Monday, August 4, 2008

Not Quite Darjeeling Limited

I finally had my train experience in India.

There was a daily train from Jaisalmer to Delhi. This was lucky, since there was very little going out of Jaisalmer, and I was flying out of Delhi. So on the day of my arrival, also known as the day before my departure, I rushed out just before the camel safari to buy a ticket. I got a lead from the adorable older man running my hotel that I could have the ticket booked for me online at the Fort View (unlike all the other ticket-booking places, which apparently just send out a runner or something to go down to the railway station to physically book the ticket).

I found the Fort View, where I encountered a very adorable even older man with one lonely tooth who seems to be Jaisalmer's IT guy. He logged on to the India Railway's impressive-looking website, and booked the ticket for me. He typed with one finger, and often hit an additional unwanted key, so nearly every time he hit "Enter" there was some sort of error in processing. So then he had to squint at the screen to figure out what was wrong, then to find the error. I was in a big rush, so this was torture, although mitigated by his adorable toothlessness. Eventually I started pointing out all the errors before he hit "Enter" and this improved about half of them (he didn't always listen to what I was saying). Finally we got to the "book ticket" screen, he clicked on the button and.....nothing. The internet connection was slow and unreliable, and it chose that moment to demonstrate it. The old man didn't know about the "Reload" button, and my efforts to demonstrate it were fruitless. After a second attempt, I really needed to leave to go on my camel safari, so I made a down payment, and he agreed to book me the ticket and I could pick it up in the morning.

I was worried that I had just been swindled, as I was very paranoid from all the hassling and insanity of travel in India. But, true to his word, the next morning at 9am there was an envelope waiting in my name (well, Verinica Ades - close enough) for a railway ticket for me (Verinica Ades) on the 4pm train to Delhi, 2nd class AC (air-conditioning).

There was no first-class option available for this particular train ride. Because of my nervousness of traveling alone as a woman, I would have paid the money for it, but I had no choice. There was also no tourist quota for this train either, nor a Ladies Car like the local trains have. Mr. Toothless wanted me to book a 3rd class AC, which has 3 people bunked on each wall. 2nd class AC has only 2 people bunked on each wall, and I figured every upgrade in class was helpful, so I insisted on 2nd class AC for $10 more.

The 2nd class AC car was more crowded than I expected, but in the end it was OK. Each car had several sections (maybe 5-8), and each section had 2 beds bunked on each wall plus another 2 beds bunked along the hallway. There were no doors, only curtains closing off each bed. My bed was the top bunk in the hallway. I was apprehensive about it, especially when I saw four businessmen occupy the beds in my section, and they were not very friendly. As it turned out, only 2 of them were staying there, and a nice French couple occupied the other 2 top bunks in my section. I talked for a long time with the woman, and she made me feel much more comfortable about the whole set-up. The only example I had in my mind was The Darjeeling Limited and Harry Potter other train movies where people had their own compartments with locking doors. This was wide open and not private at all.

Before the train left, a man came around selling small chains with locks to lock up your bag. I noticed the french couple had them, so I stopped the guy and managed to negotiate down from 250 rupees to 100 rupees - I was proud of myself for that one (I'm sure an Indian person would have paid like 20 rupees, but still, at least I learned a bit about haggling). At first I still kept all my bags on the bunk with me, but it would have been hard to lie down like that, and this was a 19-hour ride. So, after talking to the french woman, I calmed down a bit and put my large bag underneath the bed, locked up, and it was fine.

I had been worried about food, because I had been told there would be no restaurant car (despire the Darjeeling Limited scene) so I bought 2 samosas on my way there. As it turns out, men walk through selling potato chips and soda the whole ride, plus a man comes through selling chai quite often (I am obsessed with chai now, given its deliciousness and caffienation). And there was even dinner service for 40 rupees - you got a lot of chapati, rice, raita and 2 dishes (a yellow dal and something else). It was quite tasty. Sadly, although I love it, I had to avoid the raita because it is often mixed with water and I couldn't take the chance.

At the end of the trip, I felt rested but very dirty; despite the air conditioning it was sometimes a bit stuffy in there, and I had done all that sweating in the Jaisalmer heat so I felt sticky. Plus, a train like that is only going to be so clean.

Overall, the ride was enjoyable. The most regrettable part was the lack of windows. I was hoping for nice views of the countryside over the long ride, but there was no window at the top bunk, and the curtains were closed on the lower bunks. I slept a long time and fairly comfortably considering the circumstances.

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