Monday, May 12, 2008

Greetings from: the North East Express

I took an auto-rickshaw to Mughal Sarai train station, a far outpost of travel in Varanasi. To reach it, we had to cross a bridge. Not the nice modern Raj Bridge -- going that far north would have taken us too far out of the way, I think -- but a wooden bridge, lifted above the water on pontoons. Sadly, this is a major transit route. They laid overlapping metal plates across the bridge in order to keep wear and tear off the wood, but come on! Not to mention, before and after the bridge were more brick roads and roads of compressed dust. The trip most likely misaligned my spine.

At Mughal Sarai, I encountered my first honest-to-goodness crazy person. A woman, maybe late-30s, wearing a green #23 David Beckham jersey. My train was late (not an uncommon occurrence, as I’m discovering), and I sat on my suitcase on the platform. She came up to me and started babbling in Hindi. I, flabbergasted, nodded mutely, smiled, and shook my hands in the international gesture of don’t know, please go away now. Yet she persisted, her voice rising to catch my attention. She spoke rapid-fire; even if I had understood Hindi, I probably wouldn’t have had an idea of what she was saying. I didn’t feel singled out, however; she went from person to person, perhaps saying the same thing, perhaps jumping from one subject to the next. A young B.H.U. student, who looked like Kal Penn with a rounder face (for Americans, I’m afraid there aren’t many more points of reference for South Asians similarities), explained: mental disorder. She seemed happy enough.

This 2AC car was completely different from the Shiv Ganga. Namely, it was smaller: there were berths on both sides of the train, and no doors to seal out the outside world. Just a dual curtain that could be fastened together with some failing Velcro. Instead of upholstery, plain vinyl and foam mattresses, compressed now to a comfort thickness of toast. I shared my berth with Pete, a sweet but na├»ve architect from Hong Kong, who, in his first day in Delhi, fell for two of the scams they warn against in the Lonely Planet. I shouldn’t talk, however, as I’ve most likely fallen for a few myself. Anwar, a native now working in a hotel in Dubai, had the lower berth across from us. He took it upon himself to watch over us foreigners, calling in porters as needed, ordering food, and generally being of good cheer. Pete mentioned how all the Indians he had met were so friendly. That’s true to an extent, I think; it’s a matter of sorting out who is genuinely being friendly and who wants to squeeze every last rupee out of you. That’s why I hesitate when someone asks, “Is this your first time in India?” Does he really want to know or does he just want to gauge how much to gouge me? I don’t want to be suspicious and distrustful of people in India. But there’s nothing wrong with being on your guard.

On the lower bunk, you feel much more of the vibrations of the train, the way it shakes and rumbles over the tracks. Some of that is dampened on the upper bunk so that you get the sway, but not the roar. The window to the outside is utterly dark -- you are traveling nowhere towards an even more unfamiliar nowhere.

1 comment:

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