Can’t complain about Indian railways

Day 4 of our isolated un-trip to India and things are going much more smoothly than I could have imagined.

Indian Railway system is possibly the only lasting benefit left by the British during their occupation of the place. The network is extensive, trains are frequent and mostly run on time.* Also, at least outside of cattle class, they are quite clean and sleeper beds include linen. Did I mention fares are also pretty cheap?

So our trip from Amritsar to Haridwar (near Rishikesh) would have been fun and a new experience for Petronella, had we taken it. But I think even had our flight not been cancelled, all Indian trains have been.

Right now we would have been on the banks of the upper Ganges River, wondering why it seems compulsory for Western women to wear yoga pants 24/7 in this city. Well, I would have been, she would like have been wearing yoga pants.

Ganges River at Rishikesh

Tonight we won’t be travelling by train to Khajuraho, site of the Karma Sutra Temple. In a day or 3 I’ll share some rather racy photos and update you on the incredible things we don’t do.

* this is based on experience, not any collection of data across the whole network. For all I know hardly any of the trains run on time – and it wouldn’t be surprising – but apart from 1 that was cancelled, 1 that was 5 hours late, 1 that was estimated 12 hours late and a few other delays…OK, so they sometimes are on time.

Best travel leg ever

Jetlag is a pain. You arrive at your destination and for the next couple of days your body is catching up with local time.

But not this trip. It is as though our bodies are on local time all the time. It is incredible, people are using our regular currency, speak our language and we blend in as though we belong.

I know Air Asia is regarded as a budget airline, but this time I am all compliments, it was as though the flight over didn’t happen.

I have to say that in all my travels, airline food has never looked like this.

Airline breakfast

Who ever heard of getting Montmarte Patisserrie croissants on a plane? And for lunch, Chilli sin Carne and salad with home-grown ingredients.

Not Airline Food

Of course, departure day didn’t quite go as expected. Before we flew we had to handle the flu with a last minute vaccination. Despite initial fears, no one fainted which was a good thing.

Flu shot

Thanks to our corporate sponsors for providing free shots.

Next stop won’t be Amritsar where we won’t visit the Golden Temple, the Pakistan Border or the maze temple. But more about those places when we don’t get there.

Troublesome travel companions

Perhaps a more experienced traveller can help me with this.

Our flight has now been officially cancelled. Air Asia has sent an SMS advising the flight isn’t happening and suggesting I read an email that they haven’t sent. That isn’t the problem.

My anxiety comes from the fact that we aren’t leaving in 24 hours and Erna still hasn’t unpacked. Does she plan on leaving it to the last minute?

If this is how our non-trip starts, what is going to happen when we don’t arrive in India?

Your suggestions are welcome.

Less that one week to not go

We’ve been looking forward to our trip to India for months and it is now less than one week until we don’t leave.

We are pretty excited as we start unpacking all those special things we bought for this trip.

Of course it is important to make sure that all the necessary documents are in order:

Visa cancelled? CHECK!

visa cancelled

Refund status: Don’t be ridiculous

Air ticket cancelled? CHECK!

air asia cancelled

Refund status: Amount credited for 1 year

Train tickets cancelled? CHECK!

Refund status: 100% refunded!

We are so not looking forward to not leaving next Saturday.

Starting then you should keep your eyes open for regular updates on where we haven’t been.

Internet permitting, of course.

Navigating India railways

India gives the impression of being a tech savvy country, but you wouldn’t know it if you used the India Rail web site. Given that it represents a huge government organisation it is definitely one of the most difficult sites to use; it has too many ads (since when does a government business site have google ads?), parts of it don’t work, parts of it are confusing, parts of it are pointless…it sucks.

I spent about 8 hours trying to book some train tickets, constantly hitting a wall “foreign cards not accepted” with any card I tried. Doing some research I found 12go who will book for you, but R500 ($10) worth of tickets cost an additional R800 ($16) booking fee.

India’s railways carry 23 million people per day

Then I remembered cleartrip who I have used successfully in the past but they took money without delivering a ticket. I have previously had refunds from them so am not worried, but it was frustrating trying to get it to work.

There had to be a way around this and a few sites had mentioned that IRCTC now takes Atom payments which work with foreign cards.

This is what the payment screen looks like – errr…well, I would show you a screenshot but…

which proves my point.

So if you do manage to connect and choose your India train trip and want to pay with a foreign card, there is a way to do it. I am posting this as a test blog post and also so that people wanting to buy India rail tickets with foreign international cards don’t have as hard a time figuring it out.

Once you get to the review trip page, instead of choosing Debit Card with PIN – which seems the most obvious, choose Multiple Payment Service – here’s a screenshot I prepared earlier.

India Rail payment page

No, I have no idea what they would hide it in there except T.I.I. (This Is India). Once in there the International Cards using Atom payment thingy is obvious

IRCTS Atom payment for foreign cards

Obviously your results may vary, but the first ticket literally took me most of a day – but it is best to not get too frustrated or you won’t survive being in India. Once I discovered the Multiple Payment Service, 4 more tickets took about 30 minutes.

I have downloaded the tickets to show the officious conductors, all I need now is for them to show up in my list of purchased tickets on the IRCTC site…sigh…

Heading home

Location: Jaipur, Barala, Kuala Lumpur

My flight to the Gold Coast leaves from Jaipur. This was a deliberate choice when I booked back in August. I wanted to come see my friends at Chillout Hostel on my way home.

Coming back from Rishikesh I had 5 days before my flight. Decisions. Pushkar? Udaipur? Somewhere else?

Ready for the wedding procession

As I said a few posts ago, plans are for wusses. Counting days isn’t of much interest, but I would guess that I ended up spending maybe 1/3 of my time in Jaipur. And oh, what fun.

Or, as it turned out, one option, and the one I unintentionally took was to I just hang in Jaipur. There is plenty of adventures to be had, some when you least expect it.

Having paid for a bag in the hold I decided I might as well buy some gifts for peiple – something I don’t normally do – and found something that is unique, exotic and actually useful. Also light, easy to pack, not expensive and a couple of other check boxes ticked.

Some great hipster hair options as worn by no one in India.

The concept of me as part of the Singh family was being strengthened and Mumma Ji is now my sister, I am an uncle. It is actually quite special and I am honoured to be loved and included by everyone.

Here is an example, out of order chronologically but a good place to include it. My last day in Jaipur. I am flying out at 2315hrs and not sure what to do with the day. Chilling is a good option.

With Ballu and Shaked

In the morning Ballu, my “nephew” asks if I would like to come to the village. Of course I would, having no idea who, what, why or where is involved. As long as I am back my 1800hrs it is fine.

In the car is Ballu driving, Mumma Ji, a cute young girl whose name I forget already but she is my great niece nowadays. We are going to Mumma’s village of Barala.

Unfortunately Mumma Ji is out of focus, but you get the idea of how gorgeous she is.

It isn’t where she was brought up, that is Mohchingpura, site of the wedding. Barala is where Mumma lived after getting married. It is traditional that the bride moves in with the groom’s family.

Barala is only 30km from Jaipur and most of the roads are pretty good. Most. One section would qualify for Worst Road Ever and included a partially collapsed bridge…or it may have been partially constructed, it can be difficult to tell.

First stop is at a shrine where respect is paid. This is for men only, women must remain outside. I don’t know how they know this as the shrines have no obvious markings. It is just knowledge.

Then to another shrine. This time it gets more serious. We are first there and over the next 30 minutes or so people keep arriving. Men inside, women outside. I say outside, but we are all out in the open, women are outside of a wall around the shrine.

Most people arrive with a bag with what I assume to be an offering. There is wheat, young coconuts, incense, sweets, cigarettes and ghee.

One man is responsible for preparing everything. He has a fire burning the coconut meat, feeding it with ghee and what looks like tea.

Another man develops what looks and sounds like the hiccups. He is getting louder and more frequent when he suddenly jumps into a small mattress and is on his knees bowing.

Everyone bows and Puja begins. There are many rituals, I don’t understand any of them. I have so many questions.

Kite shop. I wish we had a fighting kite culture. Just about everything you see are spools of string, including glass coated for cutting your opponent’s line.

The most intriguing is where and individual would lie prostrate and the holy man (I assume) would “sweep” from the altar toward them about 10 times with a bunch of peacock feathers and then use it to slap them on the back. Some people got a gentle tap with the feathers, others got quite a whack with the other end.

We left before it was finished, interestingly there was no red dot put on foreheads or the string around wrists. So many questions.

We head off and getting answers to the questions was no longer important. It was incredible just being there.

One thing I did want to know was whether the ceremony was because Mumma came or it was on and Mumma came for it. I know, but it doesn’t matter.

Next stop is at Papa’s home, where Mumma would have spent many years. It is a farm growing wheat mostly. I meet Ajeet and Ballu’s grandmother and aunts and they sit and catch up while I sit or wander.

Eventually we drop Mumma at a bus, she is heading to Mohchingpura, where she grew up. We head back to Jaipur.

That was Friday 15th. Thursday 14th is Valentines Day and if you think it isn’t celebrated in India you have no understanding of the spread of western culture.

Heading out to the “club”

Chillout is planning a party and it was fun helping set up. The guys bought a big bag of rose flowers (no stems) and we hung them around the place. Candles were lit. It looked great. I even managed to convince them that party music was needed, not the love ballads they were playing.

Not a lot of outside people came but finally, some dancing! I had also prepared for the night with some fireworks and a bottle of rum. Thanks Shaked for asking me to not get drunk and fall asleep because we are going to a club later…that’s what friends are for – seriously. Not that I was going to. After the last party where I wrote myself off I was taking it easy this time.

Hmmmm…the club…India style. Fact is it was a cool place, done quite well with a big curved roof but no walls upstairs. But the recently deceased Martian rover likely had more atmosphere. All it needed was background music and some lighting. Instead it was like a venue that had just opened for the day…except it was midnight or so.

The owner was a pretty great host. There was food and drinks, not sure who paid, I didn’t order it.

Then we went downstairs and after I spent some time in the kitchen (maybe my favourite place in India) I found the others in a small room with some decent dance music happening…loudly. REALLY FUCKING LOUDLY! This Is Spinal Tap did the “turn it up to 11” scene, this was at 12. But we danced. A lot.

Shadow dancing…the photo kind of worked.

Playing with the photo in the Snapseed app. Easy and fun.

At 0130 I had had enough and decided to head back to Chillout. No tuk tuks were around (incredible!), maps said it was 1 km. My new shoes were hurting so a peaceful barefoot walk got me back.

Oooh…I nearly forgot. When we arrived 8 or so of us squeezed into a tiny lift to go up to the club on the 2nd floor. The light indicated we were going up but we weren’t. For around 10 minutes we weren’t. I admit to having a moment of claustrophobia but kept breathing and it passed.

Eventually someone opened the door from the outside and we thankfully went up the stairs. I suppose it should have been obvious only 6 people could fit in, but at least we didn’t plummet to our deaths. I went to the lift on the way out but one look and I changed my mind.

I need to get this video from Agra in somewhere…this will do

My plan is to write this on the plane between Kuala Lumpur and Gold Coast and publish it while waiting for my bag. Am I being ambitious? Over confident? (I ended up publishing at home).

KLIA2 (Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2) is a big place. Arriving at 0430 isn’t fun. Arriving at 0430 when your next flight is at 2315 is really not fun. I got a room in the capsule hotel in the airport. Too tired to go into the city I could sleep, shower, rest and enjoy the delights of an airport that is just like all other airports.

I did find this gem in a toy store.

Epilogue:

By the time you read this I will be back in Australia.

Each time I go to India I expect it to be my last. Each time the place is more amazing than ever. I am already invited to Ballu’s wedding, he just needs to find a girl ;o) I have promised I will come, and I mean it.

It’s been a deeply personal trip for me for many reasons. If you don’t know, my wife Sheila and I separated late last year, after I had booked tickets. I am not sure I would have come had I known how life would change. In retrospect, not coming would have been one of the greatest mistakes I could make.

I was invited to the wedding in Mohchingpura after I had my flights booked and I contemplated whether or not to go, it would turn my plans upside down. Not going to the wedding would have been a huge mistake, it was life changing in ways I don’t yet understand. I still can’t speak about the event without getting emotional. I may never be able to.

Other small aha moments, one big one which I hope to stay focussed on to be a better human.

Although I start and end alone and love travelling alone, this has been a trip of friends and family.

Thanks to my new Indian family for welcoming me. Ajeet, Jyoti, Ballu, Gopal (?), Mumma, Swati & Anant and so many more. I can’t possibly list you all but you have touched me deeply.

Shaked, Anouk, Tom & Laura, Mimmi, Fernanda. Will we ever meet again? I so hope we do, somewhere. You are always welcome in my home.

I travel alone but people at home helped when I needed it. Megs and Aaron with the card, Jasmine with medical advice for me and others. Thanks to those who stayed in touch Lesley, Dave and George, Tiff and Dawne, Tina, Di, Erna and you.

Namaste.

Who said “it’s the journey…”?

Location: Jaipur, finally

Hotel: Chillout Hostel

I have a Citibank debit card. I deposit $AUD and can withdraw local currency from ATMs anywhere in the world. Exchange rates are reasonable (3% fixed spread) and zero fees. It is perfect for travelling and it is all I use the account for. I pretty much only use it in ATMs.

One day I noticed a transaction for $1.36 from January 29th. No big deal, hardly worth the effort of disputing but if these people do it 1 million times it is lucrative, so plan to dispute when I get back.

Random photos as you may not find lots photos of train compartments too rivetting.

February 1st a transaction for $71.48. on the 2nd $74.05 but I don’t notice at first because I don’t need to check the balance ever. But now they have my attention.

I am unable to put the card on hold via the app so need to call Australia which is harder than you think…at first.

Did you see my call for help on Facebook? I have since deleted it to stop people responding, but it was a shout out to someone who had some time who could call the bank for me. Thanks Aaron and Megs for the ideas and willingness to help.

It wasn’t until Alecia was going to ask me some questions to be certain it is me that I remembered the scam that is likely still going but I haven’t seen for a while.

Your Facebook or email is hacked and they send a message “I am in (somewhere) and have been robbed. I need some money to get to the embassy and have my passport replaced”. Except the person who sent it from (somewhere) was sitting with me. It sounded just like my situation.

Eventually I find the Rebtel app that gives free calls anywhere in the world for a week, then $5 a month. I call the bank and have 2 options: block the card or leave it and end up with no money in the account.

Blocking it there and then was not possible, I had little money. It took a few hours to find an ATM that worked and I withdrew what I thought I would need for the 10 days left: R1000 for a bed plus R500 for food per day + some travel plus some breathing room.

I call back and get the card blocked. Later I check the transactions and there is one more for $322.51. Crap. I will get it back but not having a card and now having something to sort out is a hassle.

Cut to Rishikesh. Specifically leaving. How am I going to buy a ticket online without a card?

A couple of people offer to pay and I will give them cash, but a weird thing is that many Indian web sites won’t accept foreign credit cards.

Eventually an Indian guy in our dorm at Live Free Hostel offers, we buy a ticket for R1210 and I give him the money. Sweet. The train leaves at 1840hrs, arriving in Jaipur at 0700hrs. This is why a comfy bed is a good idea. But, unfortunately, it is just an idea.

I am 9th on a wait list with a suggested 74%+ chance of getting a ticket. Good odds I reckon.

With plenty of time to spare, I am on the back of a Royal Enfield motorcycle heading for the bus station. Still on the waitlist, now 3rd in line.

A 40 minute ride to Haridwar and the train station. Still 3rd.

In a miracle of modern India the train is going to leave on time. I am still 3rd in line. If I don’t get on board, I am stuck in Haridwar again and I know the train is full tomorrow night. I get on board and innocently sit in the 2AC car where I have booked.

There are several different classes of rail travel. 2nd class is cattle class – it can be crazy. Here is a video from a previous trip.

Up one level is Sleeper class. Three high, no AC or any frills. On the way to Haridwar I was in Sleeper and it was freezing at night. Windows didn’t close. Everyone was wrapped in blankets.

Next is 3AC. Three high but with AC and you get linen.

Better is 2AC which is 2 high, AC, linen and curtains for compartment privacy.

There is also 1st class, but not on every train. Small private compartments with doors.

Since I don’t actually have a ticket I don’t have an assigned seat, so I plonk myself down in an empty one and hope for the best. Pretty soon a bunch of Uruguayans show up and I have to move. This is to become a recurring theme.

The train departs, I am on board, on.my way. I breathe a sigh of relief that turns out to be premature.

It isn’t long before the conductor comes around and I play dumb tourist who can show the app saying “booked” and that I have paid. But he says I am not on his list.

He is genuinely as confused as I was pretending to be. One would have thought he would have this down pat, but he was looking up my PNR (ticket reference) on a commercial site rather than India rail. It wasn’t working.

A passenger comes to the rescue and it is determined that my ticket hadn’t been issued, so it was cancelled. I feign shock and disbelief and stop short of outrage. None of it works.

What about the money I have paid? He doesn’t care, I will get a refund. But I paid it to someone, not my card. If it is possible, he cares even less and I am banished to a hard wooden seat outside the heat in the area between carriages. This was not going to be fun for 10 hours.

Uruguayan tour guide is cool. He comes out and says he had overbooked and I can have a spare seat. I am back in on the same one I left earlier. Soon, so is the conductor and he explains that because of the no shows, the seats have been reassigned.

However I can have it until Delhi, where the people are boarding, for R1350. I only paid R1210 all the way to Jaipur. I don’t have money, can you take a card? (I don’t have one) Of course not. Is there an ATM on board? I actually said this with a straight face. Did I mention how much he cared?

Now I am sent to 2nd class. His care level had plummeted. My survival instinct had increased inversely proportionally and I stealthily grabbed a blanket as I don’t have one.

I walk along the train in that direction and 3AC is absolutely full. But there is an empty compartment in Sleeper. Not perfect but by now it is getting late and I am tired.

At some time during the night, not late enough to have had a lot of sleep, the people whose seats they are get on board. I move to the next compartment. This was fortunate because it isn’t often you get to hear people having a loud mini party through the night.

All along I am.doing my best to cover the railway blanket with my own stuff as I reckon conductor will kick me off the train if he spots it. At least this is successful and I am quite warm.

In Delhi most people get off along with the pressure I feel. Conductor prods me every time he passes and I say I am here in 2nd class and he moves on until next prod.

I am at the bottom of 3 high and an easy target. Someone gets off and I climb to the top berth. My only fear now is sleeping though Jaipur, there are no announcements or indication of any sort. Thank you google maps for helping out.

There is no need for this adventure to end yet. I am so fearful of missing my station I get off one too soon in Jaipur. It is only 10 minutes to Chillout Hostel. I estimate R100 tuk tuk ride is generous. Interestingly autocorrect first suggested rude instead of ride which is appropriate since driver said R300. I laughed and started looking at Ola where I was quoted R102.

Now he was down to R150 and would do it for R100. Too late. Ola was on its way and instead of an open tuk tuk I would be in a car for the same price.

Uber and Ola are a big problem for tuk tuk drivers and normally I only use them, they don’t make a lot of Rupees. But he has tried to rip me off, I was tired and keen to get there.

Which I did.

Now what? Maybe Pushkar for a night or 2. Maybe hang here until I fly out in Friday.

I don’t know yet. Stand by.

Rishikesh, the original destination

Location: Rishikesh

Hotel: Live Free Hostel

If you read the previous post and thought it ended kind of abruptly, you were right.

I had spent 2 days trying to write what I knew would be a long post. The photos on my phone are a mess, I can find a specific photo in one app but not another, I am not certain where they are exactly. It was frustrating. Add to that so many distractions; talking and eating and walking. I eventually had to keep my word to publish yesterday.

As close as I got to the Taj Mahal this trip

The rest of the mob was heading back to Jaipur, I reluctantly left them in Agra, heading to Rishikesh. This was my original destination and the reason I flew into Amritsar in the first place.

Rishikesh is likely the yoga capital of the world, it is almost compulsory to walk around carrying a yoga mat wearing yoga pants. There is a vast number of yoga schools and plenty of people qualifying as teachers.

The location is beautiful, on the Ganges River in the hills. Very relaxed.

It is also the location of the best aloo (potato) parantha I have had in India. This costs R30 (60c) and is soooo good.

Getting here turned out to be a mission. Dropped off at Agra Cantt station at 1015 for a 1050 train the first thing I see is that the departure is now 1300hrs. Sigh…the others have gone, I have 3 hours to kill. It turns into almost 4 hours.

This isn’t too bad normally except arrival in Haridwar was 2130hrs then a bus to Rishikesh and tuk tuk to the hotel. But buses stop at midnight so after arriving at 0045 I had to find a hotel.

On the suspension bridge at Rishikesh

After getting turned away from a bunch of hotels that seem to not want foreign tourists (there is a lot of paperwork), a cycle rickshaw driver offers to take me to a hotel for R10.

I forgot that a R10 trip isn’t far and this was about 50m to a hotel that claimed to be full. Driver urges me back into rickshaw and stops at the next hotel. Ten metres down the road :o) It would have been quicker to walk. Then it dawned on me that he wanted it to look like he had brought me so he could get a commission. This place had a bed…expensive for 7 hours but can’t complain.

Fernanda from Brazil (L) and Mimmi from the UK are artists who barter their art at hostels in return for accommodation

Fernanda makes unique macrame pieces

Mimi with her mural growing up the wall

After the intensity this was a place to chill and it has been. I like dorms rather than private rooms because I get to meet the Mimmis of this world.

But there are so many excellent distractions from catching up with the blog.

This relaxing view is from the Shanti Shanti restaurant (I thought of you Dawne, Jane and Tiff). I was sitting sharing a meal with a British woman when she suddenly said “no! no!” and suddenly a monkey swooped through and grabbed 3 or 4 chapattis from our tray and was gone. I was about to take a swipe at it and thought that giving up food (which was replaced) would be a better option than it getting aggressive.

It has been a couple of relaxing warm and sunny days.

Though not so relaxing these men who entered all a pouring slab.

Tonight I am booked on a train* to Jaipur from where I fly home on Friday. I may head to Pushkar for a couple of days, maybe Udaipur. I may sit and drink chai and stay in Jaipur.

* Because T.I.I. I am actually only wait listed on the train. Number 9 on the list. I haven’t missed a train yet and am optimistic I will be sleeping my way to Jaipur.