As I mentioned, I recently had two dear friends come visit from the United States. In true me fashion, I totally mixed up the day they planned to arrive. So, I accidentally put us on the overnight train to Amritsar on the same day that they arrived. Now it takes a full day to get to India from the U.S., so they had not seen a bed or shower in essentially two days – the overnight train is not exactly like home. But, hey, they were a captive audience – what could they do? Thank God they also have adventurous spirits and forgiving hearts.
We started off their first day by going to Dilli Haat – a craft fair that is not too overwhelming – and Khan market – a market with a more Western feel. My thought was to “ease” them in to India before throwing them on the train.
We had a lovely day of shopping and a leisurely lunch at a place I knew they would not get sick, a place where it is even safe to have a drink with ice – they took a shower – we picked up the kids at school – ate a yummy Indian meal at home and then headed out. We were running a little behind because, heck, getting three women fed, showered, packed, and out the door ain’t easy. So we asked the driver to get us there quickly (during rush hour). Welcome to India my dear friends. We weaved and bobbed and honked our way through 45 minutes of full-on traffic. Jet lag was hitting them hard and just as my friends would drop their eyelids, a horn would blast or the car would swerve and jostle them out of any sleep they hoped to catch.
Not too far into the ride, we had this conversation…
Ann: That car is going down the wrong side of the road.
Me: Mmm-Hmmm. Yes, it is.
Ann: But he is kind of coming towards us.
Me: Yep. That is true – he is.
And then, let the games begin, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the road.
Our train was scheduled to leave at 7p. Most people will tell you that the trains in India are never late. So when our driver pulled in front of the train station at 6:53p, I told my buddies to grab their stuff and let’s go. I was trying very hard not to let on that I was very worried we would be too late and that I was not at all confident that I could navigate through the station, find our train, and then find our seats on the train.
We went up a very crowded stair case and then thru “security” and then down more very crowded stairs and onto the platform. I was crossing my fingers pretty sure that I could figure out what to do. Luckily there were some very helpful people on the platform. And unfortunately many curious people. Ann and Julia had never really been truly stared at before – but we fixed that right away – you could stare at them for about 10 hours straight now and they probably would not even notice.
Pretty quickly we found where I prayed we thought the train was supposed to come at 6:59p and looked up to find that the train would be about 15 minutes late. We also found our names on the list with one slight hiccup. We had purchased a ticket for Angel to reserve all four seats in the cabin for just us. Angel wasn’t actually coming with us and she wasn’t listed in our cabin. Our cabin had the name of another passenger listed.
Me: That never happens. Trains in India are never late. snicker. snicker. And passenger lists never get mixed up.
Ann: That’s okay, I can wait 15 minutes. It’s really not that long.
Me: Remember, expectations low. We’ll address the extra passenger when we get on the train.
The train station isn’t exactly clean – it is very crowded – and it feels a little unsafe if you aren’t used to it. I felt safe. But I think my visitors felt a little overwhelmed and super duper tired. I would argue that their impressions had as much to do with how tired they were as they did the surroundings – but the surroundings weren’t exactly what they were used to. There were no seats and the ground was filthy slightly dirty. Trash was everywhere. There were men not too far from us using the train tracks as a restroom. There were young children selling things. There were some older men begging. There were lots and lots of stares. And, not having a scratch and sniff blog, I really cannot begin to describe the smell of train smoke, cigarette smoke, trash, urine, body odor, and the like. Let’s just say Estee Lauder won’t be marketing it as a perfume any time soon.
I set my bag on the ground but my friends held tightly onto theirs. They were trying really hard to be patient, stay awake, and hold onto their things. The only thing I could say was “aren’t you glad you came?”
I won’t bore you with how many times we were teased with what time the train would really arrive but we finally boarded at about 8:30p for a 9p departure. We had a cabin to ourselves (the mystery passenger never appeared) and I remembered to bring a bottle of wine and some very fancy plastic cups and lots of snacks. (If you ever travel with me, you can be pretty sure you won’t starve – I am big on the bag o’snacks. I also almost always have diaper wipes, hand sanitizer, gum, tylenol, and toilet paper. Yes, you’ll want to sit with me on your next Indian train ride.) We sat down thankful for a place to sit. The cabin, on first inspection, did not seem too bad. But you never really want to dig too deep here. We brought our own pillows and blankets and we had wine. All is well, right? Sure. We’ll go with that. Or maybe not…………
Ann: There is something moving over there.
Julia: It might just be the light reflecting in that silver thing.
Ann: I think it is a mouse.
Ann: Maybe it’s just the reflection.
Ann again: No, I am pretty sure it’s a mouse.
Ann: Right above your bunk.
Me: Wanna switch?
Ann: I am the guest remember?
Me: Luckily they don’t charge extra for that.
So we broke out the wine and the snacks. I accidentally dropped one of the cups on the floor of the cabin and my dear, sweet friends made sure that was the cup I was served my wine in. After all, I am more acclimated to the region.
We ate, we drank, and we tried to sleep. I have heard that the overnight train is fantastic. I guess that depends on what you mean by fantastic. I would say it was fine. But it is very difficult to sleep. The train had a slight jerking and many stops and a pretty nasty bathroom – oh, and did I mention that there was a mouse? So, it is fine. But we didn’t sleep much.
We got to Amritsar at about 8am and went straight to the Ista Hotel. This was the perfect introduction to the reality of India because India is full of contradictions – highs and lows. And they jumped right in. From the train station to the Ista – it doesn’t get much more extreme than that. And we all took the most fabulous showers of our lives before heading out to the Golden Temple.
More to come………..