Half way through my Mumbai experience during my first day in India, I decided to head out of Mumbai to a more peaceful country-side relaxation spot up on the famous British hill-mountain stations. I arrived at the Victoria terminus and bought a ticket to the station where the slow train was suppose to take off from to get there.
I was naive, to say the least, about India rail travel. With the ticket in my hand, I asked the conductor where my train was, he asked me whether I’m sure I want to take this train, and I wasn’t sure what he meant. When I confirmed, he pointed at the train that was about to leave with whistles indicating that I should hurry up. I run up to the train, ready to board my cabin, but when I got there and saw what that was, I just couldn’t board. There were so many people crowded in there, in a way that seemed a little familiar from images of Nazi camps of Holocaust movies I’ve seen that, adventurous as I thought I might be – that wasn’t for me. I headed back to the conductor, who smiled at me victorious as if he knew this is what was going to happen and said that I should take the more upgraded train leaving in 2 hours time. I used the Internet for a while, then did some people watching and returned to the upgraded train only to find out that it wasn’t alot more pleasant. I crowded up with loads of locals who had no consideration for seat numbers or the need for tickets and got stuck next to the window, hoping that this ride wouldn’t take too long.
What I saw on the way from the railway made me utterly depressed. The first thing you see is all the garbage that Indians plainly throw off the train, but the more disturbing thing was the country-side poverty I was witnessing. The local Indian rides were an interesting cultural experience with sellers coming on board and selling just about any thing you can think of, and people hanging on to the train while it was riding while throwing their bag inside, but it’s not something you can withstand for hours of train ride. I kept thinking that it’s only an hour or so away, and that kept me going, but when the train finally arrived at my station I knew there was no way that I would get off that station. It was a horrible site of nothingness and poverty that I just couldn’t take it. So I headed back to my seat and on to the next station the Lonely Planet pointed out as fabulous, which was also a big mistake. It just wasn’t my day. I took off the train, wondered around cow-shit and mud for an hour or so while the local Indians were staring and pointing at the crazy foreigner, and then figured it’s time to get back to a big city – Pune, some calling it Oxford of the east. That train at least had a bit more room and I shared my cabin with a few homeless looking handicapped Indians.
Let me tell you, I’ve been to Oxford, more than once, and Pune is no Oxford. Not even close. I expected a student academic kind of city with at least what I was seeing in Mumbai but was welcomed with yet another 3-rd world city. My first night in India I spent in a Lonely Planet mid-range hotel, which I wouldn’t ever settle for in either Taiwan, Thailand or Vietnam, and felt very miserable. I knew there was a better easier India somewhere, and thought that maybe I should lay off my guide book and start talking to travelers and reading some people’s recommendations on the web.
The next day in Pune, I headed down to an Internet place, and after browsing through some forums I realized that there’s an Israeli kind’o meeting place in the other side of Pune, which is the more wealthier nice side of Pune, and I figured it was a good place to go adjust to things.
I arrived there, and it was much better than where I started at. The richer Indians have wall surrounded castles that separate them from the rest of the public and the restaurants, coffee places and mall offerings were upgraded by a lot. My guidebook, I realized, was meant for the real hard backpacker style of travelers, but there’s a whole different way of doing India, if you’re willing to spend the extra Rupee, and I was.
The Israelis took me in, gave me an overview of how they see things in India after 7 years of living there, and sent me on my way. I walked around for a while, and then went to get my onward ticket to Goa, looking forward to some glorious beach-side, Thailand style kind’o vacation. Since it was late Sunday the only tickets available were ones seating up. I didn’t care much, I just wanted to get to Goa. I got the last ticket for that bus – number 33, which meant it’s going to be really full. Giving me the ticket, the travel agent indicated that the seat is in the back of the bus and might therefore be “a little bit jumpy”, making it the understatement of the century. It was a really crappy bus, something worse than those tank kinds I rode in my officers course a while back. Luckily, number 33 was the one facing the aisle, so I was just about the only person there with room for my feet.
Although my neighbors were extremely friendly, that night bus-ride was not a fun experience and I was praying to never have to go through something like that again. The 2 Indian women sitting to my right had a kid sleeping under – yes under – their feet down on the floor, and I was constantly worried he wasn’t having enough air. The few stops we made in the most horrible local places imaginable made it impossible for me to get any sleep. Finally, after a long night, I arrive at Panaji, Goa at 4:30am.
Not the best first two days in India, but at least I was finally in Goa, which was where things got a whole lot better.