Sunday, 6 November 2011

Day 5

Did nothing all morning, weak as a kitten, and with grumpy tummy too. We are due to move on this afternoon by train to Jaipur – hope I have enough strength to cope with the bags.

I wrote that while feeling really desperate. I was mostly coping doing nothing at all, but very uncertain that I would manage the train journey. In the morning most of the party had gone to a local school for deaf & dumb that the travel company sponsors and to give small gifts, but we were both trying to recover and stayed around the hotel complex. After a lunch that consisted of a couple of spoonfuls of fried rice and a naan bread for me, we were ready to really get in among the natives, traveling true cattle-class in a wagon with bars on the windows and bench-style seating designed for shorter legs.

The platforms were very heavily crowded this time, and we struggled to find a space to group together. A big concern was getting the luggage actually onto the train and stowed when so many others were likely to be occupying the spaces we had booked. Junaid told us that because of the holiday (Diwali) time, many people were traveling, and although one is required to book seats, the penalty for traveling without a ticket is truly minimal – around 20-30 rupees.

One thing worth mentioning about this stage was the smell. Pissing in public is normal practice for males, and on our wanders it was not unusual to see faeces in the road that did not look like it came from an animal. Now there were no obvious open sewers around the station, but the main smell from the crowds in the station was a mix of sweat in the 30 degree heat. and unwiped bottoms. Everywhere in India smells have been strong: strong to the point that I can never smell my own deodorant except at the instant of spraying, and conventional perfume seems almost unnoticeable.

The unwiped bottoms were to follow us into the carriage.

After the train arrived, Junaid forced his way on with a certain amount of difficulty. The carriages were absolutely packed solid, with all seats filled and people standing crushed together. All windows have metal bars welded on in this (2nd?) class carriage, and I almost wonder if they are there to stop passengers being forced out of the windows.

He arrived in the carriage and after a few seconds rapid-fire Hindi that section began to empty. The flow of bodies was quite astonishing, and far too vigorous for us to push through – there must have been at least 100 people in the space that we were due to occupy, and quite possibly more, and they all decided to get off there and then. As the human tide ebbed a little I was able to climb up, and saw Junaid and one of the porters from the station wiping the seats down before we were due to sit. The seats were just a basic padded plastic bench with a matching vertical padded upright section, and at least the lack of shaping made them easier to wipe.

Luggage was passed up to me by a porter, and I had to lift it up and over the seats to Junaid for it to be stowed as best as possible, given the very limited space. Once or twice I looked at the bags I was being passed, wondering how I would ever lift them given my present state, but somehow the strength was there, and eventually we managed to get everything stowed and the whole party on board.

As soon as we were sat down (some with their feet on bags – oh how we wished we’d brought less kit in smaller bags – knees round their ears) the tide turned and the carriage rapidly refilled. Some baggage hooks we’d missed by the window were used to hang bags, briefcases and a sack of rice to save the owner’s arms. Women carrying small children, younger men in shirts (we seldom saw Indian males in tee shirts) and the occasional man in his 40s all crushed together, standing up for the 3 ½ hour journey to Jaipur. A couple of young guys spent the whole trip hanging on in the carriage doorway and there were people on the roof too. Baptism of something, but I’m not sure it was fire!

A number of us had been suffering from griping in the guts, and had to endure. being crushed up in the stink and heat. I was lucky enough to be beside an open window, with a good flow of fresh air coming through, but poor Sarah (a fellow sick-note) was right in the middle, crushed in by standing passengers and occasionally having luggage encroach into her space around head-height.

The great thing about being by an open window was that it was possible to see the countryside as we traveled. The flipside of that was that the train was traveling quite quickly, and that made photography almost impossible. The terrain we crossed started off quite flat and parched, obviously farmland that had produced it’s crops, been ploughed & harrowed and was now waiting planting. Occasionally we saw crops of some sort, but it was mostly barren and sometimes with a woman in bright sari at work. Gradually changes took place, with a river, then an strange eroded landscape with sparse wild plants and odd rock formations, then mountains at the edges of the plains. Sometimes there would be some kind of fort on top of a hill overlooking the town we passed through.

After an hour of so we could hear animated conversation from our traveling companions on the other side of the human barrier in the middle of the carriage. It seemed that, being a little more out-going AND rather healthier than us, they had struck up a kind of conversation with one of the ‘hangers-on’ outside the carriage and were having a bit of banter among themselves. This was being visibly appreciated by the guys standing between us, and they often laughed along with our friends, even if they didn’t really know what was being said. We understand that at least ne of them asked Junaid some questions about us, and made some comments he was not entirely comfortable to repeat back.

On this part of the journey our guide went well above & beyond the call of duty, placing a couple of our bags on his own seat so that we had more leg room, and standing the entire journey.

At the station about 10 min before Jaipur the train stopped and the carriage almost emptied, quite possibly in order to avoid the officials that were likely present at a major station. The extra space was gratefully received and we discussed arrangements for getting everything off the train when it finally arrived. Porters had been organised, and once we’d carefully transferred all luggage to the platform they took over and did a great job of getting our luggage out of the station and to our coach.

A pleasant surprise awaited us – the coach we’d had from Delhi to Agra was there, complete with seikh driver and his assistant. They were a welcome sight – comforting and familiar faces after a time of disruption and transition. They had driven the 10 hours from Agra to Jaipur to meet us while we’d been in the reserves.

Transfer to the hotel in Jaipur took about 35 min, mostly due to the metro system being created. By the time we arrived it was growing dark and the city was difficult to see, but it seemed less brutally poor than Delhi.

Our hotel was the Bissau Palace ( previously a maharajah’s palace, and still owned by the family. As explained to us, all the kings or maharajahs no longer have any power, but instead have become businessmen. The hotel itself was a mix of the stunning full-on Rajput style, with a dash of British Raj and modern Indian ‘absolute minimum, just too late’ maintenance. Every room, we were told, was different, and that certainly proved to be true.

The hotel entrance lay down a side street just off a busy road, and was gated and guarded. When we arrived tired and having driven through the bustle and poverty of Jaipur, it was a little oasis of peace, calm and beauty that was like a cool shower for the eyes. The walls and ceilings were carefully hand-painted with flowers birds and patterns, there were white marble elephants, bowls with flowers floating in water and old photographs, antique weapons and ephemera hung on the walls. Older men, dressed in richly coloured Indian robes of deep red, green and gold stood around like aging retainers observing the masters unruly friends turning up as we walked in.

We were assigned a room outside the main building on an upper floor. The door was painted grey with metal shapes of elephants and camels, and looked like it was designed to keep invading hordes at bay. The porter who had brought our bags undid a large padlock, swung the door open and showed us in.

Just wow.

Our room was truly amazing. To the right was a large divan, of the sort on which one might receive guests if you were ‘sitting in state’. To the left, a few steps down to a bathroom with roll-top bath in a slightly mock-vintage style, and straight ahead between the pillars we could see a beautifully presented bed. The walls were painted with flowers and patterns and the furniture was nicely in keeping with the style. There were crumbly edges in the form of an ugly US-style aircon unit mounted through the wall and a separate step down transformer that buzzed loudly even when the aircon wasn’t used. The plumbing was less than entirely great too, but it was adequate to keep us clean. Also, rather oddly, the water left our hands feeling really dry and scratchy – that happened nowhere else, so I assumed it was a peculiarity of the water system in this hotel or city.

After the last day or so, this was such a lift, it made me want to stay after all.

When we went out for dinner that night I just had a yoghurt based drink with banana (called lassi) and half a litre of water. The smell of curry was almost unbearable.

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