india.rickbradley.com - our trip to India
map software by pflog
There have been some website updates. Now you can see the current time where we are in India by looking at the top of any page. Also, if things are working properly, right below the time you can see the current number of photos from our trip that have been uploaded to the Internets, as well as when the last upload occurred. Finally, I’ve added commenting to the site, so feel free to leave your comments on any post. Also, more pictures (not all of which are labelled as of yet)!
And now back to the story…
Ok, so the guy on the train with all the cans of paint was a tiffin-wallah and all that “paint” was edible. Good times.
Speaking of Indian food, here’s Ali sitting in front of a vegetarian Thali plate we had in some random place along the street in Mumbai…
It was really good, and the price was right too (~$1.10).
We spent the next couple of nights in the Hotel City Palace (not to be confused with the Hotel Metro Palace where we spent our first night in Mumbai … good luck w/ that website, btw). We had originally attempted to stay in another hotel in the Fort district in Mumbai, but no rooms were to be had. Upon inquiring we were told to follow a man from the lobby, who then proceeded to walk us briskly seemingly at random around Mumbai.
We finally arrived at the Hotel City Palace, the very small lobby of which is an upstairs affair. I was taken upstairs by one of the tiniest elevators (complete with elevator operator) I’d ever been in to see a couple of rooms: one “deluxe” and the other not so deluxe, the difference seeming to be that the “deluxe room” had two windows while the non-deluxe had one.
We ultimately decided to go non-deluxe, signed in, arranged things, tipped our guide, etc., and then were confronted with the notion of fitting both of us, a bellhop, an elevator operator, and about 150lbs. worth of gear (worn on our backs in camping backpacks, and our fronts in day packs) into an elevator with about a 3 foot by 6 foot floor area. So some sort of back-channel operation was set up whereby the bellhops ran the bags up some intestine of the building and we rode up in the micro-elevator.
The micro-elevator, by the way, also had a mechanism whereby when it was stopped and/or the door was opened it played some music to let everyone know it’s time to (dis)embark. The first couple of times I heard it I was like “that is REAAALLY familiar”. Then it hit me: “Oh, it’s ‘Jingle Bells’.” “Jingle Bells” starting, always starting, from the “dashing through the snow” part.
We must’ve heard that damned song 50 times while we were there. So many questions: Why that song? Was it just one of many possible songs the elevator can play but noone knew how (or chose to) change the selection? Was it put on for Christmas season and they never got out of the mood, like icicle lights on the front of a Plainview ranch house in July?
By the time we left I realized the guy who always seemed to be manning the elevator, who, from what I was best able to deduce, was sitting in that cramped box from something like 7am until 10pm, must hear snippets of that song close to 5,000 times a day. On our last few rides I was trying to get a good look at him out of the corner of my eyes — “Is he cracking up?”, “Is that a look of anger or something worse?”, “Does he have the patience of the Buddha?” The Jingle Bells Buddha, or the next guy to go on a spree at Victoria Station? We had a pleasant stay at the Hotel City Palace, but ultimately I felt a little more relaxed when we’d left the Jingle Buddha behind.
So, staying in the Fort district was pretty nice, if a bit hectic (at least traffic-wise). I think I was starting to go through a bit of the culture shock: this was the first place we saw people who not only slept on the pavement, but had essentially claimed specific parts of the pavement as their homes. Getting up early in the morning and walking around there was a definite conscious sense of “I’ll walk over this way so I’m not walking through what is basically someone’s bedroom / bathroom”. Also, this was the first opportunity to really think, “Wow, we’re here, completely alone, we don’t know the language, don’t know the customs, don’t even know how to get something to eat, make a phone call, etc.”
But we had a map, a really primitive knowledge of Devanagari script (the script used for Hindi, Marathi, and a number of other common languages in India), and there were a lot of people who understood at least some basic English words.
So we did a lot of exploring. There were lots of shops, lots of places to see, street stalls with lots (including lots of junk) for sale. Our goals were to work out mobile Internet access, get cash, get a mobile phone, get some more suitable clothes for India (as our intent was to pack little and purchase here for what we needed), and arrange our transport to our next stop, Delhi.
Some quick Mumbai tips:
We were looking for a place to eat a bite of lunch while walking around. We passed up a few candidates and then saw a clearly marked vegetarian place on the street. So we went in, which ended up meaning going up to the 2nd floor. There were a number of people eating there, which seemed promising, and a guy sitting at a table near the door. It was pretty clear that he was the owner or manager or some such. So we walked in and pidgined our way into asking him if we could both have lunch. There seemed to be some doubt or reluctance, but ultimately he waved us in, and the wait staff seated us and set about bringing us things.
The food was really good. This was definitely a “we’ll keep bringing the food, just keep eating” sort of affair. It was a confirmation of “yes, people really do just eat with their hands” (which was really “yes, people really do just eat with their right hands”). We did our best, and the entire time, the extended wait staff of like 8-10 guys were walking past looking at us, peeking out from behind the corners, etc. We were definitely the main attraction. At some point I noticed that the restaurant was 100% populated with men — no women. We paid, tipped (there was a metal locked tip box near the door, which was convenient — otherwise, I’d still be wondering if meal tips were a concept that had been envisioned in India, because many times people don’t seem to know what to do with a tip), and headed out. I still think that restaurant was some sort of “gentleman’s club”, hence the reluctance to let a couple in. Being obvious foreigners (and probably harmless at that) probably paved the way. Funtimes, nonetheless.
Mumbai was something of an easy introduction to India. It’s crazy, the traffic is insane, it’s hectic, there are people sleeping on their chunk of sidewalk while people drive Lexuses (Lexii?) to finance jobs, there are large scale livestock hauling agricultural what-nots down major street, guys with baskets of fish on their heads dodging past guys with briefcases, guys hanging out of trains next to 200 lunches clicking along to their destinations. But it’s also somehow Western enough to make sense, it can fit mostly in the American psyche, with bumps, blips, and exceptions, but it has the feeling that you could maybe make sense of it, given enough time (which is probably a misconception, but at least it’s not an obvious culture disconnect from day 1). From what little I’ve seen so far of Delhi, much less our limited exposure to the rest of the country, I’m glad we got introduced via Mumbai.
At some point in the evening of our first night in the Hotel City Palace Ali and I looked at each other and said, “we’ve only been in India 24 hours.” It really seemed like 3 or 4 days by that point. By the time we got to Almora (at which point we’d been in India almost a week) it seemed like 3-4 weeks had passed. This sort of travelling, where everything is new, everything is unknown, everything is difficult, causes an exhausting sort of time dilation (not to mention the normal jet lag that comes with a 16+ hour plane flight).
So, we managed to get cash, once we figured out where the bank was (see above). We did not manage to get a mobile phone, nor find a way to pick up the equipment for mobile broadband (this was September 9th, by October 4th we still haven’t worked out mobile broadband, and our mobile phone connection is only possible by a loaned SIM card). We did manage to arrange a tourist-ticket berth on the Rajdani Express, the rather high-end train which is a straight shot from Mumbai to Delhi.
In the morning we headed out to see if we could check out the huge market district north of the Fort. Turns out the place is massive and has anything you could ever want (including things like birds and crickets), but it also isn’t open for business at 10am in the morning (which is when we showed up). We ended up in a nearby shop where Ali picked up some interim Indian clothing for the next stage of our journey, but we’re looking forward to going back to Mumbai to see the market when everything is actually open.
On the way there we did get one other thing — actually two other things. There was a man near the Victoria Station with a blanket with various small books on it. Among them were pocket-sized English-Hindi and Hindi-English dictionaries — for Rs 40 apiece (~$0.80 each). So we grabbed one of each. Later I was to understand for the first time in my life why people use the phrase “and pick up a good [insert language here] dictionary”. Having never actually seen a bad foreign language dictionary, I presume they meant one that had lots of words in it as opposed to one that had a bunch of words in it. No, they actually mean (1) make sure the dictionary is for the correct language, for instance Hindi instead of, say, Marathi; and (2) that the set of words available in the dictionary isn’t a batshit crazy selection. So, now we know.
We went back, checked out of our hotel and grabbed a taxi (a normal car, not a bikeshaw, auto-rickshaw, crazy jeepney thing or otherwise) and headed over to the other big train station, Mumbai Central. We got there plenty early, because we had absolutely no idea what to expect. Our Lonely Planet India guide insisted that there is a supervised “cloak room” where travellers with train tickets can stash their bags. The thing about the larger train stations is that from 200 yards in any direction from the station to everywhere in the interior there are countless people vying for your attention. Some of them are taxi drivers wanting to give you a lift, some are coolies wanting to be paid to carry your luggage, various of them insist on knowing where you’re going, so they can “help” you find your way. We learned pretty quickly that we were better off figuring things out on our own, even if it took a little more time, as then at least the information would be reliable.
So, the cloak room at Mumbai Central was hard to find. At this time of day there weren’t a lot of passengers waiting around, but there weren’t any cloak room signs, and it turned out to be behind a wall that ran the width of the station, in front of which were all manner of freight goods lining up to go onto the platform. The Lonely Planet guide said that all bags should have a lock, and ideally some sort of chain, and that we’d be able to buy such things at or near the station. Once we found the cloak room the signage there seemed to indicate the same. So we stumbled around for a while looking for someplace likely to sell such things and finally just ended up asking at a little candy stand and the guy produced some from underneath the counter. Pretty insubstantial for chains and/or locks, at least they would get us to pass regulations.
So we humped our bags back to the cloak room. It seems to be a general thing (in the small sample set we’ve investigated so far), but the guys who man the train station cloak rooms can be in a 3000 sq. ft. room with only luggage on racks, noone else in the place but themselves and you — standing 3 feet from where they are sitting — and they can steadfastly ignore your presence while doing apparently nothing, so believably that you begin to wonder whether you are actually there or not.
So, once we actually got the attention of the attendants, they took one big backpack (which had lock and chain applied), and while I was rigging up the other they were like “yeah yeah, come on” … i.e., the lock/chain business wasn’t something anyone actually cared about. Which was fine by me as there was no way anyone would get to the bags the way they were stored, and if the attendants wanted to go through them the “lock” and “chain” gear we’d purchased wouldn’t put them off.
Liberated, we decided to check out the platform to make sure we knew where we’d be. We walked past some of the freight towards the doorway to Platform 1. At which point some random guy stopped us to tell us that we couldn’t go that way and indicated that we should follow him. Note that on the other side of the Platform 1 doorway there was a big landing which connected all the other doorways (Platform 2, 3, …, etc.), so it wasn’t like by walking past the piled up freight that we were going anywhere different than if we’d walked through the big open passenger room. So we just ignored the guy, who disappeared never to be seen again. I mean, really? Was that supposed to work for you?
So, we had a few hours to kill, and had fallen off the grid for a bit. We decided to see what we could do about getting some internets, getting some food, maybe some provisions, etc. So we roamed around near the train station. We were advised, repeatedly, that if we wanted a cab we had found our driver. I told him, in all honesty, that if we found that we needed a taxi he’d be the first to know. We roamed around for 7 or 8 blocks in a few different directions and only turned up one internets cafe, where, we were informed “the nets are down”. In India the internets cafes seem to actually be less use for internets than they are for microsoft word, so the place was still pretty packed, regardless.
After a while we decided that if we could somehow make a call home then we’d be fine (still no mobile phone, still no mobile internets). So we began to pidgin-Hindi our way around asking about pay phones or the like. Turns out the 40,000 signs we’d seen around India that said “ISD | STD | PCO” didn’t mean what we thought (“Independent School District w/ Sexually Transmitted Diseases from Prison Corrections Officers”) but actually meant “telephones, you can call anywhere on the planet from”. AHA!
So, we found a well-lit and moderately sanitary stall and figured out how to call the US of A.
Of course, we ended up leaving voicemails, but that’s how that goes.
We ended up eating at a good restaurant, though one that was definitely geared towards making most of its money as a bar in the evening, including various strange British-esque booze ads with scruffy Bollywood stars. The crowd was, as in many places, a bit mysoginistic, but the food was pretty good.
We got back to the train station, de-cloaked our bags, the train arrived (on time, which we were to learn later is not the norm, nor was its on-time departure). We consulted our ticket, found the appropriate car, lugged our bags in, found our berth, and settled in. We were in 2AC (2nd class, air-conditioned). That means that each berth can have 4 people, there are two long seats, whose backs fold down to make bed platforms. Above there are two long bed platforms. You put your bags under the seats, and there’s a little table over by the window. The berth is “sealed” by a set of curtains which cover the end of the berth facing the narrow hallway that runs the length of the train car.
Basically, 1AC (where available) has berths which have a wall and a door. 3AC appears much like 2AC, excecpt there are 6 people per berth instead of 4. There are non-AC classes, which I haven’t looked into closely, other than to note that the windows are not sealed and they, presumably, don’t have air conditioning (the various info I’ve read says to bring your own bedding and warm enough clothing if necessary). The sleeper class appears to be a free-for-all: the long-distance overnight analogue to the Mumbai local trains at 120% capacity. Not as packed but definitely a first-come-first-served defend-your-space affair.
The bathrooms are at the end of the car and this train at least had both “western” and “Indian”-style bathrooms. Western bathrooms have a western toilet, while Indian bathrooms have what some have called “a hole in the floor”, but which is more accurately described as a trough-shaped receptacle on the floor, with foot grips, and a hole at one end (if we’re trying to be accurate, at least). It’s a squat toilet as opposed to a seat toilet.
Being fresh off the boat I decided it was a priority for me to do any sitting work in the restrooms while sitting on a seat. The train was a bit bumpy and I didn’t relish learning to use an Indian-style loo while moving at various velocities with random and rapid accelerations. The odds of missing trough and scoring a direct hit on the space between sock and shoe seemed too great for my liking. I did venture into the foreign facilities for more upright tasks and studied the various fixtures and appurtenances supplied. Notable was the lack of toilet paper (we took the sage advice of packing our own for the trip), though, uniquely (looking back) there was a supply of hand soap available. Typically the only accessory to be found is a supply of some sort of running water. You can presumably do the rest of the math.
That particular train ride comes with not only plenty of chai, but also abundant food. The food quality, though, wasn’t as high as we’d gotten accustomed to. Not that we’d been eating gourmet fare, or 4-star restaurant food: we’d been eating meals that cost ~$0.60-$2.00 in total, from random restaurants and shops. But the food was freshly prepared at the time we ordered it or very recently. The train food, as you might imagine, was prepped en masse and wrapped up, or pre-packaged quite some time before. There were a couple of odd bits, like the weird white-bread (as in Wonder White Bread) cheese? sandwich. Ali took a sniff of that and said “hell no”. I don’t have any sense or self-restraint, so I ate that thing and pretty much everything else.
Also, their particular version of the standard Indian post-dinner “breath freshener” was a bit odd.
Anyway, more on the train food later, once we get to the Delhi section of the story.
The ride was fascinating. We were getting to see Mumbai, the countryside north of Mumbai, wetlands, farmland, cities, towns, refineries, plains, hills, etc. I was still jet lagged, and also excited at seeing the countryside of India. So I’d stare out the window as everything went by. Once in the middle of the night (like 2:30am local time) we passed a rural road intersection. I remember seeing a couple of buildings and a light. In the light there was a guy on a motorcycle. The guy was carrying a massive basket on his head — like 3 feet tall and almost as wide — patiently waiting, alongside a dog. I was trying to puzzle out where he was going, what it would look like for him to drive a motorcycle with that huge attachment on his head, is that his dog, what compelled him to do this at 2:30am, and what did our train seem like to him, …?
Other features of the train ride included someone playing Hindi and English news headlines at such a high volume that they were distorted beyond recognition. At some point later we were treated to what I can still only describe as “overly loud shit jazz very loosely acquainted with something to do with a sitar”.
And on the morning of September 10th we pulled into Delhi.