Sunday, June 17, 2007

Going Forward (Italy), Looking Back (India)

Sunday June 17 2007

The Equestrian Vagabond is on the road again... packed my bags and my NEW RAVEN II, and will be heading to Europe Monday to cover endurance events there for a few months, the first being the 120 km Bab Al Shams Endurance Cup 2007 in Assisi Italy, then Florac in France, then, places as yet unknown.

I've changed my packing strategy somewhat: ONE book, not FOUR books. I didn't even finish reading a single one of those I carried on my last 3-month trip, and I dumped them along the way. This time I'm carrying one book - a big thick heavy one: Shantaram. It was a gamble on buying a $40 book (it better be good!), and purposing to read a 960+ page book (it better be good!), and carrying around this book that weighs about the same as four books. It's a biographical novel about an Australian man who escaped from prison and fled to Bombay India to start a new life of sorts, and right away his recounting of catching a train in Bombay – something I did - had me laughing aloud, and it made me go back to my travel journals of India to re-read about some of my train trips in India in 1991.

Here's a look back at my Bombay to Cochin train trip:

MON Dec 23 ...At Bombay we could catch the 3:30 PM train, express superfast to Cochin, said the ticket man, (picture him saying this with the typical and unique Indian 'head bob') arriving there at 7 AM tomorrow, Christmas Eve. We were a bit elated, since we thought we might be stuck on a train Christmas Day. The only catch: we'd be riding in the dreaded 2nd class unreserved out of Bombay, overnighting it. Oh, God. We found that an hour before departure we could try asking a trainmaster for any remaining reserved seats, so we were filled with hope against hope that we could travel in second class reserved, not second class unreserved. Oh, please, Travel Gods, get us reserved seats!

We tried asking at 2:30, and found an absolutely full train. A Beyond Full Train, as they always are here. James said he thinks the train system here is fairly well organized, just too crowded. I think it’s way unorganized and way too crowded. If there are seats for 100 people on a car, they sell at least 150 tickets, or 1500 tickets – I don't think anybody really keeps count. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “full” train – except maybe in reserved first class travelling, which we budget backpackers don't do out of principles (now, explain these to me again?). Oh, God, here we go, a 15 hour, unreserved, 2nd class overnight Indian train. What an experience THIS is gonna be.

In the big train stations, at least for the long train trips in the packed 2nd class unreserved cars, there are people you can pay, let's not say bribe, to secure you a seat. Well worth it because you are unlikely to get anywhere to sit otherwise. One of these guys offered to get us seats, for 70 rupees. 70 rupees! (This was about $11.) I said No way! Next guy offered for 20 rupees each (about $3 each), which we agreed to, and he disappeared into the seething mass of people cramming into the cars, and he popped back and waved at us. Sure enough, the man got us seats: a whole top ‘bunk,’ for James and I and our backpacks – i.e. a luggage rack - and despite the 3,752 people fighting for space on this train car, nobody even tried to make us move out of these luxury 'seats', not that we were going to budge for anything.

Things could be worse up on this luggage rack, and they really are, when I look around me. People are sitting on the floors, on peoples' laps, 5 people to a bench made for 3, 2 people to a seat, it’s hot, noisy, my head hurts, and we’re going to be here 15 hours. I laughed and told James, “If I had known I’d be spending Christmas like this, I’d’ve stayed at home!” My goal to get me through this, is Cochin: Christmas Eve in Cochin near the coast, in 15 hours. If I don't think about it, I can stand 15 hours in here.

Chaos on board the typical Indian 2nd class UNRESERVED train: A man boarded with apples and nearly started a riot on the car. The whole car started screaming, the apple man screamed and gestured and shoved apples and grabbed them back, and people grabbed at the apples and screamed. I couldn't figure out what everyone was so excited about, I mean, either you want apples or you don’t. I thought he was going to start slashing with his knife - he was about to start foaming at the mouth. There was a continuous parade of sellers before the train pulled out and when we stopped briefly at stations; sellers with tea, food, or trinkets, jumping on and off the train and trying to shove through the sea of humanity crowding the benches and floors.

And getting on and off trains in India (at least in this class of travel), is not an experience for the faint-hearted. There's no sense or order to it. People in the station want on the train, NOW, by God, and people on the train want off, NOW, by God, and nobody realizes that letting people OFF the train first would make the most sense; and the jockeying for position begins before the doors ever open. The moment they do, the reverse Tug of War explodes, people shoving in and people shoving out, elbows flying, people yelling and pushing and crushing each other, sometimes rather viciously, crawling over each other. If you don't join in the Tug of War, you lose because you don't make it on or off the train before it pulls out of the station! It was amusing to watch from up on our luggage rack, but I've been in the crush before and it's anything but amusing.

One man sitting below us got a burr under his butt and started screaming and – AH! FIGHT! - punching one of the 4 guys right across from us on the luggage rack (who was egging him on); and the Screaming Man gestured up at us a few times. They were like two little kids on the playground, screaming and swinging fists and the THUD of hits on flesh, while people next to them ducked and shrunk in their seats because there was nowhere to move out of the way. I hoped punches wouldn't fly our way, because there was nowhere for us to go either. I think Screaming Man was a bit miffed that only James and I and our 2 big backpacks and 2 little backpacks occupied our luxury luggage rack seat, (though there was no room for anything or anybody else!) though what it had to do with the one of four guys on the luggage rack opposite us, I didn't know. I wasn't scared, I was fierce: No way was I budging from this 'spacious' luggage rack stuffed with James and me and our bags.

And finally after rolling along slowly for several hours, about 9:30 PM people quit eying our ‘roomy’ rack and more or less left us alone. Screaming Man never made another peep. From our perch up high, we couldn't see anything out the train windows – only the ground flying by right beside the train. It was quite claustrophobic, with all these people crammed in the train car and no way to see out. If I thought about it, I could easily recall random paragraphs in newspapers, “120 people killed on a train in India when it derailed” or “178 people burned on an Indian train...” And well, one could see that happening, because with all these people crammed in a car, nobody would be able to get out, and, I just had to stop thinking of that.

Two nice men across from us, 1 above and 1 below, shared their dinner with us, jam and bread and a boiled egg and roti. It had been hot during the day, but at least our compartment kicked the fans on. It never got cold overnight, and in fact when we stopped at the multitude of stations along the way at night, it got hot in here. As it got late, the car got quiet as people tried to doze in their impossibly uncomfortable positions. James and I tried and tried to get comfortable and tried to doze. I came to the conclusion that God didn’t make the human body to sleep sitting up on hard straight-backed Indian train luggage rack 'seats'. Finally James found some combination of our bags to lay on, and we got a little bit of sleep.

TUES Dec 24 I came to around 6 AM having to whiz mightily, but thought I’d hold it till we got off the train in Cochin at 7 AM. We started talking with the nice Man below us who spoke a bit of English, and asked if we were getting close to Cochin, and he kept saying, “Karnataka.” Wait - Karnataka? He seemed to be telling us we were still in the state of Karnataka, which was the state ABOVE Kerala, where our destination of Cochin was… and the realization slowly dawned on us that we were only halfway to Cochin – that we’d get there TOMORROW morning at 7 AM. James and I looked at each other with the stupidest, most shocked and numbed expressions – 24 MORE HOURS on here…!!

What could we do but laugh! How utterly typical of my Indian experiences! God – Christmas Eve in this hot crowded Indian Zoo rolling along a countryside I can’t see! We literally sat, unable to speak for a while – we could only look at each other dumbly and laugh! And stare, and laugh! “Express Superfast train to Cochin” - riiiiight! We were on the LOCAL train to Cochin! No WONDER the train never picked up any speed, ever, it just lumbered along, and it stopped at every bloomin' village on the way. That train ticket seller must still be having a great laugh at our expense. Oh God. What could you do but laugh!

I had been waiting to wee till we got off in Cochin, but seeing as Cochin was still 24 hours away, I decided not to try for a world record. I put my shoes on (you take them off if you’re up top – a curious courtesy and type of respect everyone strictly follows, despite the filth and fights and crowded insanity), and fought my way to the bathroom at the end of the car, stepping on people, crawling over bags, searching for places to place my feet, as every inch of floor space was sat upon or stood upon. I had to wait at the bathroom door, and when my turn came and finally I shoved my way into the loo, just as I squatted, we pulled into a station. There was no window cover, so people could see me squatting. Good grief! I couldn’t just stay there,, with people looking in, so I held it, and fought my way through the people coming on, and climbed back to our perch. When we started rolling again I grabbed my toothbrush and water bottle and shoved my way back to the loo, through and over people, waited in line again, then got in there and took my time! I crawled back to our perch and sat, still in good humor (still stunned?) despite another 24 hrs of this misery ahead. What else could you do?

The Man below us seemed to have taken on the roll of temporarily adopting us foreigners. He gave me an egg and jam and bread for breakfast, and the train puttered slowly onward… It started getting humid, sticky, despite the fans. The Man below told James in his broken English to ask for a sleeper at a train station. I dozed a while, then sat up after I woke up drenched in sweat, my heart pounding, just as if I’d been laying and baking under a hot sun. We stopped for ‘lunch’ around 1 PM at a station, and from my perch, leaning down and looking out the window at what the seller had, I pointed out what I wanted, and the Man told me the Indian prices, and paid the money I handed him and collected the change. A woman came through the train car with bananas, but she didn’t create any uproar like the Apple Man did. She handed us a bunch of 8 stubby bananas. The Man reached for them first and scrutinized them. “5 rupees,” he said, and the Banana Woman charged us 5 rupees – the fair Indian price. We had tea several times – someone at the station has tea ready to sell in these little clay cups; you pay 1 or 2 rupees for your little clay cup of tea – hands all up and down the train reaching out for cups of tea, cups of tea being passed to people in the train, and money being passed back to the guys nearest the windows - and you just toss the cup out the window when you're done, either in the station or as you're rolling along – it biodegrades back into the earth it came from.

James fought his way off the train at the next stop and checked at the ticket window for sleepers, but he said it was too late. “Maybe at the next station.” I wasn't even entertaining the thought of a hope for a sleeper, as I didn't want to be crushingly disappointed. When I thought how uncomfortable James and I were crammed onto our sweltering luggage rack, I only had to look at everybody else, people crowded on the floor, some people STANDING the whole way, the Man below us sitting crammed with 4 other men onto the straight-backed bench with no way to change his position or posture for 24+ hours, nobody complaining ... I could survive up here another 18 hours if I absolutely HAD to.

I dozed off after I ate again; in the baking box of madness my fortitude began to wane, and Despair was starting to eat away at me, and I had trouble fighting off images of Christmas Eve at home…what the hell was I doing in India, anyway?? I hated this place. I woke up sweating at a stop, and James was gone. We pulled out of the station, and he didn’t return. He was either on another car or he got left in the station, and to keep total Despair from engulfing me I refused to believe he might’ve missed the train. I would’ve just sat and cried. What would I even do if he had missed the train… get off at the next stop with all our stuff, and wait for him and the next train? Go on another 18 hrs to Cochin in this horrid car by myself, and get off there and wait for him? I couldn’t think about it. He’d be back in this car at the next stop, or the next.

Next stop I waited patiently, refusing to think about anything, and partly in a daze, because it was too hot to do anything else, and James popped his head around the corner, “Let’s go. I got us two sleepers!” Oh HOORAY! I threw my shoes on, jumped down, threw my packs on, and said “Bye!”

We were swallowed in a loud chorus of “BYE!” ‘s, more from happiness our luggage rack was being vacated then from any friendly warmth, except maybe for the Man, who gave us a friendly smile and a wave. James and I jumped off the train and dashed alongside it looking for car S-6, when the train started to pull away, moving towards us. We got to our car and grabbed hold and jumped and swung on, only to find people in our seats. But they said they were getting off at the next stop. I didn't mind standing a while because there was ROOM to stand! And I could stretch my Luggage Rack Butt and legs. James sat in a vacant seat, and I left my pack with him and went and stood in the path by the 2 open doors – people hanging off them and some guys climbing from car to car on the moving train. The wind felt so good, and I felt such a release from the Unreserved zoo car. I wondered if I really would’ve survived another night on there...

Next stop we got our seats, and sat by 2 open windows (!) as the train chugged on past the sunset. Just a coincidence (?) that our windows faced west and played out the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen. There was water to reflect and enhance the brilliant colors and small mountains or big hills to vary the shapes. I thought, wow, this is a good sign, this must be one of my Christmas presents. I didn’t write. I just sat and watched the sunset. A brilliant shade of red burned before fading to darkness. Everything was dark, as we had no lights in our car. I just sat, enjoying the drastic improvement in the travel conditions, enjoying the pleasant sound and motion of the train, enjoying the breeze blowing on me in the dark. Maybe Christmas in India isn’t so bad after all...

And back to 2007: Well, here's hoping that any train travel I do in Europe is a bit easier...

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