theodoressmith

I Will Try To Keep My Pants

In India on March 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Standing at the entrance of the Margao train station in Goa, India, I squint to see arrival times and platform numbers wedged in between the lines of Sanskrit on the white announcement board under a large round clock face.  I would step closer but  choose not to disturb the family of five asleep on the concrete floor, each with an orange cotton sheet engulfing them from feet to forehead, their plastic bags and burlap rice sack luggage under their heads as makeshift pillows.  The clock face above shows noon, the bodies in front of me reminding of my own fatigue in the days heat.

Walking past the entrance gate, the station platform opens to the tracks ahead and bustle of activity from the arrival of a recent passenger train.  Dusty navy blue rail cars, gouged and dented, sit motionless while passengers board or stretch their legs, cramped from over packed coach class seating.  Deep throated chants from food vendors announce their wares from Chai to roast chickpeas to dixie cups of tomato soup.  This is my first interaction with India railway.  I love trains and as deep as my love is, my frequency of use grievously under represented.  In front of me lies 24,0000 miles of track weaving and stitching together 1 million square miles of India open for me to explore.  When the train slowly rumbles forward, people still clamor to hop on board.  It’s absence leaves an eerie calm and emptiness on the platform.  The rather unexpected quiet, spurs an interest to explore the station, spread out the length of the trains themselves of small shop, offices and seating.

I immediately decide to load up on snacks for the long ride ahead from one of the many kiosk shops, packed ceiling to floor with various snacks and drinks.  Instead of narrowing my choices down to a logical few, I opt for kid in an Indian candy store tactic, grabbing everything of mystery and curiosity, the male shop-keep as enthused with my approach to shopping as I.  Without hesitation, he reaches behind him, dropping  down every bagged snack food option in his arsenal, hoping to keep the momentum.  I’m in a feeding frenzy, an insatiable tourist gravy train, a fist full of rupees ready to be dispensed.  I snap back into reality, realizing my snack lust spiraling out of control.  I have to backtrack trying to shut the floodgate of snacks piling up in front of me with an overwhelmed, “No more!”  He insists I take the fifteen bags in front of me, my compromise a selection of eight.

Walking away laughing, I find myself the proud owner of roasted black chickpeas, toasted dry over a flame, softened and nicely crunchy but leaving a residual dry flavorless paste in my mouth.  Ring Murukku, deep fried palm size spirals of wheat flour batter, fried so hard you question if your tooth enamel will give way before cracking through the exterior.  Ghpartha, an Indian mixed snack of fried noodles, peas, carrot, raisins, peanuts, salt and hot spice mixture that’s fiercely addictive.  Potato chips, hand sliced and deep fried in a Kadai pot, filled with peanut oil then lightly salted.  Banana chips, sweet crisp discs of greatness.  Cashews, grown nearby, harvested and deep fried.  Lay’s brand, Masala Pizza flavored chips and a Nestle brand, Guru Munch, the Indian version of a Kitkat.

Taking a seat on one of the black metal benches, hungrily sampling my snack packages, I wonder how I’m going to fit all this food in my pack.  Do I throw away all of my socks and underwear to make room?  After relishing in my cheap arsenal of snacks I see my gluttony reflected back at me in the face of a woman, baby motionless on her hip, hand outstretched to me for money.  With no offer of money, her hand gesture retracts, fingers pointed to her mouth in hope of food.  This I oblige, offering my bag of roasted chickpeas.  An acknowledgement of thanks is whispered through tired lips.  Immediately, I am approached by three more women, hands outstretched, babies in hand.  A pain of guilt rushes over me when I deny them, staring past them, their muffled voices ringing loud in my ears.  People in need, a bandaid solution in my hands.  I no longer offer my bandaids.  I will also no longer flaunt or display my excess.  I rise to my feet and walk away, ashamed, not wanting to see them.

I sit in a patch of sunlight, resting my pack against a pillar, leaning my back against it watching the activity of rail workers toiling in the gravel and heat of the sun, washing windows of parked rail cars with buckets of brown water and dirty red rags.  A short round foreman paces near me, one hand to his cell phone his other hand gesturing wildly, shouts to the men, barely audible to their ears at this distance.  They don’t spring to attention, my guess a continuous background drone not worthy of attention.

From under torn chain link fence opposite the tracks, three small children emerge, no older than eight, wild haired and ragged.  Crossing the tracks they climb the four-foot wall effortlessly to the platform, wrestling and laughing with one another, unabashed in their approach to strangers and their want of a hand out.  One boy wears only a faded black t-shirt, shoeless and naked from his waist down.  The two other boys wear similar dirt stained, grey collared shirts and torn brown pants held up with lengths of thin rope.  They approach me without the quiet and tired reserve of the women, youthful arrogance in their loud demands.  The smallest boy, pant-less  and face smeared with dirt, sits in front of me gesturing for money, the other boys standing next to him kicking at each other playfully.  I stare hard into the dark eyes of the boy, a once sly smile now expressionless, perhaps mimicking my own solemn gaze.

My wonder and intensity goes beyond mere curiosity.  I’m searching his eyes for clues, his destitution, poverty and suffering.  Can I see hope and fulfillment?  I need to see if a child can exist forced to live an adult existence.  I was born into his situation, as an orphan in a developing country, my story one of luck and statistical improbability.  I was adopted.  Now I find myself a tourist.  I am reminded of another possible outcome had I not been adopted, staring back at me.  India hits me hard confronting a past, even only imagined.  Once I was Indonesian, a boy growing up in Canada with unanswered questions of a childhood that might have been.  Glossy photos in National Geographic magazines often painted a grim picture of possibilities.  I remember sleepless nights growing up in Canada still frightened of a life I knew I wouldn’t have to experience.  I remember feeling my fortune turn to guilt, both sensations a constant for me traveling India.  However difficult, I need to see India from a street level.  I want to find the foods these kids eat daily, should they even eat daily.  I’m okay getting dirty.  I will try to keep my pants.

I do have an urge to befriend these kids, without doling out food or money.  Instead I’m pleased to see them run off with their mischievous grins, two of them playing king of the castle, climbing bags of cement stacked 10 feet high, the other boy distracted by bottle caps on the ground, gathered up and tossed like tiny Frisbees.  It’s good to see this train station a playground and place of work.  Having stared into this child’s eyes, I don’t find despair or emptiness.  I don’t know if I see hope.  Today he is alive, playing with his friends.  Tomorrow is another day.  That’s the story of being a child.  I am reassured to see a boy inside an eight year old man.

  1. This is such a terrific blog entry Theo . . . can’t wait for the next one. xxoo

  2. ..vivid description of what makes India uncomfortable and precious at the same time, lots of empathy and thoughtful questions raised by Theo!

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