Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Art of Bribery

So Mt. Abu is the highest mountain in Rajasthan, which isn’t saying much considering it’s a desert and relatively flat. Nevertheless, the weekend I spent there was arguably the best weekend I’ve had here. My friend Lisa and I, who somehow always end being the facilitators of trips, have the worst luck with trains. As expected, our train to Abu arrives 20 minutes late and leaves about an hour late. Naturally, we expect the train to be about 30 minutes late arriving at Abu Road station, putting us in around 4:15 in the morning.  We decide to wake everyone up at 3:30 just in case and then we can wait for our stop as we wake up. So around 3:20 in the morning we’re both laying on our bottom bunks, looking out the window and we feel the train start to slow down. They do that from time to time for whatever reason, so we brush it off. Then out of some miracle, she spots a sign laying on the ground with big red letters reading “Abu Road” and the train comes a stop. Not only is our train about an hour earlier than what we projected, but it’s also 25 minutes earlier than it’s scheduled arrival. Nothing gets done early in India-- nothing. The Commonwealth games facilities are still unfinished, and those games are ended last year. IST, Indian standard time, is also synonymous with Indian stretchable time. Even my classes start anywhere in the 5-10 minute window after they’re supposed to. Nothing ever is on time, except our train?
So Lisa and I turn on the lights for our cabin and start yelling and shaking everyone to wake them up. There are six bunks in a cabin, three on either side stacked on top of each other. The girls on the top bunks literally jump from the top, landing on our shoulders, picking up bags with a leg still stuck on bunk poles. We’re all scrambling and yelling, waking up our entire car.
 Before coming to India, my mandatory blood test showed that I’m just barely anemic, but it wasn’t much to worry about since I had not been bothered by it in the US. In India however eating meat is a rarity and therefore so is absorbing iron; I’ve definitely felt the effects. I’m constantly tired and dizzy, and anytime I’m sedentary for long, at least one of my limbs becomes numb. We had been lying down for about 7 hours, so a majority of my right leg is numb, and upon rushing to get my stuff, I immediately get dizzy and sort of collapse. So I’m on the ground, searching for my shoes and bag, the girls from the top bunks are still climbing on the upper bunks and shoulders to find their stuff. Somehow, our luck allows us to be entirely suited up as the train creeps a little forward to the station and stops. We’re all wide awake and ready for the one hour cab ride to the mountain.
We get to our guest house just fine and have a room with four single beds pushed together to form a giant bed for the five of us. Supreme sleepover style-- we shared pillows and shotty blankets. After sleeping some and eating a fantastic muesli breakfast (huge commodity here since most breakfast is a fried bread thing stuffed with potatoes) on the roof with a great mountain view, we did some hiking through the mountain’s peak and climbed the 367 steps to a crazy cave temple.
At sunset, we took a  hike around some of the peaks, somehow scaling slanted rock sheets with the help of our guide yelling at us to “just climb!” While a little harsh, our guide, Ashok, turned out to be one of my favorite people I’ve met so far. He loved speaking Hindi with us, even though we only knew the most basic of sentences, and he knew everything about the mountains. Also, he had an obsession with photography and once he saw my friend’s fancy camera, he finagled his way into taking hundreds of pictures over the course of the trip. We watched an amazing sunset on this rock ledge that over looked a farming valley that went to the next city, almost five hours away. All that sounds kind of cheesy and slightly boring, but before Abu, every city we had visited was over polluted; this limited any views and cut short every sunset since the sun descends into a pollution smog before actually disappearing. As the sun was going down, Ashok ordered each of us to take stupid pictures of the sun: one of someone eating it, one of someone balancing it on her thumb, etc. He loved it and served us up some of the best chai we’ve had all semester to finish off the sunset.
The next morning we woke early to hike with Ashok and a British couple, taking a 45 jeep ride farther out. Hands down one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. We climbed for a while and did general hiking things until we came to a cave. Ashok turns to me, saying that I will go first because I am a strong a girl and can lead in the dark. Hmm…So then he instructs us that we will be crawling and to stay low without making too much noise because there are bats in the cave. Also it will be pitch black and if we keep crawling straight we will see a light hole immediately to our right, head towards it and then climb out. Sounds simple, except by crawling he meant sliding and squirming along on your belly and by immediately to our right, he meant a good 15-20 yards ahead. So we crawl at first, hunching lower and lower until we’re scraping on our bellies, going up hill, not totally able to look straight because the ceiling is too low. Luckily no bats, since we were all laughing and groaning about hitting our heads. I was the only one who could see the light since my butt blocked the sliver for everyone else as we slid up towards it. Ashok got some great pictures of us all coming up through the whole at the other end (he didn’t tell us about the walk around option).
We spent the rest of the morning climbing up to this amazing rock that overlooked the rest of valley from a different side. We stopped for chai, cookies, and some rock top yoga of which Ashok insisted on taking pictures.
After the hike, We had half a day to see the rest of Mt. Abu. One of the girls went ahead to the Om Shanti meditation center to try to conduct an interview for an assignment we had due the following week. After checking out of our guest house, the rest of us go to meet her at the center. We enter and immediately two older men come up to us, asking if we’re looking for our friend. Perfect, we think since they work at the center. They probably talked to her and know where she is. The one says he will take us on walk, the end of which we think will be our friend. Unfortunately, it was a disaster.  He takes us into this huge auditorium, sits us down and starts preaching to us about our immoral way of life and how to change it. He starts telling us all about their cultish philosophy on finding happiness, spreading it through the world, and achieving world peace. Some of his statements, I subscribe to, so we agree and nod and smile thinking it will end in a few minutes. Then he starts asking questions about whether we are satisfied with out lives in America. We of course think it’s a rhetorical questions since it’s been about 6 minutes and he hasn’t let us get a word in. He, however, takes our hesitation as a sign of dissatisfaction and takes the chance to seriously proselytize. We were lectured for a good 15 minutes on the selfishness and materiality of our lives and how the way we conducted ourselves was causing our own suffering, but if we would only think like he does, then we would be at peace. We all agree the first chance we get and start to stand up, but he keeps preaching. We start very slowly walking out of the aisle and down the ramp, but still he keeps preaching. Then he has us sit down again and preaches for another 10 minutes about how to save ourselves. None of us want to offend him since we’re surrounded by people getting the short version of this talk and we don’t want to cause a scene. Also, this whole time we’re thinking he knows where our friend is and that if we stick it out, he’ll take us to her. At the end he has us close our eyes and envision our saved lives. I am getting quite fed up at this point and open my eyes. He looks at me, gives me the squinty stink eye and says “You’re immoral life is still with you. CLOSE. YOUR. EYES. ” How stupid of me to be living this life. I’m so blind.
When he stops his rant after a total of 30 minutes, we ask to know where our friend is to which he replies, “Oh, she has gone from here about an hour ago.”
We rush out of the center to find her sitting at the other entrance, reading and unscathed by any proselytizing wrath. Lucky girl. We finish off the afternoon with a long walk to this Jain temple that is famous for its ornate white marble carvings. We weren’t allowed to bring cameras in, but to give you an idea, it is slightly comparable to Charles Dickens‘ novels. He got paid by the word, so his writing is sort of ornate and belabored. The carvers of this temple were likewise paid by the pound of dust accumulated from their carvings. What they accomplished was mind blowing.
We of course finished off the trip with an unnerving train adventure. Our seats were not confirmed, which was a usual event that had always cleared itself up on its own. This time we remained waitlisted. No one could give us a straight answer about what to do. The enquiry office told us to talk to the conductor. Our travel agent told us to ask the enquiry office. Our teacher told us to ask the travel agent. Our main concern was being ousted from the train at the next available stop if we didn’t have confirmed seats. Somehow, no one would give us a straight answer on whether or not that was a possibility. Finally, our travel agent told us that we should go to a certain car where the conductor, who’s name he knew, would be and then we should have the two of them talk on our phone. We should be prepared to hand over 100-200 rupees. I’ve never felt more “Indian” in those moments as we sat on the floor of the train station, eating Indian food with our hands and chapattis out of foil and tubs, just coming from a trunk jeep ride down the mountain, about to board a train where we don’t have seats, but ready to name drop and slide over hundreds of rupees to attain them.
So we do all this that we planned. We give the phone to the conductor with the travel agent on the other end, but it doesn’t quite work. Of course, a small crowd starts to gather in the corridor as we try to play pity foreigner card with the conductor. He keeps telling us there are no seats and we start to look at each other, knowing we’ll need to dig into our pockets. We’re getting ever more annoyed as all these men stare at us as we try to plead for a seat and we were definitely getting sick of being entertainment. When we one of them asks what our problem is, we grudgingly answer that our seats aren’t confirmed. Stupidly, we misjudged them as two of the men look at each other and offer to have their kids share bunks so that we can at least have one. Indian hospitality to the rescue, kind of. We ended up with one bottom bunk seat for the five us. After two hours of squishing onto the seat with legs on top of each other and hugging our knees because of the bunk above us, we decide to whip out our rupees. It totally backfired, for the conductor threw the 500 back and flatly told us that there were no seats. We couldn’t help but wonder if we should have tried to do it with more class, stick it in his pocket and wink, or maybe flash in the cup of my hand when I talk. Whichever method is best, we were screwed. My friend and I decided to venture off in hopes of another, and somehow found one about 6 cars down. So for the remainder of the 5 hours ride, the two us shared a bunk (miserable, 20 minutes of sleep total) while the other three split a bunk, which ended in one girl residing to spreading newspaper on the floor and sleeping there. We sleeplessly arrived at Jaipur at 6 am and decided to skip our first Hindi class session since we would basically be asleep. To us, it would have been ruder to attend class and be asleep during it; to our staff, it was ruder to not show up. We got a nice tongue lashing  and extra hindi homework for that cultural mix-up. Oh India, you make good stories, but you’re never easy.

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