My plans were to be in Rishikesh for one week, arriving on a Saturday and departing the next Saturday. I had been told that there would be busses leaving daily from Rishikesh towards Dharamshala, my next destination. A few days into my week in Rishikesh, I went to check out the arrangements for the next leg of my journey. I went to the area where the “upscale” busses depart and talked to a man familiar with the options. He said there would not be a bus on Saturday but one departing on Sunday. I thought that was fine and asked the ashram if it would be ok to stay one additional night.
By this time many people around the ashram knew me or of me as I was one of the only guests and one of the only “white foreigners” there at this time. The people at the reception desk looked over their calendar and said that would be fine. The swami that was in attendance at the desk and with whom I had had contact before said that I was different from most Americans who visited there. Always happy to be noticed, I asked “how so?” Swami smiled warmly and said that I projected a gentle humility that they did not always see, especially with many Americans who apparently projected a noticeable arrogance…sigh… I was surprised that those drawn to visit an ashram would be arrogant, as some of you might be surprised to hear of my projected humility… oh yes, I do have the capacity to behave appropriately in many situations…I try. I was egotistically pleased that my true humility was noticed and appreciated…hmm…
So, on the morning of departure, I called the man I had talked to about the bus and he said the bus was postponed because of road closures and I should go to another bus departure point to get a more common bus to a different city from where I could get another bus to Dharamshala. Ok. I discussed these possibilities with my friend Mukti who runs Mukti’s organic restaurant and internet café, near the ashram, where I log on to the internet and take some nourishment daily. He talked with another man who knew about such travel things and together they advised me to go to the Rishikesh train station, take a train to Chakki Bank, another city, then get a tuktuk to the bus station in Pathankot, then a bus or series of busses as it turned out, to Dharamshala. Mukti said there would be a train at 4 pm and there was always space on it.
I negotiated a tuktuk ride at a reasonable rate. The driver tried to convince me that there would be no train at that time from the Rishikesh station and wanted to take me to the Haridwar train station for 600 rupees instead of the 50 rupees that we had agreed on. I said no. When I got to the train station, the ticket agent said I could get space on the “General seating” compartment but there was nothing available in the AC2 class which is Air Conditioned Two Tier, and relatively quite comfortable. It is cool enough these days that I certainly did not need air conditioning but do like the comfort and relative privacy of a convertible bunk for myself. Usually, it is possible to upgrade a berth or seat to a higher class and I was comfortably confident that I could do so...
As I was waiting for the train, an Indian man approached, curious as to where I was from, me again being the only white guy in the station. His name was Kuldeep Singh, a Sikh; his English was good. He was with two other men, one of whom was his father going to Amritsar and the other a friend going to Chakki Bank where I hoped to go. They were in the same General class in which I was confirmed and suggested I go put my suitcase on a seat to hold it. I told them I was confident that I would be able to upgrade and wanted to try for that. In hindsight, I should have taken their advice! I sat in the AC2 section waiting for the TTE (Train Ticket Examiner), also known as the Conductor, and upgrade options.
After a bit, with 15 minutes before departure, a family of four came in that had reservations for that section where I sat. There were six berths in that area and the man of the family was quite friendly, spoke English and invited me to stay comfortably while waiting for the TTE. The train started rolling right on time which in itself is rather unusual. After 15 minutes, the TTE arrived with a somewhat unpleasant attitude. He helped the India family first and it was not a particularly pleasant (nor helpful) exchange. When he looked at my ticket, he said abruptly that there were not any upgrade opportunities on this run; end of story! As the train was moving and there was not an internal passageway to the general classes of service, he said I would have to get off at the next stop and go down to one of the lower class cars.
After two hours of travel, we arrived in Haridwar, the station I had arrived at one week earlier. Just before stopping, the conductor came to fetch me, said, “come with me”, and led me off the train. On the platform were thousands of people, jamming, packing themselves into the general classes of cars with an insane urgency, a seeming mob mentality. I dragged my rolling suitcase along with my backpack on my back, feeling quickly discouraged as I was seeing the difficulty of actually getting on in this madness. I kept walking down the platform, past one car after another with the same seemingly hopeless situation. After a number of cars, I came to a “luggage” car with a small crowd jumping up, packing themselves in, which looked somewhat hopeful. I pressed into the mob cue, was pushed from behind, and swung my big bag up onto the car, then hauled myself up. More people from behind assisted in this process from the sheer pressure of people with a purpose. With pressure from all sides, I kept in mind the importance of not getting separated from my luggage. I hugged on of the steel supports for the cargo shelving with one hand and slipped my big bag into the 20” high space from the floor to the 1st shelf, keeping one hand firmly on the handle. I held that space as people continued to press in to firmly pack this compartment of the larger cargo car. Cattle car, I kept thinking, having intense intuition regarding the need for careful awareness in this charged environment. As you imagine, I was the only white guy here. The humanity surrounding me stared, surely wondering at the strange vision of a man such as me in their midst.
The train started rolling again. Our bodily inertia bumped and pressed us against each other from all directions. I had little need of musculature as the press of bodies kept me upright and unable to move in any direction, my feet planted fairly firmly in the constricted space they held on the floor. Prior to vacating the 1st class car, I had the foresight, after learning of my lack of updated status, not to drink or eat anything, not wanting any bodily processes to instigate challenges in my future positions on the train. I was thankful for that as I stood rocking and swaying with all of the others, unable to move, and wondering how long until we stopped, when people got on or off, and how this intense little group situation (plight?) would maintain. I know what you’re thinking…yes…flatulence happens…along with the many scents of humans and all of their biological processes in this close environment. Babies were onboard, some sleeping soundly, some crying their hearts out for durations whence one could only appreciate the power of a child’s lungs, will and state of being. Early after the train started movement; there was an intense argument that I though might have escalated into fisticuffs, had not the reality of too many bodies between participants prevented any physical action. That tension, too, came to pass… I wanted to capture an image on my camera and was sensitive to the reaction of others to being photographed. I also didn’t want to advertise my possessions in this situation. Nevertheless, I wrangled my arms to unzip my jacket pocket and pull out my camera. I shot two quick shots, the flash firing as the light sensor sensed the need. People blinked, looked slightly shocked, then carried on…
Realizing naturally and immediately that it was important that I find the good in this situation and make the most of it, from the beginning I projected a warm, friendly, happy, peaceful, contented Buddha countenance; an everyday occurrence, interesting and enjoyable. People respond so well to smiles. Many eyes watched me closely, crinkling with amusement and curiosity as they gauged my situation and response, and smiling back at my smile as they found their own way to accept me into this realm. One man and one woman, perched on the top shelf across the compartment, seemed to resonate more strongly with me and sent strong waves of connection. One young man, armed with a few words of English, initiated conversation; “where from you?” We suddenly had the attention of everyone close by and many throughout the car that had been watching me. I kept smiling and we communicated on a basic level, my good nature going a long way to grease the wheels of limited dialog. He would turn to report back in Hindi the results of his queries. People nodded in understanding; some uttering “America, United States, and Obama”. I suddenly had a number of new friends.
The vast majority were open, mildly or more interested, and friendly in their fashion. There were, however, some with a more sinister demeanor… four young men, late teens, early twenties, were eyeing me with a seeming different interest; my intuition sent up red flags of warning. They were asking questions about me to the other friendly man, and he immediately got a worried expression on his face, as he relayed questions like, “where are you going” and “are you traveling alone”. I smiled at them and continued projecting a peaceful friendly countenance. After awhile, the “leader of the pack” laid back, closed his eyes and dozed off. That “discomfort” abated though I maintained my alert awareness of my environment.
During the time the train was moving, we continued to roll with the rockin’ of the car, back and forth, body to body, as one unified somewhat gelatinous with protuberances whole. Some folks sat down cross-legged or heels to buttocks, using as little space as possible, body parts intertwined to accommodate for one another. I stayed standing, continuing to keep in touch with my two bags, physically or visually. My bag that was on the floor under the lowest steel shelf, got pushed to the back as four people crammed into that space sitting on the floor. I was concerned that when my stop came, I would have to extricate that bag by moving the four sitting people and the four people standing right in front of them.
After about two hours, the train stopped at another station. A trainman came by and forcibly rousted all of us out of the car. It was no problem getting my two bags as the people sitting and standing there evacuated fast, rushing to try to get into other cars. I rushed along also, and found a car up train that looked hopeful, I hefted my big bag onto the steps of the car, backpack on my back, and pulled myself up onto the “entrance way” of this car seconds before the train started moving again. Again I was helped by a number of bodies pressing me from behind. I found (was crammed into) a standing place. Again, I was pressed against a wall by bodies surrounding me. A very similar scene to the previous cargo car played out, but this time being surrounded by mostly sikhs, sporting turbans and speaking Punjabi. I was able to stand up my big bag using it as a seat of sorts and placed my backpack next to the big bag. Soon, one of the sikhs asked me to hold my backpack on my lap so he could sit on the floor. I gestured that he could sit on my backpack for a little more comfort, which worked out well for all. He was appreciative and I had a new “ally.”
At a stop after a number of stops and around three hours, many people exited the train. Some from my “entrance area” exited and others scrambled to find vacated seats in the seating area, which was “cram as many as possible into any given bench style seat”. The father of Kuldeep Singh (the man who originally spoke to me in Rishikesh station) approached me after he visited the toilet adjacent to the entrance area of the car. He invited me to come join him but I would have to displace someone else in that area so I declined, showing him how I now sat on my suitcase leaning against my backpack for a comfortable seat. I sat fairly comfortably for the next two hours, swaying gently and incessantly with the rhythm of the rails.
We arrived at Chakki Bank at 2:00 am, right on schedule, which is an anomaly in Indian train travel. As had been discussed in Punjabi, prior to boarding, the friend of Kuldeep sought me out, he negotiated a tuktuk ride to the bus station, and we arrived at around 2:15 am. The bus was scheduled to leave at 5:30 am. There was a desk that had a sign advertising “Guest House”. As I had 2 1/2 hours to wait and was quite tired, I opted for a bed to rest in for 150 rupees. The man making arrangements said he would wake me at 5 am. The bed was in a dorm style setting with many snoring and sleeping bodies hidden under blankets nearby. I set my alarm for back up.
I quickly dozed off and woke a few hours later to the alarm. Glancing at the time, I was disconcerted to see it was 5:31 am (I had not set the alarm time properly), thinking I would miss my bus. My big bag was locked in the luggage storage and I couldn’t find the man who had locked it in. I scrambled, found another man in charge who didn’t speak English who went to wake another man sleeping nearby. I pointed somewhat frantically to the locked door of luggage. He didn’t have the key! He groggily found his cell phone and called a number. In one of the buried bodies in a nearby bunk, a phone started ringing. The man who had rented me the bed and stored my luggage arose from beneath the blanket, shook his head in waking, fished for his keys and opened the door to the luggage. I urgently asked about bus to Dharamshala and he simply pointed to the bus yard nearby. I schlepped my bags and went in search of the bus.
I found the bus by speaking the word Dharamshala, found the price to be 90 rupees, and claimed a seat. It turned out that I had to transfer busses two times before arriving in at McLeod Ganj, my final destination, a outpost nearby to Dharamshala where most of the Tibetan action is.
I landed. I quickly found my “Green Hotel” with only a few mis-directions and settled into a wonderful room with a view and my own bathroom, private hot water heater and balcony overlooking part of the village and the Himalayas.
I lived through it with flying colors and learned a bit more of lessons in life…all was well…in the future, I will not take the possibility of a train upgrade for granted and will try to plan a little more carefully. I had an excellent and stimulating experience in the “common class” of train travel in India, albeit one I will not need to repeat soon; been there, done that! Check out the few photos in the photo section.