Ridin' That (Turns Out to Be) Midnight Train (India, part 2)
Days 1 and 2 in India are covered here.
Sunday, Day 3 -
Today is train day. This will be our only train ride in India. Mainly for the experience, not the convenience, or at least we think. Wisely, Jimmy has arranged for a guide to take us to the train station and get us to the right train. Our children are young; every minute wasted figuring out that we are lost or confused is gifted back to us in a high-pitched fit of frustration at the end of the day. The less confusion, the better.
We pack up and say goodbye to the hotel staff. We'll be back to Delhi later, after a few days in Rajastan and in Agra. The guide and driver pick us up and we get our first real view of Delhi on the drive to Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station. Dehli is flat and low. I see no high rises. We pass through a neighborhood of large bungalows tucked behind fences and walls. Ministers and such live here, the guide says. We speed past ruins of old walls and forts. A stadium. Finally I see some 3 or 4 story apartment housing. Doesn't quite measure up to middle class. Where does the middle class live, I wonder? We turn left into the slums around the train station. This is the dry season and the red dust is ubiquitous. Then we plunge into a litter-strewn stream of muck crossing the road. Broken water line? People, stalls, and cars clog the way and we poke our way through to the steps below the train station.
A throng of red-shirted men (licensed porters) presses in on our car looking for business. Exiting the car, we drag our slightly alarmed children and our own bags up the stairs. There are plenty of noises and colors swirling around us, but I focus entirely on keeping the kids in motion and the guide in sight. Hurry up. Wait. Hurry up. Wait. We cross a bridge and head down to the platform. Our second class car is way the hell down the line. People are sleeping on the platform, on top of their bags of grain and boxes of goods. Are they coming or going? Buying or selling? I have no idea. Shepherd the kids.
We settle into the grungy train car, squeezing 2 adults and 2 kids into 3 seats. Oh, look, a power outlet. Maybe there's wi-fi. Ha, I'm such a dreamer. The windows are barely transparent, so our sightseeing will be confined to inside the car. A porter comes along hollering, "Chai! Chai!" Jimmy suddenly has a flashback to his Army brat childhood in the 1970s when his parents dragged him around northern Europe. Jimmy hears, "Orange juice, apple juice, snack pack!" The call of the German train porter. My kids are second generation sufferers of trains, planes, buses, taxis, museums, monuments, and gardens.
(My parents took us to their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, every weekend. The highlight was Sunday dinner at my grandmother's house. The lowlight was sitting in the back room of my grandfather's store on Saturday afternoon waiting for the damn customers to go away. Every weekend. Then in August we would visit my mother's cousins in Florida. I adored Mama's cousins. Still do. But, please, Florida in August is not a vacation, it's a death march.)
Another porter comes through with freshly-cooked lunches on trays. Mmm, smells excellent. We decline. No train food for us. We've avoided "Delhi belly" thus far and plan to keep it that way. Water and a bags of nuts hit the spot. It's a short train ride, right?
There are two Indian children playing in the seats behind us and Hazel quickly makes friends. After more than a year in a Chinese preschool she has learned the art of language-free play. Eleanor and Jimmy read. Hazel and her new friends are kicking my seat. I have no view and am bored out of my skull. The train is running late. I failed to read-up. Are Indian trains known for their punctuality or tardiness? My one data point says tardiness.
Time to potty. Eleanor goes without a fight, but Hazel is a different story. The squatties and the airport self-flushers terrify her. I assure her that the Indian train toilet will be neither. Actually, the squattie is an option on this train, but there is a Western-style, too. Looking into the toilet, if you angle your head right, you can see tracks. C'mon, Hazel, how often do you get the kick of peeing on a moving train? Jimmy the Mellow takes her. She screams and refuses. A solid hour of begging, cajoling, and, finally, bribing, ensues. Hazel pees on the tracks.
Seven hours later, well after dark, we reach our destination, Sawai Madhopur, a small city outside the Ranthambhore National Park. We are supposed to be met by a driver. I'm expecting to see some guy with Jimmy's name on a sign. As we step off the train, I begin to realize that Indian train stations are exactly like in the movies. There are people in a variety of colorful clothing swirling all around us. I see Ghandhi. Three times. But no guy with a sign. Still, I confidently push through the throng to the gates of the station. Oh look, there's a cow. Expected that. And there's a boar. Didn't expect that. And now there are more than a dozen young men huddled around us, staring and pressing closer. My daughters are starting to look worried. I try to send happy vibes to Eleanor and Hazel, but I'm starting to get angry. Do these boys understand that they are so unnerving to two young foreign children? "English?" one says. "Yes, I speak English. Do you speak English?" I counter. "Yes, English," he replies, unconvincingly. "Do you understand, 'Go the fuck away!'?" "Whoa!" Jimmy shouts as he steps between us. Now Jimmy is looking worried. He attempts to settle me. The guys don't even inch backwards. Finally, someone shows up to assist. We give him a phone number and he calls our agent. Thank you, stranger.
A jeep shows up to take us to our hotel. We pile in the back and plunge down a bumpy road toward our ridiculous hotel. Again we see little, but the cool evening air is a wonderful antidote for 7 hours in a grungy train car with foggy windows. Then we see the hotel walls. A peel of laughter breaks the silence. It is me. The Nahargagh is a walled palace built less than 10 years ago by a member of the royal family of Jaipur. It is over-the-top in every way I like.
As we walk through the garden courtyard past the flowers and fountains, a ravanhasta player provides the soundtrack of my new movie: "Overworkedtiredandnumb Relaxes At Last." We eat a buffet dinner that includes grilled chicken, seekh kebabs, and Jimmy's new love: the paneer kebab.
Our room is spacious and full of local flavor. There is an alcove with a raised platform covered in cushions and pillows. The girls will sleep there while Jimmy and I take the king-sized canopied bed.
Eleanor and Hazel bed down for the night.
Remember, all you need to survive in India is a full belly and a good night's sleep. Right?
Bonus footage: A windy jeep ride in Sawai Madhopur.