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.

1 comment:

diehlavenue said...

Ahhhhhhhh - I am as satisfied as if I had just eaten too many dosas with you.