The Road to Allahabad:
You can't always get what you want, plan, arrange,
confirm, or pay for, but you get what you need.
Kumbha Mela Diary Entries:
by Joy Shayne Laughter.
The guys at the Indian Government Tourist Bureau really know their stuff.
When their sharp-eyed young employee spots a foreign woman in the wrong line at the train station ("For Indians only!") near tears because her night train has been cancelled and there are no seats to Allahabad available for another week, they just offer her a pre-paid, private cab ride to Allahabad. Throw in a night in a 5-star hotel in Agra, and time for sightseeing at the Taj Mahal. All for a relatively modest fee and surcharge.
And that, dear reader, is how I blew all my traveler's checks on my first night in Delhi -- because the guy with the credit card machine had already gone home.
The Rough Guide book I studied, First Time Asia, gave a whole chapter to Your First Night in Asia. "Prepare to be freaking out," was its message. Well, yes, I was freaking: I thought I would be spending my first night in Asia at the funky and cool Hare Rama Guest House, in a little room decorated with amazing spiritual/pornographic graffiti left by years of Western tourists.
Then, when I found out my train reservation was for that night, I envisioned myself squashed among a zillion other pilgrims rattling through the smoky night. As it turned out, for four hours that night and nine hours the next day, I sat in the velveteen back seat of a sturdy four-door cab that sounded (and rode) like a half-ton pickup. It smelled of fuel since the gas tank was right behind the back seat. It was freezing cold because a) there was no heat and b) the windows were cracked open to blow out the gas fumes. I wrapped myself in my new Kashmir wool shawl, chanted Om Mani Padme Hum, and gave up. This was my situation.
Fortunately, pre-paid government arrangements mean the people involved are reliable. My driver, Vijayit, was very patient with me and navigated the packed roads with a surgeon's concentration. When I complimented his skill, he shook his head. "Gods do the driving," he said.
Vijayit also knew the clean roadside diners -- "clean" meaning good food and good people, no truck drivers hanging around. The floors were always dirt and the toilets were the open fields, but wow, the dahl (lentil stew), chai (milky tea) and nan (fried bread) were ambrosia in the middle of the night.
Note to Martha Stewart: Molded plastic chairs such as are found on American patios tend to collect dew and are cold to sit on when dining al fresco on Indian road trips. Instead, seek out the string beds -- when a plank is set across the middle, two people can sit cross-legged and dine in relaxed rustic style.
Despite the super-clean hotel room with Western-style toilet, despite a serene visit to the Taj Mahal the next morning, my worry continued. For one thing, the cell phone I had rented at the airport in Delhi didn't see to be working. Every time I tried to call my hosts in Allahabad, there was no network coverage. I decided to keep trying as we got nearer. I snuggled up in my lovely wool shawl and slept in the back seat.
So anyway, I did make it to Allahabad. Vijayit found the house rented by they KMP2001 group at about 3 in the morning. Only one of the group was there - everyone else had gone to Varanasi for the week. No problem - a few days of rest sounded swell. But apparently there had been a night train from Delhi, right on time, and some people had gone to meet it and find me. No me. No call. So there was great relief when I finally rang from a public call office (P.C.O.) somewhere in Allahabad.
At breakfast, two of my three hosts showed up - sophisticated and charming men, Rohit and Amresh. I told them about unexpected road trip, the stupid cell phone, the confusion about trains. They agreed that the cell phone was something of a scam. The cab ride and hotel, they said, was actually a pretty good deal. At any rate, I got to Allhabad safely.
Safe, yes, and ready to see and learn. I hold onto positive thoughts ... because as I finally set down my bags in a lovely Indian home, I realized I had left my Kashmir wool shawl in the cab.