The Midnight Train to Jaipur

Our last day in Udaipur and the Lake Palace is a quiet one.

We have secured a late check-out time from the hotel and plan to take advantage of their ample sitting and viewing spaces outside of our room to try and catch up on some reading and web updating. The hotel does have a wireless system that is available about 50% of the time, and we try a number of times to sign onto the site and update. It is a hit and miss situation. Other than a 3:00 p.m. visit to the Monsoon Palace (the Palace precariously perched on the highest mountain peak in the area and visible from almost every vantage point in Udaipur), we are not scheduled until 8:00 p.m., so the rest of the day is ours. This evening we are booked on India Rail’s grand overnight train adventure to Jaipur and both of us have finally admitted that we are not entirely sure what to expect with our sleeping car arrangements and are more concerned about our luggage than our own personal safety. We really don’t have a romanticized version of “A Passage to India” in our heads – with grand turbaned coolies and servants waiting to transport us, and our trunks, reticules and hat boxes, to our richly appointed private rail car and our luxurious 10-hour train ride north. But the reality of that later.

Dinner at Natraj

At about 6:00 p.m. we board our hotel launch and head into town for dinner. Danielle and Bill from Seattle had recommended a restaurant called Natraj which was also mentioned in our guide book. (Note and recommendation: We have found the Lonely Planet and  Rough Guide series of guide books indispensable with their practical and historical information.) Natraj is known as a Thali restaurant. It is the single metal plate and 3 bowls of which a combination of vegetarian dishes, chutneys, pickles, rice, and bread are served as a single meal. It is not done with a lot of flourish or savvy and the room itself isn't anything to update a website over, but is incredibly cheap and has a local feel and flavour that you are not going to find in any of the tourist restaurants. In India, as a sahib and unless you speak up, you will automatically be taken to a tourist restaurant where you will be ushered to your seat in the “air con” room, while your driver and sometimes your guide will have to sit in the other, less desirable “non air con” adjoining room. We have always opted for our driver and guide to sit with us and this gives us an opportunity to really speak with them and get to know them, at least a little bit. They get a free meal, but sometimes we wonder if they wouldn't rather be sitting with the other guides and drivers, gossiping. Our meal is, as always, very filling and the waiters circle with the serving pots, ready to continuously fill our plates. We have learned in India that you don’t finish what is on your plate because it will always be filled again, whether you want it or not. We grab a motorized rickshaw and head back to the Lake Palace land side boat launch/waiting room, where we are to be picked up for our trip to the train station. We grab a beer on the mainland terrace overlooking the lake and the Palace and enjoy the warm breeze and the view, punctuated with thousands of swarming bats, skimming the lake as the moon starts to rise.

Leaving Our Western  Guilt at Home

We arrive at the train station for our overnight to Jaipur and are thankful for our driver. It is a nondescript building with no outside signage and no indication of its whereabouts. We could never have found it on our own. We pull up to the main entrance and an older coolie is immediately there to help with our bags. I wonder if he can lift the two bags and my attempts to help him are quickly pooh-poohed. That is another thing we have learned in India – leave your Western ways and guilt at home! Don’t try to help out the help. From coolies to waiters to doormen, they will make it clear to you that they are here to help you. We are providing a service to them in a manner by employing them and it is, rupee wise, nothing to us. (I, however, am still trying to get over having my car door opened by the driver every time we go somewhere – but I am almost there!)

Some Slight Panic Ensues

Our view of the platform is less emotionally charged than it was in Mumbai  but it is still night time and there is a certain depressed, fluorescent-lit mood hanging in the air. We think we have this process down pat as we follow our tour host to our train car. India Rail lists all of the passengers’ names on a print-out posted on the coach that you are traveling in. Our names, however, are not posted on this list. Some slight panic starts to creep into my stomach. Our tour host heads into the station and returns five minutes later confirming that our names are indeed on the master list and we board the train to find our luggage plopped onto the berths and on the floor of our compartment. John has boarded ahead of me and he is sitting on the edge of the berth surrounded by our luggage. The camera and computer bags are stacked on top of the other bags which are stacked on top of the rolling bags.

We start to organize the luggage when our night porter arrives with sheets and blankets to make up the berths. We are not talking Egyptian cotton here but the sheets are clean and crisp and have a traditional India Western Rail logo stitched down the middle. I feel somehow part of history. We end up being more concerned about the “facilities” and how to navigate them at 2 am on a pitching and rolling train. The train leaves roughly on time and we move about 20 feet outside of the station and promptly stop. I stick my head out the door and watch as people, which bags perched on their heads and children in tow, scramble and run for the train. This continues for another 25 minutes before we are officially headed north.

We brush our teeth, say our good-nights, pop one of those little pills that come in so handy on red-eyes, whether plane or train and are lulled to sleep by the bump and tousle of the “Midnight Train to Jaipur”.

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