Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Around the World: Leaving Aurangabad

February 8, 1992

Today is brought to you by a very, very long journey by train.  My sanity saving destination of Manmad (not Mad Man) is where I must change trains to begin the 19 hour trip to Varanasi.  I hope that's a good sign.

I figured it would take some time to figure out the journey so I was sure to arrive at the train station early.  The three hour trip to Manmad was pleasant enough, the short journey lengthened by routing delays and cows meandering along the tracks.  The train is late pulling into Manmad, which I'm learning is par for the course.  The train schedule I have is more useful as an indicator of when-ish one could quite possibly expect a train to arrive.

The train bound for Varanasi is surrounded by a melee of passengers trying to board, people selling food and pleading beggars.  My rail pass is my ticket, so I approach a uniformed man in one of the coach doorways and show him my pass.

"The train is full.  You cannot board."

Attempts to argue my point are useless.  There is no way I am getting into 2nd class reserved seating with a ticket that grants me unlimited unreserved passage.

A voice from the crowd draws my attention to a girl with a backpack.  "Are you going to Varanasi?  This guy can get us on the train."

I dart through the chaos to catch up with the girl and her Indian guide in the crowd.  She quickly explains that she has the same problem I do.  Further down the platform is a coach with a door that no one is blocking entry to.  I take hold of her arm and we dart into the car, leaving the guide to continue down the platform.  Her name is Jane.

Her guide finds us and hops on the train, now demanding baksheesh from us both.  "For what!" I protest, "I didn't see you find this open door.  I think you owe me baksheesh.  Pay up, pal!"  His head bobbles from side to side, as if processing my demands.  He declines and leaves.

When the conductor said the train was full, he wasn't kidding.  This train is PACKED!  There are two rows of bench style seating separated by the aisle.  Each cubicle of seating has two benches that face each other, and a luggage rack over each bench.  This would typically seat 6 people, possibly 8 very undernourished adults.  There are over 20 people stuffed into each cubicle who are using every available space, the seats, the floor and the luggage rack.  Jane and I find an empty spot on the floor, creating seats out of our backpacks.

Photo courtesy of Right Shot in the Right Time.

Squished in like an over packed can of sardines, we are on our way.  Jane and I are exchanging tales of arriving in India and what our first few days were like when I notice a stray hand trying to get into her backpack.  I'm very wedged where I am, unable to do much more than bring it to her attention.  Jane, on the other hand, finds a free foot and sends the guy tumbling over three nearby men.  I think they all witnessed the commotion because when the train was slowing down between stops, the same men shoved the would be thief off the train.

One of them uses their heroic deed as an invitation to strike up conversation.  The exchange involves taking turns speaking, so I guess that qualifies as conversation.  I just wish the questions would change.  It always starts with, "Where are you from?"  and goes downhill on a crazy carpet from there. "Give me a cigarette from your country.", "Are you married?", "Give me a coin from your country.", "Where is your husband?"

When Jane and I grow tired of the rhetoric, the friendly stranger and his companions are content to stare... and stare.

And stare.

When the train stops at a station, the exchange of people getting off appears to be exactly equal to the amount of people getting on.  The process doesn't change the number of occupants, but does permit brief moments to stretch and change position before becoming wedged into place until the next stop.  Thirteen hours into the journey, a new face sits next to Jane and I.

"Where are you from?"  Here we go again.

This man, however, is an Indian anomaly.  Instead of asking the same questions, he wants to answer some.  I have seen quite a few older men dressed in perfectly white clothing.  I ask him if this is of any significance.  The man explains that some men, once they reach mid-life, decide that they want to escape the troubles of the world.  Their dress indicates to others that they have chosen to live a life of peace.  Once a year, these men in white participate in a festival where their pristine white robes are sprayed with splashes of bright pink.

The mysterious men in white.  I do not know the name of the
festival, but it took place well over a month in advance of Holi.

After listening to this man talk about India for hours, I didn't mind when the typical questions were revisited.   When I told him I wasn't married, he explained why Indian men would find that strange, as marriage is an integral part of Indian society.  Lovely were the hours spent speaking with this man, pleasantly distracted from the staring.  The conversation winds down as it is now a few hours into the next day and we could all use some sleep.

The man pulls a long chain out of his suitcase and secures his bag to some nearby grip handles.  Maybe sleeping is not such a good idea after all.  Jane motions for a game of rock/paper/scissors, which amuses us and everybody else on the train for a while until Jane's head starts doing the uncontrollable slumber bob.  I suggest we sleep in shifts, and let her take the first nap.

• ¤ •

"If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere." 
~Frank A. Clark

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