Oh my how to even start to describe the incredible, tumultuous mix of emotions, the most terrifying and miraculous experiences that have just befallen me during my first attempt at using the India railways. Well I guess the only thing to do is start at the beginning and let the facts fold out from there.
I arrived in Jammu today from Srinigar, by jeep. The journey itself was pretty exciting and stomach turning as our driver seemed to have a death wish and would swerve insanely around cars and large trucks, ever pushing forward faster faster around the already very windy mountain road. Luckily I had popped two anti-nausea pills early in the journey, and I sat in the front single seat, so I managed to avoid getting sick. But the pills did nothing to keep me from seeing, in full front seat view, the narrow misses and brushes with death that our kind driver kept putting us into and then deftly pulling us out of.
Over the course of the nine hour drive I began to bore of the same Hindi CD playing and offered to plug some of my music into the usb port on the stereo. While none of my music went over terribly well with the other passengers or the driver, it started some of the other passengers sharing their music which got me talking to the three brothers in back. When we arrived in Jammu these brothers offered to split a rickshaw taxi to the Railway station with me, an offer which I gladly accepted as the extra protection and their fluency in Hindu would make the trip much easier. Now I should mention that the rickshaw taxis in India are very tiny; they are like tin golf carts with only one small bench seat in the back. However, despite this, three full grown young men and I, plus all our baggage managed to squeeze into one rickshaw taxi. One brother sat in front with the driver, some bags were shoved behind the bench seat in back and I sat on the bench seat with a brother on either side and my backpack bag on our laps.
At one point the taxi pulled into a lot that looked like hell. Trash was strewn everywhere, some piles were burning. There were cows and dogs milling around the piles and there were hundreds upon hundreds of people existing in a slum-like state. It was at this point that the rickshaw stopped and announced we had arrived at the railway station. “Here?!” I thought, “Where the hell are the trains, the cues, the ticket counters?” To make matters worse, I found out at this point that the brothers’ train wasn’t leaving until the next day and thus we had to part ways. So there went my protection. I lifted my eyes to the smoky mess of the slum lot and asked, my voice trembling with trepidation, how to get to the station. The driver motioned that the station was just up some stairs a little ways off. So, heart hammering in my chest, I gathered up my bags, shook hands with each of the three brothers and marched off in the direction of the station. Now I was fully a single woman traveling alone in very strange and different waters. But I planted one foot in front of the other and walked up those stairs with as much gusto as I could muster, feeling the weight of my situation pull heavier and heavier on me with each step.
While standing at the entrance of the station in utter confusion, walking with the mass of people pushing through security, wandering the crammed station corridors looking for a damn ticket counter, this weight became a swirling thunder, a tornado spiraling in my head. Finally I gave up and walked back out of the station and over to the second class ticket booking counter I saw outside the station on my way in earlier. On my way over I noticed that the tourist reception counter was just next to the second class ticket counter and hesitated for a moment before continuing on to the second class ticket counter. I’d had enough of tourist agencies and their massively inflated prices and while this counter might not give inflated prices, I didn’t want to risk it.
At the second class ticket counter I told the man my destination and he quoted me 155 rupees, or about $3. This price seemed absurdly low for a second class ticket, which is just one notch below the top class, but I didn’t argue or ask for clarification and instead simply took the print-out he handed me and waltzed off to the platform. Once settled at a good spot to wait for my train, I took out my print out and my confidence started to wane. Nowhere on my “ticket” was there a train number printed, nor any time of departure, or, most importantly, a seat number. I began searching faces for ones that looked like they belonged to someone who spoke English. Some women across from me were staring at me unabashedly so I decided to start with them, but no, none of them spoke a lick of English. In fact, I found out later, they were illiterate. The women sitting just next to me perked up and one of them asked “Can I help you?” “Yes please!” I replied. “Can you explain my ticket for me?” She scanned the small slip with a furrowed brow and announced that she didn’t know enough about the trains and train tickets but that her brother could help and he would be back in a few minutes. Lovely.
When her brother returned he looked at print out and told me that it wasn’t a reservation ticket but rather a general ticket referred to as a non-reservation. There are two non-reservation cars per train, one at the front and one at the back, and in these cars people are crammed in like cattle. Sometimes there is only room to stand, and you must travel like this through the night. This obviously wouldn’t do so this nice man, whose English nick-name is Ricky, took me to the counter where I could make my reservation. Once there I found out that all the seats for the train I wanted to Agra were sold out. Now my pulse really started to quicken and my mind began spiraling into panic. The thought of going back out of the station, now at night, through the slum lot of burning trash and hoards of people, to find a rickshaw who could take me. . . where? I have no names of any guest houses in Jammu, no idea of where to go.
Noticing my increasing unease, Ricky motioned for me to sit down on a near-by chair. He sat down next to me and, after a moment’s silence, said “Why don’t you come with my family? Buy a reservation ticket for sleeper class and come to our town. It is in the same state as Agra and it wouldn’t be hard to travel to Agra from there.” At this I was overcome with relief and gratitude. Guilt managed to creep in there too and I told Ricky I was so sorry my stupidity might make me interfere with his and his family’s travel plans or that I might be an inconvenience but he simply waved off my guilt like passed gas. “Don’t worry. You are our guest. We would be happy to have you.”
As he got up to find me another ticket form, tears sprang up in my eyes. I felt so much gratitude for this human, and the millions like him across the world who genuinely care for others and live selflessly. So much gratitude filled my heart that it came spilling over every side and came flowing from my eyes. I quickly bit back my tears however, embarrassed to seen so emotional, and went about the business of buying another ticket. Thankfully there was a seat available for me. I could have kissed the ticket slip. This one clearly printed the train number, carriage number and seat number showing that I definitely had a spot on this train. Glory be!
Ricky and I went back to the spot where his sister, Rosie, their mother and auntie were seated watching over all our bags. Ricky told them about my situation and his offer and they quickly opened up their little circle to me. They laid down a second blanket on which to sit, and their auntie began serving out dinner, including a portion set out for me. And like that, I was a part of the family.
If the sky wasn’t a filthy dusty oil streaked railway station ceiling, I would have floated up and kissed it. In a few short minutes I had gone from being a doomed target on the dark streets of Jammu to an adopted member of an Indian family; happily eating delicious mixed vegetable curry and chipati bread next to people I did not know but who cared for me just the same. The incredible tumble of emotions pounding through me threatened to push more tears from my eyes; gratitude swelled within me with each scrumptious bite and I was in awe of the happiness and beauty in this small family gathering on the railway station floor. The two aunties and the brother and sister cracked joke after joke and together they laughed and laughed, their laughter bubbling like water in a mountain stream.
But instead of being frozen and overwhelmed by my incredible dumb luck, I instead involved myself in learning about my new family. I spoke with Rosie, the young woman who first asked me if I needed help, and though her English was far from perfect we managed to talk about such profound subjects as her lack of belief in Indian marriage (due to the sheer number of spousal abuse cases she knows about), the cultural shortcomings of the USA and the infuriating way in which the government has fractured my pride in being a US citizen. We discussed the massive societal and cultural problem in India of discrimination against women, and the general closed-mindedness that pervades Indian society. We even talked about our dreams and plans for the future. She wants to be an actress and plans to fund her art by teaching. I told her how I hope to be a professional dancer and will fund my art through healing work and teaching yoga. I found out later by looking at our train tickets that we are the same age too! Both of us are 24, unmarried with no kids, but living in two completely different worlds, hers far more challenging and oppressive than mine.
Rosie also helped me begin a new Hindi translating guide in my notebook. The first things she had me jot down were “Hello!”(Namaste), “How are you?” (Toum ke say ho?) and “Can you help me?” (Qui-a-ahpu maidee madate karengay?). Next, at my request, came how to say delicious (swadist) , beautiful (sunder) and very beautiful (bohor sunder). Rather than barrage her with endless questions I left it at that for the time being, but throughout the evening, while talking to Ricky or Rosie, I would ask for translations and scribble them down. Soon I had filled a page with useful tid-bits like “I’m fine” (mei theek hu), “My name is Erin” (Mei-ra naam Erin heh), “Thank you” (sou-kria), and “Yes” (Haan-ji).
At one point Ricky informed me, laughing, that auntie Chitra likes me and wants to take me home for a few days. My hands flew into prayer position at my chest as I exclaimed “Yes please! I would be so honored!”
So after a bone rattling night in the sleeper class of the train, I was taken to the house of Chitra nad her husband Yogandra, who are distant relatives of Ricky but whom he still calls auntie and uncle. Still feeling foggy from a less than restful sleep and a bit confused as to just how I came to be adopted into an Indian family, I tottered after the round colorful shapes of the two aunties and the slim forms of the brother and sister, up and over the railway tracks and to the waiting car of their uncle. In the following day I would be fed delicious home cooked Indian food, introduced to friends of Chitra and Yogandra, all eager to meet the stranger from afar, and treated like an honored guest and member of the family. I offered to help Chitra in anyway possible, so at one point I helped her roll chipatis in the kitchen, a task that proved rather difficult for my inexperienced hands. I also did the dishes once with Chitra standing by nervously. I could tell she preferred to do them herself so from then on I simply did my best at keeping my things in order and being a courteous guest. Chitra and her husband spoke basically no English so my Hindi improved quickly. Ricky taught me some crucial phrases before he left for the night such as “I am hungry” (Mu-je bhook lagi-heh) “what is this?” (ye kia heh?) and “I want to sleep” (Mei sona cha-tee ho).
The next day Ricky took me over to another house to stay, this one belonging to a direct aunt of his. It was in the neighboring town of Meerut, a short 30 minute bus ride away. Here the energy was much more youthful, lively and relaxed as this aunt had two children who were still young and at home. (Chitra’s children were grown and both studying toward college degrees in Mumbai and Delhi.) For the two days my face was stuffed with more delicious home cooked Indian food and sweet chai tea with biscuits and I met many friends and family. Often cousins of Ricky, who were in college and had studied English sufficiently, would call him and ask to speak to me. One time however, I was handed the phone when a relative who could not speak any English called and asked to speak to me. After saying “Hello!” and “Namaste!” a few times and the little tid bits I could manage in Hindi such as “Toum ke say ho?” and “Mei teek hu”, there was little we could do but laugh and sit in awkward silence before I handed the phone back to auntie.
The one great frustration with staying with this family was that I could not leave the house at will. Meerut is not a very prosperous city and is in fact renowned for crime. Not to mention it is far off the tourist map and here I stand out even more than I would in more touristic areas. Add to that a small dash of the Indian sentiment that women should always be in the company of a man and you have me pretty well pinned to the couch. So instead I bided my time by doing yoga and practicing hula hoop on the roof and fantasizing about the next mouthwatering Indian meal that would be placed in front of me in another few hours. All in all it was an utter blessing and dream come true to stay with an Indian family and witness Indian culture from the inside out. I have a few ideas of how I will attempt to repay their great kindness and hospitality upon my return to the US. And perhaps one day, a member of this family might come to California and if they do, they will have a family with open welcoming arms waiting for them.
A fiery fairy who has set off to explore Asia and discover new things about the world and herself. The journey is one to fully realize her strength and an unwaivering faith in her personal power.