The Final Dispatch From India, Via Malaysia:
by Jason Ditzian
Love and detainment on the Indian railway.
On January 25th we flee the madness of the Mela. Similarly, tens of millions of Pilgrims are traveling back to their respective homelands and millions more are latecomers, just arriving to the big party. The transportation system, which bursts at the seams under normal conditions, is in total disarray. Transport in and out of Allahabad is booked solid, though ticketing is a ruse: unless you're in first class, no one's checking. Getting on a train is a scrimmage-line battle through the door to wrest some pittance of space for the haul. Once on the train, you might end up in the aisle, hanging precariously outside between two trains or prostrate on the luggage rack.
The train approaches. Before the five of us have even hoisted our packs off the ground, Indians with suitcases balanced on their heads are scrambling alongside the decelerating train, jumping into the open doors. The incoming cars are packed to capacity. Hundreds await to alight at the platform. The train stops. It's a physics experiment: the people molecules heading in through the too-narrow doors push against the people molecules moving out. Occasionally a soluble fellow pops through a pore in the membrane.
Pressure mounts. We move door-to-door assessing the odds. In two minutes, the train is pulling out again. Hardly anyone has managed to get on board the train, let alone off of it. Families torn asunder, half on the train half in the station. Luggage is scattered everywhere. Not a train employee to be seen anywhere. The train is picking up speed. Hands recklessly grasp for handholds. Indians swinging like bunches of fruit from the side. The riot overwhelms the hapless Americans. The five of us collectively give up, shaking our heads and half laughing at our predicament, while castaways curse and spit vehemently at the train leaving them behind.
It is 11 pm-ish now. Exhaustion exacerbated at the thought of spending the night lying on the floor of the train station, alongside stray dogs and shivering families huddled under blankets. Another Varanasi train is coming soon, or so we're told. Others tell us it's canceled. Laden with packs, we head towards the sign that says, "station manager."
(Fact: The Indian Railway is largest employer in the world)
The railway employees are doing something inside... they are waiting. A man sits at a large wooden desk, piles of papers before him. He is running his eyes down dot-matrix printouts of lists, signing off here and there. The other four men in the room watch patiently, nodding as the procedure continues. It is a scene from "Brazil." They invite me in.
The man at the desk speaks English. He tells me to take a seat. I tell him no thank-you, my friends are waiting outside and I need help in figuring out the train schedule because I think the train is coming soon. They say, take off your pack, take a seat, would you like some Chai? But I do not want to miss the train again, I say. I show them my ticket. They look at it, they say, sit and we will check for you because it is coming soon, but it is delayed so you should sit with us, have some chai. The man at the desk picks up a phone. He puts it down. He picks it up. He says something to the phone. The phone is broken (I think). He gives my ticket to one of the other men and sends him out the door. The man returns with a sheet of paper, times hastily scribbled upon it. It is the official schedule for trains running to Varanasi. Alongside it is written a revised schedule for when the trains are actually coming, assuming that they arrive at all. According to this list, there is a train scheduled in a few minutes coming in a few hours. But maybe that train will be late too. I take off my pack. The manager invites my friends to sleep in the warm room outside his office. I tell them that I will stay up and make sure we get on the next train. No one protests. The Chai is coming, they say.
The bureaucracy-laden desk dominates the office. In front of the desk is a bench where two men, railway employees, are sitting, chatting. To the left of the desk is a trunk, another man lounging upon it. I am in a chair to the right. Periodically gophers come in and out doing gopher things. The men are stereotypical night shift types: haggard, rumpled uniforms, in need of a shave, bodies aching to slump into a nap at any possible moment. There is a poster on the wall, a lush scenic vista-Scotland maybe-rolling green fields, misty mountains, gnarled trees, a lake and a distant sailboat. The poster reads: "Dare to dream." This touch of décor can no doubt be accredited to the station manager.
The train station manager sits behind the desk approving and disapproving of whatever is on those dot-matrix printouts. He does not look like the others. His appearance is alert, hair neat and oiled, mouchstache trimmed and tidy, a clean sweater with starched collar underneath. His demeanor and countenance, dapper and a touch effeminate, is reminiscent of Duke Ellington.
Soon the conversation soon turns to music. Not only does he look like an Indian version of the Duke, but his true vocation is composer. The manager is a singer and a composer of Guzzels: strictly metered and composed song poems in the Indian Classical tradition. I have never heard of guzzels before, so we spend some time discussing the art. Soon come the typical requests for me to play, something, anything. I shy away. But the manager is insistent. Sheepishly, I pull my bamboo flute out of the tent bag.
I let 'em have one of my famous fake-out Indian raaga scales, letting the notes echo out in the reverberating acoustics of the train station.
I think that's when the train station manager fell in love with me.
The other guys in the office are relieved when I finally stop playing (it's really hard to doze off with some American kid playing his damn bansuri at 1 am). But the manager looks as if a spell had been cast. A dazed gaze of longing. Oh, he says, you might not know the raag quite yet, but I can tell, you have the soul of a musician. I ask if my train is coming soon. Shake, shake, shake the head, don't worry, we will tell you when.
The train station manager asks me if I'd ever been in love before.
He asks, what is the most important quality for you in a lover.
Do I like Indian girls, he asks.
One of the train employees laughs and off-handily comments of the train station manager, "oh, HE doesn't like Indian GIRLS. He likes Europeans..." I'm not sure what to make of it. The manager doesn't seem to take any offense from the comment, continuing to pontificate on the pompatus of love.
He croons a guzzel for me. His voice is true, singing the lilting melody in Hindi. Afterwards, he translates it for me. It is a love song, he says.
Now it is my turn to sing. He begs for just one song. As before, I protest, but to no avail. I sing a little ditty appropriate for the occasion:
"Mississippi delta, shining like a national guitar I am traveling down the highway, through the river, to the cradle of the civil war
I'm going to Graceland, Graceland
I explain that for Americans, Graceland is like going to Kumbha Mela. It is the holiest pilgrimage of the religion of Americana. And it is about a river. Mississippi, Ganges: same difference.
"Funny how the world is," he says. "If I was a doctor, if we were in my office, I could touch your lips. In fact, with nothing but indifference I'd touch lips all day. But here we sit, just a few feet apart, and here, in my office, if I touched your lips, the meaning would be much different," he gazes longingly in my eyes. The others in the room pay no mind...
Is my train coming soon? Don't worry don't worry he says. What time is it now, I ask... 3:30! A train passes through the station. I think there was supposed to be a train to Varanasi at 3:15. I show the manager the paper with the train times on it. One of the employees takes the paper, shakes his head, "that train was canceled." Next train on the schedule isn't until dawn. The hours pass. My KC Jones cum Lord Byron professes philosophies of the heart.
Around five AM I hear another train and plead to the men in the room: please tell me when the train comes, because I will need time to wake my friends, to get to the platform and get a seat. Ok ok... we will tell you when the train comes, don't worry.
On a whim I rephrase the question: "Is the train I hear pulling into the station right now the Varanasi train?" The head gopher wiggles his head in that evasive, non-committal manner that means nothing but frustration to a westerner asunder in the maddening Indian infrastructure. I hear the whistle. "Is this my train?"
YES? Are you saying this is my train?
Wiggle/shake the head: "Yes."
(There are so many things I'd like to say to those train guys, like, how many Varnasi trains have gone by already, but I'm in a rush)
Everyone wake up!
There's no stopping the Americans this time. We throw elbows, wedge and cut in between mothers and their little children, spit, use our pack weights as leverage and as blunt objects. And we are on board, wiggling out of our big packs and fashioning them into seats for the long ride. Leigh impresses everyone with her train/bus trick: curling up into tiny ball and falling asleep in the middle of the aisle. Kind of like her dog, Spotz might do. Joy makes my legs into a backrest. David and Laurrien look like serious candidates for the jaws-of-life: contorting their bodies in and out and through the metal bracings that support of the foldout sleeper-train beds, hoping that somewhere in the tangled geometry two people might find some semblance of comfort.
The pilgrims, heading to Kumbha Mela, want to know everything. "What is your opinion on Indian Culture?" "You like George Booooosh?" "Is United States hot or cold?" At every stop a peanut man or a chaiwallah (who must have a sneaky way of circumventing the crowded doors to get on the train) comes through the aisles, shouting his wares. One peanut man uses a tree limb as a crutch, which he hops on, but there is no empty floor in the train, so how does he expect to get through on a wooden crutch stick without maiming others? A triumph for the disabled. Then comes the chai wallah swinging a metal tank full of steaming chai. He has a special tank fitted with a bbq contraption welded on the bottom, an open hutch with flaming hot coals to keep the water at a constant boil. He swings the tank as he walks, staggering with the heavy thing though the jammed, narrow aisles. The burning coals roll this way and that, just missing people's heads and faces, dripping boiling water everywhere. Leigh is sleeping in the aisle and he hoists the tank right over her head. For someone to move through the aisle (even without an oversize canister of chai), they either swing overhead like a monkey or, if they are not athletic enough to do that, everyone in the aisles must stand as they trudge and squeeze through. Too bad the peanut-seller with one leg wasn't the one with the chai canister of scalding death: then we'd actually have something to complain about, by Indian standards. "What is your opinion of India vs. America?" "What is your opinion of Indian Food?" "Love marriage or arranged marriage?" I try to make them understand. Somehow, dawn has come and gone and again I'm singing Graceland. The moment is ripe with that epic feeling, like in a movie before the rock-n'-roll star gets big and he's in the bedroom singing the new lyrics, slightly off key, to his girlfriend, but we all know it's the big hit and the song bleeds seamlessly into the next scene with electric guitars and amps and he's in a club with thousands of raving fans trying to rip his leather pants off. At least that's how I feel after no hours of sleep in many hours of non-stop weird India. Eventually the train arrives in Allahabad, the pilgrims depart. Suddenly there's suitable room for my tired body and no one left to sing "Graceland" to.
When he wasn't looking, I slipped the station manager's poem to me into my pocket:
I want to call you but a fear
24 hours a day, the funeral pyres burn. Even as you sit in an Internet café processions of (family and professional) mourners stream down the labyrinthine streets, hoisting the body overhead. The body is wrapped in pyre finery: shiny, tasseled wrapping paper, flowers. Bells are rung, drums banged, songs sung, just like they did 5000 years ago in Benares/Varanasi, which can claim such things because it is amongst the top five oldest cities in the world, if not the oldest. The procession heads to the river, the holy Ganga that figures into so much of Indian mysticism. It is there the bodies burn, ashes cast into the water, along with the intact carcasses of cows. Cows, too holy to be burned, are thrown in whole with rocks tied around their necks to sink 'em good.
If you watch the entire ceremony, from start to finish, you will see that the human body incinerates entirely except for the skull, which stays intact and needs a final nudge with a hammer. The responsibility to crush the skull falls to the eldest son. It is believed that crushing the skull forces the bereaved to accept the death and begin the healing process.
The Ganga is all things to the people of Varanasi. At dawn, the inhabitants of the old city congregate to bathe in the freeeeezing cold waters, alongside the buffalo washers (people in Varanasi keep their buffalo VERY clean), right besides the clothes washers who wash and fold the clothes that I'm wearing right now (all that holiness thrown in at no extra charge!). Also, there are sunrise boat rides, milky ways of candles floating at night (like a Pink Floyd concert gone adrift) and dolphins. Yes, fresh water ganga dolphins. You don't believe me? Don't worry, in a few years, the way the river is being polluted, they'll have probably gone the way of unicorns. At least for now, you can see them playing in the morning, before things get really busy. On the other side of the Ganga is a desert flood plain which gets totally immersed during monsoon. Now it is barren and desolate. The scene, all the more striking.
Besides the cow shit everywhere, and also that bull that so rudely gored me, I think Varanasi is the dream India I was searching for. Leigh and I spent two weeks here. We studied yoga every morning with Pramod, coach of the Uttar Pradesh (big state in India) yoga team. Did you know that they have yoga championships like we have gymnastics? That is something I'd like to see. I studied Bansuri under the tutelage of Ashok, who turned out to be only 23, but such a good flute player that I initially took him to be a master, twice his age.
Varanasi is also the city of silks. And extravagant silk shows. The silk mogul man unfurls shimmering fabrics, hypnotizing us. Silks pile up all around us. Everyone says, "all they must do in India is fold" since all anyone is ever doing is unfolding unfolding for you. Everywhere you turn in the shop, some new color, pattern you never saw before catches your eye. Silk mogul man, rotund and mustachioed, is a master at following that roaming, wanting eye and laughing saying: oh, if you like that one we have so many more... It is impossible not to be mesmerized by the silks that change color at every angle. He shows us pictures of Katherine Deneuve (classy French actress) at his shop, tells us about the time Goldie Hawn came in the shop. Leigh and Joy buy saris, scarves, suits, shirts...
Saints hang bricks from their penises. A Japanese Saint, just returned from Kumbha Mela (the president of Sony's guru!) who levitates 10 ft off the ground, or so they would have us believe, handing out a 4X6 glossy of the Saint suspended in air (as seen on ltwebber.com). Some sadhus don't do anything gimmicky at all but still manage to look cool. There are lots of monkeys and even a special monkey temple where there are less monkeys then anywhere else in the city.
In the middle of our two-week stint in Varanasi, we venture back to Kumbha Mela, to see what's cooking. The greatest Bansuri player in the world gets heckled by crowds in his own hometown. We did not find the 300 year old baba, but did meet the 80 year old stand in for the 250 year old baba, (who died three years ago). To make up for his disappointing age, the guru hurls a perfect toss from his 2nd story hut, over the grasping crowds (see picture), connecting with me 20 yards down field. I eat the blessed orange, hoping that's what you're supposed to do with it. Inspired by the success of the first throw, he tries to toss me a second. Gheefingers: I dropped it. So much for ancient wisdom: knowing when to stop while one's ahead.
Many people have heard of Rishikesh through its association with everyone's favorite spiritual mendicants, the Beatles, who journeyed here in the 60's as disciples of the illustrious Maharishi. Nowadays, the Maharishis' ashram is overgrown jungle, run down stone huts and a crotchety old man with a stick telling/gesturing for us to scram.
Hundreds of ashrams still cater to western seekers.
Rishikesh is situated at the base of the Himalayan foothills, where the Ganga descends from the mountains to the flatlands of India. Here the ganga is clean. One can bathe here without fear of the filth that accrues as the river works its southward route through towns and cities. While there are no dolphins in this part of the Ganga, it is teeming with schools of fish that live the good life because Rishikesh is entirely vegetarian so no one ever tries to catch them. Furthermore, they are fed constantly by tourists who want to get a good look at them. Kids sell fish food (puffed rice) on the tall suspension bridges spanning the ganga. Throw a handful of the stuff and thirty shimmering fish splash and fight for it at the surface. A real crowd pleaser. Unfortunately, you can't look at the fish yourself without being endlessly harassed by the fishfood sellers, who at five years old have it in mind to commoditize fish viewing. Go-fish, go-public...
The best restaurant in town is Chotiwalla. Outside Chotiwalla sits a fat bald man in gratuitously flamboyant tribal/mystical costume. The man's entire body, face, shiny bad head, is painted blue. Like Blue Man Group. As the story goes, the owner of Chotiwalla and his son had a falling out, which accounts for there being an identical Chotiwalla, complete with fat, bald, blue man, immediately next door to original Chotiwalla. Both Chotiwallas ring a loud copper bell as you come in, I suppose just to piss off the other. There's absolutely no way to tell the difference between the two restaurants and there's constant disinformation as to which is the original.
One of the first things we noticed on our arrival to Rishikesh were photocopied signs posted around the city. A fellow backpacker was searching for people to split the cost of a five-day trek in the Himalayas. We hadn't thought at all, up until that point, of hiking. This is how we met Craig and Pip. Craig was looking for something to do whilst his wife, Pip, finished her yoga class in Rishikesh. Leigh and I eventually decided (inspired, coerced by a series of uncanny coincidences) to take the trek with Craig. On the last night we would meet up with Pip at rafting base camp.
The trek was arranged by a reputable trekking company and included a TATA jeep, a guide, a cook, a driver. All our meals were cooked for us, all our equipment carried, camp set up for us... We trekked for four days and then, instead of driving back all the way, we triumphantly raft over the white water of the Ganges back into Rishikesh. 5 nights, all inclusive food, transport and lodging: $160 per person. Sure, our team of attendants might've been a little excessive, but at these prices, how can you justify roughing it?
Follow the path of the Ganges up through India to its icy source. As you reach the northern states, first you will pass through Hardiwar, amongst the holiest sites in all of India to bathe in the Ganges. Just further north is Rishikesh, where the Ganga (flowing southward) makes its first appearance in the lowlands, bubbling forth from the Himalayan foothills just beyond. Spend some time in Rishikesh amongst the Sadhus and seekers. Let mountain air (though you are not in the mountains yet, but very close) infuse into your blood, an oxygen transfusion from the gritty city atmosphere. A few days of R&R (revitalization and religion).
Jump in a jeep. You're only a day's drive (and what a drive!) from the main mountain action.
The BRO, or Border Roads Organization, is the pride of India. India does not have bragging rights about much of anything pertaining to transportation infrastructure, but the BRO is perhaps the sole exception in the country and the powers that be extol it to death. The BRO is a paved highway hewn into the rocky flanks of the Himalayas. The border road doesn't follow any border; rather, it extends to the border, the sole route from Rishikesh all the way to Pakistan. (A tank path. A defense initiative.) The road winds blindly, snaking around the cliffs of one mountain, dipping into a valley, then up the next. It is barely wide enough for two cars to pass though most of the time the big trucks make it past each other. The ones that don't get left smoldering on some crag above a bottomless ravine like you'd see in a roadrunner/wiley e coyote episode. Like the Grand Canyon, there are some places you can stare over the edge and not see the bottom.
We rode in a sturdy jeep with our conscientious driver who generally made a point to beep his horn in advance as he wildly careened about blind corners. Sometimes the oncoming cars gave warning honks as well. Sometimes they didn't. Sometimes we didn't. Sometimes we almost crashed. Such is India.
America has rest stops, the BRO has religious shrines. We stop to stretch our legs at a Shiva statue hundreds of feet tall.
Follow the river to its source. The Rudraprayag is a "Y" where two rivers-one clear, the other muddy-- converge, twirl into a marble shake that is the Ganges. Two things that are not the Ganges unite into that which is the Ganges. Far out, man. It is near here that Jim Corbett slayed the aptly named Man Eating leopard of Rudraprayag.
Jim Corbett was an enigmatic Brit from the earlier part of the 20th century. First and foremost he was a lifelong resident of India who, in his spare time, wrote pithily, colorfully about life of the common Indian in India. Corbett was also renowned for his intimate knowledge of the jungle and from time-to-time would be called upon to exterminate man-eating leopards and tigers when others could not. Corbett wrote accounts of his adventures as a hunter, the most famous being, "The Man Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag" (some books practically title themselves) which details months on the hunt of this beast. Though this particular leopard only killed (officially) a paltry 200 or so humans (a pittance compared to other infamous tigers and leopards) it had an uncanny knack for eluding traps, surviving cyanide, evading bullets. The whole ordeal plays out as the most compelling of dramas. Standing on the actual spot that Corbett slayed the Leopard, it occurs to me that this is Leopard country. One best watch their back in this neck of the woods. Or rather, one best watch their neck in these backwoods.
A few hours from Rishikesh, rounding a corner, dramatically, the first glimpse of the Himalayas.
Terraced villages along the route are in the midst of harvest season. Their crop: grass, hand picked by stooped woman lugging woven grass baskets. At the end of the day the woman walk along the path, weighed down with their weight in grass. Everywhere there are nest-like clumps of grass left to dry/cure in the branches. One may ask: why would anyone harvest grass way out in the mountains? Cows cannot graze freely in this area for they will be eaten by those pesky leopards. Unlike cows anywhere else in India, who are free to roam the streets, cows in the Garwhal Himalayas are kept in pens, guarded, and fed dry grass.
School lets out in the village and the kids are enthralled by their visitors, cameras. A parade of children following us everywhere. We retreat from the throngs to our nearby camp for dinner and sleep.
The path into the Himalayas is one of ancient Hindu pilgrimage to the shrines of Badrinath and Kadrinath. Barefoot pilgrims plodding this path for the last thousand years have polished the stones shiny smooth with the soles of blistered feet.
Rhododendrons bloom. Not just pink ones like at home, but red and white as well, on tall, unpruned trees unlike the little manicured bushes you see in the suburbs.
We hike to a pristine mountain lake. Our lunch of stuffed parantha attracts a hungry herding dog. Poor thing has a thick, metal collar around its neck. Leopards go for the neck first. The collar gives the dog a fighting chance to escape in the event of attack.
We camp for the next two nights amongst magic forests. Buffalo bones. Gnarled. Hollow trunks. Rivers. We keep saying, "this is just like Tolkien!" Elves, magic herbs, tree spirits. Hard to believe this is India and not Scotland or the coastal forests of Oregon. The only sign of civilization is the occasional crumbling stone and mud house. Dwellings from ancient lore, a few puffing chimney smoke. It is cold. Build a fire and men with axes and mended mittens appear. A social gathering, a communal hand warming, pass the beedi around the fire, chat of weather and cricket. The mountains in the distance disappear and reappear in the roiling mists. In the evening the peaks are dark and blue. In the morning, solid white. The snowstorm has dusted our camp as well. The broken stone houses look even more folkloreish, Tolkienesque. What a place for a campfire and gourmet Indian cuisine.
We hike in fog then sleet then snow. At the top our panoramas are unobscured. As advertised, the tallest mountains of the Indian Himalayas, running in a ridge of peaks. End-to-end they have only been traversed once, though many have tried. Snap, snap, snap go the Cameras. Back at base-camp a campfire to warm us, drying socks and boots drenched from trudging through knee-deep snow.
Five days is not enough. Hiking in the Himalayas makes me want to hike in the Himalayas. Adventure begets adventuresomeness. Schemes buzz through my head as to how soon I will return.
We drive the BRO part of the way back, stopping at a base camp with bungalows by the Ganges. We can sit by the sandy bank and enjoy a killer view, staring up a cliff at a hairpin turn in the road. Cars and trucks just barely skimming each other as they careen around the bend. Fresh-kill, a mangled trailer-truck from only a few days ago, rests a few hundred yards from us, across the river.
From this base camp we set out to raft on the white water of the Ganges. While not the most intense rapids you'll ever meet, there's some hair raising swells as well as the unique opportunity for body surfing down the Ganges. Like dead cows in Orange lifejackets, stones freed from around our necks, we bobblingly make our triumphant return to Rishikesh.