Saturday, June 03, 2006

Two Guys, 2 Rucksacks and some 9000km...

It was sometime in January 2000, when Rajat, a friend of mine, who then worked for ZEE News, dropped into my place, when I told him about my plan to visit South India for a few days. He said that he was also planning to visit the North East of India, to visit a couple of friends and somehow we decided to club these together because I hadn't seen the NE of India and he hadn't seen the South.

Out came a 6'x4' map of India which I possess and our prelim route planning was underway. Our original itinerary was Delhi -Goa -Hyderabad - Nellore- Tirupati- Madras- Bangalore- Mysore- Bangalore- Guwahati- Shillong- Delhi. However, due to time constraints, the Goa-Hyderabad leg was dropped and the final decision was made to travel: Delhi- Nellore- Tirupati- Chennai- Bangalore- Mysore- Bangalore- Guwahati- Shillong- Guwahati- New Delhi

We departed from New Delhi in the 2616 GT express in Sleeper class. Our first stop was Nellore. We were stocked with enough supplies to keep us in 'high spirits' all the way. We made friends with a bunch of guys in our coach... and the journey was accomplished with sessions of 'antakshari' , fights with the train conductor over smoking on the door, arguments with 'hijras' (eunuchs) who said I reminded him of some movie star but couldn't recall his exact name (I knew he actually meant Paresh Rawal...heheh). The hilly sections on the way were spent in happy clicks of the camera and educating my friends about bankers, WAM4s and BOXNs.

After the mandatory ice cream session at Nagpur, we settled for a nap, because I wanted to get up at Balharshah to watch the run till Sirpur Kagaznagar by sunset. Dinner was at Warangal, before we settled in for another nap till BZA. I didn't want to miss out on the really cool fruit juice stalls of BZA. The Krishna bridge was passed with a thunderous roar with the new crew emulatinf a Formula 1 driver. They regaled us till Nelloreand it was around 0330 in the morning when we landed there. A short walk to my maternal grandparents' home and we were soon sleeping, trying to wear off the effects of a 34 hr journey. Next morning, I showed Rajat around Nellore, a place typical of small town India, trying to catch up fast with the rest of the world. In the last ten years, Nellore has shown a spurt of growth unmatched in its hundreds of years of history. What with the coming of the cable TV, the internet, it turned a laid back small town of rice growers and prawn farmers into big time wannabes. Showrooms selling Levis and Omegas are as common as they would be in Delhi and Bombay. I couldn't help but feel like Pankaj Mishra and his best selling book 'Butter Chicken in Ludhiana'.

Nellore has undergone the same change as lets say Kerala. In Kerala, money flew in from its expat sons in the Gulf, while small town Andhra sons have made it big in the US as IT professionals. The dollars and the attitude that these kids have sent back has really transformed the whole place... for good.. or bad, I don't know !!!

Anyways, coming back to the point, we spent the next day on the Mypadu beach, which is half an hour's drive from Nellore through lush green paddy fields, coconut groves and prawn farms. We waded across the Buckingham canal to get to the beach and when we got there, we realized that there were only two people there. Rajat and me!!!!! So we had a gala time, having chilled beer sitting on some fisherman's dugout canoe and watching distant ships smoke on the horizon.

Next day we decided to go to Tirupati by one of the East Coast's most notorious trains the now defunct Tirupati-Howrah Express. Calling up the railway enquiry, we were informed that the train was 50 mins late (no surprise). Accordingly, we decided to move from our place for the station. We decided to walk it , and along the 1km or so stretch , the stares and the smiles we got convinced me that this STILL was small town India, where backpackers in heavy metal band t-shirts, hiking shorts and boots with baseball caps were still a novelty.

Reaching the station, I asked Rajat to go to the platfom while I bought the tickets. Nellore station has an interesting layout... the tracks being a good 12-15 ft above road level... the ticket halls, booking counters etc, are on road level... to reach the main platforms one has to take a subway of sorts and then climb a steep incline ( no stairs ). While in the line... I heard the rumble of a train pulling into the station above my head... and suddenly a guy came screaming, "bandi vacchindi, bandi vacchindi".." meaning the train has arrived, the train has arrived"... Having no clue as to which train, I somehow had a intuition and ran through the subway, and saw Rajat standing at the top of the incline, and I screamed and asked him what train it was and all he mouthed was "Tirupati .... " and I went "@##$%...... that's our train". Somehow ran up the steep grade with my huge rucksack and jumped into train which was already moving and we were ticket less!! Typical of its nature, the Howrah Express had come up with another surprise for us. Luckily, I still possessed our GT exp. tickets, which we had booked till Madras.. And while getting down at Nellore, we had break journey inscribed on them. So the tickets were valid till Gudur at least, which was the next stop.

When the TTE came Rajat tried to tell him in English, about the whole situation and the TTE simply said " next station, train stop 40 mins.... you go buy ticket." Before I could open my mouth and ask any further , he was gone. If we went literally went by what the TTE had to say, it meant. at the next station, the train will stop for 40 mins, so it shouldn't be a problem for us to buy the train tickets. But opening the timetable, we realized what he meant. He actually meant.. That the next station is 40 mins away so we can buy the tickets there. Luckily the train stoppedjust near the ticket window, so I was able to buy the tickets easily.

The train was being hauled by an ancient WAM4 from and never did the driver dare go beyond 80 kmph, lest the archaic vacuum brake rake, (avg. coach was built in mid 1970s). At a station near Renigunta, I saw one of the most bizarre incidents I have seen on Indian Railways. The driver slowed down to a crawl while passing through the platform to allow railway employees to jump off. Somewhere near the station master's office an old lady stood with three huge gunnysacks and as the loco passed her by, she waved to the driver and to our utter surprise, the train stopped !!

Then the lady picked up one of her sacks, trundled up all the way to the first coach and deposited her luggage there. Then she went back and repeated the process. When all three sacks were done, the driver literally asked her if that was all and once done he started the train again. Trust me, never before have I seen this in my life. I had just heard stories that u could wave the Howrah express to a halt, but I guess they were all true !!!

Reaching Tirupati the abode of Lord Venkateshwara, we got out of the train, only to be greeted by a Sardarji who seemed to have been attracted towards us by our loud and heavily accented conversation. Having decided that we were to be his guides thereon, he latched on to us like one of those Fevicol ads. We got out of the station and crossed out of the station to reach the bus stand from where the buses departed for the shrine at Tirumala. There we got our first taste of the Hi-Tech revolution the shrine had undergone, with we being given bar-coded armbands, which specified our designated time of 'darshan'. That done, we boarded the rickety TTD bus, which wheezed its way up the twisting and turning mountain road. The road itself is an engineering marvel, and is very smooth. All along the way, one could see numerous rocks being painted in praise of Lord Venkateshwara with hymns and shlokas. Equally numerous was graffiti by amorous devotees who along with proclaiming their love for the Lord, could not resist proclaiming their love for their Sheilas, Laxmis and Ritus...

All this while, the Sardarji was telling us stories from his travels around the country. The guy was your typical trucker, who had been all over the country in his 40 years as a driver, but he had now retired with a truck company of his own, which was looked after by his sons, while he now traveled all over the land indulging in pilgrimages. Before Tirupati, he had been to Puri, Calcutta and other temple towns, and he was raving about the rampant corruption in all those places, and how the priests had made those temples into their personal fiefdoms. All these were being narrated in hardcore Punjabi replete with the choicest of abuses being hurled left right and centre at all protagonists in his stories who invariably belonged to practically all ethnic groups in our country. This motormouth geriatric was embarrassing us bigtime, but we were lucky that not a soul in the bus apart from us seemed to understand him.

Reaching Tirumala, we disappeared from his sight at the first chance lest he decided to park himself in our room only. We had already reserved our accommodation there and after a shower and a meal of masala dosas and filter coffee, we decided to roam around for a while, since our stipulated darshan time was still a few hours away. We bought some knick-knacks for our families and soon enough it was time for the Darshan.

Religion in India is as big an industry as any, and nowhere is it more apparent than in Tirupati. You could reach the sanctum sanctorum of the temple in two ways. One was the 'Free Darshan' where all you had to do was to stand in the line and then wait till the Gods smile down on you and depending on the time of the year you go, you can have the darshan in 4 to 24 hours. The other option (which we took) is to pay Rs. 50 and take a smaller queue to reach the Lord. So even the Gods charge you if you want their blessings a bit quicker.

We came out of the temple at around 12 AM, and went back to our room for a shuteye Next morning we went to see the Papanashanam waterfalls, which lie a bit higher than the town of Tirumala. Finishing that, we decided to give lunch a by and proceeded straight for Tirupati Station to catch the Saptagiri exp. to Chennai. We reached the station well before the departure and we were practically starving. As I stayed put in the waiting room to guard our rucksacks, Rajat attacked the refreshment room. He came back 20 minutes later with a smirk on his face, and I knew something was up. He then described the events of the last few minutes where in he practically emptied the refreshment stall's stock of Idli's and Vadas. So it was my turn to fill my tummy, and the moment the guy at the stall saw me, he knew he was in for more trouble as another six-footer in travel worn clothes and a hungry look sauntered in. After about 8-9 idlis, half a dozen vadas and half a liter Pepsi later, the poor guy heaved a sigh of relief as I paid him and nodded thanks and walked off, to share my story with Rajat.

Pretty soon the, Saptagiri arrived behind its yellow-green liveried WAM4-6PD ABC and he hopped in the AC Chair Car to beat the heat. At Renigunta, the train stopped to reverse, while Rajat, sick of South Indian food (already!!!!) , went in someone selling the universal IR dish : Puri and Aloo Curry. Pretty soon, I saw Rajat with a triumphant look on his face and Aloo Puri in both hands. He handed me one and started hogging the other. But one bite and his expression changed all over again because the curry tasted like Sambar!!!! This is one thing where we Punjabi's are so troubled. Just can't digest anything else for long.

Anyways, we reached Chennai on time and after a bout of serious argument with the notorious auto-shankars (autorickshaw drivers), we managed to bargain a price for him to drop us at Alwarpet. Night was spent in the company of old friends and the atmosphere reminded me of the famous pirates Song " Fifteen men on a dead man's chest. yo ho ho and a bottle of rum... drink and the devil has done the rest.. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum."

Morning broke with the smell of aloo paratha's (something for which punjabis can die for) wafting in the air. It turned out that our friend had a cook who had worked for years in a dhaba in Punjab. It was like manna from heaven after 4 days of surviving on dosas and sambar. Noontime we spent finishing some work and shopping for Kanjeevaram Saris at Nalli for our mother's and girlfriend's mothers. And on our way back, we decided to visit Elliot's beach (Adyar). I remembered it from my college days, when I used to hop on the GT Exp. just to meet my girlfriend who was studying in Chennai and also for the ride on the mother of all trains. Then the beach used to be a quiet place, where one could just sit and watch the sun go down behind our backs and just talk. How utterly romantic !! Alas... for those puppy love days..

But in the present, that quiet little place had become a clone of stinky Marina beach, with litter all over the place, beggars, college boys with their pseudo racer bikes making a racket and polluting the world a wee bit more. I was aghast at the sight, because I considered Chennai as the last bastion of things still old fashioned, but not anymore. Even then we couldn't somehow resist the water and plunged headlong, formal clothes be damned and reached back home well after sunset. Dripping from head to toe and the white ambassador which had ferried us across the town was a total mess by now.

Next morning, we woke with a major hangover, a resultant of last night's romps and rushed to Chennai Central to catch the Brindavan Exp. to Bangalore. We got down at Bangalore Cantt. And spent the next four days including Valentine's Day pub hopping across Bangalore. The idea to go to Mysore was dropped as my stomach got busted by the incessant partying. But on 16th February evening, we were in Purple Haze. Downing beers by the gallon and enjoying the music by the likes of Metallica, Pink Floyd, Ozzy Osbourne etc. At about 2300 we moved to City station to embark on the longest journey of our lives. Bangalore to Guwahati on the 'Torture' Exp. Even before it departed, we knew why it was called so. The rake was an absolute stinker, with water already leaking from the toilets and all over the floor. The coach floor itself was worn off at places and had gaping holes in some parts. And as luck would have it, we had seats #1 and 2 !! We had placed our rucksacks under the seats and by the time we reached Cantonment, the water had already seeped through and was threatening to destroy our rucksacks..

Somehow we managed to save our luggage, but from then on. Any person going to the loo or back, had to negotiate puddles on the floor, risk falling off the train through one of the holes or just plain die by the stink !! All in all it made taking a leak, an adventure. Dawn broke at Chennai, with the first of the train's three reversals and 5 loco changes. I was pleasantly surprised and thanked the almighty that at least there was a pantry on the train. It was serving egg curry and rice as standard fare. And we survived on that all the way. Next day we were traveling through Orissa, just a few months after the devastating cyclone which had ripped the entire state to tatters. All around me, I saw life slowly limping back to normal. And in a weird way, I felt proud of my nation. In the face of all sorts of adversities people still managed to smile. You could hear the women sing while the rebuilt the thatched roofs of their huts and little kids played cricket in the ruins of what wasonce perhaps their school. This resilient nature, the ability to adjust is probably what makes our country so great.

I was excited to reach Kharagpur, and come face to face with the longest railway platform in the world. Stuff, about which I had only read or heard. I wondered what did anyone do with such a long PF, when you never could find a train that long. I was shocked to see that we were pulling into a platform where there was already a train standing. Only on closer inspection did I realize, that KGP solved it's problems lengthways. Reaching Calcutta was another experience, with the quadruple lines starting way before Howrah station, and to watch the maze of lines leading into and off the mainlines was a treat for any rail fan. Then there was the inbound Geetanjali exp. which ran neck to neck with our train for a good 20 km or more. It was a sort of a race with sometimes us leading and sometimes the Geetaanjali. The passengers on both sides standing on the doors were hooting at each other as if it was a chariot race and were egging on the drivers a good 10-12 coaches away, to drive faster. Pulling into Howrah, I was disappointed. Not being familiar with the layout of the Railways in that part, I was expecting to cross the famed Howrah Bridge across the Hooghly river. Again a reversal and again a loco change, and by this time we managed to convince the TTE in giving us a better seat, away from the stinking loos. By now, the train was half empty, so it wasn't really a problem. Under the fading light, we pulled out of HWH, and I managed to catch a glimpse of the Howrah Bridge from the train so it was some consolation.

At night, I had been told to watch out for the Farakka Barrage, which allegedly looked almost like a sea, with water stretching as far as one could see. Sadly, it was a moonless night and I could make out anything at all from the window. So I just decided to hit the sack. Waking up at New Jalpaiguri, I saw the NG lines of the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan railway), but sadly no loco or rolling stock was there, except a few decrepit freight wagons. NJP onwards, what transpired was really amazing. You would have read reports on rampant smuggling on this very train. But I was witness to guys walking up and down the aisles loaded with stuff which would put shops at Burma Bazar, Hira Panna and Ghaffar Market put together to shame !!! These guys were packed to the gills with stuff like shoes, mobile phones, toys, clothes, sunglasses, music systems and god knows what else, and all this on their person !! All of it had been smuggled through the porous borders of Nepal and was for sale at rock bottom process. At New Bongaigaon, a lad of about 15-16 walked up the aisle with pockets stuffed with suspicious objects, and what he whispered into my ears confirmed it. He asked me if I was interested in buying some rum ?? and if that wasn't all, at New Alipurduar, there were hordes of travel agents who descended on the train, promising to book bus tickets for onward journeys from Guwahati !!!!

My earlier experience with such 'agents' in Gorakhpur, while traveling to Nepal, were lesson enough to stay away from them. We reached Guwhati after an agonizing 72 hrs 40 mins., just 8 hours late covering approximately 3011 Km. Hailing a cab, we reached our friend's place, and after a shower we sat down on the dinner table still shaking from the inside. All we longed for was a bed and seeing one we just crashed.

We were takes on a guided tour of Guwahati the next day. We saw the Kamakhya temple. and the view of the train line coming into the city across the mighty Bramhaputra was absolutely stunning, as was the sheer width of the river, so far upstream!!! Evening we went for a ride in Jolpori ( Jalpari or Mermaid ) which was a floating restaurant with live music and amazing food, while the boat was all lit up and looking a pretty sight in the waters of the river Bramhaputra.

The following evening, we left for Shillong by a rented Tata Sumo. It was the only road journey of our entire trip. Shillong was a pretty place. But sadly due to tribal feuding, it is very unsafe to move around after sundown. We spent 4 days there gorging on wonderful Momos, a visit to the wonderful Barapani lake and some local gossip. We were probably the tallest dudes in entire Shillong and 2 days into our stay, our friends came giggling upto us saying that their neighbours were under the impression that they had hired two body guards, what our close cropped hair and physique !!

We were sad to leave Shillong, as it as the last leg of our journey. From Guwahati, only the return trip to Delhi remained. We were due to take the North East Express back to New Delhi, and inspite of my Herculean efforts to wake Mr. Rajat, he woke up only at 0800, while the departure was scheduled at 0830. By the time we made it to the station,the NE had already pulled out, and we were left to stare at the big X.Our driver told us that we still had a chance of catching it at Kamakhyaguri station, but we ran out of fuel on the way, and then got stuck in a major traffic jam at the level crossing before the station. I still was convinced that I could run and catch the train from where we were, but inspite of my best efforts, we didn't make it.

Now we had another predicament to face. "How to get back to Delhi?" Our biggest problem was cash. We just had Rs. 1200/- left in our pocket, which we thought was enough to take us back as our tickets were already booked. Though we were to get some refund on the NE tickets.. We were unable to avail it as our tickets were booked on a credit card.

Enquiries for an ATM proved futile, there was no ATM in Guwahati during those days, and inspite of having 5 credit cards and 2 debit cards, we were stranded. So much for Visa power !!! Somehow, we were guided to the one GOOD bank in GHY, which turned out to be an ANZ Grindlays. Where the teller listened patiently to our story and asked : " So what do you want?", we were like " Hello Boss !! We want cash !!" and he was like " Do you have a credit card ?? " And we simply laid all on the counter and told him to use the one he liked the most.

After we got cash we enudured a major round of argument at the reservation counter at the station over the validity of my university identity card (as per rules, it bore my photo, signature, a serial number and was laminated), still the clerk refused to give me a ticket. I threatened him and his entire department in choicest Punjabi, and only after half an hour we managed Tatkal tickets for the next day's Rajdhani back home.

Hitting the streets of Guwahati again, the effects of our last 19 days of journey somehow hit us. As we just burst out laughing, I'm sure we were quite a sight - standing in the middle of the intersection, backpacks piled high, unshaven and laughing like madmen. Rajat was scared of oversleeping again, and forced me to spend the night on the station itself. It wasn't much of a trouble, with trains pouring in from all over the country and each one, at least 4-5 hours late.

Next morning, we boarded the Rajdhani. It was perhaps fitting that such a monstrous journey be ended in the comfort of a Raj. It was our first Raj Journey and we were really excited by it. After the recorded announcement about the journey details, piped music blaring devotional songs to Mata Vaishno Devi sung by some stupid ass took over. At about 10 in the morning it gave way to sad songs from 60s hindi movies, which somehow dulled the mood. The constant feeding by the enthusiastic catering staff was also getting on my nerves, and the train never went beyond 60kmph so I was really getting bugged. Settling down for a nap I woke up in the evening to find myself in Bihar and wherever we stopped, the whole place was abuzz with gossip, as the results of the Assembly elections were to be announced that day. As luck would have it, Laloo's party won again. And his supporters whooping with joy had blocked trains at Patna Jn. which left our train stranded for more than 2 hours at Patna outer.

Strange are our politicians, who stop trains when they are angry, and stop trains even when they are happy !!! Anyways, from Patna, a WAP1 from GZB took over, and boy did he enjoy himself. All night long, the Raj rattled along merrily at top speeds, and dawn saw us somewhere in UP. I wanted to open the door and stand there and enjoy some high speed wind, but the chilly weather outside laid to rest all such plans. We reached Ghaziabad 10 mins. before time and made it to New Delhi on time.

Getting out from the station on the Pahargunj side, it was a kind of a welcome relief to be back home even though all around me there were buses, trucks, rickshaws, horse carriages and all sorts of other vehicles jostling for space in the narrow road there. Some hot butter toast and chai later, we tried to hitch an autorickshaw ride home.. I flagged one done and just said "Janak Puri and the guy nonchalantly uttered, "Give me two hundred". I was shocked because normal fare was about 60 Rs but then it hit me, even the Delhi auto-wallah got fooled by our backpacks. To my hometown folk, I was some chutiya tourist ... Waah re India Waah !!


chandni said...

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albino_black_sheep said...

ahh made me hungry for some good ol indian sights and food :D..nice trip, here in US trips are so sterile and full of boring station aloo poori, and no samose waala outside the dabba and continous hogging!

nomad said...

Thanks albino : But with airlines like Air Deccan, you can relive some of the fun of rail travel even when flying. After all their flights are never on time, and they have people down the aisle selling food and water !!

albino_black_sheep said...

hehe..any mitti ke kulhad in those flights :P

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the post. Took me back to days when we did Pune-Kerala on the Jayanti Janata express ( Bombay-Kanyakumari ) every two years and the food on the train was served in those metal compartmentised ( if there's such a word ) thallis. I enjoyed everything about them from the food, to the chai, to the fruit waalas, the drinks people, the smells the sights and what not. Good times those.....

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this, thanks for writing it. -American "armchair tourist"

Sidhusaaheb said...

Now that was some journey there!

It was fun accompanying you on that trip, virtually... :D