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!   

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