We had 10 minutes to catch the train, so made our way to the platform. It was immediately evident that the station master hadn’t understated himself. There was absolutely no space to move. I had to get into London commuter mode and barge us a path through the luggage and crowds of people standing or sitting on the floor. I offered multiple “excuse me’s” as I went past which made me feel a bit better about the forceful approach. Without force though I don’t think we would have made it onto the train at all. Every carriage was rammed to overflowing – people were hanging out the doors and faces were pushed up against the bars of every window. After running the length of about half a dozen carriages it dawned on us that this was as good as it was going to get. So, time for some more good old British force (accompanied by a suitable amount of “pardon me’s” to offset the karma mileage) in getting us on to the carriage. Next challenge – find a place for our butts and our bags. Luckily our lack of Hindi meant we could play dumb to the max. And we did. So after much shouting from other passengers and lots of smiles from us we claimed a corner of a ground level bench (there are 3 levels of benches/sleeping platforms in 3rd Class). I thought we were home free, but then another family appeared (God only knows how) and started shouting/waving a ticket. I thought it better for me to get up without argument to give Nix a chance to stay where she was, so I did that and climbed up on to the corner of a 2nd level bench in the corridor opposite Nix that was housing a multitude of luggage. A few seconds later another guy got up from below and began shouting at me in Hindi. I adopted the same inane grin/head nodding approach. Eventually he gave up and let me stay in my perch, for the time being.
It wasn’t long before other passengers started shouting at me. I had to deflect them for the next 10 hours from a position where I could not move at all (all I can say is that it is very fortunate I have flexible hips and that I’m in surrender mode). I could see Nikki doing the same on the ground level. I felt proud of both of us – neither lost our temper, which could easily have happened in the midst of the chaos combined with the heat and lack of sleep we were experiencing. We found out from another passenger that it was the Diwali holidays and the busiest time to use public transport since families were moving around all over India. So for anybody thinking of travelling in India at the beginning of November - don’t ;) Next mission, should we choose to accept it, was to find out when to get off the train.... It’s next to impossible to find out when your stop is in India – everyone tells you something different, a theme that tends to recur throughout all things in India. Our general approach is to ask 3 different people the same question - if there is agreement from 2 out of 3 then that must be right (or as close to right as you’re going to get). If there’s no agreement then it’s time to breathe, a lot. And then surrender.
We eventually made it to Khandwar that evening and decided to stay the night. It would have pushed us over the edge to carry on to Omkareshwar. We ran the gauntlet of ubiquitous touts and rickshaw drivers and found a decent (but expensive) hotel near the station. We were too tired to argue on price or look for anywhere else so went with it. I was looking forward to sleeping but had those hopes dashed by the bus terminus conveniently located on the side of the hotel where our room was. Horn OK please. Loud please. Throughout the night please. Bus horns in India have a volume similar to World War II air raid sirens. Luckily, we didn’t have far to go to catch our bus to Omkareshwar the next morning. Silver linings in everything ;)
Omkareshwar is much less chaotic than either Mumbai or Khandwar. And there was much rejoicing. We spent a couple of hours wandering the streets with our backpacks to find a place to stay and eventually came across the Gayatri Temple in Sangam (the point where the Narmada river meets the Kaveri river). We are basically staying in a meditation cell, which suits us perfectly. Very basic, but cheap and quiet (being about a half hour walk from the hustle bustle of the main town area). The Temple is run by Mangla and her Mum – both are amazing people. Her father was a Sanyasin (travelling mendicant) who established the Ashram some years back. Sadly he died of liver cancer two years ago. When speaking to them I was truly impressed by their ability to get on with life happily and accept the hand that has been dealt them without any trace of negativity. This is why I love India. In amidst the con artists and pandemonium there are some beautiful human beings who could teach the rest of the world a thing or two (hundred). The vast majority of us in the West are so busy running about chasing “success” that we put no focus towards anything else. Our mantra is “money, money, money”. And it does us no good at all. We live in our little (or in some cases massive) Ivory towers looking out for only ourselves, until life throws us serious suffering (which it will inevitably do – just a question of when) and then we cry about it and fall into victim mode. Then the Ivory towers start to crumble and we realize too late that all the money in the world ultimately does not help.
We are very happy to be here. And it’s great to eat with Mangla and her Mum each evening - their cooking skills rock. I’ve got myself a “Learn Hindi Without Tears” book and am slowly learning/remembering how to say such gems as “mosquito” and “this chai tastes great” (much to the amusement of all within earshot). The Narmada river is at the foot of the Ashram so each night Nix and I have gone swimming in it accompanied by the soundtrack of Saddhus chanting in the temples along the banks. It feels amazing after the dust and heat of the day, and makes the hectic journey to get here worthwhile. I’ve spent a good while observing the abundant wildlife too – so many species of birds.... And monkeys.... I am a particular fan of the white monkeys with the big eyebrows that make them look like grumpy old men. Not such a big fan of the pink faced ones who seem to be inclined to be thieves, and puts me right back into African mode ;)
We’re off now to find the mythical SIM card for foreigners. We have thus far come up against crazy rules which make it impossible to buy them if you are a non-Indian in Madhya Pradesh. But where there is a will there is way I suppose. And if not, then there’s always the option of surrender to what is ;)