It’s funny how India has a way of making you love her one minute, and then curse her the next, only to forgive her moments later, and then suddenly be reminded of why you were cursing her earlier!
We woke early and spent some time this morning with our couch surfing host before we said goodbye and left her home. Saying goodbye felt as though we were saying goodbye to an old friend, and driving away in our tuk tuk was bittersweet. Amazing.
Stopped in heavy traffic, a young girl who couldn’t have been more than eight leaned into our open tuk tuk, waving a distressed and malnourished looking baby in our face, demanding money and food. The traffic did not move, and the young girl continued to poke and scratch hard at my leg while the baby wailed. It was awful, and I just felt so helpless. A few rupees was not going to change anything, and we spent the rest of the trip in silence feeling helpless and saddened.
We arrived at Andheri station, and with our bulging packs on back and front, we wondered how the hell we were meant to get into one of the carriages without being crushed by the crowds. The train station was brimming with people of all sorts, and every train ride was an experience in itself. Every time, we met people who were kind and willing to help, and others who enjoyed spending the journey staring at us with avid curiosity.
Two trains arrived, thousands of people went mad throwing themselves either into or out of the packed carriages, and we were still standing on the platform considering the option of a taxi. As a third train pulled in and I saw the ladies kicking and scratching their way on and off the carriage, and I walked over to Jake and said “not happening.” Instead, we climbed onto the normal carriage and stood pack to pack, surrounded by a hundred plus men and their staring eyes.
We took a taxi from Churchgate to Victoria Station, after struggling to find a driver who would turn on his meter. We’ve gotten good at this now.
Our plan was to drop our packs at VT Station and spend the day exploring before our train late tonight. Our train tickets from Mumbai to Udaipur still hadn’t been delivered by the tourist company that we’d paid a substantial sum to, and we were getting anxious.
As we walked towards the cloak room, I had the thought that “how fantastic, things seem to be actually running smoothly today! India is working in our favour today… something surely must be about to go wrong…” and then things turned to shit.
At VT we were not allowed to store our packs without a ticket in hand. Trudging around the area trying to find an internet café, we were almost crushed by a group of market stall holders who all of a sudden stopped what they were doing, madly rushed to pack everything they were selling into tarps, tied their goods together, grabbed their cart handles and got moving! “Police” said one local when we saw us obviously wondering what going on.
We stopped for seconds too long and touters tried to get us to go to their hotels – I guess our packs made us look like we’d just arrived, and our disheveled looks made us seem like easy targets.
Well after 1pm, checking our email at a cyber café, the tickets we were meant to have received on Sunday, and then on Monday, and now by 12pm today were still not sitting in our inbox. A quick call to the tourist company infuriated me. This morning they’d said the tickets would be emailed by 12pm, but on the phone they said we needed to come into the shop to collect them. When I asked why they’d said this only now, they ummed and aah, and then made up all these ridiculous contradicting excuses. When I asked why they had not been sent yesterday when they were meant to be, more contradicting excuses. I was furious, knowing now we would have to spend more time and more money to get the tickets. The response was uncaring and my anger was ignored.
We then spent forever trying to find a taxi driver who would not only take us to Colaba to get the tickets, but would also use the meter. Dropped off in Colaba centre, it took us ages to find the place again; no taxi driver knew where to go, so we’d had to walk – getting lost along the way.
Looking over our tickets that were finally in our hands, we saw we weren’t even booked from VT station! We were leaving from Bandra Terminus, at 11:25pm. We had a lot of time to kill.
We found a taxi who took us to Chowpatty beach along Marine Drive, where we stood eating delicious kulfi (Indian-style, frozen-hard ice cream that melts in your mouth) from a stand-up outside eatery that was ‘famous’ amongst locals. Bulging packs on back and front, we used our front packs as our table whilst the locals stared and laughed, and we came to the realization that these packs will be sitting on our shoulders for the next 8 hours or so. There was no cloak room to leave them and we were too far from Bandra, with little time left to see the things we wanted; it was going to be a long day.
We walked, buzzing from the kulfi, to the once home of Ghandi, to learn more about this incredible man who was and is SO important to India and its people. The museum/home was wonderful and we gained a great deal of understanding and insight. Yep; we’ve been to Ghandi’s house.
Walking out of the station, our packs were feeling heavier and heavier. A man on the street greeted us and as per usual, an offer to help immediately arose suspicion in us. We hate that we feel this way but so frequently we are offered “help” in return for a fee, or a lot of inconvenience. He was, however, very helpful and explained to us the best way to get to the dhobi ghats – the 140 year old open laundry which is a famous sight in Mumbai. Hailing a taxi for us he told us the driver would use the meter, but when he walked away the driver tried to make us pay a ridiculous luggage fee – bull shit! We’d taken enough taxis in the last few hours alone to know he was just trying to get some more money, and we walked away. The helpful man returned and told us not to pay anything more than what the meter read, and said something in Hindi to the driver which included “Ghandi House” – I can only assume what he said, but the driver immediately dropped the luggage fee completely and was very kind to us from there on in. Awesome.
Dhobi Ghat was not what we expected, but was fascinating none the less. A sight that, in this world, is one of a kind. Over a 1000 open troughs are used daily to wash tons of dirty Mumbai laundry, and it takes some serious strength to wash, scrub, beat and rinse by hand.
We had grand plans to visit Mahalaxmi temple and the Haji Ali Mosque in the sea, but the weight bearing down on our backs, shoulders, knees and ankles from a day of wearing our pack almost non-stop was too much. We trudged back along the path whilst a man followed us only inches away, continually asking us to please pay him 50 rupees so he could take us to some place. He kept saying “50 rupee I take you there”. We ended up stopping in the hope he would go away, seeing as our harmony of “no, no, no thanks, no, no, we don’t want to go there, no, no, we are just walking, no, please go away, no, stop following us, no, we don’t need a tuk tuk, no, no, no, what do you actually want!?” had not previously worked. He hung around asking for money and to take us with him, but eventually got tired when we started asking passers by to get him to leave us alone.
We ended up taking a train from Mahalaxmi back to Churchgate.
The train ride was an experience in itself, in particular when a hijra with a 5 o’clock shadow, dressed in a sari, boarded the train and demanded money from every passenger on board. Hijras are transgendered individuals who are apparently considered to be of low class in Indian society, and supposedly carry a magic power; they often make their money from begging or demanding money from people on trains and public spaces in return for a blessing of fertility, and curse those who refuse to cough up. As a hijra boarded, we watched as every passenger immediately fetched some rupees and immediately paid for a ‘blessing.’ We refused to pay, and had to put up with a lot of mumbling, poking, prodding, stares and finally, a hand clap – which we believe to be our curse – before the hijra moved away. The look from the locals was one of absolute shock and disbelief. Mums, if you’re reading – sorry, you can no longer expect grandchildren from us in the future: we’ve been cursed by a man in a sari and are apparently now infertile.
Freshly cursed, we thought we deserved to treat ourselves to dinner at a place we’d been wanting to visit – Samrat – where we were told we could find the most amazing Gujurati Thali.
350 rupee thali was a real splurge for our backpacker budget, but we treated ourselves and we were not disappointed; the meal was incredible and the constant filling of each little silver dish was a thrill for our senses. We literally rolled out of the restaurant, our pack belts tight, making it hard for us to breathe.
The train from Churchgate to Bandra Station was jam packed and with our bulging packs, I think we may have knocked a few people out as we shoved our way to the doorway as we reached our destination.
Jumping off a moving train: tick.
We didn’t jump off so much as get pushed off by the surge of commuters. I had barely enough time to grab my packs, let alone put them onto my back, and a young boy showed concern that my day pack was behind me and not in front. I love Indian trains, and the people – those who aren’t trying to scam you – are incredibly helpful.
I got the feeling that getting to Bandra station would not be the end of our journey – it seemed too easy. And of course, it was not so simple, we had to struggle with our packs past begging and prodding hands to then fight with way too many tuk tuk drivers who refused to use the meter, and wanted to charge us 80 rupees or more for a 1km distance, which we are fully aware costs 15 rupee.
Eventually, a helpful stranger found us one and as we drove past the other rip-off drivers staring blankly at us, we felt super pleased with ourselves that we had not succumbed to their tricks. Yessss.
At Bandra Terminus, the driver handed back 5 rupees change from the 20 rupee note we’d given him! I felt like leaning over and giving the driver a hug when he gave us the correct change and didn’t try to cheat us purely because we’re foreigners. Strangely, it begins to feel like such a success when people don’t try and cheat us out of money simply because they feel they can and because they want to.
Bottles of water purchased and out stomachs full to bursting point, we brushed our teeth and spat onto the rail tracks amongst locals who were taking a shit, hurling rubbish, spitting pan and using the tracks as a urinal.
Our Bandra – Udaipur Express rolled into the station around 11pm, and checking our names against paper charts taped to the carriages, we finally found our berths and walked into our home for the next 16 hours…
Our 8 sleeper berth consisted of two big families with lots of children and one crying baby.
Ear plugs in, I took the top bunk and Jake took the bottom. Backpacks as pillows and day packs chained to the walls, we lay back and fell asleep, waking to the occasional jolt and baby crying.
I woke to Jake offering me a cup of chai, which we continued to order regularly for the rest of the train trip. We spent our day reading, sipping chai and staring out the window into the rolling scenery. The greenery stuck out as the cool air and drizzling rain pricked against our skin. We watched as we passed farmers herding their cattle, men in brightly coloured turbans and women in their saris contrasting against the greenery, and the occasional squatter taking a dump on the railway lines.
We passed areas that were completely covered in rubbish and waste; rats, pigs and dead animals dotted amongst the putrid smelling rubbish. The occasional waft of urine broke through the air that otherwise smelled fresh and cool. Sometimes, it was hard to grasp what we were actually looking at.
A hijra boarded the train this afternoon train and again we were asked for money which we refused to pay; although no clapping this time – maybe he could tell we had already been cursed. I find it astounding that people are so willing to hand money over to a well dressed, bejewelled man in a sari who apparently has magic powers, whilst there are people are suffering and starving on the streets. It’s yet another mystery of India that we will probably never understand.
The family in our berth spent their day eating, hocking and spitting, and throwing rubbish out of my open window. At one point, a man from our berth who was chatting to us saw us finish our chai and encouraged Jake to throw the empty cups out the window. Every time another piece of waste was thrown, my heart skipped a beat and I fought to hide my angst; the litter and pollution here is a hard pill for us to swallow. At the end of our 16 hour journey, we had several little paper cups stuffed in our bags, in the hope that somewhere, somehow, there would be an actual rubbish bin that wasn’t just part of the land scape.
Late afternoon I woke suddenly, and wiping the drool from my mouth, realised the train was empty and still. We were finally in Udaipur, the North of India. The next part of our journey was about to begin; a new place, a new state, a new experience waiting to unfold.
During our train travels we had changed our plans and our travel route, rendering our pre-booked train tickets no longer useful. We decided at Udaipur station, since we were already there, that we should spend some time planning the dates and booking our tickets (and cancelling the one’s we’d already booked). With our route decided we locked in some dates, and it then took us more than two hours to book our tickets.
First we had to find the reservation office which was hidden away, where I joined a queue “for tourists, women alone, people with TB, cancer or disabilities.” Problem was, although the sign said open until 8pm, the staff had somehow disappeared. Instead, the head honcho man told me to go back to the station, “inquire first”, then come back to him. I wasn’t sure what we had to inquire about, but I spent a good half hour trying to fight for the attention of one female staff member whose job it was to deal with a hundred interrupting people at once, who obviously did not understand the concept of a queue or the idea of “wait your turn”. Or, maybe I don’t understand the concept of booking train tickets in India. Actually, the latter is completely true, but then again, so is my first point.
Trying to get her to look at the eight different forms I’d filled out was hard enough, trying to talk to her through the glass and over the voices of several other boys who shoved in front of me was harder, and trying not to get trampled to death was almost impossible. Personal space doesn’t often seem to exist here in India; neither do manners, patience or queues. Indian’s seem to take it to the extreme; it feels like it’s everyone for themselves, and slowly I am learning that if I want to get something done, I need to forget my manners and shove and push my way to the front.
So with my forms filled out and a heap of dates approved, it was back to the reservation office where the head honcho told me to just “go to the front of the queue.” I looked over to the two lines of people (all men) formed in front of two reservation counters, where about 15 or so people were waiting in each line. I couldn’t bring myself to simply shove my way to the front, so I waited and waited whilst the man behind me shoved his motorbike helmet into my back, trying to make the line move quicker.
At the front of the queue finally, I guiltily pushed my seven booking forms and three tickets under the glass towards the ticket man who had one very well styled mustache framing one very obvious scowl. He let out a deep sigh and threw my tickets to the bench, typing what seemed to be the length of a thesis into his computer before speaking.
Eventually he hurled my pre-booked tickets back at me and told me to “write cancel” on them.
So I did.
“Write cancel” he told me again.
“No. Write cancel! Here!” he exclaimed, pointing to where I’d written “cancelled.”
Eventually he pointed me over to the head honcho’s office and out of the queue, where I was forced to beg for assistance.
Eventually I gathered that I needed to fill out a specific cancellation form, which then took another 20 minutes or so because there was no obvious explanation or procedure available.
Walking up to the front of the queue of men, the head honcho was nice enough to get me seen to right away (almost), much to the protests of the men waiting in line. Angry mustache ticket guy snatched my cancellation forms, sighed again, and proceeded to commence writing his thesis again…
3000 odd rupees later and seven tickets in our hands, we were officially booked up until mid-September, and are headed in the direction of Udaipur – Ajmer – Pushkar – Jodhpur – Jaisalmer – Bikaner – Jaipur – Agra – Lucknow… from there, we’ll head to Delhi but we’ll do a bit more planning before we book.
Finally, around 7pm, we departed the station and were quickly greeted by a well spoken tuk tuk driver. He assured us his hotel was the best (as is always the case) and offered to take us for 50 rupees. When I tried to ask for a meter, he explained “You’re in a new world now; forget Mumbai, we don’t use the meter here.” Yes, we are in a new world now.
I bartered with him and got the tuk tuk ride for free, and arriving at his hotel, we immediately decided to stay. 400 rupees has bought us an incredible, spacious and clean room, wifi, kind hosts and the best view I have ever seen.
We spent our evening on the rooftop restaurant eating curry and sipping Kingfisher beer whilst overlooking the old town and the lake of Udaipur under a sea of fairy lights.
It’s moments like these that help to erase any frustrations we’ve had, and remind us how absolutely incredible and beautiful this country is.
Udaipur marks a new ‘chapter’ in our trip, and we are so excited for what is to come.