Getting to Pachmarhi involved a number of long bus rides – first to Pune, where we spent one night. Pune is still the headquarters for the followers of Bhagwan Rajneesh (Osho), and although he died 25 years ago, there is still a large community here. After being thrown out of the USand trying to gain entry in 22 countries, Osho finally settled here.
This being the first city we’ve been in since Bangalore over six weeks ago, the city seemed louder, dirtier and more crowded than ever, but over and over again there were helpful people: the rickshaw driver who found us a hotel when it seemed hopeless – everything was full or beyond our budget; the young boy who stopped on his bike, “What do you want, Auntie?” and then proceeded to help us find a pure veg restaurant.
One of the benefits of traveling is that essentials are reduced to a minimum – finding a clean and affordable hotel and, within walking distance, a veg restaurant. On our way to dinner, a group of young men on motor scooters raced round the corner and catching a glimpse of me in the growing dusk, shrieked, “White Girl!” – a refreshing change from “Auntie.”
The following day we boarded an overnight sleeper bus for Bhopal, fourteen hours away. It’s a little hard to explain but basically there’s curtained cubicles with just enough room for two people to lie down and barely enough head room to sit up. I boarded with trepidation at the prospect of being captive for so long. But surprisingly enough it was almost fun… We lay chatting late into the night and finally drifted off with the jostling of the bus. Waking early in the morning as the bus pulled into a roadside breakfast stand with only a few hours to go. It was nowhere near as bad as I’d feared. We’d passed through Bhopalon the train before, but I had no desire to stop there. The spectre of the 1984 Union Carbide chemical disaster was still too real, and in my mind caste a long shadow over the city. But now it was unavoidable because we didn’t feel like taking another seven or so hour journey immediately.
Bhopal has a strong Moslem legacy emphasized by three mosques, one of which is said to be the largest in India, (although the people in Delhi would not agree….). We were able to walk around all three mosques, watching young boys reciting the Koran, and rows of men kneeling in prayer. We didn’t have a chance to get much of a sense of Bhopal except that it’s yet another Indian city that can’t keep up with the growing population. It’s the cities that continually remind us of how over populated India is – 1.1billion today and still growing.
The next afternoon we took the train to Piparyia, riding sleeper class for the mere four hour journey. Buying tickets at the train station is never easy – long, long lines at each counter, the occasional outburst when someone tries to cut in at the front of the line. But I’m amazed at the patience of Indians to wait. Noticing a significantly shorter line for “current reservations” we join it. Everything seems good. The form’s filled out correctly and with the usual pushing and shoving, we hand it over – only to be told, “Come back in 15 minutes!” I demand, “Why?” but he’s not about to give me an explanation. Fuming at Indian bureaucratic inefficiency, I join Gerard back at the end of the line. Two boys have explained to him that “current reservations” means you can only buy the ticket an hour before departure. Meanwhile the annoying clerk closes his window altogether…now I’m really loosing my patience….reopening up only just in time for us to get our tickets.
Settling in on the train, our compartment began to fill to overflowing -fifteen people crowd into a space designated for eight. But it’s reserved seating! Further adding to our confusion, when the ticket collector came around, he only looked at four tickets– including ours, while the rest of the passengers merely nodded, and he walked away. Striking up a conversation with a boy across from us, he explained that the rest of the passengers had monthly passes and they crowd on wherever they can. He reminded us that it was Holi in a few days (the festival of color, one of India’s largest holidays) and everyone was going home to spend it with the family.
The boy who spoke good English told us he worked for the Secret Service. Inquiring about our experience in Indiahe seemed somewhat surprised that we’ve never had any real problems and meet only friendly people. His job focuses around tracking the Naxalites, a Marxist faction that is particularly violent. By the time we reached Piparyia he’d managed to put me on edge and arriving at night didn’t help. We still had 50 Km to go to Pachmarhi, no hotel reservation and had not eaten dinner yet. The crowd of hustling taxi drivers was threatening to me. Gerard picks one with a small private car, another passenger and a trunk full of heavy packages. My unease was mounting as we set off down a dark winding road, in the company of two men we knew nothing about. Some way down the road the driver stopped right in the lane of traffic and turned off the engine. With no explanation, he got out, along with the other passenger, leaving Gerard and I shut in the car in the darkness. Now my paranoia is in full swing. Immediately I thought, they’re abandoning us – we’re going to be robbed and murdered! But if they wanted to do that, wouldn’t they throw us out the car and drive away themselves – not the reverse? My blood sugar was really low- I needed to eat…
The reality was a flat tire – too much weight in the small car. The driver proceeded to change the tire in the middle of the dark road – cars, trucks, bicycles with no lights, cows – all passing dangerously close. Finally we’re on our way again, but I still have a sense of foreboding. Arriving in town, our fellow passenger, who had hardly said a word to us during the journey, proceeded to help us find a budget hotel and negotiate a discount on our behalf – and the restaurant was still open! I wasn’t very pleased with the room, but I kept it to myself. The next morning, by daylight, everything seemed a lot better. I realized the fellow on the train had definitely unnerved me.