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Monday, August 10, 2009

48 Hour Train Ride

So I found a USB Thumb drive! 8gb for a little under 20 USD, not bad.And I found (bought) a bicycle! So here is the long train post. Mind you I wrote it while still in Allepey. I leave Cochi today, and will leave the next post when I feel my adventure is complete. (Hope the tension isn't killing everyone) So here it is:

So... how to explain 48 hours in a train. Most say they would die of boredom, or not being able to move, or something of the sort. In the end it was pleasant, entertaining... a very neutral ride. The ride itself, in chronological order would be quite boring. Instead what constituted the interesting parts of this ride were the people and their actions. So don't be surprised if you find that this post is more a description of people than the ride itself. After all, the ride would be nothing if it weren't for the people I met.

When I originally bought the ticket, I was waiting list 14. That was before the trek. When I got back from the trek I was waiting list 5. An improvement, I thought, and with 3 days left, I was bound to geta seat. Two hours before my train ride I checked my status again and I was waiting list one. “Crap”, I thought. No worries, I'll bribe the conductor despite the rumors I heard that bribing the conductor in the AC class is much harder than in the sleeper non A/C.

Anyway, I needed to get to Bangalore.

Being an hour or so late, I jumped on the first Three Tier (Sleeper A/C) car I saw and hoped for the best. The cars inside are divided thus: on one side you have an open-air compartment style seating where six people can sit and sleep (you need to lift up the middle berth bed when you are ready to sleep). On the other side, you have two seats, facing each other. The top half is a bed, and the two seats on the bottom fold down to become a lower tier bed. Since this latter half of the car holds less people,(two there versus six on the opposite side) I sat down in the first available seat I found.

Almost immediately after (as New Jalpaiguri is a crowded station and it seemed like everyone was going to Bangalore), a young man sat across from me on the same side. Little did I know he was going to be one of my companions for the next 48 hours.

Surya Maan (spelling might be incorrect) was his name, and as a native from Gangtok, was going into his third or fourth year of engineering school in Bangalore. At 22 years old, he says he wants to become a software engineer. Surya does not look Indian on first glance. On first appearance he might look like he is from the Philippines or somewhere. I took immediate interest in him because of two things he was carrying.

A guitar and an amp. We began talking about music, what he likes, what he plays, what I like, what I play, and it paved the beginnings of a calm, entertaining, and talkative journey. Due to his love of thrash metal and knowledge of American bands, cinema and the like, (as well as speaking perfect English), something new came out of me as well. For the first time after departing from Jared and Mark, I was acting like I acted at home. He understood my sarcastic remarks, American humor, and things of that nature. It was interesting and relieving at the same time.

Through some shuffling around, and Surya knowing that I was on waiting list one, he told me to follow him to his seat. The whole train was confused because the train numbers on the plaques were in actuality incorrect, and the correct seat numbers were written in blue marker. So I followed him to the next set of seats, and we sat waiting for the conductor. I got my money ready to bribe him, but Surya kept saying don't worry I'll speak for you, don't pay him anything.

Surya more or less became my cultural adviser for the trip. To him I was able to ask questions other might find rude. He explained, from a younger perspective, things about beggars, children, mafia, hijras, conspiracy theories, government, Bangalore, music culture in Bangalore etc etc. He also, like I was meant to meet him, told me where to get good guitars in Bangalore. Birthday present, here I come.

During the trip, he asked if I wanted to see the pantry car. “Sure?” I had said, thinking, like all other trains, its where you can buy snacks and what not. Apparently not. All the breakfasts, lunches and dinners they serve on the train are freshly made in this pantry car. Dividing sleeper non A/C and sleeper A/C this car has grills, broilers, and giant vats of oil where everything is cooked. In small sleeping rooms people were peeling onions and chopping lettuce. It was quite interesting to see all the workers cooking over hot stoves. And apparently their monthly income comes to about Rs. 13,000. 15,000 is USD$300.

On that day (the 5th of August) it was also Raki, the brother sister festival. What is supposed to happen is the brother is supposed to go visit the sister wherever she is. The brother gives the sister a present. Maybe some money, or a sari, or some gold, anything within your means will do. The sister then puts a small bracelet around the brothers wrist and places a single gulab jamun in his mouth (a pancake type of Indian sweet). Well in the pantry car, they were celebrating this festival, and since not everyone could go visit their sister, in one of the sleeping compartments there were two surrogate sisters with a bunch of bracelets, a bag full of gulab jamun, and a tray full of money.

On the 5th of August, 2009, I became an official brother of India and have the little yellow bracelet to prove it.

Towards the end of the trip, Surya and I shared an interesting moment. He said he wanted, for atleast a week, to live an American life. He said he wanted burgers, and hot dogs, and stuff of that nature. Mostly it was the food. So, I described to him what me and my friends did every night. I told him it was great cause we're with friends, but it gets boring too. Sometimes you want to do new stuff. He then described his life, which he thought boring, with his friends and what they did etc. Turns out, we didn't really have that different of lives. We did similar things, as long as it was with friends. Still, he yearned for an American life, and I have been yearning for an Indian life. In the end, this is the conclusion we came to:

Fight for whatever life you want, but be happy with what you have anyways. Just cause you are happy with one situation doesn't mean you've given up on all alternatives, or situations you want. Being happy with your current situation is your control over life. Not life's control over you.

But, that's not always the way things are. What can you do.

Let's back track a little, back to when I first got on the train. I was sitting where there are two seats, and Surya was on the compartment side, where six people sit (this is after I followed him to his seat). On the bench opposite to Surya were three people. Three people who would quickly also become companions on my journey. Tenzing, Tshering, and Udait.

First, let me explain Udait. He was without a doubt a companion on the journey, despite how much he slept. I would not very quickly call him a “friend” either – though he did draw a picture of me because he said he was a painter. Udait had to be at least 40 years old and was on holiday from the Army. He was sleeping when I arrived on the train. Let me rephrase, he was passed out because of how drunk he was. When the conductor came by and checked tickets, I was relieved (and I think everyone else was too) to find that he and I had to switch seats. So he sat alone (where he didn't bother anyone) and I was able to sit with the other three.

When Udait first got up to switch seats he looked around and asked “Where is this train going?”

Let that be a guide-post into his character.

He carried three to four bottles of the cheapest rum. When we first saw him, he had finished off one bottle. On trains, its technically illegal to drink, so he did not sit around sipping his rum having a good time. He would wake up, fill a large cup half with rum, half with lukewarm water, and down the hatch it went. No hesitation, no pausing to catch his breath, just an open throat and a lot of cheap liquor.

Then he would fall back asleep.

Occasionally he woke up to entertain us with a dance, or shake all our hands as if he were for the fourth time, meeting us for the first time. I swear he had the memory of a gold fish. He was all the talk of other passengers, and they laughed and made jokes of him, some saying, “He's not enjoying the rum, the rum is enjoying him”, and everyone broke out in laughter.

The first night for him was a doozy though. I woke up to another army man (this one in uniform) yelling at him. People were upset. The family in the compartment next to us was upset. The next morning when I passed by them, they urged me to go to the conductor and complain, complain, complain. What happened? I thought nothing of it and went back to my business.

That is, until Surya and Tenzing explained to me what happened. Apparently this drunken ogre had stumbled awake in the night, walked into the next family's compartment, and believing it to be the bathroom, decided to relieve himself in front of everyone. That explains all the screaming and complaining.

Thank God he got off before night fell on the next day.

Anyway, Udait seemed only fueled by the rum. He would get up, eat something small, make jokes, drink, dance, make more jokes, and fall back asleep. It sounds like a funny story, but his demeanor more than anything disgusted me. Later, when the food conductor came by the collect his bill, he claimed he never ordered anything and the conductor was a dirty liar. So it goes.

(Sorry Vonnegut, it just worked.)

But, while he was the bulk of entertainment, I was most enlightened by a 27 year old man from Gangtok that sat with us.

Tenzing was his name, and he was a social worker in Sikkim. A native Lepcha (people native to old, old Sikkim when it was still a country,) he said that I looked familiar, and perhaps he had seen me on Tibet road when I was in Gangtok. Tenzing was bringing his seventeen year old sister Tshering (pronounced Cher-ing) to Bangalore to begin her schooling as a Nurse.

Tenzing had short hair for the most part. I say for the most part because the back of his head, right above the neck, the hair was kept long. I asked him why? Religious? Political? Personal? He simply said “I cannot tell you why I keep my hair like this, but I do have a joke. Usually when I go to the barber my hair cut costs Rs. 20. Then one day, without me knowing they changed the price. When he was almost done with my haircut I asked how much it would be and he said Rs. 22. So I said, 'okay just stop here!'. And so this is why my hair is like this.”

Funny how little things like that, seemingly insignificant, completely changed my respect for that man. As soon as he said that he couldn't tell me why his hair was like this, I thought better of him. Is it right, or wrong? Who knows. In fact, who cares – but that was the feeling that ensued.

We began talking, as most travelers do, about what each other does. He completed his under-grad a couple years back with a degree in Sociology. Currently he said he is working as a social worker for village people in the Gangtok area. On top of that, he is somewhat an activist.

This is where it got interesting.

Him an his team, which I believe go by the name of A.C.T (but I need to confirm this) work against government “development” projects. As with most things, its a double edged sword. Development for the government is building dams, power plants, and other such things, while destroying nature, exploiting the Lepchas and basically forcing them to migrate. He says he understands the importance of such projects, and why the government does them, but global solutions don't always work. He's looking to push for more micro-solutions.

Solutions initiated by the people. Solutions that protect the environment. Solutions that protect culture.

Now it may seem like I am harping on the government a lot. To some, this is not anything new, you've heard my opinions. However, everyone, and I mean every single native Indian that I have asked since being in India the second time around, says “Yes, of course the government is corrupt.”

You saw the post on Pawan and his opinions on the train. Surya, Tenzing, even John thinks the government is corrupt. It's like it is common knowledge. And isn't the government just supposed to be a representation of the people? We can only hope. Therefore, if this is the census of some people of India (who I'm beginning to believe is the majority), how can we trust a government in their “development” projects. Thus why I support Tenzing so much.

I urge everyone to check out, just to see what it's like, his movement's blog – . Whether you support them or not, at least see what they are doing. According to Tenzing, they have halted 4 out of the 6 development projects in the area. The pressure from the people is really building in the area and they are making an impact. And all I can think about is what I saw on the trek, and the pictures I took. I would want future generations of tourists and locals to be able to see those sites that I have seen and more. If the government continues their projects, it's all going to be ruined. Sad.

Funny thing is, on my way down to NJP (before I met Tenzing) I saw the dam being made on the Teesta river. Even then I looked down from the road and thought - “That thing looks so ugly. It's going to make the flow of the river look so different.”

It seems almost like I needed to meet Tenzing.

Halfway through the ride, I decided to probe a little deeper into his thoughts and doings. I inquired - “So you guys are really scrapping the governments projects, that's pretty awesome. But I must ask – have you guys done any physical work against government projects? Like going in and taking out a few cement blocks and stuff?” What I meant was obviously destructive undertakings.

He looked at me for a long moment and a small grin crept up the side of his mouth. “I can't say these things, or tell you what I have personally done.”

But we were on the same level, his eyes were telling me, “Drastic times call for drastic measures.”

And so I hope to see Tenzing and Surya in the future. Either in Gangtok, or in Bangalore. I told Tenzing if I ever go to Gangtok again I will surely call him and support him in their fight.

The majority of the ride was like this, talking and explaining, laughing and joking. A fun ride.

Some cross-cultural things I noticed, and was happy about:

Touching and Eating. Let me explain:

Eating first; never once did any of us eat alone. On the first day, I thought in the morning I wouldn't be very hungry for lunch, and didn't order any. As they began to bring out lunches, my hunger swelled, and I asked for an extra egg curry for seat 53. Since I ordered so late, and in the middle of the lunch rush, its not surprising that mine came late. Quite late. As Tenzing and Surya's lunches were getting cold they patiently waited for mine to arrive. Over the course of 45 minutes I urged them many times to 'eat', 'it's getting cold', 'don't worry about me', but still they waited, repeating to me, “better to eat together.”

That is something I really value about India, or any culture that makes sure even traveling strangers don't eat alone. You don't see that too much in America any more (hint hint thank you family for making us eat together!)

Like wise, once when Tenzing's dinner was quite late, we also waited. I think you'll find that your food is much more rewarding when it's eaten with other people even if it is cold.

Onto touching. As I said in another post about guys naturally holding hands as friends; having a smaller personal space is normal here. On the train, other people often came to sit down and talk with us, or talk with neighbors, and our seats became crowded. I began to explain to Surya and Tenzing how being this close is not as widely accepted in America. How even if we did have enough space, and my leg stretched out to touch another persons (friend or not friend) I would not be surprised if that person would promptly retract their leg so as to stop the contact.

Often times during a joke Tenzing would slap my leg. Or if Surya would turn to me to tell me something a little more personal, I noticed his hand on my knee. After explaining my frame of mind, they said they took no notice of the touching. It was common place. Understandably. Not that I had any problem, in fact I admired the acceptance of smaller personal space. My American mind though registered every time I touched someone else.

Personally what this did for me was reestablish a male camaraderie that had been lost after I left Europe. The slapping of foreign knees, the putting hands on shoulders, leaning on others, or touching to pass between people, strangers, tourists, natives, children, men, women...

It seems more and more that America's ideas of male camaraderie are more backwards than anywhere else. But I am not here to harp on America; I just believe that the closer connection between friends is a positive aspect and can improve lives and relationships.

I'll end it on that. Now I am in Kerala and will post soon the snake boat races. All I can say is that I saw some drills going on, and... wow. The songs, the drum beat, the rowing. I'll save it for another time. Now I am preparing for my next adventure – which may be lengthy. You'll all hear about it soon.


  1. Hi Norman,
    I will be forwarding this post to friends in the Village. The small things you mention, such as waiting for others so they don't eat alone were very interesting. I don't think Grandma and I would enjoy the accomadations but it's all part of the adventure.
    I've had a couple of people tell me you should write a book. They also admire your ability to relate your adventures.

  2. Hi Norman, once again loved your writting. When I read it I always feel like I'm right there with you. Love it, great train ride. You seem to have met some very nice and interesting people.
    Love Mom