Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Hotel 12311

It wasn’t quite what I expected – never mind the traffic. I’d left us just a little short of time, and despite paying ten times the price of an auto-rickshaw for an air-conditioned 4x4 taxi to take us to Old Delhi railway station, the price proved to be no guarantee of speed or timeliness. “45 minutes in traffic”, said our Sikh chauffeur. The train was due to leave in 38.

We made good time across town, and then immediately got snarled up in Old Delhi traffic. This is the traffic that they show you on the travel documentaries. The traffic that pulses and swirls around idiotically placed obstacles such as traffic lights and roundabouts. Traffic that seems to eddy with a collective consciousness – of the impossibility of getting there on time. My pulse slowed as we drew level with the station. Three minutes later it was racing worse than ever as we hadn’t moved an inch and still had to make an impossible u-turn to the other side of the carriageway. Drastic action – we paid the driver and squeezed out of the 4x4, racing to get our rucksacks out of the boot. The car behind had stopped so close that we couldn’t open the door of the boot fully, and its driver helpfully sat with his finger on the horn for the whole 45 seconds that it took us to drag the luggage out and sprint for the central reservation.

Pati carried the boy while I had my rucksack on my back and hers hanging from my shoulder. It wasn’t the elegant ergonomics we had rehearsed in Cardiff, and with the seconds ticking down, I pushed our way through the throngs outside the sparsely lit station. We made it to the platform entrance, and were relieved to find an elderly official waving people left and right. “Where does the Kalka train leave from?” I asked. He blanked me, and then shouted for our tickets. After an agonisingly long time scrutinising them, he shrugged and pointed to the enquiry office, where we’d have to go to ask for our platform. My heart sank. There was a 5 metre long queue at each of the three counters. We had about 4 minutes left. I shouted something else at him before his attention darted to someone else and we pushed past and hurried towards the blinding neon departures board.

With several complete minutes left we made it to the platform and found our train number, 12311, displayed on the overhead signs. About forty minutes later it finally rolled in to the station, all blinding headlight and gut-shaking thunderous horn. That is probably just as well, for of the thousands of Indians pushing to get to the endless platforms, many took the most direct route - straight up and down over the tracks.

The berth was a shared four berth, which meant that on each side of the compartment there was an upper and a lower bunk. We had one side, and it turned out, two young men from Bristol had the opposite side. Clean sheets, blankets and pillows were sitting out waiting for us to make the beds up. Once we’d settled down, the boy finally went to sleep, and then the dots started to move. The little black dots that scurry away when your eye catches them and you wonder if you’d just imagined it. There was plenty of litter underneath the bottom bunk, but I hadn’t anticipated cockroaches. Pati went into homeopathic chemical warfare mode and began spraying the entire carriage with citronella. I protested that if cockroaches are one of the few beasts that will survive a nuclear war, citronella was probably not going to force them to the negotiating table. I took a more direct route, and started squishing them with a now surplus map of Delhi. The smaller, younger, oneswere easy pickings, but the bigger, savvy older ones raced off at the first sign of incoming map. The train pulled off. I twisted and turned, trying to wrap myself up in the sheet in such a way as to make me inaccessible to cockroach incursion. The map dropped to the floor. I gave up. The cockroaches were always going to win anyway.