India - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 197 (7)


Tuesday 21st September

I knew that Indian train stations would be packed full of people but it is still a bit of a shock to see it first-hand. Outside the station was bedlam with what seemed like all the down and outs meandering around the station entrance. There must have been over a hundred rickshaws with people coming and going in all directions. Inside, though I could scarcely believe it possible, was much more packed with people sitting and even lying all over the platforms next to the trains. We had to mentally calculate a path forward through the bodies just to reach the train and the information office. The oh so familiar stench of musty cow dung hung thick in the air. Touts would come up to us all the time either asking for money or trying to sell us something. We are pretty much immune to this now and find it quite easy to shake them off. The trick is not to pay them any attention, which is harder than it sounds. When someone asks you what your name is or where you are from, human nature is to respond instantly because you feel that you are being rude not to. You can condition yourself to ignore this onslaught after a while but the more devious of them use human engineering techniques that are difficult to combat. When at the train station and someone asks you where you are going, it could be a genuine attempt from a local to lend assistance to a foreigner. The problem is trying to instantly recognise and distinguish this from the touts who are out to scam you. Even the slightest sign of acknowledgement is enough for them to latch on to you for dear life. When this happens, it’s very much more difficult to get rid of them.

Our train number and destination was not listed on the main board so I asked at the “May I help you?” kiosk and we were directed to the train already standing on platform two. Finding our carriage and our berth was also a challenge as it was difficult to identify the right numbers to look for. There are various classes of train compartment ranging from air conditioned at the top end to what can only be described as cattle class at the bottom end with several classes in between. Our tickets were 3A class, which was the highest-class carriage on this particular train. The way this class of carriage was described to me when we bought the tickets was that the number three meant that there were three bunks on either side of each berth and the letter 'A' meant that it was air conditioned. The berths would have doors to them. What I expected to see, then, were enclosed berths each containing six beds, three on each wall facing each other. When we boarded the train, it soon became apparent that I had misunderstood. There were, indeed, three bunks above each other on either side of the walls but there were also bunks on the opposite wall also with a corridor travelling the length of the entire carriage. There were no berths as such and the only doors were at either end of the carriage. The entire carriage was essentially one huge berth for seventy-two passengers.

I wasn’t particularly concerned about the open plan and cramped conditions of the carriage; it is, after all, part of the experience, but I must admit that it was rather more cramped than I had anticipated. It was also a bit odd that there weren’t any windows anywhere in the carriage. What I was unprepared for was the incredibly close, stifling, heat. Pretty much as soon as we stepped on board, we both started to drip, quite literally, with sweat – along with everyone else. There were some ceiling mounted fans encased in cages that were moving the air quite energetically but the air conditioning was not yet running. The bunks, some of which were fixed and others the fold down variety were very hard with nothing more than a one-inch thick, vinyl-covered mattress permanently affixed to them. There were no sheets, blankets or pillows but we understood that these would be distributed once under way. What was also very frustrating was the decided lack of anywhere, other than your own bunk, to put your bags. We, along with all the other Westerners in the carriage, had one large and one small backpack each and these would occupy about half the space on the bunk – making it impossible to even lie down. I did eventually notice that there was some floor space beneath the bottom bunk and, seizing my chance before the bottom bunk occupant arrived, I quickly stowed my main pack there. Sandy was much less bothered about the lack of legroom and managed, miraculously, to sleep with her legs curled up for the duration. All the bunks in the entire carriage were occupied and so moving to a more fortuitous location was not an option. Still very moist from sweating, I rummaged around in my backpack for my lightweight, absorbent traveller’s towel to give myself a much-needed bit of a rub down.

Within fifteen minutes of the train’s departure, a ticket inspector made his rounds, followed shortly thereafter but the distribution of the sheets, and a pillow each. I was on the upper bunk on the side wall and getting into and out of it without disturbing the other passengers was very difficult so I had to try to somehow lay my sheet out with myself, my shoes and my fully laden day-pack on the bunk. With nowhere to tuck the sheet into, this was somewhat of a challenge and I was quite exhausted after the ordeal – not to mention dripping with sweat all over again. The passengers all eventually settled down after a while and the lights slowly went out. Between the sporadic mumbling of some of the other passenger, the odd baby crying, the movement of the train and the fact that we seemed to stop and start quite regularly, I never really got very much sleep. For one thing, the bunk was very uncomfortable and my arms kept going numb as I was constantly repositioning myself.

After an extremely restless night, the train did finally pull into Jaisalmer about an hour later than scheduled. The carriage attendant came through repeating the word Jaisalmer and the passengers slowly started to stir. I’m never very good in the mornings at the best of times so I was in for a real stinker this morning for sure, having not had much sleep at all. In an attempt to beat the rush, we quickly donned our packs and disembarked form the train. As our feet hit the platform floor, some twenty or more touts, beggars and rickshaw drivers besieged us. I tolerated this for about four seconds but then completely lost it and yelled for them to get lost using body language that would leave nothing to the imagination. One of the carriage attendants walking behind me also joined in the condemnation and something of a path opened before us.

We were to be picked up at the station by a representative of the Jaisal Palace hotel so our immediate goal was to locate this person. This was easier said than done, as the local rickshaw drivers know about this arrangement between the hotels and incoming passenger and many of them shout out the names of the various hotels in town to attract your attention. It must be confusing and befuddling at the best of times when some fifty or more touts and rickshaw drivers are all waving, screaming and vying for your attention, particularly as very few tourists were on the train to begin with, but the confusion is compounded exponentially by the lack of sleep and grogginess. As we walked, I was suddenly aware of someone walking besides me asking “Jaisal hotel?” I was about to give him a piece of my mind, thinking this was another persistent tout, when he said “Mr. Morgan from England?” This didn’t quite register still and I was in the process of turning my head and opening my mouth to let rip but fortunately Sandy was sound enough of mind to realise that this one man amongst the many must be the right one since he knew our name and where we were from – something that I had only told the hotel owner when we called the night before to check for room availability. We followed him and, sure enough, he led us to an awaiting jeep as opposed to one of the dozen or more rickshaws parked right out front. I can’t describe the feeling of utter relief to have been rescued from that scene. After loading our bags and ourselves into the hotel jeep, our driver went back to collect the Jaisal Hotel sign and off we went on the short drive to the hotel.

I had already agreed on a price of no more that R500 ($11) for the room with A/C but we insisted on seeing the room first all the same. We were shown two rooms both with A/C but one of them had very low water pressure so we took the smaller of the two. It has a very nice and very modern, relatively speaking, A/C unit that is extremely quiet. The temperature outside is unusually warm for this time of the year here in Jaisalmer and, quite frankly, it was irrelevant what the rest of the room was like so long as the A/C was functional. Even though it took a while for the unit to bring the temperature down by a noticeable level, I decided we would take the room and started to haggle about the price. Using what leverage I could muster (the size of the room, the hardness of the beds, the lack of breakfast being included in the room rate, etc.) I managed to shave another R50 off the price from the very reluctant driver to an ultimate agreed price of R450 ($10).

After all the formalities were done and dusted, we headed up to the room to catch up on the missed sleep from the overnight journey. Sandy took a hot shower (using nothing more than the water from the cold water tap) in the ensuite bathroom and we both lay down on the bed. Although tired, I thought I’d better take a shower too so I went for my towel. After a brief search, the horrific realisation set in that I’d left my wonderful traveller’s towel on the train. This was a big problem. Everything in our backpacks has been chosen for very specific reasons. I cannot do without a towel and not just any old towel will do, as there is simply not enough room in the backpack to accommodate regular one. Our traveller’s towels are very thin and take up little room yet they are extremely absorbent and can soak up about nine hundred percent of their weight in water. Loosing this special towel would be quite a blow as it would be very difficult to replace it, so I went downstairs to the front desk to see about calling the train station to see if the train was still there. It took a while before I could communicate to the guys downstairs what the problem was, not to mention the urgency, and it took them a while to find a number to call. After about twenty minutes of frantic phoning around, they decided the best thing to do was to drive back to the station in the hope that the train had not yet departed. The driver was quite resigned to the fait that the train would already have gone so I think he was just appeasing me. We pulled up outside the train station about five minutes later and a sinking feeling set in as it became apparent that there were no trains at the station any more. The train had already left. There was still the outside chance that someone might have handed it in so I went in to search of the stationmaster. He was a young man, very pleasant and seemed genuinely helpful. He told me to walk with him down to the end of the platform. I thought maybe the sheets and pillows might have been offloaded somewhere for cleaning and maybe my beloved towel was buried in this white linen mountain somewhere. We walked over to a single carriage that was standing on one of the dead-end tracks. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that this was the air-conditioned carriage that we arrived in. Although the train had departed, it had done so without this carriage. After a few knocks on the windows, an old man unlocked the end door from within and we went in. I walked over to my bunk and, sure enough, there was my towel. What a relief. The stationmaster had explained to the old man, presumably the cleaner or some sort of attendant, who then addressed me with a few sentences of Hindi. According to the stationmaster, the old man was proclaiming how decent Indian folk are honest and that nobody would dream of stealing anything from the train for fear of god and their sole. I got the impression that he might have worried we were thinking him a thief or something. The stationmaster then suggested that a small tip to show my appreciation might be a good idea. I was already thinking along these lines and dove into my pocket. The only bills that I could find were R100 ($2). This clearly constituted a lot of money to the old man who was quite reluctant to take it. A couple of abrupt words from the stationmaster seemed to persuade him otherwise. There went the savings I had haggled for over the room but at least I had my towel back.

Back at the hotel, I finally had my shower and lay down on the bed to cool off. About thirty seconds later a power cut knocked out all the electricity and the room immediately started to heat up to something like a pizza oven. Why do these things always happen to us I thought to myself. Sandy can tolerate the heat much more than I. She simply rolled over and fell asleep. I couldn’t take it much longer and went downstairs to inquire about the loss of electricity, dripping with sweat once again I might add. To my utter annoyance, the guy at the front desk quite calmly told me that the electricity went out every day between seven and ten in the morning. I stared numbly and expressionless at his grin for a while, wondering why this wasn’t mentioned earlier and thinking of some of the ways I might enjoy garrotting him. He did say that they had a generator that they could fire up. I was somewhat encouraged by this until he told me that this would be fine for the rooms with an air-cooler but it wouldn’t power the air conditioner units, such as the one in our room. Setback. The generator would, however, power the ceiling fans in the reception area and I would be allowed to lie on the sofa there. Seeing no other form or relief from the now blistering heat, I agreed this would be a good idea and went to lie down. The generator, as it turns out, was just on the other side of the wall to where I lay and made one hell of a racket. To make matters worse, it delivered an extremely uneven flow of electricity as the noisy, two-stroke engine bellowed and this caused the fan and fluorescent light to keep going on and off all the time. This was very annoying and I decided I was clearly not going to get any sleep here. They then suggested setting out a mattress and pillow up on the roof somewhere in the shade, as the morning breeze might be more comfortable for me. It must be said that they were doing their best to accommodate me. This they did and it was indeed cooler but the constant irritation of flies landing on me every few seconds slowly drove me even more out of my mind and I finally went back to the room to join sandy. I left the balcony doors open and the slight draft did cool down the room a little, even if the noise from the occasional passing driver, hooting his presence all the time, was annoying. In my hazy mind, I decided that the noise was slightly more tolerable than the flies and I finally managed to join Sandy in dreamland. After an hour or so, the electricity did come back on. I switched on the A/C, and went back to sleep. Neither of us awoke again until gone one in the afternoon.

When we did awake, we very slowly came around and started to energise ourselves. Breakfast on the roof was the first order of the day since we needed to take our daily (and today our weekly) malaria medication with food. It was then that we decided to make today a rest day and to simply chill out in our cool room for the most part and relax. We would do no sightseeing at all today.

With the extra time on our hands, I spoke with a new guy at the front desk about our onwards travel to Jaipur and we discussed the couple of train journey options open to us. We can either take the same 3A class train from the middle of the afternoon, to arrive in Jaipur early the next morning or we could take the seated A/C train from near midnight, to arrive mid-afternoon the next day. To cut a long story short, we are booked on the 3A train for the day after tomorrow. This will give us all day tomorrow to see the fort and Jain temples therein. Because of the heat, we are going to forego the camel trek into the desert, which is what draws a lot of people to Jaisalmer.

This day of rest was certainly much needed and we are now both more relaxed than we’ve been in days. At about an hour before sundown, Sandy decided that we should head out into the very small town for a nice meal. The guidebook was particularly good to us in this regard as the restaurant that we chose was just excellent. We both had what has probably been the best meal since arriving in India in the most romantic and relaxing atmosphere with the entire restaurant completely to ourselves. A real bonus was the fact that the bill came to less than R350 ($7,50). The owner was explaining to us that the end of September is always extremely slow (we’ve heard this everywhere so far) and that the first half of October is when people flock in in their bus and train loads. We’ve been fortunate in one regard being here during the low season, as we’ve been able to negotiate very good room rates by and large. The downside has been that it is still very hot.

Our relaxing meal was followed by a relaxing stroll through town. We are coming to appreciate Jaisalmer as one of the best places we’ve visited thus far. It’s a much smaller place with much less traffic on the roads. Consequently, it is quieter, less polluted and much cleaner. With the obvious exception of the circus that was the train station this morning, even the touts in town are very much less in your face and we were subjected to nothing more that the odd call for attention as we strolled through the magnificent sandstone architecture of the town. If I had to recommend a single city in Rajasthan to a potential visitor, it would be Jaisalmer without a doubt. And we haven’t even seen its treasures yet.

Our day of relaxation has been topped off with an early night in our quietly cooled room. We already know that the electricity will go out tomorrow morning at seven so we intend to make an early start to the day to see if we can get the best viewing of the fort and its contents before the day heats up too much.