Trains, Planes and Automobiles…and a Camel

joel trainI spent a grand total of 5 weeks in India and in that time I spent roughly 100 hours travelling. That is just over 4 days in total on various forms of usually shitty, unreliable and frustrating forms of transport. In total we ended up on 3 trains, 2 long distance taxis, 5 planes, 4 coaches, 2 ferries, a camel and a very small boat which I had to help to paddle myself. In short, no account of travels in India is complete without understanding the varying degrees of shit that this entails and the pain and, to be fair, the pleasure that they all can bring to the travels.

The first thing that you have to understand is that your perception of time regarding Indian transport becomes wildly warped, frankly it has to or you would actually lose your mind and just end it all. Everything is late in India, you just need to deal with it, to not take it in your stride would result in you spooning out your eyes in frustration.The first real experience of this I had was in Agra. It has to be said at this point that Agra, as I have said before, is a true shit hole. Yes it has the Taj Mahal but if you think of the most deplorable, awful pit of desolation you have ever been to (Blackpool springs to mind) and multiply it by 1000 you are not even close to what this cesspit of degraded filth has to offer human kind.

Now picture yourself at the local train station, somewhere where there is no floor to stand on simply because of the number of sleeping people lying around the place and where every step you take is watched by hundreds of eyes all firing jets of hate in your direction. Next picture turning up to this place at 3:30am for a 4am train out of this black hole of hell only to find out that not only is the train you are looking to catch not there but not a single person there can tell you if or when it may arrive. I saw a monkey fall from the ceiling of the station to its likely death and no one batted an eyelid, says it all really. It turned out that our train didn’t turn up until 8am, leaving us stranded on a station in the dark, tired and confused for nearly 5 hours in genuine fear.

On top of this, Indian trains don’t often have departure boards, there is no markings on the train to tell you where the train is going and they regularly turn up on a completely different platform to the one advertised, often only stopping for a few minutes before tearing off in to the night and you have a recipe for a very tense 4 hours. It is safe to say that I was very glad to leave Agra that day.

On the other hand, as with many things, the god awful times we had on trains were easily outweighed by the great times. Indian trains, when they actually do turn up, are an incredible and exhilarating experience that I don’t think you can get anywhere else in the world.  Our train from Jaipur to Jaisalmer, a journey of 15 hours in which we didn’t even leave 1 state in India, was an absolute revelation.

We travelled sleeper class (the lowest class on an overnight train) which consists of a carriage in which you have wooden bed, barely covered by a thin mattress stacked 3 high against the walls of the train. Packed in like sardines you have never seen a place more alive. Everywhere you look there are people chattering, laughing, exchanging stories and it all feels so very alive. Throughout the night there are people getting on, getting off, jumping off the train during the regular station stops to brush their teeth, dropping off deliveries, picking up old relatives and everything else in between.

In the morning you wake up to chai-wallas, basically mobile tea salesman selling very strong, super sweet tea, barreling down the aisles selling their wares, Indians playing cards on their beds and sellers at the bars of the windows selling samosas, pakoras and a load of other weird but insanely tasty food bits through the bars of the train windows. It is an incredible experience and something I would do again in a heartbeat…frankly not something that can be said for the coaches.

Everywhere else in the world that I have taken long distance coaches they have been very civilised, luxury even, but in India they are the lowest of the low. First off the stations smell strongly of piss, and i don’t mean the kind of old man toilet smell off piss, I mean the urine covered sweaty tramp kind of piss that makes your nose want to pack his bags and fuck off. It is genuinely offensive.

On top of that, long distance coaches in India, unlike anywhere else in the world, don’t have toilets on board. Even on what turned out to be a 12 hour coach from Bangalore to Kochi in Kerala there was no such facility. Yes, they do stop every 4 hours or so near some god awful excuse for a toilet, but they can stop for 10 minutes or 30 seconds depending on how the driver feels and there is no way of working out which it is. He will simply stop, let a load of people get out, wait for however long he feels, beep his horn  once and immediately drive off leaving anyone caught in the middle of a piss stranded in the some random Indian town.

This was so much of a problem that the advice we were given was to not drink for at least 4 hours before getting on a bus and to under no circumstances to drink whilst on them. The result of which is you turning up to your destination chronically dehydrated and in urgent need of intensive medical care. Jesus walking through the desert for 40 days has nothing on this shit. Just to really put the boot in, during a 12 hour journey we sat through at least 9 hours of very loud Keralan movies, each as baffling as the last, with the most incomprehensible subtitles you have ever seen. It was at this point, after drifting in to a semi coma through sheer exhaustion that I woke up to find Tahmina being violently sick over the seat next to me. I am honestly surprised that I survived these journeys with my sanity intact.

That brings me to the camel. My impression of what this would entail was that I would sail, Ali Baba-esque, majestically through the desert on a sea of sand, at one with the world and to all intents and purposes a Maharajah in my own time. The reality is that it was the equivalent of being headbutted repeatedly in the balls by an angry midget. Yes the desert was beautiful and yes the night we spent sleeping under the stars with an open fire was epic but the two days I spent afterwards cradling my poor broken testicles was not really part of the plan. I just hope that anyone who regularly rides a camel is either a female or a eunuch.

In short it is the journeys between places that makes travelling in India something special. Although some of it is tough, hilarious, dangerous and challenging, often all at the same time, we met some of the most interesting and fun people on those journeys and there is nothing like an Indian journey to bind you together. Even the worst of those journeys I wouldn’t have any other way now, they form part of the experience and at the end of the day adventure isn’t straightforward. It is challenging, difficult, awkward, odd, funny, weird and unusual and you don’t leave home for everything to be as you expected.

Travelling is a journey, and sometimes that’s the the best bit.

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A forting good time in Jaipur

Sunset from Nahagarh fort bar

Sunset from Nahagarh fort bar

Quite how I ended up on top of a 300 year old fort in the middle of a horde of Indian school kids doing my best to imitate a traditional Rajasthani dance with accompanying drums, I am still not completely clear on, but, as with all good stories, it did not begin with “this one time, I had a salad”. There was beer involved, and judging from my rather hazy memories of what happened, a shit load of it.

We had started out the day in Jaipur intent on some full on cultural sightseeing, the usual Indian city mix of forts, temples and mahal’s, and at first we did well. After successfully negotiating our way through a completely mental market, a rather underwhelming mahal and a great little veggie restaurant on a random roof, we decided to head to the fort. Nahargarh fort stands on a huge hill in the centre of Jaipur overlooking the entire city and is clearly visible from every part of the city, even to the dumbest of travellers, let alone a local auto-rickshaw driver…or so I thought. We flagged down an aging auto-rickshaw and that is when the fun really started.

“Nahargarh fort?”, I inquire hopefully.

A flicker of vague understanding and he replies, “OK,sir” and points for us to get in accompanied by the infamous Indian head wiggle. Frankly, it was at this point that I should have sensed trouble.

The Indian head wiggle, if you have not come across it before, is like a cross between shaking your head and nodding your head all at the same time, except, as far as I can tell so far, it means whatever the hell you want .It can mean no and yes, often completely indistinguishably. It can mean “I don’t understand” or “OK, no problem” or, in the case of this withered old husk of a driver, ” I haven’t a fucking clue how to get to the fort but that is not going to stop me taking your money and driving aimlessly around Jaipur in the vague direction of that big hill over there”.

So we bounced through backstreets and alleyways and, as is always the case in India, past many cows and weirdly, a small child stood in the road kicking a rather bored looking pig repeatedly in the side. It wasn’t clear what the pig had done to deserve this abuse but it didn’t seem too fussed and just stood there taking it like…well…a pig. It quickly became clear that our driver hadn’t a clue where he was going and even after him stopping repeatedly to ask for directions he eventually got bored of driving around pointlessly and kicked us out, still a long way from the fort and in no way at the top of the hill.

A long and sweaty climb up the hill followed and by 3 pm (30 minutes after leaving the auto-rickshaw) we finally reached the fort. It was then that we saw the best word in the English language daubed poorly on a crumbling old sign…BAR. Hot and bothered from the climb, we scurried off in the direction of the bar, determined that we would have one quick beer and then check out the fort properly. We spent the next 7 hours there.

The bar was incredible, nestled at the highest point of the fort you could reach, it was basically a fridge in a hut with chairs placed all over the forts walls. From where we were you could see every part of Jaipur and we spent a happy first few hours there downing strong Kingfishers (8%!) and chatting away, watching the sun sink slowly below the horizon.

Not long after the sun went down, the previously quiet fort was suddenly overrun with a shit load of school age Indian kids; their teachers, a bunch of tabla drummers; some very odd puppeteers and a whole bunch of female Rajahstani dancers. The gaggle of chattering kids proceeded to sit obediently just below the viewpoint we were perched on as a very warped but oddly mesmerizing puppet show got going, followed up by the seriously impressive Rajahstani dancers, all backed by a group of very loud tabla drummers in full regalia.

It was at this point that the night took a bit of an unexpected turn as the dancers finished their show and the whole event descended in to basically an Indian dance off. People were being pulled out of the crowd left, right and centre to dance away against each other with school kids, teachers, rickshaw drivers, locals and even the bar staff at one point all getting involved to bust their moves in front of a now 100 strong crowd all happily clapping away and cheering for their favourites. Every person who got up knew exactly what they were doing and they were all completely capable, not something that could be said for me 10 minutes later when my dutch courage propelled me out of the crowd to show what I was incapable of.

I should probably point out that by now it was about 8 pm and 5 hours of drinking 8% beer had started to take its toll. I think most people initially thought I was having an epileptic fit, but they cheered and shouted their approval anyway. I wobbled around, bobbing my head and did my best to imitate the dancers that had been before but frankly probably looked like I was either taking the piss or had some severe learning difficulty. In my now quite drunken state I looked out at the crowd, saw the clapping and heard the cheering, and thought I was doing rather well. This only spurred me on further but without any genuine ability all I did was the same abysmal moves but with a great deal more enthusiasm. I now looked like a sweaty, pissed up Octopus with my arms waving about and my legs no longer clearly connected to my body. Predictably this led to me nearly hitting the deck and, thinking I had done my country proud and, as I thought, quitting whilst I was ahead, I retired from the limelight and headed back in to the crowd.

I was now, however, a minor celebrity. As one of only a few westerners there and having clearly been the funniest thing most of the people there had ever seen, I was now caught up in a maelstrom of hand shaking and picture taking. I eventually found my way back to my beer and slumped in to my chair. It was now late and the bar was closing and after another completely disobedient auto-rickshaw driver took us in the wrong direction for a while, charged us too much, asked at least 10 people for directions and kicked out again nowhere near where we asked, I dropped in to a drunken sleepy stupor back at the hostel.

When I awoke the next morning I was haunted by many laughing Indian faces and a nagging suspicion that it may not have been the John Travolta-esque performance that I had hoped, and struggling for a moral to the story to help me rationalise my behaviour I came up with this…

Drink beer…it’s bloody brilliant.

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Fear and Loathing in Delhi and Agra

Joels iPhone 332

This title may sound like an odd way to describe the first two cities that I stayed in whilst on my travels, but in a lot of ways both the above adjectives fit quite well as to how I felt after my few days in each city. I will endeavour to explain.

The first spot we landed in here was Delhi and a more intense entry in to India could not be possible. I have been to crazy cities before (Bangkok and Buenos Aires come to mind) but this place takes the piss. It’s like someone was told a very vague plan on how to build a city but halfway through just thought, “fuck it, that will do” and never finished it.

The traffic is the first thing you notice, mainly because from the moment you land and are bustled in to a taxi outside it is hands down, flat out the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced. There are no rules in India as to how you drive…I don’t mean that metaphorically, there are literally no rules. at best they have rough guidelines and even they are ignored almost entirely.

Traffic is 6 deep on a 3 lane road, stuffing and squeezing themselves through spaces you would swear are far too small. I am talking about cars, trucks, tuk-tuks, scooters, motorbikes, rickshaws, tractors, cows, vans, sheep, dogs…you name it it is flying around at hilarious speeds. Our taxi driver on the second day, after me nearly tearing off the seat cover in terror after driving the wrong way down a one way street in to oncoming traffic at 50 miles an hour, told me that in India you need 3 things to be able to drive in India, “Good brakes, good horn and good luck”. Never a truer word has been spoken.

The second thing that really got to me was the way you are hounded constantly by people wanting to sell you all manner of useless low quality shite. In the course of the first few days I was offered a 10 ft bull whip, a 4 ft porcelain plate, a bedsheet that promised a “Viagra effect” and countless other completely useless and impractical pieces of complete trash that I could never possibly carry or want.

It isn’t that they are selling this stuff that gets to you, it is the ultra persistent way they sell it. I have been chased down the road for 500m by someone trying to get me to use him as a guide and it is just constant. Combine that with the fact that Indian’s have no issue with just standing round you and staring directly at you does make it pretty intense. It eventually wears you down. Loathing is a strong word but it wasn’t far off how I felt after Agra.

The final things that make it tough are the obvious grinding poverty and the state of the places, just with rubbish dumped on the side of the road wherever they feel like and no obvious care for the cities people live in.

I don’t want to be down about these two cities because they have some truly incredible and magical places and there have been many times in those days in Delhi and Agra that just blew my mind beyond anything I have experienced before. The Red Fort, Lodhi Gardens and the India gate in Delhi and the Taj Mahal and Mehtab Park in Agra are some of the most beautiful and striking places I have ever been.

On top of that there are some wonderful, kind hearted and funny people here who really make the difference, but you can’t help feel that there is so much unrealised potential here that it is difficult to form an opinion on the place for good or bad. The good is amazingly good but the bad can be incredibly testing. It is a tale of two cities and a tale of two sides, love and loathing, fear and happiness, all rolled in one crazy messed up journey.

Joels iPhone 381

How not to arrive in Delhi…

Taj Mahal, Agra

I very nearly wasn’t able to take this picture!

“I am sorry Sir, but without your passport you cannot enter India”

When a heavily armed and even more heavily mustachioed soldier in Delhi airport says this to you before you even get to the the immigration desk, it would be fair to say that you have royally fucked up.

I am generally pretty clumsy, but losing my passport in between getting off the plane in Delhi and getting through immigration, a journey of no more than 500m, was a “special” move even for me. This was made even worse by the fact that without your passport, and more importantly your visa, the India immigration control will put you on a flight home immediately. Definitely not the way to start a 5 week trip in India.

It is fair to say I didn’t deal with this situation well, in fact it is fair to say that, after ripping apart my bags and still not finding my passport, I freaked out like a 5 year old girl. Frankly without Tam I think I would have gone in to complete meltdown.

She got a hold of me and we eventually managed to communicate the problem to the airport staff who, after many hurried and loud conversations in Hindi, which even I could tell were along the lines of, “how has this dickhead managed to lose his passport between the plane and here?”, they all shot off to try and see if they could find it.

What followed was the longest 45 minutes of my life. I genuinely thought I was going to be going home. I imagined the ridicule and absurdity of being sent back to the UK, I imagined every person I know for the next 20 years taking the piss, but more than anything I imagined the seething anger and boiling rage that I would face from Tahmina, it’s fair to say I was bricking it. Eventually, after what seemed like days, a very happy and bouncy Indian lady (lets call her my saviour) sprang round the corner, my passport in tow.

I was so happy I almost fell over and, overcome with emotion, went in for a high five. This quite predictably resulted in me being left hanging awkwardly whilst this Indian lady probably thought, “Why is this idiot trying to slap me in the face after I just saved his retarded arse?”. I took my passport and sheepishly left, apologising profusely and shuffled toward passport cotrol.

Great work Joel…welcome to India.