Dec 15, 2012

Train travel is time travel

After 22 hours as the only non-Indian crammed into 3rd class trains, I get a proper cup of tea. 

The direct train from Khajuraho arrives and leaves just 3 days a week. On other days you have to take an 8 hour train to an adjacent city and then a 14 hour slow train to Varanasi. Of the former the hotel management says:

"You will not want to take this train. Many people and hardware, tourists do not get seats." 

When I saw the herds of young men getting ready to surge on for the train ride, I remembered how awkwardly I moved with a heavy pack on my back and a bag full of expensive camera equipment around my neck. I recalled how weak I was from days of a lingering cold that had settled in my chest. I began to question my adventurous first impulse. Maybe re-reading all of Hemingway's novels on this trip wasn't such a good idea. 

I crashed a wedding party.  I talked to them in broken Hindi while we all waited for the train. I sat down behind them. I got embarrassed when they started to talk about me. However, their men fought their way onto the train to secure two sections of berths and they cleared a spot in the overhead luggage rack for me.  Others flowed out of the aisles. onto boarding and departing steps, with a few just hanging out the open doors.  Below me a sparkling sea of color—women dressed in their most extravagant dress, rings on every toe and finger, children asleep in their laps.

The great thing about the 3rd class trains of India is that they and their passengers seem not to have changed since the time of the British Raj. Train travel becomes time travel. Beggars, sadhus, samosa and chai sellers from local villages—all of India passes down the aisle (after the trains empty out a bit and movement down the aisle becomes possible.) Except that when Lily and I took the trains on my first trip to India every cup of chai came in a plastic cup as thin as a surgical glove. Full of chai it seemed to melt into your hand. It ruined my whole time travel trip. But here at the end of my 22 hour journey, the proper earthen cup of the British Raj. This cup full of tea costs you 9¢ and after you've finished with it you just toss it out the window so it can break up and return to the earth.

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