First Indian train

There is a first part to this post, Leaving Varanasi, but you are under no obligation to read it first :) .

All in all, it’s not that bad. It took me only 45 minutes to reach the train station despite the religious festival in Varanasi. I look up to the board to see if my train is on time. Where is my train? No train. That’s odd. I walk back outside to greet the two others foreigners I had spotted upon arriving. With a bit of luck they’ll be taking the same train and will know something. I am however going to Bubhaneswar, which is not a touristy destination per se so it is in fact highly unlikely. The girl is from Japan and the boy from Germany and they are indeed traveling together to some other destination. They’re quite ok. None of us wants to spend hours chatting but there is an unspoken understanding that it won’t harm any of us to share some banalities while waiting. After a few minutes I leave my bag with them while I go on a quest for information.

 I quickly find out a platform number and decide to pick up my big bag and go wait there. On the quay, I find a man in an info booth and ask him to confirm that this is the place. “Listen to the announcements, they will tell you” he says. “But I don’t understand what is said in the loud-speakers! It all sounds like (Indian accent with head-swaying) “blablabla” to me”. He laughs and answers “Ok. Stay by me and I will tell you when your train will come. It will come after one hour.”

 I sit down on my bag right next to the booth and start writing. Another foreigner sits down next to me. I’ve seen him before in the narrow streets of Varanasi. Thomas, from Bavaria. Soon enough the Japanese girl and the other German guy come by and join us. We stay packed together next to the info booth and merrily chat the time away while watching the bustling life on the platform. In turn, we go back to the man asking for more info. “It will come after an hour” is the only answer he has for any of us, each and every time. I go to him a third time and, having a strong feeling that he now thinks I am taking the same train as the other three, I show him my ticket again. Quite an inspired move: “Next quay, the train just arrived! Go, go!” he says.

 I pick up my stuff and go stand in front of the blue train. A good solid old thing that has obviously travelled dozens of thousands of kilometers. Maybe millions? I am about to board an Indian train for the first time. Overnight journey. How exciting! Sleeper class, no A/C and a top bunk as advised by the middle-aged man who sold me my ticket. The first time I went into his travel office – a small badly lit room with an old computer on a desk, a telephone, two foldable chairs and his daughter watching TV on a stool in a corner – he asked if I was in the army. “The way you walk! Straightforward and decided! I’ve watched you walk past my office every day for the last few days.” When I went back to collect my ticket, he asked if I was a doctor – I was wearing a whitish long blouse I had been given in Iran. “Foreigners always prefer the top bunk. You can rest there, no one will bother you.” That’s all the information I decided to retain from the suspiciously flirtatious nonsense he bestowed upon me from then on. And good advice it was indeed.

 My big backpack fits right under the seat and is barely noticeable there. I am kindly asked if I can switch beds with a grand-ma from the next compartment, so that the whole family can sit together. Sure. I decide to leave the big backpack under the seat, moving it around in the packed moving train seems too tedious and there is no floor space left under the seats in my compartment anyway. The bag remains out of my sight and I leave the rest to fate. Who would attempt to extract a 20 kg backpack from under a seat anyway? Every one would know right away that it doesn’t belong to an Indian person (I would learn later that this idea to leave my bag out of sight could be regarded as foolish; everything gets stolen on Indian trains, even babies! Or so Indians told me at least. I guess I got really, really lucky then, for each and every one of my trips).

 The train, being several hours late, leaves in the darkness of the night. I climb directly onto my bed to watch a movie until my laptop battery dies out. French movies are definitely not my thing. When I take off my earphones, the muffled whirr of the train going full speed – not very fast for European standards – is doubled by a concert of snoring in surround-sound quality. I don’t find it annoying, oddly enough. Toned down as it is by the wind and the noises of the train, it is like a quiet music. We stop often. People quietly get off and on the train while the others keep sleeping. I gradually take out my paraphernalia – Fulvia had warned me, if I travel Sleeper Class, the nights can still be fresh. Socks, jumper, a light blanket, I finally blissfully fall asleep against my guitar, my head resting on my smaller backpack.

 I wake up in the middle of the night wanting to use the toilet. I look down first. The floor is literally covered with sleeping Indian bodies. I’ve read somewhere that it’s better here to wake people up if you want to go past them, it’s more polite. Judging by how often and carelessly Indian people would thereafter wake me up, I’d say it is true, in the culture for sure. I look down more carefully – I would have to wake up at least a dozen people to get to the toilet and as many on the way back since I’m sure they will go back to sleep right away. I hate waking people up. I decide that I can wait until morning.

 The whole train wakes up around 6 a.m. My neighbours turn the middle bed into the back of a seat. I try to sleep a little longer but once the window shutter is up I can’t resist the urge to climb down and have a look outside. The landscape has changed. The air is fresh and comes to us in big chunks through the window bars.

 Coffee-chai, chai-coffee-coffee-chai! Chai-coffee-chai!”. The train is awake and starts singing its lively song. Never a dull moment, from now on. It’s a real little market taking place. You can buy all sorts of thingies from men and women walking up and down the wagons. Second-hand books, Hindi and English. Unidentified fried items. Chips, and drinks, and breakfast, and chains to secure your bag while you are sleeping, and toys for the children. And coffee. And chai. “Chai-coffee-chai” is the anthem of the Indian train. A spider woman crawls up the wagon pushing before her the rubbish accumulated in the night with the typical little rush broom that you often see here, then disappears. Two never-smiling children with a frightfully stern look make a sort of circus show contortioning themselves between the seats and then hold out their hands for some money – in India, nothing comes free and you learn it pretty quick. My neighbour tells me it’s the first time they have seen such a thing on a train – the circus children, that is. “Very creative”. Meanwhile the spider woman is back, on her feet this time – she is particularly short – and holds out her hand as well.

 Gradually, as the morning goes by, the train gets emptier. I have a leisurely time watching the world pass by outside. I move to sit at the door wide open, where I can gaze out onto the tracks and the wilderness. I can bend down and see the rest of the train in the curves. I can hang out my head in the wind like in movies. The wind of speed, movement, travel. Bliss! Liberty! When I sit down again, some weird man comes to bother me with dubious questions but I ignore him and he leaves. A friendly couple asks me if I am with him, pointing at a white-skinned foot dangling from the top bunk. No I’m not. “He, Russia!” says the woman enthusiastically. I don’t know where and when he boarded the train. After a while, the Russian comes down. Or rather, The Angel.

His face looks completely rested as if this train were a 5-stars hotel with private en-suite. He is wearing typical Indian clothes, although not the colourful kind. His belt is a simple rope. He has a bright smile, golden hair and radiates joy. Utterly beautiful. Mesmerizing. He is actually a little older than he seems to be. Twenty-two or twenty-three. He was lost, he tells me. A few years ago he was lost. He was living in Russia, gambling his life away at his parents’ basement, staying up all night playing poker, barely seeing his family. Then -why?- he left for India, lived with a family on the countryside for a while. He learned Hindi. And met Krishna. Lord Krishna, the Indian God, that is. And then he knew and his life changed. He wasn’t lost anymore.

 So that was what his smile was about. He is beautifully fascinating. We stay there, sitting down next to each other, a little longer. I take pictures of the landscape and he looks at the camera’s screen over my shoulder. Suddenly he bursts out laughing. “What is it then?” I ask, amused. “Didn’t you see? On your last picture?” “No, what?” “Show it. Yes now zoom in. In the right upper corner. There! There is a guy pooping in the field on your photograph!”. On this trivial matter he is laughing like an innocent child, with a pure heart, and I laugh with him. Then he climbs back upstairs to go chanting.

 He left the train one station before I did. His name was Dima. He was over-excited to be going to the famous Jagannath Temple in Puri. I learned later that they do not allow foreigners inside the temple and they seem to be very strict about it. I hope that they somehow let him in, that he could convince them of his devotion, using his Hindi maybe. If they didn’t, he must have been hugely disappointed.

 Dima leaves and I chat some more with the couple, the only people left in my compartment. They want pictures with me, so we take pictures.

 And then it is Bhubaneswar and I have to get off, to step out of this surreal little moving world where I have spent the past 17 hours. Step out of the Indian train. I do so, slightly disoriented and still under the spell of a white Angel who had met Krishna.

 Indian trains are fascinating.

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