Monday, March 22, 2010

Trains, Buses and Cockroaches

"You want to go to Delhi today?" The man behind the desk asks. Wide-eyed with a look of disbelief, while sneaking a glance at the clock on the wall. Yes, it is 12:15pm and the train is scheduled to depart at 4:30pm - but isn't a travel agent's job to book last minute train tickets for fickle minded backpackers? After punching into an old computer for a few minutes, I am told, with a slight head-bob that "everything is wait-listed", and that my options are to get on the wait-list, or go to the train station and see if they have any tickets in the “Tourist Quota” still available.

I decide to try for the tourist quota, and hop into an auto rickshaw towards the train station. Unlike many of the larger train stations, the ticket office in the Jaisalmer station does not operate a special line for tourists. So I join the regular line, almost thirty people deep and pressed up against the person in front of me! (In India, the norm is to stand in line pressed right up against the person in front. It is an accepted fact that if you leave even one molecule of air between you and the person in front, someone will notice it and cut in front of you!) Its been forty-five minutes, and the line has barely moved. I am antsy from having my personal space violated, so I call it quits, and head back into town on another auto rickshaw, hoping that I will get lucky with the wait-list. It is now just past 2:00pm!

Back at the travel agency, I am stuck behind a couple that is taking forever to book their train tickets. I wait twenty minutes more before leaving again, this time to an internet cafe, convinced that I can put myself on the wait-list via the web a lot quicker this way. At this point, I'm not sure if its Murphy's Law, or perhaps just bad Karma (after all this is India), but sitting at an internet cafe (it is just after 2:30pm), I discover that you can't book a ticket online when it is less than two hours to departure! So back to the travel agency I go. Between more weird stares and glances at the clock, I finally get a wait-listed non air-conditioned sleeper ticket to Delhi, with instructions to come back in about an hour to check if I have a confirmed berth or not.

Exactly one hour later, I'm back at the travel agency for the forth time this afternoon to check on the status of my ticket. Yup, it has got to be bad Karma! The train is completely full. No seat! Weighing my options, I am determined to leave Jaisalmer today no matter what. I have come this far, and I won't give up! In the end I book a ticket on a non air-conditioned sleeper bus to Jaipur (located between Jaisalmer and Delhi) departing at 5:30pm that afternoon.

Inter-city buses in India, especially private buses can be a hit or miss. Some, like the first bus ride I took provided luxurious full sleeper beds (bunk bed style accommodation with pillows and blankets) in air conditioned comfort. The bus ride from Jaisalmer to Jaipur however, left little to be desired. This particular bus had a seat/sleeper hybrid configuration, with sleeper beds located above a standard row of seats. While I did book myself into a sleeper “cabin” for the 16 hour ride, this bus however, did not have air-conditioning, and the “bed” was absolutely filthy! The area where the head would go was a greasy mess, caked with soot and dust coming in from the open windows, turning the deep red fabric completely black! The privacy curtain on the aisle side had patches of some kind of sticky goo on it (which I refuse to even speculate on what it could be!). To make matters worse, the first few hours of the trip involved driving through the desert in the late afternoon sun. The super heated air blasting in from the open windows provided no reprieve. I lie in my “sleeper bed” drenched in sweat, on my face, a black paste is starting to form, a paste made of sweat, soot, dust and diesel exhaust fumes.

This experience however, was nowhere close to some of the bus-rides-from-hell stories told to me by other travelers. Stories of buses infested with bed bugs, or perverted bus employees jumping into sleeper cabins with solo female travelers. On another overnight bus ride that I took, all the foreign travelers were made to debunk from our sleeper cabins in the middle of the night (even though we paid for it), and forced into seats, so that up to seven local Indians could be packed into a double sleeper cabin made for two.

After a series of uncomfortable bus and train rides over the last two weeks, riding in the air-conditioned comfort of a 3-tier sleeper cabin on a train from Agra to Varanasi was a welcome change. Sleeping, in cool, clean, comfort, I was spoiled by the attentive service which included clean sheets, a blanket and even a pillow. In the morning, vendors came around selling breakfast, and I immediately bought a serving set of vegetable cutlets, an omelet and slices of bread, all the while dreaming of a wonderful breakfast in bed! Little did I expect that as soon as I tear open the little foil packets of food, little cockroaches about ¾ of an inch long would appear all around me! Like vultures to a corpse, they seem to appear out of nowhere, crawling out from the air-conditioning vents and the cracks between the bed and the wall, these little pests swarmed all over my pillow, my blanket and the cabin molding above my head, drawn to the smell of fresh food on my lap!!! In a wave of panic, I am frantically swatting and flicking any cockroach in sight away from me, but I am losing the battle. There are just too many of them. I take two more bites of my food, and lose my appetite. Tossing the remainder of my food away, I clear my sleeping area of every last crumb I can find. With the smell of food gone, the cockroaches disappear as quickly as they had appeared. Sinking back into the shadows, off to find another scent trail, to torment another unsuspecting traveler.


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