Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in India: Long Journey into Night

I am now in Pushkar, on the edge of the Thar Desert, in the state of Rajasthan. I haven't had much time to explore, but it seems to be a very relaxed town (for India). The sun is merciless in its intensity, but I think it's only in the 80s, and it's very pleasant in the shade. The oppressive humidity of Delhi is finally gone.

I headed out of Dharamsala on an overnight bus two days ago. After a jolting and exhausting 12 hour ride, I finally arrived in Delhi at 6:00 am. The bus is the easiest and quickest way to get around, but it is very uncomfortable compared to the trains. I have finally experienced my first Dhaba (India's version of the truck stop). A lively group of restaurants and shops that straddle the road every hour or so. Food is served from a dozen huge stainless steel kettles that cook over kerosene fires. You just point to what you want, and your food is served instantly at long tables shared by all.

I purchased a train ticket to Ajmer at the Delhi train station, with the usual hassles and run-around (bus tickets are so much easier). I spent the day wandering around the main bazaar of Paharganj and reading\eating\drinking in a rooftop restaurant near the station. Delhi is really getting on my nerves this time around, with relentless touts that try to attract my attention everywhere I go. Has the city changed, or my attitude?

After a completely insane auto-rickshaw ride to a rail station on the edge of town, I was at last on my way. Two young Indian men kept me occupied by talking about their lives and asking me questions about the US for a couple hours before the train left (we were all on the same train).

Night trains in India may be slow, aggravating, scary, frustrating, and many other things, but they are certainly not dull. I found my seat, and was instantly surrounded by new friends eager to talk and ask questions. It can be a little alarming when your sleeping berth (which should hold six passengers) swells to twenty or more people as the train departs. You move down as four sit on the bench, then five, then six, with a couple people in each overhead bunk, and a dozen crowding in the aisle. After moving for a little while, the train stops and more people crowd in. Even though the train is so full that people are hanging out the doors, at each stop food vendors, beggars, chai and newspaper sellers, sadhus, and sweepers work their way down the already crowded aisles.

In our car, a deck of cards is broken out, and a bizarre and unexplainable game ensues. Although only three people actually hold cards, at least a dozen more are involved in all aspects of play. The only rules that I could discover are that you must slap your cards down on the suitcase (used as a table) and that each card played must be followed by intense shouting and arguing by the players and spectators. Cards are picked up and put back in hands, and others played instead. I could not determine any rhyme or reason as far as scoring or who was winning. Cards are put away and food is gotten out and shared by all. Jokes and stories are told, with much exaggeration and laughing. Then starts the singing, with one person leading and all joining in on the chorus, with banging on the walls to provide accompaniment. The prospect of a quiet night of sleep seems far off at 10:30 at night. I am the only gringo on board, and it is a fantastic and rare opportunity to observe Indian life. Adding to the surreal feeling is the fact that all of this is in Hindi, and I cannot understand a word of it.

Eventually the rowdy crowd gets off and we are joined by two Muslim men to make a total of six in our compartment. So far, the Muslims have seemed very reserved towards western tourists, and I have not even spoken to one. These two were determined to make up for the rest, however. Unbelievably kind and friendly, they told me all about themselves and asked many questions about myself and my life back home. A strange mix of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian religions were present, with discussions on many topics, including our religious differences. Haji Muhammad Ibrahim, the older of the two brothers, showed me his prayer books written in Arabic, and told me that Muslims also believed in Adam and Eve and the angel Gabriel, and that we should be loving each other and not fighting. I had to agree with him. They were generous and intelligent (speaking six languages), and have traveled the world. I showed them postcards from home and pictures of my family and friends. We exchanged addresses and I told them I would visit them if I came back to India.

The night's excitement wasn't over yet. Just after leaving a small station, we stopped and fury of activity surrounded the train with everyone shouting, police with rifles running next to the tracks, and flashlights shining in windows. I first thought that perhaps someone had been run over. Then right next to our car, two men were pulled from the top of the train and were surrounded by the police and crowds. They had been train hopping, I was told; jumping on the roof for a free ride. They were taken off by the police and we resumed our journey without incident.

I had a good night's sleep for the first time (on a train, at least), and eventually arrived in Ajmer at 8:30 AM. Ajmer is a holy Muslim city, and the train was full of pilgrims on their way to a religious festival. My two friends invited me to stop by the Dargah mosque and attend the festival with them. I'll have to try to stop by and find them in a day or two. I took a short bus to Pushkar, and was picked up by a very friendly young man who took me to his parent's hotel. Although you have to be very skeptical of hotel touts, he actually ended up being very nice and quite helpful. He actually was the son of the owners, and was running the hotel for them. He has proven to be an excellent resource. Sometimes you get lucky.

I'll write about Pushkar in a couple days. I saw my first camel today. Camel safaris are the thing to do here, and I may try an all day excursion before leaving.

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