Stranger Danger

I’ve transitioned to travel by train. Good bye driver! My driver was very protective. A little too protective. “I had a feeling last night that someone at that hotel tried to knock on your door, that’s why I am looking everyone in the eyes this morning” “Wow. Nope, didn’t happen, but thanks anyway!” He also took me to too many high-priced shops, which got old and I started resenting the fact that I paid so much for my trip and started feeling like he was dictating my itinerary.

So now I’m out there in the world dealing with strangers. My first train ride wasn’t so bad. There was an English guy on the train with me and he helped me get through the trip. He showed me how to unfold the seats, make the bed, get off the train, manage the bathrooms and everything else he knew after 6 months of working in New Delhi and traveling on the weekends. He was going to the same stop so it worked out really well. He even packed the perfect train breakfast of bananas and “biscuits”, which he shared with me. Actually, he has no idea, but that was the only birthday present I got on my birthday. They sell food on the trains, but…I can’t eat that. After 12 hours on the train with no food, there is no greater birthday present I could have received than a banana and two semi-stale cookies. Glory. Seriously, glory. That coupled with the love from back home and a sunset boat ride down the Ganges made 27 a birthday that will be impossible to beat.

We arrived in Varanasi and the hotel was crazy-expensive. I won’t give you prices because you won’t understand since the prices would be considered incredibly reasonable in America. Just know, that I’m getting tired of being charged 4 times the appropriate amount by every hotel on the tour. Actually, being mean to people in the tourism industry has become a favorite hobby. They warned me, time and time again, to beware of the danger of strangers; but strangers have been the key to survival for me.

Firstly, without knowing it strangers are the only way that I can cross a busy street. Traffic here is crazy, I’m saying CRAZY and they don’t EVER yield to pedestrians. They yield to cows, but not pedestrians. Crossing busy streets takes me four times longer than an Indian. So I’ve taken up what I call “drafting.” When I come to a busy street I find an Indian who is also crossing the street. I put him or her between myself and oncoming traffic and follow them as closely as their right arm. It is an incredibly effect method. I’m not sure how the Indians feel about my habit. Even kids are better at crossing then I am.

Every time I board a train, there is a nice stranger who tells me I’m in the correct spot. There’s usually one or two in the station who asks where I’m going and helps me. If it comes up that I have a non-working SIM card, every stranger I encounter makes a solid attempt at making my phone work (to no avail, still no SIM). On my last train ride from Varanasi to Agra I was scheduled to arrive at 3:30 in the morning. I woke up at 3:30 and kept asking strangers “Tundla?” And they would tell me no, not yet. By the end of the trip, there were (not kidding) about 15 people who all knew that I was looking for the Tundla station and watching for it with me. 3 people helped me off the train and one person gave me an email address, since my SIM card didn’t work, (maybe that would work if something comes in Tundla.) The sense of community on the train is remarkable.

I don’t want to make it sound like trains are a musical and everyone is bright and smiling. They aren’t. The trains are bizarre. The stops aren’t announced and are barely labeled and the trains are always late, so yid don’t know when you’ll arrive. At best they are 30 minutes late, but it’s not uncommon to be three hours late. The bathroom is…terrifying. There is always an old man that has to climb up to the upper level to sleep and does so teetering on the verge of falling. I seem to be the only person holding their breath while he ascends. I’m traveling in the two classes below 1st and I wouldn’t wish anything lower on my worst enemy. In the general class, there are people clinging to outside of the train as it rolls out of the station. The trains suck, but are also a MUST if you visit India.

Strangers ask “What do you think of India?” And then they wince as though bracing themselves to hear that I can’t stand this country. They are convinced that I’m going to hate it. I don’t know if they have met other tourists that hate India, or if they just can’t imagine why a person wold like India.
I tell them “I love it! It has been wonderful so far!” and they aren’t convinced.
“But, what about the spicy food?”
“I love spicy food, seriously”
One man says “I don’t think so, I think you are saying that, but you don’t have to.”

Everyone is concerned about my opinion of India. I have, honestly, never seen such hospitality. Even the Indians back in the states have been incredibly kind and helpful; giving me tips, contacts and checking in on me.

The hotels and tour guides here don’t care at all, they treat tourists like cattle. They appear to hate us and want us to empty our pocket books and leave. In Varanasi I was offered a “complimentary tour of the city” (which should have been covered by the sizeable chunk of change I paid for the entire thing) where they took me to a few temples and then “to see how silk scarves are made.” I know that game by now. I was taken “to see how precious stones are polished” and “to see how block printing is done” by my driver. They take me somewhere with one guy working on the craft, have me take a photo and then take me to HUGE showroom, where there’s more of the product than the one person out front could possibly create. Then comes the high-pressure sales. I’ve finally figured out that saying “I don’t want to buy anything” doesn’t work. The key is, I pick something, they give me a price and then I give them an insanely low offer. “How much for this bag?” “1200 rupees” I will give you 300 maximum” “Not possible” “ok (and leave without argument from the dealer. If they stop me that means that means they have to give in to their price.” The hotel and driver both get commission on my purchases, so they are less hospitable when they find out I’m not a big buyer. This is why I love being mean to the whole group. I cannot stand the people associated with tourism here. The strangers, however, are a benefit to India all their own.

I’m leaving the north tomorrow, heading south to Kerala for a bit. It took a village to get me through this leg of the journey time to be a burden on a new set of people.

And photos, first a view of the train I know so well and then some faves from Varanasi and Agra.

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