Sunday, February 27, 2011

Trains vs. Planes

The overnight train from Mysore to Goa is definitely an experience worth writing about.  It's a must do cultural experience I'd recommend for anyone traveling in India.  Once is good though; I've had my fill with the train and I plan to fly across the country from here on out.  I'll take a train or bus for short distances between cities, like six hours or less, but significant distances will be by plane.  I chose to experience the train from Mysore to Goa because it was a distance short enough to make the journey bearable- a mer 16 hours on board.  Goa to Jaipur, my next destination, would take about 2.5 days.  Yes, I will be flying to Jaipur!

Thankfully I had a friend to travel with which made the trip much more entertaining and enjoyable.  Some things in India that seem like a simple task turn out to be a major hassle while other things that seem so complicated turn out to be relatively easy.  I'm learning to be prepared for anything.  How to book the ticket was one of the hardest parts to figure out as some things such as this aren't obvious in India when it seems it should be.  We tried to book the tickets through a travel agent who told us "Oh, not possible" which is often the answer you get in India when they don't know the answer or don't want to go through the process to figure it out.  Goa is a major tourist destination- I knew it was possible, I just had to ask the right person.  In India I get a different answer for the same question depending on who is asked.  After about 2 weeks I finally found the answer I wanted.  A great website- you just have to know which connections to make and where in order to get to your destination.  It doesn't do it for you like most American companies would because, well, I guess that would just be too easy and efficient.  Another yoga student told me Mysore to Dharwar and Dharwar to Goa.  Bingo.  The first leg of the journey was overnight from 10 pm to 8:00 am.  This leg went smoothly.  We showed up at the Mysore station with our printout ticket and it worked.  We were concerned the ticket master would say something like "Oh, not possible" and make us buy new tickets, which were only about $7 so it wouldn't have been a big deal.  The universal computerized system in India seems a little non-existent so it would be possible there was no record of the ticket.  

We booked the "sleeper" class the whole way since it was overnight.  Turns out it's all "sleeper", there's just 1st, 2nd, and Sleeper, which is the 3rd class.  So we were in the 3rd class for our intro into the Indian Train experience.  It wasn't bad though, and it was really cheap.  We found our train car, found our bunks, and tried to sleep for 10 hours until we got to Dharwar.  The "Express" train doesn't mean much in India as the train was moving pretty slow and made lots of stops.  Tips for traveling on trains:  bring a sheet for the bed, a chain and lock for luggage, face wipes, hand sanitizer, and strategize with hydration to use the bathroom as little as possible.  Of course people on the train were curious of two white western women and stared at us, but for the most part the people around us of were pleasantly friendly and not overbearing.

The second leg, Dharwar to Goa, was a little more exciting.  At the station, we tried to politely ask the inquiry desk for information about our train and where to board, but all we got was a head bobble and an irritated hand gesture towards the track.  A train pulled up, stopped for about 2 minutes, and left.  Another train came into the station at 8:30am, our scheduled departure time and I asked the conductor if it was going to Goa, "Next train, next train" (they tend to repeat things in India) and the train left in about 2 minutes.  An hour and a half later our train comes and begins to pull away as we're trying to figure out which car to get on, so we throw our bags to someone on the steps between cars and jump on.  Soon enough a conductor comes along to check our ticket and motions us towards the back of the train.  So we keep walking, or schlepping our luggage through the crowded narrow walkways towards the back of the train.  After a few more cars another train conductor checks our ticket and told us get out and walk around at the next stop since we were in the caboose, but for now sit here.  The sleeper cars are like bench seats that turn into beds, and it felt a little crowded where we sat, and the men there were a bit much.  So I left Zoe with the luggage and kept walking, through the sleeper case, through the 1st and 2nd AC class, to find our seats in the last car which was sealed off from the rest of the train by a locked metal door.  I looked out the door (between cars) around at the caboose and saw arms and heads hanging out the windows- it looked crowded in there.  Apparently that was the "shared sleeper" case, or other words, the most ghetto.  

I noted some emptier bench seats on the way back to Zoe, we made our way to them and spent the remainder of the trip there, another 5 hours.  The train is fun; guys walk through selling chai and samosas, and we met some interesting locals.  I think 1st and 2nd class comes with AC, meals, and sheets, but 3rd class wasn't bad (unless it's really hot out so book accordingly).  I hear Indians will buy one ticket in 1st or 2nd class, share the bench/ bed for 2 people, and just bribe the conductor when he checks tickets.  Much in India works on the bribery system.  

In route we learned there were several stops in Goa, the last of which was closest to our yoga retreat.  So we stayed on the train until the last stop instead of getting off at our scheduled station.  Immediately after departing the train we're accosted by taxi drivers and porters.  The two exits of the station were funnel necks of people because guards were checking everyone's ticket to verify it said that station.  If not, if they did what we did and only bought a ticket for part of journey then there was a fine (or bribe).  For westerners, the fine is always much more and the taxi driver who latched on to us said it would be 500 Rupees, about twice the cost of the ticket.  He told us to keep walking to the end of the station, he would meet us there, and walked out.  I was beginning to visualize us jumping the fence, throwing our luggage over to the driver, but no, at the end of the station platform the fence ended and there were steps down to the street where our taxi was waiting.  No guard, no people... so typical India!   

Thursday, February 17, 2011

First Impressions

India is a very interesting place.  It's colorful and chaotic, old world meets new, load, beautiful, dirty, crowded, and laid back.  I've been in India for a month and haven't written about it because it's so difficult to explain.  Like I can't quit figure it out or put my finger on it.  I think the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, said it best by describing India as 'a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads'.  It amazes me how progressive India is when at times it seems so backwards and inefficient. Religion, worship, and ritual is infused in almost every aspect of their lives here, yet the country is full of lying, cheating, and stealing.  I can't even begin to wrap my head around the history of India and all the phases of rule it has been through.  I think that contributes to why to culture is so complex.  I'm trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together or see the patterns of how it works here, but it's still a jumble of mystery.  India is so ancient in it's origin yet has no problems accepting and integrating the modern world.  There doesn't seem to be much order to the system, laws are difficult to enforce, and most of the government is extremely corrupt anyway.  Somehow the country manages to get by and rolls right along without missing a beat or have any trouble keeping up with the rest of the world.  The quality of the infrastructure isn't up to par by any means, but somehow it works for them, like the details will sort themselves out later. 

It can be very frustrating at times while orienting in India. Simple tasks can take so long to accomplish due to the inefficient nature of the country.  The mannerisms are very different and take some getting used to.  Tourists are easy targets and it feels like many interactions are just scams for money.  It seems being ripped off and lied to is all part of the learning process of how to navigate in India.  It took a couple weeks for me to feel comfortable.  I felt very apprehensive at first about offending a culture that was new to me and took some experience to learn the protocol, which is often that there's not one.  I'm beginning to see India as the perfect place to come for yoga, not only because it originated here thousands of years ago, but because the practice of yoga is constantly being put to the test.  If yoga is about finding our center, and remaining authentically true to that center in the midst of chaos and confusion, then there is no better place for that than India.  I've learned a new level of protecting, respecting, and speaking up for myself that's not necessary in the States, or any other place I've been to in the world.

Now that the initial culture shock has worn off, I'm growing quit fond of India.  The culture is very accepting, non confrontational, and peaceful.  They don't get upset if they don't get their way or what they want.  For instance when it comes to money, they seem very pushy at first but after firmly saying No, they shrug it off like it makes no difference to them anyway.  They have so much patience and tolerance of others and don't seem judgemental or critical.  They don't stress much about things that are our of their control, like it will all work out as it's meant to be.  At first I interpreted the vibe here as every man for himself, which is somewhat true, but now I see it more as a respect for other individuals and their life's path.  Even within the Hindu religion which predominates in India, there are many Gods to choose from for worship.  I think some of this individual nature of the people contributes to the chaos and lack of orderly systems in this country.  Although there isn't as much opportunity in India as other countries for choosing their life path, there is no worry or time wasted in trying to figure out which path to take.

The caste system is slowly dissolving with the influx of the Western world, but there is still a residual emphasis that you are born into your life's work and most marriages are arranged.  Although that may sound like a death sentence in the U.S., the land of the free, in India they don't seem to mind, like their life is easier without the dilemma of choice.  I guess it could be categorized as laziness or contentment, depending on the viewpoint.  Maybe it makes life easier by placing less expectations on oneself to achieve a certain status in life and helps to cultivate more of an attitude of acceptance and gratitude for what's been given.  In a conference Sharath gave at the Yoga Shala, he poised the question to the 200+ students attending why we were all from countries other than India.  Besides the fact that it's really expensive and most Indians couldn't afford it, he said yoga is a part of the lifestyle and outlook in India.  They don't need to be there to practice it; they are raised with it in their family.  We are here because we are searching-- searching for that path that is handed to those in India.  

India is definitely a place that has to be experienced for yourself as I'm sure everyone has a different experience.  India as a country is very adaptable, and has been through so much throughout it's history there is this sense that nothing will bring it down and everything will work out, so no worries.  I can see this country has many lessons to teach me.  I've learned to accept and tolerate their time frame and have even grown to appreciate their relaxed yet steady work rhythm.  I must say as my patience and fondness for India grows, so does my appreciation for being born in America.