The Road (ouch!) to Khajuraho:
Infrastructure is freedom, friendship is wealth, erotic art is Divine.
Kumbha Mela Diary Entries:
by Joy Shayne Laughter.
I have often imagined myself riding across India by train, but never in the overhead luggage rack.
Actually it's supposed to be an upper berth in a sleeper car, but it's where everyone puts their luggage. When the crowds are too much, people perch cross-legged and ride.
We must have been mad, me and my 4 friends, thinking we could just hop a train out of Allahabad on the day after the biggest bathing date at the Kumbha Mela. Most of the 45 million pilgrims had had their dip and wanted to go home. We managed to get onto a train to the town of Satna, but just barely. I and my 2 younger friends wound up squeezed against luggage and the ceiling. My 2 middle-aged friends stood for 4 hours in the corridor between the cars, outside the latrines.
I found myself in an awkward tangle with an iron pole, and stetching my feet across the gap to the other upper berth was only minimally comfortable. I realized there were 2 chains looped on the sides of the upper berths, to support the middle berths when they were set up at night. Necessity being the mother of invention, I crossed the chains so they spanned the gap between berths, then wrapped my scarf around them, and had a nice hammock as a footrest.
The big idea was to visit Khajuraho, a one-industry town in the hills roughly 3 hours from Satna. They've got the last Tantric temples in India, full of sacred erotic sculptures, so if you live in Khajuraho you're going to be working in tourism. A small airport was recently built outside the town. After we had ridden to Khajuraho in a jeep, it was evident why. The road to Khajuraho is about one-third decent asphalt, one-third pothole heaven, and one-third brick rubble. It made me think charitably, for the first time, about SUVs. Buses and trucks roar up and down - sometimes all the way down, with a snapped axle.
So it was necessary that we endure a back-wrenching ride through the dark. And necessity, that fertile wench, bred many inventions. Veering around bicycles loaded with people or goods, we formed a plan to sell bicycle reflectors to Indian farmers. Dodging cows, the business grew to include cow headdresses made of bicycle reflectors, or reflector tape to wrap around their horns. Finally we made it to our hotel (way charming, right out of the travel books), forgot about our future fortunes as the bicycle reflector barons, and got down to the real business of showers and bed.
However, the road also inspired a conversation about how a lot of the freedom Americans live with depends on physical infrastructure. Well-maintained roads and well-supplied gas stations mean that all you need for a road trip is some cash, maybe a credit card, and a vehicle that runs. If you go by train, you are guaranteed a seat, a real seat all to yourself. In India there may be no roads, or no passable roads, or or there's a road but no fuel available. Everybody rides the trains, but stations rarely have waiting areas with chairs, or purpose-built toilets.
It's easy to overflow with ideas for improving everything. After the great earthquake this past week in the western part of the country, newspapers are talking about making quake-proof design part of the national building codes. But most of the population is so poor and so isolated, that building with the cheap bricks churned out by the millions in rural brickworks will probably continue as it has for so long now. I was talking about the earthquake with an Indian man and he said, "God makes things happen. What can we do?"
Is it the extreme weather patterns of heat and monsoon that engender fatalism?
Everything will wash away, crumble to dust, fall down in rot no matter what.
The main deities are the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer - and they all work together in a sublime equanimity. To find equanimity requires surrender. Any traveler to India will tell you that the key to surviving - let alone enjoying - the country is surrender, surrender. I'm getting the hang of it. Things I packed as essentials, I have given away on crowded trains. Self-concepts polished in America have cracked and disappeared under the pressure of Indian friendliness. Relationships are far more important than rupees. Intimacy is inevitable, in uncertain conditions. It's also a much more fun way to run a country.