Monday, December 7
9:00 – Over breakfast I decide to leave Varanasi one day earlier than planned and head to Jaipur for four days rather than directly back to Delhi. I go to a travel agent around the corner from my guest house and ask him to check availability on today’s 5:45 pm train. He checks and it’s fully booked. There’s plenty of room on tomorrow’s train though. I ask if there’s any way he can find a ticket for tonight’s train. You know, wink wink. Not surprisingly, he knows a guy who knows a guy and for a 570R premium he can secure a ticket on tonight’s train. I agree to pay 1000R for a ticket with a face value of 430R.
This sudden availability of a ticket doesn’t surprise me. What is absolutely shocking is that he tries to talk me out of it. “You’d be crazy to pay 1000 to go today when you can just stay here overnight and go tomorrow for 430.” Two possible scenarios come to mind: A) he’s not getting much of a cut from the scalper; or B) he knows that I have checked out of Ganpati Guest House and he might collect a commission from them if he convinces me to stay one more night. It’s right around the corner and I’m sure they scratch each other’s backs. I tell him to go ahead and book the rush seat. He is clearly disappointed but says that he’ll send his boy to the train station to pick up the ticket and it will be here within the hour.
10:00 – The boy has not returned and he’s not answering his phone. “Give him another hour,” says the agent.
11:00 – Still no ticket. “Have a seat,” he says. As much as I’m charmed by the lizard crawling up the wall and the trio of mice visible from my seat in the 6′ x 8′ office, I tell him that I’ll return at noon.
11:10 – I return to the hotel and use their free wifi to confirm that tonight’s train is indeed fully booked. It’s not too hard to check that online but it’s very difficult if not impossible for a foreigner to purchase and pay for a ticket online without using a third party. (It’s easier if you have a local phone number.)
12:00 – Still no ticket. Maybe I’m paranoid but I’m beginning to wonder if this whole thing is a scam.
13:00 – Still no ticket but at least he pleads for me to wait. The boy isn’t answering his cell phone so dad says he MUST be on the motorcycle. (Because no Indian would answer their phone while driving!)
13:08 – He’s here! Apparently traffic was nuts. “Compared to what?” I ask. He doesn’t get sarcasm.
13:15 – I leave the agent’s office 1000R lighter but with a ticket in hand. I paid a 570R premium to get out of Varanasi one day earlier than planned but I’ll save 600R on the much cheaper hostel rooms in Jaipur.
14:30 – I flag a tuk tuk and tell him that I’m going to the train station but must stop along the way to buy a pen and notebook. He knows just the place.
The marching band members that we passed were apparently on their way to a dry run for next week’s visit of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
15:43 – Apparently I’m not the first one to arrive at the Varanasi Train Station.
15:45 – I don’t have any trouble determining that my train will depart from Track #9 and there are three trains arriving and departing from that track before the Express to Jodhpur. (I’m only going as far as Jaipur but the train will be marked with a destination of Jodhpur.) I buy a chai and find a seat on the platform.
16:10 – Check out the fat cow that sits down beside me:
16:30 – One of the trains that arrives on Track #9 doesn’t even bother to stop. A few people get off and several hundred jump on, but it keeps rolling. There are 24 carriages on this train.
16:32 – So what are you going to do if you’re a senior and not comfortable jumping on a moving train? Call your son, that’s what. I call this video, “Throw Momma ON The Train.”
16:35 – The man on momma’s right arm eventually jumps on the train and pulls the emergency stop switch. The train comes to a stop, momma gets on, another boy tosses her very heavy looking sack in the door after her and the train immediately picks up speed. Such a sweet, caring son.
17:45 – I’m seated near Nick, a 32-year-old Hollywood-based screenwriter, director and acting coach. The acting coach gig pays the bills, I suspect. He says that I wouldn’t know his name and he never did offer it, but he has produced two feature films that have been released in Europe and South America. He’s a genuine person, very easy to talk to, and like me, always taking notes.
18:35 – Nick and I swap travel stories. He makes a few notes while I tell the story of my father miraculously finding Santa Anita Racetrack without a roadmap. When I ask what part of the story he found so interesting, he says, “Belfry! I gotta use that name sometime.”
20:00 – The lights go out so I call it an early night. I take the top berth (of three) and find that it’s long enough to stretch out, unlike the two-high berths that I experienced on my trip to Varanasi.
Tuesday, December 8
7:30 – The train is stopped when I wake up. Nick says that we have been stopped for a while. My GPS indicates that we’re just halfway between Varanasi and Agra when we should be in Agra. At this rate we’ll be four or five hours late getting into Jaipur.
13:00 – I’ve read a good portion of a book, had copious amounts of chai and three very tasty samosas for 20R (40 cents).
13:20 – When traveling through China, Mongolia and The Stans, I often made note of what was written on kids clothing. I recall seeing a girl in Mongolia with “pretty girl motor oil” written down the leg of her track pants. Another boy in China wore a t-shirt emblazoned with “My insert here went to grandmother Mickey Mouse and I see newspaper.” What the hell does that mean? Sadly, some of the translations were less than humorous. I saw a five-year-old girl in Kyrgyzstan wearing a shirt that said “baby maker” and in China a larger and possibly pregnant woman wore a t-shirt that said “Dead Inside.” There’s a little boy sitting below me on this train with “Mickey Smack” written on the back of his jacket.
18:10 – The third person in a week has said that I look like Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt.
20:08 – We pull into Jaipur Junction a full six hours behind schedule. I exit the station and find a tuk tuk. A slightly built boy of about 16 offers to drive me to Zostel for 100R. The price seems low but he insists that he knows where it is and 100R is the price. After 10 minutes the price increases to 150R. I ask why and he claims that Zostel has moved. I know this to be true so I don’t put up much of an argument.
20:18 – The driver has been on his phone for 5 minutes. We pull over to the side of the road and a much more imposing guy of about 30 gets on. We make a U-turn and the three of us take off for Zostel. After a few minutes the big guy tells the smaller boy to get off as he’ll take me the rest of the way. This doesn’t feel right.
20:30 – We’ve gone further than I think we should have and suddenly the driver pulls down a narrow, unlit street. I can tell from my GPS that we’re heading in the right direction but it seems too early to get off the main road. And by me continually checking my GPS, the big guy knows that I have a shiny new iPhone. I cannot help but think of the time I was mugged in Lima so I’m prepared to jump and run at any moment.
20:36 – I spot the sign for Zostel up ahead but still have to direct him to the door. It turns out that he’s harmless — just dumb. I give him 200R and tell him to keep the change. He gives me a bear hug and a big smile. We’re apparently best buds.