A Travellerspoint blog

India

Jaisalmer: The City and the Camel Safari

Jaisalmer is a relatively quieter city in the Western part of Rajasthan. It is about 70 km away from Pakistan, is surrounded by desert, and is home to the largest sand fortress in the world. The fortress is literally made out of sand stone that would fall apart if too much rain were to fall. Luckily it’s in a desert.

Thanks to Morten and Claire, our hotel stay was wonderful! We had such a beautiful and CLEAN room! Also, the view of the city and its fort was fantastic from the rooftop.
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There are people actually living within the walls of this fortress although I have a feeling most are either running the tourist shops and restaurants or somehow otherwise involved in the tourist industry. Regardless, walking around the walled in city protected by 99 bastions is nothing short of magical. It really feels like you’ve been transported into a tale of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves or a movie set for Aladdin. If you consider the history of the fort this is actually not that far off from the truth. This city was once notorious for being fiercely independent and sacking other surrounding cities and passing Caravans to sustain itself. In fact it became wealthy by collecting a “passage tax” from any caravans going along the silk route from Europe to China. It has definitely retained much of this outlaw outpost character although these days you are far more likely to be conned out of your money by the fast talking merchants than to encounter any physical problems. If you like adventure Jaisalmer is a great place to just wonder around and explore.
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The biggest highlight of visiting Jaisalmer is going on an overnight safari. Sleeping under the moonlight next to a campfire -- sounds romantic, right? Derek and I had very different experiences…

First we took a jeep tour through an oasis and a couple of villages. The villagers were mostly welcoming and friendly. The children were especially playful and adorable. But in one village, a man kept asking if we had drugs to give him (right in front of his children), and there was another moment when the driver told us that he uses opium. I told him that he could potentially stop breathing and kill himself if he takes too much and he replied “that’s ok – everyone dies eventually.” Derek informed me later that he was probably trying to sell us opium.
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Eventually we reached an area where the jeep dropped us off and we met our fantastic camel driver and camels! Camels are quite fun to watch and I can’t describe why – they JUST ARE! Riding a camel for 2 hours is like a core exercise – your entire core HURTS afterwards due to all the bouncing you do. It’s super hot in the desert so you have to cover all exposed skin. This is how Derek and I looked:
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The desert itself was quite shrubby and even had some desert blooms. After 2 hours, we reached our destination by a bunch of sand dunes. Our camel drivers cooked up tea, snacks, and dinner – it was quite delicious! It was fun to watch the camels trotting around the camp, occasionally “arguing” over food, and inconspicuously they walk up to you then immediately walk away. There were also a bunch of large beetles everywhere. They kept making some strange “crunching” sound and I kept wondering what they ate, but they looked a lot like those scarabs from the movie “The Mummy” that somehow get under your skin, crawl around your flesh, and eat you from the inside. Ew.
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As it became dark, I realized that eventually I would have to go to the washroom. Fact is, the desert is a one giant washroom so one can supposedly choose a bush and go. But I found that there were too many angles one can see me from so I decided to wait until dark.
This would be the first time I would ever go to the bathroom outside. I was quite nervous about it, but after MUCH mental preparation (and Derek hearing how much I feared this), I was ready to do it. I would make my female portaging and camping friends quite proud!

Being female, I discovered that this endeavour would be much more difficult than I anticipated. I merely thought that I would bring a headlamp, toilet paper, do “my thing”, and that would be all! I was so wrong. First, it was so difficult to find “a spot” in the dark in the middle of the desert, so I decided to just go behind a sand dune. I turned off my headlamp and tried to “go”. It was pitch black, but at least no one could see me! In the midst of my business, I soon realized that going in a sand dune was very difficult because I slowly started sinking to the sand! I thought “holy cow, I’m peeing in quicksand in the DARK! ” To make matters worse, I could hear those scary scarab-beetles crunching around (crunching WHAT I have no idea?!) There seemed to be other noises about that I couldn’t recognize – a camel perhaps? Sand snakes? SAND DRAGONS?! Peeing in the desert isn’t supposed to be THIS DIFFICULT AND TERRIFYING, is it?!

And of course I had held my bladder for the entire day, so my bladder emptied a day’s worth. I think this was my longest pee ever as I slowly sank into the sand dune while those creepy, crunching scarab-beetles waited around to feast on my flesh, and I SWEAR that a camel keeps coming by to see what’s happening?!

I was mid-thigh deep in sand by the time I finished. If there was a most uncomfortable, heart-racing, terrifying pee ever -- I think I can say I did it.

But the “desert fun” didn’t stop there.

First, there was no campfire because they attracted a lot of bugs this time of year. Derek and I were quite disappointed but that’s ok since I wouldn’t want to attract more bugs anyway. So our beds were laid out on the sound for us to sleep. The beds were quite comfortable but you could hear the bugs everywhere! Then the one tourist that was with us kept slapping bugs and spiders on his chest, remarking at how large each one was. As I tried to sleep, I could hear bugs buzz by my face and those creepy, crunching beetle-scarabs trying to crawl under the sleeping bag! Sometimes you can feel them underneath you, crawling about looking for something to crunch on! I kept waking to strange, unrecognizable sounds throughout the night and did not get much sleep.

The only good thing about not being able to sleep was seeing all the constellations move throughout the sky throughout the night, watching the various gradients of color the sky makes as the moon and sun gradually trade places, and the amazing sunrise. There was even a beautiful electrical storm off in the distance. As paranoid and tired as I was, it truly was a beautiful experience.
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Derek slept throughout the night, DIDN'T have problems peeing, and woke up fresh and rested while the bags under my eyes indicated otherwise.
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Although children in Jaisalmer are said to grow up to be 4 to 7 years before they ever see their first rain it stormed for 2 evenings in a row starting the day we arrived back in the city after our desert trip! The city was at a standstill. This was unfavourable for the farmers since it was crop-cutting time in Jaisalmer before the rainy season. If the crops are wet, they are extremely difficult to cut. It makes one wonder how climate change affects everything…

Overall, we had a very pleasant stay in Jaisalmer and it was definitely my favourite part of our visit to India. I have but one piece of advice: If you’ve never tried to go to the bathroom outside, perhaps don’t attempt your first time in the desert!
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Posted by krisses 19:46 Archived in India Comments (2)

Ziplining from the Mehrangarh fortress in Jodhpur India


View World Trip 2012 - Actual on dariusz's travel map.

Having seen road traffic in India we were determined to avoid bus travel at all costs. However, as we found out to our dismay there is no train from Udaipur to Jodhpur (our next destination). This left us with some unpleasant choices. We could backtrack to Pushkar and then HOPE to get a train to Jodhpur, a very round-about and long way of going from point A to point B. We could take an expensive all day taxi ride alone with some random taxi driver in the desert or we could brave the dreaded Indian bus ride. We chose the lesser of all the evils and took a bus.

The bus itself was a piece of work. It had started its life as a relatively familiar reclining seat bus with luggage storage in overhead compartments. However given how over populated India is this was seen by Indians as a complete waste of space and could be improved upon. You actually have to admire their ingenuity while at the same time wondering how little a human life must be worth for something like this to be allowed. The bus was modified by taking away the “unnecessary” overhead luggage space (I mean the luggage can just go on top of the people, come on!) and putting in something that looked like dog kennels in the space above the seats. The dog kennels were being used as sleeper compartments where entire families, 5 children, grandparents and all, would squish in and ride. We were wondering if any of them had ever broken down and fallen on top of the seats killing the seat occupants but to be honest they seemed quite solidly built. Take a look at the picture below to see what it looked like:

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This is Kristine’s reaction to sitting underneath a kennel with an entire Indian family squished into it:

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The place we were staying at in Jodhpur was called Heaven Guest House and it was run by a wonderful Jain family who immediately made us feel right at home. For those that don’t know, Jain is an offshoot from Hinduism that respects all living things even down to insects (ie. Very strict vegans) and has decided to get rid of the caste system. The guest house was simple but far exceeded our expectation in terms of cleanliness, views of the fort, food and how welcome we felt. It was clear that Nisha, the mom, was the boss and I think that had much to do with how well the place was run compared to the male-only Hindu places we stayed at before. Here is the view from the balcony where we ate our meals:

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Speaking of meals this was also the place where we had our first Nepalese encounter as the cook was an extremely friendly Nepalese kid who cooked delicious food. If the rest of the Nepalese people are going to be this friendly we will really like Nepal.

The reason to visit Jodhpur is of course the imposing Mehrangarh fortress which, not surprisingly, has never been conquered by an opposing army. It is an amazing fairy tale like feat of architecture but also a very functional and practical defence mechanism. The corridors behind the heavy gates turn 90 degrees to the right or left and upwards right after the gate making any attacking army sitting ducks if they ever managed to actually breach the gates themselves. There are tons of twists and turns going up and everywhere there are vantage points where the defenders would punish any attempt to infiltrate the fortress. It is really cool walking around and imagining what it would have been like either defending or attacking this military marvel.

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Among all the amazing historical artefacts the fort has to offer there is one that is especially disturbing even more so when you consider how recent it is. Near the gates there are clay plaques with hand imprints on them. These hand prints belong to women who committed “Sati” (ritual suicide) by throwing themselves on their husband’s funeral piers. Given that it was usual for a high ranking man to have more than 10 wives (though the wives had to be completely loyal to just their one husband) this is one very creepy reminder of what was considered acceptable in India less than 100 years ago. Of course the man didn’t have to kill himself if any of his wives died, or even if all did, since after all a woman was just another of a man’s possessions and not the other way around.

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Going back to the military aspects of the fort, these days the best way to infiltrate the fort is to zip right into it from the nearby hills. That’s right, a British company setup zip lines in and out of the fort and for a relatively small fee you can zip line all around the amazing walls. This is not something we were going to miss of course so here are some pictures from our adventure:

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Kristine’s account on Derek’s 2nd zip-lining attempt:

First, you should learn about Derek’s history with zip-lining. Although Derek was injured during his first zip-lining attempt in Costa Rica, this did not deter him from trying again! His first try involved him almost being thrown from the zip line, and the line ripping through his swim trunks through his pants thus producing a massive, bloody scratch along the side of his thigh. The swim shorts were torn from top to bottom, but he was determined to keep going!

Zip-lining through the Mehrangargh fort and surrounding hills was amazing! The Flying Fox staff was thorough, ensured our safety, and were a lot of fun! I betcha didn’t know that some of the new Batman movie was filmed here! Derek’s thigh was spared but he did not leave unscathed. Due to the shoes provided for protection being too small, the shoes bloodied his already beaten toe nail beds. In addition, his protective glove was too worn therefore his hand became a little raw when trying to stop on the very last zip-line. The staff was great and tried to provide bandages and rubbing alcohol but the bandages were super dirty so we had to clean and disinfect his wounds elsewhere.

We were fortunate to meet another couple during our ziplining adventure, Claire and Morton. They were travelling for 3 whole months in India! They were from Ireland and coincidentally Claire was a nurse and Morton was also involved in something only Derek could relate to (yup… I still don’t get what Derek does). We all decided to have dinner together so we walked throughout Jodhpur, miraculously stuffed ourselves into a rickshaw, and headed for Claire and Morton’s hotel. Their hotel was HIGH CLASS compared to the places we are used to! Morton was incredibly pleased that we were able to utilize his super-stocked first aid kit, and we were able to fix Derek up in the gorgeous and spacious bathroom in Claire and Morton’s suite. We had a wonderful dinner and great conversation about everything from finance to nursing to India to Claire’s current stomach sickness. We really enjoyed their company!

We were having trouble finding a rickshaw back into town but Morton was kind enough to run around his hotel and try to organize a rickshaw driver. Also, because we were having such a great time we lost track of the time and realized that we wouldn’t have time to research and book a room in Jaisalmer. But Morton was kind enough to find, email, and reserve a place for Derek and I for the next day! WOW! Morton and Claire’s kindness and generousity with their super-stocked first aid kit, use of their washroom, fantastic tour-operator skills, and successful attempt in finding us a rickshaw will always be remembered and appreciated.

It is always great meeting people as awesome as Claire and Morton. Claire – I would love to hear your account on being hospitalized in Delhi (especially being an Irish RN!!) … and I hope you are both feeling much better!

Posted by dariusz 05:14 Archived in India Comments (2)

Udaipur - Day 2

During our second day in Udaipur, Derek and I decided to go swimming again but at another palace for a few hours. It was lovely but I could almost swear that the servants were completely ignoring us. But for about $6 per person who cares! We saved ourselves a good $10-$20 by not buying any drinks from them anyway.
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We went with Heino and Jeannette to the Monsoon Palace in the evening to check out the sunset. The palace is dilapidated with a cheesy, quasi-museum inside but the outer palace has a great view over the city. Heino said it was similar to his home country – Namibia. We enjoyed cold(ish) drinks that we smuggled into the museum grounds, watched a monkey stalk Derek and Heino, dodged unwelcome “guides”, and witnessed the blazing sun go down behind the dusty hills of Udaipur.
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Heino had proposed to Jeannette while we were in Jaipur. When we had met them, he had already proposed but they didn’t tell us because they wanted to tell their families first. This was supposed to be their romantic engagement weekend. We didn’t want to impose on their weekend but they were nice enough to have us join them. We were all so hungry after the visit to the Monsoon Palace and wanted to eat somewhere recommended by Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet as the best way to avoid stomach sickness. We wouldn’t want Heino and Jeannette’s engagement ruined by that!

Derek found a place recommended in our guide book and quickly found the place which guaranteed great food and spectacular views. When we walked MANY flights of stairs to the rooftop of the restaurant, we noticed the view was mundane and only 2 people occupied the restaurant. The prices in this restaurant were the cheapest we have ever seen. Shortly after we sat down, all of the other people in the restaurant left.

These seemed all to be bad signs. But this was recommended in our guide book so how bad can it be? Another family came in the restaurant, looked around questioningly, sat down, read the menu, then immediately got up and almost ran out. Hmmmm….

Then we were given our menus which had Chinese characters in the front. I thought this was supposed to be an Indian restaurant? We each ordered drinks and Indian food from an extremely limited list of choices. All of us ordered something with chicken in it, but when Jeannette ordered her chicken dish, the waiter said he couldn’t do that dish. We couldn’t figure out why he could make our chicken dishes and not hers, but since it is difficult to argue or compromise in India, she chose something else.

All of these occurrences struck us as very strange and Derek looked back into the guidebook and groaned. It turned out that we were supposed to be looking for a restaurant called “Jagat Niwas”, a highly recommended restaurant on the rooftop of a palace. Instead, Derek had found us “Jag Niwas”. A lot of businesses in India will completely copy or slightly copy the name of another successful restaurant or hotel hoping that tourists will be fooled into coming to their ghetto version of the more popular business.

Until this day, Derek is still upset that he was duped by one of the oldest tricks played in India.

We discovered we were in the ghetto version and the food proved that to be right. Although 3 of us ordered chicken, I was certain that I was given the cartilage, Heino the bones, and Derek some kind of gummy “meat” which we HOPED was chicken.

Afterwards, we went to another place to have dessert and tea. The dessert was subpar and Derek and I figured that we potentially ruined their engagement weekend with an impending stomach illness caused by the awful restaurants we brought them to.

Jeanette and Heino – we publicly apologize to bringing you to the restaurant-ghettos of India! We are glad that nothing negatively abdominal occurred and wish you the best with your future! Our trip to Udaipur was definitely memorable because of you!

Posted by krisses 18:01 Archived in India Comments (1)

Udaipur - Day 1

One can see why the city of Udaipur was once deemed “the most romantic spot on the continent of India” by a British colonel in the 1800’s. All of the buildings bear the shades of cream, whites, rose, and gold. Its buildings are situated around Lake Pichola, which is quite serene and beautiful at night.

Relative to Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, it is less congested and the touts and shop owners are not as annoying. Still, they can be quite annoying but not as relentless.

We were fortunate to have a great view of the lake from the terrace of our hotel, Jaiwana Haveli. This place is owned by 2 very hospitable, polite, and honest brothers. We absolutely loved our stay here. They did not take any commission for advice, all of their prices and itineraries were displayed with prices included, and they always made good and honest recommendations. Also, the bathrooms and bedrooms were immaculately clean! Although this description should seem standard to most people, this was actually a rarity in most of the hotels we stayed at in India.

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On our first day, Derek and I visited the Jagdish temple – a beautiful Indo-Aryan temple built in 1651. The money donated to the temple helps feed the poor. Udaipur has programs that promote an end to begging, and the Jagdish temple is a fantastic example of this. But as beautiful as the temple is, there were still a couple of things that “annoyed” me greatly:

1) Unwelcome “guides”: sometimes there are people who just start to talk to you and act as a “guide” even though you never asked for their help. Of course they expect some kind of tip after they give you basic knowledge about the place that you can easily find in a guide book. This “guide” annoyed me because we knew that there were no guides allowed on the premises and there is a sign that says “no tipping guides in the temple” since the money is to go to the temple and the poor. The best way to get rid of these unwelcome guides is to tell them that you don’t have the money to pay them and if they want to give you free information, they are more than welcome to. No unwelcome guide has taken us up on this offer.

2) Shoe Protectors: This is not a piece of cloth that is given to you so you can protect your shoes. Before entering the temple, you must take off your shoes. Usually, you are allowed to stow away your shoes in your bag or leave them outside the temple and no one takes them. But at this temple, there are people that surround you and force you to put your shoes into a cubicle where they will “protect” your shoes. When you leave, a random guy says “money for shoes”. Seriously – he expects you to pay him when there are signs that clearly say that there is no tipping and that the money goes to the temple. We didn’t tip this so-called “shoe protector” since the money we donated was rightfully placed in the recommended box within the temple, and neither did many other annoyed tourists we met.

Although quite rampant, one cannot let their visit to India be ruined by such behaviour. The best way to go about it is to be assertive and not reinforce the behaviour by giving in. But Jagdish temple is so beautiful and is a must-see! The carvings are exquisite, the music and chanting is melodious and cheerful, and the majority of the people are welcoming and friendly. (One of these pictures has racy kamasutra-inspired carvings randomly inlaid into the temple).

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The next place we visited was the City Palace and the City Palace museum. We were lucky to run into our buddies from Jaipur and the train from Jaipur to Udaipur and explored these places together. All palaces and palace museums are over-the-top reminders of how wealthy the Maharanas and princes were. These buildings always have exquisite carvings, paintings, and a rich history of success, defeat, rivalry, and royal drama. Here are some pictures of the palace and the palace museum:

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The weather in India is something I have been unable to cope with. The temperature is around 40 degrees celcius, there usually isn’t a cloud in the sky, and the heat is so dry. Apparently at these temperatures, Derek loses his wife to madness and he needs to seek ways to keep her sane. As suggested by our hotel owners, we went swimming at the palace. This was a brilliant idea. With our fellow travelers, we had some nice mocktails, mineral water, and took a dip in the luxurious outdoor pool area. I thought that the water would feel like molten, boiling and bubbling lava. I was very wrong! It was so cool and refreshing and I happily waded the afternoon away. For the cost of only $6 per person, Derek successfully kept his wife sane.

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After a day of exploring the City Palace and swimming in its pool with Heino and Jeannette, we went find dinner. We crossed over the lake bridge and discovered a humongous full moon. Under the moonlight, Udaipur was quite beautiful.

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Originally, I recommended a Veggie restaurant but as we walked towards the restaurant I quickly realized that this was not going to be doable. This particular restaurant was situated at the lake’s edge– but at the edge of the lake was a disgusting collection of garbage and sludge. I’m sure the food was probably amazing, however I couldn’t endure the stench coming from the lake so we went to a decidedly more appealing option.

The restaurant “Ambrai” is a gorgeous outdoor restaurant also situated by the lake, MINUS the stench and garbage. You could see large bats flutter across the moonlit sky, and the tables were romantically lit by candlelight. I was DYING to see a bat eclipse the moon so that the “batman signal” would be revealed, but to my disappointment it never happened. Despite the absence a “batman signal”, dinner was plentiful and delicious with fantastic company and drink:

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… it was a great ending to an equally great day.

Posted by krisses 09:27 Archived in India Comments (9)

Train Ride from Jaipur to Udaipur

Derek and I travelled from Jaipur to Udaipur by train. Instead of being in the 2nd class/sleeper part of the train where everyone’s bare, dirty feet are dangling in your face, we opted for the “AC chair.” This means that we pay for the comforts of air conditioning and a large, reclining seat. Like being in the 2nd class/sleeper car, everyone pushing their way into and out of the train against each other with absolutely no regard for personal space was (not wanted) but also included in AC chair.

The best part of this ride is the instructions on the stow-away tray in front of you. I love how this was ACTUALLY an issue enough for this “warning” to be printed on this tray! Please read the last warning on this tray:

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We were fortunate to be put right beside a super nice couple we met and chatted with in the Amber Fort in Jaipur! The funny thing about meeting other tourists is that everyone ends up venting about what’s driving them crazy about visiting India, exchanging stories of getting ripped off, and venting about general annoyances. In the end, everyone always gets a good laugh out of it and happily travels on!

In the middle of this train ride, we were to stay in the same car but change seats. The other couple had to go in a different car but still in the same train towards the same end point as us. These are just small examples of how little things in India may not make sense to you, but it is what it is and a billion people seem to think it’s just fine, so who am I to judge?

Derek and I made our way to our new seats and a man and his daughter were sitting there already. Derek showed him our tickets and politely informed him that he was sitting in our seat and that we would like to sit there. The man said,”Yes please… you can take my seat over there.” Derek looked at him with confusion, and then kindly said “No thank you. We would like to sit in the seats we were assigned to.” And the man responded with agitation and the side-to-side head shaking action and said ,”You may sit over there! It’s my seat. It is ok!” Derek suddenly seemed to grow in size as his frustration increasingly grew.

It’s quite amusing to watch Derek get angry, unless you’re the one he’s getting angry at. I’ve only seen him get angry like this 3 times. Once in New York City while a guy wouldn’t stop pestering me, another time in Venezuela when a man wrongfully accused Derek for budding in line, and this time was the 3rd time. First, it’s so difficult to see Derek angry because he is naturally so good-natured, jovial, and smiley. But when becomes angry, he reminds me of the incredible hulk as he slowly grows in size, hovers over the cause of his discontent, while his face contorts into something very threatening. I’ve been waiting for him to suddenly bust out of his clothing, but that hasn’t happened yet.

After about 5 minutes of arguing, much side-to-side head shaking that seemed to go faster and faster as the argument went on, and while everyone was trying to push and shove their way past us in both directions, the man reluctantly and sulkily relinquished OUR ASSIGNED SEATS to US.

During this part of the train ride, the man checking the tickets brought a policeman with him to seats occupied by a man, his daughter, and his wife. Although we couldn’t understand the language, it seemed that the ticket guy and policeman were accusing the seated man of something and wanted him and his family to get out of their seats. It started off civil enough, but the argument grew louder and the side-to-side head shaking became faster and faster. It was like a bunch of bobble-heads yelling at each other in Hindi. There was also a lot of the “take it and go” hand action that the comedian Russell Peters performed during his older stand-up comedy routines – characterized by making a fist near your chest then pushing your hand and arm out away from your body while opening your hand. The argument was visually spectacular as other people around us got into the action.

Finally, a man beside us explained that the people seated in the seats did not have any proof of identification for the ticket. The seated man claimed that his last name was “Gupta’ and that he forgot to bring his identification with him, but the ticket guy and the policeman were telling him that he had to leave and that ‘Gupta’ is such a common name. The interesting this was that nothing warranted this – there was no one that came to the seats claiming it was theirs and the man clearly had an E-ticket on him.

So why make a big deal about it? It turns out that there are clear instructions that say that if you buy a ticket online that you MUST have ID on you. But if no one else wants that seat why make him leave? Someone from the 2nd class car will just walk onto the car and claim the seats for themselves without paying and WILL NOT LEAVE unless someone shows a ticket claiming that it’s theirs.

We felt bad for the man and his family. The argument was so heated and I was afraid that someone was going to have a heart attack. Other passengers started joining in the argument, others started laughing out loud, others had their jaws dropped in surprise, and others just carried on with conversation as if nothing was happening. The fight lasted for almost half an hour.

In the end, other passengers seemed to back up the man and his family so the ticket guy and policeman gave up and left.
India is jam-packed with action and the train-rides are definitely not excluded!

Posted by krisses 05:26 Archived in India Comments (4)

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