Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Race to the Quarter Finals


The crowd including a very inquisitive young lady
Picture-perfect scenes like this over 2000km

So there we were, hurtling out of what had been our home for the previous 3 weeks with an hour to get across the bustling city of Bangalore and catch a 45 hour (yes FORTY-FIVE HOUR) train from this metropolis of the south to Ajmer in the hot northern plains. If (BIG IF) the train ran on time that would leave us just two hours to make the further considerably shorter journey to Pushkar and somewhere find a TV showing the big game. That is a journey of some 2172 kms on basic Indian public transport leaving at 8.30pm on Thursday night with an absolute deadline of 8.30pm on Saturday – kickoff. A challenge indeed!

After the usual arguments with the rickshaw driver we bundled in with our seriously overloaded baggage and arrived with loads of time to spare despite the famed traffic of this city. On entry to the second-class sleeper compartment I had the pleasant surprise to see that it was as clean as they get. Not clean per se but comparably so. Perhaps most of the trains begin their journeys in this way because it certainly did not end it so.

On these mid-standard carriages you have a series of 8 bunk areas within a space of circa 5ft by 8ft. That is two 3 tier bunks running perpendicular to the side of the train, one two tier bunk running parallel and a narrow passageway running down the train in between the two. There are around 10 areas per carriage, a couple of increasingly dire holes in the ground to empty into, spurious fans and caged windows. In truth, when the train is rolling along I find these trains no problem at all. You always have plenty of company, great scenery and a comfortable enough bed to sleep on. It is the heat of the Indian summer, shere length of journey and sometimes a little bit over-oppressive company that get to many.

Dave took the middle bunk that folds down in the day to form the back of the “3 person” seat lower bunk that is only meant to accommodate one at night. A very pleasant night ensued in the cool Karnatakan hills waking up late the next morning approaching the border of Maharashtra (12 hours done no worries). We quickly got to know many of the people surrounding us. In large part they were a wedding party heading up to Mt. Abu (very holy Jain site in southern Rajasthan) and various hangers along. All very friendly even if there was constant repeat of the same set of questions you seem to be asked by every stranger in this country:

-How old are you?
-Do you have a girlfriend?
-Are you married?
-Why not? No children……..etc.etc..
-What does your father do?
-What does your mother do?
-What education do you have?............................. ad infinitum…etc…etc

Anyone who has traveled this intriguing country will I know exactly what I am talking about. Sometimes I wish I had a tape a recorder so I could hand the answers to them pre-recorded and cut-short the neverending rigmarole (I have no idea how to spell that word – answers please to my email). Instead I try and politely answer the questions every time, say 50 times on this journey (very believable when it translates to only twice every waking hour).

On we went inland parallel to the rain-swept beaches of Goa and into the Maharashtran hills. From paddies and gentle hills to stunning rises with awe-dropping views of verdant plains stretching out towards the heartland of the sub-continent - wonderful. My favourite times on such journeys are standing or sitting at the open doors watching mile after mile rush by as if in a daze. Contemplating, simply contemplating. Time is a gift I find I can only fully dive into when I have nothing to do in it or with it.

We descended down from the hills and as night approached rolled into the fast-developing industrial heartland of this precarious nation. First Pune and then past the outskirts of Mumbai as I lay my head for the second night on the train. By now the cool climate of altitude had been transformed into the hot, humid and rain-lashed climate of the monsoon. Quickly a fresh carriage turns anything but so and the smells and dirt of hundred and hundreds of crammed people are not blown away but linger menacingly. At one point I had the feeling the whole train was mildly rotting. Ditch the over sheet and extra t-shirt, the climate necessitates a sleep in the open policy.

More about the people around us. They were very friendly indeed. I ate at least two meals off their hospitality. It is amazing how prepared people can be with vats full of pre-prepared roti, chapatti, dal, chutney and a whole host of starters, mains, puddings and snacks that I could not name. This is all eaten with the right-hand, a slight hygiene issue with no proper washing facilities in evermore dirty conditions but eminently better then the left – toilet paper is not an everyday commodity in this country. Alongside this beneficial aspect of their company, I would not be wholly truthful if I did not admit that at times it can become more than tiresome. One on one is great, two on six is fine, but two on twenty-three. No shit. In that 5 by 8ft area there were Dave, I and 23 Indians squeezed round all to ask the normal questions and follow with mixed humour. Luckily though there was a very cute little girl doing much of the talking diminishing to the minimum the usual annoying man who wants to be the centre of attention syndrome.

After a second night where I took the bottom bunk, I woke up to a bright sunny morning in Gujarat. The only problem being that that morning started rather earlier than I would have liked. After being kept up half the night by the commonplace I do not know how to whisper problem - no, shouting problem - by the guys sleeping on the floor I was eventually arisen by a combination of one of them playing mobile phone tunes on full blast before 7am (oh what an evil look I gave him) and a boy just sitting on my legs - this time the equally common personal space issue. Saying that, it all worked out for the best as I dragged myself off my bed, along the carriage and to the door of the train where I spent the next blissful few hours with my legs dangling over precipices, the ears tuned into soulful tunes on the ipod and the eyes staring transfixed out at the passing country. Add a few walks around random stations and you get one of the most pleasant mornings I have had in India hours before Dave fell out of his undisturbed (except for strange men tickling his feet) middle bunk.

To the border and across into Rajasthan the hills rose on both sides with the most holy Jain site of Mt. Abu looming in the distance out the north facing window. The wedding party departed all shaking hands and handing over of cards. We were off, racing (as far as Indian trains race) through scenery reminiscent of Hampi and then suddenly the arid plain spread out with hills only far in the distance. The heat really kicked in and only after 43 hours had passed when we were all but left alone on the train did the inevitable travel madness settle in. Some mad bongo playing, an annoying stop in the middle of nowhere and some chanting later we were finally there - Ajmer.

There was no time to dither about the ups and downs of the journey as there was only 90 minutes until kick off in Germany. So into the smelly northern town we rumble through arguments with rickshaw drivers and buses leaving us behind until, eventually, we found a driver for 100 rups. Pass the bus we went and after another argument over price (oh they are so commonplace to get anything done here) we were eventually dropped at our loegings....30 minutes until kickoff...."have you got a TV with ESPN?" need ride manically swerving past cows....Dave hits foot in minor unhospitalising bump....TV, but no ESPN.....ahhhh....15 minutes.....our saviour - a small TV in the kitchen of the Moondance restaurant. Bliss, they are lining up for the anthems....bugger...he has tripped over the wires and hopes dashed.... some sparks, a match and a brick later....a go go... 5 minutes to kick off. COME ON ENGLAND. We had 48 hours to travel up most of India and we did it with 5 minutes to spare. Before we know it 6 other Brits are there for company and we watch the brave but eventually devastating finale (no more about that, but I have to admit Crouch played well).

The only thing left to tell is of an incident of heighteded momentary concern involving two huge fighting bulls and us walking past inconsolable after the game, with our red England shirts on ...oooppss....hide in door and after a great journey and a great game I lay in bed gutted!!!
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