For the twenty-five-hour journey from Delhi to Kolkata, I promise myself the upper side berth, a precious commodity with a guaranteed window seat during the day and a slight privacy advantage at night. I’ll watch the Delhi plains turn into Bengali woodland and think deep thoughts.
I’ve just settled into my forward-facing window spot when a young woman arrives with a baby and a giant suitcase. It’s a movie moment: her hopeful look and my hopefully-hidden hope that she is just passing through before adjusting to make space for her on the bench.
Maybe she does have a seat somewhere, and is waiting for everyone to settle in first.
My Hindi is still terrible but we can communicate without much language, giving the general idea of who we are, where we come from, why we are on this particular train in early December and subjecting ourselves to long distance land travel. The bench is not quite six feet long; I’m on the end, then the baby, then her, then a man who appears to be in his thirties and not at all traveling with them.
The first round of chai begins, and biscuits come out (I can’t remember who starts that, but we pass around different packages to dip into the hot milk tea). The rest of the people in our open-air section are men, but they seem to be respectful, even smiling and waving at the baby (who is able to sit up but not walk, so how old would she be?).
The train has officially been moving for a bit now, and that’s that. The young mother is one of those in-between passengers who have a ticket but no seat assignment. I pull my bags from beneath the lower side berth where we’ve been sitting and one of our “cabin” (non-enclosed section of eight berths) mates lifts my backpack up onto the upper one. We wedge the young woman’s suitcase under the berth, and it’s official. I leave my shoes below with her suitcase and climb, stepping from a bunk-bed-bar to another berth, into my side berth. We pass snacks up down across between. I make silly faces at the baby and the mother laughs. Then more chai and biscuits.
To some, it might look like she took advantage of us by joining our compartment-area. But to have that thought means that you come from a particular cultural background. In the West, your ticket is your ticket, and you sit in your spot, and anyone who does otherwise is being rude. In India, sure, there are assigned seats, but that’s only a guideline and, in reality, if there’s a person who needs somewhere to sit — they sit, and everyone makes space. There isn’t the same sense of property and privacy.
Marie, the best of the India foreign travelers, arrives: a slender woman in a salwar kameez taking one of the upper berths on the other side of our compartment-area. I love her frank cheerful attitude; her stories and persona brighten our space.
This is, of course, a twenty-five (in reality, twenty-seven) hour train journey, so the cycle repeats itself. Sharing stories, offering food, the repetitive sounds of chai-wallahs moving down the aisle. Marie makes noises and smiles at the child. At one point, the mother steps away, leaving us to monitor her baby for a few minutes, and I ponder community.
Night settles in and activity in the train fades into light blankets spread under stretched-out legs. Someone lightly snores on the floor space between the opposing berths; it’s as if there’s been a massive sleepover party on wheels. A baby in an adjacent compartment-area cries, and I think about how we have the best, quietest baby on the train.
Rounds of good mornings, and then breakfast. I’m reading, writing, thinking in my little cubicle, trying to not remember how long I’ve been on the train.
We have another round of chai, we’ve been taking turns to pay like a round of beer in a pub, and Marie succeeds in getting everyone in our compartment-area to take a cup. “Do you want chai, take a chai, it’s Christmas, o Christmas chai” — and everyone smiles and laughs and dunks biscuits.
When people from different cultures interact with open minds, their ways of living can rub off on each other. I am still a little too loud, oh American self, a little more friendly than a woman in India would be, but, like extra people on the train, that is accommodated. And, in turn, we foreign travelers pick up the head wobble, the chai rhythms, and the food-pushing.
[I set the blog aside to work on other projects, but am taking it up again after the encouragement of a good friend. Thanks, Jenn.]
Illiciting intense emotions, the negative always supercedes the positive in my memory, pulling raw at the mind and drawing up the darker sides of humanity. The truth is that every challenging story from India was leveraged by a deep positive, as every harassing man was tempered by the encircling protection of women. India, in my experience, is a land of extremes: an ancient civilization embodying the human story. One of the oldest living cities on earth coexisting with progressive technology, rampant cruelty and indifference matched by truly genuine human connection and potential. To stand outside in judgment is dangerous, indicative of a divided perspective on the global community. If Earth were a single organism, then India marks the development of its human aspect. To see its violence and slf-destruction is to contemplate the dangers that humanity lays against itself — our indifference towards the earth, to our slow and unnecessarily-advancing death. To witness the fear, the seeming social decline, the brutality, must be tempered by realizing that aggression is learned, gender dynamics constructed and perpetuated, economic strife the result of unhealthy economic structures. To abandon it is to forget our united desire for life. The privileged, local or global, can choose to withdraw entirely or to engage, learn, grow, and empower others.
To travel there is to be challenged into becoming the best and worst of yourself, to crack open and gaze into the misery and ecstasy of what it means to be human. It is, perhaps, an education in humanity.
In August, Delhi had been soaked in heat, its cluttered old market neighborhood sticky and pressing in close. The dusty crowd, the sheer volume of surround-sound stimulation, overwhelmed me. Still reeling from the sudden shift, I could only leave my hotel room for an hour at a time; and I showered at every return. A previous traveler had told me to leave Delhi as soon as I could; I took off for the Himalayas with no intention to return.
Six weeks later I was passing through and met Charnita, the future co-facilitator of the workshop.
From then on, it was home base, grounding weeks of sporadic movement. I resented its pollution haze which wrings out gorgeous sunsets and early death. Its center-less patchwork maze distorted my understanding of urban life, and the reckless harassment dueled with Hyderabad for Worst Gender Trouble.
Over time, reliable auto drivers appeared among the ruthless, the smog lifted to reveal the stars, and I grew into a new appreciation. Returning from Varanasi at the end of November felt even more like coming home.
Nomadic life does that to you: “home” takes on new space every few days, in a way is attached to anywhere your backpack rests for more than a night. It’s a lifestyle, not a vacation. Living unattached to a physical place can bring out the essence of community and home when you choose to build it. Without the assumed pedantry, the general slog of living can become something more than itself.
Jyoti, a Belgian friend, welcomed me back to Lhasa House in the Tibetan colony of Majnu Ka Tilla with fresh fruit and toast — luxury itself. Among long term travelers, cultural identification can become fluid. Jyoti has moved beyond travel: although Belgian, she lives in Nepal and is only in India to fulfill visa requirements. Emanating peace, she evokes a Buddhist atmosphere; naturally, she felt deeply connected to Nepal years ago and rearranged her life to make a transition possible. Although we each inherit a culture, to suggest that that is all we are limited to does not match reality. Encountering, engaging, and embracing other cultures requires thoughtful ethics. At the same time, not everyone’s assigned cultures, countries, and practices match their inner selves.
Jyoti shifted to my former rooftop room, and rented the kitchen across the way. We wander the (Indian side of the neighborhood) market, a medley of colors — produce piled high in front of seated vendors. We collect vegetables for dinner from the waiting heaps. And choose oil out of the options that a shopkeeper lays before us, as browsing is rare outside of Western-style grocery stores. More often, the salesperson reaches for your requests; there is no casual perusal of what you might want to purchase, no search for potential inspiration A LA leisurely Americans. You are expected to come to the shop with articulate-able purpose. I struggle with this.
Once we have flour, we cross the pedestrian bridge back into Majnu Ka Tilla, and climb the four flights back to our rooftop home. Having access to a kitchen again produces excessive delight: to know all ingredients, return to brief veganism, and, most dearly, prepare fresh vegetables again.
Stories of temples and poverty, scarves and friendship mix in with the spices. I battle with dough in my first attempt at chapatis without watchful eyes guiding my work. The imperfect (American?) version. On the laundry-bedecked terrace, Jyoti covers the rusty low metal table with a stretch of bright fabric, and we lay out the haphazard dish collection. Under the slightly smothered stars, we reimagine convention and celebrate our good fortune to have such a beautiful little home.