Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Railway Shuffle

Finished with yak cheese and ready for a second helping of curry and naan (already ate my fair share in Bangladesh), I'm now in Pune, India. How did I get here? The cheapest way possible, of course. I first flew into Kolkata (Calcutta) and, arriving in the middle of the night, decided to spend the night in the airport (pic clearly staged, although that was my sleeping set-up). Along the flight I met a couple cool guys who worked in, what else, the IT industry. This was a precursor of things to come in Pune, where every other person seems to work for Microsoft, HP, Infosys, or some outsourcing service center.

Let me describe the train situation in India, at least through the eyes of a first-timer who can't speak the language. Sheer madness. After waking up in the airport and getting ripped off by a cabbie, I arrived at the train station before the ticket windows opened at 8am. The line was amazing - it stretched down halls and up staircases. The ticket window opened 10 minutes early. Without a moment's notice 150 men (only a handful of women) took off in a dead sprint. I had been told to go to window 14, and when I arrived I found a very short line and a sign that read "Ladies, senior citizens, and VIPs". I ended up getting only a wait-list ticket, but figured this was just formality, and certainly I'd get a seat. What I didn't know was that it was Gandhi's birthday tomorrow, and everyone and their mother was traveling.

I arrived back at the station that night
just after 8:00 for the 9:00 departure. Stepping around, over, and through hoards of people (and luggage, animals, etc.) sprawled out on every inch of the station, I made my way to this old board with lists of passenger names. I scanned the sheets, which were printed out with faded ink on that old perforated computer paper, to see if I made the cut. It might as well have been Braille, because I had no idea what I was looking at. I started asking around for help. Time was ticking and after trying a way (and failing) to check via text message, I went to an inquiry window. I was referred to another window, and then another one after that. Sweat was pouring down my back, and I was down to only 15 minutes. Now I was running with my 40 pound pack, shoving through innocent passengers and pleading with officials to tell me if I had a ticket. I finally found the window, and the ticket officer said I was still 291 on the wait list - hadn't even gotten close. Tickets were all sold out for a week. Through a couple sketchy references, I met some guy who told me I could get a ticket. Another clean-shaven, well-dressed, and honest-looking man overheard and wanted to help me out. I should have known better.

He helped me get my refund, and then gave me clear directions for the next morning. I arrived early the next morning at the Foreign Ticket Office, where foreigners and "VIPs" like myself could get tickets no matter what - forget about lines. Again (with Bangladesh) I was seeing how locals are commonly treated like 2nd or 3rd class citizens in their own countries. Coincidentally, the helpful guy from last night was there - he had to get a ticket to Mumbai he said. To keep a long story short, he stole 541 rupees ($11) from me without even touching my wallet. Stupidly, I had trusted him to book my ticket for me, and even kept my eyes on him, but in the confusion he got away. It was a good reminder lesson for only $11.

I did finally get my ticket. I had a fantastic 40+ hour joyride in matchbox compartments with Indians who watched me with judging eyes as I justifiably locked up my bags. Random vendors would jump on the train and peddle all types of snacks and drinks, and street children would climb aboard and crawl around on the floor, cleaning up the garbage in our compartment for a spare change. The trip wasn't as bad as I thought it would be (although the dining selection was garbage - across the board fried food). And, I eventually won over the Indians by the end of the ride. Arriving in Pune, it was good to finally be in one place.

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