12:07 PM Tuesday, March 7, 2000

I'm totally exhausted. I must be a wimp. My feet hurt and my shoulders hurt and my legs hurt and my face hurts. I've been defeated by the Indian railway system. I studied and prepared for hours...days, and still I couldn't book a train ticket. I approached the task (I really shouldn't speak in the past tense 'cause I'm going back tomorrow) with the utmost respect and fear. I knew I'd have to have the stamina of every other you-name-it-wallah trying to buy a train ticket. The stamina that lets them yell and sell alarm clocks in the blazing sun all day. Stamina that lets them drive taxi in the most brutal traffic the world has to offer. Stamina that lets them stand up on packed trains twice a day on a four hour commute.

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You see, unless you're willing to pay airline fares which are about twice what they are in the US, the only game in town is the train. If you've been following along you've heard this song before: wait-listed three hundred and sixty seven. I really cannot fathom why India has this kind of a system. My only guess is that it is a twisted form of entertainment. Like miniature golf. There is no point. The more ridiculous the obstacle, the more feverish the attempts to get around it. (and what fist-pumping elation when you hole-in-one the Old Woman in the Shoe!) One thing is for sure: It holds the family and community together because every couple of weeks you have to call everybody you know to see if they know someone who can bribe someone to get your wait-listed ticked bumped up to a confirmed ticket. You have to pay full price for a wait-listed ticket and if it turns out you don't get on the train, you can go back to the railway station and get a refund (minus 10 percent!). Hmmm, my second cousin's future-wife's grandfather is a retired train conductor....he just might be able to help. It's worth a shot! And so many of these wait-listed tickets do get confirmed. They must or why would 300 people be willing to fork over a guaranteed-non-refundable 10 percent of the fare for a chance at the bribery lottery? I'm willing. And why, if so many do finally get confirmed, is such a large black market sustained and officially sanctioned with a wait-list system by the railway? Oh, only questions for a stupid sahib to ask. One must not question the ways of an ancient society, yah.

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I stood there from 6pm to 8pm. I left about 10 minutes before the window actually closed because I couldn't handle the stressing of the men around me. It was obvious to me that I wasn't going to get to the window before closing time. This had probably occurred to the men around me. They'd get nervous when the customer at the front of our line would be taking a little too long at the window. They'd get antsy and start barking out stuff that I couldn't understand. Loud fuckin barks where they throw their shoulders back and veins pop out in their necks. They sounded like dogs that seem to bark from some unknown anxiety poking them deep inside.

The guy just over my right shoulder (breathing on my neck) would crane his neck and try to see what was going on 15 feet away up at the window and when he'd sufficiently frustrated himself he'd let out a yelp of the equivalent of "moveit asshole" and then the other guys who where taking a rest from craning their necks would perk up and start to yelp. Chain-barking just like armies of street dogs. The commotion dies down and then about 2 minutes later it erupts again, every time increasing in frequency as 8pm nears. The reservations counter upstairs at VT has 70 windows. There are approximately 40 men standing in line at each window at 8pm during the slow part of the day. Repeat this line-barking scenario over 70 times and you get a highly stressful situation. 2800 men waiting to buy tickets. Yes, there are times when even the Indian man, the coolest customer in the world, cannot maintain.

I wrote that last night. Today I went back to VT and got all the tickets I wanted. I showed up at 8am when it opened and was through the line by 10. My Varanasi ticket is wait-listed 260. I'm going on a trip. (I should mention that I could have avoided the lines if I'd used the tourist quota but the bastards only let you buy same-day tickets and I want all my tickets now. Even after 4 hours in line I still think I've saved myself some aggravation.) I'm really looking forward to getting out of Bombay. Bombay traps you like any big city. People whine about "getting out" just like I've heard in SF or NY. For the last month I've just been bored and enjoying the nice weather.

I'm going on a big, long train trip across India. Bombay-Varanasi and then hang out in the area for a while. Near there they have some erotic temple carvings that I've wanted to see for about 10 years. I've seen them on TV and all my attempts to look at temples in India have been kind of spoiled by their sumptuousness. Varanasi is "the oldest city in the world" and the holiest place on the holiest river in India the Ganges. Anyhow, we'll see how long I can tolerate the old, dirty tourist trap. Then it's on to Calcutta. I'll spend a couple of days there. Brian says it's fascinating because it's the most untouched by modernism of the big cities in India. And it has the largest wholesale market in all of Asia. That crap is interesting to me. Then another (confirmed!) train ride up to Darjeeling to kick it in the high mountain tea plantations. Around the first week of April I should be in Sikkim, smack in the Himalayas, under the third highest peak in the world. Sikkim becomes more fascinating to me the more I read about it. I'm gonna fly back to Bombay and pack up my stuff and head to Bali for two weeks and I should be home by May.