Sunday, February 16, 2014

India Adventure: Delhi

Mahatma Ghandi house.
I was still reading the Delhi chapter of my guide book when the train pulled into Delhi’s station on February 13. I had about 12 hours to spend in Delhi before my train left for Dharamsala later that night. I settled on the National Gallery of Modern Art and their collection of post-1930’s work by Indian and British artists.
But first things first. Everyone who works for the Indian railway had assured me that the left luggage room at the train stations are safe. So I took my bag to the Delhi station “cloak room”, zipped my backpack into my airplane travel bag (looks like a big duffle bag) and secured the zipper with a padlock, crossed my fingers, and handed my bag over to the cloak room employee.

Then there was the question of my train ticket. I didn’t actually have a seat on the train that was leaving Delhi for Dharamsala later that night. I was second on the waiting list for a seat in Third Class A/C, but there wasn’t any guarantee that 2 confirmed passengers would cancel within the next 12 hours. What to do, to ensure I was able to get on the train that night? I spoke with two Delhi train station managers, both of whom told me not to worry about it, and to just come back to the manager’s office an hour before my train departed, to sort things out. Then they helped me figure out how to take Delhi’s metro (subway) to the National Gallery of Modern Art.

I was so impressed with the cleanliness, efficiency, and affordability of Delhi’s 12 year old metro system. Riding the metro, surrounded by Indians wearing western clothing, made me feel like I had left India. There wasn’t a sari in sight. I exited the metro in Connaught Place, the commercial hub of Delhi, India’s capital city. I saw familiar chain restaurants including Dominos, Dunkin Donuts, and India’s Café Coffee Day. I passed one of the Indian Government’s official tourist information offices on my way to the museum, and decided to stop in to ask for help purchasing my remaining train tickets.

Sendeep, one of the center’s Tourist Information Officers spent a good amount of time with me, helping me decide how to travel to my remaining destinations. He even helped me select trains, and advised me to travel Third Class A/C on my remaining routes. When I told him about my wait listed ticket situation he advised me to cancel my wait listed ticket and purchase a new ticket from the group of tickets set aside by Indian Railways for foreign tourists. 

He explained that train tickets go on sale 60 days before each train’s date of departure. He told me about a time when he barely got a ticket for a train, even though he booked it on the morning that the tickets went on sale. Since foreign tourists don’t book their train tickets 60 days in advance of their days of travel, the Indian Railways sets aside a group of tickets on each train for tourists. Those tickets are called Tourist Quota Tickets. In order to get one for that evening’s train, I would need to visit the Delhi train station’s “International Tourist Bureau”. Sandeep told me to go take care of that, and buy my remaining train tickets, before I visited the museum, to relieve some stress from my day. Very true.

But first, I went down the street to eat lunch at a south Indian restaurant he had recommended called Saravana Bhavan. It’s a chain restaurant. I laughed when I saw the list of other locations, printed on my paper placemat: 2 locations in the San Francisco Bay Area, 3 in NYC, 2 in New Jersey, and 1 in Dallas. I can now enjoy their delicious food even when I’m in the USA.

After lunch I went looking for the International Tourist Bureau at the tourist station. The office looks like DMV – a row of customer service agents at the front of the room, facing rows of seats full of customers. When you walk into the room you are assigned a number. You then sit down in a seat and wait for your number to be called, and fill out a form that asks you for personal identification information and the trains you want to purchase tickets to travel on. I made my list while I waited about 30 minutes for my number to be called:

Delhi to Dharamsala (that night’s trip)
Delhi to Bodhgaya
Bodhgaya to Delhi
Delhi to Dharamsala
Dharamsala to Delhi.

I wasn’t able to buy a ticket for the last trip (Dharamsala to Delhi) because that travel date was more than 60 days in the future, but the customer service agent reserved and printed tickets for me, for my other trips. So now I just need to book a bus ticket from Dharamsala to Delhi, and my last train ticket, from Dharamsala to Delhi. All of my other travel dates, and my schedule has been more or less finalized, which feels good.
After leaving the Tourist Information Bureau I ran across the street to find an internet café, so that I could cancel my waitlist ticket within the next 10 minutes, so I could receive a refund on the price of the ticket. I thought, but wasn’t sure that I had to cancel my ticket at least 6 hours before that train was scheduled to depart from Delhi. Private tourism office employees tried to get me to walk into their shops and buy perhaps bogus train tickets – a problem in all of India’s cities, according to the Rough Guide – but I managed to find an internet café and cancel my ticket with maybe 2 minutes to spare.

It was a good thing that I went to the International Tourist Bureau before visiting the National Gallery of Modern Art, because by the time I finished with the train tickets it was already 2:30pm. I revised my itinerary for the day, and took the metro to the house where Mahatma Ghandi lived in his final days, and was assassinated in 1948. I got lost in Delhi on my way to the Mahatma Ghandi house, and an unnamed man dressed in a blue suit drove me from his office, where I had stopped to ask directions, to the front gate of the museum on his motorcycle. People are so nice.

The Mahatma Ghandi house and gardens were beautiful and wonderfully maintained. I got to sit in Ghandi’s bedroom by myself for a few minutes, just feeling the positive energy that remains in the room 60+ years after his death. The rest of the house had been turned into a museum. The second floor of the museum contained a modern art museum where every piece in the exhibit had something to do with Ghandi or his message. It was really outstanding – both the concept and the art. And a huge surprise, since it hadn’t been mentioned in the guidebook. I was glad that I wandered upstairs, just before the museum closed for the day.

I then stopped off at Saravana Bhavan for dinner, before heading back to the train station to catch my train to Dharamsala. At dinner I consulted with my neighbors about the items on the menu, tried something new, and got advice on how to reach a consensus on what time my fellow passengers and I should go to bed on the train, and what time I should get my middle bunk bed ready. (When you have the middle bunk, you must discuss what time is bed time, because once you unfold your bunk bed from the train car wall, there isn’t enough space for the people sitting below you on the bottom bunk to sit up.) So by the time I arrived at the train station to catch my train, I felt a little bit more prepared for this overnight train, which was again a Sleeper car, because I booked my train ticket so late. In fact the Tourist Information Bureau customer service agent who had booked the ticket for me that afternoon told me that I got the very last Sleeper car ticket on the entire train. I am lucky.

It turns out that the passenger who had the ticket for the bottom bunk, just below my middle bunk, was an American named James, who had moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Colorado a few years ago. James had also bought his ticket from the Tourist Information Bureau that same day, and was also going to Dharamsala. I was very relieved and felt much safer. He had lived in Dharamsala for 5 months, and gave me some great advice about housing and restaurants. He also made sure that we didn’t miss our stop, when our train arrived in Dharamsala at 6:15am the next day. Also, the train conductor was very nice and facilitated a seat change on the train for me, so that I was then sleeping in my preferred spot, on the top bunk. I didn’t really get much sleep, but it was at least a safer place to doze for the 9+ hours that I was on my bunk with my backpack safely tucked behind my head.

When James and I arrived at the train station it was raining and cold. A huge change from the weather I’d previously experienced in India. We took bicycle rickshaws to the train station in the early morning dark. I started smiling when we arrived at the bus station when I spotted several monks who as I correctly guessed were also traveling from the train station to Dharamsala. I also met a really nice young Brazilian who had come from Rishikesh, a big yoga town, to see Dharamsala before heading back to Brazil. He had been in Rishikesh for 3 weeks with his guru, and had 1 week left before he had to go back to work in Brazil. We were joined by a young woman from Berlin who was also traveling alone. So many Germans traveling in India. We all boarded a bus together that was going to a bus station where we could switch buses, and catch another bus to Dharamsala.

The sky was dark when we left the bus station. I watched the sunrise through the bus window while talking with a young monk from Bhutan who studies in Mysore, and was on a pilgrimage to Dharamsala with another monk who was traveling on our bus, with our group. He was sitting next to the Brazilian. I was sitting in front of the German woman. We had a great little group going. Our bus stopped for 20 minutes in a small town where we all got off to use the bathroom and get hot drinks and snacks. By now it was early morning, and I could see the absolutely gorgeous scenery. We were at the foothills of the Himalayas, driving towards snow covered mountains, and alongside creeks that were rushing with water, and green, green fields dotted with yellow flowers. By far the prettiest scenery I have seen in India.

We had a little incident with the bus driver when the bus stopped at the stop where we needed to switch buses. The driver started to pull away from the stop while I was still on the bus, unloading all of our luggage, and the older monk was standing near the bottom of the bus steps, to receive the bags I was handing to him. I was still on the bus when the bus was pulling away, and the monk fell to the ground and was dragged as he held onto the bus, cutting his hand, and muddying his saffron robes. We all shouted “stop the bus” and the bus driver stopped, but in the chaos I didn’t get a chance to stay goodbye to the monks from Bhutan who were heading on to a different bus stop. Maybe I’ll see them on the streets in Dharamsala.

I got off the bus before the rest of the group, when we passed near the place where I was going – Thosamling Institute for International Buddhist Women, which is located below Dharamsala. From the place where I exited the bus and exchanged farewells with the older monk and fellow foreign travelers, I took another local bus, and then walked for about 20 minutes through small villages and green, green fields – all within sight of the Himalayan mountains, following paths so narrow that a car can’t drive down them, crossing two foot bridges and walking along rocky paths that lead to the Thosamlingn campus. It was a cold walk, but absolutely beautiful. I’ve taken lots of photos, which I will add to this post when I get back to the US.

When I arrived at the Thosamling gate I was greeted by an Indian staff member who then helped me to the Thosamling office. I walked in to find 2 nuns, a young Indian woman, and three medium sized fluffy white dogs wearing dog coats. They warmly greeted me, and served me tea while we chatted for a bit. I was then shown to my room. I was so happy to be here, in such a beautiful setting, with such kind women and dogs.

My next post will be about my time at Thosamling, and exploring Dharamsala.

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