My Unfinished Travel Symphony By Lynne Kennedy
Chapter 1 – Travel To India:
We took our last breath of British winter air as we boarded the plane. Next stop Mumbai. Seats 39 A and B. Twin seats. Perfect. We stowed our two little daypacks in the overhead lockers above us. Weighing about 6kgs each they hold everything we need until April 7th. Always travel hand luggage only. People marvel at our minimal luggage but it’s so much easier. Especially in warm climates. “Lynne, did you pack the inflatable pillows?”
I stick to a strict packing list so Denis knows I will have packed them. Sometimes the pillows in Indian guesthouses are more like bricks.
I love watching everyone getting on the plane and wondering if they’re going home to India or just back to visit family or going travelling like us. I know we’ve been there many times before but each time is like the first.
Then we’re next. Took our place at the start of the runway and waited. All the passengers seem outwardly calm. I’m buzzing inside. Then the engines build up to a roar as we’re forced backwards into our seats. No going back now. Didn’t want to. After hurtling down the runway Denis and I high-fived as we became airborne. Watched Dear Old Blighty being whisked away from beneath us. I recently looked up the origin of the meaning of Blighty. Apparently it was first used in India to mean a British visitor. There are two more coming your way.
An hour or so into the flight the drinks and meals were served. The captain had already announced that the journey was going to be eight hours and fifteen minutes so a Prosecco seemed in order to pass the time. We clinked glasses in a toast to the next three months much to the amusement of two saree clad Indian ladies on the other side of the aisle. The steward offered us veg or chicken. But he said we’d be helping him out if we had the chicken. Lots of vegetarians on the flight. We obliged with pleasure.
Denis pulled up the flight map on the screen. We tracked our route. He’s looking out of the window at the constantly changing landscape below. I’m thinking about all the people we’re passing over. Each with a story to tell. That, to me, is the wonder of travel. I filled out the landing cards then we tackled a Times crossword to while away the time. We noticed our flight path was taking us north of Iran. Seemed unusual.
I went to queue for the toilet at the back. An elderly Indian man was looking for his wife. “Maybe she got off?” I said.
He laughed and replied “Who will be the lucky one? Her or me?”
He found her. They walked down the other aisle laughing together. That’s the other thing everyone should pack for travelling. A sense of humour. That’s it. 6kgs and a sense of humour.
India is five and a half hours ahead so it’s nearly midnight as we come into land. Below us the lights of Mumbai which have a yellowish tinge pepper the streets. The buildings loom closer. Everything seems so orderly. But I know it’s not. That’s one of the reasons I love it. On landing everyone is so keen to get off. The cabin crew have to tell some overly enthusiastic passengers to remain seated until the aircraft has come to a stop.
They look surprised. Reminded me of the intense atmosphere on an Indian train when everyone is gathering their luggage and wants to be at the door first. I smiled at the prospect. Seat belt signs go out. Engines fade out. Passports out. After retrieving our two bags we shuffle down the aisle.
As we reach the door of the plane there it is. That smell. The one we’ve waxed lyrical about since the last time we were here. A welcoming wall of warm humidity. A mixture of sweetness, spice and sweat. We grinned with delight. Welcome to Mumbai!
After queuing at immigration we arrived at the counter to be told that we needed to go to the E-visa desk. This is the first use of our five year visa so it needed to be activated.
Another long queue. Fingerprints were taken and passport stamped. We’re now officially in India. Next thing to do was to get some cash. We tried the ATM in the airport but it refused the Mastercard. I remember this problem here before. I used a different card and withdrew Rs10,000 (just over £100). The notes came out as five Rs2000 notes.
Smaller notes would have been better. It can be a struggle getting change here. At the pre-paid taxi desk we asked for a non-AC taxi to Lamington Road, South Mumbai.
About 12 miles away. They always presume foreigners want air conditioned vehicles. Certainly not. I want to see, feel and smell every moment. The fare was Rs700(£7) but, as I expected, the woman at the counter complained when I gave her a Rs2,000 note. “Don’t you have anything smaller?” she asked with a furrowed brow.
Well, I did have a few Rs10 notes leftover from the last trip but that wouldn’t suffice. Anyway, I like to keep those for tips. She scowled and gave me the Rs1,300 change. After making our way down to the taxi rank we found our allocated car and presented our ticket to the driver. He went to take our luggage then he looked confused. Nothing to put in his boot. Indians usually travel with vast amounts of luggage. We jumped into the taxi. Denis in the front and me in the back. Just as we’d hoped for, the inside of this rickety, old, white car was decorated in swirls of purple and pink and orange covering the seats and the ceiling. A garland of marigolds dangled from the rear view mirror and a small Ganesha sat on the dashboard. While the driver was reporting to his supervisor before we set off, Denis and I took this opportunity to do what ‘Del and Rodney’ did on the episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ when they got into their three-wheeler van after getting £6.2 million pounds for the watch they sold at Sotheby’s. We rocked and clapped and squealed with excitement!
The driver returned. He doesn’t speak English but ‘OK’ is universal. Coupled with a chin swing we knew everything was OK. It was 1.30am by now. We set off into the night through the streets of Mumbai. Windows open. My eyes are everywhere. Don’t want to miss a thing. The journey was punctuated with the occasional jolt as we hit potholes.
Ladies sit on the ground preparing their piles of fragrant herbs and leaves for market. Silhouettes of people asleep under blankets at the roadsides. Some alone. Some in groups. They’re sleeping under the moon while street dogs are barking at it. All of a sudden we braked hard and the tyres screeched. My head hit the ceiling. Denis lunged forward. I thought maybe we’d hit a dog. But the driver hadn’t seen the road hump. No damage done.
Denis had been following the journey on his phone map in case the driver wasn’t sure. The driver wasn’t sure. So Denis directed him for the final part of the ride. Things looked familiar as we neared our destination. We arrived at the Hotel Kumkum on Lamington Road. Named after the red powder made of turmeric. Hindus use it to decorate their foreheads. I tipped the driver. He touched his head with the money. He was grateful for what seemed a modest sum. Then he saluted. We saluted back. We all smiled broadly as he drove off. As we walked up to the pavement a scabby rat crossed our path. All feels so familiar.
The gate at the ground floor entrance was locked. Then we heard the sound of rapid footsteps getting louder as a young man took two steps at a time down from the first floor to greet us. We followed him back up there to the reception. One step at a time. It’s been a long day. I filled out all the appropriate forms that you have to when checking into any lodgings in India. Name, passport and visa details, duration of stay etc. The man on reception photocopied our passports then he looked up at us. “You stayed here before?” he asked. “Yes, a year ago. And we’re very happy to be back,” I replied.
He looked very proud as he handed us our key and beckoned one of the room boys to show us to our room.
We walked up two flights of stairs. He opened the dark brown door to reveal a modest but comfortable room. Enough space for two small single beds separated by a table with a telephone and a worn laminated menu on it. There’s a cupboard which stands about chest height. The room boy placed two towels and a toilet roll on it. That can be a novelty in some places. Then he showed us the switch on the wall to get hot water for the shower. I gave him a small tip and he closed the door behind him.
Directly above the bed heads was the pull down blind which covered the window. It was really warm and stuffy but we couldn’t risk opening it and letting in any thirsty mosquitoes. There was a mosquito plug in the wall with a glowing red light. I was grateful for the ceiling fan whirring over me as I unpacked the bags. I’m always astounded by how much I get in these small rucksacks. Only a third of it is clothes. The rest is gaffer tape, string, padlock, torch, washing line, bungee clips, rain macs etc. Well you never know. I put the bags in the cupboard. Experience has taught me never to leave them on the floor when we’re travelling. Denis and I reflected on the day. Both filled with the same exhilaration. Almost pinching ourselves that we’re here.
It was 5am. Time to rest now. Neither of us expected to be able to sleep. Lights out. Seemed quiet on the street. But that won’t last. Just the exotic sound of the fan above us. My eyes were wide open in the dark. So excited! Another adventure.
I woke at 10.40am but could hear the noise echoing in the corridor while I was asleep. People checking out and rooms being cleaned. Voices calling up and down the various landings. Denis pulled up the blind and opened the window. The sound of Mumbai spilled in as if it were being released from being vacuum packed. The incessant honking from the traffic gave me that feeling of anticipation that you get when you hear an orchestra tuning up.
Jet lag is always a problem for me. That’s why we’ve booked three nights here in Mumbai. We need to be in good fettle before we set off across India.
The WiFi was a bit temperamental but I managed to get on to the news. A Ukrainian Boeing 737 crashed shortly after taking off from Iran. Apparently our aircraft returning to Heathrow had to be diverted.
Whilst Denis would need a map to locate the washing machine at home he is a great ‘dhobi wallah’ (laundryman) during our travels. I’d go as far as to say he enjoys it. Indian bathrooms, however small, usually have buckets of some kind in them which is helpful to us for washing clothes. He hung a few bits up to dry in the room. The humidity doesn’t help but the fan does.
We got ready and walked upstairs to the rooftop cafe. It was lunchtime but we hadn’t had breakfast yet. As we reached the cafe the smells intensified. Fragrant herbs and spices filled the air. Dishes were being taken past us presumably for room service. We were the only customers actually sitting there at one of the three tables. The same cook as the last time we were here was working behind the counter. A short man with a limp. There’s no lift in this hotel and he takes the stairs as nimbly as the others working here. He gave us the menu and smiled. He doesn’t speak English but he tried to say he remembered us from before. We both ordered ‘eggs and toast’ as it said on the menu. But it was the ‘and’ I wanted to change to ‘on’. Sometimes the eggs turn up at separate times to the toast. It didn’t really matter but having tried in the past to explain I thought I’d present a photo of eggs ON the toast. He stared at the photo and seemed to understand. We ordered chai and a black coffee. I’ll eat most things but chai is ‘not my cup of tea’. Too milky for me.
While we waited we stepped out onto the roof. They had prettied it up by putting some nice plants around the edge. But my eyes were drawn to look straight up at the sky where birds were swirling and swooping as if they were supervising the men building more high rise buildings nearby.
Our drinks were on the table so we sat and waited eagerly to see how our breakfasts would turn up. It really didn’t matter but there was a fifty-fifty chance. It turned out to be fifty-fifty. My eggs were on the toast and Denis’s separate. We smiled gratefully.
At 1.30pm we left the hotel for a walk. On previous visits here there had always been a man on the pavement outside selling grain for passers-by to feed the pigeons. The area was covered in their droppings. I remembered that we had to run from the steps of the hotel very quickly to get past the tree with the Hindu shrine in it to lessen the chance of a warm dollop landing on your arm and in your hair. Some say it’s lucky. But I don’t remember feeling lucky. The rats probably did though. Every night the pavement moved with them feasting on leftover seeds and husks. Even though the pigeon man wasn’t there anymore we still moved swiftly.
It was about a kilometre to Mumbai Central Station. We only have open toe walking shoes with us and whilst there is the urge to look around all the time I had to remind myself to keep an eye on the uneven walkways and all the unexpected obstacles that might trip us up. Don’t want to fall at the first fence as it were. We weaved between shoppers who wanted to stop at the pavement stalls selling fruit and veg, jeans, socks, sunglasses etc. It’s funny because after crossing a road in India I always feel we should take a bow. It can be such a performance. Traffic coming at you from all directions. The trick is to become part of it.
We arrived at the station and went to the booking office. Our aim is to leave here on January 10th and start making our way gradually across to Calcutta in the east for a flight on January 23rd. It’s now known as Kolkata but I prefer the old name. We have nothing booked for the journey across. It gives us much more flexibility if we change our plans as we have many times in the past.
I filled out a booking form for two different trains to Jalgaon to see if there were any seats available on either. It’s about 400 kms from here. The ticket counter queues were long. Each customer seemed to be at each counter for ages. This wasn’t a surprise. Then I spotted a ‘Ladies Only’ counter and made a beeline for it. I was next. The woman behind the counter looked up at me then placed a wooden sign saying ‘CLOSED’ in the window. Now, that was a surprise. It was done so abruptly it was funny. I looked at Denis and said “It’s started”. We laughed. The most mundane of tasks are eventful in India. We joined another queue. A local man seemed to be ranting about how long everything was taking. It didn’t make any difference. Eventually we reached the counter to be told both the trains we were enquiring about were full. ‘Waitlist’ only. This meant we could buy tickets on the off chance that someone may cancel. Usual practice if you want to book tickets here.
Denis and I left the counter to discuss our other options. That’s the beauty of having nothing planned. After looking again at the map we decided on a shorter journey on Friday, 10th. A shorter journey just to get us en route may be better. Nashik is about 160kms from Mumbai. It won’t be our first visit there but no matter how many times you visit a place in India there’s always a different story to tell. I bought two tickets for January 10th at Rs120 each( £1.20).
With that sorted we stepped back out into the thirty degree heat. Taxi drivers offered their services but we were happy walking and taking everything in. Near our hotel we stopped at a little shop for essentials like shampoo, soap, toothpaste and a can of mosquito room spray. The elderly father sat behind the counter while his son fetched the goods off the shelves for us.
“Madam,” he said, with emphasis on the second syllable. “Would you like a bag?” “No, we should use less plastic,” Denis called from behind me.
“Of course, sir,” the shopkeeper agreed.
Plastic and general rubbish disposal is a big problem. Many seem to have the attitude ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
We stood outside the shop with a mango flavoured ice lolly to cool us down. There’s a technique to eating an ice lolly here in this heat. Fast.
“Lynne, it’s dripping down your t-shirt.” I suppose that’s one of the perks of travelling your own ‘dhobi wallah’. It occurred to me then that when I travel it’s like having an alter ego. At home it’s make-up, perfume, heels and hair. Here it’s lip balm, mosquito repellent, walking sandals and a top knot. A liberating contrast.
I tried using one of my bank cards at a couple of ATMs but no luck. I like this particular card as there are no charges abroad. But we always travel with alternative options. Just as we got back to our room I got a text from the bank asking me if I was using my card in Mumbai. Well I would have. Given half a chance. After confirming I was using the card I hoped it would be accepted here now.
The cloudiness of jet lag has usually overwhelmed me by mid-afternoon on the first day. But I felt surprisingly ok. We didn’t give in to a nap. The ceiling fan was whipping round on full causing our laundered t-shirts to swell with air. Nearly dry. Denis had a look at which route we might take after Nashik going east.
At 7pm it was time to venture out onto the streets of Mumbai to find somewhere to eat. Our walk wasn’t properly lit until we got to the busy crossroads where a group of seemingly homeless were sitting on the ground chatting. All the street stalls we saw this afternoon were still doing business and the shops were all still open. A few degrees cooler but still warm, it’s easier for people to do their shopping at this time of night I’m
sure. The ‘Amrut Punjab’ restaurant and bar was a favourite of ours last time we were here. Only about a ten minute walk we made our way enthusiastically hoping it would still be there. To our delight it was. The front was decorated with artificial garlands of marigolds and two orange lanterns. As we walked up the step it looked full at first glance. Men come here on their way home from work to eat, drink, chat and smoke. Even though there are notices up saying ‘No Smoking’. The waiters were smartly dressed in their white shirts, black waistcoats and black bow ties. One of them saw us and immediately tried to usher us upstairs to the air conditioned section. We signalled that we wanted to stay downstairs with just the ceiling fans. He cast his eyes across the restaurant as though he were looking to place a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Then he beckoned us over to a small table where a man was already sitting. I felt as if we were encroaching but the waiter insisted. We smiled and nodded to the man opposite us as he poured his drink from a little bottle he’d ordered. It was a vodka called ‘Mischief’.
What a great name for a drink I thought. We ordered a Kingfisher beer each and perused the menu. Our table companion had a small plate of salad. Nothing else. He was keen to chat.
“I come here most nights on my way home from work. But my wife doesn’t like me drinking. If she found out I was drinking she’d throw me out. Again.”
Then he went on to say that when he leaves this bar he’s going elsewhere for something to eat.
“I will go for an omelette with onion. You cannot eat onion with alcohol.”
I thought ‘try telling that to people at home going to a curry house on a Friday night after the pubs have shut.’
“Then I will have three lychees to take away the smell of the alcohol.” I wasn’t sure if the actual number of lychees was crucial.
“Alcohol is no good,” he said, shaking his head.
I took my first sip of chilled beer “No. Shocking. Cheers!” I said.
He threw his head back and laughed. Soon afterwards he finished his ‘Mischief’, shook our hands and left.
The waiter appeared with his notepad.
“Could we have half tandoori chicken, a mushroom kolhapuri and two rotis, please?” He was writing this down. His pen stopped moving when I said kolhapuri.
“Madam, kolhapuri is very spicy,” he warned me.
I knew this but we love the flavour so opted for medium spicy. It’s named after a city here in the state of Maharashtra about 375 kms south of Mumbai.
After the delicious meal we sat and soaked up the atmosphere. We were intrigued at how some of the smokers would inhale smoke then immediately put food in their mouths. Maybe it added to the taste? But that’s certainly not something that Indian food lacks.
We left the restaurant and made our way across the busy main road to a little bar down the lane opposite. We’d been before on another trip. Once again they tried to direct us to the air conditioned section but we stayed in the fan-only area at the front. It was quite small with only a few tables but we managed to squeeze on to the end of one. No women here. But that’s normal. We shared a Romanov vodka as a nightcap. No ‘Mischief’ here. A few of the locals would stare a little but it didn’t last. I suppose they were wondering why two foreigners would want to go into a bar like that. Some may say ‘a bit rough around the edges’. But I love these places. I feel like I’m experiencing real life here. Then the waiter brought us spicy tomato soup in a paper cup. We hadn’t asked for this but he insisted we take it. Everyone else was partaking so we politely accepted. As in all these bars, the cashier sits behind the counter overseeing proceedings. It felt safe enough. The big tv screen on the wall was playing videos of Shahrukh Khan. They love him here.
The jet lag was catching up. We made our way back to our hotel. The same homeless were settling down for the night. They arranged their pieces of cardboard on the ground as they wanted them. Then pulled blankets over themselves. I wondered what their stories were. As we approached the unlit area nearer our place we could see the silhouettes of rats darting from the buildings out onto the pavements then back again.
They looked like clockwork toys.
The day swirled around in my head as I drifted off to sleep about 10.30pm.
I woke at 4am then eventually fell back to sleep until 10.40am. My eyes were puffy and my head hurt a little. I felt as though I should have been in a boxing ring. ‘Lynne in the blue corner and jetlag in the red.’
Denis opened the window and there was recorded Indian music playing in the street. A happy reminder of where we were.
After a late breakfast in the rooftop cafe we went to reception down on the first floor to pay for it. I was greeted with “Lynne Kennedy” pronounced “Line.”
“You can pay for the breakfasts on check out tomorrow.”
I prefer to ‘pay as you go’ so I settled up there and then. The check out time is 9.30am here but I requested 10.30am for tomorrow as our train doesn’t depart until later.
We set off for a walk going in the opposite direction to yesterday going south. On the opposite side of the busy road there was a tethered bull outside a shop. A handsome beast so I went to take a photo of it. In the meantime, a local man had asked Denis to have a selfie taken with him. People are obsessed with taking selfies here.
“Yeah, sure. Lynne can take it,” Denis offered.
After me taking the photo with my own camera the man excitedly shook Denis’s hand and walked off swinging his chin and beaming. I looked at Denis then looked down the road as the man walked away with a spring in his step then back at Denis.
“What happened there?” I said, laughing. He never got his selfie.
We arrived at Grant Road station and bought suburban train tickets at Rs5 each to Churchgate further south. It’s the last stop about 4 kms away. The dramatic sound of the express trains charging through the station without stopping and their loud horns lowering in pitch as they sped off into the distance drew us like a magnet. These trains are perilously rammed during rush hour with people bulging out of the sides. The wide doors remain open all the time. Those commuters confident enough to cling to the side seem to enjoy the breeze in their faces as the train gathers speed. In this heat it’s welcome. We managed to get onto our train but it was standing room only. The numerous stirrup shaped handles hanging from the ceiling steadied those who could reach them. The downside to that was being faced with unsavoury armpits. I know that won’t be the worst smell we’ll encounter on this trip. Those who couldn’t reach the ceiling handles just wedged themselves between other passengers.
The recorded tuneful, female voice of the destination announcer let us know we’d arrived at Churchgate. We spilled out onto the platform. That was fun.
We walked to the Oval Maidan recreation ground. A welcome relief to have some space around us. There were a few games of cricket going on so we strolled around the perimeter of the park. Indian men have often asked us if we enjoy cricket. In fact, they presume, because we’re British, that we do. But neither of us has ever had an interest in it. That was always met with such disappointment so we would just mention Sachin Tendulkar. A famous Indian cricketer. They liked that very much. We may have to modernise our contribution now though.
The High Court of Bombay was opposite. The Indian legal system was influenced by the British. Whilst the lawyers looked so dapper in their black gowns, carrying heavy looking folders of paperwork under their arms, I didn’t envy their attire in this humidity.
Our walk then took us past the famous Leopold Cafe. It’s history goes back to 1871 but, unfortunately, it was involved in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Tourists love this place, hence it’s always packed. I was glad we’d visited before because the queue to get in wasn’t that alluring.
We made our way to the Gateway of India and the famous Taj Palace Hotel. Both are a must see in Colaba. Due to the hotel also being involved in the terrorist attacks in 2008 you must go through security before entering. We always come here on our Mumbai visits but have never actually stayed here. A standard room for the night would probably soak up five whole days of our travel budget. More importantly, we don’t want to get used to being too comfortable. Who knows what kind of accommodations are ahead of us on this trip.
The vast foyer of shiny marble floors and pillars oozed opulence. In the middle was a lounge area surrounding a stunning display of fresh flowers. We sat and people watched. The staff, immaculately dressed, welcomed every resident as though they were the most important person there. Various nationalities and cultures all being treated as royalty. Well, that’s what they were paying for. An Arab man dressed in his crisp, white robe and headwear walked in with his lady. She wore what looked like a metallic mask. Apparently it’s called a battoulah. Their numerous suitcases and bags were put on a trolley to be taken to their room. Or a suite perhaps? We could have sat and watched the comings and goings all day but decided to avail ourselves of the facilities and have a look around before we left. The attendant in the ‘Ladies’ was busy cleaning the toilet seats after each customer and handing them a clean hand towel each time. Two monied, young Indian women waited in the queue having loud conversations in English demonstrating their female independence. Their swearing didn’t compliment the beautiful clothes they were wearing.
We stopped in the corridor to look at the display of photos of famous people who had stayed here. These politicians, royalty and celebrities had all experienced this luxurious Indian hotel. It was then that I realised that I wanted to leave. I needed to feel realness again.
The Taj Hotel overlooks the Gateway of India which overlooks the Arabian Sea. It was built in the early 20th century to commemorate the first royal visit of King George V and Queen Mary. It’s always busy with tourists and today was no different. There were just a few foreigners but the rest were Indians excited to be here. To get closer to the arched monument everyone had to go through security and have their bags scanned. Separate queues for men and women meant Denis and I had to meet up on the other side.
Tourists wandered around clinging to huge, colourful, bulbous balloons. Others posed for selfies. This made the job of the photographers trying to sell their services by offering catalogues of their work very difficult.
Numerous multicoloured boats were anchored up nearby. Their blues, reds, oranges and yellows added to the festive atmosphere. A kiosk was busy selling ice creams. We stood eating ours under the watchful gaze of a crow who looked poised to nosedive at the first opportunity. This was not the place to be for anyone who suffered with ornithophobia. In fact, India is not the place to be if you have any phobias at all.
There was a taxi rank just up the road which did ‘Share Taxis’. One driver waved us over.
“Where you go?” he asked, as he flicked his head back to enquire. “Churchgate, please,” I replied.
We were a bit weary otherwise we’d have walked there. He slid open the side door of his small minivan and invited us in. We were met with the eyes of the passengers staring back at us. Too many eyes. It was already full in our opinion. Not the taxi driver’s though. He tried calling us back as we walked to the next vehicle. A short, portly man had overheard us and quoted Rs30 each to Churchgate. We climbed into his ‘Share Taxi’. Followed by five more passengers. Once he decided he had enough fares the driver squeezed in behind the wheel and we set off slowly and noisily. The traffic was horrendous and he honked his single tone horn constantly. Even when we were gridlocked. My elbow was perched in the slightly opened window when I flinched. A tap on my arm from a street seller took me by surprise. They take advantage of these traffic jams as they have a captive audience. Anything they can get a few rupees for like children’s small plastic toys, colouring books and nail clippers were on offer.
After a somewhat cosy yet entertaining ride to Churchgate we stood in the queue at the self-service ticket machine in the railway station. As it was rush hour the queues at the machines and all the counters were lengthy. People pushing in is commonplace so we know not to leave any space between us and the person in front. A little man was actually operating the self service-machine for people. With two tickets to Grant Road station we ran along the platform expecting the train to be chock-a-block. Denis spotted a spacious compartment with just a single bench seat at the side and no-one else in it. “Come on, this’ll do.” We hopped on. It looked like the luggage area. There was a smell of old veg and leaves which littered the floor. I skimmed the bench with the back of my hand to clear the seat of rubbish and we sat. Then a man holding a briefcase put his head in the doorway and looked quizzically at us. He asked why we weren’t in the main carriages.
“It is smelling in here,” he said, wrinkling his nose.
I thought it was preferable to the possible rancid armpits we might be up against in rush hour hanging from ceiling stirrups so we stayed put.
It was only a few stops then we walked back to our hotel. Our room is like a little haven in the middle of the magical madness of Mumbai.
An evening similar to last night perfectly ended the day.
Today’s the day. Cutting the cord as it were. No accommodations booked now. Denis calls it ‘Lynne and Denis’s – By The Seat of Your Pants Tours’. It’s a good job we both have the same attitude to this style of travelling. Each day we move on is like leaping across stepping stones making sure we don’t land in the mire. Organising transport, finding somewhere to sleep, staying safe and well is all part of the thrill.
After breakfast we checked out of our hotel about 11.30am and made our way to Grant Road station watching our step along the uneven pavements. We took a train to Dadar station about 9kms away. With some time to kill before our departure to Nashik we went to the ticket office to enquire about our onward route from Nashik to Jalgaon tomorrow. We stood for some time in what seemed like a static queue then a man pointed us to another counter. There was a sign above it written in red paint listing ‘Elderly, Ladies, Disabled, Blind and Cancer patients. I knew which I came under but it wasn’t obvious with the young man ahead of me. He spoke English. His mother has cancer. He was booking her a ticket for a hospital appointment, he told me. India has so many different languages. I’ve heard that about 10% of the population of over 1.3 billion speak English. It’s great to be able to talk with those that do but they’re not always so easy to understand and they don’t always understand me. We learned some time ago to almost mimic their version of English. Replacing v’s for w’s and placing t’s further back by flicking your tongue forwards across the front of your hard palate.
It turned out there were no seats available to book for the journey to Jalgaon tomorrow. We’ll probably end up just buying ‘general tickets’. These are unreserved so no guarantee of a seat. Or even standing room for that matter.
We were waiting on platform 7 when a French couple approached us dragging their trolley cases. They were catching the same train as us but going on to Aurangabad and to the Ajanta Caves. We chatted. Well, the husband did and then translated back to his wife.
“You are on a day trip to Nashik?” he asked.
I explained how we were making our way across to Calcutta. He looked perplexed. I knew why. He saw our two small bags. His wife went from looking horrified to impressed at the idea of travelling so lightly. From past experience I’m guessing we won’t see many, if any, other westerners for a few days once we leave Mumbai going east. A local man came to chat with the four of us. He was just inquisitive and asked us the question that we get asked many times most days.
“From vich country?”
Denis replied with his stock answer to this regular enquiry. “England. God save the Queen.”
He accompanied the statement with a salute. Then the man saluted back. It was a funny moment and we were all laughing until we heard the voice of someone ranting wildly. A man with matted shoulder length hair, bare feet, and a torn dirty blanket wrapped around him staggered past us waving his arms and shouting at no one in particular. His all seeing eyes seeing nothing other than what was in his imagination. The station is probably his home. Many homeless stay around railway stations. The turnover of passengers gives them a better chance of getting a few rupees every day. We bade our platform pals ‘au revoir.’ The train was starting here and arrived a good while before the departure time. We hurried along the platform looking for our coach number and hoped we had a window seat. We didn’t. The seating layout was like a plane. Three and three. I had a middle seat and Denis was in the aisle seat. This train was ‘chair class’. Individual seats meant our own space. It was very welcome because I know there’ll be plenty of journeys ahead where space will be hard to come by, let alone a seat.
A young woman sat quietly next to me in the window seat. She was the only one that was quiet.
“Chai chai! Chai chai!” a voice bellowed.
I couldn’t see him straight away then as he got closer I saw he was just a small young man. But his voice resonated through the whole carriage. I’m never sure if these sellers on the trains practise this projection or if it comes naturally.
“Denis, do you want a chai?” We hadn’t left the station yet.
“Yeah, go on then,” he said, rubbing his hands.
I got a Rs10(10p) note out ready. The chai wallah squeezed past people trying to stow their ample luggage up on the racks. I gave a quick nod and raised my eyebrows as he got closer.
“Ek chai,” I requested in Hindi.
I could have just held up one finger but it was fun getting into the swing of things. He tilted the tea urn and turned the tap to fill the small paper cup with spicy, milky, sweet tea.
The platform started to move away slowly. ‘Bye bye Mumbai.’ For now, anyway.
Sellers touted their wares up and down the train. Each with hawk eyes looking for any potential customers that might throw a glance at whatever they had on offer.
“Paani bottle, paani bottle.”
A man holding a bucket full of bottled drinking water came through. “Yes please,” I said, handing him a Rs20 (20p) note.
The water seller’s path was hindered by a young boy who was on the dusty floor with two pieces of cardboard he used to try and collect discarded rubbish. There were no bins so people just threw their rubbish on the floor. The little urchin pushed the rubbish around from one side to the other as he slid along the floor on his knees then held his small hand cupped ready to receive any spare coins people had.
Behind us were three men in their 40’s eager to chat. The two men who spoke English used to be in the army but are now engineers. The other was a chemist. They looked so proud when we said we loved their country and had visited many times before. The chemist handed a pen in a plastic box to the English speaking man who, in turn, presented it to me.
“It is a gift from my friend,” he said. “Welcome to India.”
What a lovely gesture. I placed my palms and fingers together in the namaste position to show my gratitude for the pen. The chemist whispered something to the engineer. “He wants to know, from which country you are from?”
I looked at the chemist.
“England. Can I still keep the pen?” I joked. They all smiled.
The three hour journey, although enjoyable, was enough for today. At Nashik station we had another attempt at enquiring about onward tickets to Jalgaon tomorrow. No luck.
We needed to find somewhere to sleep tonight. We saw a hotel across the road from the station. Down a side alley we took the crumbling concrete steps up to the reception on the first floor. It didn’t look that inviting but we’d have taken the room if they’d had WiFi. We used to manage perfectly well travelling without it but you can’t uninvent the wheel. It would be helpful to have it to plan our onward route so we carried on searching. Some places were over our budget, some had no WiFi and some didn’t take foreigners. They have to have a licence.
After traipsing around the town for nearly an hour it was getting dark. We found The Hotel Theem Plaaza. Being sandwiched between two mosques meant that it would be an early start. But the room seemed comfortable and clean. I left Denis to establish where the fire escapes were. He always does that. At reception I had to fill out the check-in forms and have the passports photocopied. A list of questions included where had we come from in India and where were we heading next. I wrote Jalgaon but we don’t actually have anything booked yet.
When we arrived earlier we’d noticed a bar near the hotel. Hoping they did food, we made our way there about 7pm. It looked clean and smelled freshly painted. A very polite man welcomed us and we sat at a table by the wall. A few other male patrons sat quietly with their drinks and snacks. They looked at us as we arrived but nobody bothered us. Windows were all around. Felt safe. A bottle of beer and two glasses arrived.
“Do you do food?” I asked.
He came back with crispy snacks. That was fine. We weren’t that hungry anyway. The man was so attentive and couldn’t do enough for us. As we discussed how we might proceed tomorrow a second chilled beer was offered to us. He placed it on the table with some more snacks. This time it was a few hot chilli peppers. I shouldn’t have taken mine so far back to the stalk. It was painful. I winced quietly but felt as though I looked like a cartoon character with steam coming out of my ears. A bottle of water arrived as though it were a first aid kit. It should’ve had a red cross label on the side of it. Denis learned from my misfortune and took only the end of the pepper.
All of a sudden our bill appeared on the table. We’d been there for about an hour but hadn’t requested it. It didn’t matter as we were planning to go for a stroll anyway. We were just finishing our drinks when a burly man came to our table. His wide shoulders loomed over us as he placed his knuckles on the table with his elbows facing forwards. “This is not the place for you. You must leave,” he instructed.
We were just about to leave but I wondered what the problem was. Especially as we’d been made to feel so welcome. I asked why.
“People are looking,” he said, sternly.
They weren’t at all. There had to be another reason. He insisted we leave. Then just as we got up to go the friendly host who’d been tending to us brought us a plateful of crispy fried balls filled with a savoury fluid. Cold. Confusion across our faces now. We wanted to obey our order to leave but didn’t want to offend the host. So we sat back down whilst looking round to see the bullish man joining two men at the corner table. Denis and I looked at each other then decided that only one of us should try the snack. A bit like the reasoning behind airline pilots having different meals to each other on a flight. We always need one of us to be firing on all cylinders.
Denis was reluctant to sample the cold fluid filled balls. So was I. But I had two. Enough to be polite. I looked across at the host and patted my stomach whilst smiling as if to say ‘they were very nice but I’m full’. We left without looking back at the thug in the corner.
It was dark. We walked towards the railway station where there was a hotel with a rooftop bar. When the lift doors opened a pleasant young man named Kumar greeted us and showed us to a table. We had a drink and a poppadom each while we discussed our dismissal from the previous bar. It may have been down to recent political tensions around the world? Or the fact that I am female? We’ll never know. Kumar restored our faith with his cordiality.
We ended the evening with a tuk tuk ride back to our hotel. It wasn’t far but it was dark. I climbed into the back first then Denis beside me. We can’t sit in one of these with a straight face. Zipping along in the dark with a breeze in your face and the engine sounding like a loud raspberry. We grinned all the way. What a fun way to end the day.
I took a sachet of sodium citrate to relieve a bladder infection I could feel developing. It kept me awake in the night. I’m glad I always pack a few different medications for these eventualities.
We checked out of the hotel at 8.30am and made our way back to the station by tuk tuk. It wasn’t possible to book seats to Jalgaon so I bought general tickets for Rs105 each. Just over £1 to go about 250kms. We could board any train to this destination but we were not guaranteed a seat.
I left Denis sitting with our bags on the platform while I went to a small stall to buy four bananas, biscuits and a bottle of water. A tap on my arm made me look round and down to see a short, elderly lady dressed in a dirty saree and a scarf around her head. She wanted money. I’d just bought food. I could hardly deny her. I gave her the small coin I’d just received in the change. Then as she walked off she was replaced by another woman asking for money. This one wasn’t so humble. Begging is constant all over India. When I didn’t hand over any money the woman started shouting at me angrily. I didn’t understand what she was saying. A couple came and shouted at her then apologised to me. I was embarrassed. They had no need to say sorry.
A train going to Jalgaon was due at 9.30am.The tension was building with the imminent arrival. Announcements echoed prompting people to get up off the floor and gather all their belongings. Food sellers made their way towards the edge of the platform, porters in their red shirts got their carts ready or arranged their headscarves ready to carry heavy luggage on their heads and passengers with seats booked stood where they believed their coach number would stop. Unlike those who were winging it like us.
The long train rumbled into the station with a deafening honk. Everybody was running in all directions. People shouting. The train already looked jam-packed. We couldn’t see in through the windows of the air conditioned coaches but the horizontal metal bars across the open windows of the Sleeper Class coaches revealed the likelihood of us getting on was slim. Our only chance was if we managed to find the Travelling Ticket Examiner.
The TTE is usually in the air conditioned coaches. They’re easily identifiable in their white shirts, dark blazer, badge, black trousers and trainers, clutching reams of paper listing which seats are booked. Time was running out so we rushed down the platform to find him on the off chance he could give us a seat. It was fruitless. No seats available whatsoever. The general tickets that we’d bought for the unreserved section were certainly not an option.
We stood back and watched as the train filled to capacity and the food sellers passed savoury snacks through the bars of the windows in return for rupees being passed out. The alarming honk indicated the departure. As the train rolled away we saw the steps of each doorway clogged with passengers.
Exactly the same thing happened when the 10.00am train arrived.
Time was getting on and we needed to make other arrangements. A quick visit to the toilet on the platform first.
“That was absolutely disgusting,” I said when I came out. “The cubicle was so small I had to reverse into it to be able to shut the door.”
It was a squat toilet. I’m used to those. But I wasn’t used to all the excrement smeared up the walls. There was obviously no toilet paper but there wasn’t even any water. “Did you have to pay?” Denis asked.
“No, I didn’t thank goodness,” I grumbled. “They should’ve paid me.” “That’s a shame. The gents toilet was ok,” he gloated.
I always carry toilet paper in my bag. Next to my sense of humour.
We took a bus from outside the railway station to the main bus station to be told there was a bus leaving there at 11.30am. Great. I bought more water. Need to keep hydrated in this heat. Especially with my bladder infection. Street dogs roamed the station.
They’re fairly sleepy this time of day as it’s hot. They take shelter from the heat underneath seats but you have to be careful not to unwittingly step on them. Rabies is a problem here. When the sun goes down and the dogs wake up caution must be exercised. Especially when they start to pack. We haven’t had the rabies vaccine but even if you do you still have to get treatment if you get bitten.
There was a bus already parked in bay 4. But we were told it wasn’t ours. Then at 11.10am we were waved onto the very same bus by the conductor. He didn’t speak English but we thought he was trying to say we will have to change buses on the way to Jalgaon. Denis looked on his map and guessed we had to change at Dhule about 160kms away. We sat behind the driver. He and the conductor seemed pleased to have us on their bus. The conductor presented his phone to us with what looked like a photo of his wife. Then she blinked. It was a video call. When we realised we laughed and exchanged waves.
Rhythmic shouting of various destinations blended into each other as the conductors tried to encourage potential passengers to their buses. The driver started the engine of our big metal heap of a bone shaker. The windows were all open. I could see the fumes belching as he revved up to alert passengers that we would soon be departing. We wedged our bags between our feet. The conductor was still calling out for more passengers as we reversed out of the bay. Food sellers seizing one last opportunity to make a sale jumped off as we reached the station exit.
The driver had the usual Hindu shrine at the front overlooking the loose gear stick that he had to aggressively shove into position each time. What with the dodgy gearbox, the steering wheel that had so much movement in it and the smell of engine oil we knew we were in for a bumpy ride.
‘Horn OK Please’ is a sign you regularly see on the backs of lorries and buses in India. It’s to tell other vehicles that may want to overtake to alert the driver ahead by blowing their horns. Well, it seemed like our driver obeyed every instruction to do this. He honked his horn constantly and barged past everything. It was like being in the film ‘Speed’ where the bus would have blown up if it had gone below a certain speed.
India drives on the left hand side of the road. The same as the UK. But on dual carriageways they drive in the right hand lane and undertake to the left. We were tearing along a dual carriageway at one point and our impatient driver wasn’t too enamoured with the driving of another bus driver so he undertook him, pulled up alongside and told him so. That driver was the only one to get a verbal reprimanding. The others just got hand signals.
As we were going through a town I could see there were concrete lane barriers spread out at intervals up ahead. The idea was us and oncoming traffic would drive to one side of the intermittent road dividers as the other side was covered in gravel and seemed to be preparing for roadworks. With a tuk tuk coming towards us on the right hand side and a vehicle directly in front of us the last thing I expected was acceleration. To go where? Straight ahead onto the gravel. That was where. I looked behind me to see what the rest of the passengers thought about this detour. To my astonishment some were sleeping. How? Their heads were bouncing off their shoulders as we mounted the gravel covered lane at speed. The whole bus shook. Then seeing a gap in the barriers he swung the bus back into the lane again. But every time there was a vehicle in front of us he repeated the weaving in and out through the barriers to get ahead. I had the ‘Mission Impossible’ tune going around in my head as we manoeuvered this obstacle course. It was like the best fairground ride. What fun.
We pulled into a main bus station and the conductor said “Tiffin.” They still use this word in India for a light meal or snack. There was the usual invasion of food sellers inside and outside the bus. Denis went to stretch his legs while I stayed put. Didn’t want to lose our seats. I was looking the other way when all of a sudden there was a loud bang on the side of the bus. I jumped and turned round to find two big samosas thrust under my nose. The girl, with her arm stretched up, really startled me.
“Samosa?” she asked with a big voice that didn’t fit her small stature.
“No,” I said, with my hand to my chest feeling my heart beating faster. “But have you got any toilet roll?!”
I was still laughing as she tried the samosas on the man behind me.
We continued our journey occasionally coming off the main highway to go through small dusty towns. Cows, pigs and goats roamed. The smell of burning rubbish filled the air.
After our three hour joyride we reached Dhule and thanked the driver for his impressive road skills. He shook our hands proudly then he actually walked us across the concourse to the other side of the station to show us where exactly to get the bus to Jalgaon. We’d have managed but it was so kind of him.
There were already quite a few passengers on the bus but we got seats towards the back. In fact, we both got window seats one behind the other. Open windows, of course. Non-English speaking people sat beside us both. I could see the lady next to me was curious as she looked me up and down. Knowing there’d be no conversation I just gave her a smile as we started the second leg of today’s journey.
This wasn’t quite as much fun. Sitting towards the back didn’t help. We were violently pelted off our hard seats at every bump and hole in the road. A couple of bags fell off the narrow luggage rack onto people’s heads. Expressions didn’t change. This was normal to them. A turbulent two and a half hour ride got us to Jalgaon. As soon as we pulled into the station people ran to the side of the bus trying to be first on. There was lots of shouting as exiting passengers struggled to get off and new passengers surged forward to get on. People were throwing bags and small children through the bars in the windows to secure seats. After being propelled out of the bus and through the dense crowd we stood back and rubbed our numb backsides.
Denis had downloaded maps of India onto his phone before leaving home. He saw the main bus station we’d just arrived at wasn’t near the railway station so we got a tuk-tuk there. It was getting dark. As we entered the station I could see people sleeping on the floor. The temperature had dropped from 28 degrees today to 12 degrees this evening. I filled out a booking form to enquire about a train leaving at 8.15am to Nagpur which is roughly 420 kms east of here. It wasn’t a surprise to be told there were no bookable seats available to Nagpur tomorrow. We’ll wing it. Again.
The next thing to do was find a room for tonight. We walked out of the station past a big statue of a man in a suit on an elevated plinth and continued in the direction his right arm was pointing. Straight ahead. We remembered from our previous visit that there were a few hotels along Station Road that would be convenient for the morning. The one we picked looked fine from the outside. There was a big colourful Ganesha painting on the wall in reception. We always look at a room before checking in. Does the door lock securely? Is it clean? Are the headboards wooden and attached to the wall, potentially concealing cockroaches that don’t usually come out to play until night time? What is the water situation for bathing; is it a shower or do they bring you buckets of hot water? If it hadn’t been getting so late we’d have probably looked elsewhere because the room wasn’t that great. It needed a good clean. Having said that, when we were shown the room Denis and I gave each other that ‘this’ll do’ look. It was only for one night. I filled out the usual check-in forms and unpacked. I always lay everything out in exactly the same way. It makes things easy to find and it’s easier to repack in the morning. The bathroom was dirty but had a good shower which was very welcome to wash away the day’s travel dust. There was a fan actually in the shower but it wasn’t enclosed. I had to be careful not to catch my hair in it.
We managed to get seated at a nearby busy restaurant. There’s something very satisfying about completing a day’s travel, finding somewhere to sleep and reflecting on it all over a beer.
An hour later we had a stroll up the road. We’d remembered there was a bar that we went to the last time we were here. The man who owned the hotel next to the bar saw us walking towards it and came out to try and dissuade us from going in. He spoke good English and recommended his guesthouse for our next visit to Jalgaon. He insisted we inspect one of his rooms. Very nice and within our budget. Maybe next time?
The bar was exactly the same as I’d remembered it. No food is sold in places like this and you never see women in them. Just in case we were harassed for any reason by overindulgent patrons we sat at a table near the counter behind which the cashier was guarding the numerous bottles of spirits in various sizes from 180ml up to 700ml. We sipped a small nightcap at the same time as watching locals guzzling back big measures of cheap spirits. It was like they were knocking back a foul-tasting medicine then waiting a moment for it to work it’s magic; which, funnily enough, was the name of the vodka we had as our nightcap. ‘Magic Moments’.
I put the key in the door to our room, switched the light on and swung the door open to see if there was any frantic scuttling. The good news was there weren’t any cockroaches. The bad news was the hotel lift constantly chimed out the theme tune to ‘Titanic’. Denis wore earplugs. I drifted off into a deep sleep about 10.30pm.
When I woke at 5.45am it was quiet. I savoured that. The sun was coming up when we left the hotel at 7.30am but it was still chilly. With our bags on our backs we walked up to the station. Street dogs were coming to the end of their night shift. People were starting their day. As we neared the station I saw an elderly woman sitting at the roadside. Her head tilted down and to one side causing her fine, grey, unwashed hair to fall over her face. She was hunched over clutching her knees close to her body to keep warm. A dirty sheet was all she had wrapped around her frail body. Her shoulders were bare. She was invisible to passers-by as were the rest of the many homeless sleeping on the floor of the railway station.
We bought general tickets at Rs70 (70p)each to Akola which is about 180 kms east. Nagpur being over 420 kms east would have been preferable but as we weren’t guaranteed a seat this seemed a good second choice.
Chilly in the shade we found a sunny spot on the platform. The warmth melted my muscles and dried off my shower wet hair. A shoe shine boy was busy buffing the dark brown brogues of a man sitting on a bench near us.
“They look very smart,” I said to the man.
The boy looked round at our footwear to see if he was in line for some more customers. Our open toe sandals were a disappointment to him. He finished up and collected his few rupees before walking off with his shoe shine kit. The man in his newly polished brogues came to speak to us. I knew exactly what his opening gambit was going to be. “From vich country?” he asked.
After I told him, Denis did his usual ‘God Save The Queen’ routine. This is usually met with a smile. After chatting for a while the man, who was of the Jain religion, asked for a selfie with us before the train arrived. He knew we only had general tickets and no seats booked so he offered to help find the TTE. It was his two hour commute to work so we didn’t want to put him to any bother.
“Thanks, but we’ll be fine,” I said, as the train pulled in.
We didn’t run down to the air conditioned carriages looking for the TTE. We just boarded the Sleeper Class carriage that stopped in front of us. Of course, it was very busy. The stench of urine caught the back of my throat as we walked up the steps. That was as far as we got. The area outside the toilet. Well, at least we were on the train and going east.
Thankfully, with the doors being open either side of the corridor, it wafted some of the toilet odours away. A little while into the journey ‘Mr Brogues’, our friend from the platform, appeared at the other end of the carriage. He stepped over and around people, to get to us.
“Come,” he said.
Squeezing back the way he came we followed him to a compartment in the next carriage. After saying something to those already ensconced he opened his arm out encouraging us to sit.
“You are our guests,” he said, proudly.
We were so grateful as they inched up to make room for us. ‘Mr Brogues’ even stood for half an hour until someone got off and he could have their seat. What a gentleman.
I counted thirteen in what should have been a compartment for eight. These journeys are never uneventful. In the side seats was a man with his glamorous, very overweight wife in a stunning red and gold saree. She seemed somewhat overdressed for a Sleeper Class train ride. What was more notable was her lack of inhibition as she sang along loudly with the traditional Indian music coming from her phone. I stared at her as her eyebrows danced up and down to convey emotion as she sang. She was oblivious. So was everyone else.
The TTE arrived. I presented our general class tickets. Expecting to pay the difference as we were in Sleeper Class, I got my purse out.
“Is it possible for us to stay on the train until Nagpur, please?” I thought it was worth asking as we actually had a seat.
“Yes, sure,” he said, with a single swing of his chin to one side.
We were delighted. With no request for any extra payment I put my purse away.
Unexpectedly, four small limbs rotated past. It was partly unexpected because I didn’t think there’d be enough room to do cartwheels. She was only about five or six years old in bare feet and a pretty flared skirt dress that used to be clean. Her performance of about a minute and a half included acrobatics and contorting her body through a small metal ring. Then it was time to collect donations. I gave her some biscuits as did the lady opposite. The little girl wanted money though. She looked up to the top bunk where a man was sleeping. He hadn’t seen her performance but, in her mind, that was no excuse. She climbed up, grabbed his foot and shook it. Everyone laughed. He woke with a start. All he gave her was a scowl. I saw her get off at the next station with what looked like her Mum and older sister. Her Mum didn’t look very pleased. Maybe her happiness is dependent on how many rupees the little girl manages to collect.
Later in the journey a family of four joined the train. Vinay, Monika and their two small children were travelling home to Nagpur. Vinay spoke good English and was keen to learn about our culture.
“Do you have children?” he asked.
When I told him we didn’t he looked taken aback.
“But who will look after you when you are old?” he said, with a concerned look on his face.
I was inquisitive too.
“How did you and Monika meet?” I knew the answer.
“It was an arranged marriage. I tried five before choosing my wife. My brother ‘inspected’ one hundred.”
I thought I’d misheard him and leaned forward.
He must’ve been getting a bit despondent by the time he got to number seventy-six. Vinay said his ancestors were ‘Untouchables’ also known as Dalits, the lowest caste. I don’t know how many generations back this was but Vinay and Monika looked like they were doing well and above all they looked happy.
The TTE appeared again so I went to take out my purse in case he wanted the payment for our upgrade. With both his palms facing downwards he lowered his hands to indicate we should just relax in our seats and no payment was required. We were so grateful to have seats for the whole nine hour journey.
The first thing we did after arriving at Nagpur was go to the Reservation Office to enquire about tickets to Raipur tomorrow. We knew the routine. I filled out the booking form then Denis and I went to separate lengthy queues to see who would reach the ticket counter first. I looked over and a lady had pushed in front of Denis. He was miffed. “There’s a queue, you know.”
She looked up at him.
“I am in the queue,” she said, indignantly.
That really tickled me. I laughed. Technically she was right. She was in the queue. It was how she got there that was in question. As it happened, I reached the counter first and we booked ‘Waitlist’ tickets for tomorrow. This meant we wouldn’t be able to confirm seats until the morning.
It was dark and we needed to find a bed for the night. Nagpur is in the middle of India so it’s been a regular stop for us in the past whether travelling across or north to south. As we stepped out of the station we were set upon by numerous tuk tuk drivers waving their arms in the air trying to get our custom. Tired and sweaty, we climbed into the back of one of the yellow and black three wheelers which weaved and parped all the way to a hotel we’d stayed at before. It was full. I asked the receptionist if he could recommend another hotel in the town. The tuk-tuk driver was still behind us.
“I take you. No charge.”
We climbed back in. He took us to a hotel of his own choice. Of course, he did. It was overpriced for what it was but the driver wasn’t offering to take us anywhere else. We were weary. We took the room. The driver was still loitering on the steps outside after I’d filled in all the check-in forms and presented our passports. He was obviously waiting for his tip from the hotel for handing over two travel-worn foreigners.
The room was grim. The dark wooden dressing table was home to woodworm and a mirror with multiple cracks. Part of the scruffy old tiled floor had been dug up at some time then filled back in with cement. There was a blanket on each bed. We asked for extra sheets to protect us from the itchy covering. I suspected they hadn’t been washed for a while either. This time of year it can get chilly at night so we enquired about extra blankets too. Our requests were declined. I got the sarongs out of our bags and we used those as sheets. That’s one of the many reasons I pack them. They’re great to use as bedding, curtains, towels and of course to wear whenever we get to a beach. This hotel wasn’t endearing itself to us then to top it all when I went to use the shower the water was cold. I phoned reception.
“Madam, hot water is morning time,” he informed me. “But I need a shower tonight.”
I’m not averse to cold showers but it was cool in the room.
“I send bucket. Wait ten minutes,” I was assured.
Twenty minutes later came a knock at the door. Steam was coming off the bucket as the room boy carried the very hot water to our bathroom. I tipped him as he left.
About a ten minute walk up the road was a bar we’d remembered on the corner of a junction. We walked up the stairs to see it had changed a little since last time but was just as grubby. Our beer arrived with some complimentary crispy snacks. Then some sliced cucumber and tomato nicely presented on a small plate came to our table. We hadn’t ordered it but something fresh was very welcome.
I didn’t expect there to be a ‘Ladies’ here but there was a key available to a separate toilet. It was clean enough but trying to squat over a flat loo at the same as wafting away all the mosquitoes was a great test of balance.
That wasn’t the last test of the day. It felt chilly in the room so we kept our clothes on to go to bed. Night night sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.
They didn’t. No bed bugs thank goodness. I woke at 4.45am after a bad dream. Just as I started to drift off again a nearby mosque broadcast the call to prayer. I’m envious of Denis being able to wear earplugs. Apart from finding them uncomfortable, for safety reasons, I want to hear what’s going on around me. At 7.30am I could hear children’s voices singing loudly. I looked out of the side window to see a balcony opposite with what looked like a class of about twelve children sat at their desks. Their teacher stood facing them singing through a microphone and they sang along. Their clothes indicated
the sun hadn’t warmed the day yet. I suppose it’s easier to study in 13 degrees rather than 30 degrees which it will be later.
This corner seemed to be a pick-up point for buses going on longer journeys. They were big colourful coaches with windows. Lots of men gathered on the roadside waiting. I opened the window to get a feel of the outside temperature when an ammonia type smell hit me. I looked directly down to see white powder had been scattered at the base of the wall. This meant one thing. A ‘pee wall’. There they were. Men relieving themselves before their buses came. Urinating in the street is a problem in India so they try neutralising the odour with white powder. It doesn’t work. I closed the window.
At about 8.30am we left the hotel. I won’t miss it. Walking back towards the station there was a pharmacy kiosk open. It was just a counter that overlooked the pavement. I stepped up to it and asked the two men there for cystitis sachets. My bladder infection is still uncomfortable. I’d written it on a piece of paper and they both peered at it, mumbled and slid it back to me shaking their heads.
Nearer the railway station was a flyover which gave shelter to a whole community of homeless. Barefoot toddlers ran around while the women cooked up breakfast in metal pots over flames. Although we haven’t seen any westerners since we left Mumbai, Nagpur attracts many to the cricket matches played here so seeing foreigners isn’t so unusual to them.
Nagpur Junction station was busy. We went to the Enquiries Counter to see if our ‘Waitlist’ tickets had been confirmed. They hadn’t.
“You must go to the TTE Office on the platform,” we were told.
Hopefully he would be able to allocate us seats. With everybody trying to get somewhere else we darted between them to get to platform 1. I stopped two railway policemen.
“Excuse me, vere is TTE Office?” I asked in my Anglo-Indian lingo.
Their uniforms were smarter than they were. They confidently sent us in the wrong direction. This happens often.
At 9.10am we found the office and were told to come back at 9.30am. Our train wasn’t due to depart until 10.10am. We stood in the wide entrance to the office watching all the TTEs from various trains coming and going. Then the man who worked in the office asked us which train we were getting. I told him the number and that we were going to Raipur. Out of the numerous bundles of printouts listing seats booked for different trains he picked one particular pile which I presumed would be ours. I never lost sight of this pile. Whichever TTE came into the office and went to that one was the one we would pounce on.
Got him. He went straight to our pile. Easily distinguishable by his woolly hat, he perused the listings. Then there was a power cut. The office was in darkness. To make our presence known to him I shone a torch over his shoulder so he could carry on reading. Taking his personalised light for granted he didn’t look up once to see where it was coming from. Then another TTE walked past.
“He is on your train.”
“Oh, is he?” I said, innocently. Denis and I smiled.
“Platform 3, Coach S5,” our woolly hatted TTE informed us.
We took the steps up to the footbridge and down to the platform and waited. All of a sudden a different TTE came running down the steps shouting to us.
“Platform 6!” he yelled.
We’d been told the wrong one. This happens often.
A panicky scramble up and over and back down again took us to our train already waiting. Coach S5? Did he really mean that? It was impossible. It was rammed floor to ceiling with people, luggage and discarded food cartons. We shuffled down the aisle until we came to a standstill. Couldn’t move backwards or forwards. Not without causing a stir anyway. I checked in my bag. It was still in there. My sense of humour.
Soon after departing on time at 10.10am a knight in shining armour appeared at the other end of the carriage. He wasn’t wearing a metal helmet. Or a woolly hat for that matter. It was a different TTE. He must have been told to come and find us.
“Would you like upgrade?” he asked.
With 280 kms to Raipur it was a no-brainer. We caused a stir. Stepping over luggage, under legs stretched out across top bunks over the aisle and, unfortunately, sometimes on toes, we tried to keep up as we were escorted at speed. These trains can have up to twenty-two carriages. The lengthy obstacle course took us through many of them including the hellishly hot pantry car. Sometimes it’s best not to see behind the scenes in these kitchens. I wasn’t hungry anyway.
Then we got to the entrance of the air conditioned carriage. The cool air wasn’t as welcome as the relative peace and quiet. We’d been allocated twin seats on their own facing each other. What a contrast to where we were ten minutes ago. Part of me felt like we were cheating. The other part just breathed relief. Travel is swings and roundabouts. They call roundabouts circles in India. So I suppose it’s swings and circles. With the occasional slide.
Yet another TTE turned up. No metal helmet or woolly hat this time. This one wore a black trilby and a stud in one ear. Unusual for someone doing his job. He wrote out a ticket for our upgrade. Rs805 and worth every one of them.
Sellers still passed through but it was a less frantic affair. Denis sipped a chai. I held my paper cup of tomato soup as though it were a glass of Pinot Grigio. What luxury to sit there taking in the views of India through a picture window in comfort.
The five hours passed really quickly. We have left the state of Maharashtra and are now in Chhattisgarh. Stepping from the air conditioned carriage onto the platform was like being given a big warm hug. The 30 degrees would dwindle as evening came though.
Raipur Junction station opened out onto a vast parking area full of taxis and tuk tuks overseen by a multi-layered Hindu temple with its colourful carvings and three ornate towers perched on the top. A few cows and homeless occupied the entrance to the temple.
The hotel we’d stayed at two years ago seemed a good place to start so we mingled in with the traffic to get across the busy road. Ta-da! Made it. I took a bow in my mind. It was just the width of one room with four storeys in a terrace of hotels and cafes. We were happy at this hotel the last time.
“Hello, do you have any rooms? Double, non-a/c please.”
The receptionist looked at his watch. Many lodgings have a twenty-four hour check-out system.
“We have double room at 9pm,” he said, checking through his reservation book.
It was only 3.30pm.
“We have single room you can stay then you move later?” he suggested.
We decided to take it and paid Rs1000 for one night but we’ll probably stay two so we can catch up on a couple of chores. The 3.30pm check-out time will give us some flexibility for our onward travel too.
The temporary single room had just enough space to walk past the narrow bed up against the wall to get to the shower room. Desperate to catch up on our laundry Denis’ face lit up when he saw the bucket in there.
“Right, get the laundry, washing line and clothes pegs out,” he said, enthusiastically. Most places we stay at have an area on the roof for laundry which is used by staff to do the hotel bedding and towels. I always write our room number on a piece of paper for Denis to peg to our items. Being his domain I don’t usually venture up onto the rooftops. It often causes amusement seeing the man in a couple washing the clothes. He slapped a few pieces of damp laundry over his bare shoulder and went to the rooftop.
I checked our budget and banking as I do regularly. One of the cards is still not being accepted at ATMs. I need to investigate that. I locked the door and took advantage of the hot shower. What sounded like a piercing alarm going off was the doorbell. I guessed what it was. The guests due to vacate the double room at 9pm had already left.
Our new room was at the front with a scruffy small balcony overlooking the busy main road, railway station and the temple. We couldn’t easily fit both of us on it as the rusty, water stained air conditioning unit protruded from the wall taking up half the area.
Denis was irked when his shower was cold but we’re clean and have a decent room to stay in tonight.
It was dark and atmospheric with the noise of the traffic and temple bells. As we walked up the road opposite the station it got darker. Shining the torch slightly ahead of us we had to watch our step for cows and dogs that might be sitting at the roadside as well as dodging holes in our path. We arrived at a restaurant attached to the front of a hotel.
The doorman tried to usher us into a family restaurant inside the hotel itself but as usual we declined. A brightly lit room with a milkshake wasn’t conducive to relaxing. A biryani and a beer alongside the locals was. The only downside to this was the smell of cigarette smoke.
Raipur showed no signs of sleeping as we made our way back along the dark road towards the lights. A small barber shop was still open. The barber, wearing thick lens glasses, brushed jet black dye into his customer’s moustache. This is a popular treatment for men.
“How much for a shave?” Denis enquired. “Rs40,” he replied, pointing at the spare chair.
Denis rubbed his chin stubble and made himself comfortable. Whenever we’re in India he only ever has shaves in barbers. He loves the traditional cut throat razor and a splash of ‘Old Spice’ every few days.
While he was having that done I stood outside watching life. Homeless people were horizontal on the pavement. One day must just roll into another. A lady on the opposite side of the road squatted as she cooked food in a metal pot over flames. Hungry dogs roamed.
Denis emerged happily clean shaven and fragrant.
Back at our room I did ‘live chat’ online with the bank to find out why one of the cards wasn’t working. It was 10.30pm here so only 5pm at home. Megan informed me that the card had been blocked. I wasn’t happy. In Mumbai I had confirmed it was me trying to use it. Megan also told me that I would have to telephone the Fraud Department to unblock it. That costly call would keep until tomorrow. But sleep wouldn’t.
No hot water. Denis walked down to reception.
“Water is solar powered, sir. Wait one hour,” the man said.
It was nice not to have to rush about as we’d already decided we would stay here tonight too. Denis fetched our dry laundry from the roof and I attempted to iron out the creases with the warmth of my hand. Not that it mattered. I suppose it’s just keeping a bit of order amongst our sometimes chaotic style of travel. Being in the room it was easy to forget where in the world we were. Then I looked out of the balcony to see traffic weaving between the cows sitting in the middle of the busy road swishing their tails oblivious to the disruption they were causing. The contentment of the cows in the centre of the chaos reflected how I always feel travelling India. I laughed at my analogy.
We discussed our route out tomorrow. Jharsuguda seemed a good move at 320kms east. We’re well on our way to Calcutta now.
An hour later, as promised, the shower was warm. Fifteen minutes after that it wasn’t. Denis drew the short straw again. In fact, the straw ended up getting even shorter because five minutes after he got in the water stopped altogether.
As we left the hotel I paid for tonight’s stay. The heat of the day had taken hold. We walked past the temple and into the railway station. In the spacious Reservation Office I filled out a booking form to see if there were any bookable seats to Jharsuguda tomorrow. There was a different system here. We had to queue at the Enquiries desk where an officious woman stamped numbers on our form with a thud and pointed to the other end of the hall. Looking up at number 846 flashing in red and down at 824 on our form it was obvious we’d be waiting for ages. Sometimes words aren’t necessary. There was no guarantee of seats when we got to the counter anyway. Denis and I looked at each other. I screwed up the booking form and we left.
Getting a black coffee in India isn’t always easy so when I see a ‘Cafe Coffee Day’ it’s a real treat. This one was on the railway platform so we could sit inside and watch the trains at the same time. For a coffee lover and a train buff this was the perfect spot.
A family with two children spotted us as they waited for their train. They nudged each other and pointed. Maybe they hadn’t seen foreigners before. From behind the glass frontage of the cafe we gave a little wave and a smile. Excitedly they waved back. The intrigue is mutual though. I’m as fascinated by their lives as they are ours.
With no guaranteed tickets for tomorrow’s onward move it would have to be an early-ish start. For now, it was nice to sit and relax for a while.
In the heat of the midday sun we turned right out of the station. A cross indicated a pharmacy just along the dusty noisy road. It was a wooden fronted kiosk with two older men sitting at the counter overlooking the pavement. Thinking it was worth another go I presented my handwritten piece of paper. It was like a replay of what happened in Nagpur. They peered at the word cystitis, mumbled then slid it back. I took that as a “no.”
A side road opposite caught our attention. Women in colourful sarees sat on the ground with their equally colourful displays of fruit and veg in front of them. Showing off their skills of multitasking they served their paying customers at the same time as shooing away non-paying four-legged customers. The cows were multitasking too. They managed to hold up impatient honking drivers at the same time as trying to snaffle a cauliflower.
The back lanes lined with open sewers took us back to the main road where we stopped at a little shop for a mango drink. I made sure it was the right money. It was impressive how the blind man who served us had been able to differentiate between the notes I’d given him. We sat on low plastic stools in the doorway of the shop to shelter from the sun.
Back at the room Denis managed to finish the shower he started this morning before the water dried up. After my ‘live chat’ online with Megan last night I decided to call the Fraud Department at the bank. I went through the costly rigmarole of ‘press 1 for this and 2 for that’ when eventually I got through. My card wasn’t blocked at all! Megan had misinformed me last night. My exasperation melted when I remembered where I was.
Travelling puts things into perspective.
The sun went down and we walked back up to the same restaurant as last night. The waiter took us to the same table which I was pleased about because it was in a good position for people watching. A heavily built man wearing an open neck white shirt and dark trousers came in and sat alone on the next table. On his way home from work
perhaps? The moment he raised his arm the doorman, obediently, came straight over and took his instruction returning a couple of minutes later with four cigarettes. You can buy them singularly. The waiter was equally attentive. I watched this self assured man tapping vigorously at his phone in between taking sips of his whisky and soda. I thought he must be doing something very important. Buying and selling stocks and shares? On the verge of finding a cure for cancer? Involved in India’s mission to the moon? He was playing Candy Crush.
The intermittent sound of the temple bells got louder as we got closer to the railway station. They always sound atmospheric but even more so at night. I looked down to see a homeless woman sitting on the pavement. In return for my smile she gave me a big rotten tooth grin. I was humbled.
Blanket-covered homeless people sat amongst the cows to the left of the entrance of the busy temple. Just inside to the right was a group of men sat in a circle playing musical instruments. Finger cymbals tinkled along with the rousing sound of a squeezebox. There was a continual stream of worshippers performing their rituals.
Occasionally one would beckon me to join in. Even though I wanted to, I didn’t know what to do. I’d already slipped off the backs of my sandals in readiness. Then a little lady took my hand. Barefoot I followed her in. With no words spoken I copied her every move. It started with ringing the bell overhead. Then I knelt and put my head on the floor touching my chest and head as I came up. The ninety-eight year old priest cupped my right hand and poured holy water into it for me to drink then put a few drops on my head. I stood back and bowed. Outside the temple a plate with a flame on it was circulated. I passed my hand over the flame. With my palms together I nodded and thanked the lady who had taken my hand. What a special way to end the day.
What a surprise. There was no queue at the ticket office. Rs240 for two general tickets to Jharsuguda which is just over 340kms east of here going via Bilaspur.
A strong black coffee at the cafe we came to yesterday was a very welcome livener to start to the day. We were hoping our train wouldn’t be too busy as it was only coming from Durg which was two stops back. At 7.50am we made our way to platform 5. Of course our train was busy. It was rush hour. We ran along the platform to find the TTE surrounded by optimistic passengers also wanting to secure a seat. I showed him our general tickets and he told us to get on the train in the air conditioned section. We managed to perch on the end of a seat until he came to allocate us two of our own. It cost an extra Rs920 so I handed him RS1000. He asked if I had Rs20 then handed me the new handwritten ticket. Wittingly or unwittingly he went to walk away.
“Can I have the Rs100, please?” I asked.
He put his hand in his top pocket and passed me a crumpled note.
At the end of this carriage we found seats 61 and 62 next to the door. A man was asleep across the whole bench seat usually for three. Luckily for us he got off at the next station anyway.
So far so good today. It gets chilly in A/C but I tend to stay put and acclimatise whereas Denis will go and stand at the open doors with the warm breeze in his face. I sat taking in the views of the noticeably flatter landscape through the relatively clear window. This didn’t last. As we pulled into a station a young boy sprayed the outside of the window, I’m sure, with the intention of cleaning it. After a cursory criss crossing of the squeegee he swiftly moved onto the next window leaving it worse than before.
Not wanting to leave our bags unattended, when Denis came back to sit down I took the opportunity to go to the toilet. As I walked out into the corridor connection area the noise of the train was amplified and the open doors on either side of the train circulated the hot air. I was careful to lock the door of the toilet before assessing the state of the stained stainless steel area around the hole in the floor. It was all pretty dirty and the floor was wet but the good thing about squat loos is you don’t have to touch anything.
The train rocked and rattled along at speed making balancing on the two strategically placed foot platforms a challenge. The flush was at chest level; a chrome knob on the side of a long vertical pipe. At first glance I didn’t know whether to push or pull it.
Unfortunately, I did the latter. It came off in my hand. Immediately I had the open pipe gushing water straight at me. I yelped. My trousers, still undone, fell to the floor.
Instinctively, I went to put my hand over the pipe but the pressure was too high and the water fought its way through my fingers forcefully splashing me in the face. Eventually, I got the chrome knob back in the hole. I was drenched. I burst out laughing. Partly with relief but also at how funny I must have looked during the whole farce. Then I had to gather myself. And my trousers for that matter. Denis was gazing out of the smeared window. He did a double take as he looked up at me still dripping.
“ What the…?” he said, incredulously.
That set me off again. I giggled all the way to Jharsuguda.
We arrived mid-afternoon. Now in the state of Odisha we’re making good headway east. Out of the station and over to the left were a few hotels. The first one we tried was full but the receptionist recommended one up the road.
We were shown a spacious room on the second floor with a lounge area, TV and clean shower room. There was no actual daylight in the room but it had a window overlooking a narrow gap between us and the next building. Pigeons lined the ledges and any available perch they could find. With the window closed their cooing was inaudible.
I left Denis in the room while I went down to reception to do the usual check-in routine. “Hot water is morning time only, Madam,” I was told.
I really wanted a follow-up shower to the one I’d had in the train toilet earlier. “The water’s hot if you want a shower,” Denis said, as I walked back in the door. I jumped in before it changed its mind.
An hour or so later the room started to fill with smoke. It was rubbish and plastic burning outside the back of the hotel somewhere. On the way out for the evening I mentioned the smoke in the room to the receptionist. He beckoned a room boy and gave him an instruction to which he reacted straight away as though he knew how to fix this problem. We followed him back up to our room with intrigue. He sprayed it with air freshener.
Brilliant. This is less of a travelogue and more a “travelaugh.
Looking for somewhere to eat and the hope of washing today down with a beer we walked out into the night. My torch light bounced off the cows, dogs and piles of rubbish as we passed all the shops. No sign of any restaurants. After about twenty minutes we reached a junction. I saw a man wearing a scarf tied around his head and under his chin.
“Excuse me, is there a restaurant nearby?” I asked. I regretted asking him.
He was eating and talking to us at the same time. The area between his bottom teeth and his bottom lip was full of partly chewed nuts visible as he spoke.
“5 kms. I take you. Rs300,” he replied.
I stood back as some of the nuts made their escape. “No, it’s ok thanks,” I said.
We just wanted somewhere within walking distance. We had a plan B, anyway. “Rs200!” he called, as we walked away.
Although we enjoyed the walk we ended up eating in a restaurant next door to our hotel. It was vegetarian with no beer and very few customers. Three waiters staring at the TV screen showing Indian music videos sprung into action as we walked in the door. One showed us to a table while the other two brought us glasses and a jug of water. We only drink bottled water but accepted the gesture.
We ordered mushroom dishes. One spicier than the other but delicious. The young friendly waiter chatted and asked us how long we were in Jharsuguda for. Denis explained that we were en route to Calcutta and just passing through. I told him we’d travelled India many times before but this was our first visit to this town. He was disappointed to hear we were moving on tomorrow because he wanted to show us the sights here. After him asking where in India we’d visited on previous travels I listed a few of the places then said we usually end up in Goa.
“I have an apartment there,” he said, proudly. “In Benaulim”
“Really? We’ve spent a lot of time in Benaulim,” I said, smiling at the prospect of going back there.
We were astonished that anyone up here would know a small village nearly 1700 kms away. He explained the location and I named the building his apartment was in. It was his turn to be astonished.
As we continue our journey east I realise how much further we have to go until we can relax our travel muscle as I like to call it, back in South Goa. I fell asleep with thoughts of palm trees and sandy beaches.
I could have slept on after our alarm went off at 8.00am. Sleep is usually quite shallow when we’re travelling. Especially when it’s somewhere different every night.
The promise of “hot water is morning time only” was broken. As we checked out of the hotel the receptionist said they don’t usually have foreigners staying there. He gave us a hotel business card to give to other travellers. We haven’t seen any other western travellers since Mumbai and don’t expect to until Calcutta. I took the card.
The lady at the ticket office was reluctant to give us single general tickets to Tatanagar. It’s over 300 kms. She was trying to say there was no train coming back today. We weren’t coming back. She printed off the one-way ticket and asked for Rs230.
We sat by the window in the cafe overlooking the platform. No possibility of black coffee here. The young man offered lemon tea instead. He brought us our two cups of hot water and we emptied the sachets in ourselves. It felt quite normal to be sat sipping a soothing hot drink and watching a rat scurrying outside then another trotting in the front door and under the counter. Denis and I looked at each other and shrugged.
The people at the table behind us asked for a selfie. So did the young man who served us. Indians quite often adopt a straight-face expression for photos. Sometimes looking quite stern. But these people smiled with us.
The atmosphere was relatively calm when our train arrived on platform 1. Finding seats was easy. Chair Class meant we had our own leg room too. Nobody else’s luggage or boxes to have to accommodate. This was an unexpected treat. The people in the cafe waved us off at 9.45am.
My ears have become accustomed to the sounds of the seller’s voices resonating up and down the carriages. I closed my eyes and relaxed into the journey.
“Bloody hell!” I sat bolt upright. “What’s that?!”
I looked up to see a man ringing a heavy brass bell in one hand and a pole with bags of pink candy floss hanging off it in the other. India can be like one big funfair at times.
A while later I heard the distinctive sound of single claps getting louder as they got closer. It was recognisable by the spasmodic forceful slap between concave palms. Each wearing different coloured sarees four hijras appeared at the other end of the carriage. They are the third gender in India not identifying as male or female. The bundles of Rs10 notes in their hands grew bigger as they passed through the carriage demanding money. I’ve seen them get aggressive if at least Rs10 isn’t given. Other beggars, young and old, don’t seem to command the same authority as the hijra community. The performance of a blind man singing what sounded like a traditional Indian song followed twenty minutes later by an elderly man offering to bless people with his feathered stick didn’t prompt passengers to delve into their pockets in quite the same way as they did for the hijra community.
Everything changed at Rourkela. As the train slowed up coming into the station we could see all the people on the platform waiting to board. The noise of the train stopped and the commotion started. Our Chair Class carriage was invaded with all the excitement of a game of Musical Chairs when the music stops. People pounced on seats beckoning their families and fellow travellers. A group of men said we were in their seats. But earlier the TTE checked our tickets so we were reluctant to move. I spotted the same ticket man on the platform so I called through the window to check.
He gestured to stay where we were. Everyone found somewhere to settle as we set off again.
Tatanagar, also known as Jamshedpur, is in the state of Jharkhand. We got off the train and shook ourselves out on the platform. I flexed my legs and arms like a marionette being untangled after being stored in a box. Sweaty but enjoying being vertical we bypassed the swarm of tuk tuk drivers vying for our business and turned right out of the station. We’d seen hotels as we came in on the train so aimed for them to start with.
They were further along the busy road than we thought. The first one we reached was a bit more than we wanted to pay. We tried a few more. Some were skanky and some didn’t take foreigners. Then we went up steps into a big, rambling echoey hotel. It looked pretty rough with long corridors which looked like they led off to cells. We’ve stayed in worse. The receptionist looked surprised to see Denis and I approach the desk. He told us the hotel was full. We suspected they weren’t allowed to take foreigners either. I asked if he could recommend anywhere else. We couldn’t understand what he was saying so he wrote a hotel name on a piece of paper but said we’d need a tuk-tuk to get there. He estimated the ride would cost about Rs100. After hailing one outside we showed the driver the piece of paper to which he cocked his head to one side and waved us into the back seat behind him. He acted with confidence. It was an act. With our bags on our knees we rode off into the city centre keeping an eye out for anywhere suitable on the way. The driver kept stopping to show the piece of paper to various pedestrians. Nobody knew where the place was. He ended up dropping us outside a very expensive looking hotel. I went in to price it up and came straight back out again. Apart from the uniformed doorman greeting me I could tell by the carved statues, the water feature and the pleasant citrus scent that filled the vast reception area that it was going to be above our travel budget. I was right. It was over five times the amount we wanted to pay.
After traipsing around the town and not finding anywhere suitable to stay we decided to get a tuk tuk back to the area we started. The sun was going down. We found a hotel slightly above our travel budget but it was comfortable and clean. A little man showed us to our room on the third floor. The lift was working but Denis checked where the stairs were in case of emergency. We were brought towels and soap then the man picked up the remote for the TV and put it to full volume. Room boys often do that. It’s like they’re showing off the technology by having it as loud as it’ll go. He asked for a selfie saying they don’t usually have foreigners here. In return I asked if he could find the channel on the TV which shows an Indian sitcom by the name of ‘Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah.’ He found it straight away. I love it even though I haven’t got a clue what it’s about. The overacting, big expressions, dramatic pauses and comical incidental music make me smile.
After giving him the usual small tip the little man said if we needed anything else just to let him know. He offered to bring us beer but we declined. Later on a beer seemed a nice idea. After I’d showered I went to find the little man. He was nowhere to be seen. In fact, we never saw him again. Denis was in the shower so I walked down the road to where I’d remembered seeing a so-called Liquor Shop. These are not shops you can walk into. It’s always an over the counter service. The two men serving looked a bit taken aback as I walked up the step. Presumably because I’m female. This is usually a man’s sport here. I asked for three cans of beer which they wrapped in newspaper for me. The Hindi print didn’t really disguise my parcel. Denis knew what it was as soon as I walked in the room. He gave the glasses a well needed rinse. They didn’t look like they’d seen water in a while.
The sound of a ring pull and the immediate pouring of a cold beer trying not to let the head overflow is very satisfying at the end of a day’s travel. We were chatting about our onward trip to Calcutta tomorrow when I saw a mosquito drift past. I lunged forward, slapped my hands together, missed the mosquito and kicked the remainder of my beer over the floor. Good job I bought a spare.
We went for a walk along the busy streets but ended up eating in the rooftop cafe at our hotel. It was a stark room with no windows and nothing on the tables. With only us there we thought the food would come fairly quickly. Then we realised they must’ve sent out for it because there were no cooking smells or noises. It didn’t matter. It was nice to have some peace and quiet up here.
One more push east and we should be in West Bengal tomorrow.
The high-pitched sound of a mosquito buzzing around my head woke me up. I pressed the side of my watch which lit up 4.30am. I groaned. Even though I tried to pull the sheet over every inch of my skin to prevent the blood sucker from helping itself to my B positive I found it difficult to get back to sleep. I suppose we should travel with our own mosquito net as they’re not usually provided in these hotels and lodgings.
We left about 8.00am and walked back to the railway station. Two general class tickets to Howrah station, Calcutta about 270kms east cost Rs220. As we walked over the footbridge and down onto platform 4 we saw a train just pulling away. Apparently, we could have taken that one but we didn’t know. The general ticket meant we could get on any train to our destination so we planned on getting the 9.15am.
Denis, being a railway buff, stood at the edge of the platform absorbing all things train while I sat on one of the two sided bench seats. I noticed the two men sitting behind me facing the other platform were playing Ludo on their phones. I was browsing the maps I’d downloaded onto my phone when all of a sudden I flinched.
“Madam!” one of the Ludo players said, loudly right next to my ear.
The first thing I noticed with the help of his close proximity was the smell of alcohol. It was similar to the smell you get as you walk past an extractor fan outside a bar or club at home. He apologised for making me jump.
“From vich country?” he asked. Then he said he worked for the railway and was also a presenting officer for Narendra Modi. I, somehow, doubted the latter. In fact, the first part was questionable too.
“You like Modi?” he enquired.
I answered his question with the same question back. I wasn’t keen to talk politics and you don’t learn anything by talking. Although he was happy talking I couldn’t really understand much of what he was saying and was relieved when I could make my excuses to leave as our train was arriving. He went to shake my hand but I placed my palms together in the namaste position to avert contact.
Knowing we’d have to pay the TTE extra for the upgrade we boarded a sleeper class carriage. Each compartment we shuffled past was already full. Then we came across an area of unoccupied blue seat we could squeeze onto for the time being we thought.
We ended up staying in this compartment. After an hour or so I watched a young boy of about eleven or twelve climb down from the top bunk. Looking bleary eyed having just woken up, the couple with him gave him something to eat and drink. They weren’t as nurturing as I’ve seen other Indian parents. I wasn’t even sure if they were his parents but they kept shouting at him for what seemed no reason. It was like water off a duck’s back though. He was still chipper and smiling. The couple were very tactile with each other which is quite unusual here. This was only ever interrupted when she snapped another reprimand at the little boy. Then a young woman with a small baby came through the train begging. I didn’t see anyone giving her anything but as soon as the little boy laid eyes on her he instinctively put his hand in his pocket and took out a few coins. My jaw dropped. I wondered what had happened in his, so far, short life to bring out such compassion. There were many other beggars passing through the train looking equally needy but he didn’t react to them.
More sellers than usual, it seemed, today. One did a roaring trade in socks and handkerchiefs. Another came through with a huge metal bucket of chana masala. This chickpea and tomato dish was very popular with passengers holding out their Rs15 for a portion served on a small cardboard saucer. Unlike some of the food sellers he wore plastic gloves. We decided to tuck in too. Tasty and still warm it would keep us going until tonight. Wherever that may be.
As we neared Howrah station the train came to a standstill. We were stationary for ages. I watched a young boy dressed in torn trousers and a dirty t-shirt trying to carry a big sack overflowing with empty 2 litre water bottles along the tracks. Collecting plastic empties thrown from the train is a way of earning a bit of cash. His load was the same size as him. He’d take a few steps forward then have to stop and pick up what he’d dropped. It looked very labour intensive for what would probably pay him a measly sum. Very slowly the train rolled towards the station passing a small chained up monkey sat on a post in amongst a community living by the railway.
We did it. Mumbai to Calcutta, West Bengal overland. We high fived our achievement and gathered our two bags. I said goodbye to the little boy on the train and wished him good luck. He didn’t understand me but I think he understood the sentiment.
“Auntie!” I heard as we stood on the platform. I looked back. There was the little boy with his hand through the metal bars of the train. Out of respect the youngsters call their elders auntie or uncle. He wanted to shake my hand. My eyes welled up. What a dear little boy.
Hundreds of us walked along the platform but only one stopped to thank the train driver. “Thank you gentlemen,” Denis called up to the two men in the cab.
Their faces glowed with pride as they waved.
This wasn’t our first visit so we knew where the taxi rank was. We queued outside the front of the station and bought a ticket from the kiosk. Rs1152 to Sudder Street, Calcutta about 7kms away. We were put into an old yellow Ambassador taxi. So characterful.
Just over 700m long Howrah Bridge took us over the Hooghly River. This steel construction is better observed from the river bank but it was still an exciting ride across with the dense traffic moving as one noisy mass.
We passed the Writer’s Building dating back to the East India Company. Then eventually we arrived near Sudder Street. I gave the driver a small tip as we got out. He tapped his head with the note and drove off.
This area is popular with backpackers and I’d forgotten how pestered foreign travellers get when they first arrive looking for a room. We managed to shake off the touts and walked down an alleyway. There was a European woman strolling along sipping a paper cup of chai. After trying a couple of lodges that were full I saw the same woman smoking on the steps of another building.
“Are you staying here?” I asked her, as she exhaled the smoke out of the side of her mouth.
“Yes,” she replied, with the pitch in her voice rising as though it were obvious. “Any good?” I smiled.
“Yes. There are two lodgings in this building. Come look,” she said, having another draw on her cigarette.
Optimistically we bypassed her and walked up the concrete steps to the first landing. My optimism waned. We would have taken one of the two rooms we were shown if we’d had to but they were pretty rough for the price. The temperature goes down at night here and the concrete floors along with windows that didn’t close properly weren’t all that inviting. Somewhere less draughty would be preferable. We still had time to look elsewhere before it got dark.
Down an alley off Mirza Ghalib Street we saw another guesthouse. A bespectacled old man was sitting on a stool behind a marble topped corner desk. The bowl of flowers floating in water at the end of the counter showed they were making an effort. We were shown the only room they had left. It was on the landing behind reception accessible by precarious steps of varying depths with no bannisters and sheer drops down to the lower floor where staff were lounging about watching television. Our room was over in the far corner of the first floor. Marginally better than what we’d seen so far we took it.
When I went back to check in I tried to get a reduced rate if we stayed three nights. Due to the fact the hotel was now full I wasn’t expecting the old man to agree to this. I was right. I just paid for two nights. He had a big pile of Bangladeshi passports wrapped in an elastic band on his desk. With the amount in the bundle they must be occupying most of the hotel.
The two narrow single beds were so hard they could’ve doubled as ironing boards. The small window overlooked a tiled roof covered in rubbish people had thrown out. There was a small table and a cupboard lined with newspaper for me to unpack our bags.
Home sweet home for two days.
Denis checked there was a bucket in the bathroom. We needed laundry doing so I went to see if I could get washing powder at the kiosk opposite the hotel. No luck. I was going to tell Denis to use shampoo instead but a room maid stopped me. She was a middle aged little lady with a big smile. Very engaging and keen to help, she said she’d go and get me some washing powder. I gave her the money. Five minutes later, without knocking she came straight into the room with a small sachet as promised. I thanked her and asked her name. Agnes showed us how to get the old fashioned geyser shower working. As she was so eager to help and spoke good English I asked if we could have two extra sheets. Something to put between our skin and the less than fragrant blankets provided. At first she was reluctant then said she would collect the sheets from the laundry later. She was a talkative, friendly soul and it was obvious she was used to Westerners staying here.
The laundry was draped over our washing line in the bathroom. The day’s travel was showered away by the Medimix soap that I’d been collecting from any guesthouses on the way across that had provided the little 12g bars. I always take a bar home with me to have a sniff occasionally. Its herbal scent immediately transports me back to India. The sights, sounds and smells of Calcutta by night lured us out onto the busy streets where yellow Ambassador taxis, green and yellow tuk tuks, cycle rickshaws and hand pulled rickshaws added to the atmosphere. The pulled rickshaws are often fronted by a dhoti wearing, thin looking but strong man. They seem to haul their passengers and sometimes shopping laden two wheeled carts effortlessly. Happy walking we passed shops and food stalls then remembered a restaurant around the corner that we’d visited a couple of years ago. The doorman sitting on his stool on the white step outside jumped up to open the door for us. Thankfully nothing had changed. The heavy door opened into the windowless, wooden floored room with wipe clean tables some of which had low hanging red lamp shades over them. The bar was at the end of the room where the cashier watched over proceedings and made up the bills. I think he made our bill up the last time we were here. There were extra items on it that we hadn’t ordered. I always check.
Our successful overland crossing warranted a celebratory cold beer while we looked at the menu. Our flight to Yangon, Myanmar is on January 23rd so we discussed where we might stay the night before our flight. Looking at various hotels that were nearer Nataji Subhas Chandra Bose Airport, Calcutta we had our faces in our phones for some time. The two men sitting at the table behind Denis had observed this and told us off for not speaking to each other. One was very forthright but comical at the same time. We laughed and I explained we were planning our onward travel. That didn’t wash with him. He insisted Denis and I communicate verbally. We were still laughing as we were being told off by these two inebriated chums. They told us they were old friends living an hour away from each other. On a whim tonight one had contacted the other to meet at this restaurant for a catch-up. They really took pride in their friendship. It was a relief to hear Waldorf and Statler, as I’d nicknamed them, say they were going home in taxis. Peace resumed after they left. It got me thinking about friendship. If it’s true then distance doesn’t matter. Back at our room I wrote to friends and family back home 8000kms away. I doubt any of them have a room boy snoring on the landing outside their bedroom door right now.
I woke up at about 6am to my hip feeling numb. The bed was so hard but it didn’t stop me sleeping until 10.15am. Denis did the same. The past week must have caught up with us. It was nice not to have to rush about. Denis answered a knock at the door. “Good morning, Madam.” It was Agnes. “Room cleaning?”
She stood in the doorway talking to me as I lay in bed.
“No, it’s fine thanks, Agnes.” It was probably cleaner now than when we arrived yesterday.
“Ok, I take the trash.” She wasn’t going to leave without completing at least one chore. She came in and took the rubbish bin away. Moments later she returned.
“Are you from Calcutta, Agnes?”
“I am from The Sundarbans,” she replied, looking around the room to see if there was anything else she could do.
“Really? Have you ever seen any tigers?” I asked, leaning up on my elbows. Denis had suggested the other day that we might take a trip to the edge of The Sundarbans about 130kms south east of here.
“Many times,” Agnes replied. “They come to my village at night.”
My first thought was how amazing it would be to see a tiger. Then I thought about the villagers going to bed at night knowing there may be one hunting in their neighbourhood. It seemed a far cry from urban foxes stealing our flip flops from the doorstep at home.
Agnes chatted for a while then she went off happy with the small tip she was expecting.
We were looking forward to a late breakfast as we locked our door to venture out. Adjacent to our room a Bangladeshi lady stood in her doorway. She looked surprised but delighted when I spoke to her.
“How are you?” she asked, with a big smile.
Other men and women from her group overheard and gathered with great interest. We were surrounded. They wanted a selfie. We obliged.
“You must come to our country,” one of the men said to us. “Poached eggs,” Denis whispered. “Poached eggs.”
They were keen to talk with us but Denis was getting impatient for breakfast. We left our new Bangladeshi friends smiling on the landing and walked out onto the street outside. We were met with the unsympathetic chorus of honking traffic trying to pass a hand pulled rickshaw as he leaned forward in his dirty white vest and dhoti hauling a family of four. On our way to the Fairlawn Hotel in Sudder Street we took a wrong turn and ended up going through a chaotic, smelly market area. Small cages were crammed full of white chickens waiting to be dispatched. Various other bits of offal were on display out in the sun looking less shiny than perhaps they should. The flies didn’t care though. After a whiffy but fascinating stroll we found our way back to Sudder Street and there it was.
The green sign with Fairlawn Hotel written in white joined the two pillars at the entrance. A security guard welcomed us as we walked under it into the leafy driveway leading to the hotel painted green in keeping with its surroundings. It was like an oasis. Although built in 1783 it wasn’t a hotel originally. It’s colonial history was very evident with its quaint but grand decor and wide staircase beyond the columns in the reception area.
The walls were covered with framed pictures. As we’d had a walk around the hotel on a previous visit we just sat in the outside dining area. Thankfully it was undercover which gave protection from any opportunistic crows.
A smart young waiter brought us a menu. Of course it’s great to get involved in local cuisine wherever you are in the world. But the breakfast list included poached eggs on toast and baked beans on toast. I ordered us both a mixture of the two expecting a poached egg on one toast and beans on the other. I should’ve known better. First of all two eggs on toast each appeared. Then two large portions, the size of a can each, of beans and more toast arrived. We looked down at the spread laid out on our table then at each other then up at the waiter. Knowing it would be pointless I shook my head at Denis not to say anything. The waiter walked away and we laughed as we went into battle. The baked beans won.
A smart looking car drove in. The driver opened the rear door. A Western couple stepped out. He was wearing a straw trilby and loose fitting trousers. His lady wore a floaty floral dress with a turquoise scarf draped over one shoulder. I didn’t imagine for one minute that their sightseeing tour included eyeing up offal at the market. More like buying up silk at a shop suggested by the driver.
Back out onto the streets we walked through another market area selling everything from handbags to hardware. I could see in the distance there was a State Bank Of India ATM on the corner. Once we managed to get through the throng of shoppers and browsers we joined the queue for the cash dispenser. My preferred bank card to use abroad worked for the first time on this trip. Hooray!
With a spring in our step we relaxed into Calcutta taking in everything around us. You don’t have to seek things out. They’re all around. Chai wallah stalls, street food carts, bicycles pulling trailers laden with overflowing loads, people carrying heavy looking baskets on their heads. The bunting depicting the colours of the Indian flag hung across some of the roads contributing to that carnival feel. The numerous overhead cables are all intertwined like a mass of black spaghetti. How on earth do they locate a faulty one? “Right I want to go on a tram,” Denis said. “Follow me.”
He’d already checked out where they were on the map on his phone. We reached where the tram lines were and I saw a kiosk on the corner. With the heat and my niggling cystitis I decided to buy a 2 litre bottle of water. In between Denis and I taking sips I asked the seller if trams still passed here as some tram routes have been discontinued. Then just as he said they did, one came along. We hopped aboard and sat on the old wooden seats. The conductor tore off two tickets to the tram depot at Rs6 each. Off we trundled. It felt like we were time travelling on this wonderful old what could be a museum piece. Other road users didn’t seem to grasp the fact that the tram has a set route causing the driver to constantly ring his bell to alert them.
We were enjoying the ride then we saw a hospital to our left and the road was lined with lots of pharmacies. We got off. The grounds of the hospital were busy with staff coming and going and so many people outside laying on the ground. “There must be someone here who knows what cystitis is,” I thought. We walked into one of the pharmacies and, as in previous attempts, were met with two men. One was behind the counter and the other was sat at the end. I tried explaining but once again was met with a pair of blank looks until Denis said the words “urine infection.” Bingo. We were in business. Out came the sachets which he kindly put into a paper bag for me. I’ve always found medicines in India to be very cheap but we’ve had a few problems in the past trying to translate what we want. I remember in Mangalore a few years ago we both had tummy troubles and I tried to ask a young man in a pharmacy for some medication. With no English at all he just stared at us. Then Denis held his nose at the same time as pretending to pull a toilet chain on a high level cistern whilst blowing a raspberry. That did it. It was hilarious. I’m not sure charades would work every time though.
Still wanting to continue to the depot we boarded another tram. Disappointingly, it was a more modern one this time. The frustrated driver controlled the bell with his right foot which caused his knee to bounce frantically up and down every time he saw someone or something in his path. I smiled at the thought he probably does this in his sleep twitching like a dog dreaming he’s chasing rabbits.
We reached the terminus and walked around the corner. That unmistakable sound of a skid and a clunk made us look round. A young woman was laying on the road among the traffic. Apart from her helmet visor breaking she looked unhurt as she stood up and brushed herself down. With the driver still on the motorbike she climbed back on and they drove away. India has a very high rate of traffic accidents but they don’t all end as fortunately as that.
We took a bus to the Bagbazar area. There were no seats but it didn’t matter as it wasn’t far. Then we walked to the ferry terminal on The Hooghly River and bought tickets to Babughat via Howrah. While we were waiting two boys were videoing us with their phone. Their efforts to do this covertly were rumbled and I waved and smiled. They laughed and waved back. The ferry arrived with multiple rubber tyres and ropes hanging on the sides. It wasn’t too busy at this point so we sat on one of the wooden bench seats facing the white railings at the side. The breeze was welcome as we journeyed down the wide khaki green waterway calling in at a couple of stops where passengers hopped on and off. The Howrah Bridge ahead stood silent and grand not giving any clue to the noise and fumes of the constant heavy traffic it carried.
The Howrah stop was very busy with various ferries coming and going. The fun started. We got off and walked to the point where the Babughat ferry departed. Hordes of people were waiting shoulder to shoulder on the jetty. There was only one thing for it. Join in.
When the passenger laden ferry arrived the idea that the people waiting to get on would let the others get off first didn’t seem to occur. As one, the boarding passengers surged forward. With little control we moved with it. Then a woman shoved a metal tray under my nose begging for money. At the same time two small children clung to my legs. They were all working as a team.
“They are trying to rob you,” another lady warned me.
“I know,” I said, pulling my shoulder bag up to chest level.
I shook them off and watched my footing as I reached the edge of the boat to get on. We made it. Denis and I looked at each other with that sense of achievement. We nodded. There wasn’t enough room to take a bow.
At Babughat we were met with another jetty full of waiting passengers. We spilled off the ferry and stood back to watch the spectacle. Apparently they were pilgrims. Balancing large sacks on their heads they jostled to get on the ferry. Encouragement came from a woman carrying a stick with a flag on the end which she used to hit them with. She shouted at the crowds as though she were herding cattle. It was hilarious. Once it was decided they could squeeze no more onto the boat they slid the two metal railings across to wedge them in. The rope was untied and the sound of the engine revving whipped up a chorus of cheering from those aboard as they set off excitedly waving back at us.
There was going to be a repetition of this as many pilgrims were still waiting for the next boat. That was enough excitement for one day. Denis had a quick look at the ferry timetable but we decided, as it was about 5pm, that we’d take a taxi back. Spoilt for choice we priced up one to Sudder Street. He tried his luck at Rs200. Across the road another suggested Rs150. As we walked away he came down to Rs100. Denis jumped in the front and me in the back.
Back at the hotel I paid to stay tomorrow night. Denis suggested we leave for The Sundarbans the day after tomorrow. Another adventure before we leave India for Myanmar (Burma) on January 23rd.
I made a note of the cash withdrawal we made today and neatly folded the notes away. Then I did the same with the dry laundry that Denis had washed this morning.
In the evening we walked round the corner to the same restaurant we went to last night. Not feeling all that hungry we just shared some spicy noodles accompanied by unwelcome mouthfuls of smoke provided by customers disregarding the ‘No Smoking’ signs. The cold beer helped though.
Tonight’s waiter wasn’t as friendly as the one we had last night. I checked the bill for any unwarranted additions then handed over a pink Rs2000 note. Keeping smaller notes separate for tips I had one ready to hand to him on his return. Then a minute later he came back and presented me with a Rs2000 note saying it was damaged and I needed to replace it with another one. It was crumpled with a tiny tear where it had been folded in the past. I refused. The waiter rudely threw it on the table. Denis had another one so I took it to the cashier and complained. He said if I take the damaged note to a bank they’ll exchange it for me but if he does they’ll decline him. I protested but it fell on deaf ears. After settling the bill I put the waiter’s tip back in my pocket and we left for the last time.
True to form, Agnes knocked at the door. I was in the shower. She asked Denis if we wanted breakfast.
“No, just two coffees, please,” I echoed from the bathroom. “One with milk. One no milk, please,” Denis told her.
While I was in the shower I reflected on last night in the restaurant. How could I have been so stupid? That wasn’t our note the waiter brought back. All our notes were from the ATM and in perfect condition. The cashier had foisted the damaged note on us. I was so annoyed with myself for not realising at the time. Another lesson learned.
The coffees arrived but no sign of Agnes so I paid the room-boy.
After breakfast at the Fairlawn Hotel we set off for a walk. Being a Sunday many places were closed but the markets were busy. We gave the numerous street dogs a wide berth as we passed them. With only a few days left in India we didn’t want to have to seek out a course of rabies injections. Hot and thirsty we found a little shop to buy water and ice lollies. The old man who owned the shop spoke English. Adjacent to the counter was a small wooden stool where another man sat with one thin leg over the other. His arms were crossed and his elbows resting on his knees. With his overgrown hair and beard and looking like he was a stranger to water I presumed he was homeless. He wasn’t. The forlorn looking man told the shop owner who in turn translated to me that he cultivates this unkempt look because it helps him make more money begging. He has a home of his own. I was surprised at his honesty. Maybe he has Sundays off.
Denis was cultivating chin growth of his own having not had a shave since Raipur. We found a small barber shop down an alleyway in an underpass. At Rs40 for a wet shave Denis sat in one of the two chairs to be lathered, razored and powdered while I went out to observe the street. I’ve never really felt unsafe in India. People are generally going about their daily lives and too busy to bother with inquisitive foreigners.
We crossed over to the busy Sealdah railway station. As we’re leaving from here tomorrow to try and get down to The Sundarbans we wanted to check where to buy the tickets to Canning over 40kms south east of here. You can only buy them on the day of travel. After finding the ticket counter we needed to go to in the morning we had a wander round the station. The recorded railway announcements preceded by a descending arpeggio of strings echoed through the vast station. Hundreds of people ran to and from various platforms. Others lay on the floor, some laying on their luggage.
Groups sat crossed-legged eating from metal bowls they’d brought with them. We were in the middle of all this excitement and anticipation but not part of it. We will be tomorrow. After a couple of days rest it feels time for another journey.
There were a few cafes in the station but one was particularly busy. Always a good sign. I suggested we ate there instead of in the evening. It had a canteen feel with small yellow formica tables pushed together to make two longer ones. We sat at the end of one and ordered an Rs80 egg thali each. Our two metal trays with six compartments containing different dishes arrived. Some ate with their hand. Right hand of course. The left hand is always reserved for ablutions. We were given spoons. The wall mounted fans quickly cooled down the already lukewarm but flavoursome fare. Another diner looked across to see if we were enjoying it. I gave an enthusiastic nod out of politeness. Although we’ve visited it before, I wanted to go back to ‘The Mother House’ where Mother Teresa’s tomb is. It’s full title is ‘The Mother House Of The Missionaries Of Charity’ but it’s affectionately known locally as ‘The Mudder House’. Denis suggested we take the bus so we walked back up to the main road passing a man walking along with a monkey on his shoulder. A bus conductor waved us onto an already tightly packed bus. We gripped the overhead stirrups near the back steps for the short ride.
2kms later with the bus still in motion we jumped off. There was an older lady with her shopping bag trying to get onto the moving bus. I tried to help by giving her a shove up from behind. She didn’t look round to see where the thrust came from but I guessed she was grateful!
The sweet sound of nuns singing filled the air as we approached the entrance. The ethereal atmosphere made me take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Just off the inner courtyard was the small chapel where Mother Teresa’s white tomb lay decorated with flowers. Photography was prohibited everywhere apart from the tomb. Everyone was respectfully quiet. There was another room near the chapel which had Mother Teresa’s modest belongings on display. The steps leading up to the first floor from the courtyard took us to the door of her small sparsely furnished private room. With her wooden desk next to her single bed I couldn’t help but assess the depth of the shallow mattress. I was sure it was thicker than ours back at the hotel.
I chatted with one of the nuns. Their robes are predominantly white but with a trim of three blue stripes. Sister Veronica was a smiley young woman from Kerala. Veronica wasn’t her real name. She told me once they become nuns they can choose their own name. Unsurprisingly, they can’t choose what time they wake up though. Strict daily routines consisted of very early rises, prayers and work. I didn’t ask but I wondered what she dreamt of in her few hours of sleep at night. I’m sure I would dream of sleeping.
It wasn’t too far back to our hotel. We walked through a Muslim neighbourhood. The lane took us past lots of butcher stalls where newly slaughtered cows hung. Others had already been carved up and put on display. Although we had difficulty trying to identify some of the various cuts and innards we certainly recognised the huge pile of cows heads. A man was chopping them in half. The chickens crammed into cages and all the goats around weren’t a surprise but many States in India have banned the slaughter of cows. West Bengal isn’t one of them. Open toed walking shoes weren’t ideal footwear for traipsing along the bloody pathway.
We decided, for fun, to take a cycle rickshaw the rest of the way. With both of us squeezed onto the seat behind the wiry cyclist we set off. Rs40 with entertainment included. That being getting stuck behind a bus that couldn’t get around a corner where a line of two-wheelers were parked. After his hooting to no avail the bus driver had to get out and move them all one by one. Did this happen every day or had the driver taken a wrong turn down this narrow lane? Even the simplest of tasks is never guaranteed to be straightforward. I love India for this.
Rested, refreshed and packed ready for tomorrow we went out again for the evening. Taking care to keep my hand on my bag crossed over my chest we walked through the busy market area. I noticed a small low cart being wheeled along by an able-bodied man. In the cart lay a man with no legs. I saw a couple of others carrying people with different disabilities and levels of frailty doing the same thing to get people to donate money.
There was a bar on the corner near the ATM we used yesterday. The doorman welcomed us in. The inner door opened to a stage on the left. Facing the stage was an audience of men drinking and eating snacks. One of the waiters took us to a table where we just ordered a beer each. The very loud music was provided by two men playing electronic drum machines and pre-recorded backing tracks. A girl in a long black dress sang. There were lengthy pauses between songs which she used to preen herself in the big mirror behind her. Another singer arrived. Then a third much bigger woman who seemed to perform a short ritual of blessing herself and the stage before joining the other two singers. While they sang individually a smartly dressed man walked around the audience with a fistful of Rs50 notes collecting more. Some gave the tips directly to the girls. The biggest girl earned the most. She was the better singer of the three. There was a sign on the stage saying ‘Don’t Shower With Money’. It was a serious instruction. We sipped and stared curiously for half an hour. With the music being so loud I had to signal to our waiter that we wanted the bill for our drinks. I gave a tip but he signalled back that he wanted more. Slightly intimidated, I begrudgingly gave another small note and we left.
A row of hand-pulled rickshaw wallahs called out to us. We chose one and agreed on the price to take us back to our hotel. Once again, we wedged ourselves into the small seat then all of a sudden we were tilted backwards. With seemingly no effort our man pulled up the two wooden handles and set off at speed. With the strength of an elephant his lean legs strode through the lanes. We howled with laughter and yelped at every pothole and bump we went over.
“Careful, you’re carrying precious cargo!” Denis joked.
Still laughing, at our destination we were lowered slowly as though on a kneeling camel allowing it’s passengers to alight.
Every day in India is like a fingerprint. No two are ever the same.
I woke before the alarm. My tummy was a bit out of sorts this morning. I took a pill to settle it. Not ideal on a travel day. When I came out of the shower I could hear clattering outside our door. It was Agnes. She was cleaning. I use the term loosely. We were packed and ready to leave by 9am. Agnes assured us there were many hotels down in Gosaba about 80kms southwest of here. I gave her a small tip to thank her for kindness over the past few days. She touched her head with the note and wished us a safe trip today.
We were excited about making our way down to the Sundarbans. With nowhere booked for tonight we set off allowing ourselves enough time for any eventualities.
A taxi ride to Sealdah railway station took us along a road covered in white feathers. A truck was off-loading crates of live chickens and stacking them at the roadside. Further
along was a tubby man sat on the pavement wearing just pants. From head to toe he was covered in soap suds. Many wash on the streets.
At the station we bought tickets for the first part of our journey to Canning which is about 40kms away. Boarding the suburban train on platform 11 we easily found spaces on one of the wooden bench seats. Denis and I sat opposite each other. He never likes going backwards on a train. A young man asked me to move my bag from the seat beside me so he could sit down. I looked at him then around the carriage at the other available spaces then back at him. It was free seating so I suggested he sat elsewhere. Space is a luxury in India. It didn’t last long as commuters boarded during the one and a quarter hour journey. We chatted to an older man who told us he’s a dentist. He goes to Canning every Monday to provide free treatment for poorer people who can’t afford it.
He kindly told us that the bus station is about a five minute walk from the railway station. That was easier said than done though. When we got off the train it was so busy we could only move very slowly to the end of the platform towards the exit. Then we were stuck. Couldn’t move. Gridlocked. I could see how easy it would be for a stampede to occur. Does this happen here every day? It was some time before we emerged onto the busy main road and turned left. The pavement was so busy we found it quicker to risk our lives walking on the road.
We reached a vast area full of tuk tuks and trucks which were public transport but no buses. A young local man asked us where we were going. When we’re travelling it can be difficult trying to work out who to trust. He seemed genuine. We told him Godkhali. He kindly asked various drivers on our behalf but they were trying to overcharge us.
Eventually he negotiated with a truck and got us on the long seat in the front beside the driver. The back of the vehicle was like a prison van packed with passengers enclosed by metal mesh. The roof was full of passengers too. It was Rs30 to sit in the back, Rs20 up on the roof and Rs50 for our front seats. We thought we’d done well. Then the driver invited another passenger to sit in the front with us. Thankfully she was small but a tight squeeze nevertheless. Another good reason for travelling with small bags. Unable to get anymore passengers in or on the vehicle the driver, who did not have the physique of a pulling rickshaw wallah, wedged his chunky body behind the steering wheel. He closed his door which jolted him into position. Interestingly, the driver had a quick prayer before he started the engine. I wasn’t sure if that was for the truck, him or his passengers.
We set off on the hour-long journey. I love these days. So unpredictable.
At Godkhali everyone poured off and out of the truck. We walked to the ferry pier. The ferries were basic flat wooden boats with no shelter from the sun. Many passengers sat on the shallow edge of the boat while the rest of us squatted on the floor. Motorbikes were loaded too. Our laden ferry boat chugged off stopping once on the way to pick up and drop off more passengers. We paid our Rs2 per person when we got off at Gosaba. I noticed on the ferry that people didn’t seem that friendly. I assumed they were just busy being busy. When we got off the truck in Godkhali earlier a man approached us.
He showed us some cottages in a resort on his phone. He was less pushy and more polite than your regular tout. We prefer to find our own places to stay but I thanked him. Then he appeared again as we walked off the ferry. He had the owner of the cottages on his phone this time and handed it to me.
” Hello.” I was polite but I don’t like being cornered. “You are looking for room? How long you stay?”
“Probably Just one night.” “Ok, Rs2000 for room.” “Does it have hot water?” “Water is extra.”
I didn’t like the feel of this and wondered what other extras we’d have to pay for. “We’ll think about it and I’ll keep your number.”
I handed the phone back and filed his business card in a bucket which I took to be a bin. It wasn’t.
I explained to Denis what had happened and he agreed we’d work it out ourselves. We walked along the lane passing little shops and piles of rubbish. With nowhere obvious to stay here we thought we’d have to venture onwards. Denis was walking a little way in front of me.
“Fuck you. Fuck you,” a quiet voice muttered.
I stopped dead in my tracks. A young man was sitting on a low wall of a bridge over a narrow waterway choked with rubbish. He was still looking at me.
“I beg your pardon.” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard him correctly.
His disdainful look confirmed I had heard him correctly. He looked away and I walked on. In all our travels around India over the years that’s the first time anything like that has ever happened.
I caught up with Denis. Up ahead we saw lots of tuk tuks parked. Expecting to be set upon we walked towards them. Nothing. Usually drivers would be clamouring for a fare. Then the same man who had approached us twice before showed up for the third time. This time with the owner of the cottages. He reiterated what he’d said on the phone.
Denis and I looked at each other. It just didn’t feel right. At that point I told Denis what the not so friendly man on the wall had said. We went with our instincts and decided to take ourselves back up to Calcutta.
Back at the ferry we paid our Rs2 each to get back to Godkhali. With nothing to hold on to on what was essentially a big raft, I squatted down on the deck next to a small, hunched up, toothless old lady. She didn’t speak English but I spoke to her anyway. She mumbled something back but wasn’t keen to engage. That seemed to be the general feeling I had down here. People didn’t seem to want to engage.
Two men walked around the boat collecting fares. I told them we’d already paid. They said this was a special ferry going directly to Godkhali with no stops. Another Rs3 per person was required. We were comfortable with our decision to go back.
By the time we’d taken a busy bus ride to Canning and a train to Sealdah in Calcutta daylight had been replaced by mosquitoes. We took a taxi back to Sudder Street. The driver weaved in and out of the traffic with such urgency it felt like we were being blue-lighted. He increased the previously agreed fare by a little. I had a tip ready for him anyway.
We needed somewhere to sleep so decided to try the hotel we’d been staying at for the last few nights. They had one room left. It was smaller than the one we had but we were just happy to have somewhere.
Back in familiar surroundings we found somewhere to eat and talked about the day over a beer while we waited for our tandoori chicken. As always, I checked the bill and was surprised to see they had added a third beer. I got them to rectify that. On the walk back to the hotel we stopped at a kiosk to buy a couple of bottles of water. I was given change of a Rs100 note instead of the Rs200 note I paid with. I got that rectified too. Today has been a good example of how fluid and flexible our style of travel is. We always try to give ourselves options. Having our wits about us is not optional though. Maybe, if we hadn’t followed our instincts today, we could have met with something that could not have been rectified.
My runny nose woke me early. Paracetamol eased the slight aching feeling I had. Denis did the laundry while I looked online for a hotel nearer the airport for tomorrow.
After a pleasant breakfast at the Fairlawn Hotel I left Denis sipping tea. I went off to buy shampoo and toothpaste. I always buy small bottles and tubes anyway but as we have a flight to Myanmar on January 23rd we can’t pack any liquids over 100ml. A less taxing day today was welcome. We need to be fit and well for our onward travel in a couple of days time.
An amble around the local area was as far as we got today. Feeling a bit weary we went back to the hotel. Our small balcony overlooks an alleyway with private but scruffy looking accommodation opposite. With the door to our balcony left open to circulate the air I fell asleep for two hours while Denis did more research on Myanmar. My lengthy nap helped with the mild head cold I woke with this morning. I opened my eyes to another pair peering back at me from the balcony opposite. Unlike in our culture when you get caught staring you look away, this man continued his motionless gaze as I closed the door. I’ve gotten used to the staring when we’re out and about in India but found it a bit unnerving in our supposed safe space.
Tonight’s dinner made a nice change. It was still early evening when we stumbled upon this first floor restaurant. The door at the top of the stairs opened into a dimly lit room. We were the only customers at this point. The number of waiters made me think they were expecting more diners. We were escorted to a corner table away from the empty stage. As our waiter handed us the menu Denis asked if he could recommend anything. The fish sounded good. I guessed it wasn’t going to stay this quiet so we promptly ordered a delicious fish cooked in a banana leaf followed by prawn noodles to share.
Then at 7.30pm the band turned up. Three of the musicians set up their electronic instruments. I wished they played more traditional instruments like sitars. Before the performance started sweet smelling incense sticks were lit. A man went round the restaurant and then to the stage with a small silver plate of flames and water to sprinkle as a blessing. The bandmaster came and shook our hands. A few more customers arrived and the music started. A male singer sang a few songs to begin with. Dressed in a smart dark suit and white shirt he was like an Indian Frank Sinatra. Enjoyed him. As in other venues like this no-one clapped. I asked our waiter about the sign saying ‘No Showering Of Money’.
“If you want to give money to the band directly it will cause problem. You give to me it will be fine.”
” Yes, I can see how that would work,” I smiled. He got his own tip but that was all.
I wasn’t feeling so good. Thankfully Denis was feeling ok. We left about 8.00pm. On the way back to our hotel we passed a sign promoting a deal where you pay Rs749 and drink as much beer as you like. But there were conditions. You couldn’t leave the bar at any point and you couldn’t visit the toilet. Not such a bargain as you first might think. I’d like to hear some of the ingenious ideas people have come up with to circumvent the rules.
A little further on we saw two older women who frequently sit on the pavement day or night asking tourists for money. Their plump appearance and chirpiness didn’t seem to back up their claims of living on the streets.
My chirpiness was waning. I took two paracetamol and was asleep by 10.30pm.
3.00am. The sound of cats howling and growling right outside our balcony door woke me. Denis always wears earplugs. I lay in the dark for over an hour before nodding off again. Then the wailing cats started up another performance. I was less inclined to shower them with money but would happily have showered them with water.
About 9.00am I opened our door to ask one of the roomboys if he could bring us coffee. All of a sudden I was pounced on from behind. It was a very excitable Agnes. She gave me a tight hug as though I were a long lost relative. I explained we were leaving this hotel today and flying to Myanmar tomorrow. She couldn’t understand us not travelling the 16kms to the airport from here in the morning. It was too risky with traffic though. We needed to stay closer to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport.
Everything was packed so I stood on the balcony with my coffee while Denis showered. The balconies opposite looked like abandoned storage areas with old furniture and boxes covered in dust. They weren’t abandoned at all. Wearing a white vest a bleary eyed man on the balcony opposite was having a shave in a broken mirror. Another balcony had a rusty old red fridge leaning backwards looking like it had been dumped. Surely it didn’t work. Then a man came out to collect a plastic container of liquid from it, carefully closing it afterwards. I guessed they’d tilted it backwards to keep the door shut. I felt a certain amount of shame at the disposable society we live in at home. Even though the fridge was on the skew and the mirror was cracked they still got their cold drink and a shave.
We checked out of the hotel and went for breakfast at the Fairlawn Hotel. Sitting at the table next to us in the courtyard was an English lady dressed in a pretty lilac coloured salwar kameez. She wore the Indian attire well. I struck up a conversation with her and learned she was a language teacher who had lived in France for over forty years.
Patricia relayed a story about one of her previous visits to India. A friend of hers was buying a house in Goa. Unfortunately the seller had sold the property to two different buyers. A couple of armed military men were called to protect the house. Patricia’s friend wasn’t in Goa at the time so asked her to sit outside on the porch with a gun too. Patricia had no idea how to hold a gun let alone use it. She reluctantly obliged. In the end her friend did secure the property but the other buyers lost all their money. She found out later that the woman selling the house had a husband who had run off with a younger woman. Having cleared out all their joint accounts he left his wife in debt which led her to these very wrong but desperate measures.
Patricia was staying at the Fairlawn Hotel but they’d made a mistake and her room was already booked out to someone else for tonight. A seemingly sophisticated lady, I was surprised to hear her say she was going to an all night music festival tonight and would come back tomorrow. Denis and I wished her well and told her to stay safe. What a spirited lady.
A taxi would have been easy but there was no rush so we went to the bus station and asked where to find the airport bus. We jumped straight on and were lucky enough to get seats towards the back which were higher up. Great for sightseeing. As we weren’t quite sure where we were going to get off we bought tickets direct to the airport. Using Denis’ map he’d downloaded onto his phone we followed our route until about 2kms from the airport. There were a few hotels along this main road so we got off the bus.
The first one we tried had hot water and wi-fi so we asked to see the room. The mattress looked a tad thicker than the average bone-numbing beds we’ve had. We checked in. It was just for one night.
There was a restaurant in the hotel but being the middle of the afternoon there were no customers. We sat down with a fresh sweet lime soda and looked online for a hotel to stay at tomorrow when we arrive in Yangon, Myanmar. How exciting. It wasn’t crucial as we will arrive in daylight but would make things easier. Denis found the East Hotel, Sule Pagoda in Yangon. I booked it for two nights.
Back in the room I completely unpacked and repacked our bags ready for the flight. With everything set for tomorrow it was time for an evening beer and food.
There was a ground floor restaurant next door. We were escorted out of there. My fault for being female. No women allowed. The waiter pointed up at the first floor. The steps leading to the family restaurant were covered in false grass and the bright lighting eliminated any atmosphere. With no words Denis and I did an about-turn and came back down. We had better luck next door in a dimly lit modest restaurant with ‘No Smoking’ signs up that people heeded. The mushroom masala and aloo dum was delicious. A vegetarian meal seemed a good idea for the night before a flight.
The man on the next table took a sip of his whisky then took a deep breath as he turned to face us.
“From vich country?”
Denis obliged with his usual reply followed by a salute.
“The boys here are simple. If you want to know anything ask me,” he instructed us.
His words sounded a bit demeaning to the waiters but I remember hearing this type of speak before. A man was telling us once, about how he was looking for a wife but would prefer a simple one rather than an educated one.
Education should simply be available to everyone.
Hoping to sleep better than last night we went back to our hotel earlier than usual. I made up the bed with the extra sheets we’d requested earlier. When I opened the cupboard to get the blankets out a couple of mosquitoes wafted past. Denis got them. He’s good at that.
I checked the news online. It’s all about coronavirus in China.