Excerpts from The Great Year - India Edition

DECEMBER 23, 2007
Getting Acquainted with Trains

Back at Palmy, we gather our bags and chat with another traveller. He is telling us about his experience at a popular local ashram. Homestay Mathew, standing nearby, lets out a barely noticeable snort, I think an indication of his opinion of the ashram in question.
We say our goodbyes, thanking Mathew and Mercy for our wonderful stay, then catch a rickshaw to town where we stow our bags at the downtown version of Palmy. Again, the main section of town is so crowded we can barely move, so after supper we just grab some train snacks, get our bags, and head to the quiet calm of an Indian train station.
When the train arrives and we rush towards our car, the station manager runs out of his office and asks to check our tickets, and we remember that we were supposed to see him first to confirm our seats. In his office, he taps away at his aging computer, then points and says with more than a bit of urgency, That way! which was the way we were going in the first place. As we get to our car, a little late now, the doors are closed. And locked. I turn around and see a policeman standing directly behind us. What do we do, the doors are locked! He replies, Sir, you must get on. The train is moving.
It’s funnier if you use an Indian accent.
We turn, and sure enough the train has started to pull away.
A quick note on the Indian train system. There are many varieties of seating arrangements and amenities for which there are different tickets and different cars. We unknowingly purchased the more expensive tickets in an air conditioned car with only four seats per, for lack of a better word, berth. It is possible to buy similar and far cheaper tickets in a non-air conditioned car. It is also possible to buy ultra cheap tickets for the non-air conditioned, rush seating, anything goes car. In order to quell the notion that just anyone can sneak on to the air conditioned cars, the doors remain locked unless there are people boarding. The only doors that remain open while the train is moving are those for the non-air anything goes car. I shall continue.
The train car next to ours has its doors open so we leap on at a bit of a gallop (Get your knees up, kids!). This is, of course, the non-air conditioned anything goes car so it’s full of young guys who want an inexpensive ride from Point A to Point B. Fortunately for us, it is late evening and while full enough that people are standing in the aisles, it’s not so full that people are hanging on outside or sitting on top. So, now what?
Another quick note about Indian trains. The bathrooms are located at the very front and back of the cars. Everything in the bathroom is made of steel. Doors do not close properly, the urinal is a hole in the floor (that goes directly to the outside (hence the signs requesting that you not use the facilities while stopped at the station)), and fifteen million people ride the trains every day in India. Continuing on…
We catch our breath, remove our backpacks and turn to face the crowd. Everyone is leaning into the aisles and staring at us. Not in a threatening sort of way, but in an, Are you sure you’re on the right car? kind of way. Smile. Nod. One of the guys sharing our standing room only section sidles over to the bathroom door and closes it as best he can, giving me the international ‘Stinky’ sign as he returns to his spot. I get the feeling he did that for our benefit. A few minutes later, another fellow comes and introduces himself to us. We strike up a conversation, and explain our situation. We have a great talk with Shawn for about half an hour until the next stop. He says that this is a very short stop, our door will not be open. This happens again and I start to wonder if he’s trying to put one over on us. At the next stop, guys run onto the train who are selling puri and chai tea (I know this because they shout, Chai! Puri! Chai! Puri! in a brilliantly piercing and penetrating nasal tone), and Shawn asks one of them (in Hindi or Malayolem) how long we will be stopped. Shawn turns to us and says, You have one minute to change cars. Goodbye Shawn, and thanks!   

 
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JANUARY 7 to JANUARY 9, 2008
The Fun Bus to Hampi
Fourteen days at Hotel Gokarna International costs us a little over four thousand rupees, $112 total. That is starting to make up for the ridiculous price we paid for the Delhi hotel....
We walk to the bus station in the dark and have breakfast on a cement table under the fluorescent lights at 6:30, then begin our bus adventure shortly after 7:00. This bus makes a horrendous clanking sound whenever it starts up, or tries to accelerate. It’s the kind of sound that makes you wonder if it could possibly last two hundred and forty kilometres on even the best of highways.
The first couple of hours though are pure bliss. We’re off to somewhere new and hopefully exciting, the morning sun shines brightly and deeply into the back of the bus, and the landscape is beautiful and ever changing. A lot of this highway looks like it was made for one vehicle only and there are a couple of times that we brush the bushes while avoiding oncoming traffic. It never seems dangerous, though. Mostly just bumpy. I mean, really bumpy. Every time we hit said bumps, the bus feels, from the inside at least, like it leaps from the ground. There are a few travellers sitting in the very back row who fly into the air, sometimes hitting their heads on the ceiling. Everyone lets out a loud Whoa! at every opportunity. A trip full of smiles. We had learned our lesson on the bus to Alleppey and are comfortably ensconced over the rear wheel well.
I was right in my judgement of the bus’s ability to last the entire trip, wrong in my assessment of the parts in question. At two in the afternoon, we get a flat tire, and all the young men on the bus are out to help get the spare tire out and put it on (I got out to document the event, not change the tire). This tire reminds me a bit of a certain rental car tire from about four months ago, no griplike texture visible other than a few strands of steel that poke through the rubber here and there. In spite of all the people trying to help, the tire is removed and replaced in about fifteen minutes.
We arrive in the city of Hospet at around 5:15, after stopping at every small town along the way, ten hours to go two hundred and forty kilometres. We are approached by a taxi driver who tells us that he can get us to Hampi for a Very Cheap Price, but his cheap price is more than twice the bus price, so we’ll wait for the bus, thanks. Bus is very crowded, too crowded for you, taxi man says. That, my friend, sounds like a challenge that you are going to lose, I think to myself. No thanks. Okay sir, you will see, he says.
The bus for Hampi arrives shortly before 6:00, and everybody living in Hampi but working in Hospet gets on. I have never been on a bus so packed with people (yes, in my life). We manage to get a seat for Jonas and Matthew but Laura and I have to stand all the way, which is only about twenty minutes. There are many more people standing than there are sitting. It’s bumper to bumper inside and out and there are several people hanging from the outside of both exit doors. Matthew is not too keen on being separated like this, but we manage to keep eye contact throughout the ride. I can’t see outside anyway as all the windows are covered by bodies. We survive the bus trip and are up sixty rupees, but in retrospect, I sort of wish taxi man had kidnapped us and forced us into his car. Quicker, and less harrowing.
 
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Kids get in free, which is a nice surprise. The first glimpse coming through the main gate is pretty much everything we imagined. It’s a magical place, there’s no doubt about it, and as the sun continues to rise, that sensation continues to grow. The Taj Mahal is simply a beautifully proportioned building, expertly crafted and set in a wonderful green space. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my friend Chris, about how artists can amplify a sense of beauty by creating a relatively plain or sedate atmosphere set to act as a foil to the focal point of a work. Chris made specific reference to Rembrandt’s paintings and how many of them involve a single light source that illuminates only a fraction of the work, intensifying the impact of the moment captured on the canvas. As well, we talked about Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and how you have to sit through a sometimes agonizingly dull twenty minutes of fairly average stuff, until all of a sudden you are hit with this powerful, anthemic masterpiece that is made that much more majestic because thirty seconds ago you were ready to walk out on him. This is indeed a remarkable setting, but to find it in India (which I must stress is anything but agonizingly dull) after two months of travelling the land of open sewers, cows on the streets, garbage and dung underfoot everywhere, poverty and overcrowding, crumbling infrastructure, spitting, burping and all manner of other expulsions, one rupee one pen one chocolate, hello sir rickshaw yes please, let me take you to my shop, men with guns urinating on the side of the road, twenty hour train rides and ten thousand kilometres later....step through a gate, take a breath and smile....and marvel at this marble angel that sits quietly before you for no other reason than to be beautiful. And as shallow as it is, it works, because it is beautiful. A monument to love, painstakingly crafted by the hands of twenty thousand imported workers under the thumb of a man who was likely going mad.
We strive for beauty, every day, in our lives, our actions, our thoughts, sometimes succeeding and many times failing, and here before us is what appears to be a physical manifestation of what we work for all our lives. And yet, it’s just a building, a beautiful building set amidst a hard and often unforgiving landscape. It’s a building that makes me realize that every bit of good we do has a place, and the more hopeless the situation seems, the more wondrous that little bit of good can be. When a child comes to us begging for money, and Laura asks the child, What’s your name, plays games with them and sings them songs, the smiles that they return are like the light of the sun somehow touching the darkest places on Earth, and it begins to warm up. Just a little bit.
 
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One thing I should mention is that the wheels have pretty much fallen off the culture wagon here. This is a big city and there has been a fair bit of western infiltration. We are loving Indian food. Loving it. But even when we get home you won’t find us eating at an Indian restaurant three times a day for weeks on end. During our hotel search we passed signs for a Pizza Hut, and that sort of flicked a switch in all our minds that only a Pizza Hut pizza could turn off (although what is it with western chains charging western prices out here? Who wants to spend six hundred rupees for a pizza when you can get four dosas for less than a hundred....hmm, us I guess). Close to our hotel is a Subway, that was lunch today. We enjoy the familiarity, and the moment so intensely, it makes me wonder how broad is our capacity to fully experience all that we see and do here? Have we reached our limit?
 
   
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