Training Day

In India on April 10, 2013 at 12:58 am

The train conductor is a young man in his late twenties, with a kind smile and calm demeanor.  He would be indistinguishable from a businessman in his dark blue suit if it weren’t for gold trim on his shoulders and breast pocket.  His large rectangular I.D. tag clipped to his chest looks like a military medal.  He sweeps through the passenger car with his thick passenger manifest, unfolding like an accordion, cross-referencing ticket information with his own.  In contrast to the conductor’s polite and professional manner is a porter close at his heels.  The porter has a slight frame, unable to fill his simple beige uniform.  His face is narrow and long.  Creases along his eyes and forehead show his age and a scowl.  After having a brief conversation with the conductor, he gives me a warm welcome and  moves on.   The porter however,  points to my pile of white bed sheets balled up on top of my 3rd level sleeper bed, appropriated to each passenger along with a wool blanket and small pillow.   It’s his job to collect and fold these linens for passengers and my cotton ball of sheets is an insult to him.  I watch as he grabs the sheets, lecturing me on how to fold them in Hindi.  Normally I would take minimal offense to his disdain and perhaps even apologize despite the fact I could care less.  At this time and place I find myself exhausted, scowling back at him wanting to lecture him not to treat me like a child.  I still have the sense to know such a fight to be a fruitless endeavor.  Our encounter ends in silent contempt.

Having boarded the train in the early afternoon, I’m eager to watch the landscape of southern India roll gently by the open window in front of me.  I have 14 hours ahead before I’ll be spit out on the streets of Alleppey on the southern tip of Kerala.  I have been in India just over two weeks and still struggle to make sense of my foreign surroundings.  India thus far hasn’t been friendly to me and is eroding my spirits.  I don’t sleep well and feel alone amongst the dense crowds of people.  I’m beginning to eat regularly but too often on the fly with short windows of opportunity resulting in consecutive days of snacking on roadsides and in stations.   I am excited about this, my first train ride in India.  I’m exhausted, thankful for an actual bed space.  Sleep a real possibility. My section of railcar consists of an efficiently designed system of 2, 3-tiered bunk beds set perpendicular to one window and a double bunk bed under and above the opposite window.  During the waking hours, the middle beds fold down forming a backrest for the lower bunks, allowing common bench area for passengers to sit.  Each railcar is filled with 10 of these 8 passenger bed sections, along with a narrow hallway throughout.  I’m in the cheapest class with a bed, no heat or air conditioning. I’m hoping it’s not a problem in India’s tropical winter.  I sit next to a window, facing south and the journey ahead.  Having finally sat down, the stress of making my travel connections over, my body and mind finally relax.

My relaxation is short lived, a group of seven young male Indian professionals with whom I will be sharing cabin space appear.  All close friends themselves they joke and chatter, eager to embark on their bachelor weekend at a resort on one of Kerala’s white sand beaches.  They are all very kind and polite but speak little English.  I can’t help but feel like I’m intruding on their party.  I sit quietly, happy to soak in the scenery of the rural farmland and small villages outside.  My mind is at a fragile point, a culmination of stress and continuing acclimation to the inherent chaos of India.  In over two weeks I have yet to have a conversation with a single tourist.  I decide I must change that soon.  I need a second opinion on traveling in India from a western perspective.

I go to the bathroom at the end of the railcar.  It’s a small dirty metallic room, the click and clack of metal on metal emanating through the open hole in the floor that is the toilet.  I’m embracing the local method of wiping, not with toilet paper but using my left hand, a small bucket of water and bar of soap.  It’s up close and personal.   Often times I’m not sure what I’m trying to prove.  The lines between being cheap and being local blurred into obscurity.  Having emerged from the bathroom, I wash my hands in the hallway sink, a mirror fixed above. It’s the first time seeing my reflection since arriving in India.  I am shocked at the narrow face now nearly black from intense sun staring back at me.  I look good, but the difference is alarming, knowing I’m withering away.  I try to extrapolate the changes at this rapid pace over my scheduled next six weeks and conclude I will completely evaporate. Two teenage girls sit on their luggage ready to jump off at the next station.  I try to make small talk asking them questions of their stomping grounds outside the window.  They retract giggling, whispering in each other’s ear.  I fear they assume I’m hitting on them.  Leaving them be, I turn around wincing to see passing trees through the small scratched and dirt stained window of the entrance door while I stand in between joining railcars.  I’m happy being able to stretch my legs and not feel crowded.  One girl stands up sensing my frustration, unlocking the door, passing wind throwing it open to the bright sunny world outside.  This is great.  Finally, a safety standard I’m happy doesn’t exist here in India.  I sit on the edge, dangling my feet out the door, smiling at the world in front of me.  At that moment some sense of pride comes over me.  I feel like I’m Indian.  I’m beginning to look more Indian, travel like an Indian, eat like an Indian and crap like an Indian.    Although my objective isn’t to become Indian, embracing a local way of life is an empowering and beautiful feeling.  I wind up spending hours sitting there watching the sun disappear behind the palm trees, water buffalo and open expanse of green vegetation, humans few and far between.  It would be my favorite seat in India had the bathroom wall not been a couple feet from my face, sounds outdoors and in melding into a strange composition of grunts and squeal of metal.

With the sun set, the passing night air stings with cold.  I return to my bed hoping to get some rest but knowing falling asleep a bad idea.  My watch has no alarm and my destination scheduled for 3:30am.  I become uncomfortable lying on my top bunk staring at the white metal ceiling a few feet from my face.  I’m unable to see out the window below, worrying I’ll miss my stop should I fall asleep.  Paranoia takes hold of me.  Throwing off my covers I hope to find a vacant lower bed next to a window, careful not to miss my station.  I find one and being midnight don’t worry if it’s reserved for passengers boarding. I can always return to my assigned bed.  Setting myself up on a lower bed next to a window, I sit with my backpack.  All I see are infrequent streaks of street light flash in the darkness.

After only 20 minutes the porter approaches me. He emerges like a scowling phantom out of the darkness. He initiates communication in Hindi, quietly at first.  All I can decipher is an irritated tone.  I’m tired and expect he’s still mad about the unfolded sheets from earlier.  I shrug my shoulders and ignore his rant, staring out the window.  I’m not in the mood.  Finally in English he yells out, “Ticket, what number your ticket!?  This bed NO for you!” He’s right of course, but with the number of empty beds three quarters of the way through the trip, why should anyone care?  I sense his animosity runs deeper than unfolded bed sheets.  Looking at him, enraged with a clear hate for me, I can’t help but feel some sympathy.  I’m sure he despises me as a wealth tourist or himself an older uneducated man unable to climb higher in the ranks.  His boss the conductor, young enough to be his son.  He needs to exert dominance and control.  Again, normally I am respectful in these situations looking at the bigger picture, knowing his misplaced anger happening to land on me.  I know I shouldn’t take it personally.  Instead, I decide to take it personally.  He poked the wrong guy at the wrong time.  I retreat to my third level bed and watch him.  He perches himself on the now empty bed, opening up his fast food  dinner of lentils and rotis.  For the first time he looks content.  It’s probably the only meal break he has on his shift where he can sit back unencumbered in the quiet of night.  I recognize this and reflect on it briefly.  Still, what I see through my sleep deprived fog is my enemy savoring his little victory over me.  This is not untrue, but it is petty.  When he finishes, I pass him as if to go to the bathroom.  He keeps his eyes fixed on me.  Childishly I disappear into the darkness and begin unfolding sheets stacked on an empty bed.  It’s now my calling card, he knows who it’s from.  I settle into a far away bed and wait for him.  He’s after me but has to inspect every bed closely in the dark, the only signs of identification, feet poking out from under the covers or baggage packed above or below.  He finds me and tells me to return to my bed, his frustration growing.  I do briefly and repeat my childish escapade throughout the night.  I want to know his breaking point before he inevitably decides to stab me in the neck and toss my body out of the moving train.  He gives up after two hours and three car lengths of the world’s most annoying game of hide and go seek.  I do relish in my stupid victory.

I step off the train at 3:30am at my destination of Alleppey.  I have no sense of its beauty or grotesqueness in the pitch black of night.  I have arrived prepared with a reservation at a place called, Funky Art Beach House.  I assume that’s hippie talk that will translate to crap.  It’s only a kilometer away from the train station.  More importantly, they have vacancy.  I feel as though I finally have the upper hand on the touts of India, armed with hard earned experience, a reservation and unequivocal win in hide and go seek.  I feel invincible.  Approaching the small pool of motor rickshaws outside the station, I strut up to the first driver I see announcing my arrival and nearby destination.  Being only a kilometer away, I know the price I expect and am willing to pay.  When he tells me it will be ten times that number, I confidently walk to the next driver hoping to start a bidding war over my business, thinking being the only one at the station a benefit and not hindrance.  The second driver quotes me the same astronomical price.  I quickly realize the bind I’m in.  I’m grasping at straws now as I threaten to walk the kilometer distance myself.  As I begin walking away, I wonder why none of them are chasing me down and the price not dropping like an asteroid to earth.  Of course I have no idea where to go.  This is India and street signs a rarity.  All the drivers know the futility of my demands.  Tail between my legs I return.  It’s almost 4am now and they call the shots.  India is where Karma was invented and perhaps more resolute at its point of origin.  It’s time to finish this leg of the journey as I pull out my wallet and white flag.

  1. Another well-written, descriptive blog entry. I look forward to when the days get easier for you, probably in Hampi? I’m glad I’m reading these after you’ve made it home safely! Mom

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