14 July 2010

Singin' on the Train

It takes about 24 hours to fly from the US to India, if you stop somewhere in Europe, including layovers and all. The 24 hour train trip from Mumbai to Chennai was much easier and much more comfortable than any of those journeys. I usually take the 2-tier or 3-tier air conditioned cars on long train trips here, but this time none of those seats was available, so I took the sleeper class, which is the class most Indian families take. Each little section has 6 seats - 3 long benches on each side, top, middle and bottom, that are long enough to lie on. During the day, though, they fold the middle one down so that it makes a back to the bottom one and forms a little bench for sitting. But I prefer the top berth, so I can lie down and nap whenever I want. The sleeper class turned out to be very fun, much more friendly and social than the AC cars, and I was the only non-Indian in sight.

I shared my car with a family of 5. When they came onto the car, I said hello, and saw that one of the young women had her hands beautifully and intricately decorated with henna, so I asked her if she had just gotten married. She told me she was heading down south to get engaged. She was traveling with her Father, Mother, Auntie and best friend. And now, me.

The groom's family does the engagement party, which is as big and lavish as the wedding, and that's where they were heading. The bride's family does the wedding, which is going to be up in Mumbai, where they are from, and then the happy couple is planning on moving to Simi Valley near Los Angeles.

The train rides are a real joy, everyone is very open and friendly, children play with other passengers, families bring extravagant picnics, and just in case there's not enough food for anyone, every few minutes a porter comes by selling cold drinks, or chips and cookies, or fried snacks, or full meals of biryani (rice mixed with chicken or vegetables) or Indian thalis (meals with white rice, curries, and other goodies). And of course, even more often than that, someone comes by selling chai and coffee. They carry urns filled with hot spiced and sugared milk, fill up a little paper cup, and then add a tea bag or instant coffee. Each cup sells for 5 rupee, or about 11 cents.

The family in my car was great. We chatted a lot, bought each other chai often, and they shared with me some of the food they brought along. I even tried some of my Hindi and a couple of Marathi words on them, and they totally lit up at that. I guess some westerners learn some Hindi, but nobody learns any Marathi. My local shopkeeper Prakash has taught me a few Marathi words, showing me off when other people come to his shop, and beaming like the proud teacher he is. So I tried those words on my new friends on the train, and they loved it. The train left at 8:30 at night, so after dinner and tea and getting to know each other, we all settled in for the night. I had one last cup of garam dudh (hot sweet milk), without tea or coffee this time, and went to sleep.

In the morning, when I took off my eye mask and iPod, the train was a bustle of activity. I watched from my perch on the top berth as people went to the sink to wash up, put away their sheets, returned the middle berths to the bench position, and ate breakfast. I waited until a magical convergence of 2 porters stopped in front of me, one selling coffee and the other selling idly, a steamed rice cake which makes for a lovely light and tasty breakfast. I ate that great train meal for less than a dollar, and then climbed down to join my party.

For the next couple of hours, we sang. The bride, her friend, her mother and auntie were all singing songs from Bollywood movies, occasionally moving their hands or heads in imitation of the dance steps done to the songs. I sat with them, smiling, clapping along, and joining in on choruses when I could figure it out. Then they asked me to sing! (Little did they know what they were getting themselves into.) First, I sang the 2 Hindi songs I know, from an old movie I saw in 1995. I bought the DVD before I came back from that trip, so I learned the songs. They were very impressed I knew even those songs, and joined with me enthusiastically. Then they wanted an English song. Fly me to the Moon is what came out, and when I finished, they applauded, and we went back to Hindi songs, moving on from happy love songs to sad love songs and then back to happy ones.

The day went by quickly, with all of us taking naps during the couple hours when it started to get a little warm in our car, and the next thing I knew, the sun had set, and shortly thereafter we arrived at Chennai-Egmore station; the end of the line.

We exchanged email addresses, so that Heather and I could see Jayshree and her husband-to-be when they move to LA in December, and said our goodbyes. I congratulated the father on his daughter's engagement, and on a lovely family.

Getting off the train, I was in the middle of India's 4th largest city, but it had a peaceful, slow feeling to it. Around the station were many travel shops and hotels, and I wanted to get to Pondicherry as soon as I could, which is a town about 4 hours away by bus, because the next day was Bastille Day, and it's supposed to be a holiday in Pondy. Pondy is a former French enclave, the way that Goa is a former Portuguese enclave, 2 small remaining parts of India that the British left to other European powers when they consolidated their colonial power over the country. Apparently, somehow Pondy remained an independent French colony until 1956, long after Indian independence. But Pondy is also close to the Sri Aurobindo ashram, and most of the hotels close by 10:30, so I had to wait until the morning.

I had looked up bus companies online before I left, and found one tha thad an early morning bus, so I searched for that company. I went to another random travel agency that only had busses at night, and tried to convince me to take one, but I told them the name of the bus company I wanted, and they sent me in the right direction, which I thought was mighty friendly of them. Even the rickshaw drivers who jump all over newly-arrived passengers left me alone once I told them I didn't need any help. In some other places in India, they've been much more persistent. I easily found the right bus company and booked a ticket for the bus leaving 6:00am the next day. I even found a rickshaw driver who agreed to meet me at 5:00 am to take me to the bus stop, which is about 45 minutes outside of town. Then I went to a restaurant on the block and got my first official south India dosa, which was indescribably delicious.

The next step was to find a room. I was only going to be there for a few hours, but I still needed a room. I found a tiny, grungy room at a good price at a bachelor's hotel. Only men allowed. Those 4 hours were more miserable than the 24 on the train. I was attacked by mosquitos, and when I hid in my sleep sack, it became unbearably hot. So from midnight until 4:30 am, i swatted mosquitoes, and killed more than a few, who died leaving bright red spots on the walls and sheets, which I knew was my blood, freshly sucked from me. I hardly slept at all, and was relieved when my alarm went off and I could get up, shower, find my rickshaw driver, and head to the bus stop.

The bus ride was easy, I slept hard and they had to wake me when we arrived in Pondi. I went to a guest house that I chose from my guidebook, checked in, opened the doors to the balcony overlooking the ocean, and crashed on the clean and comfortable bed.

11 July 2010

Once more, with feeling.

It's almost time to come back. But before I do, I'll will take one last Indian road trip. Today I bought a ticket to head down south, 26 hours on the fast train to Chennai. Tamil Nadu is the one state I've always wanted to see, and haven't seen yet (except for a one-night layover in 2004, where I dipped my toes into the Bay of Bengal, but didn't do much else). It's a completely different world than the north. The north of India is a melting pot, due to centuries of invasion by everyone from Alexander the Great to the British. But the south has remained largely untouched (despite British rule), and is still strong in traditional Hinduism, with many ancient temples still standing and actively used. It'll be back to English for me there, for all the Hindi and the few words of Marathi I've learned will be useless. They speak Tamil, and would rather hear English than Hindi.

It wasn't easy getting a ticket. The trains were sold out, but they reserve a certain number of seats for every train that are released first thing in the morning, 2 days before the train leaves, known as the tatkal quota. I went to a travel agent I know, and hired him to get me a tatkal seat. Even still, he was unable to get a berth in the air-conditioned cars, so I ended up in sleeper class. I believe I still get a full padded bench to myself, but there is no AC. It's been cooler since the monsoon has started though, and I don't mind roughing it for this last trip, so we'll see what it's like. I can always try to upgrade on the train itself; that is usually possible, and you pay the porter the difference. It was much cheaper this way anyway; less than US$10 for a 26 hour, 1279 km (795 mile) journey. The AC cars are 3 times as much.

I get to Chennai (formerly Madras), the big city down there, on Tuesday at 10pm or so, too late to head out that night. I'll spend the night at a retiring room in the train station itself, or more probably at one of the guest houses nearby. Early the next morning, I want to leave for Pondicherry, a town I've always wanted to see. It was a French enclave, the one place left to them by the British, and still has a French feel to it apparently. Wednesday is, appropriately enough, Bastille Day, which is celebrated there with parades and other festivities. I'll arrive as early as I can (it's a 4 hour bus trip from Chennai), and spend 5 or so days there, depending on how I like it.

From there I plan to visit Mamalapuram, a friendly traveler's enclave on the beach, with seafood restaurants and palm trees and temples. I'll relax there for another 5 days or so, doing nothing but reading and eating and walking. (I look forward to visiting Krishna's Butter Ball, a large, precariously balanced stone formation. Oh how Krishna loves his butter.)

The other place I plan to see on this little trip is the holy town of Tirupathi, and the nearby temple at Tirumala. It's a famous Hindu pilgrimage site, apparently attracting more religious visitors than Mecca, Jerusalem or Rome, though it gets very few Western tourists. I want to end my year in India with a visit there, to express my love and gratitude for the time I've had here, ending it with a spiritual focus, as a resident, an Indian by nature if not by birth, and not as a tourist, not as an outsider. I will walk with the thousands of pilgrims to spend a few moments with the deity, and give great thanks for this amazing year, before I leave this country, and head back to my real family.

I'll have a few days in Mumbai when I return, and I will, as I have been doing in these weeks since I returned from Hampi, enjoy my beloved city. I've been taking long ambles around town, talking to the people, visiting my favorite restaurants, shopping for mementos (and pretty things for Heather), and enjoying the ambiance. Tonight I walked home from Waterfield Road and Linking Road, after drinking lemon tea at a new bakery there.

The other night, I walked home from Juhu beach. Actually, the linked map was not my route. I walked directly from Point A to Point B, through no man's land. I walked as far on the beach as I could, a beautiful seaside walk along the Arabian sea with joggers and young couples and families, enjoying the respite from the ever-present monsoon rains, until the sea encroached and blocked my path. I turned East, inland, and found myself in the middle of the poorest slum I have seen here. On the google map, it's just empty, and it's true that there were no roads, no cars, no rickshaws. There was only semi-permanent, hastily built homes, with blue tarps as walls and roofs, and thin beams of recovered wood in the corners for structure. The alleys between them were so narrow that you had to turn sideways to pass anyone, with only garbage and mud underfoot. There was no electricity, just the light of fires and wood stoves, and no running water. I was lost. I was looking for a rickshaw but was in the middle of this neighborhood, with nary a vehicle to be found.

In any other country in the world, I might have been scared to be in such a neighborhood. But not in Aamchi Mumbai, my Mumbai, my India. I felt as safe and at home as I do anywhere here. I asked a local man to point me toward a rickshaw, and he told me to follow him for a while. (Though the only word spoken between us was "rickshaw".) He led me deeper into the neighborhood (I am reluctant to call it a slum, though anyone would), and then pointed for me to continue, mysteriously saying "boat". I looked in the direction he was pointing, and it was darker, and muddier, and more desolate. Could that be the right way? But I went with my heart and trusted him, and continued, my feet sinking into the mud as I approached the banks of a small inlet of water. It was very dark by then, and before I realized it, I came to the edge of the water, and a small wooden raft. Across the water, i could see lights and vehicles and the rest of the city. I had to cross the water to get to my rickshaw. There was a boy on the small raft. It was about 10 feet square, and he was about 10 years old. I climbed aboard, and he pushed his big bamboo pole into the bottom of the waterbed, and ferried us across. I thanked him with 2 rupee, and carefully stepped off. I walked in the direction I knew had to be right, and after a couple dark blocks, came to a busy street, filled with rickshaws and vendors selling things on the streets, and small shops. And i recognized it! It was the road I always drive down on my way to Juhu. I knew where I was! It was close enough to my neighborhood, so I walked along the road. I stopped at one vendor selling sheets, I had bought some from him a month or so ago, and he recognized me, beamed a smile at me when he saw me, and started to show me more sheets. I wasn't buying that night, but I smiled back. I finished the walk back, got home, washed my feet, and settled into my apartment. What a night, what a walk through the city, parts I had never seen, until coming to parts I recognized. I do so love it here. But I'm also ready to come back.