Thursday, March 20, 2014

Indian Cuddle Puddle

With the final leg of India Journey #1 approaching, I want to catch this new Pixie Dust blog up with all my old posts. We just bought our train tickets for Kolkata and have finally figured out the Indian Railway system. It only took us six months. Looking back at the struggles we first encountered in traveling in India, I chuckled at our naivety. Oh, how we grow! Since this entry, our train travels (with the exception of the Mumbai metro) have been fun and pleasant, not like this account of a hot mess of a sick traveler I once was!

”When you travel you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language people speak…. You begin to be more accessible to others, because they may be able to help you in difficult situations.” – Paulo Coelho
After two weeks in Rishikesh, we decided to make moves to our next location and head south, as the nights were getting colder and colder, with the Himalayan winter rolling in. We had one last bonfire on the banks of the Ganges river with our friends, said goodbye to Helen (our Taiwanese mother), traded Facbook information, and headed out for Raiwala. Buying a train ticket online by yourself is very tricky; you have to have an Indian SIM card and book weeks in advance, which is why we decided to go through a travel agent who can get tickets same-day if needed. The caveat: the tickets are usually second class if booked same day and we had a 25 hour ride ahead of us. Anxious to get out of Rishikesh, we decided to take the tickets anyway. The agent spoke little English but managed to tell us the departing station was Raiwala and the train left at 6:38am. We hired a rickshaw to take us to Raiwala the night before and got a hotel for the night. The hotel was a resort with fresh linen, plump down feather pillows, hot water, a television and room service! Oh, the luxury! I took a hot shower, braided my hair and said yes when our room attendant asked if I wanted a beer. A beer?! Hell ya! I hadn’t had any alcohol in weeks! I was going to splurge with a 24 oz. Indian Kingfisher lager for dinner while we watched The Avengers in English! It was such a perfect, refreshing night after staying in a sandy, windy town for two weeks. My heart was so full of gratitude from all the love we encountered in Rishikesh, I felt like I was going to burst. I felt stronger and more comfortable in India, determined to not let India break me down or send me home.
Halfway through the night, I woke up with heartburn and a sinking feeling it was going to turn into barfing up my wonderful liquid dinner. Every hour for the rest of the night, I violently threw up stomach acid and the remnants of beer still in my system. Damn, poisoned by gluttony. The one time I wanted to indulge, my body revolted against me! By the time our alarm went off at 5am, I had had maybe an hour of sleep and thrown up enough to keep the boys up half the night as well. We packed up and set out for the train station, hoping the sickness wouldn’t travel down to my lower half of my body.
We got to the train station and looked at our tickets: they said departing at 6am and leaving from Haridwar, not what the travel agent had told us. We hadn’t even thought to double check the tickets when we got them, we just took the man’s word that the details matched the ticket. A man at the station said there was another train leaving at 7:30 from Haridwar and our tickets were valid for two hours after a missed train. We hopped on a rickshaw and traveled to Haridwar and my stomach started to become queasy again. By the time we got there, Matt wasn’t feeling well either and raced to the bathroom. I decided to troop it out until we boarded the train, in fear of missing it. The train was late and my stomach churned, that familiar pressure in my intestines. Matt insisted I had time so I ran over to the bathroom, tears welling in my eyes. I was so exhausted, uncomfortable and weak from lack of sleep and no food in 12 hours. I got to the bathroom and it was flooded with poop and bloody sanitary pads floating in the water, sending me over the edge. I burst into tears, a myriad of hot emotions coursing through my body, sobs racking my body. I was so tired, all I wanted was a comfortable bed and a clean toilet I could run to every five minutes. I was determined to not let India win; I was not going to give up, I just needed an outlet for my emotions. Matt yelled from the doorway that our train was there so I wiped my face and walked out, relieved I could use the train toilet.
We boarded the train, along with hundreds of others, and were lucky to find seats since it was still early. The ride made my nausea worse, adding motion sickness to my list of ailments. People crowded the train car, five or six people to a seat bench only meant for four, people sitting up in the luggage racks, people standing in the aisles. A few hours into the ride, I felt the bile rising back up in my throat and pushed through the throngs of standing people. I arrived at the toilets and the doors were closed indicating they were occupied. I had only seconds until I threw up so I moved to the open door that two men were standing near, the tracks and green landscape rushing past outside, wind bursting through the cabin. I motioned I was going to be sick and they moved out of the way. I bent over, my hair whipping around in the wind, heaving up the water and electrolytes I had been sipping on. The older gentleman standing by the door grabbed by shoulders so I wouldn’t fall out of the train. I threw up once and I was so touched by his kind heart protecting me that I melted into tears again. The man went to go get Matt and I silently cried in his arms for a few minutes before returning to my seat. Hours later we arrived at the Delhi station and I was exhausted, barely able to withstand the weight of my pack on my back. We got our next set of tickets and had lunch. I managed to force down a Sprite and plain chapati, regaining some of my strength and energy.
Our next train, second class again, was absolute madness. Hundreds of people pushing to get onto the train, chaiwalas selling tea, water, peanuts, people arguing with others about which seat was theirs. We stepped into the second class cabin and there was absolutely no where to sit, every inch of available chair taken. There was barely any room to stand, people crowded the aisles and luggage racks. Shit. We had a 20 hour ride ahead of us and it was sweltering hot. Sweat dripped down our foreheads and we stood with our packs at our feet, scrunched among hundreds of Indians. A man on a one-person seat motioned for me to sit down with him, barely enough room for half my butt cheek to fit on but I accepted anyway, my legs languid from sickness and travel. Matt squatted down where he stood and Kowboy stood next to my seat, hands gripping the top railing for balance on the bumpy ride. We stayed crammed into our tiny spaces with Indians all around us, squatting, kneeling, standing, laughing, coughing, sneezing, sweating, farting. The air was thick with body odor, smoke, urine and sulfur. The boys across from me snuck liquor onto the train and shared it amongst themselves, all new best friends bonding over a forbidden treat. They played music videos on their phones, laughing at the dancing and rolled cigarettes. Matt became chummy with his new travel mates as well, accepting chewing tobacco, watching music videos and attempting to use our Hindi-English translator book to communicate with each other. Kowboy was hot and hungry (which meant he was grumpy) so he put headphones on and squatted down to read a book. We stayed like this for a few hours, praying people would get off at the stops but people just kept coming. Five would get off and ten would get on, pushing more and more into our personal space. Almost every part of my body was touching another person; I couldn’t shrink my giraffe-like body to save my life. I wanted to sprawl out and go to sleep but I settled for sleeping in my position sitting upright, head back with my mouth open.
Hours later, spots on the lower luggage racks opened up and Matt and I climbed up as one of his new friends saved the spots for us. Our new friend felt bad for us, he could see how uncomfortable we were and knew we weren’t used to this kind of traveling. He explained that the trains never ‘sold out’ of second class, they kept selling past capacity which was why there were so many people on board. Besides that, they never check tickets in second class so most people don’t even pay to ride in that class. That explains why we were so cramped and why so many people looked like they were used to it; they weren’t phased by having strangers constantly on top of them. Also, the majority of people riding in second class were men. In our cabin alone there were only three women, one of whom was me. Furthermore, men in India aren’t allowed to be openly affectionate with women in public and most can’t even have girlfriends. In most families, they still have arranged marriages. Men are affectionate with other men, holding hands and hugging in public since they can’t touch women and affection is necessary for a loving life. The men traveling on the train were strangers at the beginning of the ride and the by the end were old pals, sharing their tobacco, food, and music and sleeping on top of each other throughout the night. I was amazed by the cooperation, sharing and joviality amongst our traveling companions. Usually when that many men are sharing such a small, intimate space a fight or argument breaks out.
Twelve hours into our trip, we couldn’t keep our eyes open. Falling asleep in whatever position we were in, leaning on our neighbors, using our jackets as makeshift pillows. I woke up halfway through the night to see that Kowboy had constructed a hammock out of a sheet between the rows of seats, slightly swaying with the rocking of the train. Matt followed suit and set up a hammock across from Kowboy and I decided to spread out on the very top luggage rack, eight feet from the ground, pushing bags out of the way. I was finally feeling better with food and sleep reviving me back to health. From my perch at the top of the cabin, I looked down at everyone sound asleep on top of each other, sharing each other’s shirts and space for comfort. Not a single square of floor, bench or luggage space was open. Body parts coming out of every crevice of the train, it was a Fire Marshall’s worst nightmare. I smiled, thankful I made it through the ride and happy to have experienced the goodness inherent in people. Despite uncomfortable conditions, our travel mates were kind, accommodating us whenever they could, sharing whatever they had, communicating with us with hand signals and English phrases, making us smile and laugh throughout the night keeping us happy. Though traveling through India has been stressful, difficult at times, uncomfortable most of the time, and altogether not at all what I expected, it still has been everything I’ve ever wanted: proving to myself that I can handle any situation, pushing myself past self-imposed limits, learning to trust my capabilities and make friends in a full-blown Indian cuddle puddle.

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