Installment #27 — February 27, 2001

The End of the Trail

This report begins where Installment #20—Darjeeling left off and covers my doings, other than those covered in the earthquake reports, through my last day in India.

I left New Jalpaiguri on Wednesday, January 17 for the overnight train journey to Delhi. I spent Thursday afternoon at an internet cafe in New Delhi, where I finally was able to send Installment #19Delhi to Dave. (Slow and unreliable connections in Darjeeling had prevented me from sending it earlier.) Another overnight train took me to Ahmedabad, where I visited the Dada Hari Wav (an elaborate underground structure built for access to a well, called a step-well and dating from the 1500’s), and Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, which served as his headquarters during India’s fight for independence. I stopped at the Food Inn restaurant for another serving of "eatEble Mutton" before the final leg of the journey to Rajkot, where I arrived at Jikaka’s and Benefaiva’s house late Friday night.

On Saturday, I relaxed and visited with Jikaka. We discussed my plans to volunteer in a village through Shri Ramakrishna Ashram, and Jikaka advised that I wait for a week until Swamiji, the director of the ashram, returned. Jikaka took me to a school in Rajkot, where I received instruction on how to make cotton thread using a simple machine, as advocated by Gandhi. We met the school administrator and Pravin Ahya, a volunteer. The administrator, Pravin, Jikaka, and I visited an ashram run by the school where Pravin gave me a tour of their farming and cotton-making operations. On the ashram grounds is the building in which Kasturbai Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s wife, was imprisoned during the independence campaign.

Later in the week, Pravin and I spent a day visiting villages. We returned to the school’s ashram where we visited each of the classes in the ashram school, and I was asked to speak briefly about my trip to the students. We continued on to a model village which is virtually crime-free, clean, and uses some innovative agricultural ideas. From there, we continued on to Gopalbham, where Sheela Bhatt had volunteered a few years back. Gopalbham is pretty remote and, although buses do go there, they are not frequent, so Pravin and I used the rural transportation system: the trucks and chukras that ply the rural roads operating as shared taxis. We joined farmers and their families, milk vendors, and vegetable farmers, crowded into the back of a truck, or jammed into the seats or cargo box of a chukra. At Gopalbham, we watched a dancing and acrobatic demonstration by the students of the village school, and visited with Mrs. Shukla, the wife of the village sarpanch and a friend of Sheela’s. It was an interesting and informative day, but did not produce any possibilities for village volunteer work.

On Friday, January 26, the Gujarat earthquake struck. The earthquake and the Ramakrishna ashram’s relief activities have been covered in the Special Reports The Earthquake and Letters from Rajkot, and in Installments #22 through #26. I returned from Dhaneti, Kutch, for the last time on Tuesday, February 20 and spent the next few days transferring my digital pictures to the ashram’s computer for use in their monthly newsletter and web site, handling the Assisi-Downs Earthquake Fund donation, writing reports, and goofing off.

On the morning of my last day in Rajkot—Saturday, February 24—I took a walk to the Rajkot railway station and took some pictures of the earthquake damage. The train station was the only building I saw in Rajkot that had been significantly damaged.

In the afternoon, I walked downtown to the local softserve vendor for a couple of five-rupee softserve cones, something I have been doing often during my time in Rajkot. There I met a student who had been visiting his parents in Gandhidham, Kutch for Republic Day when the quake struck. He said that he didn’t know what was happening and stood paralyzed with his family until they saw the building across the street fall. When cracks begin to appear in their apartment, they finally realized that they had to get out and made it safely to the street. All of this occurred within a few seconds. He said that his parents are now living temporarily with his grandparents, and he expressed some bitterness concerning his feeling that earthquake aid was being siphoned off by government officials, or directed in accordance with politics rather than need.

I said my goodbyes to the Swamis at the ashram, to Benifaiva at home, and to Jikaka at the train station, where it took me two trips from platform to compartment to get the Green Monster and my other baggage aboard the train for my final journey on Indian Railways. [Ah, it's nice to have the Green Monster back.]

I was standing in the vestibule with all my baggage when the train pulled into Delhi South Rohilla station, expecting the next stop to be New Delhi. My plan was to drop the Green Monster and my other large bag in the railway station left-luggage room and walk to the Ajay Guest house with my backpack. I couldn’t believe it when I was told that this was the last stop. I was sure that the train was going through New Delhi on its way further north, and that I had bought a ticket to New Delhi. But when I checked my ticket, sure enough, it said "Delhi S Rohilla", and this train was going no further.

OK, no problem. I’ll check the Green Monster here, take an autorickshaw to the hotel, and return for my baggage in a taxi on the way to the airport. I asked directions to the left-luggage room, and set out dragging the Green Monster. Along the way I acquired a tout who assured me that there was no left-luggage room at that station, but he could arrange a room in a local hotel cheap. When I got directions to the luggage room, the tout remembered where it was but said it was small. The luggage people told me that I was not eligible to use their services because I didn’t have an ongoing train ticket. The tout grabbed the Green Monster and headed for the taxi stand. It turned out that he had an autorickshaw parked near the station exit and he deposited the Green Monster into it. He reached for my other bag. I held it back and asked how much he would charge to take me to the Ajay Guest House. There had been a bomb explosion near there and the Ajay was closed, he said. I unloaded the Green Monster from his auto and set out for the taxi stand. I hadn’t been in Delhi 15 minutes, and I was being scammed. Lonely Planet warns that touts, who get commissions from certain hotels for bringing tourists, find some very creative reasons for the tourist not to go to the hotel he had planned on.

I ended up sharing an autorickshaw with an Indian soldier with lots of luggage and listening to the same tout tell me that the Ajay Guest House was very expensive as my bags were being loaded. The soldier shared the driver’s seat with the driver, and I squeezed into the back with the baggage, my feet nearly touching the soldier’s shoulder as I struggled to keep the Green Monster from falling to the street at each bump. We dropped the soldier at the New Delhi train station, and I again showed the driver the map on the back of the Ajay’s business card which clearly showed its location relative to the New Delhi station. He drove to a travel agency across the street and said he would ask directions. In a few seconds, he came back with the travel agent, who said that the Ajay, and most other local hotels, were full, but he could arrange a room for me. I insisted on going to Ajay, the agent left, and within five minutes we were there. There had been no bomb blast, the Ajay did have rooms available, and within another five minutes the Green Monster and I were reclining in a basic but comfortable 210-rupee room. The Ajay had been recommended to me by Phil and Melanie Peacock, whom you may remember from the Darjeeling report.

On Monday morning, I set out for the Singapore Airlines office, assuming that I could remember where it was because Rita and I had visited it when we changed her return reservation in early January. After an hour of walking around the area, I finally found the place and was told that the computer communications were down, and that I should come back in the afternoon. I did some shopping [you've made someone back home very proud] (fending off a steady parade of touts as I went), and then headed to a Wimpy’s for lunch. [That's where I would have gone for lunch on my last day in India.]

I had to use an underpass at an intersection, and as I was rounding the waist-high wall that protects the stairwell opening, a young guy (late teens or early 20’s) made a thrusting motion toward me, just as I was returning my camera to my pocket. I guessed that he had been trying to grab my camera, but the motion seemed to be aimed lower than my pocket. Anyway, I had my camera and nothing else seemed to be lost, so I continued down the stairway. In the underpass, I was approached by a shoeshine boy. When I declined to have my shoes polished, he pointed at my left shoe. On the front of the shoe was a greenish-brown blob that sure looked like fresh cow manure. So now I knew what the thrusting motion had been about. I refused to allow the shoe-scam team any ill-gotten gains, and washed my shoe at the men’s room sink in Wimpy’s.

Two scams in less than 24 hours. Delhi certainly seems like the most hazardous place we visited in India. But even as I was being lied to by the tout at the train station, I had the confidence that no harm would come to me as I removed the Green Monster from his rickshaw and walked away. This was partly because there were other people around, but also because I had learned that this is how the game is played. A tout will give you no end of stories and arguments, but if he is not successful he will smile and walk away looking for another potential victim. Violence is not part of the game. India is not the frightening and dangerous place I believed it to be when I first arrived more than four months ago. There is violent crime in India, but my impression is that it is at or below the level found in the US.

Anyway, after a Wimpy’s Maxiburger (lambno beef sold here), I returned to a full Singapore Airlines office, where I took a number and waited my turn. When it finally came, I was told that the computer was still not working, but they had an open line to the airport, and assured me that my reservation was in order for Tuesday.

A little more shopping [a changed man?], and then back to the hotel to try and jam the purchases into my already full baggage. I had supper in the rooftop restaurant, and watched the sunset for my final night in India.

Today, Tuesday, I have spent my final hours writing this report, and doing just a little more shopping [perhaps he should have his testosterone levels checked], trying to spend most of my remaining rupees, but not overflow my baggage. In about two hours, I will board the pre-paid taxi and head for the airport, where I will probably spend the next four or five hours before I am on my way to Singapore.

By Wednesday night, Rita and I will be back together in Los Angeles, and our Great India Adventure will be a memory.

Click on one of the following links to listen to an excerpt from the Savvy Traveler segment in which Allen is briefly interviewed: 300KB WAV file or 111KB MP3 file. Or Click here to listen to the entire segment in RealAudio.

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Just look at this sea of scooters parked at the Ahmedabad train station.
Looking up from the bottom of Dada Hari Wav - a step-well in Ahmedabad.
A view of the first level of the Dada Hari Wav. This must have been a nice, cool spot during hot weather.
It was a little cool in Rajkot, but locals like Jikaka, used to the hot weather, found it really cold.
The temple on the grounds of the Ramakrishna Ashram.
Jikaka and Benifaiva pose in their living room with a picture of their father.
The damage to the retiring rooms on the second floor of the Rajkot train station. This picture was taken before sunup using a flash, and some of the rubble has already been removed.
The street side of the Rajkot train station. The earthquake damage to the second floor can be seen.
My last softserve ice cream cone before leaving Rajkot. [Hey Allen - I have news for you! They sell softserve ice cream in the US now!]
This elephant is only the third I’ve seen. And I didn’t get a chance to ride on one - perhaps a good excuse for a return trip.
The sun sets in Delhi, ending my next-to-last day in India.

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