Sunday, March 20, 2011

Leavin' on a midnight train to Madras

Which sounds much more alluring than a 10:30pm train to Chennai. Why choose a 36 hour train over a flight? Because with a 2 hour flight I know what I will get, whereas with a train across the whole of the inverted pyramid that is India, anything is possible.

Like not have the sleeper berth I reserved, as there was another fellow there who was convinced he had berth 23. We figured we would figure it out along the way but off to an auspicious start. As we pulled out, I watched three urchins on the other platform dig through a wallet I can only imagine was stolen. They picked it clean and tossed the carcass in the tracks.

With a heave and a jerk, the train slowly pulled out into the purple night. It came time to sleep and I agreed to take an open top bunk and hoisted myself above. The rhythmic sounds of the fans muffled the high pitched voice of an old Bollywood tune that crooned in the berth next to mine. The coach rocked gently into the long night. I slept as decently well as one can on a moving bed, and tried to imagine I was rocking on a waterbed.

I was awoken to the nasal vibretto call of "chai, chai, chai" and hopped down to see the orange-pink orb rising over the long and empty horizon of the Indian countryside. My long journeys are always a journey through memories to pass the time. I love the solitude that a long journey offers me. I sipped sweet milky chai as the world flew by and had the most perfect shabbat train where I did nothing but read and write and swim through my own thoughts.  And of course, I chatted up the whole train. I was easily the only gora (foreigner) in the 2nd class sleeper cars and so I am the object of attention.

From the train window, the dry dessicated fields reminded me of Texas, and I remembered other trains giving me similar thoughts some years prior.  I thought about New Years in Buenos Aires, and how on the last friday of the year, pages from antiquated day planners fall out the windows of tall office buildings and flutter to the ground like white butterflies.

To stretch my legs, I took a stroll up and down the train.  I passed through the AC coaches, with their cool air blasts and portly passengers.  It was nicer, but not so much so.  I found it a bit stuffy and boring, and filled with stagnant cold air.  I knew I was in the right place in the second class berth.

As we descended further south, the air grew hotter and dryer.  It smelled like something was burning outside, as I cracked a train door and sat on the open stoop.  The water bottle I left in my upper berth was the temperature of warm tea and it started getting ungodly hot.  I resorted to an old trick I learned in the sweltering BsAs summer, and dunked my flamingo jersey in the sink and put the wet shirt.  But when the heat became a little too unbearable later on, especially in the top berth.  It grew so hot that the train car was filled with exhausted silence; nary a soul spoke and all that could be heard was the incessant chugging of the train, occasionally punctuated by the chaiwallahs' calls.

As my skin affords me privileges that I don't deserve, this white sahib snuck into the first class AC coach for a brief nap respite from the swelter.  I won't pay for AC but I will steal it.

The long day's journey into night was heralded by the clapping hijras, the Indian ladyboys who are considered the receptacles of bad karma.  Their claps take away the evil spirits and baksheesh is expected for their work as karmic scapegoats.

The fecund supermoon arose over the wine-dark night and Mr. Tamborineman played a song for me as I tuned into my i-pod for a bit.  A bit, meaning that even when fully charged, it only lasts for an hour and a half so must be used at opportune times.  With a bit of saving grace, Tom Petty sang my night away.

The long and exhausting travel helps squish the travel bug (not the baby roaches scurrying about the second section) that has long infected me.  It helps quiet that restlessness that has long plagued me, and helps bring peace and quiet to my soul.   I had traversed the whole of the subcontinent in a day and a half as we pulled in this morning to Chennai, some 2,100 km south of Delhi, to India's most southerly state. Time well spent. As always, the truth lies in the journey, not the port (Galleano). 


4 comments:

Jeremy M. Goldberg said...

Keep them coming, Pablo. Waiting for your book to be published.

Paul Rockower said...

Ah, but then you would have to pay for something you already get for free....

Huney said...

Was imagining the scenes as I read...it was fun.

Paul Rockower said...

Thanks! It was quite an adventure.