Sunday, February 13, 2005

going south

24/01/04, somewhere in maharastra

we arrive back in delhi after our one-week "golden triangle" tour. i and my new indiamates -dodo, gokce2 and ekin- leave gokce with her family at barista on connaught place. walking with our backpacks towards the ringo guesthouse, a scary little funny place giving the impression of a “gecekondu” built on the roof of a building that looks like may collapse at any time, “here we start” says dodo. we will be travelling for two more weeks together.

after more than a few long discussions it becomes quite obvious that my new tourist group is more interested in seeing the south. jaisalmer and risikesh are taken out of the list, varanasi remains untouched, and two new and warmer destinations are added. “we’re going to bombay tonight” i say to my father on the phone. having lived in india for several months fifteen years ago, he’s almost sure while asking if we’re taking a flight. “no, we’re going by train” i say. the railway line connecting the capital to bombay is almost 1500 kilometres long. in india this is actually quite an ordinary distance to cover in one journey.

we go to delhi’s main railway station in pahar ganj to buy our tickets. all trains for the next ten days seem to be reserved. buying a train ticket in india is not an easy task. every station has its own quota, and that requires many seats to remain empty until that particular station. then comes other privileges for state workers, vip's, railway workers (this is nothing to underestimate considering that no less than one and a half million people earn their lives working for the state railway company - known to be the the biggest employer on earth), and fortunately for foreign tourists. a column in daily papers gives information about trains between major stations. the column is not a bare timetable – it actually contains no time data. the only field in the table is a date showing when the first seat on that particular train becomes available. in india, travellers don't get much to say about their own travel plans.

getting a ticket with a confirmed reservation is quite a rare event. many people buy wait-listed tickets with a hope of moving to the top of the list before the day the train leaves. just before the departure, heaps of people rush to the name lists posted on the railway platforms trying to find out if they will be able to travel on that train. if they're not on the list, they go back to the chaotic reservations hall and queue again to put their names on the waiting lists of other trains. having liberalised its systems to a large extent in the last decade, india still retains numerous traces of its socialist past. in a country of one billion citizens, this is certainly a convenient way of running certain things. being the second largest rail network in the world, indian rail transports 12 million passengers every day.

trains are organised in a grid system. many trains start from one end of the country and cover the entire distance till they reach another major station at an opposite end of the country. the train i’m sitting on right now has started its journey in amritsar, a city in the north west - on pakistani border, and travelling through the capital it finally reaches bombay in no less than 40 hours. that a train is covering such huge distances does not necessarily mean that it’s an express train - it can even be a local train stopping in every single village. around 11 am, about 14 hours after getting on board, we stop in bhopal, capital of madya pradesh, one of the inner states of the country. i open my guide book to read a little about the city - unfortunately famous for nothing but being the site of the largest industrial disaster in the history. in a section labeled “getting out of bhopal” it gives information about various trains heading for major destinations around the country. “the one train to avoid on this route is the super slow amritsar-dadar express”, it notes. amritsar-dadar express is the train we are still on after 24 hours of travelling. i then read that it’s possible to get to bombay from delhi in no more than 16 hours by the "superfast" rajdhani express.

spending twice more time, however, is nothing to regret about. after three months in the subcontinent, this is my first long train ride. starting in delhi, going through uttar pradesh, madya pradesh, and finally arriving in maharastra, it is fascinating to observe how everything changes. after a night of freezing in sweaters and sleeping bags, we are now sitting here with only shirts on and the windows open. people sitting next to us are no more northern indians resembling the south eastern people of turkey - or middle easterns in general - they are now closer to the indian prototype in my mind (don’t ask me what that means as i can’t really describe it either..) yellowish desertish fields with not much green have now been replaced by banana plantations and palm trees.

people are still as warm and friendly as ever. a young guy sitting next to us takes out a sheet and a crayon - and without saying a word he starts to sketch a drawing of ekin sitting opposite me. he speaks no english. then i notice that he is not able to communicate easily with the other guy who’s been sitting next to us since the morning either. the language has also changed: this part of the country speaks marathi, a language entirely different from hindi.. [to be continued] [arda] [first 5 photographs by burcu]


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