Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cows, Shawls and Red – a Rajasthan Odyssey Part I

The Diplomat and I have just come back from a colorful, exhausting and fabulously gorgeous trip through the vast land of Rajasthan, India. We lovingly summoned the Inlaws from India to take care of Son who was delighted to enjoy 10 days of utter freedom and to play with his favorite toy – his grandfather. In exchange, we hopped on a plane or two and landed in Delhi on a cool November night ready to tackle this Rajasthan thing. I had the crazy idea that rather than spend a night in Delhi and go to our first stop, Bikaner, by car, we should save a night on the road and take the sleeper train instead. Interesting decision. So, from the airport we got ourselves a decrepit-looking old cab, classic Indian Maruti dating circa 1935, which sped through the streets of Delhi like the devil himself was behind him. Our two suitcases were placed precariously on top of the tiny car without being tied or anything, and every time the cab made a hair-raising turn, I fully expected to have my undies splattered all over the dark Delhi street from my falling suitcase. We made it without an incident, which to me proves that there is higher force somewhere out there looking out for me and my precious belongings.

We bid the closeted Schumacher adieu and trudged along the freezing platform – it was around 11 pm and we were booked on a sleeper train to Bikaner, where a car would meet us and take us on our romantic desert journey for the next 10 days. The reason I decided to take the train was that I had this foolish dream that we will travel in a luxury sleeper wagon, in a romantic compartment where the Diplomat was going to whisk me a la James Bond in one of his many unrealistic luxury train scenes. We were going to dine in a delicately appointed restaurant car and exchange pleasantries with the exquisitely dressed pretentious passengers. Not so much. Actually, not even close.

I entered the train only to find myself in the middle of a long compartment, separated by thin walls into several cabins with 4 berths each (2 on each side bunker style). Each such “cabin” was separated from the rest only by a tiny curtain. In one word – it was all very communal. See for yourself:

There were kids everywhere, food, ripe smell of feet and sweat, crumbs, shoes, screaming, giggling, crinkling of newspapers and plastic bags, and just a general sense of complete and utter lack of privacy. Romance abandoned, I climbed on the top berth and changed into my dark blue satin pajama bottoms to the utter amazement of the fella who was lying on the berth below diagonally from me. The Diplomat settled on the berth immediately below me and soon was in deep sleep as the train began to rock us gently. Slowly, everyone turned off their lights, drew the curtains and the wagon was enveloped by sleepy dark silence. I was lying quietly on my top berth, watching old episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” and was pretty pleasantly amused overall. 

Just as I was beginning to doze off around 1 am, the train stopped for a moment in Gurgaon (a Delhi white-collar suburb), and a second later, a gang of 3 white-collar dudes burst through the curtain into our section and without even asking a question, turned on the lights and sat unceremoniously on the bottom berths where the Diplomat and his neighbor were sleeping. Then they looked up to me and said to my astonishment that they I am in one of their berths. Sternly, I denied and triumphantly showed them a picture I had taken earlier of the passenger manifest posted on the train, which had my highly unusual, white-person name next to the number of the berth. The dudes were thoroughly unperturbed. They started chatting up our neighbor who apparently thought that the whole thing was perfectly normal and had no issues having two random people sitting practically on top of him in the middle of the night on a train. After some heated discourse, the ticket master showed up and it turned out that the guys had bought tickets for the previous day instead. This was already taking over 20 minutes so I tried to glare at them in the most eloquent way possible to hint that they need to get out and let us all sleep. You know the glare – the kind you use when someone is talking loudly in a movie theater and you slowly turn around to glare at them and teach them some manners in a quiet dignified manner. Let’s just say that Indian trains ain’t the best forum for subtle diplomacy. They did not seem to be impressed by my excellent glare or to be interested in leaving at all. So, I decided to tell them about things in life and they got an earful about rudeness and manners and people wanting to sleep and watch their damned show on their Ipad. One of them eventually climbed on the other top berth across from me and was snoring (and farting loudly, I might add) within 3 minutes, while the other one left. I sighed deeply, wrapped myself tightly with the prickly blanket and fell asleep.

The next morning around 7 am, I woke up to the Diplomat’s loud announcements that we have arrived and to the sight of my upper neighbor’s ass crack offered generously as he snored with his back towards me and the rest of the world.

Soon we were off the train, met our driver and jumped into the small Tata that would drive us around for 10 days and 2,500 km through the Rajasthani desert. We had organized our trip through a company called Swagat Tours who let us customize our package and pretty much were at my whim and mercy for a month before the trip. They were truly outstanding in their patience for my last minute changes and the choice of hotels and routes proposed. To top it all, when we were in Jaisalmer, we got a call from the guy who was working with us on the trip, one young and enthusiastic Nemish, telling us that there was a huge 3-day long music festival in the desert that was going all night long and would we be interested in coming by. Well, yes, we were – where else you’d hear Bombay bands playing original rock at 1 am under the moonlight in the middle of the Thar desert??

To be continued…

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