There isn’t much to report about my full day journey from Pushkar to Agra. I took the train and arrived safe, sound and on time. Not much happened.
Real travel bloggers would cringe at an opening like that but it’s the truth, and I always tell the truth and nothing but the truth, as you are all well aware.
On Thursday morning I walked from my hotel in the centre of Pushkar to a hostel (Zostel) on the edge of town. I met up with a guy I know from a hostel in Delhi and we split the cost of an Uber cab from Pushkar to the train station in Ajmer. The 45 minute ride set us back 300 rupees or $3 each. I thought it was a little steep, to tell you the truth.
I had wanted to make a quick stop at a place along the way where a family of monkeys are known to hang out. The Uber driver would have none of it. Time is money, I suppose. I wasn’t too upset as there will be plenty of opportunities to observe monkeys, and I did get a few nice shots of the hundreds of monkeys that have the run of downtown Pushkar.
For someone who has never been to Ajmer, my buddy Ashish sure knew his way around the train station. We had no trouble finding the proper entrance, track and carriage. This was in stark contrast to my experience in Delhi where a crooked or perhaps fake security guard stopped me at the entrance and upon checking my ticket informed me that my train had been cancelled and I’d have to take a taxi to another station to catch another train. That was a lie and he was obviously in cahoots with the taxi drivers.
And because all seats on the train to Agra were reserved, my name was on the manifest which was taped to the side of my car. I was sitting in the right seat at least 40 minutes before departure time. How boring is that?
True to Indian tradition, the train left right on time. And I mean RIGHT on time. I kept an eye on my iPhone (to see if we’d be late and make sure it didn’t get donated) and when it clicked over from 3:04 to 3:05 (the scheduled departure time) I sensed that we were moving. I looked up from the phone and indeed we were rolling.
As the train exited the station and began to pick up speed I noticed a swarm of people running towards us. Dozens of men and teenage boys and even a few women with small children jumped on board. They mostly stayed at the doorways, precariously clinging to railings, and in that space between cars known as “Certain Death Should You Slip.” One by one they jumped off as we slowed at level crossings in the suburban slums.
I’m going to write to Toronto mayor John Tory and see if he’s aware of this phenomena. His Smart Track proposal may be a lot cheaper than building shiny new subways to Milliken and King City and Streetsville but just think how many more people could be served and how much money could be saved if we just taught GTA commuters to jump on and off slow moving CN and CP freight trains.
And speaking of saving money, I’m trying to do India on $30 a day. In other countries travel days are the most expensive but with State Railways of India you can travel half the width of the country for about four bucks. On Canada’s VIA Rail you’d be lucky to score a pack of peanuts for four bucks!
Above: Screen shot of the app (Trail Wallet) that I use to track my daily expenses. Thursday’s tally was CA$34 including train fare and the best breakfast I’ve had in six months. Why didn’t I hear about Om Shiva Cafe until my last day in Pushkar? I chose a particularly cheap seat for the eight hour run to Agra, based partly on my only other experience with Indian Rail. I rode in the comfort of an air-conditioned car on the seven hour journey from Delhi to Ajmer. I’d describe it as pleasant but sterile. It wasn’t very hot outside so there was no need for AC. The seats were wide and comfortable, and there was a power outlet at every seat, but there was precious little in the way of blog material in that car. Downgrading to non-AC (second class) might be the answer, I reasoned.
I was wrong. Although the seats in second class were just hard benches (3 to a bench) and no food or beverages were included, it was easy to get up and walk around and vendors regularly came through the car selling toys, clothes, meals, snacks, water and chai. I couldn’t buy any, mind you, as I only had some 500 rupee notes. It’s not that I didn’t have enough cash — I had too much cash. When I tried to pass off the equivalent of a $10 bill the vendors looked at me the way an Air Canada flight attendant might look at an Arab Sheik trying to buy a Coke with a $1000 bill. Thankfully my backpack contained a bottle of water, a pack of eight Ritz biscuits and a bag of crushed chips. And Tums. I got really hungry around 9 p.m. and ate a whole roll of Tums.
The onboard entertainment came as a bit of a surprise. Minutes after we left Ajmer a group of three kids — two boys and a girl between about 5 and 13 — stormed into the car, banging a drum, clanging symbols, and generally causing one hell of a commotion. Once they had everyone’s undivided attention they launched into some sort of comedy routine that had everyone but me in stitches. I didn’t understand the jokes but I couldn’t help but smile when others were practically rolling in the aisle. When a conductor came though and told the kids to move along, the older boy sat down on the floor, the younger one did a handstand in his lap, and together they launched into a sequence of summersaults that put them in the next car in about 4 seconds flat. As expected, they soon returned with cap in hand. Watch for these kids in a future Cirque du Soleil show!
I didn’t have many conversations over the eight hour trip as only one of the people in my car spoke much English. (I reached out the window to take a selfie and a man warned me to keep my hands inside the car at all times. When I said that I had checked and no trains or poles were in sight, he advised that someone could “accidentally” knock a phone from my hand and an accomplice would pick it up. I hadn’t anticipated that potential threat.
I rode the full length of the route but most people were onboard for a few hours at most. At times the car was completely full and at one point it was just me and a guy with two small kids. The little boy and girl played quietly and happily with toy flip phones and a plastic windmill that spun in the breeze. I made sure they didn’t go near the wide open door. Dad slept for an hour and was completely oblivious to the danger.
We made several unscheduled stops to let approaching trains pass and at least once to let a sick person off the train. I saw the man being carried into the station at Jaipur. He appeared to be stiff as a board. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was put on the next train to Varanasi. We pulled into Agra about 20 minutes early. I know this as I was paying attention to the schedule and I had noticed the “Agra” sign on the platform. However, I was confused when only a handful of people got up to leave the train. In fact, more people got on than off despite this supposedly being the terminus. A German speaking couple left with one of the men who had just boarded. I heard him say quite a emphatically, “Yes, THIS is Agra. See the sign.”
When I asked what was going on, the only English speaker in my cluster of 12 seats explained that we were at Agra Station, but most people including me were going to Agra FORT Station. And the Germans? They left with a tuk tuk driver who would gladly take them to the same station we were going to. They’ll just arrive an hour later and 1000 rupees lighter.
Welcome to Agra.