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Archive for January, 2014

I am certain that some bus drivers in India seek the position in order to exercise an uncontrollable urge to make as much noise as possible while menacing fellow motorists. It only takes a few kilometres to establish that our driver today counts among those with a most severe and chronic condition.
The road to Ajmer is straight and runs alongside dry fields filled with flowers. Our driver is locked in a battle of gear changes, blasts from the musical horn and self-mutterings. He swats a fly while shifting to third in one impatient movement. Even when the road is clear he still insists on warning phantom cars of his presence. In any other country this condition would arouse concern but our fellow passengers seem completely unaware that the driver is now talking to himself and sounding the horn on an empty road.
Ajmer itself is not a place for tourists to linger but rather serves as a connection to Pushkar which is only 20km away. The depot is heaving with people today. I had been expecting an easy transition but apparently there is a local election which explains the high volume of people that are coming and going. It takes us a little time to locate where the busses for Pushkar depart. Indians are not very exact when giving directions or rather we are very poor at interpreting their instructions. As time goes by I am inclined to believe the former. Pointing is simply not in their repertoire of gestures. They are willing to help but not able to be precise. They simply flick their writs in a vague movement. Left, right and straight ahead all blend into one non-descript motion. I find myself questioning the gesture and offering up a more accurate option, but this is always responded to with a warm smile, and the same puzzling action.

Ajmer to Pushkar bus

Travelling from Ajmer to Pushkar with Jack

Waiting at the stand is a young man wearing dark glasses whom I at first take to be Indian. He seems a little impatient with the locals so I switch my assessment to possibly being a Brit with Indian heritage. He looks tired and distressed but is still polite enough to smile and say hello. As it turns out he is French and has no Indian heritage at all. He is also suffering with stomach problems and a headache. He introduces himself as Jack and we shake hands. A taxi driver on the prowl offers to take us all to Pushkar for 800 rupees which is about $15.00 USD…we decline the offer for now.
One of the ticket sellers flicks his wrist at a bus that has just arrived. It is already packed and a small army of people are trying desperately to get on. We make no attempt and the taxi man circles around for another pass. Fifteen minutes later a second bus arrives but this time we are better prepared with packs already mounted on our back. There is a small scuffle at the door but nothing as bad as we experienced getting on the train in Delhi. We even manage to get a seat and the cost is only 10 rupees each.

Pushkar in Rajasthan

Pushkar in Rajasthan

Pushkar is small enough to see in a day but charming enough to remain for longer. An enjoyable blend of authentic Rajasthan culture and touristic comforts. The small town consists of pastel painted buildings and temples wrapped around a lake devoted to the creator god Brahma. We pick our way past white cows and hungry dogs to the unsuitably named Everest Hotel. Despite having a wonderful roof top terrace there is absolutely no chance of spotting the world’s highest mountain, which I guess to be more than 3000km away to the north east. It does however afford wonderful views of the town and the surrounding desert and mountains. In the sky and clinging to the breeze is a swarm of colourful kites attached by string to children who play on the surrounding roofs.

Brahma temples in Pushkar

Brahma temples in Pushkar

The rooms at the Everest are spacious and clean and great value at 500 INR for a double. The foyer is guarded by Lion, a playful Labrador which I am beginning to believe is India’s preferred choice of pet. I find it odd that they would spend so much money on a pure breed dog when outside are any number of loveable rogues searching for a home. I suppose we are no better and just keep our unwanted dogs behind wire fences facing death row. At least here they are entitled to a life of some sort.

Pushkar Dogs

Pushkar Dogs

Each morning we stroll through a narrow alley where men boil and scrape curd; dip dough into vast black pans filled with boiling oil. Gathered around their feet is a small pack of dogs who are patiently waiting to be fed. They torment their targets with carefully coordinated and unyielding stares. I am pleased to see their patience is rewarded and eventually a tasty morsel is thrown their way.

Begging for scraps

Begging for scraps

Jack’s time in India is drawing to a close but before leaving he is keen to try out one of the infamous bhang lassis. I am a little confused as to what bhang actually is. I had assumed it was cannabis (which is illegal) but here in Pushkar it’s openly sold in most restaurants. The locals insist it is not cannabis but I think it’s just been renamed in Rajasthan to avoid illegalities. We meet up at the Out of the Blue restaurant with Jack and Myrthe a Dutch girl who plays rugby and is now wearing a neck brace courtesy of an unfortunate night’s sleep on India railways.
Given her injuries and the possible side effects Myrthe opts out. I have no such excuse and am simply not interested but Emma is feeling adventurous and offers to go halves with Jack. Our waiter enquires as to what strength should be prepared. Jack requests a strong one based on the rational they are sharing. The waiter smirks a little which I ominously note. He returns five minutes later with a tall glass that looks to be filled with yoghurt and grass cuttings. The appearance of the brew is not terribly appealing but this doesn’t prevent Emma and Jack from downing half the contents each without any visible concern. Twenty minutes later and I rather randomly enquire as to whether there are any effects? Jack has nothing to report but Emma is not so convinced.

Out of the blue Pushkar

Out of the blue Pushkar

She delivers a slightly hesitant evaluation, as though standing on the edge of a precipice much larger and vast than expected. Ten minutes later and Jack erupts into laughter. Clearly things have changed. Emma is also now in hysterics and so an interesting evening begins. Over the next hour laughter subsides and a state of paralysis takes over. First effecting the legs and eventually working its way up the body until finally reaching the mouth. Emma and Jack are now deep in the clutches of the Bang Lassi. We decide or rather suggest it may be time to adjourn to the guesthouse but both bang recipients require a practice walk on the terrace before setting off. Coming down the stairs is a major expedition with much coaching and reassurances given.

Out of the Blue Pushkar

On the roof at Out of the Blue

Out on the street the sights and sounds of Pushkar are amplified and contorted. Wandering cows, temple bells, and the fragrance of incense are apparently dazzling the senses. Jack seems concerned with Emma’s choice of quietness and insists on breaking radio silence with a series of ground control announcements. Emma only responds with laughter and goes back to concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other. Eventually we reach the Everest Guest House where Emma submits and retires to bed. Jack continues his battle against the lassi in good humour for another hour or so before eventually calling it a night.
The next morning their condition is much improved. They both vow never to consume a bhang lassi ever again… well at least not a strong one anyway. Armed with experience and better sense Jack bids us goodbye. He has been a good companion these past few days. An energetic and friendly guy whom we shall miss. In a few days’ time he will be back in France but for us our journey south down the length of the Indian sub-continent continues.

Ajmer Railway Station

Ajmer Railway Station

The train station at Ajmer is delightfully bare when we arrive. Winter is coming to the north of India and this morning an early morning fog persists. The platform is empty when the train to Udaipur arrives. It would seem we did not heed Hussein’s warning regarding general class, but today our gamble has paid off. The carriages are mostly vacant.
Most cities in Rajasthan seem to be associated with a colour but Udaipur is simply devoted to love. The city is bound by Lake Pichola and a chain of picturesque mountains to the west. Adjacent to the city palace and stretching along the eastern edge of the lake is an area known as Lal Ghat where most of the tourist hotels are located. Every inch of space is carefully accounted for. The streets are narrow and cogged with tourists and frustrated rickshaw drivers who regularly take revenge by sounding their ear splitting horns. I spot the hotel we stayed in four years ago. The Jagat Niwas like so many in Lal Ghat promises unrivalled views, and nightly rooftop screenings of Octopussy. It feels so strange to be back after so many years. I walk up the stairs past a picture of Ganesh. No one is in attendance at reception so I continue up another flight. Waiting at the top is a young man whom I instantly recognise. He looks a little heavier and is now sporting a moustache but his smile and eyes have not changed.

Sunset from Lal Ghat in Udaipur

Sunset from Lal Ghat in Udaipur

So many times I have felt that I will never see some of the people we meet on our travels ever again but now four years later here in Udaipur that at least is wrong. I give Gopal a firm handshake, he seems a little surprised by my warm greeting so I explain that I remembered him from a previous visit. His head wobbles a few times and his smile widens. I point to the room where I stayed before but it’s already occupied. The room next door where Karen stayed is free but it’s a bit small for two people. After a longer than normal search we book into the Poonam Haveli for 1260 INR a night. It’s more than we are used to paying but very good value.

The Lake Palace in Udaipur

The Lake Palace in Udaipur

The next morning over breakfast I see Gopal on the roof across the road. He waves excitedly and points to the room I enquired about yesterday indicating that it’s now free. I shake my hand and smile but I feel a little ashamed and guilty. The room is much cheaper at 600 INR and we really should be trying to save money. I can’t explain why I don’t want to go back but I feel like I have betrayed Gopal a little and lower my head.
In the middle of the lake and not too far from Lal Ghat is the aptly named Lake Palace. It is possibly one of the most eye catching scenes in the world. Completely surrounded by water it has now been converted like so many other palaces in India into a luxury hotel. Only guests are permitted to visit the beguiling island. Like a floating antithesis to Alcatraz the exclusivity is driving me crazy. I keep justifying the expense in my mind with comforting clichés such as you only live once and when will you get the chance again. My spoilt and greedy inner voice is eventually victorious and we make a reservation for the following day.

Jetty Taj Lake Palace

Jetty Taj Lake Palace

We arrive at the wrought iron jetty of this extraordinary hotel in a very ordinary rickshaw. The driver insists on a hundred rupees which I surrender without a fight. I am already feeling a little self-conscious about our mode of transport and don’t want to cause a scene in front of the staff. After checking our reservation we are directed down the jetty to a small boat and taken across to the Lake Palace Hotel. Our arrival is heralded with a shower of rose petals and a salute from a man with a very large moustache. I wonder if I am supposed to salute back.
Inside is a lovely courtyard and a lily pond modelled on a Moghul garden. The swimming pool is surrounded by white lotus arches and has wonderful views of the city palace. The front terrace faces to the west. We claim a table before sunset and watch the sun slowly sink over the lake and behind the mountains aided with some very expensive cocktails. I think about all the austere times on our journey. We discuss the night we crossed northern Kenya in that crowded 4WD. All the dirty hotels with hard beds, thread bare sheets and the toilets that smelled of stale urine. I wouldn’t change any of it but it’s certainly nice to recall such precious memories in an opulent hotel with a masala martini in hand.

Pichola Lake Udaipur

Pichola Lake

Tomorrow night we are supposed to be leaving for Bombay on the train but our reservation is still not cleared. It could be the sunset or the cocktails but we are both relaxed and nonchalant. I think it’s because this is India and anything is possible. As Hussein said in Jaipur… we Indians are very accommodating peoples. We take that thought to bed confidant that all will be fine.

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Jaipur commonly known as The Pink City is the capital of Rajasthan. Though a bustling metropolis, the old world charms of a different time are evident. We take a rickshaw from the train station to the Pearl Palace; a budget hotel that is clean and traditional. Waiting outside in the hot sun is a murder of Rickshaw men. I think this an appropriate collective noun for such a gathering.
I like to believe that under most circumstances I remain a passive person but when it comes to Rickshaw drivers I find that grace deserts me. Maybe it is the way they always try to convince you they are your best friend and only have your happiness and wellbeing at heart. Or it may be the false smiles and rehearsed lines… okay good price for you 300 rupees… when you know it should be 40 Rupees. Needless to say this can become tiring and even the locals will tell you…if you want to get a fair price you have to bargain, it’s just the way it is, but after some time we have begun to embrace a different strategy.
Firstly we establish the local cost of the trip. Usually we ask a few different sources; hotels and shops to ensure we are getting the right price. We have established that in a major city a rickshaw should be around 10-15 Rupees per kilometre, certainly never more than 20. No respectable Indian would ever pay more than this. On a few occasions when we have been fortunate to encounter an honest driver this has proven pretty accurate. For example the cost of a ride from our hotel to the old town should be 30-40 rupees, we are therefore happy to pay 50 but the drivers want 200-300rps.

Pink City

Ajmeri Gate

I have heard many tourists say what does it matter, we have more money than they do…don’t be so tight. Well it does matter, it matters a great deal. We create a black hole in the economy where everything is geared towards a foreigner and disadvantages locals who can’t afford the inflated prices. It also teaches people that it’s okay to rip foreigners off and creates a negative image. Others tourists who are not prepared or can’t afford to pay the inflated price have to argue over the rate before eventually conceding fifteen minutes later. It is a great source of frustration and simply not practical if you want to enjoy your time in India. The cartel that runs this street are bullies and own the area. They never allow other rickshaw men to wait for a ride or undermine their prices. Intruders are not tolerated and chased away.

Out on the street it’s not much better. Tourists with deep pockets and no resolve have seen to that.
The “murder” are quick to react whenever potential prey leave the hotel. Hello Madam where are you from…Oh Australia… Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie oi oi oi. I want to kill the idiot who enlightened you with that brilliant little gem of Australian culture. Kangaroo…great country very nice people, very generous peoples. Mmmm… is that right!
There is no point negotiating with them and the alternative is far more practical, economical and less frustrating. We just get in the rickshaw, state where we want to go and never discuss the price.
I can tell that our driver this morning is pleased. No negotiating at all, he is really going to rip us off. When we reach our destination I get out and start walking. Greg hands over 50 rupees thanks the driver profusely and in one quick movement turns and walks. No looking back! No checking is that okay. It’s done… the rickshaw driver knows he’s been given a fair price and in that moment of hesitation it’s over. What can they do, call the police and complain they got an extra 10-20 rupees on top of what the price should be. Explain to the officer that their meter is not working or they refused to put it on. What they can do is complain loudly and refuse to accept the money offered, but its best to just keep walking and treat the performance as simply that. Occasionally some drivers will chase you and feign disgust in what you have offered them. One such man engaged other drivers and a security officer at a shopping mall. The security man told us that we had to pay him 150 INR. Greg enquired as to whether he was a rickshaw driver or police officer. Being neither he was told to arbitrate in matters with which he was proficient. You simply need to stand your ground but I have to say most drivers will accept the amount given graciously as they know it’s correct.

Hawa Mahal

Hawa Mahal or Palace of the winds

Now of course the “Murder” at the Pearl Palace begin to converse with each other and word gets around that we won’t pay the inflated prices… we become the enemy and a power struggle develops. They ask us where we want to go but we politely decline their services. It’s important to stress that this method of payment must be carried out with a smile and good grace. It really confuses them and helps to defuse the situation. Greg even gave one persistent man a hug and a pat on the back before saying thank you we will never forget you.
I begin to notice one of the men who smiles every time he sees our exchange and it becomes apparent that he is amused by the fact that we are not budging. He comes to me when the others aren’t looking. These men are very greedy. You see this. I am not greedy. I am not like the others. I will give you the correct price. But you come to me always…The cloak and dagger deal is struck, loyalty given and both parties are happy.

Amber Fort

Amber Fort

We set out for a half day trip to the beautiful Amber Fort which is about 12km out of town. It is one of the most breathtaking forts in Rajasthan. Originally the capital before Jaipur, the fort itself was built in 1592 by Raja Jai Singh from which Jaipur takes its name. Though very old, it is still an imposing piece of architecture. Perched atop a huge hill, the entrance winds up a long battle rampant. Should you wish, you can be carried up by beautifully decorated elephants. We decide not to as I am always unsure if they are treated properly, although as I let them pass me at arm’s length they do appear well cared for. A long line of pachyderms proudly trudging up the hill, a turbaned mahout (driver) sits astride their heads.
As they make their way past me I see how diverse each elephant looks physically. They are dressed in their finery with beautiful colours painted on their tough bristly skin. If it weren’t for the tourists sat atop you could almost imagine what it might have been like when it was a working fort. Inside the palace opens up to show beautiful rooms with elaborate mirrors. Columns of marble and latticed windows embrace the cool breeze that drifts from Lake Maota which is brimming after the monsoon. I decide to treat myself to the audio tour which is a fantastic way to shut out the noise and immerse myself in the entertaining commentary.

Decretive Indian Elephant

Decretive Indian Elephant

The old city of Jaipur is uniformly pink but divided into areas specialising in particular goods and services. We pass an alley where stone carvers work on marble blocks. Their hair and beards are caked in white dust from the stone they are cutting. Further along we are surrounded by jewels and bangles. The shop owners are very proactive, giving answers to questions that have not been asked. Our selection is very large and you can decide for yourself. What can I decide for myself?
I have to say this is the India I love. Wondering through a bazaar and listening to each shops sales pitch. They are highly creative and skilled in getting noticed. We have the finest silks here madam. Well, no one is going to say we have the 4th best silk shawls in Jaipur are they. The locals receive if anything a more robust version with hands and wrists often grasped. I try to imagine how such an approach would work back home. Oddly enough when one does make an enquiry, the answer is deferred until stools are sat upon and tea is provided. Something as ugly as price can never be discussed until friendships are forged.
By mid-afternoon we pass the beautiful Palace of the wind. The Indians really know how to add romance to their architecture. Despite being winter the temperature has soared and I am desperately hoping we soon come across the area that sells water. Up ahead we spot a cart selling oranges. The owner consistent with the multitudes pre-empts a sale and offers a few pieces which are sweet and very juicy. Our thirst is such that we purchase six and consume them all in quick succession.

Safron Ladies at the Hawa Mahal

Saffron Ladies at the Hawa Mahal

We pass by an old Haveli that has a roof terrace and restaurant. To gain entrance we walk through a twisting dark corridor that is guarded by a mangy dog and up some old wooden stairs that creak with each step. A man at the stop of the staircase informs us that the restaurant is closed. A lady who is sat in corner surrounded by several people stands up and walks towards us. She has tears in her eyes and in broken English makes her best attempts to apologise for the closure. It is clear she is distraught and points to a picture on the wall. Her husband has passed away very suddenly. Her face is desperate I can feel my heart breaking for her. Although in the company of friends and deeply grief stricken she continues to apologise and assures us the restaurant will be open in a couple of days’ time. She has taken my hand and does not let go and nor do I want her too. Her face is searching mine. Searching for some reason why this happened Searching for help. I am suddenly reminded by the millions of unknown stories and lives we pass through every day. Lives we will never know. We leave the restaurant after offering our deep condolences. Back out in the bright sun vendors and shoppers are going about their business and life goes on, but just a short distance away is a personal tragedy that no one knows about. I feel unsettled by the experience but in an odd way I have been touched by a stranger. For ten minutes our lives come together at a time of crisis just because we walked into a restaurant.
We leave the old city via the decorative Ajmeri Gate and walk along MI Road until we reach Lassiwala. Outside a man is stirring curd in a large flat wok that is charred and blackened. It simmers and bubbles. He scrapes the bottom with a large metal ladle to prevent it burning. The cream that rises is skimmed from the surface and allowed to cool. This is then mixed with evaporated milk and infused with fruits and spices of your choice. Rose water and Cardamom, Banana cinnamon and my personal favourite Pistachio, raison and saffron. I am sure there is a fair amount of sugar added as well. The lassi under most circumstances could be considered a meal on its own but we order a couple of vegetable samosas just to be sure. They arrive on newspaper with plum sauce dolloped on yesterday headlines. The entire meal is only 90 INR or around $1.50 for both of us.

The Palace of the winds

The Palace of the winds

After a break at our hotel our new found friend and rickshaw driver takes us to the Rambagh Palace, now a hotel, but in its heyday a working palace occupied by The Maharaja and his ethereal wife Rajmata Gayatri Devi, named the most beautiful woman in the world by Vogue magazine in 1940. We take a seat on the terrace in deep cane chairs and treat ourselves to some delicious cocktails. We are served by a tall man in his late 60’s. His face is still handsome and he moves with effortless style. Every order placed is received and complimented with a slight smile. The hotel manager kindly lets us wonder through the hotel, each room draped in rich fabrics opulent furnishings and exquisite objects owned by the royal family. The palace is magnificent and radiates an unmistakable sense of history that transcends time.
We learn how over the years Rambagh has been host to several illustrious guests, such as Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles, Jackie Kennedy to name but a few. As we leave this beautiful hotel I take one last look back and try to capture this moment in my mind.

Jaigarh Fort

Jaigarh Fort

Tomorrow we continue our journey south mindful of the wedding we are going to attend in Mumbai on the 11 December. Our next stop will be Pushkar a small city famous for its annual camel festival and temples dedicated to the creator god Brahma. The Murder refuse to take us to the Bus station in a final act of disgust but that’s okay we just walk 100 meters around the corner and take one for 60 rupees.

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The train station at old Delhi was completed in 1862 and judging by the smells emitting from the platforms, this may have been the first and last time it was ever cleaned. Perhaps my time in Rishikesh meditating and breathing in fresh mountain air has weakened my resolve as I am feeling rather overwhelmed this morning by the crowds of people and the stench that hangs on a warm and dusty breeze. Unable to cope, I do something I rarely do for fear of offending the locals. I cover my mouth and nose with my hand. My expression of revolt is clear for all to see. I look down only to find endless piles of cow manure and human excrement on the tracks soaked in urine and covered with litter.
I wait for Greg to return, he’s drawn the short straw and has the delightful task of queuing to purchase our tickets. Greg returns looking ragged and clutching two unreserved general class tickets as the train is completely full. Only in India can you acquire tickets on a train that is sold out.

Queue at Old Delhi Station

Queue at Old Delhi Station

General Class is on a first come first served basis and allows you to get on only a couple of specific carriages that are often crowded and always filthy. There are no seat numbers, no rules and no compassion but it’s not a terribly long journey… only about 6 hours. So with ignorance in our minds and adventure in our hearts we take a chance. We place ourselves beside a family and a friendly man comes forward and introduces himself as Mohammed Hussein, a retired school Principal.
He gently enquires as to where we are travelling, then informs us that first class carriages are at the other end of the platform. No we are in Unreserved General Class I respond. A mixture of fear and disbelief clouds his face. Madam you cannot travel in this class. This is not a good class. They will cut your pockets. I try to ease his concerns and explain that we have been travelling on many trains and that it won’t be a problem. He insists that we come with him to his coach instead which is sleeper class…the next class up. He will share his seats with us as we are travelling during the day and not too far.

Waiting for the Jaipur Express at Old Delhi Station

Waiting for the Jaipur Express at Old Delhi Station

As the train pulls in I start to think maybe we should take him up on his offer. The General Class carriage is packed with so many people they are clinging to the outside of the doors. The grated windows are filled with dark and desperate eyes. Bodies and limbs are contorted and interlocked in what appears to be a macabre game of twister. Voices erupt and a mad push begins well before the train has stopped. One man, who tries to get on, is pushed away by those who are struggling to get off with bags and children under their arms.
Greg and I glance at each other and then look back to our guardian angel for guidance but Hussein has disappeared somewhere into the mob, nowhere to be seen. There is no chance for us to get on the General class carriage so I walk down to S7 or Sleeper carriage number 7 looking for Hussein. The situation outside the sleeper carriages is not much better. As the train squeals and finally comes to rest it’s every man for himself and it’s not a pretty sight. People are literally pulling and tearing their way on. No one is waiting for the other passengers to get off. They in turn push and fight their way off. It’s like watching angry penguins staking a claim on a crowded beach and the sounds being produced are not too dissimilar.
I make it to the first step and grab hold of the bars so I can pull myself up but my pack is caught and I can’t get on. I try to twist my body but then I realise that I am not stuck after all. A large woman behind me is trying to pull me back so that she can get on. I am not really sure why she cannot just wait just a few more moments. I shout at her to let go and get off me, but this has no impact. She’s a robust woman and very strong. My pack is also weighing me down… a 20kg pain in the neck. The train starts to move a little. She becomes more desperate and aggressive. I think she means to pull me from the train and leave me discarded on the platform. In a split second I snap and deliver a smack to her face with an open hand. This seems to do the trick and I am released at once by my hefty tormentor who runs to the next doorway.

This was after things had calmed down a little

This was after things had calmed down a little

On board I look to find Greg who has found the only available space by the toilet in the gap where the two carriages join. I give him a wave. The train picks up speed, we are both on but the battle has only begun. We are now wedged between other people unable to move with heavy bags on our back.
I have come to learn over time that the initial boarding of any mode of transport in India is always full of stress and chaos but it always seems to calm down eventually. This morning, this is yet to happen and I am faced with a plethora of penguins yelling and squawking at each other. Luggage is strewn in every available space, people are literally sat in the rafters and all eyes are upon me now curious as to what I am doing! I manage to get my bag of my back and pass it over a few people to Greg who has some space next to his left leg. I pick my way through the crowd with the usual hello, excuse me, so sorry, can I just squeeze past please. I can see no sign of Hussein. I look desperately to see if I can find any other space away from the toilet bay. As I make my way back a number of passengers ask if I am ok. I thank them for their concern and head back to find Greg standing with one foot on either side of the coupling that connects the two carriages. He offers to go looking for Hussein while I keep watch on the bags.

Hindu Guys

The Hindu lads who helped us with our bags

Standing in the humidity with the overwhelming stench of urine drifting up from the passenger toilet I wonder to myself how many tiny particles of pee are travelling up my nose and down my throat. As I ponder this thought I see Greg’s face coming back towards me, he hasn’t found Hussein yet but the other passengers have noted our back and forth movements and have offered to share a couple of small spaces with them. I head towards a group of young men who are in the Indian RAF. They kindly rearrange the seating configuration and give me prime position next to the window. Greg is sharing a seat with three other men a short distance away but just out of sight. Spending sometime thanking them for their generosity I discover that they are all between the ages of 22 and 24 years and joined when they were only 16. I tell them that I have a brother who is in the armed forces and that he also joined at the same age. We exchange stories and take some rest letting the rhythm of the train take over.

The Young Indian RAF guys who made space for us

The Young Indian RAF guys who made space for us

A short time later Hussein pushes through the crowd and finds Greg. As it turns out he is located in one of Hussein’s seats but he doesn’t ask Greg or any of the other men to get up. He is happy to share with his wife and daughter. These other men can use his seat for the time being. He assures Greg that Indian people are very accommodating and always sharing. That they need to look after one another. Upon seeing me he is delighted that I have acquired a window position and compliments the young RAF boys on their manors and hospitality.

 

Hussein our guardian angel

Hussein our guardian angel

Greg is now engrossed in conversation with two Hindu lads and a Christian man who after some time quietly confides that he likes eating cows. The train rolls on through Rajasthan landscapes that are soft and soothing after such a hectic start. The train slowly rounds a bend and the setting sun comes into view. A disc of blood hanging in a pale purple sky. The desert is pink with yellow flowers and light green vegetation. A day that started in dire and crowded stench has ebbed into wonderful beauty, I would not change any of it. We pull into Jaipur just after sunset. One of the Hindu lads kindly helps Greg off with the bags. Hussein comes to the window, we shake his hand through the bars and thank him for his kindness.
You are most welcome, please enjoy my India and… never travel in this class again. He laughs heartily and places a hand on his heart as the train pulls away. I know I will never see him again but he has become one of many who have helped us across the world. I can’t help but to feel my journey has been enriched by Hussein and today’s experience. That chain of kindness now has another link.

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