Footsteps in India

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
On our way home from Tanzania, we thought we would travel by train from Mumbai to Kathmandu but we had a few issues on the way!

Submitted: September 08, 2016

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Submitted: September 08, 2016

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I do my best to keep stories on the short side, but some things can’t be told in a jiffy, so this one is a bit longer! It mentions some dodgy people we encountered but could not avoid, I can usually recognize them by their body language and my personal appraisal. People are people, regardless of what race they may belong to. Old Suleman, for instance who guided us on our spice tour in Zanzibar is a good example, he looked decidedly dodgy, but he treated us very well. Is Physiognomy a myth?

I had wanted to visit India since as a child when I read a book called 'The Man-eating Leopard of Rudruaprayag' and I also enjoyed the colourful folk disembarking from the Mumbai plane while we were stuck at Nairobi Airport one time. The Indian women in Arusha dressed up in their traditional clothing added vibrancy and a hint of mystery to the town. Our sewing fundi (tailor) often visited Mumbai on business and he told me about the city and how much he liked it, whetting my appetite still further. He sewed my locally famous colourful trousers! Well, you see, it was culturally respectful for me to wear trousers when working in the villages rather than shorts and he made my trousers out of nice light fabric, usually printed/dyed by his wife. I'm not much of a colourful character myself, but my trousers sure were!

So, before starting on the Footsteps in India thing, there is something else to add, which may explain our reactions to what happened. We were full of emotion leaving Tanzania because of our many farewells, which were in fact harrowing, so our spirits were at a mite lower, also we had lost the ability to talk to people in their own language.

We travelled to Nairobi Airport on Riverside Shuttles and boarded the plane bound for Mumbai, India. My friend the sewing fundi had given me the name and address of a hotel that he recommended, he had visited there many times 'to do business'.

It was sometime after 3:00 am when we had passed through immigration and collected our luggage, so we were exhausted and our guard was down, not really expecting the cacophony that was to follow. We passed into an area where there were guys sitting in booths, little cubbyholes really, calling to us to arrange accommodation or a taxi or wheedle money from us any way they could! I think we were the only wazungu on the flight, certainly we saw no others.

There was a lot of clamour among the booth-guys wanting to book us into expensive hotels, presumably so they would receive a gratuity from the hotel. However none of the booth-guys let on they knew of the hotel the sewing fundi had recommended. No such place they all told me!

This put me on my back foot, having to work out an on-the-spot Plan B!

There is a point when you have to make a judgment and I decided on one particular fellow to begin negotiations about where we should stay, I was in no mood for niceties so told the others ‘to bugger off’. Of course he wanted to send us to the most expensive hotels but I suggested that he moderate the price and I told him a rate that was perhaps three star and more aligned with our purse, after all we had been volunteering for five years. He told us to go with a guy who would take us to our taxi and I guessed he already rang the hotel.

The taxi driver was asleep in his cab, no doubt uncomfortably, because it was such a dinky wee car! I'm not sure how we fitted into it with our bags (and my sticks - I had been given walking sticks and staffs as farewell gifts). We putted around a very dark Mumbai in that little taxi, there was barely a light to be seen and I completely lost track of direction!  Mumbai is a very big place! The driver could have taken us wherever he liked and on whatever roundabout route he chose!

The name of the hotel is immaterial, but we arrived there safely and the man at the night desk opened the biggest register I have ever seen! Closed it was almost a metre wide! He opened it with a flourish and asked for our details, filling in the book as we spoke, we did not need to sign it. No sooner were we in our room when there was a knock on the door. Our taxi driver had found my diary! I had inadvertently left it on the rear seat and perhaps it was valueless to him but very valuable to me so I rewarded him. I remain grateful.

The hotel was perhaps three star minus and I am aware you get what you pay for, but we did not pay for the pubic hairs in our bed, nor for the body odour stink! Luckily, we carried sleeping bag liners with us so we climbed into those and slept well. The morning revealed that we overlooked a railway line – four, five six busy lines, but we had not heard any trains so they did not worry us, it was an interesting spectacle for us while recovering from jetlag.

I picked up the phone hoping to order some breakfast but the phone was dead and out of use, so I pressed an unmarked button on the wall, not knowing what would happen but the response was absolutely instant, there was a knock on our door. The guy must have been standing outside waiting all the time! The food was prompt and good!

We hired a guy with a car, maybe a taxi, to take us to see the sights of Mumbai and the next day he took us to the rail station to book our journey to New Deli. He showed where to go to book our trip and settled to wait for us, he should have accompanied us!

I have no idea which station this was, not far from the hotel, maybe five minutes in the taxi. But it was obviously a terminus as trains came to the station, emptied out and left from it. There were long lines of people at the booking office windows, and there were many windows but we had no idea which queue we should enter. There was clear signage 'Do not use touts!' and sure enough, we were approached by a couple. They asked where we wanted to go and were purposely vague about which window was for New Deli. They impressed upon us the long waiting time involved in the queues! They laughed when I pointed to the signs warning us against them.

They told us that if they purchased our ticket, the all up cost would be USD100 each, so again I made that judgment call and handed over the USD200 and watched them boldly go to the front of the queue! We waited against the back wall and watched them closely, ready to run after them if they made a dash, but they didn't and soon they were back with our papery tickets. Guaranteed, they had already made a whack on the deal!

Next day the train was to depart at 4:30 pm but we were at the station ready to go by about 2:00, we'd had enough of that dodgy hotel and the surrounding area. The station was vibrant and people came and went. Watching people is interesting and we certainly saw some sights, not all of them good!

Our two touts plus another, lanky one hovered around and seemed to be watching us. We also became aware of another, smartly dressed man, in western clothes, who was watching us, or at least furtively glancing at us from time to time. As we sat there, I looked at the ticket but I could not see the words 'New Deli' written anywhere. This concerned me a bit and I mentioned this to the touts as they passed by.

'No problem.' they said, 'just wait for the train.' The smartly dressed man looked on.

Still I was concerned and got up to head in the direction of an 'Information' window but the touts saw me and blocked my path, saying 'There is not a problem.' Again the smartly dressed man took a casual interest.

Later, I saw the three touts talking to the smartly dressed man and took my chance to go to the 'Information' window. The guy there told me that it was a ticket to New Deli, Indians don’t call it New Deli, so it was not written on the ticket, but the ticket ‘was not confirmed’ therefore no seat/compartment was allocated on the ticket. On the approach of the three touts who had spotted me, the information man suddenly lost his knowledge of English.

I was politely ushered back to my seat where Mags remained minding our luggage.

I took advantage of the touts being out of sight and headed to the Assistant Station Master's office. He was friendly and stood up ready to take me to the place where the tickets were confirmed. But the two touts turned up and spoke to him in Hindi and he too lost his knowledge of English! All this made me edgy - just a tad. The smartly dressed man passed and looked casually at us again.

The lanky tout passed us and went outside the station hall, and seeing that the other touts were occupied talking to someone, I went after him. I quickly walked behind him, grabbed his arm and pushed it up his back - hard.

'You are going to show me how to confirm these tickets - now!' I told him.

I was unaware of anyone else around, my focus was on him, but I'm sure the area was crowded and all eyes were on me. He was surprised and simply said, 'Ok!'

He led me, still in my grip, to a free-standing computer monitor with a touch screen. The first I had ever seen because after living in Tanzania for five years I was not up with such technology. He asked my name and he tapped in the ticket code number and I read on the screen that the tickets were confirmed and seats allocated, as simple as that!

'You find your allocated compartment on the printed list at the entrance to the platforms. Don't tell the others I did this for you.' he said, then he added, 'That will be six hundred rupees!'

'You must be joking,' I replied, 'here is two hundred and think yourself very lucky.' I shouldn’t have given him anything!

We did not see any of the touts again.

I waited watching for the station-person to pin up the list on a large notice board and sure enough he came along and pinned them up. I went to find out our seat/compartment number and sat with Mags to await the boarding time.

Just before we stood to join the queue boarding the train, the smartly dressed man came to us. But he was now dressed in traditional clothes, and wore a flowing beard, which was parted in the middle! Without a word he stood not more than a metre from us, looked directly at us, with one arm pointed to the train and with the other politely waved us on our way!

What that was all about I have no idea! He was clean shaven when dressed in western clothes!

We have absolute certainty that this was the same man! ‘Freaky’ is the only word I have for the experience.

Wait, there is more:

We shared a compartment with a very nice elderly couple and we struck up a conversation, as you do. The man, now retired, had been the Minister of Railways and he advised us to abandon our proposed train trip to Nepal and instead to catch a flight there. There had been bombings on trains heading north and he thought it was unsafe for us to continue by train. He advised there was wisdom in going to a good hotel in New Deli! He then said that he would find another compartment and leave us to ourselves, which we thought was generous of him.

Only a couple of stations on however, two men were ushered into our compartment by the guard, there seems no doubt he was bribed. These guys looked a bit dodgy to me and asked if we minded if they drink alcohol in the compartment. I pointed to the sign banning it, so they drank up large in the corridor. Later they changed into those traditional white 'long shirts', whatever they are called, then they squatted on their beds to pray. I felt I could not trust them so kept awake with an eye on them the whole night, though I guessed the booze would induce sound sleep.

Alighting from the train in New Deli the next morning, we decided to take the advice of the kind man and go to a good hotel. We assumed that we could just take a taxi and get there without incident - ha!

Apparently you are supposed to go to a kiosk and buy a chit for your taxi, so along to the kiosk we went, lugging our gear, but the long queue was not moving, we joined it anyway. After some time, I went to the head of the line, curious to find why there was no movement, only to find that there was nobody inside the kiosk! Some taxi drivers, perhaps they too were becoming impatient, approached people in the line and some went off with them. I suggested to Mags, bugger the kiosk, we should just take a taxi.

'No!' was the firm reply, so the wait continued and again I went to the head of the queue to ask when the tellers were likely return. The answer was a shrug, but maybe nobody knew English. More people went off with taxi drivers so I again suggested we do the same but Mags was a bit stressed remembering the station incident and again she refused point blank. We had lost over an hour and finally I spoke to a taxi driver who appeared to know some English. Mags finally reluctantly acquiesced.

There was a tout who suddenly appeared and wanted to take us to the Tourist Bureau so we could be advised about hotels in New Deli. He obviously wanted his whack! I told him we had a hotel booked and did not need him but he grabbed my case to take it to the taxi. I swatted his hand away and told him again we did not need him. Be became quite aggravated and aggressive, I was too! The taxi was an older model Morris Oxford and I noticed that the driver didn't properly shut the boot with our cases in it so I made him lock our cases in there securely. Who drives with a floppy boot? We hopped in the back seat and the tout hopped in the front with the driver. He kept yakking on about taking us to the Tourist Bureau but I kept telling him that we were already booked. In the end he tired of me and stopped the taxi leaving us to find our own way with the driver. The taxi took us to one of the more modern hotels by the India Gate where we negotiated a good price for a room.

A guy with a tuktuk attached himself to us and acted as our guide taking us around the sights of New Deli. It irritated me that he would not allow us to walk anywhere, insisting we ride only with him, but he was a good enough fellow. I asked him to take us to a travel agent, which he did.

It was a small office and we had to go upstairs where a woman there attended to our request for a flight to Kathmandu, but this guy kept coming into the poky small office and looking at our details over my shoulder! I kept physically pushing him out of the office and shutting the door, but he always returned! In the end, I asked the woman if she could tell the guy to go away.

'Oh, he is my boss.' she replied.

The woman said she would need a photocopy of our passports and told me that this guy would take me 'around the corner' to get the copies done. I put our passports down my shirt and we set off, but the photocopy place had a problem with their machine, so down this dingy, narrow alley we went. First rule: don't go down dodgy allies! This one was dodgy and I thought should there be a problem, this guy was unlikely to fight on my behalf! Nothing happened.

We had our tickets and the tuktuk guy took us to see Mother Theresa's hospital, I had thought she operated in Calcutta, but anyway… He also took us to where the dead were cremated beside the river. This guy came up to Mags, and she chatted to him about the things we were seeing, I warned her several times not to talk to him, but she said that it was 'just harmless chatting', she saw no harm in talking. Then he suggested we follow him down a gloomy alley to see the cremation close up.  I firmly told him and Mags we were not going down there, it could be dangerous, and anyway, the smell of burning flesh did not appeal! At last she saw my point. She saw it again when he asked her for money because he had been acting as her guide! She flatly refused but I paid him something and he finally went off more than just a little bit disgruntled!

Finally, we woke early to be ready for the arranged taxi to take us to the airport. Ready to go I went to open the hotel room door but the handle didn't work! The lock or fitting had somehow jammed or someone had sabotaged it! We were seven stories up and the windows didn't open, so I checked if I could dismantle the bed to use the parts to smash down the door! It looked feasible. Luckily the phone actually worked so I rang reception to ask them to send someone to free us and warned them that if I had to I would break the door down!

There was a knock at the door and someone freed us!

Mags by this time was really nervy and both of us had had enough of India!

 

I picked up a newspaper in the foyer at the Kathmandu Hotel in Nepal and the headline stood out:

Two thousand westerners  go missing without trace anually in India.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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