Tomorrow will be a week since I arrived at Avdhoot Ashram. When I first completed the registration form, I told Vikar to put down that I was staying three nights. He said it was just a formality and I could stay however long I liked. I thought it was actually a probable answer though I was open to staying longer if in the flow. Just had to check things out first.
My time here has indeed turned out to be a sweet easeful flow. I can honestly say Avdhoot officially became my next “home sweet home” in the life of this not yet weary traveler. Little did I know though, that the challenge of purchasing a train ticket could be what might keep me in Rishikesh forever!
Okay, slight exaggeration… but only slight. I have literally been trying to purchase a train ticket for the last four days. And just this afternoon was my mission finally completed! I started off researching my next destination (Varanasi) in my Lonely Planet iBook which I thankfully managed to download onto my iPad in the Ayurvedic Cafe connected to the fairly high-end spa, next to the well-known and rather large Sivananda ashram. At least the downloading was successful because my time at Sivananda wasn’t.
Their classes had come recommended to me by the same friend who put me in touch with Vikar and Avdhoot. She said they were very traditional and they even taught men and women separately. Not sure how long ago that was, because when I inquired, they were no longer teaching women — period. I don’t know why. Bummer, but oh well! She’d also recommended the cafe which I decided to treat myself to one afternoon since they were fairly expensive though the second floor view of the Ganga was nice. Perhaps because they were connected to the spa, the Wifi was faster than at most other places so I could finally download the over 1,000 page book that Lonely Planet India was. Much better than lugging around a brick. Though I suppose it could have substituted for a yoga block if I ever needed one!
I had only thought to download it on my iPhone before I left the States. Trying to read Lonely Planet on an iPhone would be have been difficult enough even if I didn’t still have the older smaller 3G version. Yes, I live in the stone ages. So… after happily finally having an opportunity to dive into my only accessible India resource on hand, I decided that the 18-hour train to Varanasi didn’t sound all too tempting. Especially when I could break up the journey about half way with a stop in Lucknow.
This place holds a little something special to me by association. I had heard about Lucknow many times since that is where the friend who took me to the Himalayas has spoken of often, having lived and sat for seven years transcribing the words during satsang at the feet of his Guru, H.W.L. Poonja lovingly referred to by his devotees as Papaji. Papaji died in ’97 but I assumed that perhaps there were still some places to visit of meaning related to him. I had just finished reading a book of dialogue during satsang with one of his most popular living disciples, Mooji. I knew I wouldn’t be in Rishikesh when he would be coming as usual this winter so I figured I would draw in some words of wisdom on advaita, the teachings of Papaji and Mooji. It is essentially non-dualism, that oneness is a fundamental quality of everything… that everything is part of and made of one non-dual consciousness. Papaji is in the lineage of Sri Ramana Maharshi, whose ashram in Tiruvannamalai I would defintiely be visiting (and hopefully allowed to stay in) later in my travels. So a trip to Lucknow felt like a start to that aspect of my journey.
Plus, Lucknow was a 10-hour train from Haridwar, which I could get to by an hour-bus from Rishikesh. I had driven through there on my to Rishikesh. Then I could take a 7-hour train or 8.5 hour bus from Lucknow to Varanasi a couple days later and that certainly felt like a much better overall route. Easier said than done!
First I googled the name of the train that Lonely Planet said goes from Hardiwar to Lucknow. The first website I found quickly told me that the train only goes from Lucknow to Haridwar. Huh?? One way?!? How do people go in the other direction?? I kept googling. Later I found out from Vikar that yes, this is true. Some trains do only go in one direction. Some trains only go on certain days of the week. And have since heard from another friend that apparently, purchasing train travel can be one of the trickiest things having to do with travel in India. Truly nerve wracking which I would soon find out!
I finally found a website where I was able to pull up four trains that all go from Haridwar to Lucknow, at night. But I didn’t understand the acronym for the sleeping cars though I could see a difference in pricing. I certainly didn’t want to get stuck in some crazy sleeping situation if I could avoid it. Next thing you know, my screen turns black. The power had just gone out in the Internet cafe (for lack of a better word) I was in. Not just in the cafe, but the entire neighborhood which happens fairly regularly apparently. That’s okay, just meant I could go check my handy Lonely Planet again because I knew there was a section on train travel. Vikar offered to let me use his computer that night but I figured I could just book my ticket the next day. Little did I know!
Sure enough, Lonely Planet did give a very good explanation about sleeper cars, and two/three level bunk cars and made a point to say it was worth traveling by train in India just to have the experience of travel by train in India! They suggested locking your luggage up while on the train which I was already prepared to do with the bike chain lock that a well-traveled friend recommend I bring with me. Did you know that India Railways is the 2nd largest employer in the world with over 2.3 million employees?!? (Thank you, Lonely Planet).
When I did return to the site the next day, I chose the train and sleeping class I wanted, but when attempting to actually book the ticket, I was halted with my registration info. It quickly became clear that a U.S. address and mobile weren’t allowed. Rut roh. I put in Vikar’s cell phone number which was accepted but I didn’t know the zip code to the ashram. Dang! Attempt #2. Denied. I’ll come back later that afternoon.
On attempt #3, I was able to successfully complete the entire registration form and submit it. Yay! Here we go! Only to be prompted with a screen asking me to fill in the passcodes that were just emailed AND texted to verify. Are you for real?!?!! Maybe they know that it’s actually not Vikar at the computer. Double dang. Okay, this calls for searching for another website. Maybe I can purchase my ticket elsewhere. Sure enough, I DO find another website with the same 4 trains to Lucknow AND this one allows me to sign in through Facebook. Yay! We’ve got a winner here! I don’t need to pre-register with the name of my first unborn child! I get through, pick the train, the class and fill in all my personal details only to get the payment page and DOH! They do not accept non-Indian debit or credit cards. Wha?????? Is this actually happening? I hadn’t yet learned from my friend about the travel by train situation yet though I was finding out firsthand.
Okay, that was that. Attempt #4. Also failed. I was no closer to Lucknow, just exasperation. And finally thought, let me see if Vikar might be able to help. If not, I will take a bus! I explained the situation to him back at the ashram and told him I had an idea. If he was willing to pay for the train ticket for me, I would be able to give him the money in cash. Then I could figure out future trains another way, even if that meant paying the extra commission to have a travel agency purchase them for me if need be. He quickly said, why don’t we just go to the train station tomorrow morning? Yes! Ok great! That sounds like a perfect solution! I’ll just buy the ticket direct! I didn’t want to leave until Monday anyway and the following day was Sunday. Perfect timing!
NOT!!! The super quick scooter ride TO the train station was made up for by a fairly long line IN the station. I was the only woman I might add standing with about 20 men. And the only non-Indian as well. I was reminded of my times traveling in central Turkey, also never with any other women besides my two travel partners. But this time it felt much less daunting. I knew to grab a request form up front because I had read about that pre-requisite in good ‘ole Lonely Planet. Filling it out correctly was a whole other thing, but I at least knew I had to write Hardiwar to Lucknow and my travel date. Apparently that was enough to be told, “No” once I finally got to the window. “All trains full. Come back tomorrow before 10.” Wait, what? Are you serious? But you didn’t even check anything! I grabbed Vikar to ask him to find out more in Hindi. Yep, that was the deali-o. No go for a train on Monday. I could come back before 10am the next day and get a seat for Tues. Attempt #5: Failed.
This whole not being able to get a ticket thing was beginning to get old. But what could I do? Except learn my lessons. One of which was book trains early. Ok, got it. Luckily I had a comfortable place to stay with 3 meals/day being provided and two yoga classes, one where I lead and one where I learn. Things could certainly be worse! But… what this also meant was… I needed to buy another book! I was close to the end of both books I was reading and almost completely caught up on my blog (all of which I wrote during the week at the ashram)! With so much free time at the ashram and soon-to-be on the “road” er uh, train… if I could ever buy a ticket that is, I’d definitely need another book.
Vikar asked after the failed attempt at the train station if I wanted to come with him to purchase bananas. I said, sure… and did there also happen to be a bookstore nearby with books available in English? Aside from a nearby store selling English text books (thank you very much, but I’ve had my fair share of Physics and English Lit in my life), the only other place was Laxman Jhula, the super crazy part of Rishikesh I had happily left almost a week prior. Beggars can’t be choosers. So off we went back to the mayhem, but this time on the back of a scooter!
And then it happened. I became one of those people I had complained about in my mind that had thought just one week prior, the one thing that should definitely not be allowed on the suspension bridges with SO many people and sometimes cows and handicapped beggars — scooters! Wait, how did this happen? Oh yeah, my book! Better make it a good one! And I did. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. A 933-page epic partially set in India that so many friends have raved about. And that I would never dream to have the time or space to delve into with my busy life back in the States. Although the size of an actual brick, I’m happy to have it because I read fast and want something worth reading to last me a while. After the two spirituality focused books I just completed, this one seemed perfect next.
I also offered to take Vikar to lunch in gratitude for all of his helpful efforts. Anywhere he wanted! He agreed. So after making our way through the crowds, we ended up at a restaurant super close to his ashram and apparently quite popular. It was packed, filled with Indians and foreigners alike and was delicious.
Tomorrow, I would finally get my train ticket! I could tell you right now Attempt #6 (which was this very morning) was finally successful. But if I did, I would be lying. Would you believe that after getting to the train station by 10am (it was even 9:30am) and waiting in line… I was told at about 10:04am that no seats were available AGAIN. Ticket sales don’t officially start in the computer system until 10am — I know because I was at the front of the window eyes glued to the computer screen which was in English the whole time. I could be put on the waiting list. Not that I hadn’t already waited 4 days and 6 attempts. But I’d need to return again tomorrow morning to try and get a ticket for the following day.
A German man in line told me the waiting list is okay, you can still get on the train. You just don’t get a seat and can keep walking around. For 10 hours? Regardless, when he asked if it was a night train which it was, he said that didn’t apply. You’d at least need a seat, if not a bunk.
I’d have to hold out for a regular ticket or at this point, I was definitely ready to just take a bus. But I didn’t get it. If I cant get a ticket before one day in advance, how can tickets already be sold out at 10:04am? I remembered seeing a travel agency across from the restaurant the day before. Looks like it might be time to pay them a visit. But only after trying the solution I’d thought of two days prior and paying Vikar back for purchasing the ticket for me. He was game.
Effort #7. Lucky #7. Here we go! This time, I used Vikar’s laptop in the ashram’s office. He kept joking about how it was definitely going to work this time because of his magic fingers. By this time, we had developed a lovely rapport with one another and had shared a lot of causal conversation time with one another, in addition to our twice daily yoga practices. He was officially my first Indian friend, and a teacher and a student. I am very grateful for my dear friend Vikar.
I used the passcode sent to his cell phone this time as well as the one sent to my email and BINGO! I was registered. Now, on to the booking. Found those same 4 trains, chose the one I preferred, entered my travel info… and before using his India debit card, thought I should try mine since this was a different website than the one where I logged in through Facebook and had my U.S. card declined. Thank goodness I tried. After waiting a slow minute watching the % change from 1% to eventually 100% complete, I had a confirmation code. My train ticket was booked! Hallelujah!!!
Come to think of it, this was actually Effort #8! When I first attempted to book the ticket using my card, Vikar got a phone call which he picked up on his cell. The ticket was in the processing/purchasing mode at the time. The moment he finished the call, the Internet connection cut off. DOH! He’d forgotten that picking up a phone call cancels the hotspot connection. Another lesson learned!
In the end, the ticket was *finally* purchased and I was elated. One, in two days I’d finally be leaving Rishikesh and on to my next journey. Two, I figured out a way to purchase tickets online with my own debit card. Three, I could hopefully avoid ever needing to wait in crazy train station lines with all men, standing WAY up in your business and barely being able to understand the person giving me instructions behind the counter. Ah, the intricacies of travel in India. I was getting schooled. And no doubt, was going to have much more to learn. This was its own type of degree, unlike any other. And I was officially enrolled.