Saturday 20 January 2007

Train to Madurai

The night before I met a French couple who had just got off the train after a 16-hour trip from Mangalore. They had not been able to reserve but said if you get on, the ticket inspector usually finds a space for you. So I decided to risk this, while Claire continued with the bus trip, to save money and to get to Madurai in time for some initial sightseeing.

Neither of us had a smooth journey. Her bus was held up when the driver knocked over a cyclist (not serious) and all the men on the bus got out to discuss the event. She said the trip was a bit of a nightmare as the woman next to her took up most of the space, so she was squeezed against the open window. Now one understands why there are so many people leaning out of the windows in Indian buses. Also there is no room in these buses for rucksacks, so I was more than relieved I had not accompanied her with my TWO bags.

The train was not due till 12.45, but to be safe I got to the station at 11, just in case... Amazingly and unlike the day before, there was no queue at the ticket office and I bought an ordinary ticket to Madurai. costing 50 rupees (about 60p) for a journey of over 100 lm. No wonder the trains are so crowded.

Anyhow, I decided to instal myself on Platform 4, as directed, and do some people watching. The platform was already crowded nearly two hours before the train was due. Several family groups were seated in circles on the ground, eating a hearty meal. I've noticed a distinct enthusiasm for eating in public and everywhere there are men passing with trays of goodies. I joined in with a bag of bombay mix, which I reckoned would be safe.

I enjoyed watching the other trains passing through the station; Indian engines are great, romantic monsters. The most impressive of all was a goods train, which took over 15 minutes to haul its 45 giant wagons through the station.

Then the fun started. An announcement that our train would arrive at 12 noon - 15 minutes late. Then 12.10, then 12.25, 12.45... ... Then a different announcement and enough people spoke English to advise me to join the rush towards the steps: our train would be coming on Platform 3. Not so easy when you have to get one of these huge backpacks onto your back.

A little after 2pm there was another announcement: the train would shortly be arriving on platform 1! As I struggled again down the steps and along the subway, a kindly elderly Indian, struggling more than I was, said to me : "I apologise on behalf of Indian Railways".

L'm getting wise to the system now: you have to find out if possible where the AC compartments are likely to stop on the platform and work your way that end of the very long platforms before the train arrives. As an old hand I helped a young Dutch girl, still shell shocked after only a week in India, find the right compartment. Luckily the inspector was on the platform, perusing his huge printouts of seat reservations. He indicated to get in and he would find seats for us. I try to go for 2AC when travelling at night: the 2 refers to two tiers of bunks and the AC of course air conditioned. This is how most middle class Indians travel. In the daytime 3AC (three tiers) is OK because everyone is sitting on the bottom bunks, and this is where we were now.

There is something very pleasant about the way an Indian train ambles through the countryside. We passed through fields of rice, bananas, sugar, and coconut trees - plus lots of other things I couldnt recognise. How nice it would be to have someone to answer ones questions all the time. The scenery was more rural than when I travelled by road: there were obviously villages all the time, but not that endless roadside struggle of huts and stalls.

Men passed regularly down the train with enticing trays of things that looked like pakooras, chai, ice cream, and coffee. We resisted all these but I began to feel hungry.

At last we were in Madurai - only two hours late - and with great relief I took a rickshaw to Hotel Supreme. This was not as grand as the ones I had in Thanjavur and Trichy, but still catering for the same market, predominantly Indian businessmen, with a small sideline in tourists.

First impressions of my room were not good: it smelt strongly of cigarette smoke. Ugh! I made a comment which I think was registered as the next day it smelt of some scented spray. I was on the fifth floor but any eager expectations of a view on the temples was dashed: I was at the back, facing a blank wall. I have come to the conclusion that this is where you get sent if you ask for single non-AC. Still, cant complain at just under 500 rupees (about 5.60 pounds). And the bathroom was clean and the plumbing works.

Claire, who was as usual in a cheaper hotel, joined me for supper on the rooftop restaurant of my hotel, which is noted for its view towards the temples. Yes the towers of the temple are there, and were impressive, as was the panorama of a bustling city. Madurai is the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, with a population of 1.2 million people.

I have felt queasy and not hungry for a lot of my time so far and sadly not been able to sample as much South Indian food as I would like. Now at last I felt hungry and we tucked into a delicious meal: my old favourite from Edinburgh - a Navratan Kurma - and a hotter mushroom masala. I'm enjoying sampling the different types of bread too. We decided to take a risk and follow this with icecream, given the quality of the food.

I have to say the service was not up to the same standard as the food. We are beginning to learn that in these large business hotels there are staff all over the place, but each person seems to have a specific role. If you happen to ask the wrong person for a bottle of water, he nods, and later you discover does nothing. You have to suss out which is the one who takes the orders; others are there to bring the dishes, lay the table, bring you the bill etc etc (not to mention the people opening doors, pressing buttons in lifts and generally standing around to say good evening).

I finished with a cup of tea - yes, my habits are quite different here. I'm not too keen on the coffee one gets. I got into the habit of drinking chai (tea with milk and sugar) in North India. Here you have a choice of "black tea" or "milk tea". But I reckon it is safe to drink tea anywhere.

Otherwise we rely a lot on bottles of water which are sold everywhere for about 13 rupees - oh those mountains of plastic.

By the time we left we were surrounded by large Indian family groups. This is clearly a popular place for a Saturday night out.

More newspaper snippets
These come from the time when I lost a lot of text - so I may be repeating myself.

- during the Pongal festivities, in one town a bull charged the crowd, killing one man and injuring more than 20 others. In another town, a man released his neighbour's bull, causing a fight with clubs and sickles between the two families, the man was killed and his aggressors are in prison.
- a preservation society is pressing for plastic bags to be banned in the temples and the tanks to be cleaned. It is also concerned by a decline in the bird population and calls 'to preserve nature to nurture birds'.
- there is a national plan for ID cards, as much for the organisation of benefits as for security reasons
- Bangalore has got wimax (why not the Ceevennes??)
- the different states seem to be all preparing IT strategies and appear to some extent to be in competition with each other. One of the issues is the lower rate of tax levied as an incentive to software initiatives; another is the role and rights of trade unions.

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