A week early, and a few rupees short

A few astute observers noted: hey, wasn’t I supposed to return next week? Indeed. The plan was changed a little, and I’m already home. Let me tell you a story.

7 March. Bus Stand, Jalgaon, Maharashtra–a junction town in west-central India. I was no longer rushing. It was too late–the bird had flown. I had just finished a four-hour bus ride from Aurangabad. I had a rail ticket in my wallet for the 12627 Karnataka Express, a train that was leaving to Delhi from Burhanpur in two-and-a-half hours. Four days prior I had come from Burhanpur to Jalgaon. It took three-and-a-half hours to make the trip.

I had a plan. I grabbed an auto from the bus stand to the railway station, crossed up and over the tracks to the third platform, and went to the Deputy Station Manager’s office. He ignored me. I went to the Station Manager’s office. He wasn’t there. I went back to the Dy. Station Manager’s office. He gave me an annoyed look that had clearly been honed over time.

I told him my story, that I had a ticket from Burhanpur to Delhi.

He said, “It is too far. What can you do?” and bent down to his papers again.

Yes, yes, I knew that. I informed him that the the same train stopped at Jalgaon before proceeding to Burhanpur. Could I board the train there in Jalgaon?

Ah. A chink in the official’s armor: the enquirer knew something. With near-comic exasperation, the manager made a phone call, said a few things in Marathi, hung up. I had a 2AC (two-tiered, air-conditioned) berth. He said there were no available seats in that class.

Of course. But, sir, couldn’t I buy an unreserved ticket, ride the 180 km from Jalgaon to Burhanpur in general seating, and then switch to 2AC?

After a very well executed eyeroll and sigh, he made another phone call, then reported back to me. He said that this train had a minimum distance requirement. Tickets could only be bought for a 600 km or greater segment. He said, “It is impossible.”

Nothing is impossible in India. Nothing.

I crossed back over the tracks to the ticket office and bought the impossible ticket with no problems. When the train arrived–late, of course–I took a deep breath, grabbed the bar beside the door, placed my foot at the threshold, and charged.

Let’s pause for a moment to explain something. Unreserved or general class train cars are mobile madness. Every inch of space was occupied–I mean, every inch of volume was occupied. The two tiers of benches were filled with people. People were lying in the overhead luggage rack. People were sitting on the floor. Some industrious person had rigged a hammock over the corridor to the toilet. Bags were dangling from all places that could hold them. The aisle was packed from front to pack with people, people, people. Cattle don’t like to be packed this tightly. Claustrophobes are kindly requested to avoid general class.

You have to push to get beyond the door, and then push to get beyond the first corridor, and then push until you find a place to stop. When you stop being the pusher you become the pushed. Until the train leaves there will be more people boarding.

Ten minutes down the line I noticed something was… off. I touched my front left pocket. There was my mobile phone. I my front right pocket. It was empty. I touched my back right pocket. It was empty. No wallet.

Perhaps, while compulsively checking my ticket at the platform, I had slipped it into my back pocket instead of my front pocket. Or someone could have taken it from my front pocket, given all of the jostling as I boarded. No matter. The wallet was gone. I wasn’t angry. I was amused. I was an easy target. I glanced around and met the eyes of several passengers. There was no way to tell who was the culprit. It could have been anyone. The setting sun shone through the port side window bars, turning all that brown skin a potent orange. It was almost beautiful.

First stop: Bhusaval Junction. Second stop: Burhanpur. I pushed through the crowd toward the door a little less gracefully than my entrance. Burhanpur is nowhere. It is a one-minute station stop. My car (bogey, if you’d like to use the local term) was eighteen cars down the train–200 or more meters away. Backpack strapped, camera bag in one hand, ravanhatta in the other hand (another story later to explain what this is), I leaned forward and ran down the platform. Breathing raggedly, I closed in on my destination. The whistle blew and the train started to move toward me. I grabbed the bar, swung on board. 1200 km later I was in New Delhi.

I doubt I lost more than $20 in cash in that wallet. I regret that, but not as much as losing my ATM card, which was my access to future cash for things like eating and sleeping. So I moved my return tickets forward. Forty-eight hours after running the Chandigarh Marathon I was already in the sky, facing westward.

I maintain, even after the loss, that I’m some kind of logistical savant–the bus from Aurangabad to Jalgaon, then the impromptu second-class ride and run to fulfill my reserved seat. I could pass clear across that country with nothing more than an idea. Next time, though, I’ll be a bit more careful.

So. I’m back. A few people asked: am I going to write a wrap-up post from the trip? No. Maybe I’ll make a wrap-up map that shows where I went. Also, I’m posting photos. The generous gypsies from the musician’s colony in Jaisalmer and the rotten shopkeepers from Udaipur and six days of boulder-scrambling in Hampi–these are all full stories, not just paragraphs. India is a big, strange place that doesn’t wrap up neatly in a little box. That would be impossible. Stay tuned.

[P.S.: I’m searching for meaningful work now that I’m back. In the meantime, I’m available for a variety of temporary work: web sites, various IT and database things, digital archival, outdoor work, whatever. If you’ve got a lead, give me a shout.]

Ricky Gervais on Not Having a Real Job

Money’s never excited me. I’ve never done anything for a million pounds that I wouldn’t have done for free. Likewise, joking aside, the awards, they’re a thrill, but deep down I know it’s only the opinions of a few people and it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. What matters is the work, the work you did. You tried your hardest and you’re proud of it and you brought something into the world. That’s the important thing: pride in your work.

–Ricky Gervais on HBR IdeaCast, 17 March 2011