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Last Train to Chennai

“This time there’s no child to guide me,” I silently laugh at myself, standing in the mid-morning sun. I’m waiting for the third train, the one that will take me to my original destination — Chennai. I’ve already rejected one over-packed, sans-ladies-compartment option. The two other women on the platform leave it alone as well after some inspection, and we collect in the shade to wait for the next. I’m told it will come in thirty minutes, and I don’t mind, because compared to the total delay, it is a momentary pause.

The strained anticipation of last night is nonexistent. An old hat now — psh, second class? SO done — I forget that this is not my typical mode of travel, and can enjoy the carefree energy at this end of the platform. Sitting on the ground, leaning against my backpack, I reflect on the night before.

Thank god I pack light. I can’t imagine anyone fitting the classic 70-litres-to-break-your-back monstrosities into that crowded space. The primary reason that I made it into the train car was my ability to toss my bag over my head, sending it into the outstretched hands that rose to receive it. My curious companion, the ten-year-old girl, had later asked me about its contents.

I couldn’t open it or explain. What would I say? That I have one more shirt and some socks. Plus a small laptop, a light solo mosquito net, a handheld water purifier, books and three different spiral notebooks, a pile of malaria prophylaxis, and that, at departure, 50% of the pack was medical content. How do you say that to a self-assured family whose combined objects fit into one shopping bag and a bundle of clothes?

A train arrives, chugging and hissing, and the few women climb into the small ladies’ compartment. I turn down welcoming offers, and reject a seat for the spot at an open door. The questions that began the night are answered — I will make it to Chennai in time for my next train; but there’s no fear left to ease, and I nestle into door’s adjacent corner to see the unfiltered world.

In the night, a grandmother and the mother had pulled the door open after a good half of the hallway’s occupants had disembarked. This had enabled the chai man’s last efforts to supply the train, and after we had rolled slowly into the dark, they left it open, gazing out at the countryside, sipping chai. I remember the grandmother. Her age and oppressed female status was irrelevant, as her strong body leaned against the door frame and her leg swayed out into the air. Her inner energy smoldered under her skin, her peaceful, confident face seemed to be appraising the land that lay before her. The younger ones, myself included, were sorting out sleeping positions; but as we were drifting off, I thought about her, saw an inner strength played out in her body, laced with an acceptance that was far from defeated.

Bright sunshine heats my right side as fields and trees zoom by under the train’s pace. I let one leg loose, but keep it in line with the car so my mind isn’t invaded by images of losing it. Hours go by, and I wiggle and adjust my pack. No books, no music, just experience and silence in the racket of wheel-on-track. Exhilarated by the train’s speed and open space between myself and this confusing, complicated country, I feel elated and connected.

We snake through towns, revealing patched-together slums (because who would choose to live next to the tracks?). At best, stones are stacked into walls and bridged with tarp-covered metal sheets, then weighed down with rocks. Animals mix with drying clothes and running children. I don’t hide my whiteness, the anomaly sitting in the door of a second class train car, but I am still removed. I can absorb and observe at a distance. But, then again, they can return that gaze. A seeing and seen exchange, poverty as a suspected vulnerability — but that cannot be assumed.

I am thrown out of myself later, in an air-conditioned, quiet restaurant complete with white tablecloths. Dumped into a frenetic train station, officially the most people I’ve seen in one place in my life, I’ve come for a place to discreetly access my laptop, and it is the only discernible candidate in the area. Was I really so comfortable in second class? I felt more accepted and far less unusual there, where I had expected the opposite. Where everything about our economic and cultural differences demanded the opposite, but that was not what happened.

The waiters are staring at me, and my discomfort increases.

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Just Down the Hill

This morning, a Buddhist nun, originally from Germany, led me down a shortcut to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

I met her behind a car that was stuck in the rubble of the cracking road; we had both offered to push. Must have been startling for the two Indian men – suddenly finding themselves next to a young woman from the United States and a previously-German Buddhist nun in her saffron robes attempting to fight gravity and pebbles sliding underfoot.

She took off down the mountain at a quick pace, perhaps some combination of German upbringing and Buddhist purpose. I caught up with her, asking if she was going to the dharma class at the Library. It had already been quite a hike down the steep road from the main part of McLeodganj; I knew it was halfway down the mountain, but I had not fully realized how far. Students in this class walk it every day.

We set out down a stone steps laid into the side of the mountain, an apparently faster route. Concerned about tripping over my feet and knocking a Buddhist nun down three flights of stairs, my focus narrowed to the width of a single stepping stone. The stairs led us to a complex of houses, the nun briskly moving up and down more wet concrete staircases, around corners, my eyes still focused on her swishing red hem and sneakers. As we popped out onto a slippery stone courtyard, she said “That was easy!” as I staggered up behind her.

The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives is exactly what you want it to be: simple but gorgeous stone, brightly painted wooden eaves and an elaborately detailed entrance-way not overpowering its elegance. Rather than walking directly to the classroom, we turned left, moving clockwise around the building holding sacred texts – this, as I understand it, is called korma, and when done mindfully has as much merit as if you read all of the texts inside. Same reason that people spin prayer wheels.

A mix of Westerners and Tibetans were milling around outside and in the classroom. I joined the nun after removing my shoes, followed her advice on etiquette, and summarily botched the genuflections made when the teacher entered the room. Wise elders are revered more than any statue or image as the embodiment of Buddha. I chanted as best as I could, tried not to wiggle too much on my little mat (even though I was lucky enough to get one against the wall), and listened to the lecture.

Afterwards, alone, climbing the winding road back up the mountain in the reasonably-light rain (for the monsoon), every empty taxi honked and waved at me – why on earth would someone get soaked walking up that awful road if they could afford a lift?

But philosophy cannot remain trapped in a classroom, it must breathe throughout the mountain and in life.

To India

My backpack has been packed and repacked, straps adjusted, objects shuffled around or abandoned. I’ve poured over the guidebooks, chosen my gear (it took months to settle on a mosquito net), and made contacts in India. I’ve got a notebook with carefully recorded directions, safety instructions, and advice.

It’s been six months since the seed of this journey was nestled into my brain, an offhand comment that rolled through my mind during one restless night and bore a lengthy email to my family – a declaration of intent-to-travel that has manifested in my small, overbearing pack, ten shots of various unpleasant and/or deadly diseases, and a six-month visa for India.

I’m living the Gap Year Traveler, mixed with some New Age Pilgrimage and Wandering Soul.

Intense preparation was part escape, as I tired of DePaul and being a College Student. It also shaped my understanding of the coming months, taking note of where I felt called to, how the places related to each other, the path found in maps and ideas. But, most of all, it is my liberation. With extra caution and understanding, I can take calculated risks that push myself and my journey farther into adventure and fuller engagement.

While you could argue that a traveler is going out to “find herself,” the experience has been more an education in perspectives. Some self-reflection slides in with the fresh understanding. Several summers ago, in Europe, I noticed that reactions to my eating vegan revealed how people viewed their food – from a plastic-encased, disconnected food product that silently appears in the grocery store to a purchase from a known farmer’s cows that someone passes every day. Even before I cross into a new culture, reactions to my journey expose how others understand their lives and roles in society. Each encounter produces a particular form of lifestyle that otherwise might blend into a generic “normal” somewhere in the world. It all sounds very grand, a journey to India, but it is a matter of perspective. This is tame travel to many people, to others it is nearly unthinkable – “but who are you going with?” I promise, I do not hold any pretense of innovation or uniqueness.

For the past few days, I’ve found myself thinking “but what does it mean?” over and over: an attempt, perhaps, to comprehend this new way of moving through the world as I wait at the precipice, the potential that the next piece of my life could hold. This has been a summer of waiting in the distance, a slow advance in a watery neutral space. Here, sitting in the O’Hare airport with my netbook balanced on my knee and surely-soon-to-be-thinned objects waiting beside me, something has concluded. Yet somehow still here in the liminal space, not quite on the official journey, I have reached a new dimension of anticipation. An inner quietness, a familiar traveling mindset that I feel descend whether I am waiting for a bus or a lift. A space where constancy is in the movement, where the temporality of life is more fully present, where beginnings and endings are pronounced. I am shifting into a different way of moving through the world, as I will shift through many spaces and forms in my life.

So. To India.

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