woensdag 27 november 2013

Intermezzo: Operation Cannot Possibly Fail (A Second Time)

Among the thousands of tourists that visit India every year, more than just a handful return home disillusioned with the infamous 'Never Do It Again'-phrase forever stuck in their mind.

This entry is not about me being one of those disillusioned people, because I will do it again, I will come back here. I will not however, not ever again take a bus to somewhere 'near' the place where I intend to go only to find out that the conductor who should've put me on another bus from the place near the place I wanted to go to the place I wanted time go, has failed to fulfill this pretty simple task. Don't worry, this story has a happy end. Maybe it's more end than happy, but you can't eat the cake and... Never mind.

It started out with a very a straightforward plan. My hosts - they are not to blame, but may the monkey god eat their dinner every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday - were so kind to help me figure out how to get from Allahabad to Khajuraho by bus by sending one of their staff to the bus station for inquiries. Speaking Hindi and being local, chances were good he would have more success getting a honest answer, possibly also for a better price. That plan worked, as their cook came back with a fairly simple itinerary. Just take the six hour bus to Banda and change buses there to cover the last fifty kilometers to Khajuraho. Plain, simple, sounds good. He even would take me to the bus station, explain to the conductor where I needed to go and tell him to help me find the right bus in Banda. So easy. Cannot possibly fail, at least not in theory.

However, in India theoretical matters are held in the same regard as the traffic regulations; they may exist but in the real world, who cares?

In theory the plan worked flawlessly. In Banda the conductor asked around and brought me to a bus, after which I double checked with some other people by asking in the most straightforward way known to men: pointing at the bus and saying "Khajuraho-Khajuraho-Khajuraho?". After getting a clear "yes-yes", I felt reasonably sure this bus would be going to Khajuraho. Reasonably sure. Being pretty tired after the what turned out be be an eight hour trip to Banda, I didn't feel keep asking around and settled for reasonably sure. In India - especially somewhere between the middle and nowhere - that's like asking for trouble. And I got it.

Why the conductor on the second bus gave no warning when I told him I wanted to Khajuraho and just sold me a ticket to a place called Mahoba is still a bit of a mystery to me. Other than some shopkeepers, conductors- although sometimes a bit reluctant to help and not the most intelligent people - generally are trustworthy and do not tell you what you want to hear just to get you on a bus. So there I was on a crowded bus, jammed in between a bunch of Indians having loud (what else?) conversations, feeling tired but glad that I was on my way. Sweet, blissful ignorance.

After a while, when we were supposed to get close, I started asking around whether we were indeed near to Khajuraho. Usually, this tactic works very well, as people around me then know where this lone foreigner wants to get off and there would always be somebody who would warn me my stop was coming up. This time, the people around me gave some vague replies, initially responding positively to the word 'Khajuraho' but they couldn't give me a very convincing answer regarding how long it would take until we would get there. That was when the first doubt started to rise whether this bus was indeed going to Khajuraho. But I checked. I double checked, right? This is cannot possibly fail.

When the time came that - if this bus was indeed heading for Khajuraho, - we would be within twenty minutes of the town, I made a second attempt to figure out when my stop was coming up. Again, their lack of English and me not speaking Hindi made the conversation difficult, but the fact that a conversation was needed for them to explain where Khajuraho was, did not seem very reassuring. What I did make out is that they kept making a connection between the words 'Khajuraho' and 'train'. That's when it started to dawn on me that wherever this bus was going, Khajuraho wasn't part of the itinerary. It was already pitch black outside and I had no idea where I was going. Happy-happy, joy-joy.

This is where my former hosts in Allahabad came to the rescue. Since nobody could explain to me in English what was going on, I called my home away from home to act as my interpreters. They confirmed that the conductor said that this bus was not going to Khajuraho but Mahoba, another fifty kilometer from my destination, from where there probably were no buses to Khajuraho anymore. That was not good news. Even though there were some trains, I had no idea whether - if I would get to the station and if I would be on time - I would be able to get a seat for those. My best bet was to sit it out till Mahoba and from there try to get a cab to Khajuraho. Expensive, but as long as I would get there, I was more willing to pay whatever they asked.

Though someone could've made good money that evening in Mahoba, it turned out that there were no taxis anywhere it this semi-God forsaken, somewhere around nothing, middle of nowhere town. It was even a pain to find anyone who spoke literally spoke more than two words of English in order to figure out what was my best chance of getting to Khajuraho at this hour. Staying the night at Mahoba was not part of the plan and also the few hotels that this town did have, did not look very tempting. My last hope to get out of this town, was to get down to the train station and try my luck, knowing only that in a few hours there was a train stopping there and that it was supposed to go to Khajuraho. And even then I still had to get from the train station to the hotel, where I hoped they hadn't given my room to someone else.

The train station was small in size, but chaotic nonetheless. After a few "tickets-tickets?" most people pointed me to a long line in front of a small office that did indeed seemed to be still selling tickets. Good, I was making progress. However, after battling my way to the front, the only response I got to my "Khajuraho-Khajuraho-Khajuraho?" was a undefined head wobble and a hand pointing to the platform. This apparently meant that I had to buy tickets on the platform. At the platform however, people told me to go back to the ticket office. Yeah... Well... Really...?

Thus far, progress had been slow, but my fortunes began to change when a train pulled into the station. It turned out that not only was this train going to Khajuraho, it was also behind schedule, which for once was a good thing. This meant that I was assured of a train going to Khajudaro and I didn't have to wait for two or three hours for the next one, which may also have had delays. Nice. Lady Luck was smiling and - for the first time today - I could smile back.

I still didn't have a ticket though, but even that issue was resolved fairly easily. It turned out this train was at the end of a long journey, which meant it was almost abandoned but for a handful of locals and a backpacking French couple on their way to Khajuraho. The French couple subsequently told me the conductors had already made their rounds and even if, that the fine you got was just peanuts. Knowing full well that this was going to cost me karma points, I just sat down without making any further attempt to buy a ticket. Finally I could close my eyes, knowing for sure that this time I was going to Khajuraho.

On arrival in Khajuraho it turned out that at this hour, there still were more than enough riksha's who were more than willing to bring me to town. Fifteen minutes later I arrived in the hotel, where they were still expecting me. Fiiiiiinaaaaaaaallllly!

I guess all is well, that ends well, even if you gained a handful of gray hairs...

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