Some days, India is just bloody hard work. Here is a snapshot of just 16 hours….
When we arrive at New Delhi Station, with just under an hour before our overnight train to Varanasi is scheduled to depart, we are stopped just prior to putting our bags through the scanner.
“Show ticket please Madam” the man says officiously. I remember this happening last time at this station, so I oblige. “Where did you get this?” he asks looking at it dubiously. James informs him we bought it in Bikaner at the station. “Hmmm….belly bad news, Madam. Your train is delayed. Eight hours at minimum.”
There is a brief standoff at this point. We don’t want to believe him, and he wants us to follow him back out to look at a board- just out of sight- that will validate his story. I shake my head no, retrieve our ticket and throw my pack on the conveyor.
On the other side, we stand in front of the vast electronic board trying to find our train number in the brief flashes of English it throws up between the Hindi. Our stalker reappears, chuckling in a creepy parody of kindly exasperation. “Madam, I am telling you, the train is belly delayed. If you just come this way, I can help you. I can help you!” We eye him suspiciously. He is not wearing an Indian railways uniform. He has a slightly grimy look, albeit one necessarily shared by millions of Indians. He has some sort of lipomatous-looking growth on his forehead, pushing down one eyebrow to give him a slight “Dr Evil” air…It’s- by definition- judgemental to judge a book by its cover, but we’ve long since learnt that foreign tourists travelling in India embrace the mantra “TRUST NO-ONE” for very good reason. We ignore him again and make our way to the stairs.
As we walk across the footbridge, James stops an elderly man in a turban, who suggests platform five. He’s within striking range; when we get down there, there’s a big neon sign expecting our train, “expected as scheduled”, over platform four. We settle in on the ground in a sea of a thousand other Indians huddled atop their continents of luggage.
Dr Evil was right, the train is late. By twenty minutes. We scramble aboard amid the mass scuffle and find our first class cabin. We have a tiny cubicle to ourselves- the luxury!- with one fold-away bunk, a little table, a coat cupboard and- wonder of wonders- a sliding door! Of course, the door has no latch, so keeps silently working its way open with the motion of the train, but this is India, so privacy is an unknown commodity anyway, and chai-wallahs and curious passengers keep sticking their heads through for a look at the crazy gorahs and their wild-looking blonde babu.
When the man appears at our door offering dinner, we presume it’s included in our ticket (thereby violating the second rule of foreign travellers in India- ASSUME NOTHING) and James piles up two meals and a tub of icecream with glee. “That will be 600 rupees please sir!” James blanches and returns the food.
Half an hour later, a friendly chap wearing the ‘Meals on Wheels’ train service logo appears with a notepad to “take dinner order Madam”. This is more like it! We order a veg meal, with water and he disappears. When he returns, he also collects our breakfast order.
Co-sleeping with a two-year-old on a narrow train bunk is great fun. Said no-one, ever. As daylight breaks the horizon outside the window, the chai wallah rushes through the cabin screaming “Chai, garam chai, garam chai!”. Our breakfast arrives. Shortly afterwards, a cleaner in a blue uniform appears and gestures for me to move so that he can clean the floor. Thinking it must be standard, as we’re getting off soon and someone else will take our place, I acquiesce, only to be met with the outstretched hand for payment. Having accepted the service, we can hardly refuse, and hand over a few rupees, which are not accepted graciously; insufficient funds. We take the mature option and studiously ignore him until he stomps off.
Shortly after, the ‘Meals on Wheels’ man reappears with his notebook, which he consults ceremoniously, before announcing we owe 540 rupees (about $10 AU). Clearly meals are not included. What can we do? Nothing, it would seem. As he leaves, I swear I see him wink at the cleaner down the hall. Later, in a flash of inspiration James googles the Indian Rail website and finds the price listing for ‘Meals on Wheels’. 55 rupees for a thali plate and 45 for breakfast. Sigh. India wins again.