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Can’t Have One Without The Other

Gate Checkers 005 - CopyThe bench next to track number two in the Jhansi railway station may not, upon first description, seem like a place any “normal” person would want to be. Yes, the station smells like urine. The tortuous heat of the early evening just before sunset lays like a thick blanket over our filthy bodies. Garbage is strewn in every crevice within eye sight.  Several piles of human shit smolder between the unused tracks.  Grimy looking people are everywhere walking or laying on the floor of the station. Several cows stand around checking out the scene.

But “normal” in India is starting to seem like an extremely subjective word. The six hour bus ride back from Khajuraho was another crazed battle of wills, this time mostly standing up with my forearm jammed against an old man’s head. The furnace like heat completely sapped my energy.  The outright rudeness that daily life in India brings out in people had my mind doing cartwheels. I wanted to kill somebody but the madness of the situation also me made me laugh. And so I put up with it and sucked down Bisleri water by the crate.

But once we reached this bench, things couldn’t have been better. I buy several bottles of cold, fresh flavored cows milk from the milk bar on the platform. As that sacred sweet succor cools my mouth and throat, I kick back and think of what had been and what is to come.

It has been a week of exploring ancient cultures where love and sex were proudly and unabashedly proclaimed for all the world to see.  And now, bodies tired, dirty and thirsty we wait for the next part; the Kalinga-Utkal express to shoot us directly across India two days away and even further back in history to Puri, one of the four holy cities of India.  This seaside town is also home every July to the Jagannath festival, a major colorful event that is sure to attract millions of the devout to greet the Hindu Gods as they come out of the temple for a week long holiday.

The Taj, the sex temples and now the Gods by the seaside. It  seems so fitting a next stop. And so does the method of travel. In India you can simply hop on a train and get out of Dodge and, a few days later, find yourself in another colorful world, another brilliant scene where the living is cheap and the history is measured in thousands of years.  This is the perfect travel scenario and we are right where we want to be; a quiet bench in a nondescript hell hole of a train depot, our way station in the middle of the universe waiting for a train to take us to the sea and a meeting with the Gods. Can it get any better than this?

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“What time is it?” I say with a startled voice grabbing Au’s wrist. “8:35? I thought the train was supposed to leave at 8:20? It’s not even here yet.” I walk down the platform to the milk bar where an Indian railways ticket man stands draining a bottle of milk.

“What happened to the Kalinga-Utkal Express?” I ask.

“It already left,” he says.

“Left?!” I shout. “What do you mean left? This is track number 2 right? At the ticket counter they told us track number 2. There was never even any train here.”

“No, no that train left on track number 8.”

“Eight?!” I’m getting frantic.

“Yes it left 15 minutes ago.”

“But it’s supposed to be track number two, right?.”

“No they changed the track. You better go see the station master. You can take the next train.”

“When’s that?”

“Tomorrow.”

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“I just missed the train,” I yell as we storm in to the station masters office, “because your employees told me the wrong track!”

“Oh I am sorry sir,” he says, sounding deeply concerned.  He goes to talk to some  men in the other office. Suddenly my anger leaves and I feel relaxed. He doesn’t seem like a typical rubber stamp wielding Indian gate checker and I feel he is going to help me. Then he returns and tells me that they had indeed changed the track, but they forgot to announce the change in English, as they normally do. “Well, there’s another train tomorrow,” he says casually with a smile, as if he has just solved my problem.  “You can take that one.”

“Then I want you to pay for my hotel.”

“I am sorry.  We are not authorized to do that.”  My anger returns.

“But it’s your fault!”

“How can it be our fault,” he says maintaining his cool. “We are here to promote Hindi.  Hindi is our national language, not English.” I want to tell him what I think of his national language but I stop myself. An insulted gate checker can cause you serious headaches. He takes our tickets and returns 15 minutes later with two new bookings for the very same train tomorrow night.

indian cowBeing stuck in Jhansi doesn’t turn out all that badly. A rickshaw finds us a clean and cheap air con hotel with a restaurant that serves a fine tandoori chicken. With a couple of tall Kingfisher beers these finely roasted chicken body parts go down like sweet butter. Although I can’t help but wonder how they slaughtered the chicken. I think they starved it to death.

The next day, with nothing to do but wait for that night’s train, we walk around the main part of town and visit the market. It is in the town center that I am witness to something that one could only see in India. I see a cow directing traffic.

It is 2:30 in the afternoon and the temperature hovers near 110 degrees.  Obviously it is too hot for the policeman, who must be around the corner napping in the shade. So there she is, mother cow, –that’s the moniker she goes by in India–standing in the traffic circle where the cop should be as bicycles, rickshaws, cars and other cows cruise by under her watchful eye.

Because of the tremendous slack given to cows in India, you often see them doing the oddest things.  Throughout India you can see cows standing inside Hindu temples, coolly walking out of people’s homes, waiting patiently at the bus stand.  Cows lay in the middle of the busiest street in town casually chewing grass, staring out in to the distance, as laid back as if they are sunning themselves on a sandy beach.  Meanwhile all the automobiles and motorcycles go right around them.  Nobody gets angry.  No policeman comes to roust them and tells them to get lost.

In the overcrowded madness that is Indian daily life, cows are treated better than people. Nobody tries to cheat a cow.  Nobody argues with a cow, or plays games with her head. The cow in India does as she pleases, roams wherever she wants, thinks whatever thoughts she likes. All this and nobody says a word. The Indian cow is the freest creature on earth.  In India, the cow is God.

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“Why is life so complicated?” The voice comes from behind us as we walk through the throngs of people, bicycle rickshaws and cows back towards our hotel to get our bags for the train. At the same time he appears  on a bicycle right by my side with a charming smile.

“I don’t know,” I say, continuing to walk. “Why is life so complicated?” He pulls up and pauses dramatically.

“Because of people,” he says as if he has practiced it. “They are so selfish. It is people’s selfishness that makes life so complicated. Don’t  you think so?” It makes perfect sense, and he delivered it so well, that I respond back.

“That’s exactly the reason,” I say, laughing. He also laughs. And now he has me engaged. And in a matter of two minutes he is convinced that we are going to carry a bag full of precious germs worth $2,000 to America to deliver to buyers there. When we turn to leave he insists that we must come to “his” shop for all the details. He pressures me and seems to know all the right things to say, including even berating me for laughing at his eagerness.

And so we go with him, not because I am going to buy whatever he is selling, but because “his” shop is nearby and, with some time to spare, I want to see his scam. When we get there it turns out to be another high pressure pitch with three guys—our glib friend suddenly disappears—laying on some serious heat. They quickly figure out we aren’t carrying any bag of gems. But they have something that turns Au on; an entire room full of the most beautiful bed covers we have ever seen. Once they sense interest, it isn’t long before they have us talking about importing a container load back to the Philippines. We actually discuss how much money we can make flipping these bed sheets. Of course Au has bargained mercilessly for an incredible price. But as the haggling and the arguing go on, I look up at the clock. It is 7:15.

The salesmen are none too happy when I interrupt and say we have to go. They think they have the sale. They end up with air. It is 7:20 when we grab a rickshaw back to the hotel as the salesmen plead with us to come back. At the hotel we scoop up our bags from behind the front desk. On the way to the station we get stuck in a rickshaw traffic squall and then get hung up when a herd of cows decide to lazily cross the road.

We finally make it to the Jhansi station with only 20 minutes to spare. Lugging our bulging bags on our shoulders we sprint through the lobby and show our tickets at the platform entrance.

“Kalinga-Utkal Express track 2?” I ask the ticket checker.

“Yes sir track 2.” We run on to the platform area.

“Kalinga-Utkal Express track 2?” I ask a red shirted porter.

Jhansi“Yes Baba, track 2!”  The station is the typical madhouse of humanity and noise. We skirt around porters, beggars, other travelers, and the hordes lying all over the floor, up the stairs, over the tracks, down the stairs and there it is. Track number two with our train sitting there waiting to go.

“We’re in cabin number 13,” I say breathlessly while looking at our tickets. We begin to walk down the platform, scanning the sides of each train car. The platform teems with people moving back and forth, porters and passengers getting on and off the train, people loading up on supplies at the various kiosks. Just then the chai man appears in my face.

“Chai, chai, chai!” he cries while holding up a red earthenware cup.  The cabin numbers run backwards from 25 but when we get down to 15, the numbers suddenly jump to 11.  I start to get nervous as the train is only minutes from pulling out. We keep walking right to the end of the platform and the last car. No number 13.

“Chai, chai, chai!” He’s following us.

“Where the hell is cabin 13?” I say to Au, slightly panicked. Au hasn’t seen it and we quickly walk back, lugging our heavy bags, scanning the cars again. But again no number 13. I look for a conductor but none are around. The train is surely to leave at any time. So we go back again, hurriedly scanning each car.

“Chai, chai, chai!”

“What the hell is going on here?” I cry as we get halfway down the platform.

“No chai, no chai,” Au says. But, as usual, he doesn’t go away. He follows us, insisting that we buy.  We are soon joined by the coffee man. “Ahhh coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee!”

“Chai, chai, chai! Sir you like chai?”

“Shit where the hell is number 13?” I yell in to the air about three quarters of the way down. It is 8:20 and we have no cabin. “Au come on let’s just jump on.”  We run towards the first open door and climb on the train. We walk through the cars towards the end frantically searching for cabin 13. These are non-aircon cars and the windows are wide open.

“Chai, chai, chai,” calls the relentless tea man from outside on the platform.

“Ahhh , coffee coffee, coffee, coffee!” As we race towards the back, wondering what had happened to our car, they follow us from outside. “Chai, chai, chai. Sir you buy chai.”

“Ahh coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee!

“Damn it, there’s no 13,” Au says as we reach the last car again. It is empty of people. “What are we going to do?”

“Chai, chai, chai!” Then the train starts to move.

“Ahh coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee!”

“I don’t know,” I say. “You can’t be on here without…. .”

“Chai, chai, chai. Madame you like chai?”

“Fuck you!!” screeches Au, shouting at the now jogging chai and coffee men still trying to make the sale. “Get lost!!”

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Millions greet the God's at the annual Jagannath festival in Puri, Orissa, India

Millions greet the God’s at the annual Jagannath festival in Puri, Orissa, India

Now, shouting nasty words in the face of  poor third world beverage salesmen just trying to earn a few meager rupees may not seem like the nicest thing in the world to do.  But as we stand there in that empty train car, holding tickets that indicate a cabin that doesn’t exist, drenched in sweat, buckled over in exhaustion, our immediate future uncertain as we roll in to the black night, I can’t help but fall back on one of the wooden benches and laugh as hard and as loud as I ever have.

After about ten minutes we pick up our bags and traipse towards the front of the train. All the while I’m giddy, light, I’m talking to anyone I see. Or just shouting to myself. I feel like I’m losing my marbles, but I’m having fun.

“Hi how are you sir?”  Hey Baba!” “Lovely train, don’t you think?” “Chai, chai, chai!” “Ahhh, coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee!”  In the pantry car I start shouting out loud –it was deafening anyway– in my best sports announcer voice, “Indian Railways! We try to get your there on time, but we just can’t do it. Where nobody cleans the toilets, the food is lousy and nobody knows what’s going on. Indian Railways. We’re here to serve!” We run in to the conductor and tell him our plight. He looks at our tickets and says there is no car 13 on this train. We were given tickets for a car that doesn’t exist. (So the station master was a hardcore gate checker.) He fixes us up in air con first class in a six passenger berth with nobody in it right now.

Even there I continue talking out loud to nobody in particular. “Yes, what is it that you want?” “You are from Philippine? Philippine? Ohhh the Filipino people are the most intelligent people in the entire world!”  “Hey how about them toilets? They can’t find anyone to clean them because there are only a few people who are in the shit and garbage caste who are allowed to do it. In fact they don’t qualify to be a caste, they’re that low. And these “untouchables” are probably sick and tired of it. So the place reeks.”

Throughout this very public patter it dawns on me that I  probably have crossed the line from sanity to madness. But you know what? It feels good. It feels right and as the train picks up speed and I wipe the tears of laughter from my face, I know that I have finally figured out what India is all about, that I have the secret on how to really enjoy India.

Do the Indians walking by in the aisle think that I am in a state of delirium? Probably. But then again they probably can’t even tell the difference. Because I know the real deal.  I learned everything about being mad from them. Because India is a mad country. Not just mad, but crazy, careening out of control.   How else can you justify applying an hour long elbow smash to a bony old lady just to keep your seat on the bus? How else can you explain hordes of salesmen hanging on to your arm insisting you buy their product and all you did was just step out of your hotel for a roll of toilet paper and cold lassi? How else can you explain thousands of men performing their morning necessity in front of the whole world?

Gate CheckersIn India you have to yell, argue, haggle, discuss, fart, shit, laugh and cry all at once and all as loudly and boldly as possible.  You have to let it all hang out. For that’s what all 1.2 billion Indians do as a matter of course. And if you don’t do it, if you go there with that first world pragmatism feeling sorry for all those poverty stricken people, they’ll run right over you.

Once you grasp this, when you give up those ideals that have you trying to be so understanding all the time, and realize that you can indeed express yourself like never before, that you can yell and go practically nuts and it’s ok, well, that’s where the fun begins. And of course, the brilliance. There truly is a fine line between brilliance and madness but India  teaches you that you have to put up with the hell to find the brilliance. You cannot have one without the other. If you can accept that and if you can find that razor sharp fine line—the third rail, so to speak– and manage to get on and ride it, well, it’s total stimulation. Of course it could just as well be total lunacy but, either way, you can have one helluva good time.

And so with the onset of madness—or is it brilliance?—I watch with pure exhilaration later that night as the big burly, turbaned Sikh stands in the aisle slobbering down his tin of vegetarian food, with morsels of rice falling out of his beard, then slide up the window while the noisy train rocks and barrels down the tracks, and heave the whole lot of garbage out into the night.

It is with utter gaiety the next day when several times I walk to the space between cars, open the door and lean half my body and my head out the train while it  storms down the tracks and listen to the awesome clacking roar of this mechanical beast as it skirts over mammoth bridges and through the searing plains while kicking up waves of dust and wind as the Indian countryside speeds by.

With utter revulsion and fascination I perform acrobatics in the stinking toilet, sucking up the painful leg burn, shouting, cursing and laughing while holding on to the pipes, bouncing off the walls, attempting to avoid the other shit on the floor while trying to aim straight as I watch the tracks careen past just inches below.

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