The journey from Naddi to Gajner was definitely a physical and emotional challenge. The entire journey was 21-hours and it all started at 5:30am:
I awake in the below zero-degree morning with wet hair from my late night shower. After stuffing all my remaining belongings into my suitcase, I wobbled up the concrete stairs to the main road to catch the taxi I had arranged. Surprisingly he was on time. I assumed this meant the day would be a breeze…boy was I wrong. The taxi ride down to the Dharamsala bus station was about 30 minutes long. I had some time before my 7:00am departure so I sat around for a half an hour people watching. It’s such an odd thing to ‘people watch’ in India because literally everyone is watching you at the same time. White girl in a bus station? Everyone go look! I watched as shops opened and as busses came and went with their drivers coming out to yell the destination over and over before departing. “Shimla, Shimla, Shimla!” “Chandigardh, Chandigardh!” Then finally just after 7am, a bus pulled up and out came a man yelling, “Pathankot, Pathankot!” I jumped on the bus (not actually with four items of luggage) and took a seat at the back so I could make room for everything. The bus ride from Dharamsala to Pathankot is about three hours but it is quite a scenic ride as it’s all through the mountains. The ride was oddly pleasant and everything was going smoothly until the bus started acting up just outside of Dharamsala. Uh oh. In India, your bus breaking down is more common than a b
us without any mechanical issues. At some point just before entering Punjab, we pulled up next to a bus packed with people, “next bus!” yelled the driver. I’m sure I looked a bit confused since he looked me right in the eye and said, “hurry!” while grabbing my suitcase. He handed it to the bus driver in the next bus, who muttered something about how heavy it was in Hindi, and threw it onto the floor beside him. I scurried over to the new bus’s door, walking through the smoke now coming from the old bus. I found a seat next to an older gentleman and placed my guitar on the overhead racks. The rest of the ride was extremely uncomfortable and the driver insisted on going full speed over every bump in the road. I’m sure everyone’s booty was feeling a bit sore.
The three-hour mark was coming up as 10am slowly approached. I tried to stay alert, looking out every window for any sign of the train station and asking anyone who spoke English where it was. We stopped randomly on the side of one of the main roads and the bus driver looked back at me and said something in Hindi I could not make out. “Train station?” I replied. “Yes, yes, hurry!” I quickly grabbed my backpack from off the floor and tossed it onto one shoulder with my purse on the other and watched as my suitcase was thrown out the bus door. I scurried off, unsure of why the driver was in such a hurry. A tuk-tuk driver grabbed my suitcase without asking and waddled towards his auto. I yelled out at him to stop while trying to yank my purse out of the bus, not realizing it was stuck between two bars. I ran after the tuk-tuk driver. “Come come, you go train station” “wait! Kitna – how much?” “100-rupees”. I tossed my backpack into the auto and jumped into the seat as the driver started to take off. What the hell is going on? Nothing was actually going on, it just seemed weird that for once (in India) more than one person needed to get somewhere on time. We arrived at the train station and I grabbed my bags, counting as I collected them. One, two three. Shit! My guitar! While being tossed out of the bus, I had forgotten to grab my guitar off the overhead racks. I paid the driver as my body went into shock. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘there goes Ethan’s guitar’ (luckily I cared more about it than my brother did). I stumbled over my feet while deep in thought about what to do next. I bumped into a cow by accident. He snarled and bumped me back. A bunch of Indian men outside the station giggled, I did too. What else was I going to do, cry?
Inside the station I paced back and forth with my suitcase. As soon as you seem decently lost or confused, someone will approach you to see if you are okay. Luckily a young man, who spoke English, approached me with his family following behind. “Are you okay? Where are you going?” I explained what had happened with my guitar and he tried to help me. The ticket the driver had given me on the bus didn’t have a number on it so I could not call anyone and apparently where the bus was headed was a good 20 minutes away. With my train coming in 30 minutes, there was no way I could make it back in time, and it wasn’t certain the bus or my guitar would be there. I pouted for a bit and bought a samosa to cheer me up. 30 minutes went by, then an hour. I asked a tall, 20-something year old man wearing a green Nike sweater if he knew what was happening. He was about to board the same train as me and informed me it was running late. He didn’t speak much English but stayed close to me on the platform while we both waited in case I needed help with anything. As time ticked, the more the guitar haunted me. The thought of having no guitar for six months made my bottom lip curl. I’m sure I looked like a sad six year old standing alone on the train platform. Finally after two hours of waiting, the train arrived. I showed Nike sweater boy my seat number and he led me to where I needed to be. “Quick!” he yelled behind him as I followed dragging my suitcase. The trains don’t usually stop for long so if you are standing at the wrong end of the platform, you better hurry. He helped me get my suitcase on board and showed me to my seat. “Dhanyvad ji!” I said. He smiled and continued on into the next cart. Too bad, he was cute.
Having a seat in sleeper class is always the way to go, you always meet really fun people. Sitting next to me this time were a group of young boys around my age or younger who were all coming from Northern Punjab and heading home to Ahmedabad, Gujarat the last stop (aka a 27-hour train ride…yikes). I tried to nap for the first part of the journey but was constantly disturbed by women and men walking the train trying to sell me sweaters and snacks. After a few hours I gave in and sat up to drink some chai. Around 8pm, seven hours into the train ride, we stopped at a station and everyone seemed to get up. The older gentleman that was sitting with the boys looked at me and said “dinner time” then walked off the train. I slowly threw on my poncho and my boots and walked out into the cold, damp air. There were two stalls near by; one was being bombarded by passengers throwing money at the cook as he tried to quickly get everyone a serving of his dish, while the other stall merely had chai. Although I hadn’t eaten all day, I didn’t have the energy to fight off 25 people so I decided to grab chai. I took my seat again and curled up, blowing on my tea to cool it down. The boys returned with bags and bags of food items. “You no get dinner?” “No, I don’t know what to get” I said shyly. They instantly spread out all their food and handed me a plate. “You try, you will like”. I smiled and took a piece of some sort of fried roti and dipped it into a chickpea dish. It was freaking delicious! “Bahut aacha” I said, very good. “Can you get it for me?” “Yes, yes,” said one of the boys. I handed him 30-rupees and he happily jumped off the train to grab me a plate. Another one of the boys handed me a bun filled with some kind of lentil curry served with a red, sweet sauce. I inhaled it.
After dinner we all started talking and I asked what they did for 27-hours aboard a train. “Sleep, eat…” we all laughed. They had literally been eating every time I looked up at them during my on and off nap. I pulled out my deck of cards and we began to play poker. We gave up pretty quickly since there was no money involved and turned to a hilarious Indian version of ‘bullshit’. I seriously won every round. They were so impressed. Some of the boys were even too scared to put down bad cards in case I caught them. After a few rounds, it got really competitive and we were all laughing our heads off. “That’s the spirit!” one of the boys kept saying. It always makes me laugh to hear locals say the most random English phrases in between speaking fluent Hindi. He was right though. So what I lost my guitar, maybe it will come back to me, maybe I will buy a new one. I should always remind myself to enjoy every moment and keep my spirit high. Shit happens. Besides, I’m sure Ethan’s guitar is making some kid in Punjab really happy right now (happier than it ever made him at least…lazy kid).
Everyone seemed to fade off to their sleeper around 10pm. I tried to sleep but woke up every half an hour or so afraid of missing my stop. They don’t announce it; your only option is to be awake when they get there. I was told it would get in around 12:30am but because it was two hours late, I estimated 2:30am. Good thing I kept waking up because it got in at 1:50am. I was so happy to see the ‘Bikaner Junction’ sign as we slowly rolled to a stop. I was freezing and the rain was slowly making its way inside the cracks of the window making my sweater, sleeping bag and backpack wet. I grabbed everything, slowly this time so I didn’t forget anything, and hopped off the train. The girls in Naddi told me to take a taxi from the train station since the ride to Gajner is quite long and it was cold out, but with my luck, there was none around when I arrived. My only option was a tuk-tuk, of course. I followed the driver out of the train station as he rolled my bag behind him. The tuk-tuk was the most hilarious one I’d ever seen. The carriage was huge; you could have probably fit eight people in it (well eight people in India, maybe four in Canada, but more likely three). There were sheets to prevent wind on all sides, which the driver closed and tied together to help keep me warm. The inside of the tuk-tuk was decorated with flashing lights and stickers of Indian Gods. Half way through the ride he started blaring Hindi music with heavy drums. I felt like I was in a mobile, VIP nightclub. The ride from Bikaner to Gajner is about 45 minutes and is all desert and trees. I told the driver to drop me off at the ATM in Gajner (there is only one) as I was to meet Ali, Cristina and Maria there, my new roommates from Spain. He, of course, didn’t listen and drove me to the hotel of Gajner (which is in a palace by the way!) After some serious back tracking and getting the security guard of the hotel to explain to him where I wanted to go, I finally ended up at the ATM. I asked the driver if I could use his phone upon arrival “no balance”. I spotted a man sleeping in the ATM terminal. It was the banks security guard, sleeping on the job. Tisk tisk. I used his phone to give the girls a call. The driver, security guard and I all waited outside while the girls made their way over. It was so quiet. Only dogs and cows roamed the street. The girls finally approached from behind a few buildings and showed me the way to the house. They opened two metal doors to reveal the cutest house I’ve ever seen, I fell in love with it instantly. Even after a rough day, and it being after 3:00am in the morning, I smiled when they showed me to my room. I sleep on the roof in a cute room with a cot and desk; the next room over is where the girls sleep. They all share a bed that is literally two times the size of a king bed. It makes no sense why the house even has it. Also on the roof is the shower (bathing room? I don’t know what to call it, it’s all bucket showers) and a toilet room. Downstairs where we first entered the house there are two more rooms that have two beds each, another bathing room and toilet room, a living room area with a table and the kitchen. The girls showed me around quickly and then we all instantly dove into our beds.
I awoke to the sound of school children talking loudly and giggling out on the main street, which my window faces. “Good morning!” Cristina greeted me, in her adorable Spanish accent. She was heading out to buy milk for coffee. I came downstairs to find Maria and Ali in the kitchen preparing toast for everyone. We sat at the breakfast table getting to know each other and nibbling on toast with bananas and honey, Ali with tomatoes and olive oil. After breakfast I washed some of my clothes and put together my room. It felt so good to finally unpack my suitcase and know that I’m home; this is my home for the next six months. What an amazing feeling. We took a walk through the village around noon. There isn’t much but it is really cute. There is a huge lake, two beautiful mosques and two Hindu temples as the community is a mix of Muslims and Hindus, two schools, a police station and a bunch of shops along the main road, plus the beautiful palace. We did some grocery shopping and I was in shock of the prices. About 10 bananas, a head of cauliflower, four peppers, onion, garlic, two cucumbers, two large carrots – 100 rupees! That’s like two Canadian dollars. Insanity. I told the girls I would make them pancakes in the morning so they bought pounds of chocolate to throw into them. For lunch we made veggie pasta and sat around chatting, drinking coffee and eating cookies. Gajner is a brand new location for EduCARE therefore the last couple of months have been spent getting to know the village, the people and learning what their wants and needs are. So far they have been successfully running a girls club/after school program teaching English, helping with homework and socializing with the girls. Later that afternoon, they took me over to meet some of the girls. They were crazy! So full of energy and so happy to have us come over. We listened to music, had chai and the girls showed us the dance they are learning at school. There were so many of them, it was hard to remember all their names. They loved my hair and were constantly trying to get me to do the dance to ‘sunny sunny’. Yes, the song is still popular. One of the younger girls introduced us to the families new baby cow. It was the cutest things I’d ever seen! Unfortunately its mom was eating when we barged in and she wasn’t too happy about it. We quickly made our way to the exit and said goodbye to the girls.
Dinner was spent at a neighbour’s house that invited us over for chicken! I was so surprised; I’d yet to have a non-veg meal. Mubarak Ali and his wife Anjuman are a really adorable older couple. Anjuman runs an organization working with young woman in rural areas and Mubarak supports her in every way he can. Anjuman is a short, plump lady while her husband is a six foot six man with a round stomach. You can really see the love between them. He even helped her in the kitchen while we were over, cutting tomatoes and onions for us. The meal was incredible; it consisted of a curry chicken dish that you could smell from down the street, tomatoes, onions, Indian desserts we brought over, chapatti and another type of bread that I think was made with whole-wheat flour. It was a little thicker and really tasty. The four of us devoured everything while trying to communicate in English and Hindi. They know only very basic words in English and the girls struggle with English as well but some how we could all communicate. It was actually quite fascinating to watch and be part of. I was finally introduced to Manoj after dinner, who’s name I heard all day. He owns the shop that’s attached to our house and is like the ‘big brother’ of our little Gajner family. He insisted on driving us home from Mubarak and Anjuman’s house, which is not even a three-minute walk away. Apparently it isn’t the safest to be out at night because of the animals and the men drinking in the street so we have been asked to be inside the house after sunset.
Watching fireworks from the balcony finished off the night as we got ready for bed. We weren’t sure what they were for but we guessed it was a celebration for the municipal elections that are happening right now.
I guess everyone’s in good spirits.