Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Overnight Train to Delhi

Sunday, July 22, 2012. Leaving Ahmedabad.

So this trip is drawing to a close. I leave Wednesday morning. I'm excited to be going home. I miss the mundane trips to Kroger and Target. I miss seeing friends and going out for a meal or a beer. Unfortunately I've talked almost daily to people about being a teacher in America that I feel like I've never left work.

As I leave Ahmedabad I want to get a few impressions down on paper while they're fresh. First, setting. I am on a train right now. I wondered why the ticket the hotel got for me was relatively expensive. I've traveled by bus for five hours for three dollars, train for seven hours for four dollars--and the train was an AC sleeper car like I'd asked for this time. This ticket, granted it's some nine hundred kilometers from here to Delhi, was a little over forty dollars, but I was too embarrassed to ask.

I got to the station around 3:30. The train wouldn't leave until at least 5:30, but hotel check out was noon, and the reception staff told me the night before it'd be okay if I stayed into the afternoon. I didn't want to overstay the welcome, especially when the housekeeping boys asked twice if I wanted the room cleaned, so I got to the station really early. I hate the purgatory of the train station. From Pushkar to Jodhpur I waited three hours. Two would have been fine today, it was overcast and breezy, but the smell of urine was inescapable. I kept a folded handkerchief over my nose and mouth like I'd seen many Indians do walking down exhaust filled city streets. When I first got to India and started using a handkerchief for the pollution (thanks for the suggestion, Laura) I noticed how much the cloth smelled of chlorine from the wash. I've since had both handkerchiefs washed here and they no longer smell like a swimming pool. I miss that smell.

When my train arrived, I thought the cars looked different than other trains. Nicer. I found my car and my seat and noticed that the people around me were different from the majority of people I passed on the streets or met waving me into their shops. Some wore shorts. No one was wearing Gandhi type clothing. Women were still dressed in saris and punjabis, but everyone had a western air about them. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what it was. One little middle aged man was in leather shoes, men's capris, a sports short, a gold chain, fancy glasses, a finely trimmed mustache, and loads of grecian formula. If I wasn't in India I would have thought he was Italian. New Jersey Italian. An older man, his father I imagine, looked like he'd just come back to India from the States. There was something about his clothes and hair and incredibly clean shaven face. And everyone was very fair. Waiting at the train station I saw men who were as dark as anyone I'd ever seen. No one dark was in this train car. If what people have told me is true, I was riding with the Brahmin caste. The men on the platform who got on the train before mine probably were not Brahmin caste. Most were a dark, sun baked brown, many wore no shoes or sandals and, how can I say this, their clothes harkened back to the disco era: wide cuff pants with stripes, and rather snug in the, ah-hem, belt regions. Barefooted, they seemed to take no notice of walking right through the puddles, literally puddles, of expelled tobacco and betel nut juice.

The smaller man, talking to the older one, patted a top bunk. I assume he was telling his father where he would have to sleep. The older man uttered, "Hare Krishna!" I had a lower bunk and the smaller man asked if I would like to move seats. I did want to move, but not to the higher bunk he pointed at. The family he was with had eight people, including two young children, for five sleeper beds. His pacing from this place to that indicated that the other bunk was down a few berths. I asked if his seat was indeed down a ways and he said yes. I jumped on that. In the new space there were only three other people. When the conductor would come by later to check tickets he would ask if I wanted an upper or lower bed. He'd be upgrading a couple of other people, but since I was there first I got to choose where I slept.

Just as the train pulled out of the station a uniformed man, a waiter, came by and handed me a bottle of water. He came back after delivering to the whole car and asked if I'd like veg or non-veg. I looked around and asked another passenger what was up. It seemed the hotel had booked me into a first class car with all kinds of service I didn't know existed. One guy who was working on his laptop told me that the overnight train from Ahmedabad to Delhi was one of the nicest in the country. They would provide snacks, a meal, many things. When the waiter left I asked if they come and sing to you until you fall asleep. I'd never been on a train with service before. Stupid me had bought two bottles of water, six bananas, a bottle of mango juice, some cookies, and lentil snacks just to make sure that over the fourteen hour trip I wouldn't get a migraine from low blood sugar or get dehydrated. I started to realize the difference between travel and luxury. When you travel, just travel, you feel the grit of a place and experience the headaches of catching city buses through communication barriers and eating at questionable roadside food carts. When you travel in luxury, you don't necessarily love the place you travel to, you might think you do, but it's possible you just love the luxury. From the comfort of the air conditioned train car I couldn't remember how oppressive the heat outside was and I couldn't clearly remember the invasive, offensive odor of urine. I completely forgot beds with hair on the sheets and bathroom windows with bird nests in them. I was thinking, without adulteration, how great India was and how happy I was to be here.

Later the man on the laptop and I would talk more. I would find out he was an oral surgeon in Delhi. Before the meal came I watched out the window, past the doctor working on his laptop and answering his phone with a British accent. Like other train stations I've pulled out of I noticed the gypsy camps along the rails. Blue plastic tents, children in shirts and no pants. Camp fires smoldering and a person here or there squatting, taking a shit maybe ten yards from the camp. India's a big country. I've only seen a tiny bit of it. But I imagine there's a lot of the same out there. I wonder about the changes industrialization has brought to India, and for that matter to China, over the past fifty or sixty years. Certainly there's always been class divisions, the haves and the hand nots. But has the progress for one group pushed the other farther down? I don't know. It'd be easy to think so, to blame one segment's poverty on the progress of another, but I have no way of knowing. I have a suspicion a lot of what I'm feeling has to do with where I'm sitting. I feel rather embarrassed to be sitting in a nice clean air conditioned sleeper car for forty dollars for one night when on the other side of the glass, sitting on the iron rails, families have been camping in the elements for probably generations.

The waiter, or perhaps it's a porter on a train, came by with another little thing. The surgeon looked at me as I inspected it. An oblong plastic tray with a butter packet and a paper sheath with two breadsticks in it. Every packet has the message, "please don't litter" or "please put litter in its place" with the image of a man throwing something into a trash can. I asked what the breadsticks were for and he said, "soup sticks." In a few moments the porter would return with little paper cups of tomato soup. It's hard to imagine this is the same place where everything I've seen, every plastic chip bag and paper tobacco pouch, gets thrown out a window or dropped in the gutter. Every tiny plastic chai cup crumpled up and tossed from the step into the street. It's a different world.

Before the night was over I had a snack of lentil hush puppies like the ones I'd had on the street and a half sandwich (I'd thought that was the meal), the soup, a hot meal of lentil curry, chicken masala and rice, and a cup of vanilla ice cream. The oral surgeon and I talked for a few hours. Unlike most conversations I've had in India, this one required me to ask a lot of questions to keep it going. I asked him his opinion on the widespread use of the tobacco and lime pouches and the obvious gum and mouth cancer it was causing. I asked him about the election for president that occurred over the weekend in parliament. I learned a lot from him. It's just a guess, but I have a feeling that the higher the caste, the more western and reticent and isolated one behaves. I'm not trying to make a judgement on anyone. I apologize if it seems so.

In the morning we pulled into the Delhi station. Soon I'd be walking back through the heat and litter and rickshaw drivers to the hotel I stayed at when I first arrived in India. In two days and I'll be on a plane back home where strangers don't smile at foreigners, and where I won't be a foreigner. I wonder how long it will be before the novelty of being home wears off and I find myself missing India. I know from past travels that the first thing I miss will be the walking. Not walking for walking's sake, but having somewhere to go and being able to get there on foot.

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