India - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 203 (13)

Alwar

Monday 27th September

Shortly before stupid o’clock this morning, we awoke and started to stir. It was still very dark outside but we could just about make out the dawn threatening to break. We didn’t have the checkout of the hotel until midday so we left all our gear safely locked away in the cupboard and went outside to find our jeep. We stood there for just a few minutes before it showed up and we clambered in and sat in the very cool night air as we made our way over to the park’s main entrance gate. The paperwork and formalities were swiftly arranged and off we set again to see what we could see.

The quantity and variety of animals was no greater this time compared to yesterday but we did see a wider variety of birds and enjoyed the drive nevertheless. Several times throughout the morning, we would stop, switch off the engine and simply sit there for ten minutes or so in complete silence. Actually, the wealth of noises made by all the living creatures coming from all around us made it anything but silent. The guide and driver were listening for alarm calls from the various types of deer. These alarm calls are an indication that the deer thinks that there is a predatory cat in the area and we would set off in a new direction every now and then, following these alarm calls. We actually found the deer making the barking sounds once or twice but even after waiting around for ten minutes or so each time, nary a cat were to be found, alas. We did see a couple of other jeeps meandering through the park with tourists on board but that was the extent of our luck.

The morning drive finally drew to an end and our driver accepted our fifty-five dollars in final payment for the two drives and our transportation into Alwar to catch our train. We were dropped off back at the hotel and spent an hour or so collecting our things before we met up with the same driver and guide again. The canvas roof of the jeep had been put up and we joined our backpacks in the back for the one-hour ride into Alwar. There was no back to the jeep and we both sat and faced the rear, waving to the locals as we weaved back and forth over the uneven road as we went. If only my mother could see me now. Riding carefree through a third world country with my backpack slung in the back of an open jeep. Surely this must be the best way to see the world.

Our driver dropped us off at the Alwar tourist reception office where we were able to drop off our luggage until our train would arrive several hours later. With our bags locked together and safely stored away in a spare room under lock and key, we strolled up the road to locate the train station. The only reason we did this was to get our bearings so that we would know where to go later on to catch our train. One of the ticket window attendants confirmed which platform our train would arrive at and so we set off again in search of somewhere to eat and hang out for the next several hours. We found a respectable looking hotel with restaurant not far from the train station and spent the next few hours there just chilling out. I used the time to catch up on a day and a half’s log writing to make up for lost time due to the fact that we had to turn in early to get up in time for this morning’s game drive.

We are now on the train but our destination is no longer Agra. We left the hotel and went to the train station about thirty minutes before our expected departure. On the way, we met the jam-jar glasses man who had apparently travelled all the way to Alwar in search of R150 ($3) from us that he said we still owed him for the taxi ride to the restaurant and back last night. We explained to him that we had paid royally to our guide in dollars and that the cost of the taxi was included in what we paid. It seems that there was a bit of a mix up between himself and the guide, as the two of them seemed to be competing to make the necessary arrangements for us. I told him we had no money left (true enough) and that we now had to rush to catch the train. For the second time I felt really sorry for the man as he must have paid at least something to make the trip this far to catch up with us. The R150 ($3) must have been worth the effort for him to make the journey to begin with. However, with no local currency any more and a train waiting to whisk us away, there was little we could do but to send him back to Sariska to straighten things out with the guide. Had we more time to play with, I would have liked to have done something for him.

Meanwhile, at the train station, we located our platform and I went to inquire about the arrival of the train. I looked all around for someone to ask but eventually had to resign myself to a short queue at the ticket office. The queue went down quite quickly (which I later learned was something of a minor miracle) and was promptly told that our train would be delayed by no less than eight hours. It would apparently not pull into Alwar station until around one in the morning. This was a major setback since we not only had tickets for this train but also for Agra to Delhi tomorrow evening. A change of plans was acutely necessary.

I spoke to one of the very few ticket office employees who spoke pretty good English and asked if we could cancel our tickets and get the next train to Delhi instead. To my delight, this was possible and I handed over the two tickets. After a bit of paperwork, I was handed back a full refund for the Alwar to Agra ticket. He gave me the other ticket back also, however, sans refund. Apparently, since the other ticket was for a trip tomorrow and not today, I would need to go to the computer ticket office to get my refund there. Seemed simple enough – seemed being the operative word, as I would soon learn to my cost. Off I trundled to locate the computer ticket office. Ten minutes and several stoppages to ask for directions later, I found myself in a nondescript building at the far end of the very long platform. There were two operating ticket counters with some ten or more people queuing at each. I figured I might as well go and buy the ticket to Delhi first since I could always cancel this ticket tomorrow. Getting a ticket to Delhi was the most pressing priority after all.

Back I went into the main building again and I queued up for about ten minutes. It’s still very uncomfortable in the intense humidity here and I was starting to get a little tried with all the standing around but I did eventually make it to the front of the queue. That’s when the trouble started. I was told that I had to buy my Delhi ticket from the next window but it wouldn’t be open until five o’clock, which was in about an hour. That left going back to the computer ticket office to get my other refund, so back again I went. This time there were about fifteen people waiting at each of the two manned ticket windows so I took the slightly smaller one and reluctantly joined the end of the line. The efficiency of the ticket clerks is mind bogglingly poor. Just exactly why it should take five to ten minutes for each customer to buy an ordinary ticket is simply beyond me. To make matters worse, it seems to be the norm for people to just walk to the head of the line and thrust their money and ticket purchase form through the window, often to the jeers and protestations of the many who have stood in the queue for the past hour and a half. It seems to be somewhat of a sport to see who can use the most persistence to get the clerk to deal with them first. People were pushing and shoving and tempers were fraying left, right and centre. All the while, my own blood pressure was building to the point where I made it a point to be very forceful about making it clear to all the would-be line jumpers that this would not be tolerated – not in my line and not today at least.

It was about an hour and twenty minutes before I made it to the front of the queue. I just knew there was going to be some stupid reason why I was at the wrong counter or needed to fill in a form or something that would mean my having to go to the back of the line again. As it turned out, it wasn’t that painful. The clerk handed me a form to fill in and a pen and I started to write. Immediately upon doing this, about five arms all holding money and purchase forms thrust their way over my shoulder and through the small opening in the window. I let out a huge bellow and squared my shoulders menacingly. All the hands retracted immediately and the hall fell silent. I finished my form in silence and handed it in with the clerk giving me a respectful ‘well done’ sort of a look. I swear I detected a slight smirk on his face also. He told me that there was a thirty percent cancellation fee and handed me the partial refund. Without complaint, I took the money and receipt and made a beeline for the door with my cash in hand.

With now just forty minutes till the arrival of our Delhi train and with no ticket to Delhi yet in my hand, I stopped at the upper class waiting room where Sandy sat reading, just briefly enough to tell here where I had been and where I was now going. I saw an exasperated sigh of an expression pull over her face as she faded from my view. Back at the Delhi ticket window, there was now also a fifteen-person queue all jostling for prime position at the little opening in the ticket window. If my last encounter was anything to go by, there was no chance of getting to Delhi tonight at this rate. I tried my luck at the closed window next door, where another clerk sat doing some paperwork, and asked if I could buy a ticket to Delhi. He smiled but pointed to the long line next door and I reluctantly took my place again, but this time now behind several more people that had just joined the line. Bugger! Delhi was looking farther away than ever. Desperate situations demand desperate measures so I thought I’d try my luck at a bit of human engineering. The guy at the empty ticket window seemed like a really nice character so I decided to play on his conscience. I kept looking at him with the most mournful and pathetically sad face I could muster. Each time he looked up, I caught his eye, pointed to my imaginary watch and then the main notice board where our impending train was being listed as almost due. I did this several times before he finally buckled and motioned me to come over. I handed him my money and he took this directly to the man in the next window who immediately dispensed a ticket. With a very gratified smile and a wink, I offered the man a R20 note but he just smiled and refused the gratuity, also with a wink. He seemed quietly triumphant at having done his good deed for the day.

We will be heading now directly for Delhi and will travel to Agra as a day trip instead of staying there overnight. Everyone we’ve met have told us how grim Agra itself is but we cannot come to India and get to within a stone’s throw of Agra and not see the Taj Mahal.

I struck me that we suddenly had both cash and time on our hands again and I thought of poor old jam-jar man. This thought eventually faded from my consciousness, I went back to the waiting room to find Sandy had, once again, attracted small group of people around her. Quite the magnet she is. As they sat and tried to communicate with each other, I thought I might scan through the guidebook for some accommodation options in Delhi. Having a mobile phone with an Indian SIM card has been a lifesaver for just this sort of scenario. We are to be arriving very late at night in a new place, a very big place at that, with no clue where to go and nothing but the hordes of touts and rickshaw drivers to greet us. Not a pleasant thought. The mobile phone slices right through all of that and gives us the opportunity to arrive with a purpose and a destination to get to. After a bit of calling around, I decided on a place that was in our price bracket and had a reasonably good review in the guidebook and reserved a room for tonight.

With all of the logistical headaches now out of the way with, all we now had to do was wait for our train. With just a quarter of an hour to go before it arrived, we wandered out onto the now packed platform and walked to where we expected our carriage to be. We were only able to buy regular tickets but will upgrade to 2A class on the train. We’ll at least be able to sit in comfort for the few hours journey.

We reached the spot on the platform where we planned to wait for our train and immediately attracted a group of people. They came and went but stood generally in a semi-circle about a metre in front of us. All eyes were on us and they would mutter to themselves, no doubt contemplating these strange looking foreigners. Every now and then, one of our admirers would pluck up enough courage to ask us what our names were or where we were from or how old we were or whatever. It was all a bit of fun and we’d all laugh at the sometimes-comical inability to communicate with each other. It was a very strange feeling to be the centre of attention like this. Alwar is not a tourist haunt like most of the other places we’ve visited and as far as I could see, there were no other Westerners anywhere on the platform or, for that matter, anywhere else in the entire town. We were clearly a bit of a novelty and it was a bit of fun to be the talk of the town, if only for a short time.

The train did finally arrive and the crowd slowly dispersed. We boarded and I located the conductor to upgrade our tickets. He sat with us briefly and calculated the difference in the fare between the regular ticket I bought in Alwar and the air-conditioned class that we elected to travel in. The difference came to R860 ($19) and I handed him an even R870 using the only combination of notes I had. He counted the money, then folded it and put it in his pocket after first handing me a completed receipt. I wondered for a second if he was going to pull out a R10 note but he never did. He just nodded and walked off. I wasn’t sure what to make of this but decided to let it go, as I was tired. About forty minutes later, he came back, pulled the money out of his pocket and asked us if we had given him R870 instead of R860. I told him we had and he immediately started to apologise profusely. Apparently he simply made a mistake and now wanted to rectify it. Decent chap.

We arrived in Delhi after an otherwise uneventful journey. It was quite late but the train station was just as chaotic as every other we’ve been to with people moving around other people laying all over the platforms. With at least eight platforms, it was also the biggest train station we’ve seen so far. Delhi has no less than six stations altogether. After disembarking, we had to climb the steps to cross the bridge and towards the exit. Touts latched onto us with the familiar regularity but I actually found it quite easy to shake them off. Depending on their persistence, simply ignoring them was often enough. The next step up from that was waving them off with my arm and for the really nasty breed, a swift but decisive ‘Chello Chello’, which means ‘Go away!’ does the trick. It helps also to look very mean and unapproachable, something that I find easy to achieve when tired and irritable after a long journey.

I never like to pick up a rickshaw immediately at the train station, as this is where the more greedy drivers tend to hang out, waiting for the green tourists who make for easy prey. Instead, we passed right through the main throng of them and out onto the busy street. In a city the size of Delhi, there would surely be an auto-rickshaw to whisk us away. Wrong! We walked around the main roads in the immediate vicinity of the station in full travel regalia for what seemed like ages. We saw plenty of rickshaws but they all had passengers on board. Our backpacks were growing heavier and heavier and we both started to get irritable with each other. We could have taken a cycle rickshaw as there were no end of these things passing us by, the driver of each doing his best to snag us as potential passengers but the traffic seemed quite thick and neither of us fancied our chances with all our luggage in one of those rickety things. It was about a quarter of an hour of aimless wandering around before we finally snagged a ride to our hotel.

We could barely breathe through the thick smog that hung in the air all the way through the heavy traffic and narrow streets to our hotel. Delhi is bar far the most polluted place we’ve seen in India. More than glad to have arrived at the hotel of our choice, I was shown our room. I was under the impression that we had reserved a room with air-conditioning but the only room that had for us was equipped with an extremely noisy and largely ineffective air-cooler. None of my complaining or pleading was getting me anywhere so we took the room. For the first thirty minutes after locking ourselves in, I did my best to call around for another hotel in the same part of town but without success. We resigned ourselves to having to stay here for at least tonight so I took a quick shower and we went to bed.

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