Friday, May 2, 2008

India, second class

Dinner and a Train Ride

Rick and I always travel on our own. He finds guest houses and interesting restaurants and we walk mile after mile taking photos. But his research hinted that India was visited with a guide so we booked a tour.

Our trip was difficult, interesting, unforgettable, exhausting, amazing and sometimes wonderful. The problems were often due to our terrible guide and his terrible company (GAP tours) but sometimes they were due to poverty and intense numbers of people.

One night we left our hotel, piled into taxis for the train station stopping for dinner along the way. For safety, we took the luggage off the roof and stuffed it into the taxis while we ate at Treat Restaurant.

The restaurant occupied one side of a large building while the other side had some kind of children’s restaurant/play area where the music was loud enough to cause brain damage. Through the wall the music rattled the tables. Shortly after we ordered dinner the music stopped and the play area closed.

As my nerves began to settle with the quiet, I glanced to my left, toward the kitchen and a rat scamper across the floor to scoot under a cabinet.

I was sitting across from a pale, sad Jen, green shawl pulled tight around her shoulders and head down in the fatigue of constant stress. Earlier that day, while recharging her Blackberry, and she told me she thought herself adventurous before this trip but had reassessed. All future travel would be first class.

Had she seen the rat? Her eyes were closed so probably not. The rat might have sent her into a comatose state or perhaps it would have propelled her, screaming, onto the table. My relief turned to moral dilemma. Should I tell her or be silent? I chose silence because as I thought about it I began to realize that I too was in this restaurant with a rat. Should I eat this food, my last meal before a long train ride? If not, what reason will I tell everyone for my sudden change of heart? Maybe I should jump on the table and scream.

Certainly we had seen rats in Asia. In some Hindu temples people share food with rats – a form of prayer, a source of blessing. I do not wish to be so blessed.

If this had happened on my first night in India, I’d have probably starved but it was the middle of our trip and I smiled wanly at Jen and ate.

After dinner we continued to the train station. There’s an advantage to being in a train station at night. With the heat of the day gone, the smell subsides. With the darkness, one can’t see the, well… the rats.

We waited a long while for our late train but finally boarded a second class sleeper car. It would be home base for 12 hours, clanking from Orchha to Varanasi. The night on the sleeper train was a much-dreaded component of this tour. While I would not rush to board that train again, it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. It was November, winter, so instead of reaching 48 degrees Celsius in the afternoon the temperature merely ambled toward 30 (about 90 F) and that passes for “cold” in India. So, since it was winter, the fans were off. From my slot on a top bunk, I looked longingly at the shiny aluminum blades wishing they would move the hot air surrounding me but seeing the Indians mummy-like in woolen blankets, heads buried to conserve heat, it was senseless to ask.

Let me describe the train. The cars were in sections and each section accommodated 8 people. There were 2 sets of 3 bunks and one set of 2. The bunks, or berths, were green shelves cushioned with a bit of padding. Each person was given 2 sheets, a blanket and a pillow for personal nest building for the night. I started by cleaning my berth with several sani-wipes.

During the night, the train chugged for about 10 minutes, then stopped for 5. While it moved the snoring was masked by the many train noises and the sound of one’s brain sloshing in one’s head from the jarring movement. (How can train tracks be so bumpy?) When the train stopped the snoring seemed to pass through a clarifying filter sharpening the edge of each sound to increase the fingernails-on-chalkboard sensation.

This was my train song - to the tune of “My Favorite Things” – sort of
Clanking of train wheels and blaring of loud horns
Sellers of chai tea and people of loud snore
Bare toes that wiggle ‘neath white crispy sheets
These are a few of the things on my train.
When the flies bite
When the sanitizer stings
When I’m feeling bad
I simply ignore all these things on the train
And make sure my Rick is near

During our afternoon in Varanasi, we were warned not to walk on our own but that’s just what we did. We were approached by 50 drivers by the time we turned a corner. Once out of sight of the hotel, people ignored us.

Imagine this. We found a Hindi wedding march. It was Sergeant Pepper’s Band meets Bollywood - very cool. The bride was a lovely young girl who walked barefoot on the street surrounded by family and led by a marching band in full uniform.

We found spice alley with huge baskets of every spice we know and more and metal work factories where people rebuilt tuktuks. In the streets of Varanasi we crowded with humanity talking, beeping, driving, walking and riding bikes on every street while flies filled the spaces between people and sound. (I exaggerate only marginally.) Streets held cows, trash, goo, spit and urine. In every sheltered corner, we saw men peeing. Where there was no sheltered corner, we saw men peeing. Constantly, men pee. Of course, if one has no toilet what is to be done?

I’m sure parts of India are quiet, calm, aromatic and elegant. Perhaps even parts of Varanasi are serene but everything we saw was intense with color, noise, odor and clutter.

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