Due North

Travel adventures.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

India Day 3 - India Railways Hampi Express

NOTE: This is a mostly complete summary of the events of our day. Photos and minor edits will be added in the coming weeks.

We fell asleep at about 9:30 PM and I woke up at about 3:15 and couldn't go back to sleep. Danae slept until about 6:30 and we had our usual breakfast buffet at around 7:00. We headed back up to our room laid down and fortunately we were both able to sleep for about three more hours. We both showered and packed before our late check-out at 3:00.

Brief diversion to describe our experience with check-in and check-out at Leela Palace

Although out of sequence, this may be a good place to describe part of our check-in experience upon arrival at Leela Palace. Both Danae and I had been awake on planes and in airports for over 22 hours and we were a bit delirious. After briefly showing our passports a young man escorted us to our room and took care of the details of our check-in including our the credit card, discussion of our activities during oir stay and our check-out. We requested a late check-out at 8:00 PM and he explained that 3:00 was the latest check-out available without additional charge. I asked him to please charge us extra, even if we needed to pay for an additional day because we wanted to shower, change clothes and freshen up shortly before our departure and overnight train ride. He insisted that we should not pay for an additional day, that they could hold our bags, and we could relax on the many couches, chairs and enjoy the amenities throughout the property to pass our final five hours after check-out.

Russel Peters is a comedian who was born in Canada to parents who emigrated from India. He describes a stereotype of Indians a "thrifty" but not "cheap" and it was this strong objection to our request to pay for an additional day that confirmed that his description of this stereotype must fit at least some percentage of the population. Otherwise we should have succeded in paying for more than we received. :)

Click here for a brief explanation by Russel Peters why Indians are the cheapest people in the world.

Anyway, we were too exhausted to continue negotiating and accepted his proposal of 3:00 PM check-out instead of 8:00 PM. Sorry for that brief and politically incorrect diversion but I had to share this because I think it will help you understand a small part of the culture shock. Now back to the day of our check-out. We had a leisurely morning resting, reading and watching TV in our room. After check-out at 3:00 we had a late lunch and lounged around throughout The Leela Palace. We grabbed a light dinner shortly before our departure.

We had a driver take us to the India Railway station in Bengaluru. While driving we asked him how the roads might be if we traveled by car. He said that the roads are very difficult to pass even when it hasn't been raining. He advised against even considering travel to Hampi by car because the hotel has had their cars get stranded along the route with multiple flat tires. He said both tires completely split and could not be repaired and they had to send somebody with replacement tires.

Upon arrival our driver made sure we knew where to met the car when we return ro the station. He told us how to make our way into the train station and said we needed to look on the TV screen in the station to find which platform our train would depart from. The train information on the TV had numbers we could read but no English description. I suspect that "Hampi Express" was in the official state language of Kannada. Fortunately we were able to match the numbers on the screen with the ones printed on our train ticket and determine which platform we needed. But there were no signs telling us which direction we needed to go to find our platform.

Just as we figured out which platform we needed, a man approached us and said, "Hampi Express. Platform 6. Arrives 9:50. Departs 10:00. 100 rupees. Coolie!" I was in such shock I think I just stared at him and he repeated the same information, over and over, in rapid succession, several times. First of all I couldn't believe that he guessed which train we needed but maybe he overheard us say it or it's easy to guess that Westerners would most likely be taking the Hampi Express at this hour. I was also overwhelmed as he rattled off all the information required to get to our train. After the third or fourth time I think I realized what "coolie" meant because I had read it in "Cryptonomicon" by Neal Stephenson. I thought this was an outdated and offensive term but we encountered several men and boys who introduced themselves as "coolie" and named their price for baggage services.

Anyway, I politely said thanks but we would be carrying our own bags. He motioned up the long flight of stairs we would have to climb, held his hands above his head to indicate his luggage carrying style and said something like, "I can carry your bags across the foot bridge to the platform." Danae thinks maybe he expected us to give him 100 rupees for the unsolicited information he provided and that his offer to be our coolie would cost us more than 100 rupees.

We made our way up the stairs, and then we saw signs indicating platform numbers as we passed over several sets of tracks. When we found our number we headed down the stairs to our platform. This was clearly not a handicap accessible train station!

We reached our platform almost an hour ahead of the scheduled arrival of our train and observed the travelers and vendors with amazement. Several young men who were probably in their teens offered us tea, coffee, dinner and snacks. This entire experience reminded me very much of my trips to rural villages in Mexico where vendors would offer many food, beverages and services in exchange for some small amount of money. However there were no panhandlers who were simply begging for money.

We didn't see any other Westerners until about 30 minutes later when a French woman came near us on the platform. Danae turned to her and asked her if she knew how to find where our train car would be when the train arrived at the platform. We compared her ticket to ours, discovered that we were in the same train car and then watched as the lighted LED signs changed to car designations that matched our ticket. We made our way down the platform to the sign post marked A-1. Fortunately this sign post alternated between "A-1" and the foreign symbol followed by "1" so it was easy for us to figure out where to wait on the platform.

When the train arrived we watched several passengers jump from the train onto the platform while it was still moving at a dangerously fast speed. I simply can't comprehend why so many Indians seem to take these types of risks. I wonder if it's some sort of thrill seeking behavior that provides a sense of control on an otherwise fatalistic life experience. Danae wonders if maybe this behavior is more common because they believe that increasing their hardship will result in an even better life when they are reincarnated.

Once we boarded our train car we quickly located our upper berths and pushed our baggage under the lower births below ours. Then we climbed up into our berth with some difficulty. There was a very narrow ladder on one side that was only wide enough for one foot. So I placed my foot on the highest rung possible and then grabbed the chain to pull myself up into my berth. Danae is quite a bit shorter than I and she was only able to reach a lower rung. So she had even more difficulty pulling herself up into her berth.

Danae said she felt a bit rushed to get her bed made because a placard on the wall said that the bottom berth must be lowered from 6:00 AM until 9:00 PM so that passagers can share the lower birth during the daylight hours. Since we boarded our train after 10:00 we were not supposed to share the bench in the lower birth.

I, on the other hand, was totally oblivious to the placard and immediately positioned myself in my berth so that I could observe everybody else as they settled into their berths. It's fascinating to see how strangers negotiate sharing a common space in the train car. I didn't take time to worry about the cleanliness of the linens and making up my berth until after most of the passengers had settled in.

When I told one of my colleagues from Bengaluru about our plans to take the Hampi Express he warned me that it "would not be romantic". He was right about that! Danae said that her pillow had "a handful of hair" on it and she was paranoid about the cleanliness of the wool blanket and sheets as well. The white sheets were folded neatly and wrapped inside of a paper bag and they seemed fairly clean but had quite a few stains on them. So both Danae and I wrapped our pillow and blanket in the sheets and used the bundle as a pillow. Danae wrapped herself in a silk sleeping cocoon that she bought for us.

I must say that I like the concept of the bunks for an overnight train trip but it was not very comfortable because there was very little padding. So I had to periodically turn from side to back to side to rotate the dull pain from sleeping on such a hard surface. There were mildly unsanitary conditions throughout the train and it really wouldn't take much to clean it up but it's likely that the majority of the passengers prefer lower fare versus cleanliness.