Saturday, February 19, 2011

Awake and Asleep on a Train

Me in seat 40

Did I ask for luck?  I don’t know about that – maybe I got it, that’s all.  I feel incredibly lucky.  Sitting here, safe and sound, reading a good book (and autobiography about a man growing up in 1940’s India called Out of India – Michael Foss, 2001) and as I stare out the window it becomes alive in front of me.  I am cutting a line through the heart of India I find out, crossing some 2000 kms from south to north.  I was concereed about this long trip -  but it has turned out to be a sheer delight!  It is magnificent.  And food, another prior concern, should not have been.  At every stop vendors are present and meals are offered on board.  I order from the train itself (veg or non-veg are the options) and eat the intensely spicy meal quietly and alone – well, with a few people staring maybe.  (They give you a spoon but no napkin for some reason.)  I would gladly do this again and again! 

Thurs Feb 17

At first, first, the train arrived and I though, ‘you’re kidding.  This is the piece of crap that I have to ride for 40 hours?”|  I didn’t know what to do.   I found the coach that said 3 tier AC, and sure enough, my name is on the list beside the door.  Boarding, I notice myself shrink – it is grimy and old.   But after a few hours I am OK – I have re-adjusted and it is just my Western standards coming out.  The train is fine, it is clean, it is just worn and well used.

I left my room in Pondicherry at 7am, biked to the place to return my rented cycle, and wlkaed to the main road to catch a gritty rickshaw (60Rs) to the bus station.  I boarded immediately for the 3.5 hour ride to Chennai (55Rs).  At the main bus depot, the ass of a conductor did not leave time to allow me and an elderly couple off the bus. Shouting, police beckoned, nothing in the end but the need to cross an enormous highway on foot. A rickshaw hails and saves me from this (as a white man, I never have to wait for long – unfortunately) and go the 18km (200Rs) across town to the Egmore train station.  I jump across the street for a lunch at the Visanta Bhawan (should have had more of the dhal fry) and fought off rickshaws to cross the road to my first Indian train station.   The un-monitored and seemingly functional metal detectors were a fun touch, as was the nearby, non-functioning and seemingly guarded luggage scanner (???).  Also, for 20Rs/ hour you can wait for your train in AC comfort. Nice.  I chose to pace. 

Nearing 4pm, on a train, my first Indian train, out of Chennai and gratefully so.  India surround me, and I allow myself to be embraced in the smells and landscape of this wonderful land. Outside, I pass majestic views – the ones we have heard about and seen on film:  sprawling fields of rice and palms buttoned up with men tonga-clotherd and their tough wives, and also distand temples and buffaloes crossing small streams, and vast industrial wastelands – throwing smoke malignantly at the sun, a swamp of toxic sludge a moat around it (it’s barbed wire a truly ridiculous sight as men – god help them! – bathe in the eerie phlegm of this far side of the city.
            Inside, my first impression genuine amazement (no wonder my ticket is so cheap?) This is not the worst class?  Cracking plastic seats, dull tired windows, and the feel that everything  here is the original pieces of this lurching metal donkey, built probably in the seventies, but really – who knows around here?
            I sit across from a quiet military Indian who speaks no English or Tamil, only Hindi.  He eventually opens up to a cautious smile,  but the young mother across the way (who has lived in Nashville I later find out)  is much sweeter. She speaks English well and her husband has an iphone and works for Oracle – they are also going to varanasi, for a wedding and temple worship.
            I am glad to have left Pondicherry, and very glad that I did not have to spend more than a few hours in Chennai – it was a horrid city – a beast whose roar burst the ears and shook the sky so much that it covered itself in shame.  That gorgeous blue sky had been reduced to a tiny mirage there, the sun merely a place of heat.
            There, my reckless driver was daring and downright rude – making pedestrians reel, cutting through gas stations, and cutting off every motorist in his field so he could get ahead.  I closed my eyes and pushed my hanky up my nose – this is a place where if you can, you should try not to breathe. 

There is something romantic about a long train ride – even though only a few hours in I am already uncomfortable and wondering how my stomach and bowels and butt will make it to Varanasi.  Young boys behind have laptops out, plugged in and playing games and surfing the net with the help of TaTa sticks.  I am slightly envious but not really – I am glad that I am not doing that, my Indian is of the Raj variety, the turn of the 19th century in its Victorian opulence captured my heart and imagination long ago, and the scenes outside my window help me project.  I am not terribly fond of modern India – it is not yet found its footing yet, still stumbling over the threshold of two worlds, ancient and new, or perhaps spiritual and materialistic, or perhaps agrarian and technological.  At any rate there is a void somewhere.  No, my India is the days of princely states, of simple living, of the jewel in the crown.  And the remnants are still here and not hard to find, though many would have them forgotten. I’ll take my India without cell phone and anywhere-internet, without high-rises and traffic and the Americanization that is so obvious and urgent among the hungry youth.  This is not denial I don’t think but a preference to look one way and not the other, that is all.  You can go shopping – I’ll take the temple. 

Feb 18th
I managed to sleep surprisingly well, and the train food is not nearly as bad as it is in Canada or on a plane.  As a mater of pride, I believe, Indians pack enormous duffle bags full of food and picnic utensils and families feast on gorgeous food for their entire journey, cleaning plates on the morose sink near the toilet and laughing at the foreigner who orders food from the staff. 
The only other Caucasian on my coach is Hugo, a French guy who has been hired to guide white water rafting toursin Rishikesh for a year, and is travelling his way there.  Boldly he is carrying only 10kg with him in his single pack – which I admire of course,  but I am not at all ashamed to have abandonded thoughts of lightness for a pack larely stuffed with healthy snacks and supplements and now a few books.  They are my comfort zone, I am content.  I still can’t bring myself to buy gifts though – it is too hectic and the shops are overwhelming- besides the fact that I don’t like shopping in the first plalce.  Hopefully, all that can come out of Kashmir, where I prefer my dollars to go anyways. 
            People are eating lunch now – Shamsher (the Indian army guy) is admirable in his efficient ways.  And as I go to put away my mp3 player he grabs it and puts the earbuds in his ears, smiling, looking to me with expectation.  Sheesh – I can’t play him Sufjan Stevens, now can I? Quickly, I flip it to some Zakir Hussain, but I don’t think he is impressed.  2 minutes later I return from the toilet and it is folded on my bag, somehow playing MBV.
            Meditating is hard on the jostle and exposure of the train, but reading is not.  Sure glad I have a few books on hard – I still have all day and night but tomorrow I should be in Varanasi!

Ok - here at last and go all is well. Pictures will come when I have a better signal for internet!

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