“Madame, there is a 10% chance you will be able to get tickets for your train,” says the lovely, young woman at the hotel. “Um, does that mean it is possible or not possible?” I ask as if I’m replaying a scene from Dumb and Dumber. “Yes, there is a 10% possibility.”
So, this whole percentage thing became a trend during my India trip. It is hilariously maddening…70% chance you will not go anywhere on the train today, 10% chance that you will get a train ticket and 20% chance that you are screwed. But, they are always VERY polite and deliver your percentage with a smile.
My grand plan and reason for this entire trip was to travel to a tiny town near Banda (Uttar Pradesh—the poorest and most corrupt state in all of India), find Sampat Pal (leader of the famed Gulabi Gang), photograph her and her people (whomever I can get my lens on) and talk to them about their efforts to stand up for women’s rights and fight child marriage. In my ignorance, I assumed I would simply take a train to the town of Banda (largest town near her village), find a hotel (there was one listed on the internet “above the bank”) then ask around about her and hire a taxi to take me to her. The only smart thing I did was securing an interview with her via email. She welcomed me to meet with her so I figured the rest was just details…silly girl.
I should have realized my plan was faulty when the hotel concierge and Hussein (my taxi driver) had to see a map of U.P. to learn where Banda was located and if a train even went to this tiny town. I was sure I had a good plan and was determined to get out of Agra and away from Hussein today no matter where the train went. So, Hussein took me to the train station and insisted he had a friend in town that could buy me a ticket and NOT to talk to the ticket agent at the train station without him. He took me to the train station and dropped me off with strict instructions to wait for him to return in an hour or so. Yeah, whatever.
Sometimes, the best part of being a woman is connecting with other women. I waited in a terribly crowded line at the station with pushy men constantly shoving their noses to the front of the line with a sense of urgency akin to a child who had to pee. Chivalry died at the threshold of the station, trust me. I pushed my way forward and didn’t allow these wankers to butt in line in front of me; however an Indian woman, who was behind me line, saw these guys buzzing around the ticket window so she barked at the clerk who was serving them and from what I could tell, she said something about ‘these assholes jumping ahead of us in line when clearly this woman (me) is a tourist and has priority and I am an old woman who should also have priority!’ I gave her a knowing smile and she returned it and we were let to the front of the line. I wanted to hug her.
The ticket agent sold me a ticket to Banda but seemed confused why the hell I was going there. He also told me he was selling me a “sleeper class” ticket (I just said, “good class, please” because I had to be in air conditioning or I would die in an overcrowded car). The hitch was that this train did not leave until the following day so I have to go back to my hotel and check back in now. I was hoping to make a quick get-a-way before Hussein returned for me. No such luck.
I bolted out of the station and slipped through the myriad taxi stands and found the first rickshaw driver I could see. He agreed to take me to my hotel for 100 rupees (about $1.50) and just as I heaved my backpack into his rickshaw Hussein buzzes by on a motorcycle and spots me. Shit! I am sick of this guy already, I’m starting to feel bullied by this guy—I’ve overpaid him, he’s taken me to far too many shops owned by his friends and quite frankly, he’s on my nerves. But, I don’t want trouble so I chickened out and relented. He speaks with the rickshaw driver (I’m sure he told him that I was his customer and that I made a mistake by climbing in with him). Mother fuck, I don’t want to deal with this guy but I know that I’m leaving tomorrow and will NEVER have to see him again, right?! (Another reason NEVER to return to Agra.) So, Hussein picks up my pack, walks it over to his car and loads it up. He is not happy that I bought my own ticket and doubts I’ll ever make it to Banda tomorrow since I did my own transaction. Then, he says, “Crystal, I take you to better hotel, cheaper, you don’t need to stay at such a fancy place.” “I don’t know, Hussein, I am happy with the hotel I stayed at” I respond. “You remember what I say about lassi? You like lassi because you trust me. I take you to see elephants and you like lassi so you know I know what is good. This is good hotel, nice with pool.” Sigh…ok. We’ll see.
It’s not bad (it was clean) but it was not nearly as nice as the place I was staying and the food did not compare. Also, the internet was not free (as I hoped) so that was annoying. However, I figured it was a quick way to dump Hussein again…or so I thought.
“Crystal, I take you to Taj Mahal tomorrow, before your train leaves. You have all day to wait.” Hussein orders. “Ok, pick me up at 10:00.” I cower.
I am weak and pathetic and if my sister told me this story I would scream…and then find Hussein and punch him in the face. But, when you are a woman traveling alone, you make choices that you might not always make…you are perhaps a risk taker and a compromiser at the same time, right? I spent my entire day figuring out this train situation and now I am sweaty again and ready to eat and sleep. Tomorrow–the Taj and then the train to Banda. Adventure is out there!