Thursday, 9 March 2017

#6 "Slowly, slowly"

The most important things to bring with you to India are; a chunk of patience, a handful of confidence and, above all, a sense of humour.

My second day in Agra began before dawn when I met a rickshaw driver at six in the morning to watch the sun rise over the Taj.

I'm not usually much of a morning person but even I didn't have a problem getting up for this.

It was stunning. The morning sun rays cast a beautiful pink light over the stone which changed as the sun got higher.

I'm always fascinated by the people at places like this. So as much as I enjoyed feasting my eyes on the Taj I was equally entertained by the human activity.

They came from all over the world. Many specifically to see this sight. They came armed with phone's, cameras and selfie sticks in all shapes and sizes. There were old people on guided tours, huge families, couples and friends with the occasional fellow solo traveller like me thrown into the mix.

Work on the Taj was commisioned in1632 by Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to house the body of his, how's this, favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal who died during the birth of her 14th child. I wondered what kind of woman she was to get that sort of treatment and how the rest of his wives felt.

Little did I know that India was about to test my patience for the next 12 hours.

It really started when my tuktuk driver didn't turn up to take me to the train station as we had arranged. That was fine. I got another one easily.

I was then told the train to Ranthambhor was running two hours late. That was again fine. I could people watch to my heart's content at the train station. Although I suspected a woman sitting at a train station for an extended period of time was just asking for some creepy conversations. I plugged in my iPod, kept my nose in my book and tried to make myself look as unfriendly as possible.

It worked. After two hours I went back to the ticket office to check the status of the train.

"Oh only another 45 minutes," the ticket man said.

No problem. Chalega. I was really getting into my book. An hour later still no train had arrived. No worries. This is India. It's famous for the trains never being on time. This is all part of the experience I told myself.

Another hour passed. The monkeys I had been watching had gone to bed. A large friendly rat had crept out of a hole next to me and was pretty intent on running behind me and my bag. I threatened it with Bear Grylls' biography. I was reading about Bears' endurance tests in the SAS so I took a leaf out of his book, for lack of a better phrase, and pretended this too was an endurance test. A large Indian family set up camp next to me. They had come prepared with blankets and food. My heart sank a little when I saw this. It looked like they were in for the long haul.

By this stage I'd been waiting for five hours. No worries I told myself. It will all be worth it when the train arrives and I get to Ranthambhor -tiger land!

I began to write some notes for this blog to pass the time.

'Luckily I'm not in a hurry anywhere,' I scribbled.

'I will be late to my hotel but that's ok. I should be able to get a rickshaw fairly easily. I've been reading Bear Grylls and listening to my iPod. When I get sick of that I have a little watch of the monkeys and shoo the friendly rat away. Ahhh India you beautiful, filthy, crazy country.'

Four hours into my wait I was less chilled.

'This is it. I live here now,' I wrote.
'I'm starting a new life at Agra Fort train station. I'm convinced this train isn't coming. I asked the man at the counter four hours ago and he said the train was two hours late. Now a freight train has stopped on our platform. A large family have set up camp next to me and the monkeys have gone to bed. Even they have got tired of waiting. I have one pack of masala triangles and some weird looking fruit I picked up at the market to eat. I think it should last maybe one week. Then I can live off the monkeys and Mr Rat. Thinking about hitching a ride on a freight train just for a change of scenery.

'Update. The freight train is slowly moving. It reminds me of the hotel manager in Varanasi. Every breakfast he would tell me "eat, eat, slowly, slowly. Just relaaaax." '

A young Indian doctor struck up conversation with me. He was waiting for a train on the same line and helped me download an app which gives you the status of the trains. Life changing stuff. I was so grateful.

We were sitting there chatting for maybe another hour when a voice came over the intercom to announce the train I had been waiting for all afternoon had now been cancelled. What...

The next 30 minutes were pretty confusing and I still don't understand what happened but the doctor and a lovely but slightly grumpy rickshaw driver spoke to various station managers and ticket collectors and before I knew it, I was on another train which would stop especially to let me off at Ranthambhor.

I still don't know how they managed it but I am eternally grateful. That evening made me realise how useful it would be to have a much firmer grasp of Hindi. The staff on the train didn't speak English and I had a hard time trying to ask them to let me know when I was to get off because I had no clue and it was dark outside.

It was the first time I'd been in this situation where no English was spoken so I got out my guide book and hastily learnt how to say:
"Please let me know when we get to..." and pointed to my ticket.

Success. With that sorted I promptly fell asleep listening to a Mitchell and Webb podcast.

Next thing I knew someone was tugging at my blankets and gesturing for me to get my things.

We had arrived! Luckily I had an Indian sim card and had been able to call the accomodation place and explain the situation.

So I arrived in Rathambhor at 12.30am and found an honest looking driver who took me to my hotel. Thank god India never sleeps.

Someone showed me to my room, which was huge with a bathroom the size of an Auckland inner city apartment, and I collapsed onto the bed and fell asleep.

The next morning I checked in and text the lovely Indian doctor who I had luckily exchanged contact details with to let him know that all was well. People are so caring here and he was really concerned for my well-being. Things like that make travelling alone not only bareable but enjoyable.

I was ushered into the dining room and had the biggest breakfast I've ever seen in my life set out before me. I was the only one in the room and a friendly staff member brought out more and more food, smiling and cheerfully ignoring my gestures that there was plenty.

First came toast, jam and butter cut into neat squares. Then a bowl of cornflakes arrived followed by a jug of milk and a bowl of sugar. Next came baked beans, paratti, yoghurt, coffee and lastly a bowl of fench fries appeared! I couldn't believe it and set about doing my very best to stuff it all in so I wouldn't need lunch. It worked. Breakfast and lunch all in one. A girl's got to do what a girl's got to do. What a terrible task. The best part was that it was all included in the room price.

I had a few hours to kill before my safari into the Ranthambhor National Park so I strolled up the road and spied a sign with the words 'Women's Handicrafts. Home for Independance' painted on it. It occurred to me it was International Women's Day and I thought it would be appropriate to support some fellow independant sisters.

Walking in India for pleasure just isn't done. Only the poorest of the poor walk and even they avoid it as much as they can. So a western woman walking alone was quite the talking point it seemed. I had to turn down several offers of lifts, shoo away various small children and some not so small children asking for money and dodge the piles of cow poo along the way. Not unlike walking in Dargaville really... 😉

Eventually I found the women's home and bought a blue hand stitched Salwar Kameez (long cotton tunic) to wear in the hope I'd blend in better.

Later that afternoon I found myself bumping along a very dusty road in an open top jeep next to a nice lady from London on safari.

As if India was apologising for the train debarkle, luck was on our side. We spotted two tigers in the distance, and a leopard right next to the road. Amazing! Our guide had warned us that our chances were slim and it was very rare to spot anything on your first jeep ride. Yet there we were. About 200 metres from a real live wild tiger.

My stay in Ranthambhor was over far too quickly and as soon as we got back from the safari I was due on another train to Jaipur. This one was, thankfully, right on time.

 Whilst they were watching the tiger, I was watching them. Ranthambhor National Park - March 8, 2017

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