Okay, okay, you admit it. Lately, everything is about transit. When you look back at your time in India, is that what you’re going to remember? Probably.
Consider the amount of time, energy, and patience that is taken to travel to every new destination:
Darjeeling to Lucknow – 34+ hours
3 hours by jeep, 30 minute rickshaw, 5 hours at train station, 26 hours on train
2 hours for hotel, after being rejected by 4 others; final room price, 400 rps (talked down from 800), one night only
Lucknow to Agra – 10 hours
6 hours on train, 1 hour at train station, 2 hours on train, 1 cycle rickshaw
1 hour for hotel, rejected by 3 guest houses; final room price, 450 rps (talked down from 800), one night only
Agra to Delhi to Chandigar – 15 hours
1 hour walking, 1 hour at train station, 2 hours on train to Delhi, 2 hours by foot and metro, 7 hours on bus
2 hours for hotel, rejected by 7 hotels; final room price, 800 rps (talked down from 1200-1500) for 10 hours of use
Chandigar to Rishikesh – 9 hours
7 hours by bus, 2 hours to obtain rickshaw
direct to guest house, first offer accepted for 300 rps
If India has taught you one thing, it’s patience. “Hurry up and wait,” as Angus always said. You remember when just two to four hours of transit time felt long. Euro-travel changed that, and you found yourself frequently doing 10-24 hour stretches of hitch hiking, but the circumstances were more comfortable: you weren’t smashed into a jeep with eight other bodies, or made to stand for hours in a packed train, or displaced from your seat/sleeping place seven times!
Your previous entry on stealing sleepers was probably published immaturely, for you thought you had experienced all that transit had to offer. Oh no… just when you think you’ve seen it all, India throws you a new surprise.
* * *
While stealing a sleeper from Darjeeling to Lucknow, you are made to move seven times from your seat (Maeva, only once). You are completely frayed from the 26 hours on the train, and feeling so low that you entertain wild fantasies of saying “FUCK YOU, TRIP! WE ARE OVER!” and calling it quits. When energy is down, when sleep is scarce, you can’t derive any enjoyment from your experience anymore. Everything sucks. Your life sucks.
Your book sucks. And then, some crazy guy in a green beanie comes over for a look, asks to see your book, and then walks back to his seat with it. He flips through the pages and pretends to read and gives no indication that he will give it back. The other lads in the compartment draw little round circles with fingertips, signifying “crazy guy.” After five minutes, you call over to him sternly, make him return your book, and he makes a fuss. Then he steals some kid’s chew tobacco and offers you some. You refuse. He goes away. Then he comes back, looks at your face, your leg, your face again, and then strikes you on the leg and goes away. Peace at last.
Nope. You get displaced to a new car, where a local guy takes a shine to Maeva. He offers you both sugar-drenched sweets and asks for Maeva’s facebook information, all the while inching closer and closer to her until no space on the bench remains. You tell Maeva you want to get up for a sneaky cigarette, in order to give her an escape, which she takes.
Finally off the train after god-knows-how-long, you fend off the rickshaw drivers—the locusts, the vultures, the vermin. They never leave you alone. First you are angry, and you scare two of them away at once by straightening up and threatening to push them, one angry palm on each chest; they scamper away, probably thinking you are a man because you are totally bundled, leaving only your eyes exposed. On the street, you are so tired and confused you cannot read a map, and still they come. You start gobbling at them like a turkey, imitating to them what their own language sounds like to you.
One young man tails you for a block. He seems interested in trying to figure out if you are male of female. You finally reach out with one arm and shove him into a pile of trash.
“No rooms!” one hotel says.
“No more place,” says another.
“1,200 rupees. No? Okay, 800. No.” says another.
And then another, “No place.”
And you scream, “No place? Or no place for us?” It seems that many hotels are not allowed to house tourists. You nearly convince him to let you stay, but he changes his mind.
“600 rupees,” a final hotel owner says. You tell him it’s too much. 500? Nope. 450? Sorry, but you’d rather keep looking. Ok, fine! 400.
* * *
From Lucknow to Agra, you see how mean the locals can be to each other, not just shoving their way onto general population cars, but locking the doors so other people can’t get inside. You and Maeva watch this scene twice on the end of the platform, next to a family of rats rummaging through trash under a cattle grate, popping up and down like targets in Whack-A-Mole. The crowds on the platform are dense—and tense. As the train approaches, they start running. They yell and shove and bitch each other out, and some people are left on the platform, having been unable to squeeze onto a car.
You and Maeva, with your baggage, wonder if it will be possible to get into Gen Pop at all, or if you will have to steal sleeper class again. You are unenthusiastic about this, feeling bitter about your seven displacements from your last train journey.
No. Dammit. You are going to get on your train. It comes. You leave Maeva in the dust and smash past a herd of skinny young dudes trying to jump into the first car available. Once inside, you learn that it is a car for the “disabled” (how the disabled are meant to climb the ladder of the car remains a mystery). The benches and luggage racks are all full, but the floor wide and inviting. You and Maeva stake out your territory and don’t protest one bit when the some of the guys lock the door and ignore the frantic knocking and yelling of other would-be passengers desperate for a seat on the train. Maeva quietly makes a comment about being two women locked in a train car with 12 men, but you aren’t bothered. What bothers you, on the other hand, is your grave mistake of taking a car directly behind the blaring engine horn. You can forget about sleeping.
* * *
The train from Agra to Delhi is crowded. You nearly leave Maeva behind on the platform, but she figures out your whereabouts last-minute. You feel relieved, but realize that losing her in a crowd is a very easy thing to do—the consequences will be worse on a platform, you learn, because she claims she would have stayed in Agra, assuming you were still on the platform.
In the car, you make no apologies for slamming people with your bag, your ass, your elbows. You rearrange everyone’s shit and manage to squeeze your luggage onto a rack. Then you stand for two hours. Two stupid little kids serpentine through your legs at least 14 times, to the irritation of many.
The rickshaw drivers in Delhi are assholes. So is everyone else. Everyone has some kind of scam. It’s difficult to get reliable information. You finally decide on a bus, the station for which is located across down, via the metro.
The Delhi metro is a brand new experience. After buying a token, you wait in a long security line, get frisked by an attractive lady, and then warned not to take photos inside the station! Oh, if only you could!
“What’s up with everyone standing behind the yellow line?” you mutter, waiting for the subway. “No one does that where I’m from.” You eye a number of security guards on the platform, who admonish the locals with sharp whistle-blows. “Guess I’ll stay behind the yellow line. That guy has a whistle.” You joke.
Then the subway pulls up, and you suddenly see why. Faces, hands, bodies are smashed against the glass of the windows. The subway stops. The door opens. The guards hold back the crowds trying to get on as a few poor riders struggle mightily to get off.
Then the shoving match begins. You and Maeva fail to get onto the train. It leaves you behind.
“Holy shit…” you mutter, thinking back to a YouTube video of Japanese people getting on a train, and how the security guards were in charge of shoving people inside, tucking in their clothes so they didn’t get trapped between the sliding doors. “I totally get it now.”
You discuss your plans for the next attempt. If only one of you gets on, she must ride and wait patiently at the appropriate destination. But you are determined to get on. You walk further down the platform, talk loudly about how you are getting on that fucking train, and eye your neighbors. You position Maeva on the left, yourself on the right, and are ready to control the doors.
Scramble! Smash! You’re on. And you cannot move an inch. Your bag is too large for you to turn. Locals negotiate politely in advance, explaining that you must somehow trade places with them so that they can escape the car at the next stop. Maeva asks how you are going to get off the train yourself, since you are the only person facing backwards. You tell her you’ll just back out like a lorrie and crush whoever gets under you. You notice an Indian guy suppressing his laughter at your comment.
Your stop arrives. Get ready.
“Whee!” you cry out delightedly, riding a human avalanche. It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced in your life. Your escape it effortless. You merely ride the tide of group will.
“I felt someone in my ass,” Maeva said. Someone had apparently taken liberties in the chaos.
“Inside, or on the cheek?” you ask.
“Like… deep. Like he was searching for something.” She isn’t terrible bothered. You tell her she should have faced backwards as you had.
The bus the Chandigar is ready to leave the moment you arrive. It’s an uneventful seven-hour bus ride.
But when you arrive in Chandigar, it’s a totally different story from the rest of India.
“How much is a room?” 1500!
Between the last two 400+ hotels (in four months, you have never paid more than 350 for a room), the 750 rupee Taj Mahal, and your many hours of transit, you were both feeling pretty broke. 1500 rupees for 10 hours of use of a room? Unacceptable.
You go down the block like door-to-door salesmen, and are turned away over and over again.
“800?” they ask. “Not possible. 1200 minimum.”
“I’m not going to pay 1200 for a room and then check out in ten hours,” you declare. “I’ll pay your 400 rupees to sleep next to that guy in reception,” you say. No dice.
You and Maeva sit on a curb. Two men approach. “Looking for a hotel?” one of them asks. You state your price. He says it’s not possible. “How about a floor? In every hotel there’s always one or two guys seeping on the floor of reception.” He says a floor is possible. You tell him you will pay 400 rupees. He says, “No, I’m just kidding.” Well, thanks for nothing.
He makes small talk, asks for a cigarette, asks how you like India, et caetera. You joke about being bums. You tell him you are still looking for a floor. He says you can crash at his place for free. He says his friend here is a police man… that they are off-duty, and kind of on vacation or something.. “Show ID!” he orders. The friend—whom you like to think of as Silent Bob—does so.
In your hands, you hold what looks like the fakest piece-of-shit ID ever. “I used to make these!” you exclaim. With printed photo paper from a Microsoft Paint image, a head shot taken with iZod Polaroid camera, and a laminator. “But I used to do a better job than this,” you say, handing it back to him.
The man repeats his offer. “We have spare room. Three rooms in the apartment. Free of charge. You can come in our car.” Maeva looks hopeful. You refuse. It is, after all, 2 o’clock in the morning, and while you are happy to accept hospitality from strangers, you do not feel good about doing so from two young, possibly drunk men on the street at two in the morning, who at first approached you with an offer for a hotel, then claimed to be policemen, then claimed to have an apartment together, and yet also claimed to be on some kind of vacation.
He says okay, no problem. He nearly walks away with his silent “policeman friend,” but changes his mind. He offers again. You refuse. He makes small talk. Tries to explain life lessons to you. Tells you that you should trust him. He offers again. You refuse. “Three times I’ve said no thank you,” you declare. You get up and leave. Maeva follows.
“I’m sorry, but that just seems like the shittiest idea ever,” you tell her. She admits she would have accepted. You call her crazy.
As the two of you head back towards the bus station, intent on sleeping there, you hear the sound of a fan belt. You look over your shoulder and lo and behold, the two guys are stalking you in their car. The car not-so-stealthily parks.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” you say. “They’re following us.”
You walk on. The car pulls out of its place and follows. Screech-screech-screech, goes the fan belt. You look over your shoulder again, and the car attempts to hide in another parking place.
“Still following us,” you say.
You hurdle over some rocks and pass into a different parking area, where their car cannot follow. “Try and get us now, bitches!” you say. You don’t look back again.
Just before getting to the bus terminal, another man approaches. He claims he can get you a room for 800. You wonder if it’s worth the trouble. The room is on the other side of town. You demand to know if he is a taxi driver. He says he is. You asks is you have to pay for the taxi, too. He says you don’t.
So what does he have to gain?
He leads you to his car. It’s marked as a taxi. You think, Here goes nothing.
“Oh man, those two guys are standing right there behind us,” Maeva says.
You look out the window, and yes indeed, your stalkers stand just behind your taxi, watching you. For whatever reason, you do not feel scared of them. You begin to mistrust your driver, but he does nothing out of the ordinary. He drives you several kilometers away from the station, into a cheaper district, where you are still rejected from two hotels. Before trying a third, you pull him aside.
“Listen, you said you can get us a room for 800. And no taxi charge. So your plan didn’t work out. So how do you benefit from this?” You are expecting the bottom to fall out at any moment. You are expecting him to ask for money, a commission, a tip—anything.
But he simply said, “I made a promise.”
He escorts you to another hotel. You bargain hard for 800 rupees and succeed. The taxi driver wishes you a goodnight and leaves. Probably the first real favor ever.
* * *
8 hours on the bus from Chandigar to Rishikesh, in pretty decent seats directly behind the driver. Only one problem. Fog.
Dense fog. Oh man, fog so dense that you had maybe 20 feet of visibility. You look out all of the windows. You can see nothing. Out the front, nothing. Just fog reflected by the high beams of your bus. Don’t these guys know that high beams make it worse?
Your driver seems completely unconcerned. He is an amiable old Sikh in a red turban, and he plays his favorite old tunes, sings along, blares his horn, and barrels on ahead into the fog.
You’re going to die tonight.
You look around yourself, trying to imagine what part of the bus will kill you first. You will probably be okay if it rolls, but a head-on collision will launch you against the gate in front of you, but not before breaking both your legs.
The roads, not only engulfed in fog, are in poor repair. The bus bounces, shifts, skids, and performs every feat of large-vehicle acrobatics. The Indian passengers bounce with the bus. They sit in little rows, wrapped in shawls and winter hats, and their heads go a bouncing.
This is the epitome of bobble heading. 50 heads all bobbing in unison. Like 50 dashboard bobblers.
Sleep evades you for the most part. You’re too damn big for the bus seats. Maeva has the window, and some guy to your left sleeps against your shoulder. You, stuck in the middle, are at least warm. But not the most comfortable (though you must admit, circumstances could have been much worse). And you don’t dare close your eyes for hours, too absorbed in the scene ahead: the driver talking on his cell phone—into the wrong side (not wrong end, wrong side!)—clicking the dome lights on and off to find his peanuts, playing with the volume of his stereo, vigorously wiping the inner windshield with a rag for better visibility, and calling out affectionately to other bus drivers through the window. At one point, he shrieks and brakes dramatically when he suddenly becomes aware of something: a man who’s been riding on the roof of the bus for some distance, possibly rummaging through baggage. You turn around just in time to see the silhouette of a man rapidly descending the latter affixed to the back the vehicle. He takes off into the night. Eight men or so on the bus are on their feet in moment, ready to give chase. But the perp is long gone into the fog.
You do arrive in one piece at just past 3:30 in the morning. The vultures—err, the rickshaw drivers—try to get you to come with them.
“How much?” Maeva demands.
“200 rupees!” Or 150. Or 250. It is different every time.
“You can shove that offer in your ass!” she yells. Maeva can be mad sometimes. But this evening, really, she’s in a different sort of mood.
You and Maeva walk together, apart, together again. You buy a chai. She sits down for a smoke. You ask locals. They tell you the real price: 20 rupees for a shared rickshaw. 70-80 if not shared. Unfortunately, there are no other tourists going in your direction.
The drivers lie to you, defending 150. Where do you want to go? It’s 7 kilometers, or 12 even, away up steep mountain roads. Blah, blah, blah. You demand a shared rickshaw. Not possible. Ok, then, how about 80. No, 150, is the minimum “night time” price. Maeva’s right: they can shove that offer in…
You wait a little while and study your map, idle in front of bus station junk food you wish someone would buy for you. You finally amble back alone to the drivers, looking for a fight. But you are disappointed. At this point, none of them are interested in talking to you. One guy finally approaches. “Listen,” you say to him. “I’m tired of this. Every time I get off a bus, I get attacked by liars. I’m tired of getting fed bullshit and you guys trying to rip me off because of the color of my skin. You understand?”
“I’m no lying!”
Twenty minutes later, you and Maeva stroll up and down the street, kicking at pebbles and looking for signs of hot food (there is none). A driver offers Maeva a lift into town. “How much? Fifty rupees?”
“No,” he says. “Twenty.”
She says, “That’s for a shared rickshaw. Great. We will just wait here until we can share a rickshaw. As long as it takes.”
Another driver cuts in, “Not possible to share! Luggage.” Blah blah blah.
“Bullshit!” she says. “This is India.”
“Eight people in a rickshaw!” you exclaim. “Everyone on bus has luggage.”
Maeva puts her stuff in one of the rickshaws parked in a line and climbs in. “I’m going to sit here and wait for more people.” No one stops her. You climb in after her.
There, for over an hour, you squat in a rickshaw, out of the cold, in an act of disobedience: Occupy Rickshaw. You eat some snacks, smoke, take pictures, amuse yourselves. You just hurry up and wait. You’re good at waiting at this point. You’re experts at it. And you don’t feel the least bit guilty about it.
They offer 150 rupees again and again. You decline and decline. Then they start talking and smiling at you, and it feels a bit more like a party than an act of disobedience. All is well and good until a bus honks in the distance. Like horses out of the gate, they forget completely about the two stubborn white people and sprint after the bus, grabbing at each other’s coat sleeves to get there first. Chomping at the bit.
“Well… that was interesting.”
One driver, who seems to have some kind of authority over the group, comes back defeated. “Okay, get out. Fifty rupees waiting charge.” For sitting in his rickshaw. You tell him to fuck himself. You dare him to try and get your money. But you leave his vehicle and park your butt on the curb next to their small street fire. You explain again and again why they’re being unfair to you.
“What are you, some kind of union?” you demand.
The “leader” nods and smiles. It’s true. Rickshaw drivers have a code. Rules. Gotta follow them. Drivers that break the rules end up in fights very quickly.
“We’re just going to wait here until we can share a rickshaw, or until the public buses start running again,” Maeva declares.
You sit and joke with her. Say that you’ll race the guys to the next arriving bus, just for giggles. You joke about how tired and crazy you feel, and how you will never get up until justice is served. “Viva la resistance!” you cry with a fist in the air.
The “leader” comes back. He speaks gently to Maeva. He makes an offer of 80 rupees (your original non-shared asking price).
Maeva rejects the offer, and in the flash the man leaps to his feet, curses, and storms off. He squats back down next to the group fire and bitches. The other guys laugh. You laugh. Maeva laughs. Everyone is laughing.
Five minutes later, the “leader” returns. “Okay, he says. Thirty-thirty.”
You and Maeva accept. 60 rupees for the ride, talked down from as high as 250. It only took two hours.
The “leader” makes another guy drive you. Your driver asks where you want to go. “To a 300-rupee guest house.” He makes no complaint. He takes you directly to a guest house near the center of town.
Before leaving, he says, “How many time you in India?”
You said, “Me, once. Maeva, twice. Together, we’re here five months.”
He smiles, looks over at Maeva, and says, “You are very smart.” And walks away.