After so many monuments, temples and ruins, today we’re leaving for the last in this series: Orchha. It’s another remote supposedly spectacular site that Gerard found cruising blogs on the Internet. I am satiated with ruins, but this time it’s a Rajput palace which has a certain exotic appeal. Plus there is a chance that “undiscovered” Orchha is a more peaceful and picturesque spot than Badami. But getting there is not easy. It involves a five hour bus ride, finding a hotel overnight, fourteen hours on the train to Jhansi, and if we arrive on time, a rickshaw to Orchha. If it’s too late – a more likely scenario – we’ll have to find another hotel to spend the night in Jhansi, and on the third day finally arrive in Orchha. Hopefully, it’s worth the trouble.
First off, getting train tickets is not simple. There’s no other option than to go the train station at the crack of dawn. The Indian style queues are less than orderly. We work our way up to the ticket counter only to be told to go to a building across the street. It doesn’t open until 8 am but a crowd has gathered around the entrance. When the cleaning people arrive, it’s a trigger – a wild stampede for the open door occurs. It’s like boarding the commuter rail in Mumbai all over again. We’re swept in with the crowd, and land in a line specially designated for ‘VIPs, senior citizens, foreign tourists’ (categories we easily fall into) ‘freedom fighters, disabled and government officials’. We continue to wait…then right on the strike of 8, the man opens for business and within a relatively short while we’re at the counter. Bad news – there appears to be no availability for several days. But we can’t understand the man and it’s all very confusing. We end up getting the train we want but for a ridiculously high price through an emergency quota system.
Meanwhile, Gerard has broken out in an epidemic of flea bites that spread in lines across his arms, legs and back. They blow up into unsightly red pustules that itch like mad. Oddly, I’m not bitten at all. True to his New England heritage Gerard annoyingly keeps his equilibrium. If he had a good outburst he would feel much better. I know I would!
We try everything – wash all our clothes, repeatedly spray everything in sight with insect repellent. He continues to get bitten. So we find a doctor – conveniently just around the corner from the hotel. The sign says he’s a gynecologist, but so what….even a gynecologist should have an answer for fleas…or whatever it is that’s biting. An assistant shows us into the doctor’s office immediately. It’s Sunday and the doctor is not working, but we’re assured he will see us in half an hour after he’s had his breakfast. Despite the fact it’s the doctor’s day off, there’s a number of people hanging around.
It’s well worth the wait. A sweet, gentle mannered man arrives. With no hesitation, he diagnoses the condition. “Yes, you have been bitten, but you have an allergic condition; the bites set up a chain reaction – your body keeps creating more ‘bites’ on your skin”. He prescribes pills and ointment and advises: “Don’t eat anything sour or ice cold and reduce proteins in the diet”…not difficult, we’re already protein deficient. “And it would be good not to eat meat.” “No problem, we are strict veg,” we tell him. “Oh, that’s very good!” and he extends his hands to congratulate us. We thank him for seeing us on Sunday, his day off. The visit and medicine costs less than $10 and we feel reassured that we’re taken care of. But then Gerard continues to get more bites. His allergic condition is resilient….or we still haven’t got rid of the critters.
Taking public buses is a rough ride, but the experience is one of every day India. Fellow passengers help us check that we are on the right bus; they graciously squeeze up to give us a seat – or part of a seat. A man takes his small son on his lap to allow Gerard to balance one buttock on the edge of the seat. The boy stares at us with big black eyes. When they leave, the man holds out his son’s hand for me to shake.
After a night in Jalgoan, we board the early morning train. The usual sleeping bodies litter the floor, but it’s an unusually clean station. Railway stations now have helpful illuminated signs that direct you to the right platform. Then once on the platform another side supposedly directs to you where your specific coach will stop (remembering that these trains are 22 cars long it is critical to know where to go). The board lists our train but not the location of our A1 coach. Gerard goes to consult the station manager. In spite of the sign inside his office ‘NO ENQUIRIES’, the station master asks, “Yes?” Gerard asks about our coach. “Ah,” he turns around and yells at a boy sleeping on the floor, who immediately jumps to attention and punches more information on the key board. Meanwhile the station master asks the usual questions, “Where are you from? Where have you been? What do you like about India?” (No mention of coins this time). Our coach information has now appeared on the board.
1 love train stations at dawn. A huge full moon still hangs over the platform, while the sun rises beyond the tracks in the east. I start taking pictures, trying to catch the activity as the train arrives- the chai wallahs racing up to windows, people disembarking, all while the train is still moving. In my enthusiasm, I forget the fact that I am supposed to be boarding….and furthermore helping Gerard find our coach. His equilibrium is broken for a minute. But we manage to board and find our way anyway.
It goes without saying that as we travel through the country, we are constantly faced with the poverty of India. But we don’t say much about it. It’s too overwhelming to take in.
I watch families on the train stations – women exhausted with the basic struggle of survival and child bearing. They seem to have given up caring about themselves or their children who hang out on the platforms their hair matted thick with dust and dirt. We go by shanty towns where the conditions are deplorable. We pass through Bhopal where we remember the terrible 1984 gas disaster when 50% of the population was reputed to live in slums. From the train window it looks as though that is still the case. Without a certain degree of denial and abstraction, we couldn’t travel around India.