My arse your rickshaw
Getting up in the early hours of the morning is rarely pleasant. With a late night preceding it, it is truly rotten. The bed grows tentacles and holds you back. The eyelids obey gravity more than the will and the bleeping of the alarm becomes a distant annoyance. It was with a struggle that I arose, had a shower and got dressed. It was an even greater struggle getting Lindsey to do the same. No matter how much time we give ourselves it is never enough. We manage to fill the time we allocate for getting up and out, ensuring that we leave the hotel room in a panic and a rush. We decided to give breakfast a miss, breakfast invariably takes at least half an hour to arrive, even if it is something as simple as two bowls of cornflakes and a cup of tea. So we were late. But not too late. We sauntered down to the refreshingly quiet Main Bazaar and scrambled onto a conveniently waiting cycle rickshaw; five minutes later we were at the railway station, with fifteen minutes to spare before our train departed. No sweat.
It should have been simple. Find the platform and board the train. Needless to say simplicity didn't enter the equation. I couldn't find our ticket. I thoroughly checked my money belt and patted down every pocket on my clothing. There were more than a few pockets. I was wearing a pair of trousers that had more pockets and zips than stitches (they were a fake pair of Columbia adventure trousers - or maybe they are called cargo pants- that could be unzipped into three-quarter length trousers or shorts, and were covered in pockets; but were poorly made and falling apart). In my sleepy haze I checked and rechecked and could feel no ticket. I could recall taking it out on the train the previous night and assumed I'd left it there with the pile of magazines I'd been reading. No, definitely no ticket. I figured we could get a porter to take Lindsey's bag and he'd take us to the train. Each carriage has a reservation chart pasted by the door. The chart lists the passengers' names, age and sex. Simple; we'd walk the length of the train and find our names and deal with the guard and lack of ticket when the situation arose. Only our porter didn't quite see it that way. Several minutes were spent trying to pursuade him to take us to the platform for our train, the Shatabdi Express to Jaipur. He rolled his head and said "no ticket- not possible".
"Are you sure you can't find the ticket?" Lindsey asked me. I checked my multiple pockets again.
"No" I conclusively said to her, "I don't have the ticket. And Matey here doesn't look like he is going to take us to the platform, the train goes in ten minutes, looks like we're gonna have to follow him to the ticket office and buy a new one. We can sort it out in Jaipur."
It was an expensive train ticket, but shit happens and expensive is relative; less than seven pounds each. You can barely buy two drinks for that in London- but I have to remind myself that this is not London. In the booking hall the porter, carrying Lindsey's bag on his head pushed to the front of the queue with me closely behind him. I apologized to the irate passengers waiting in line, explaining to them this was an emergency. Train goes in... I look at my watch, shit! five minutes! "Jaldi jaldi," quickly, quickly, I say to the man being served. His friend by his side tells me to calm down and asks me where I am going. Don't worry he tells me, they are getting the same train. My protestations that I already had a valid ticket fell on deaf ears. The man behind the ticket counter said something about a PNR number which I didn't know and then told me to buy a new ticket. With the seconds ticking I pushed cash through the grill and received a brand new ticket. We ran to the train and paid the porter five times more than the signs at the station said porters should be paid (he reasoned that he had done more than portering, carried our bag more than the usual distance. And by this stage I was tired and had had enough). As I slumped into my seat the train rolled out of the station.
I sneezed. I patted each pocket one by one, starting at the waist, slowly moving down. Somewhere just below my knee I found a pocket with my handkerchief in. As I retrieved it, wondering what it was doing down there I felt something with it. It was not alone. I was holding our lost train ticket. The ticket for the invisible Dr. and Mrs. McNeill two coaches down. Oh.
I explained my folly to the guard. He rolled his head and told I could sort it out in Jaipur. My head lolled to one side then I was asleep. Lindsey woke me with a hurried shake. "Quick! We're in Jaipur!"
Jaipur is well on the tourist track and the touts at the station are particularly persistent. They are not allowed into the station itself, which is one small mercy (there is nothing worse than arriving in an unfamiliar town, with your feet barely off the train and on the platform before someone barraging you with a string of "you want rickshaw? cheap hotel..."). In Jaipur you can get your bearings, mentally prepare yourself for the barrage and then walk forward. As soon as we left the station building we were attacked from all sides. A particularly pugnacious little man attached himself to us, even when the other touts had lost interest. Rickshaw, hotel, something, anything? He pestered and persevered and would just not go away. "Please leave us alone" said Lindsey, "we do not want a rickshaw". We walked purposefully onwards, trying to ignore him. We walked into the ticket office. He thought we were dumb and he was smart and he informed us this was not the computerized reservation office, that is over there. "You make mistake coming here" he said. Ignore, ignore, ignore I repeated as my mantra. To the far right, the only counter with no queue was the refunds counter. Excellent I thought. we'll have this settled in a matter of minutes. I explained our predicament to the clerk; that we'd lost our ticket, bought a replacement then subsequently found the lost ticket. It was unused- could we please have a refund. He took both the lost and replacement tickets and studied them for a while. "this train has already arrived" he stated.
"Yes, I know that" I patiently replied, "we were on it".
"So what to do?" he said.
"I don't know, I was hoping you'd tell me" I replied before telling him the story for a second time. He rolled his head. "Come round to office". So we walked round, onto the platform and found the entrance into the ticket office. A row of clerks behind metal grills with swarms of faces pressed up close and notes creased lengthways thrust through the gaps. not a job I'd fancy. The clerk left his position by the Refunds Desk and led us to the Chief Ticket Inspector. Here, the clerk told my story and I handed over the tickets to the inspector. He looked at them blankly and said "this train has already arrived" so we went through the story again with him rolling his head and then he said "you do one thing" (popular expression that in India), "you go to Refund office" and he scribbled down an unintelligible address on the back of our ticket. So we went looking for the refund office in the NorthWest railway building outside the station. The tout was waiting for us. "Rickshaw?" he said.
"My arse your rickshaw" I replied gruffly, but the phrase was lost on him.
We resumed ignoring him and he resumed hassling us.
Ignore ignore ignore. I was expecting the building to be easy to find, the Chief Ticket Inspector had suggested we couldn't miss it. We could and did, so we went into the computerized reservation office and our tout, not having the foggiest about our intentions smugly said "you want to make reservation. I could tell you the office was here, not back there". This was just too much for Lindsey.
Now imagine if you will, sleeping for less than five hours. Imagine the stress of almost missing your train to work when you've got an important client meeting to attend. Imagine walking with a heavy pack on your back in front of an open oven door. And imagine a gratingly annoying man (worse than a Jehovahs Witness) pestering you for things you don't want, refusing to leave you alone. All at the same time. We were in the packed reservation office and I'm looking for someone who works there to tell me where the refunds office is and Lindsey snaps and turns around and yells at the tout "Go Away". It was one of those moments when everything stopped. India was silent for a spilt second, turned round to stare (well nothing new there) and then carried on. My wife's vocal aggression had surprised me. Surprised the tout too. He grumbled, "are you stupid?" but with Lindsey's eyes bulging and looking frankly capable of homicide he backed away and finally left us alone.
Red string and Railway bureaucracy
I found someone who gave me new directions and we left the railway station. The directions were vague as to be useless and I'd asked a dozen people before we found a NorthWest Railway building. There was no reception, just a row of open doors facing an open corridor. Behind each door were offices stuffed with faceless bureaucrats pushing paper. I chose an office at random and announced to the four occupants my dilemma. "Please sit down" I was told. Lindsey waited outside, sitting on her pack. "What is your country" asked the youngest man. He didn't actually work there, he was visiting his elder cousin. There didn't seem to be much work going on so I wasn't interrupting anything more important than a family meeting. I then held two conversations at once. One with the railway worker, handing him our tickets, and one with his cousin. The railway worker told his cousin to be quiet. And then addressed me, "but this train has already arrived". I sighed. Here we go again, and explained what had happened three times before we made any progress. "You go to Chief Ticket Inspector" I was told.
"I've already seen him and he told me to come here".
"This is most unusual. I will see what it says in the rules" And he disappeared with our tickets, leaving me to make conversation with his cousin whilst the other two men in the office shuffled papers and made a lot of effort to do nothing. "Do you like cricket..."
The railway worker returned. "you do one thing. you go to Refund Office".
"But that is in this building no?" And so I was informed that yes, this was a North West Railway Building, but not The NorthWest Railway building where the Refund Office was. "you do one thing" I interrupted him "I'm already doing one thing, does this new thing supercede the first or am I in fact to do two things?" He looked at me as if I were a moron, "urr, sorry, you were saying...
"You take rickshaw. Pay no more than ten rupees". I thanked him and bade our good-byes, their interlude with the foreigner was over. They could return to the family meeting, shuffle papers and efficiently be inefficient.
The only rickshaw wallah about refused to budge for less than 15 rupees. Ho hum, tourist inflation.
The Refunds Office was on the second floor of a nondescript building the other side of town. Its only means of Identification was a weathered sign saying "north West Railways', but nothing about refunds. It was a large office with many people hanging around. I counted twenty-two, yet there were only eight desks and one table with a computer. It was not clear who was an employee, even less clear what they were all doing. A small scruffy bespectacled man waggled his finger at me calling me over. I explained our story and showed him our tickets and we went through the motions of "this train has already arrived" again, but then he smiled and said, "good! you have come to the right place". At last I thought. He introduced himself as Mr. L.N. Mitra and walked over to a bulging cabinet and searched for a form, The office walls were lined with tall upright metal cabinets. Those that were open revealed untidy piles of foolscap files stuffed in. There were foolscap files all over the office. The desks were littered with them; cardboard folders bound with string with vague labels written in ballpoint pen. All the desks were untidy. They were old, wooden desks with sheets of glass placed over them. Under the glass were printed notices and maps of India and visiting cards. A woman sitting at one desk adjacent to me shuffled through the files and papers and ledgers searching in vain for something. Clearly they have no clear desk policy which we have drummed into us at work; a complete lack of paperwork organization. After shuffling through her papers the woman sat back and read from a file. The woman sitting next to her was stamping a pile of papers. The inkpad was dried up so she stamped hard and loudly. She pushed the stamped papers to the other woman to read them. A man in front of me sat in front of two ancient typewriters, reading a journal. In the half an hour I was in the office he turned the page once. I imagined this is what office life in Britain was like in the fifties. Or was it the thirties? Mr. Mitra returned from the filing cupboard clutching a piece of paper. I assumed it was a form to be filled in. I was wrong, it was blank. "Please write for permission for refund" he told me. "Address it to the Chief Commercial Officer".
"Who is that?" I said.
"It is me" he replied.
"Can't I just ask you for a refund?"
"No, please request it on paper".
So I did, 'Sir, I humbly request that you refund my ticket...' and I wrote a brief description of my multi pocketed trousers by way of explanation for the mislaid then found ticket. "Come back at three o-clock" said Mr. Mitra.
"So you can't do it now?"
"No, now is lunchtime".
So I came back at three o-clock. By now, my request had spawned a mountain of paperwork attached to it, all pinned together with a dressmakers pin. There was my hand written letter; the four tickets; a blue form that someone had written an essay in Hindi on; a white form filled out in triplicate, and a card filled out in duplicate. Mr. Mitra took the wad of papers over to the stamping lady and she bashed a feint inky blob on the card. Mitra unpinned this and handed it to me. It was a formal request for a refund for incorrect ticket payment. We were getting somewhere I suppose, but little sign of hard cash. Mitra then asked for the card back and copied its details into a large ledger. He then filled out another form and a cash memo and pinned these to the ever-increasing wad. A woman wandered over and asked him to help her with a stapler. It was jammed. He banged it on the table a couple of times but couldn't get it to work so he handed her a pincushion full of pins. "Let's go" he said to me.
"So we don't get the refund here?"
"No. Paperwork here, refund station".
As we walked to the station Mr. Mitra explained how we should only be getting a fifty per cent refund, but because we were foreigners he had wangled a hundred percent. this was very decent of him, indeed when I studied the rules carefully at the back of the Indian railway bible "Trains at a Glance" I concluded that we were in fact entitled to nothing. Because the train had already arrived.
Naturally it wasn't as simple as going to a cash desk for the refund. Next we went to yet another office, buried in the station complex. Two men sat at desks side by side each other with huge ledgers in front of them. Filing cabinets overflowed with paperwork. In the corner was a desk with a mountain of dusty ledgers, folders and files on it. It was Dickensian, the neglect was Miss Haversham's, the ledgers were Scrooge. Mitra chatted to the men for a while before a voluminous ledger was pulled out of one of the cabinets. The details from the card were entered then the ledger was swiveled round for me to sign it. "Now do we get the cash?" I asked sheepishly. Almost. I surmised that the two crusty gentlemen see little in the way of human life in their dusty office and were pleased for the interruption. They gossiped for ten or fifteen minutes before we managed to escape.
It had caught my attention that Mitra and the two men all wore red string bracelets on thier right wrists. I wondered if this was a sign of Brahminism. It puzzled me. As we walked down the warren of corridors I asked Mitra what the string was. His English was good, but hidden in a thick accent and I had trouble in following it. The string was some kind of gift given during Diwali. It had no caste connotations. His sister had tied Miter's string on his wrist. He stopped and was now untying it. Before I knew it, he was tying it on my wrist. I thanked him profusely for the second time in the course of the afternoon.
And then at 4-oclock, some five hours after arriving in Jaipur, and after meeting with nine railway officials in four different buildings, we returned to the refunds counter where I had started the morning. Mitra handed the clerk my request card and exchanged it for two crisp 500 rupee notes. Now that wasn't painful was it?! I think that Mitra now considered himself my friend and said "tonight I come to your hotel". I wasn't sure what he meant by this. I knew that Lindsey would not take kindly to dining with him, besides, with his hard to follow English, conversation would be painful. Anyway, I reasoned that he had just been doing his job, he'd done us a favour but I didn't really feel up to entertaining him so I made up a story about my wife feeling poorly and how it would not be possible to see him that night. And then at the moment Sanjay, the friendly young rickshaw wallah who had taken us to our hotel after Mitra told us to return at three appeared. "Back to Diggi Palace?" he asked. I thanked Mitra for the third and final time and we said our good-byes. Sanjay was grinning broadly. Conversation was easy with him as we'd sped through Jaipur to our hotel, I'd earlier told him my name and briefly mentioned bikes. "Mister Marc" he said excitedly, "I speak to my brother and he say he has Lambrettas. Old ones too..."
Jaipur and G & T
We were staying at Diggi Palace, the former residence of a minor baron; compared to the fleapits we'd been staying in it was positively luxurious. The room was clean and airy, overlooking a courtyard. Silk paintings hung on the cream walls and the bed was magnificently comfortable. Best of all was the garden, a large lawn with Edwardian deck chairs dotted around. Song birds singing, and freshly cut grass it evoked memories of England in the summertime. When the sun shines that is. It was easy to sink into the deck chairs, lounging in the shade of the late afternoon, reading and watching the monkeys playing in the surrounding trees. A young boy took orders for drinks and it was all very colonial. All that was missing was the gin and tonic but alas they were out of the Indian Dry.
Jaipur itself was nothing special. We visited the Palace of the Winds, which was little more than a crumbling facade. The city palace was just a handful of pretty courtyards. The halls were now museums, showing textiles and weapons. A curator with a voluminous red turban whispered at us "knife for killing tiger" as we gazed into one particular glass case. "Really" I said and he took this as an invitation to become our guide. He clung to us as we peered into display cabinets, describing items rather than explaining them, "dagger with rubies inlaid in handle"
"Well even I can see that. Who did it belong to?" but he wouldn't answer my question, rather say "sword with rubies in handle" or describe something else that we were already staring at. As we left the armaments room he whispered "baksheesh". I pointed to the sign on the stairs that told visitors not to make any additional payments. He guffawed and grumbled as we walked out. We wandered into a large columned hall that was open on all sides. In the centre were two huge silver vessels. A plaque proudly informed us they were, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest objects made singularly out of silver in the world. They like their records do the Indians, a disproportionate number of the bizarre and ridiculous are held by Indians, such as the longest fingernails, or the most words written on a single grain of rice. Yet it wasn't so much the size of these giant silver pots that took our attention, nor the amount of polish required to keep them shining, rather their original purpose. They were crafted for the Maharaja to take water from the Ganges on his trips to England. He wasn't inclined to trust the water there, preferring to take his own bottled water; Holy water from the Ganges. The cheek of the man!
The observatory was the most interesting sight; a collection of huge, oversized astronomical instruments for measuring such things as the position of the stars and constellations and calculating eclipses. There were a number of sun dials including a huge 27m high instruments that looks like some sort of ancient stairway to heaven, casting a shadow down on incremented marble. The Maharaja found that the instruments he had were unreliable and figured this was due to their small size. Think big he thought, so scaled everything up in this cosmic sculptural park.
Three AM. Awake. I need a wee. Semi-conscious I walk to the bathroom and pee into the toilet. I feel a fart coming on so I relax my sphincter and break wind. Only I don't. Rather than hot air, liquid gushes out. Oh shit. But it isn't. I look down between my legs and there, on the white tiles below, is a large puddle of mucus and pus with nasty bloody streaks. Oh dear. I wasn't wearing any underwear but technically speaking I think this can be classified as pooing my pants. And I've not done that since being potty trained some 28 years ago.
Clearly claret in your poo isn't a healthy sign. I viewed it with a sense of equanimity, India is no place for hypochondriacs. We left for Pushkar the following morning and one of the first things I did was visit a doctor. He told me to make a stool sample. I asked him for a suitable container and he handed me a film canister.
If Christ was preaching today, his words about the difficulty in getting a camel to go through the eye of a needle could easily be substituted by getting diarrhea into a film canister. It requires unknown co-ordination. Hovering the canister under the anus, carefully aiming and releasing the sphincter just long enough to deposit sufficient liquid to fill a quarter of the canister. It is a feat that eluded me. After dribbling runny, yellow, stinky poo down the canister sides and over my hand I gave up. And willed my stomach better.
Plain food and a positive mind certainly took effect because a couple of days later the stools were solid and as correctly coloured as they are after a lifetimes diet of meat and two veg. A little too solid in fact because shortly after I found myself suffering constipation.
Now I'm sure you have no interest whatsoever in my intestinal wellbeing, but for want of closure on the episode I have a sorry tale to end. In my constipated state I pushed too hard. Gritted teeth and Ggggrrrrrppphhhhhnnnnneewwwwww. But nothing much in the way of poo. Ho hum. Force of habit led me to wipe myself and OHMIGOD! The toilet paper was sodden with yet more claret. Blood was pouring out of my arse! Yet my guts felt fine, so I was sure it wasn't intestinal. When the bleeding stopped I trotted off to an Internet cafe and did a search of medical sites for "anus + blood" and as I suspected, my affliction was piles, hemorrhoids. I shook my head in disgust, you are not supposed to get piles in India! Now then, not that you care, but it is with great pleasure that I can announce it was an isolated incident. It took a few days before I was brave enough to sit on the toilet again, and pushing is a thing of the past. But I can happily announce that all is now well in the department down below!next