Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The End of the Affair

I'm back in Varanasi, dazed because I haven't really slept since I left Darjeeling, I think it was Tuesday? After 30 hours of nerve-wracking travel, I'm declaring my romance with train travel finished.

Ahh, Tuesday started so well, despite my reluctance to "ship" (Indian English) from the queen of hill stations, and end my affair with its fresh, cold mountain air. The three hour drive down to Siliguri was gorgeous, especially since I wasn't green faced and gagging the entire time--I opted to sit in the front seat, facing forwards instead of sideways, key when you're changing altitude so quickly. Plus I got to check out the dashboard decor--a neon-flashing Ganesh statue, a faded photo of a Shiva alter, a snapshot of Bollywood goddess Aishwarya Rai--and jam out to Hindi techno with the No-Fear driver and his pals. The cliff-hugging, one lane road spiraled down through velvety green tea plantations, such as organic Makaibari Estates, which produce some of the best brew in the world--though I hear Assam teas are creeping on that title.

I wish I could have taken the toy train down instead, but it takes its sweet time on the silly little tracks, six hours or so for the same jouney. I had a train to catch in New Jalpaiguri, just next to Siliguri. It was the Capital Express, and it actually lived up to its name. We pulled into Patna Junction at 4:40 am, just 10 minutes late (super early by Indian Standard Time). I wish I could say the trip was short and sweet. It was not short--we started out at 2:50 in the afternoon, so it was about 14 hours--and I was freaking out.

You could say Patna, the capital of Bihar, is India's Compton, except that the notorious lawlessness extends well beyond city borders. Actually the entire state, which lies between Uttar Pradash and West Bengal, is a fixture in newspaper headlines for its horrific murders, comically common kidnappings, and political corruption (in a country where corruption is the status quo, it makes news). There were 34 deaths nationwide on Holi; 27 were in Bihar, compared to 2 in Uttar Pradash. The cover story on today's Times of India? "PATNA: Three extortionists lynched by mob."
Having said this, there were some lovely people on my train. Mr. Roy, a friendly government employee in NJP, spoke fluent English. He bought me milk coffee and asked all his burning questions, like, "tell me, what is your opinion of the Indian citizen?" There was a sweet 14 year old girl in a yellow tie dye salwar suit sitting nearby who also spoke English. Her dad bought me spicy Samosas from the roadside. I refused four dinner offers (curry and dal sitting on a hot train for 12 hours, yum). It was an all-Indian train, after all (usually there's a sprinkling of westerner backpackers, but not on the Patna Capital Express). It's like, hey, I'm a celebrity--get me out of here!

I kept thinking, what's the worst that can happen? The padlock on my bags is cut (Mr. Roy said mine was way too small) and somebody takes all my dirty, ripped clothing (I sleep with my camera and wallet right under my head, up on my bunk, the top one of three).

Then I nearly got left at on a station platform in the middle of Bihar. Everyone said we were stopping for half an hour, and I needed to walk--I was getting claustraphobic and had been sitting for twelve hours--so I kind of speed walked down the platform past the chai, chips and fel (fruit)-wallahs, and the stares. Standing mesmorized by the dahi (yogurt) wallah, who was scooping smooth white curd into tiny red clay pots, I heard (even more) shouting. The train was moving. I ran over in my slippery plastic flip flops (which I was advised to keep up with me in the night, left they'd be stolen), pushed past a mob of men hanging from the door and jumped on just in time (cue laughter from the platform groundlings). My heart pounding, I wandered through the cabins, elbowing my way past families of villagers sprawled between cars with baskets of vegetables, crippled beggers, and more gawking men, reassuring myself that it must be the right train. Five packed cars down I found Mr. Roy and company, who scolded me for worrying them. I was sat down and promptly fed milk biscuits.

I slept for a few hours, waking up at 3:30 when the conductor slammed on the brakes and pulled hard on the whistle. When we didn't die, I thought of going back to sleep, but the door to the outside kept slamming--the one I'd been directed never to open, located just next to our compartment. Olive-suited men with shotguns strapped onto their backs were getting on and off. I think they were army men, but remembering my train trip to Varanasi, on which an American girl and her boyfriend were nearly ordered off if they didn't fork over Rs. 10,000 for an imaginary crime, I was not reassured. Then somebody said "Patna." We were on schedule. My head started pounding.

It was pitch black when we pulled into Patna Junction, at 4:40am, but there was a mini city of sleeping villagers covering on the floor, possessions rolled up in cloth, lying on top of newspaper. I found a "May I Help You" desk, shockingly staffed, and discovered that in addition to the 10am train to Varanasi, there was one arriving in 10 minutes. Hallaluyah, and holy shit.

It being 5 in the morning they were "cleaning" the platform--aka, dumping water everywhere. So I slipped and I slid with my ungainly pack, pushing my way to the front of 4 or 5 queues (everyone does this, but I don't always manage to be so aggressive) and got a ticket within minutes. I found Platform 4, where there was a train was pulling in, which many people did say went to Varanasi. I got on.

Of my 12 seat mates, sitting tight on two small benches, there was a warm Patna family with two hyper little girls. We traded Hinglish and giggled over chais and biscuits they force fed me, and soon my heart stopped pounding. I forgot that I was drenched in sweat and caked in dirt, that my formerly white trousers (I know, I know) under my salwar suit that I travel in is now decked out with dried urine at the cuffs, a mysterious rip, and a slimy line of drool (from the guy sleeping over me on the top bunk). My nails as always had become black--though still pinkish at the edges from Holi--and my teeth were aching from eating only chai and biscuits, aside from the samosa, for the past 30 hours.

I watched the sun rise over flat fields of wheat.

India's like this: Individually, people are almost invariably welcoming, generous, curious, and helpful. If not, most are harmless, even the ones staring (hey, they're so skinny I could probably beat them up). Yet together in the magnitude of chaos the faces and encroching body parts become threatening.

So I've decided not to do the 30 hour overnight train to Mumbai. I'm forking over $200 and taking a flight from Varanasi, this Friday. Then it's off to the non-Indian paradise called Goa.


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