Eighty days down - 285 to go
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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Today is our 80th day on the road. Eighty days is how long Phileus Phogg, along with his manservant and his passport too, took to go all the way around the world. In the same amount of time, we have seen eight countries and made it about half way around.
The morning of our 80th day delivers us by bus, from the tiny, one-street tiger-themed village of Khatia, by the gates of Kanha National Park, to the noisy, bustling, jiggling streets of Jabalpur. Our home for the night is the Lodge Shivalaya, a cheap but comfortable hotel situation near the heart of town.
The rest of the day and the next morning are quiet for us, tending to some errands and relaxing in our nice room. Next door to the hotel is a kind of variety store that sells virtually everything we need, from warm clothes for the nippy Nepal nights ahead to a fruit-peeler, and the pharmacist across the street sells the elusive hand sanitiser that we have been searching for since Hong Kong.
We have learned our lesson from Indore and we decide to travel to our next stop by bus instead of train. We allow ourselves two hours before our 4pm bus, just to make sure. At about 3 o'clock, a nice older gentleman tells Jane that the bus is awful and that we would be much better off taking the train. He is quite persuasive and seems genuine so we decide to take his advice, even though we only have one hour to get to the train station and buy our tickets. The gentleman puts us in a rickshaw and barks a series of instructions at the driver. "He will take you to train station", the man explains to us. "He will help you buy a ticket. If no tickets, he will bring you back here to catch bus."
At the first train station we go to, the guy behind the counter assures us that there are sleeper berths available for the overnight journey but that we cannot buy them here, we must go to the other station. The other station is across town and is much larger. A lot of people seems to live here inside the station, just lying on the floor on a thin blanket with their meagre belongings in a bag beside them. Half-naked kids run around crying and beggars either sit slumped in a corner or hobble around on whatever limbs they have from person to person. The poverty is more striking here when you are just stood watching it than when you whiz past it in a rickshaw or when you can avert your eyes.
Anyway, it is now 3.50 and we can't catch our bus even if we wanted to, so we pay our driver and hope for the best in the line. It is painfully slow again, especially when the attendant closes the window for a 20 minute break, during which time she remains at the window eating. The minutes on the large station clock tick by inexorably. A young, tall soldier in full uniform approaches us. "Is everything okay, sir?" he inquires. We tell him of our frustrating experience and desire to get as far the hell away from Jabalpur as possible. "Ah", he says, nodding, "come with me". We are reluctant to leave our spot in line but we sense that he is the sort of chap who can get things done.
Sure enough, he strides straight to the front of another long line and buys us tickets just like that. Clearly people are intimidated by his uniform as no one says a world, although we feel extremely guilty. Not guilty enough to tell him to stop, mind you, as he probably saved us another hour of lining up. "My name is Vivek", he announces as he escorts us to the platform.
The train arrives and Vivek leads us to the very first carriage. He is holding Jane's hand, to show off to everyone, while I scuttle along behind. From his big talk earlier, we suspect that we are being led to the first class area or some other luxurious VIP section. Instead we are in what is known as 'General Section Unreserved' - in other words, the third class, extra-basic area. Our home for the next 12 hours is a compartment with wooden benches and windows that don't quite shut. There is a little puddle of some unidentified liquid beneath our feet and a group of four young men are huddled together on two small seats opposite us, staring intently at our every move.
"There!" says Vivek, triumphantly. "Here is a good seat for you, right next to the window." We smile back half-heartedly and thank him for his help. More and more people pour on to the train as we slide out of the station. Each wooden bench has room for four people, according to the markings above it but really it has room for as many bony Indians as it can fit.
The uncomfortable minutes stretch into more uncomfortable hours, which drag on until about 3am. At this time we decide that enough is enough, collect our bags and move to the end of the carriage, by the toilets. We have only been told that the train gets in to Jhansi "some time in the morning". We don't know if it is a big station or a small one and the stations generally have only one English sign, so if you miss it, tough luck. At each stop, one of us leaps out of the train and runs up to the unilluminated sign to see if it is Jhansi, then runs back into the train.
As it happens, we needn't have worried. Jhansi station is enormous - the platform alone is probably a kilometre long - and half the train gets off. It is about 4.45am and the station is as full as most major railway stations are at rush hour on a Friday night. Almost every square metre of flat concrete is being used as someone's bed and we have to tiptoe through the sleeping bodies to reach the exit.
Outside the station is an unruly mob of rickshaw drivers. If this is the mad swarm that meets the 4.45am train, we wonder what it must be like in the middle of the day. A dozen or more ferocious drivers positively fall over each other for our patronage to Orchha. One guy offers us a ridiculously high price but no one is willing to beat it, so we got with him. His 'tempo' (the name given to a large auto rickshaw) is already jam-packed with about 10 Indian people and all their luggage. He unceremoniously throws them out and into the arms of another driver in order to accommodate the two of us. This is clearly not because we are VIPs but because our inflated fare is probably more than that of those other 10 people combined.