I’m home, but the trip has left me exhausted and angry – violently angry if it wasn’t for being exhausted. Perhaps it started with the rusty nail in my samosa, but I think I was still laughing at that stage. More likely it began with the bicycle rickshaw trip to Varanasi Station. The driver wanted Rs40 for the trip, but I’d been offered one hour for Rs20 earlier in the day so I settled for that and told him that I only wanted to go to Balia Bagh just round the corner. I’d walk but I’d never ridden a rickshaw and thought it should be done. We were stopped at the intersection as the army and police held up traffic to allow a police escort to go through. Probably a minister, my driver told me. He’d be going to Balia Bagh, so there’d be little chance of getting an autorickshaw from there. I should trust him and let him take me to Varanasi Station. It wasn’t much further anyway and there’d be a bus going to XXX Station where I’d get my train.
Once the escort had passed, we headed out into the mayhem of traffic in the intersection. No one wants to be at the back of the traffic in a situation like that, so they come up the right hand side of the road as well and then everyone rushes out together, from four directions. It took time to untangle that mess, but I figured I had some time and stayed on the rickshaw. There were demonstrations on the street outside Balia Bagh and the driver urged me again to follow his advice. I accepted. But as I handed over the money at the station, he screamed at me that it was Rs40. Rs20 was only to Balia Bagh. Used to such tactics, I told him that if he was going to change the price, he should tell me. As far as I knew the price was all the way – after all it was enough for an hour. Then he got really insulting. “I don’t have to tell you. You have a head. If we go twice as far, it costs twice as much.” I walked off.
I arrived at the station much later than expected and found the train already there. There was no way to tell, though. No sign on the train itself and the platform indicator was announcing three different trains. I just had to trust the people I asked, none of whom spoke English, and get on. That in itself was a task. It was so crowded that it took me ten minutes to reach my seat, which was taken. Even my bunk was taken, but a guy who’d helped me get there told the couple on the bunk that I had the ticket and they let me squeeze through with my bag, where I dumped it on theirs at the end of the bunk. For four hours, I had to sit there, with my head pressed forward by the ceiling. It was a stinking hot, humid monsoon day and bodies were packed tightly from me to the carriage door. The only way to stave off claustrophobia was to close my eyes and concentrate on the breeze from the fan. I should have paid for AC class after all.
Tickets are available for seats / berths in three classes of air conditioned class and a second class. Then there are the general tickets, as we had on the way to Varanasi, that entitle you to board the train, but you have no right to a seat. It’s a fraction of the cost and a very popular way to travel. As on first trip, there may be empty seats for parts, the ticket holders may share their seats in other parts and otherwise you have to stand or lie in the corridor as we did for half that trip. On that trip, ticket collectors and soldiers patrolled the train and beggars, hawkers and food vendors jumped on to the carriage at each station. This time no one came through. There just wasn’t room to move. It wasn’t even possible for everyone to stand and while a few people lay relaxed along the length of their berths, most paying passengers had generously shared their seats. Respite came after 10pm when about half the passengers disembarked, leaving me to share my bunk with only one other. Many of the other passengers regained their whole bunk.
My bunk mate suggested we could both lie down head to toe and I agreed, but it soon became clear that he had the better deal. He snored away in comfort while I had the bags under my neck and my feet falling over the edge. I put up with it for five sleepless hours, but when he got up to go to the toilet, I spun around and took back the entire bunk. He could sleep on the floor with the others or find someone else to share with for the rest of the night. But he was having none of it, pretty much sitting on my head when he came back. I would have pushed him off, but it was a long way down and I feared the ‘I love my India’ soldiers would come back and take his side. I showed him my ticket again and demanded that he give me what I’d paid for, but he just took half the bunk again leaving me little better than I’d been before.
I know ‘cheating’ is part of the culture in India. These people have tough lives and it’s normal to try to get as much as possible for as little effort or cost as they can part with. Even though it feels terrible to be seen as a money bag, part of me says we should just respect their culture and play their game. They’re better at it than us, but then we generally do have more to spare. But then there’s a danger to doing that too. If we start paying higher prices for food, transport, accommodation, and clothes, the prices will go up for locals as well. I had this argument with Marie over expat accommodation pushing the price of all accommodation up and making it more difficult for locals to buy. I’m not sure I agree with that yet, but I can certainly see her point for other items. If a tailor can make Rs 300 for a shirt from a foreigner, why would he bother selling to locals who only pay Rs 40 for the same shirt? Perhaps it’s best to buy more items at the local price, then give away what we don’t need. But how can you be sure what the local price is? These are the challenges of travelling.
I thought I’d feel a lot better once I made it back into Bhutan, but my usual hotel in Phuentsholing has changed management – or at least quality of service. The new guy is Indian. That sounds racist. It probably is, but I’m fed up with being a money bag. Instead of giving me a single room, they gave me a double room at double room rates, but marked it down as a single room. Then when they saw me put a Bhutanese address down, they started treating me like an idiot. ‘You’re an Australian. Please put your Australian address.’ I told them I haven’t lived in Australia for 8 years, that my permanent address is now in Thimphu, but they couldn’t cope with that idea. I gave them my Bhutanese ID, which they photocopied, but they still treated me as a tourist.
Still, I’m home now. I’m in my own space, can see my own friends, visit my own office. I even have almost three weeks until Marie returns from her survey trip through Bhutan to tidy the place and make it a proper home. We’ve been here for 3 months but have had visitors for most of that time. Now it can be ours.