If you read my first India blog post you might remember that I referenced Jack’s Gap’s The Rickshaw Run, a YouTube series in which Jack, Finn and friends travelled the width of the country in tuktuks. For those of you who aren’t familiar with tuktuks, they’re motorised rickshaws (they kind of look like a cross between Hagrid’s motorbike and a smart car) mainly used as taxis in Indian towns and are definitely not the mode of transport I would choose for travelling across the country, especially when a six hour bus journey doesn’t even get you across one state!
During my time in Ranaghat, we took two trips into the town centre in tuktuk taxis. Our first rickshaw ride took us into town to visit a tiny little money changer. It’s illegal to take rupees in and out of India so we all had to change money during this first trip into town. On the way into town, the main road crosses the railway line that runs through Ranaghat. As we approached the railway crossing, a bell was ringing to signal an approaching train but nobody seemed too bothered by the high speed train that was about to shoot across the road. I don’t know how long the bell was ringing before the barriers began to slowly inch down, but it was long enough for me to think that they didn’t exist. However, for all the attention people paid to them, they might as well have not had them! As the barriers slowly came down to prevent vehicles crossing the tracks, people just kept driving or walking underneath them. The last rickshaw to make it through was a traditional pedal-powered one and the daring driver almost got his elderly passenger bonked on the head, it could literally have only been an inch off! Even once the barriers were down several impatient pedestrians completely ignored the sounds of the imminently approaching train and weaved around the barriers. I really hope they had somewhere important to be.
As all of this was going on, a team of workers were on the railway line wearing beautiful orange shirts (the Indian equivalent of high-visibility clothing). They were working on one of the two lines that didn’t look fit to hold the weight of a train and they weren’t moving as the train was approaching. I had no idea which track the train was coming down and I was just praying it wasn’t the one they were busy reinforcing with stones! You do feel incredibly vulnerable in a tiny little open tuktuk on a busy Indian road packed with lorries and I felt even more unsettled right next to this railway line with a speeding train approaching. Scratch vulnerable, I was actually terrified! Anyway, the train went past on the track that wasn’t being worked on, the workers didn’t move, nobody else seemed at all phased by the giant speeding train and we all got on with the rest of our day. It was just me being irrationally scared and the fear in this situation probably stems from the same place that makes me scared of lorries; it’s scary to see a big train or lorry hurtling towards you at high speed when you’re a vulnerable pedestrian, cyclist or tuktuk passenger, OK?!
The money changer was in a tiny little room on the first floor of a building reached by ascending a narrow concrete staircase. There were already three other customers and two staff members in the room when we arrived and, to start with, only half of our group went inside. The tiny room was air conditioned which was a blessing after being outside in the midday heat. There was a small seating area which as many of us crammed onto as we could. After sitting in there for a good ten minutes it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a quick process so the rest of the group came upstairs to escape from the heat outside. While we were still waiting for the other customers to finish, the staff brought in some plastic stools so that all twelve of our group could sit down; the whole floor area of this tiny little room was now taken up by us, there was literally no room to move. Then they brought in chilled bottles of fizzy drinks like Coke and Sprite and the Indian equivalent of Fanta (all in their traditional glass bottles). This was a lovely gesture although it did take me about ten minutes to scrub the rust off the mouth of my bottle with a baby wipe before Michelle deemed it safe for me to drink from. By the time we had all gotten our money changed we must have been in there for about an hour!
On our second trip into town we went shopping for clothes in the markets. Udita and Neha came with us as our personal shoppers, taking us to all of the best cheap and fashionable shops in town. After spending almost two hours in the first shop we visited, which was about the size of a caravan, tucked away down an alley, most of us had bought at least one of the things we had come in search of. I bought two kurtis (long Indian Style tops) and a pair of matching leggings which had a rather bizarre fit around the butt region which I can only describe as leaving space for a nappy. Lucy and Anna both bought fancy dresses with accompanying clown pants to wear for the two slightly more important events we would be attending over the weekend but I decided to wear a kurti because I didn’t fancy the idea of wearing a heavy embellished dress with trousers underneath it – it’s hot enough already thank you very much! We finally left the first shop and wandered through some small alleyways and up some stairs finding ourselves in what you could consider to be a shopping mall. We stopped at a shop in here for a refreshingly short twenty minutes to buy scarves. Our final stops were a sari shop and a couple of jewellery shops to buy gifts to take home. By this point we had been in town for well over three hours and had missed lunch by a good hour so we took a tuktuk back to Bethel House. You just can’t rush anything in India, especially not marketing!