elaine eventually threw her scarf over her head for some needed shut-eye and a bit of privacy.
The term "express" seemed applicable; we did stop at several stations to load more passengers, but our progress seemed otherwise unimpeded. Now and then, we caught glimpses of old steam locomotives, prized by rail fans who come from all over the planet to marvel at India's incredible railway system. One thing is for sure: in a country where many things seem broken, the train system was a model of efficiency. Trains in Canada certainly did not run as smoothly as the Indian system. In India, trains come and go almost always on time.
A Belly Full of Delhi
When we finally pulled into the station in Old Delhi, some 31 hours after waking up on the magical terrai in Nepal, we were quite frazzled from the journey and being the constant centre of attention. As the train slowly pulled into the city, we saw with glazed eyes the inevitable shanty ghettos leaning crazily along the tracks.
As promised in our guidebook, the scene at Delhi station was controlled chaos. The crush of people was phenomenal, people jostled from one platform to the next, simultaneously arriving and departing in great numbers.
At the main bazaar, a long street full of shops, and cheap hotels, we were able to secure a room in a low-budget hotel. After checking in, we climbed into a rickshaw to go to the Air India office, which was to be found in Connaught Place. It was surprisingly modern, set in a circle of commercial buildings. Then we decided to eat lunch at an Indian fast food joint, a misnomer, as the food was delicious authentic Indian but in a western looking take out joint, rather incongruous indeed.
We slowly walked back to our room, amazed by how rapidly the street scene deteriorated once away from Connaught. Ubiquitous "holy cows," horse carts, which we later hired as a fun sort of taxi, holy men, and all the shops, full of every imaginable item known to mankind. As we hadn't had much rest since Chitwan, we grabbed an early nap and then surprised ourselves by waking up 12 hours later.
In the morning, we were rested enough to start exploring this most interesting city. We hired a rickshaw to take us to Old Delhi through the gates. We were shocked by how crowded it was in this district! We entered Chandi Chowk Bazaar, but had a hard time of it, as the Indians were continuously gawking at Elaine.
We decided to escape the madding crowd and escaped to the nearby Red Fort, constructed during the Moghul Period in 1648. We entered the Lahore Gates, which face that city which now forms part of Pakistan. The fort lived up to its name, moulded out of the bright red sandstone quarried nearby. Inside, it was peace and quiet, diametrically opposed to Chandi Chowk. The Moghul architecture, with thousands of minarets, was a blend of Hindu and Arabesque styles. Surprisingly, what I enjoyed the most was watching a brahma bull pulling a lawn cutting device ... what a hilarious lawn mower!
Fortunately for us, the heat that had been plaguing Delhi of late was conspicuous in its absence. It had even been raining off and on the past few days, which surprised many of the locals. The rain effectively cooled temperatures by as much as 10 degrees celsius, from a high of over 40 to less than 30 ... still plenty hot, but at least bearable. In the scheme of things, we certainly could've have picked a much worse time to be in India.
With three days remaining before our flight to Rome, we took a break from independent travel to play tourist at one of the most fabled landmarks in the world: the Taj Mahal. A special train departed Delhi station every morning known unsurprisingly as the Taj Express. A ticket office geared solely to the tourist quota offered tickets with minimum of fuss and bother.
We awoke early to catch the 7 am train, and didn't have far to walk. The day was quite cool as we rolled across the plains once more.
Onboard, we bought tour tickets for the ancient city of Fetephur Sekri, a fort built in the same era as Delhi's Red Fort. For $2.50 each, the tour bus included Agra fort and of course, the Taj. The tour turned out to be an excellent idea, as it kept us away from the touts, and we didn't have to hassle getting from A to B.
Despite Delhi packing in 10 million people, in less than a half an hour, we'd found ourselves outside the city boundaries. Fetephur Sekri was some 40 km outside of Agra, and perfectly preserved. According to our guide, it had been abandoned 15 years after its construction by the great Emperor Akbar in the 16th century, as the water supply was insufficient. The buildings were constructed from red sandstone, excepting a white marble tomb of Salim Chishti in the centre courtyard, which gleamed in the noonday sun.
On to Agra for lunch, which we found to be a somewhat decrepit city, in desperate need of a coat of paint on every building. After a quick visit to the Agra fort, we carried on to the Taj Mahal. Unfortunately, it was a Friday, which meant it was open to everyone. As a result the place was fairly crawling with both locals and tourists alike (shades of Borobodur on Java), but we were nevertheless enchanted.
Those who didn't enjoy the Taj must've been some seriously jaded travellers. Nowhere in all my adventures had I witnessed a structure of such magnificence.
Begun in 1630 by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife, who died in childbirth, he'd employed craftsmen from every part of the known world. To ensure the Taj wouldn't be copied again, architects were allowed access to only small sections of its designs, to ensure it couldn't be replicated.
Construction took 22,000 highly skilled craftsmen more than 22 years to complete, standing as a testament to the human spirit. Before his death, the Shah instructed his son to build a black Taj to honour him and to complement the white one, but his ungrateful offspring squandered his inherited fortune and it was never built.
The splendour of the Taj! We took obligatory photos of its magnificence reflected in garden pools. The white marble domed central building, with its four minarets, was almost too bright to gaze upon in the afternoon sun. We sat on the lawn, in the cool shade afforded by trees filled with bright green parrots. Just another in a series of surreal experiences in India and Nepal.
We began to regret that we would be leaving India so soon; one part of us wished we weren't in such a rush to be in Europe and emotionally, we were tired of the constant staring and harassment. But on the hand, we were intrigued by the sights and sounds at every turn. Like most travellers to the region, we had developed a love-hate relationship with the most provocative travel experience on the planet.
On the return trip to Delhi, we had a most enjoyable conversation with two Indian men, one an engineer and the other an English professor.
"I am travelling this route from Agra to Delhi every day. I am an engineer in the power station, and my family lives in Delhi," explained the engineer.
"Don't you find it a long and tiring trip," I enquired.
He nodded his head, the Indian version of saying no. "I enjoy my work, and am very happy to travel back and forth five days a week. So no problem. I most especially enjoy coming home to my family after a day at the office."
The professor then piped up: "How do you like India?" he probed.
Elaine was desperate to speak the truth: that it was dirty, overcrowded, backwards, yet fascinating country. She caught herself and replied: "It is without a doubt the most fascinating country we've been to thus far on our journey around the world. The person who is bored in India is bored with travel."
This seemed to satisfy his curiosity, for he went on to discuss India's unique charms. While he was reeling off numerous wonders, It was difficult not to conjure up images of the countless numbers of Indians we'd seen out the windows during our train and bus rides, squatting and shitting in open fields, streams, rivers and more. In fact, I think one of my strongest lasting impressions of India is this unbridled shitting ... their trousers or saris wrapped around their ankles.
I'll leave the last word to Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar):
At first I thought they were simply squatting comfortably to watch the train go by, but then I noticed the bright yellow hanks under them. I saw one man; he portended a hundred more, all facing the train for the diversion it offered, unhurriedly fouling the tracks. One curious group—a man, a boy, and a pig—were in a row, each shitting in his own way...the man held a black umbrella over his head and a newspaper on his knees. Indeed, he seemed the perfect symbol for what a man in Delhi had called "The Turd World".
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