Of the two years that I spent on the Indian subcontinent, I have little but happy memories of wonderful scenery and kind people and exciting adventures. But without a little rain one appreciates the sunshine less, and so there had to be a little in my stay there that was less than perfect. And my biggest misadventure took place when I decided to visit the Ellora and Ajanta Caves near Aurangbad. Would that I had become a bit wary when I went to buy my plane ticket from Bombay to Aurangabad. Ah, yes, the ticket agent assured me, they had space on the flight for the day I wanted go, but not for the day I wanted to come back. But I should, he counseled, buy a return ticket in any case, and there would be NO PROBLEM in arranging a return flight from the other end. In my innocent - no, let’s be honest - in my INSANE optimism, I bought the ticket, and left the matter at that.
The airport bus was to arrive at my hotel at 5:30 the next morning, so I left word at the desk for a 4:30 wake-up call. Did I get it? What do YOU think? Noooooo- only at 5:30 did the phone ring. The receptionist said, in a voice that held no remorse whatsoever, that he was SO sorry that he’d forgotten to wake me at 4:30, but he had and there was nothing to be done about it now. He also informed me, with an air of sang froid that would have done justice to a pasha, that the bus was waiting for me in front of the hotel, and that I had five minutes to get up, get dressed, get packed, get out and get on! With my hair still in rollers, my face still in my make-up bag and my minimal luggage trailing gaily from my packsack, I boarded the crowded bus and no doubt provided a source of some humour for the other passengers, who watched me remove the rollers from my hair and brush it, put on my make-up, and tuck my unmentionables firmly into my packsack, my air of studied nonchalance somewhat belied by my burning cheeks.
On arrival at Aurangabad, I immediately went to the Air India counter to book my return flight to Bombay for the next day. You will not be surprised to learn that there were no return flights available - not for several days. A travel agent was located and he was set to the task of finding me a rail ticket.
In the meantime, I went out in search of a bus that would take me to the caves. Which ones? Ellora or Ajunta? The agent wanted to know. Well, both, I replied. Can’t be done in one day, memsahib - they’re sixty miles apart. With the flip of a coin, I opted for the sculptures of the Ellora Caves, and, ticket in hand, wandered outside to find the right bus. Several buses were leaving the station at the same time, and, as all the sign were in Hindi, finding the right bus was like picking the right numbers in a lottery. By the time I DID find my bus it was, of course, filled to capacity and far beyond. So I stood, jammed in so tightly that I could not possibly have fallen, as the bus careened and lurched along the bumpy, dusty road, jostling its sweaty passengers against each other in most obscene ways. The temperature rose with every rocky mile traveled, and on our arrival at the caves, the thermometer registered 90 degrees and rising.
The thirty-four caves at Ellora extend up a mountain over the range of a mile. My natural enthusiasm had already been sorely challenged by the morning’s events, and now I contemplated the day before me, a day of mountain climbing in mind-numbing heat with a guide book in one hand and a camera in the other, with considerable gloom. Not long after I’d begun, it occurred to me that I was not quite as interested as I ought to have been in this adventure, but there was nothing left to do but plunge in. The return buses would not be leaving until late afternoon and, besides, I was not about to “quit.” Some of the caves were quite marvelous and, in retrospect, they seem far more interesting and impressive than they appeared on that day. Nevertheless, I took copious notes and several rolls of film.
Near five in the afternoon, I descended into the parking lot to search for a bus returning to Aurangabad from whence I was to catch my train back to Bombay. The buses were filling fast, and tourists, hot and tired from their day in the sun, pushed angrily and roughly to ensure themselves and their families a place on one of the buses which were clearly too few in number to accommodate everyone. Thus it was that I watched in desperation as the last bus, full, pulled away, leaving me surrounded by a quantity of ancient rock monuments which were really not at all appealing as hotels!
To my short-lived relief, a family of Madrasis, who had hired a car for the trip from Aurangabad, took pity on me. I was exhilarated! I would catch my train after all!........ Not so fast! My family stopped at every temple and shrine between Ellora and Aurangabad, and what should have been an easy 40-minute trip turned into a three-hour pilgrimage, during which I bit my fingernails to a most unattractive and erose shortness.
I needn’t have worried. The train, delayed, would not leave for another two hours. Finally, we were off, on a narrow-gauge train powered by a steam engine which sent ribbons of sooty smoke back to us through the open - and unclosable - windows. When the train arrived at Mammar, the switch-point, at midnight, we resembled a motley collection of coal miners just up from underground. The Indian train station is an experience not to be missed..... unless you can possibly avoid it, which is even better! The station at Mammar is a large one, and the long platform was strewn with what seemed like thousands of bodies - some sleeping on the floor, oblivious to the chaos around them, some holding livestock- goats, cows, chickens - some chewing betel nut; many just staring into space. It was a cacophony of sounds and sights....and smells!
When the train for Bombay finally arrived - two hours late, to no-one’s surprise - I allowed myself to be shoved into a second-class compartment in which every seat and every bit of sooty floor space was occupied. Learning slowly about the survival tactics involved in ground travel in India, I wedged myself onto a seat next to two other women. We were, I thought, pretty FIRMLY wedged and yet, over the course of the next three hours, several other women, and their children, and their bedrolls, periodically joined us and left in a sort of a modern dance to which the neophyte could not follow the steps. I arrived in Bombay tin the morning, looking for all the world like a little chimney sweep, black from the soot of the engines from the top of my head to the bottoms of my shoes.
I took a taxi back to the hotel, threw my clothes, past salvaging, into the waste basket, took a long, hot bath, fell into bed, and went to sleep. I woke up in late afternoon, refreshed, and took my film into the camera shop to be developed. Over dinner, I couldn’t help chuckling over my misadventure and was glad that I had taken notes and had taken so many photographs. I knew that, in time, as the memories of the difficulties dimmed, I would appreciate having the visual record of my journey.
There seems to be an inconsistency in my story, doesn’t there? The memories of my misadventure have not dimmed. What of the photographs which were to have turned disaster into triumph? Oh...didn’t I tell you? All four rolls developed blank!