India Train

Traveling in India is filled with new, scary, but always exciting adventures. Our journey to Jaisalmer was one such adventure.

Arrival at Jaisalmer Train Station after 18+ hrs

We began booking this trip in early October. We found a train, booked 6 seats in 1AC (the nice cabin), but were wait listed. Wait listed is a confusing place to be because you don’t know if you have been confirmed for the train until 3 hrs before it departs. Without a guarantee, we decided to go to the train station the morning of our 5:30 pm departure to try to figure out if we would get on the train, or if we were going to be homeless in Delhi.

We read online that there was an International Tourist office at the New Delhi station, so we decided to try there first. We left our apartment early, so we could be the first in line for the 8 am opening.

We arrived at the New Delhi station, and it is awful. It is endless people, dirt and smells everywhere, and no sign of the international tourist office. The only place I’ve experienced something remotely comparable is the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York.  The chaos is similar, only the New Delhi Station is far dirtier and smellier.  Who would have thought!

Waiting for our train in New Delhi

After an hour of searching in circles, guided by only a few signs with arrows pointing in the wrong direction, we managed to find the office. It was heaven–clean, quiet, and knowledgeable staff who spoke English. The staff was pretty sure our tickets would be confirmed. Sure enough, 4 out of our 6 tickets were confirmed, so we would all just have to share the cabin.

Allison, Alison, Oliver, Laura waiting for our train

We were expecting our 1AC cabin to be nice (it was only our 4th day in India) because it was over double the price of the next class. It would have been nice, if it had been 1970; however, It had not been updated (or even cleaned) since then. Oh well, we were escaping the dirtiness of Delhi and were on our way to a desert oasis. We thought, “The 18 hours will fly by.”

An hour into our journey, we heard screams from the cabin next store. They had seen multiple mice. We shut our door and thought, “Luckily it was them and not us.” An hour later we welcomed the mice into our cabin with out own screams of terror. It was a long night of little sleep.

Allison, Alison, Chris, and Laura in our 1AC cabin

The mice and cleanliness aside, the train ride wasn’t so bad. The passenger train infrastructure in India country is old and slow, but it goes everywhere cheaply. As I write this on a bus from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur, my fondness of a mouse infested train has only grown.

Update from ATL

Yesterday, I arrived back in Atlanta after traveling for 30 days, exploring 8 Indian cities, riding in countless auto rickshaws, and eating more curry than I thought possible!

Because of the lack of a reliable internet connection, I was not able to post as much as I wanted to while in India, so I plan to continue to update over the next few weeks with a handful of new posts.

I’ve also started to add a few pictures to previous posts–please check them out.

Thanks for your comments and sharing the journey with me!

Golden City

Jaisalmer is a magical place in the middle of Rajasthan’s Thar desert, 100 miles from the Pakistan border. The city was founded as a trading post in approximately 1200 AD and was home to incredible riches in the past. When Bombay eclipsed it in the 1800s as the trading center for eastern India, the city’s growth slowed and today is home to only 30,000 people with an economy centered around tourism.

The center of the city is a fort built atop a hill, which I was surprised to learn is still home to approximately 5000 people.

Jaisalmer Fort view from our hotel's rooftop terrace

The winding alleyways of the fort are the location of the city’s Jain temples.  These temples are incredible, ornately carved open air structures.  People say that these temples provide some of the world’s best example of sandstone carving.

Jain Temple inside the fort

Some statues inside one of the Jain temples

The fort (and Jaisalmer’s economy) is at risk. With added tourism, increased humidity because of greening in the desert, and lack of draining during monsoon season, the fort is at risk of collapsing.  We noticed of number of wall sections that were recently reconstructed or currently under construction.

Winding streets inside the fort

The city is remote and is only accessible by train or automobile (there is no airport). It is still primarily Indian tourists, though we saw more Western tourists than we were expecting.

View of Jaisalmer from an outlook in the fort

Old Delhi

On our third morning in Delhi, we took the five year old subway line from our apartment to Old Delhi. In one moment you are underground in a modern, relatively clean facility, and as soon as you walk up the staircase, you are in the world’s most hectic, largest bazarre. I hadn’t experienced anything like it, but my friends who have been to bazaars in Istanbul, Morocco, Israel, and other places said that this was the most crazy one they have ever been to.

View of Old Delhi from Jama Masjid

I spent the couple of day trying to reflect on the few hours we spent walking around Old Delhi and no description could possibly do it justice. It was the craziest place I had ever been to (until the New Delhi train station the next morning). Imagine ancient, winding streets, with thousands of little shops/stalls and too many people.  Rather than trying to paint an inacurate picture, I’ll give you a few impressions.
1) this place is not westernized. We went into Old Delhi thinking we could get a coffee at some rooftop cafe (aka Tikang Lu or Xintiandi). There were none. Old Delhi is still very much a real market. Only a few people tried to sell us stuff and there weren’t any tourist trap type places.

Random Street in Old Delhi...imagine this for many, many blocks

2) It would be a great case study of businesses clustering. I saw a number of businesses clustered together, including plumbing supplies, automotive supplies, spice sellers, clothes, and text books. My favorite cluster of businesses was the wedding card makers and paper sellers.  Each of the dozens of shops proudly displayed its beautiful paper product on its wall.

A morning snack. Yum!

3) Although the streets and alleys were narrow, they were bustling with different modes of transportation. Scooters and carts weave around bike rickshaws and people walking. Nothing was separated, but it somehow seemed to work.

So many people, animals, and vehicles sharing this street!

I wish I had some more time to shop around old Delhi. It is an treasure that will surely change as more tourists come through and wealthy Indians look for some authenticity. Heck, I am ready to open up that rooftop coffee shop oasis!

Bobble heads

It took me about two weeks to fully recognize and understand a uniquely Indian head movement: the bobble.

In the United States, we shake our heads “no,” nod our heads “yes,” and sometimes bobble our heads side to side to question a statement, imply confusion, or to mean “so so” or “ehhh.” Usually the US head bobble is accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders, some type of verbal cue, and/or a wrinkle of the brow.

In India, the head bobble has its own meaning. It is never accompanied by a change of facial expression or movement of the shoulders; it is done as its own, solitary action. Rather than confusion or a somewhat negative “ehhh” implication, the head bobble means “yes,” “I agree,” or “okay.” It is used everywhere by all types of people (drivers, students, shop keepers, professors) as a response to a question or to express agreement.

For the first two weeks of being bobbled at, I kept questioning the person to make sure we had reached agreement. Now, I find myself bobbling my head to indicate my own agreement with both Indians and my friends.

Electricity and Water

The constant availability of electricity and water (both hot and cold) varies widely across the country.  Although most developed areas across the country have pretty strong electricity and water infrastructure, consistent availability is still not 100% guaranteed. 

Hot water, in particular, remains a struggle.  At the hotels I’ve stayed, you have to turn on a “geyser” button to heat up the water for a single shower.  It takes about 10-15 minutes for the individual hot water heater to heat up.  At the current dorm/hotel where I’m staying in Ahmedabad, there is a centralized hot water heater, but hot water is only available from 8 AM to 10 AM.  Even during this time, hot water has not been guaranteed.  Thankfully, the non-hot water is bearable enough for an invigorating shower.

Electricity seems to be unreliable and expensive.  In all the places I’ve stayed, and throughout the nicer neighborhoods, backup generators are common.  One afternoon in Jaisalmer, I came back to the hotel for an afternoon tea, and the place was dark.  Luckily, the backup generator kicked on in a few minutes.  The other afternoon, I stopped by a frozen yogurt place on my way home from school.  I entered the shop and it was dark, and the shopkeeper jumped out to turn on the lights and all the yogurt machines.  It took about 5 minutes or the yogurt machines to cool down enough.  I’m guessing they were trying to conserve electricity during a slow afternoon.

Although the inconsistent hot water and electricity conservation are not the result of environmentalism, but of a lack of robust infrastructure, I can appreciate the reduced energy consumption.  While it creates minor inconveniences (having to wait for my frozen yogurt, or a lukewarm shower), the energy savings must be great. 

Pizza and a Movie

Last night, I had a great America meets India evening with Papa John’s and a Bollywood film.

The Papa John’s pizzas were exactly like home (simple and pretty bland, which was much welcomed) with a few having an Indian twist (i.e. Chicken Tikka pizza).  I had my first salad in India, which was a welcome change from the oily curries and starchy breads and rices.  The prices were comparable to home, and consequently, our group of eight Americans were the only ones there.  Next door, the McDonald’s—with lower prices—was packed.

As good as Papa John’s was, the Bollywood movie—Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl—was the highlight of the evening.  It was an experience for a number of reasons:

1)      You have to order your tickets ahead of time.  The tickets are not general admission, but assigned seats.  We ordered the Rs. 50 ($1) tickets online earlier in the afternoon and chose our seats.  Even though the seats were assigned, all the seats were the same price.

2)      The theatre is the coldest place I’ve been to in India.  It might have just been this theatre, but the temperature had to be 60 degrees.

3)      The audience included all ages and genders.  Indians are passionate about their Bollywood films, and this film was no exception.  Our 8:30 film had families with young children, groups of teenage guys, twenty-something women, young couples, old couples, 12 Americans, and everyone in between.

4)      The movie did not have previews, but instead had the Indian National Anthem.  Like a sporting event in the United States, everyone stood up at the start of the movie to pay respect to India.

5)      The movie itself, like everything in this country, was completely over the top.  The plot was pretty silly and easy to understand even though it was in HIndi.  The famous Bollywood singing and dancing was present throughout the film.

6)      The sound system was so loud. I felt like I was at a concert with the sound system and music blaring.  The 5 year old girl next to me was completely unphased.

7)      Even though the film was only about 2 hours, there was a 10 minute intermission.  At the half way point, in the middle of a song and dance routine, the lights of the theatre slowly came on.  I thought there was going to be a light show to accompany the dancing, but it was only intermission.

8)      The audience was surprisingly calm.  I was expecting lots of cheering or audience participation, but it was the same as home.

The Indian peers I’m working with said this movie was pretty bad.  A new film, which everyone is talking about, is being released next week.  It’ll be interesting to compare the two films.