Saturday July 18, 2015 (Asia, India)
There’s a very specific amount of complexity that India seems to relish injecting into everyday life. That amount is inconceivably high to most people, including myself.
We were working on a plan to get ourselves from Kochi to Ooty. The complexity starts already. Kochi is also known as Cochin. Ooty is also known as Udhagamandalam, and it’s also known as Udhagai. So we’re headed from a city with two names to a town with three names. Great start.
In order to get ourselves to Ooty, we needed to take a train, then a train, and then a train. Our first train was from Kochi to Coimbatore. We had a chat with an Indian couple on board who have been working in New Zealand for the past five years and were returning to India to vacation – in Ooty, no less! Great news: we can follow them. They disembark at Coimbatore, and we hop off as well. We’ll need to either get another train to Mettupalayam or grab a bus. We try to exit train platform. The whole train crowd starts wandering one way. We climb the stairs and start walking… but no, this is some other exit for the train station. The Indian couple is leading us around, and they start asking the locals where to go. Nobody seems to have any idea how to properly exit the train station. There are fences blocking certain paths. We’re lugging our bags around and just shaking our heads at how ridiculous this situation is. Eventually we find the main Coimbatore entrance and find that there’s a train in two hour’s time that’ll get us to Mettupalayam. Hooray!
We arrive in Mettupalayam and head to our hotel. Upon check in, I verify with the woman behind the counter that I’ve already paid for this hotel online. She shakes her head: no, they haven’t received any payment. Ugh. We head up to our room so I can find my confirmation. I bring it back down and show it to her. Yes, I’ve definitely paid. Here’s the confirmation from TravelGuru.com! She asks if there’s a phone number for the site on the printout. I find it and show it to her, and she proceeds to call up and start asking the person on the other end why she hasn’t received any money from me. The call drags on. And on. I ask her, “Can I just write the confirmation number down and you can deal with this while I’m not standing here?”. She ignores me and continues talking. After a couple of minutes, she hangs up and tells me that I shouldn’t have trusted this site – they’re asking for her bank information to pass the payment along. Of COURSE THEY ARE! That’s how you get paid! I said, “You received my booking, so you’re obviously tied in properly to this company. Whether or not you’ve been paid by them is none of my concern!”. Anyway, the matter seems to be dealt with.
Our next order of business is obtaining a ticket for the “toy train” the next morning to get us to Ooty: our destination. This was supposed to be arranged before we arrived, but the front desk informs us that they actually needed passport information and didn’t receive it, so now we have to go back to the train station we just arrived from. She will happily arrange a paid-for tuk tuk to take us there and back, and he’ll arrange the ticket. Fine.
We hop in his tuk tuk and he carts us back the few hundred metres to the train station. He pulls up to the reservations area and starts the booking process. We ask him to verify that we’re going to be travelling in a first class car. Sandra’s had enough of the packed trains. After a few minutes, he hands us a ticket.
“Is this first class?” “Yes.” “OK, good.” “You are on the waiting list.” “The waiting list? So we don’t have a ticket?” “Yes. You have a ticket. It’s first class.” “But you said we’re on the waiting list.” “Yes, tomorrow we come early and you have a ticket.”
We have no idea what’s going on. Perhaps the staff back at the hotel can clarify. We head back to the hotel with hope in our hearts. The woman at the front desk reiterates our driver’s message.
“You have a waiting list ticket. You get up early tomorrow and go to the train station and then you have a confirmed ticket.” “OK, so are we definitely getting on the train?” “Yes, no problem.”
This conversation continues in a seemingly endless back and forth of us trying to comprehend how we’re guaranteed to get on the train but are simultaneously on a waiting list. We part ways with the plan to meet at 4:40am to get to the train station. We will be on this train.
Sandra and I wander around town in hopes of finding a vegetarian place that was highly rated on TripAdvisor in Mettupalayam: Comfort Hotels. We walk to its exact spot on the map. It’s in the middle of a residential area. This is obviously not the place. I ask a guy if he knows where the "Comfort Hotels” is. “That’s not even in this city. That’s in Coimbatore.” Damnit, TripAdvisor. The last three places I’ve tried to visit have all been marked in the completely wrong spot. This is a raging pain in the butt. We wander back into town and happen upon a hairy gentleman in a pink tank-top forcefully slapping bread products on a hot plate. We’re talking open-handed smacks with everything he’s got. Just wailing on it! It turns out it’s paratha. He does this over and over again, beating the bread in groups of four. We pick up a couple of pieces as a snack, and it’s the best abused food item I’ve ever tasted.
We return to the hotel. Later that night, as Sandra and I prepare to sleep, I get a phone call. It’s a new guy at the main desk.
“We need your payment information for the room.” “I spoke with the lady earlier about this, it should be fine.” “No, not fine. We require payment for the room.” “I’ve paid! I already got it figured out.” “Please come downstairs, sir.” “I don’t need to come downstairs, the payment is already worked out.” “Come downstairs, sir.” “I’m not comi–“
He hangs up on me. I’m in my boxers and nothing else, ready to go to bed and this guy’s now demanding that I come downstairs to work out the payment information… again. Sandra suggests: “Just go down in your underwear!”. Yes. This is a good idea.
I strut down the stairs, laptop in hand wearing nothing but my skivvies. I burst into the lobby to be greeted by several Indian families, some local tuk-tuk drivers, and a few members of staff. I can tell which member of staff called me down by the way his eyes open wide as I approach the counter. I plop my laptop on the desk, open it to the same page I’d had before, and say, “Look. This is the payment information. This was dealt with earlier today. I’m trying to go to sleep and you’re calling me demanding that I come down to deal with it again.” The man quickly writes down the confirmation number and thanks me. He wants me out of the lobby. I think I put on a good show. That’ll teach him to hang up on ME!
Off to bed, and back up at 4:15am. We pack our bags and meet the driver downstairs. But it’s a new guy! Whatever: he seems to know what the plan is. He drops us at the train station and walks us to a lineup where about six locals are already waiting. He doesn’t say a word. He just directs us to the line, then walks away and sits down and watches us. One young guy in line speaks English pretty well. We ask him if we’re in the right spot.
“Yes. The station master will come at 5:15am and give out twenty six tokens.” “Tokens?” “Yes, then you take that token and buy a ticket.” “But we already bought the ticket. It’s right here.”
Much discussion ensues amongst the locals. Several minutes pass, then: “You will receive a token, then you will take that token inside, cancel your ticket, and purchase a new ticket with a confirmed seat.”
See what I mean about complexity? Who thought this system made any sense?
Around 5:40am, a staff member of the train station comes along to hand out “tokens”. They are handing out stamped pieces of paper. But when they see our ticket, they just guide us directly into the “general seating” area. It’s just one car, and now we’re realizing that everybody that lines up is getting into this car. Even though we’d purchased a first class ticket, somehow we’re now being shoved into the car with the rest of the people showing up the morning of. Whatever – at least we’re on the train.
The train doesn’t depart for another hour and a half. Sandra and I stuff our bags under the seats. We each have a bench to ourselves. Nice. We chat with a Danish couple also trying to get on the train. We hold spots for them on our bench while they run back to the hotel to grab their luggage. Things are going reasonably well. The train is actually powered by a steam engine for the first leg of the journey. It pushes the passengers uphill. I take a picture of the steam locomotive joining up with our train car.
Several minutes pass, and the young guy who spoke English fairly well hops into our section of the car. I should mention, this isn’t like a normal train car with a walkway down the centre. Each pair of two facing benches has a door to the outside, and that’s it. Moving between sections requires you to exit the train. Now this guy’s cousin joins in. I examine the seat benches. There are painted-over metal signs indicating five people to a bench, so ten people per section. At a tighter spacing are the new seat numbers, indicating six people to a bench, or twelve people per section. These benches could comfortably sit about three to a side. I ask the Indian guys in the car if they’re actually going to fill it. “Oh yes, they will fill the car.” Great.
We hear a commotion arise a few sections up from us. A woman is yelling and pushing. It looks like a fight is about to start. This crazy woman finally relents and abandons the section she was trying to enter. She promptly wanders back in our direction, husband in tow, and sits right down in our car.
Now a family arrives. With three children. They begin to get into the car. The older Danish gentleman is having none of it. They try to sit down next to him, and he flatly refuses. “No. No.” He spreads his legs widely to take up more space on the bench. The family are not leaving. We look into the other sections, many of which have four to a bench. We now have thirteen people in ours. “Why don’t you move to another car with more space?” It’s not working. Everybody is hell-bent on staying in our car. Voices are raised. This one guy just refuses to go anywhere but our section. Finally, I get up and say: “Fine, here, sit here.” I point to my seat. He sits down, and I promptly sit back down on his lap. My strategy here is that he’ll realize how uncomfortable this arrangement is, and promptly move elsewhere. My plan fails miserably. He seems content. I sit for a few minutes. I’m realizing this has backfired immensely. I stand again. This is going to be a long, long five hour train ride. The older Danish fellow eventually grabs my arm and pushes me back to my seat. He doesn’t want this local guy winning. Now I’m back in front of this dude, and he slaps his thighs, “Sit! Sit!”. Oh God.
We start the ride with our section of thirteen people. The locals insist that the children don’t count because they don’t need a ticket. The Danish guy is being a bit of a jerk and not closing his legs. Everybody is angry and hot. This sucks.
Luckily, there are several stops along the way. The family splits itself up in various ways amongst other cars, such that by the end of the train ride we’re down to ten in our section. Much more tolerable.
About one stop from our destination, we pull into a station with a bunch of guys carrying camera equipment. One guy with a massive 80’s style video camera notices white people in the car and starts filming us. I think he looks ridiculous and I’m tired of having my photo taken, so I grab my camera and start taking pictures of him filming me. We’re in a standoff. He just keeps filming. I just keep smiling and taking pictures. Soon enough, two more guys with video cameras approach and also start filming me taking pictures. It’s absolutely bizarre. I think they’re filming some kind of promotional short for the tourist train? Perhaps?
Eventually they turn off their cameras and walk away. But then minutes later, they return. And this time, they’ve got a big microphone.
“Can you do an interview please?” “Sure.” “How was your journey today?” “There are too many people on this train.” “… but, how was your journey?” “Cramped. Crowded. There are way too many people on this train. It’s not good.” “… well, but… your journey?” “Bad.”
The interviewer looks crestfallen. He pulls the mic away from me. Another guy standing nearby states, “Well, this is India!”. I hate hearing this. People just tolerate these crappy situations and nobody seems to think it needs improvement. There's this pervasive feeling of powerlessness – that everybody should just take whatever they can get and never hope or try for better. It’s incredibly frustrating for me. After the interview, the Danish guy is cracking up and giving me a thumbs up. On one hand, I feel good about telling the truth. On the other hand, I feel terrible for disappointing this interviewer. But really, you call this a tourist train? And you cram so many people into it that you can’t move your legs for five hours? No toilet? This is supposed to be a great experience?
We arrive in Ooty and head to our hotel – The Woodberry Residency. Wood? Berry? Doesn’t sound too tasty, but we’ll take it.
Yesterday we checked out the botanical garden. It’s the big thing to do in Ooty. Within twenty minutes, five separate groups of people had approached us asking to take a picture with us. We’re really perplexed and annoyed by this. You don’t even KNOW us! It’s really uncomfortable as a visitor to a country to continually be treated like a novelty to be captured in a selfie. Who knows, maybe our opinion on this one will change and we’ll start having fun with the photos. But for the moment, we just say “No thanks.” and continue walking.
The botanical gardens were… interesting. For a “major attraction”, the gardens were a bit of a let-down. Although quite sprawling, the grounds weren’t kept as immaculately as one would expect from a garden that charges an entry fee. But this is India, right? We caught a photo of a little girl in unintentionally Canadian garb, a Grizzled giant squirrel (who completed massive acrobatic leaps between two trees whilst fifty feet off the ground!), a guy sleeping on a bench, and a mangled garbage receptacle shaped like a bunny with a poopy diaper sitting on the ground behind it. All class.
Back in town, we’ve had momos for the past three nights. Those are the steamed dumplings with tasty bits inside. We found a cool guy running a little food stand by the name of “Darjeeling Spicy Momo”. They’re absolutely incredible. We got a picture of Sandra’s veggie steamed momos. The hot sauce. The filling. It’s just magic. Some of the best food I’ve eaten in India, and the two of us could eat for just under 3 CAD. I love it!
Today we hiked up Doddabetta – the highest point in South India at 2637m. Instead of taking a vehicle up, we just wandered up a trail for a couple of kilometres. It was a really pleasant hike, and we enjoyed walking through some small villages on the way up. We passed a creepy gate straight out a horror film, a beautifully maintained temple, a trio of turkeys that followed us menacingly, a dilapidated tuk tuk, and a lovely pair of dogs. The dogs broke our hearts, though. You get the feeling they’ve never been allowed out of their respective huts. They were a bit aggressive as we approached them and barked at us, but seemingly out of fear. It’s really tough seeing animals in these conditions.
We reached the peak of Doddabetta and turned around almost immediately. It was starting to rain a bit harder and the winds were fairly heavy. It’s more about the journey than the destination, right?
Tomorrow the plan is to take a bus to Mysore where we’ll stay for two nights. We hope to see the zoo and a beautiful palace. Wish us luck!