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Indian Railways

Started: 2016-01-07 09:52:32

Submitted: 2016-01-07 11:15:19

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator takes a delayed train from Agra to Jaipur

My alarm woke me up much too early on Thursday morning, 24 December, so I could catch an 07:15 train to Jaipur. I was not impressed by the lack of a shower curtain in my discount hotel room and worried that this was a sign of things to come at the other hotels my mother had chosen for us. I finished my own packing, woke Calvin up, marshaled him out of bed and into clothing, and met the rest of my family in the hotel lobby to check out and head to Agra Cantonment railway station.

We took two auto rickshaws to the station in the pre-dawn chill, which fit the six of us and our luggage well enough. At the station I ended up carrying my 45-pound suitcase over my shoulder because the telescoping handle was still broken (and I hadn't had the chance to check whether I could fix it on the fly) -- which was a little awkward, but surprisingly effective.

The monitors told us that our train was delayed, but would be arriving on platform 4. We parked on a bench on platform 4 and settled in to wait -- we'd arrived early enough to give us a comfortable margin had the train actually been on time. We ate the sack breakfasts our hotel had packed for us (including a fluffy paratha rolled up in foil, which turned out to be my new favorite Indian flatbread -- it's prepared by folding the dough in layers with ghee, producing an effect not unlike filo dough, though thicker), picked up some chai from the vendors on the platform, and waited.

Platform 4 at Agra Cantt railway station
Platform 4 at Agra Cantt railway station

Every fifteen minutes we'd go check the monitors to see what the latest on our train was, and its arrival would consistently be pushed back another half hour. It wasn't clear what the cause of the delay was (though "fog" was a good bet), or whether they actually believed the train was going to be only half an hour late at a time. At one point an Indian Army train rolled into the station and stopped on our platform. The train included proper carriages for the officers and support staff, and flat-bed cars carrying various armored vehicles and field artillery. When the train stopped, the gun crews emerged from the tarps covering the barrels of their artillery pieces, where they'd been bivouacked for the night, and hopped onto the platform to get chai and snacks and water.

Platform 4 at Agra Cantt railway station
Platform 4 at Agra Cantt railway station

Our train eventually arrived three hours late -- on platform 5, which was conveniently located opposite platform 4 on the same island. We found our third-class AC sleeper carriage, boarded the train, and found that our seats were not all in the same compartment. We claimed the entirety of the compartment that the majority of our seats were in, and no one noticed that we weren't all seated where we were ticketed.

Dad, Mom, Willy, Bethany, and Calvin in the sleeper car to Jaipur
Dad, Mom, Willy, Bethany, and Calvin in the sleeper car to Jaipur

We rolled out of Agra on our way towards Jaipur. The original schedule called for a five-and-a-half hour trip to Jaipur, but the train took even longer. Most of our journey was in the countryside of Uttar Pradesh. When we eventually crossed the state border into Rajasthan, my phone acquired on a network with better roaming support, and I could use my data roaming again -- though carefully, since I didn't want to spend too much money on roaming data. (I signed up for an international roaming plan that gave me 100 megs of data for US$25 -- which was not exactly inexpensive, but was far easier than trying to navigate Indian bureaucracy to get a local SIM card.)

Calvin reviews photos with Aunt Bethany on the train to Jaipur
Calvin reviews photos with Aunt Bethany on the train to Jaipur

When we were still a few hours out of Jaipur, the flat wheat fields gave way to dry rolling hills dotted with tiny settlements. We finally rolled into Jaipur late in the afternoon, and joined the crowd of people exiting our train onto the platform. We ate a late lunch/early supper at the train station, then headed out to get a taxi. We had trouble getting a car large enough to fit six people (five adults and one child) and ended up with a Hindustan Ambassador -- for decades locally built on license from the 1950s British Morris Oxford, which is now rare, dropping in popularity in favor of newer indigenously-designed cars for the Indian market.

We drove across town to our hotel, the somewhat incongruously-named Rajasthan Palace Hotel, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the retirement community in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in its enthusiastic staff, state of perpetual construction, and lack of essential Western conveniences like shower curtains, weather-stripping, and indoor heating. (The hotel did supply toilet paper, but we had to ask at the front desk to get it.)

We hurriedly checked in (which involved the front-desk staff photocopying and filing our passports and visas to make sure we weren't overstaying our visit), dropped our bags, and headed back into the Ambassador to drive to Willy's church on the other side of town, where they were putting on a Christmas Eve program for the local neighborhood. The main event was a play, almost entirely in Hindi, featuring a multi-religious group of friends who wander around town seeing various examples of religious intolerance, and ultimately a good example of Christianity. Willy played an obnoxious Goan Catholic who swaggered onto stage wearing a cowboy hat, drinking whiskey and smoking a cigar, and tried to convince his guests (in English, so at least I could follow this part) to enjoy the alcohol and meat he offered to them, to their disgust.

At the end of the program Calvin joined the other children in the audience to receive a small gift, which turned out to be a package of markers that he used for the rest of the trip.

After the program we headed back to our hotel and went to bed, ready to see Jaipur the next day.